Christian Perfection

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"Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect" (Philippians 3:12).

There is scarce any expression in holy writ, which has given more offence than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them; and whosoever preaches perfection, (as the phrase is,) that is, asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican.

And hence some have advised, wholly to lay aside the use of those expressions; "because they have given so great offence." But are they not found in the oracles of God? If so, by what authority can any Messenger of God lay them aside, even though all men should be offended? We have not so learned Christ; neither may we thus give place to the devil.

We may not, therefore, lay these expressions aside, seeing they are the words of God and not of man. But we may and ought to explain the meaning of them; that those who are sincere of heart may not err to the right hand or to the left, from the mark of the prize of their high calling. And this is the more needful to be done, because, in the verse already repeated, the Apostle speaks of himself as not perfect: "Not," saith he, "as though I were already perfect." And yet immediately after, in the fifteenth verse, he speaks of himself, yea, and many others, as perfect. "Let us," saith he, "as many as be perfect, be thus minded" [Philippians 3:15].

In order, therefore, to remove the difficulty arising from this seeming contradiction, as well as to give light to them who are pressing forward to the mark, and that those who are lame be not turned out of the way, I shall endeavour to show,

First, In what sense Christians are not; and,

Secondly, In what sense they are, perfect.

In the First place, I shall endeavour to show, in what sense Christians are not perfect. And both from experience and Scripture it appears, First, that they are not perfect in knowledge: They are not so perfect in this life as to be free from ignorance. ... Nor, Secondly, from mistake; which indeed is almost an unavoidable consequence of it; seeing those who "know but in part" [1 Corinthians 13:12] are ever liable to err touching the things which they know not....

We may, Thirdly, add, nor from infirmities. - Only let us take care to understand this word aright: Only let us not give that soft title to known sins, as the manner of some is. But I mean hereby, not only those which are properly termed bodily infirmities, but all those inward or outward imperfections which are not of a moral nature. Such are the weakness or slowness of understanding, dulness or confusedness of apprehension, incoherency of thought, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such (to mention no more of this kind) is the want of a ready or of a retentive memory. Such, in another kind, are those which are commonly, in some measure, consequent upon these; namely, slowness of speech, impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. These are the infirmities which are found in the best of men, in a larger or smaller proportion. And from these none can hope to be perfectly freed, till the spirit returns to God that gave it [Ecclesiastes 12:7].... Nor can we expect, till then, to be wholly free from temptation. Such perfection belongeth not to this life....

Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities, or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus, every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, perfect.

In what sense, then, are Christians perfect? This is what I shall endeavour, in the Second place, to show ...

Now the Word of God plainly declares, that even those who are justified, who are born again in the lowest sense, "do not continue in sin" that they cannot "live any longer therein" (Rom. 6:1, 2;) that they are "planted together in the likeness of the death" of Christ; (verse 5;) that their "old man is crucified with him," the body of sin being destroyed, so that henceforth they do not serve sin; that being dead with Christ, they are free from sin; (verses 6, 7;) that they are "dead unto sin, and alive unto God" (verse 11;) that "sin hath no more dominion over them," who are "not under the law, but under grace" but that these, "being free from sin, are become the servants of righteousness." (verses 14, 18.)

The very least which can be implied in these words, is, that the persons spoken of therein, namely, all real Christians, or believers in Christ, are made free from outward sin....

Indeed it is said, this means only, He sinneth not wilfully; or he doth not commit sin habitually; or, not as other men do; or, not as he did before. But by whom is this said? by St. John? No: There is no such word in the text; nor in the whole chapter; nor in all his Epistle; nor in any part of his writings whatsoever. Why then, the best way to answer a bold assertion, is, simply to deny it. And if any man can prove it from the word of God, let him bring forth his strong reasons....

Does not the Scripture say expressly, "Even a just man sinneth seven times a day?" I answer, No: The Scripture says no such thing. There is no such text in all the Bible. That which seems to be intended is the sixteenth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter of the Proverbs; the words of which are these: "A just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again" ... here is no mention of falling into sin at all; what is here mentioned is, falling into temporal affliction.

"But, however, in other places," continue the objectors, "Solomon does assert plainly, 'There is no man that sinneth not;' (1 Kings 8:46; 2 Chron. 6:36;) yea, 'There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good, and sinneth not.' (Eccles. 7:20.)" I answer, Without doubt, thus it was in the days of Solomon. Yea, thus it was from Adam to Moses, from Moses to Solomon, and from Solomon to Christ. There was then no man that sinned not. Even from the day that sin entered into the world, there was not a just man upon earth that did good and sinned not, until the Son of God was manifested to take away our sins.

"But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that they might receive the adoption of sons" [Galatians 4:4] - that they might receive that "grace which is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel." (2 Tim. 1:10.)

If, therefore, you would prove that the Apostle's words, "He that is born of God sinneth not" [1 John 5:18], are not to be understood according to. their plain, natural, obvious meaning, it is from the New Testament you are to bring your proofs, else you will fight as one that beateth the air [1 Corinthians 9:26]. And the first of these which is. usually brought is taken from the examples recorded in the New Testament. "The Apostles themselves," it is said, "committed sin; nay, the greatest of them, Peter and Paul: St. Paul, by his sharp contention with Barnabas [Acts 15:39]; and St. Peter, by his dissimulation at Antioch" [Galatians 2:11]. Well: Suppose both Peter and Paul did then commit sin; what is it you would infer from hence? that all the other Apostles committed sin sometimes? There is no shadow of proof in this. Or would you thence infer, that all the other Christians of the apostolic age committed sin? Worse and worse: This is such an inference as, one would imagine, a man in his senses could never have thought of. Or will you argue thus: "If two of the Apostles did once commit sin, then all other Christians, in all ages, do and will commit sin as long as they live?" Alas, my brother! a child of common understanding would be ashamed of such reasoning as this. Least of all can you with any colour of argument infer, that any man must commit sin at all. No: God forbid we should thus speak! No necessity of sinning was laid upon them. The grace of God was surely sufficient for them. And it is sufficient for us at this day....

In conformity, therefore, ... to the whole tenor of the New Testament, we fix this conclusion - A Christian is so far perfect, as not to commit sin.

This is the glorious privilege of every Christian; yea, though he be but a babe in Christ....

The same happy privilege of real Christians, St. Paul asserts from his own experience. "The weapons of our warfare," saith he, "are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong-holds; casting down imaginations," (or reasonings rather, for so the word logismous signifies; all the reasonings of pride and unbelief against the declarations, promises, or gifts of God,) "and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ." (2 Cor. 10:4, & c.)

And as Christians indeed are freed from evil thoughts, so are they, Secondly, from evil tempers.

Every one of these can say, with St. Paul, "I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:" [Galatians 2:20] - Words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.

He, therefore, who liveth in true believers, hath "purified their hearts by faith" [Acts 15:9]; insomuch that every one that hath Christ in him the hope of glory [Colossians 1:27], "purifieth himself, even as he is pure" (1 John 3:3). He is purified from pride; for Christ was lowly of heart [Matthew 11:29]. He is pure from self-will or desire; for Christ desired only to do the will of his Father, and to finish his work [John 4:34; 5:30]. And he is pure from anger, in the common sense of the word; for Christ was meek and gentle, patient and longsuffering. I say, in the common sense of the word; for all anger is not evil. We read of our Lord himself, (Mark 3:5,) that he once "looked round with anger." ...

Thus doth Jesus "save his people from their sins" [Matthew 1:21]: And not only from outward sins, but also from the sins of their hearts; from evil thoughts and from evil tempers.

Thus hath the Lord fulfilled the things he spake by his holy Prophets, which have been since the world began; - by Moses in particular, saying, (Deuteronomy 30:6,) I "will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul" - by David, crying out, "Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me" [Psalm 51:10] - and most remarkably by Ezekiel, in those words: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: From all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; - and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. - Ye shall be my people, and I will be your God. I will also save you from all your uncleanness. - Thus saith the Lord your God, In the day that I shall have cleansed you from all your iniquities, - the Heathen shall know that I the Lord build the ruined places; - I the Lord have spoken it, and I will do it." (Ezek. 36:25, & c.)

"Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved," both in the Law and in the Prophets, and having the prophetic word confirmed unto us in the Gospel, by our blessed Lord and his Apostles; "let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" [2 Corinthians 7:1]. "Let us fear, lest" so many "promises being made us of entering into his rest," which he that hath entered into, has ceased from his own works, "any of us should come short of it" [Hebrews 4:1].


Scriptures are from KJV and Wesley's translation.

Abridged from the full text edited by Dave Sparks, with corrections by Ryan Danker and George Lyons. Scriptural references added by George Lyons for the Wesley Center for Applied Theology of Northwest Nazarene University (Nampa, Idaho). © Copyright 1999 by the Wesley Center for Applied Theology. Text may be freely used for personal or scholarly purposes or mirrored on other web sites, provided this notice is left intact. Any use of this material for commercial purposes of any kind is strictly forbidden without the express permission of the Wesley Center at Northwest Nazarene University, Nampa, ID 83686.

Written by John Wesley


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