Two Problems with Wesley’s Teaching on Perfection

One of John Wesley’s distinctive teachings involved what came to be known as “Christian perfection” or “entire sanctification.” Wesley taught that Christians can and should experience a second act of God’s grace enabling them them to love God and their neighbors perfectly in thought, temperament and intention. Both inner experience and outward action would then flow solely from pure love. As is the case with any person, Wesley’s views on the matter changed over time, and the precise formulation of his ideas varied from occasion to occasion.

Consistently, however, Wesley averred that Christian perfection did not consist of freedom from physical infirmities or errors of judgment. For Wesley, these matters paled in insignificance compared that the mighty work that God sought to do in the heart of the the believer. Entirely sanctified Christians perfectly fulfill the law of love and so do not sin – at least in the most important sense of that word – even if they make mistakes based on faulty knowledge or bodily weaknesses.

For me, these two matters make “entire” sanctification moot as a matter of Christian doctrine.

Mind, Body and Spirit

As modern science learns more about how the brain functions, it increasingly difficult to separate the human body from its thoughts, emotions, desires, intentions, intuitions, self-awareness and inner experiences of  every sort. Even spiritual experiences take place in the synaptic activities of the brain. Wesley insisted that we distinguish between true infirmities and moral excuses, and I would be the last to say that humans aren’t responsible for their actions. Still, it is no longer possible to compartmentalize human behavior neatly into body, mind and spirit. Mind and spirit take place by means of bodily processes.

It is not just the mentally ill for whom this is significant. It’s not as if some people act in less-than-ideal ways because there is something wrong with their wiring, and the rest of us are just free moral agents. We all live to some degree with the infirmities and limitations of the mortal, physical human brain.

Wesley insisted that the perfect Christian can be free from evil tempers (emotions) and evil thoughts. This is no different than insisting that perfect Christians can always be cancer free or have their diabetes cured. God does indeed work miracles of healing, but we live in world that will continue to be broken until Christ appears.If Christians are not free from the physical infirmities characteristic of this age, then our thoughts and tempers are subject to those same infirmities.

Errors of Judgment

Wesley freely admits that we’re all wrong about something, and we don’t know what it is. We’re ignorant, and we’re ignorant about our ignorance. Nevertheless, in Wesley’s thought, that doesn’t keep me from loving God and my neighbor. In my ignorance, I may actually harm you, but if I meant to do you good, then I’ve done what God wanted of me. This perfect love brings joy to my heart, for my heart no longer has any reason to accuse itself. But what kind of love is it that can be satisfied with good intentions? My ignorance is much more than a mere formality. If I know that I am ignorant, I can NEVER know that I am acting in perfect love toward you. I may be hurting you! What kind of love is that?

This is compounded when I move beyond discrete thoughts and actions to look at the world in all its complexity. I don’t exist in isolation, but as part of a world of complex, entangled, systemic problems in which there are not always right and wrong answers, but simply “better” and “worse.” In such a world, I can never act with anything approaching perfect love, especially if I take the consequences of my actions into account. I’m not just ignorant about matters of simple fact, but about how my actions ultimately will affect the world. Due to the incalculable complexity of the world’s systems, the good I do for one may result in evil for another, or even for the one I presume to help. If I am aware that my comprehension is severely and necessarily limited, then I can never find the satisfaction of knowing that I have loved perfectly. I’ll never even know what all the consequences of my actions are.

An Estimate of Wesley and his Peculiar Doctrine

John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection is the locus classicus of his teaching on perfection, although he touches on it directly and indirectly in many other writings.

Wesley was a product of his times, and his theology emerged in dialogue by the beliefs, ideals and piety of his age. His own peculiar personality played a significant role as well. He focuses far too much on the inner experience of the Christian. He also sees the Christian life too much in isolation from the body and the complexities of social existence.

Insofar as John Wesley’s teaching serves as a remedy for complacency about sin and draws us to desire a more loving union with God and our neighbor, it serves a valuable purpose. It serves this purpose better, however, in the words of his brother Charles’ hymns than it does in the rational arguments of John’s own writings.

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling; All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion, Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation; Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit; Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning, Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver, Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never, Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation; Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory, ‘Til in heaven we take our place,
‘Til we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

To that, I can say, “Amen.”