In the previous article in this series, ‘Holiness, the Defining Message of the Revival,’ we looked at the centrality of holiness in Wesley’s teachings. For him, the true goal of the Christian life is sanctification or holiness, even to the point of ‘perfection’ or ‘perfect love.’ But what does perfection or perfect love mean for Wesley and how do we attain it?
Wesley’s doctrine has been the subject of intense debates because of his use of the word ‘perfect.’ It should therefore be stated right at the beginning that he himself clearly pointed that his doctrine is not one of ‘sinless perfection’ (cf. Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley, 1964, p.287), a state of absolute faultlessness and unimprovability, attainable in this life. Rather, as Albert Outler (1964, pp.31f) puts it, for Wesley, ‘perfect love’ is ‘the conscious certainty, in a present moment, of the fullness of one’s love for God and neighbor, as this love has been initiated and fulfilled by God’s gifts of faith, hope and love .... “Perfection” is the fulfillment of faith’s desire to love God above all else, so far as conscious will and deliberate action are concerned.’
‘perfect love’ is ‘the conscious certainty, in a present moment, of the fullness of one’s love for God and neighbor, as this love has been initiated and fulfilled by God’s gifts of faith, hope and love.... “Perfection” is the fulfillment of faith’s desire to love God above all else, so far as conscious will and deliberate action are concerned.’
In other words, Wesley’s understanding of perfection is relative to our conscious will, and does not apply to that which is of our unconscious or subconscious. Further it relates only to the laws of God that we are aware of and not to God’s laws in totality. Thus to have attained perfection does not mean that we are exempted from ‘ignorance, or mistake, or infirmities, or temptations’ or ‘involuntary transgressions’ (cf. Outler 1964, pp.258, 287).
Henry Rack (Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism 1992, p.399) has helpfully clarified this by noting that ‘Wesley was only able to assert his paradoxical doctrine of a perfection which is not perfect because he operated with two definitions of perfection, one attainable in this life and the other not; and this in turn depended on two definitions of sin.’ Sin operates at two levels: at the conscious level, and at the unconscious and subconscious levels. In his definition of perfection or perfect love, Wesley is working with the first understanding of sin, as a voluntary transgression of a known law of God. Hence if you are not conscious of such a sin, then there exist no barriers between you and Christ. ‘The perfection which he did not claim to be possible in this life was a condition in which one did not fall short in any way, consciously or unconsciously, of the perfect law of God’ (p.399).
For Wesley, normally this gift of perfect love is given only at the point of death, when a person is brought to a position of utter seriousness because of the imminence of his meeting with God. But there is no reason why this cannot be attained before that time. It is just that Christians have not been encouraged to expect it now. Indeed to deny that we can attain to perfection in Wesley’s sense is ‘to imply that deliberate sin is inevitable and unavoidable—which would be to say that man was made to sin and that his sinful disposition is invincible’ (Outler 1964, p.32). But that would contradict the Bible’s teaching that the Holy Spirit can give us victory over the power of sin (e.g. Rom 8:1-17).
The logic of Wesley’s understanding of sanctification is that perfection is not a permanent state, since it relates to our ‘conscious will’ in a ‘moment of time.’ If we consciously will to love God in one moment, we can consciously will not to love Him in another. Hence Wesley advised those who claimed to have attained perfection to guard against pride, over-enthusiasm in their spiritual claims, indifference to God’s laws, sins of omission, etc. (cf. Outler 1964, pp.298-305). In other words, if perfection can be attained, it can also be lost. Thus, even if one thinks that he or she has attained the state, one must further seek to grow in grace within that state. For, he writes, ‘when ye have attained a measure of perfect love ... think not of resting there. That is impossible. You cannot stand still; you must either rise or fall’ (The Works of John Wesley, 1872, Vol. 11, p.426). For Wesley there are no plateaus in the spiritual life—if you are not going upwards, then you are always in danger of falling downwards.
Is God’s work of sanctification a gradual process or an instantaneous experience? Wesley’s answer is given in his comparison of sanctification and death to sin to the act of dying itself. A person may be dying for some time, but he only dies at the moment of death. So is dying to sin. There is the gradual process of ‘dying’ which takes time. Then there is that moment of ‘death’ and ‘in that instant he lives the full life of love’ (cf. Outler 1964, p.294). He also writes: ‘Perhaps it may be gradually wrought in some ... But it is infinitely desirable, were it the will of God, that it should be done instantaneously ...’ (p.282). In sum, Wesley taught a doctrine of sanctification which included both a gradual process and an instantaneous transformation in human lives.
Finally, how do we grow in holiness? Wesley’s answer is that on the one hand sanctification comes through faith, and on the other through repentance, spiritual exercises and good works. He sometimes speaks of these as ‘works of piety,’ such as private prayers, public worship, Scripture reading and meditation, fasting, etc., and as ‘works of mercy,’ such as caring for the sick, suffering, hungry and needy, evangelism, pastoral oversight for struggling Christians, instructing the ignorant (cf. Outler 1964, p.280). Thus growth in holiness is not purely and solely the result of God’s gracious action. It requires human cooperation in the form of serious personal discipline and effort, and effective pastoral care.
For Wesley, sanctification was not just a theological doctrine, but one that must be lived. This he sought to impart into the lives of his followers in a variety of ways, the most important of which was the use of class and band meetings. The class meetings were in fact the cornerstone of the whole Methodist movement, the key means by which pastoral oversight was exercised and discipleship nurtured. Every member in good standing was expected to be regular at one of the classes meeting weekly.
Wesley described the function of the class meetings as follows: ‘Any person determined to save his soul may be united (this is the only condition required) with them [the Methodists]. But this desire must be evidenced by three marks: Avoiding all known sin; doing good after his power; and attending all the ordinances of God. He is then placed in such a class as is convenient for him, where he spends about an hour in a week. And, the next quarter, if nothing is objected to him, he is admitted into the society: And therein he may continue as long as he continues to meet his brethren, and walks according to his profession’ (The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 7, p.209).
…how do we grow in holiness? Wesley’s answer is that on the one hand sanctification comes through faith, and on the other through repentance, spiritual exercises and good works… Thus growth in holiness is not purely and solely the result of God’s gracious action. It requires human cooperation in the form of serious personal discipline and effort, and effective pastoral care.
More matured followers were encouraged to join bands, the requirements for which were even more stringent. Wesley writes of them as follows: ‘The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed” (Jas. 5:16)’ (cf. Outler 1964, p.180). He goes on to list five questions which were asked of every member at each meeting:
i. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
ii. What temptations have you met with?
iii. How were you delivered?
iv. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
v. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
This emphasis on small groups, with their built-in structures for mutual accountability and pastoral oversight, was the clearest expression of Wesley’s pastoral concern for holiness. And as already noted in an earlier article, those who were not prepared to accept the discipline of the movement were required to leave.
Those who have struggled with helping Christians to grow into mature disciples today will immediately recognize the wisdom of Wesley’s emphases. The church in Malaysia cannot be said to be one that has taken holy living seriously. Evidences are in such abundance that they hardly need to be listed. Part of the problem is that this is not an issue that is clearly taught from the pulpit, nor sufficiently modeled in the lives of the church leadership. That is something from which all of us need to repent and to which much more attention must be given. But there is now an even more insidious problem, which is that in some circles false teachings on salvation and sin are beginning to emerge.
The Christian faith has always recognized that we cannot save ourselves through good works because none of us is perfect. Thus we are saved by grace and grace alone. But does that mean that we can therefore sin as much as we like since Christ has died for us and our salvation is thereby assured? The apostle Paul answers precisely this question in Rom 6:15 when he wrote: ‘Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!’ Yet, in spite of such clear statements from the Bible, there are some teachings in the church today which encourage Christians to take precisely such an antinomian ‘tidak apa’ attitude towards sin!
A friend of mine was preaching in a certain church and emphasizing the need for repentance in our lives. Suddenly a woman got up and walked out—she did not like what was being said! Later, he was told that this person was worshipping in a certain church in a neighbouring country where similar antinomian teachings abound. In another case, a pastor told me what one woman related to him in a counseling situation. The woman’s husband had told her that, since we are not saved by our holiness but by grace, his salvation is assured even if he lives in sin. And since he is not satisfied with his marriage, he was leaving her for another
who could properly meet his needs. Yet, if they had lived in the days of Wesley, he would have thrown both of them out of the church!
The point is this. Some of us may have difficulties with the precise manner in which Wesley formulated his doctrine of ‘perfect love.’ Nevertheless, it remains a powerful reminder to us that the most important commandment that we have is to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ and to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:30f). May we learn to live likewise!
The church in Malaysia cannot be said to be one that has taken holy living seriously. Evidences are in such abundance that they hardly need to be listed. Part of the problem is that this is not an issue that is clearly taught from the pulpit, nor sufficiently modeled in the lives of the church leadership.