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Did John Wesley Ever Claim Christian Perfection?

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

It is often pointed out that John Wesley never openly claimed for himself the experience of entire sanctification (or Christian Perfection). And, that seems strange since this doctrine was the centerpiece of his theology of the Christian life. Lindström, in his chapter on Christian Perfection says:

The importance of the idea of perfection to Wesley is indicated by his frequent mention of it: in his sermons and other writings, in his journals and letters, and in the hymn books he published with his brother Charles. He never abandoned the general position with regard to Christian perfection which derives from his introduction to practical mysticism in 1725 and was then first expressed; it is a continuous theme in his sermons and books. The year before his death he says of it: “This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”

The point is often made. If this experience is so important — and if people are supposed to testify to what God has done in their life — than why doesn’t Wesley himself ever record in his Journal — or elsewhere — an experience he openly identified as “entire sanctification”? Randy Maddox says in his book Responsible Grace (in footnote 218 to Chapter 7):

Wesley never claimed entire sanctification explicitly. Indeed, he once said he had not yet arrived. (Letter to the Editor of Lloyd’s Evening Post [5 Mar. 1767], Letters [Telford], 5:43-4).

This fact has been a bit of an embarrassment in the Holiness Movement, since it strongly insists upon the necessity of witnessing to entire sanctification. In fact, it is commonly taught that any such experience could not be retained unless the person testified to the experience.

candle-tipBut, there is a problem with the idea of testifying to entire sanctification: it is bound to sound like some sort of spiritual braggadocio. It is bound to sound like spiritual pride. It is bound to sound like claiming some sort of super-human status.

And, there is a problem here with all Holy Spirit movements: the tendency to create an atmosphere of spiritual one-ups-manship, where people are trying to prove their status on a spiritual hierarchy. The question becomes: who is more spiritual than who? This can undermine the atmosphere or grace and acceptance that is so essential for the church.

And, in fact, Wesley himself recognizes the problem and gives some sound advice about this. In his “Thoughts on Christian Perfection” (1759) included in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he responds to the question “Suppose one had attained to this, would you advise him to speak of it?‘” with these words:

At first perhaps he would scarce be able to refrain, the fire would be so hot within him; his desire to declare the loving-kindness of the Lord carrying him away like a torrent. But afterwards he might; and then it would be advisable, not to speak of it to them that know not God; (it is most likely, it would only provoke them to contradict and blaspheme;) nor to others, without some particular reason, without some good in view. And then he should have especial care to avoid all appearance of boasting; to speak with the deepest humility and reverence, giving all the glory to God.

Just so: words must always be spoken to glorify God and not to glorify the speaker. And, it is important to whom such words are spoken. But, how can one testify to a blessing — or a spiritual attainment — without making it sound like boasting?
John Wesley (1703 –1791)

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

Actually Wesley himself recognized this problem and speaks to it. In the latter part of his “Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection” in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection he gives this advice:

Be particularly careful in speaking of yourself: You may not, indeed, deny the work of God; but speak of it, when you are called thereto, in the most inoffensive manner possible. Avoid all magnificent, pompous words; indeed, you need give it no general name; neither perfection, sanctification, the second blessing, nor the having attained. Rather speak of the particulars which God has wrought for you. You may say, ‘At such a time I felt a change which I am not able to express; and since that time, I have not felt pride, or self-will, or anger, or unbelief; nor anything but a fulness of love to God and to all mankind.’ And answer any other plain question that is asked with modesty and simplicity.
This is good advice. How can one testify to an experience of holiness without making it sound like bragging? By giving glory to God and particularizing about what God has done for you. This is the only way. Giving the experience a name (whether perfection, sanctification, the second blessing, or the having attained) giving a time and a date to the experience is hardly the point. Rather: let people know how God has changed your life.

What I am saying is this: Wesley’s advice on how testify to the work of God’s saving grace actually undermines his encouragement to “testify to the experience”! When he gets around to telling people how to do this, he tells them to be humble, to glorify God, not to use any set expressions, and be careful to whom you testify!

So, when you get around to looking at it closely, there is no contradiction here. He is actually following his own advice. If he had put in his Journal somewhere — a piece of writing he published to the world! — “today I was entirely sanctified” it would have been a violation of his own advice about when, where, and how to speak of this.

…while Wesley encouraged his Methodists to testify to entire sanctification in a very careful and guarded way, he made no claims himself and never testified to being “entirely sanctified” or made perfect in love. Wesley often linked Christian holiness with humility, and perhaps it was when it came to personal testimony that it came home to him that there is an inherent problem in claiming to be highly holy! But there is also a problem of language here: that so many of the standard terms, both biblical and historic, seem to be absolutes — “perfection,” “purity,”“entirely sanctified,” etc. Any self-aware and sensitive person is going to be very, very, very wary of making claims by applying such words to himself or herself. There is, in fact, an inherent problem in testifying to advanced spirituality, and one only has to put it that way to see that no truly spiritual person could ever make such a claim! The claim immediately invites ridicule precisely because of the paradox at the heart of humility expressed so memorably in the mock book title, “Humility and How I Achieved It.” “Holiness and how I achieved it” would be similarly ridiculous. But of course, Wesley would not regard “perfect love” as an “achievement,” but as God’s gracious gift. It may rather be that Wesley realized that if he as a public figure testified to “perfection,” even in a guarded way that attempted to give all the glory to God, it would still divert any discussion from the biblical basis and truth of the doctrine to focus on himself, and one can imagine the kind of satire and ridicule he would have faced in the age of Swift and Hogarth!
Exactly! Wesley’s reluctance to speak of this is entirely consistent with his own understanding of the nature of the experience. If Christian Perfection is perfect love, if it inspires humility and faith, then it can never be a matter of pride or status or position. Because it is by grace through faith, it can never be an achievement. Strangely enough, Wesley is being consistent with himself in not speaking of it.

But, he does speak of remarkable experiences which, I suppose could have been given names and considered to be “states of grace.” In his Journal in December 1744 he wrote:

In the evening, while I was reading prayers at Snowsfield, I found such light and strength as I never remember to have had before. I saw every thought as well as action or word, just as it was rising in my heart, and whether it was right before God, or tainted with pride or selfishness.”I waked the next morning, by the grace of God, in the same spirit; and about eight, being with two or three that believed in Jesus, I felt such an awe, and tender sense of the presence of God, as greatly confirmed me therein; so that God was before me all day long. I sought and found Him in every place; and could truly say, when I lay down at night, ‘now I have lived a day.'”
And Noble adds:

At the same time, given all we have said about Wesley’s own pilgrimage, it is difficult to believe that he could have analyzed the Christian life so perceptively if he had not himself loved God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Given his life of complete dedication, we scarcely need his verbal testimony.
Indeed, we don’t.


Comments (11) | Trackback

11 Responses

  1. Daniel James Levy March 9, 2015 / 4:09 pm

    Hey Craig,

    Before commenting, I want to note that I largely identify as a (Wesleyan) Pentecostal. Wesley is really quite a spiritual hero to me. As far as post-biblical authors go, in my book, few people compare with Wesley.

    With this said, I wonder if he never claimed Christian perfection for what he expressed to his brother, Charles. Wesley biographer Stephen Tomkins (John Wesley: A Biography) makes note of the letter he wrote to Charles in 1766:

    “In one of my last [letters] I was saying that I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen…

    And yet, to be so employed of God! And so hedged in that I can neither get forward nor backward! Surely there was never such an instance before, from the beginning of the world! If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange. But I never had any other evidence of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason’s glimmering ray. I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal.”

    “And yet I dare not preach otherwise than I do, either concerning faith, or love, or justification, or perfection. And yet I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it. I am borne along, I know not how, that I can’t stand still. I want all the world to come to what I do not know.” (Tomkins, Stephen John Wesley: A Biography. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2003.)

    Might there be a connection between this and his reluctance?


    • Craig L. Adams March 9, 2015 / 4:11 pm

      He was viciously self-critical and (as evidenced by that letter) subject to mood swings, as most of us are. I think it is very, very hard to be objective about yourself.

  2. Daniel James Levy March 9, 2015 / 4:16 pm

    That’s a good point, Craig. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  3. Rex Matthews March 9, 2015 / 6:57 pm

    Thanks for that lovely post, Craig. There is a profoundly ironic quality about John Wesley’s notion of Christian perfection: the closer you come to embodying all that he means by the idea, the more fully you realize just how short thereof *you* fall and how utterly dependent you are upon God’s grace! To drive home this point, you might have cited what I personally find to be the most profoundly beautiful passage about Christian perfection in any of John Wesley’s writings — from “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”:

    When we have received any favor from God, we ought to retire, if not into our closets [= place of private prayer], then into our hearts, and say, “I come, Lord, to restore to thee what thou hast given, and I freely relinquish it, to enter again into my own nothingness. For what is the most perfect creature in heaven or earth in thy presence but a void, capable of being filled with thee and by thee. . . .”

    A sentiment which is beautifully echoed in one of brother Charles’ great hymns:

    O Thou who camest from above,
    The pure celestial fire t’impart,
    Kindle a flame of sacred love
    Upon the mean altar of my heart.

    There let it for thy glory burn
    With inextinguishable blaze,
    And trembling to its source return,
    In humble prayer and fervent praise.

  4. Michael March 10, 2015 / 12:43 am

    You wrote, ” If Christian Perfection is perfect love, if it inspires humility and faith, than it can never be a matter of pride or status or position. Because it is by grace through faith, it can never be an achievement.” Exactly! Who we are IN Christ is NOT about US! It is always about Him!

    “And base things of the world, and things which are despised, has God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nothing things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. And of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:28-31 KJ2000)

    “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21 RSVA)

  5. Randy Myers March 15, 2017 / 1:37 pm

    Great posting. Thank you.
    I came out of a holiness denomination. Then I met the Wesleys and later the Orthodox whose writings on Christian perfection are continuously in the direction of humility. This past year I ran across a quote from Antoin de Saint-Euxprey: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
    On John’s letter to Charles I was reminded of the recently released letters of St. Teresa of Calcutta and her own “dark night.”

    • Craig L. Adams March 15, 2017 / 3:29 pm

      Thanks for the comments, Randy. I might add (without trying to be too critical) that this is one place where the teachings of Phoebe Palmer seem to have strongly influenced the holiness movement — the idea that you must witness to your entire sanctification or you will be in imminent danger of losing it. See:

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