What did John Wesley expect his preachers to preach about? What should be the heart of their message? Near the end of his short book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, the father of the Methodist movement said this:
Therefore, all our preachers should make a point of preaching perfection to believers constantly, strongly, and explicitly; and all believers should mind this one thing, and continually agonize for it (Seedbed, 2014, p. 109).
Wesley’s desire was to be “a man of one book” – the Bible – and he neither apologized for nor shied away from the language in the Bible, including the language of “perfection” and “entire sanctification.” If you are wondering how that language is used in scripture, take a look at Matthew 5:48, where Jesus issues the command: “Be perfect.” Then flip over to Philippians 3:15, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:23, and 1 Peter 1:15-16. You’ll also want to reflect on Romans 6:1-2 where Paul asks: “Shall we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” He quickly answers his own question with an emphatic: “No!” That’s right; Paul said believers should not continue in sin. Wesley read these and many other passages and realized that the call to holiness pervades scripture. It’s everywhere.
God’s Purpose for Methodists
Wesley also believed with his whole being that God had called him and the Methodists to be a reviving and revitalizing presence in the Church of England in the 18th century. At the heart of that call was the proclamation of the biblical doctrine of holiness (or entire sanctification or Christian perfection). And he insisted that every Methodist preacher preach this doctrine. That’s what it meant to be Methodist. Wesley identity was so shaped by this call that he persevered through suffering and persecution. His preaching of holiness was strongly opposed, and sometimes he was in physical danger only because he insisted on a commitment to the language of scripture. Nevertheless, Wesley was called by God to this vocation. No opposition would make him waver.
What is Christian Perfection
Given the importance of the doctrine of Christian perfection to Methodist identity, it is exceedingly important to understand Wesley’s definition of Christian perfection. All too often people hear the word “perfection” and reject the doctrine outright never taking the time to get clear on what it means. If you asked Mr. Wesley what he meant by entire sanctification or Christian perfection, he would tell you that he simply means a heart filled to overflowing with love of God and love of neighbor. Holiness is what happens when you love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is being happy in God and having the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the joy of one’s heart. When you are filled with God’s perfect love, Wesley would suggest, you cannot at the same time be sinning against God. We have to resist the love of God to start sinning against God. If we are loving Christ with all our energy, then we won’t be stealing, lying coveting, deceiving, etc. We have to stop loving Jesus to start sinning against him.
Wesley was also insistent on what Christian perfection is not. In his sermon on “Christian Perfection” he said that it is not freedom from (1) mistake, (2) infirmity, (3) ignorance, or (4) temptation. Scripture is not calling for the absolute and unqualified perfection that belongs to God alone. Instead, the call to holiness is the call to keep the two greatest commandments: love God and neighbor with everything you’ve got. You may make a mistake, call someone by the wrong name, for example But that’s not outright rebellion, and that’s not the sort of thing we’re talking about when it comes to Christian perfection. You may have some handicap that’s not moral in nature; that’s what Wesley meant by infirmity. You can love God and not have perfect knowledge of all things. You can even be tempted and not sin (see Hebrews 4:15). So, when Wesley talks about Christian perfection, he is not offering an unqualified expectation for absolute perfection in every possible way. Don’t think that he is. He is calling for passionate giving of the self to Jesus with nothing held back. Wesley was convinced from scripture that when we release ourselves to Christ in that way the Holy Spirit is able to set us free from inward and outward sin.
The Heart of a New Revival
The heart of the Wesleyan revival was the preaching of Christian perfection. Sadly, however, this doctrine no longer appears to characterize the landscape of Methodist preaching. I am encouraged, however, that there is renewed interest and attention in some corners of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement to preaching the gospel with a Wesleyan accent; that is, preaching the cross and resurrection of Christ as the means of grace not only to forgive sin but to bear the fruit of holiness in the people of God. More and more of our clergy and laity are rediscovering Wesley and following his example with regard to taking the words of Jesus seriously, the language of perfection and holiness not least. More and more are catching Wesley’s vision and following his instruction to preach entire sanctification “constantly, strongly, and explicitly.” Perhaps God is not yet finished with the people called Methodist.
What do you think of Wesley’s instructions? Have you ever preached or heard a sermon on Christian perfection? When was the last time you heard a sermon on holiness?