Many of us who are interested in the theology of John Wesley are also fascinated by the connections that seem to exist between Wesley’s theology and the theology of the Eastern Orthodox church. For example, the Eastern Orthodox teaching of theosis seems to mirror strikingly Wesley’s teaching on Christian Perfection.
But, then, there is also the fascinating story of John Wesley and Gerasimos Avlonites (also known as Erasmus of Arcadia), an 18th century Greek Orthodox bishop — and friend of Wesley’s. Gerasimos Avlonites originally hailed from Crete. Ted A. Campbell describes him as “a native of Corfu and a subject of the Latin and Catholic Republic of Venice, [he was] exiled from his ecclesiastical see in Ottoman-dominated Crete, [and] brought his own pietistic sense of Christian unity to his interactions with European Protestants who were also evolving a pietistic sense of Christian identity in the mid-eighteenth century.”
Arnold A. Dallimore refers to the relationship of John Wesley and this man when writing on the life of Charles Wesley:
John Wesley showed him kindness but had one of his men write to the Patriarch of Smyrna inquiring about him. He received word that Erasmus was the Bishop of Arcadia on the Isle of Crete. Wesley also heard the same from Amsterdam, and accordingly accepted him as a link in the supposed chain of the apostolic succession.
John Wesley spoke highly of Gerasimos Avlonites saying: “He had abundant unexceptionable credentials as to his episcopal character.” (more…)
From my daily Bible reading:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5:43-48 NRSV.
“Love your enemies. This is the most sublime piece of morality ever given to man. Has it appeared unreasonable and absurd to some? It has. And why? Because it is natural to man to avenge himself, and plague those who plague him; and he will ever find abundant excuse for his conduct, in the repeated evils he receives from others; for men are naturally hostile to each other. Jesus Christ design’s to make men happy. Now he is necessarily miserable who hates another. Our Lord prohibits that only which, from its nature, is opposed to man’s happiness. This is therefore one of the most reasonable precepts in the universe. But who can obey it? None but he who has the mind of Christ. But I have it not. Seek it from God; it is that kingdom of heaven which Christ came to establish upon earth. See on chap. iii. 2. This one precept is a sufficient proof of the holiness of the Gospel, and of the truth of the Christian religion. Every false religion flatters man, and accommodates itself to his pride and his passions. None but God could have imposed a yoke so contrary to self-love; and nothing but the supreme eternal love can enable men to practice a precept so insupportable to corrupt nature. Sentiments like this are found among Asiatic writers, and in select cases were strongly applied; but as a general command this was never given by them, or any other people. It is not an absolute command in any of the books which they consider to be Divinely inspired.” (more…)
What is then the perfection of which man is capable while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command, ‘My son, give me thy heart.’ It is he ‘loving the Lord; his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.’ This is the sum of Christian perfection: It is all comprised in that one word, Love. The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself:’ Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. ‘On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets: These contain the whole of Christian perfection.
Many more John Wesley quotes on the topic of Christian Perfection can be found here: THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN PERFECTION. And here’s a link that will take you to the Table of Contents of John Wesley’s own compilation of his teachings on this topic: A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
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):
The first one relates to a theme I was trying to get at by speaking of Christian Perfection as an Ecumenical Doctrine:
The PERFECTION I hold is so far from being contrary to the doctrine of our Church that it is exactly the same which every clergyman prays for every Sunday: ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may PERFECTLY LOVE THEE, and WORTHILY MAGNIFY thy holy name.’
— John Wesley, “Answer to Rowland Hill’s Tract” in “The Works of John Wesley” vol. 9, p409.
Wesley refers here to the familiar Anglican Collect for Purity. This prayer was translated by Thomas Cramner from an 11th Century Latin prayer appearing in the Leofric missal.
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The point being that the experience of faith that he taught is nothing more than the fulfillment of that prayer. And, if we are going to pray it — shouldn’t we expect it?
This second quote is crucial to Wesley’s claims about Christian Perfection:
Thursday 21st, inquiring how it was that in all these parts we had so few witnesses of full salvation [i.e., entire sanctification; Christian perfection], I constantly received one and the same answer: ‘We see now, we sought it by our WORKS. We thought it was to come GRADUALLY. We never expected it to come in a moment, by simple FAITH, in the very same manner as we received justification.’ What wonder is it then that you have been fighting all these years ‘as one that beateth the air’?
— John Wesley, “Short History of People Called Methodists” in “The Works of John Wesley” Vol. 9, p. 475.
It is by faith and not by works. Trying harder will not make us better — it is always a matter of trusting more deeply. We do not begin in the Spirit and then work out our salvation in our own energy — it is by grace through faith from beginning to end.
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I am about to launch into a rather long post — and one that will not be of interest to everyone. Nevertheless, because of the nature of this site, and because of the issues I commonly address and raise here, I need to post a statement — about a problem often encountered in the literature of the holiness movement. It is common in these writings to encounter the language of eradication: the eradication of “sin” or of “inward sinfulness” or of “inbred sin” or of “the sin nature” or of “the carnal nature” — or similar language. What is to be made of these claims?
I have recently re-affirmed the purposes of this web site, saying: “I intend this as a site that is focused on the Wesleyan teachings about holy living.” I have often expressed my appreciation of the Holiness Movement and (to a lesser extent) the Pentecostal movement for the formative influence they had on shaping the earliest stages of my Christian journey.
I maintain here a growing collection of resources on the holiness movement here — and hope to have more soon. I also maintain two blogs that feature the writings of nneteenth century holiness writers Daniel Steele and Thomas C. Upham. . All of this, I am presenting “as is.” I am seeking make this material accessible, so that people can grapple with these writings on their own — without having them filtered through my own opinions and evaluations of them.
I am a retired United Methodist pastor. I realize that the message of Christian Perfection / Entire Sanctification (the main theme of the Holiness Movement) is almost completely unknown among contemporary United Methodists. Many United Methodist pastors heard of this theme for the first time in their life while attending Seminary. (And, some who did may not have been paying attention that particular day.)
It has been my intention, from the beginning of this site, to raise up this particular part of the Wesleyan tradition — I am not seeking to indoctrinate anyone in anything — I am raising an issue that (I believe) needs re-consideration and re-appropriation. My personal reasons for harping on the Christian Perfection theme of the Wesleyan tradition are given here: Sanctification as a Central Theme.
This naturally raises the question: do I agree with everything in the teachings of the 19th Century Holiness movement? And, the answer is: no, I don’t.
Many years ago (and for reasons I don’t entirely fathom myself) I became dissatisfied with the fact that I had little or no comprehension of the theology of Thomas Aquinas.
The few times I dipped into the Summa Theologica I found it incomprehensible. I knew that Thomas was a great and accomplished thinker, but I found his writings impenetrable. So, I started wondering if there was a way I could gain some degree of mastery of his thought. I wasn’t looking to become an expert, I just wanted a basic understanding.
I happened upon a very good path — which I highly recommend to anyone else out there who wants a basic understanding of Thomas’ thought. Here’s what I did. I searched around on the Amazon site for books on Thomas Aquinas. I was a little nervous about secondary sources (that is, books about Thomas and his theology) — I didn’t want to end up with ones that were primarily an exposition of the commentator’s bias, and I didn’t know which ones those were. I wanted to know enough to be able to dip into the Summa Theologica and understand what I was reading. Somewhere I encountered the view that Thomas is often easier to understand than his interpreters. That was part of my concern about secondary sources. So, I looked around for resources that would help me engage the primary sources. I hit upon a reading plan that I would recommend to anyone who wants to do their own short course on Thomas Aquinas. I purchased the following three books: (more…)
The doctrine of Christian Perfection is often understood to be a Wesleyan or Methodist distinctive. It is something that is taught (or at least mentioned — albeit sometimes with embarrassment) in those Christian circles which have been influenced by the teachings of Wesley. It has sometimes been viewed as a Wesleyan oddity — even by those within the Wesleyan tradition itself.
But, I think we need to take a new look at that. Wesley didn’t understand himself to be teaching something new. He understood himself to be re-affirming something taught in the Scriptures and repeated in the teachings of the early Church Fathers. (more…)
I intend this as a site that is focused on the Wesleyan teachings about holy living. I know I pursue other topics, but I know what I am about, and I mean to emphasize the call to live a life wholly devoted to God. I believe that this the great animating theme of the Wesleyan tradition — and it is a theme I greatly appreciate.
To this end, I continue to scan and edit old holiness books, and maintain two sister blogs on Blogger: Steele’s Answers and The Hidden Life. I don’t personally agree with everything that is said on those pages — or maybe I should say, I don’t always agree with the way it is said. But, I believe those writers were intending to call us to the living of a life wholly devoted to God and to the genuine well-being of others — and I need to hear that challenge and that call — I’m sure I’m not the only one. (more…)
Some comments from Albert Outler about John Wesley’s sermon on “Christian Perfection” — and the fears it arouses:
If, for Wesley, salvation was the total restoration of the deformed image of God in us, and if its fullness was the recovery of our negative power not to sin and our positive power to love God supremely, this denotes that furthest reach of grace and triumph in this life that Wesley chose to call ‘Christian Perfection.’
Just as justification and regeneration are thresholds for the Christian life in earnest (‘what God does for us’), so also sanctification is ‘what God does in us’, to mature and fulfill the human potential according to his primal design. Few Christians had ever denied some such prospect, in statu gloriae; few . . . ever envisioned it as a realistic possibility in this life. . . . Thus, Wesley’s encouragement to his people to ‘go on to perfection’ and to ‘expect to be made perfect in love in this life’ aroused lively fears that this would foster more of the self-righteous perfectionism already made objectionable by earlier pietists.
— Albert Outler (Ed). “An Introductory Comment” to Sermon 40: “Christian Perfection”. Works (Bic Ed) Vol 2, p. 97. (c) 1985.
John Wesley’s sermon on “Christian Perfection” (Sermon #40) was written in 1741.
Wesley says in his Journal:
I think it was the latter end of the year 1740, that I had a conversation with Dr. Gibson, then Bishop of London, at Whitehall. He asked me what I meant by perfection. I told him without any disguise or reserve. When I ceased speaking, he said: ‘Mr. Wesley, if this be all you mean, publish it to all the world.’ I answered, ‘My lord, I will’; and accordingly wrote and published the sermon on ‘Christian Perfection.’
You can read Wesley’s sermon here: “Christian Perfection” (Sermon #40).
In 1727, I read Mr. Law’s ‘Christian Perfection,’ and ‘Serious Call,’ and more explicitly resolved to be all devoted to God, in body, soul, and spirit. In 1730 I began to be homo unius libri [a man of one book] to study (comparatively) no book but the Bible. I then saw, in a stronger light than ever before, that only one thing is needful, even faith that worketh by the love of God and man, all inward and outward holiness; and I groaned to love God with all my heart, and to serve Him with all my strength.
— John Wesley, Journal (for more quotes along this line, see: HOW MR. WESLEY WAS LED INTO THE LIGHT OF FULL SALVATION).
This video — just posted today at the Asbury Theological Seminary Seedbed blog — fits so well with the themes I’ve been addressing this week, that I thought I would include it here:
[kad_youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl7vukIsU28″ width=360 height=210 maxwidth=700 ]
I especially appreciate what Dr. Macchia says.
Apparently this is part one of a multi-part conversation, so be sure to be on the lookout for later installments at the Seedbed blog.
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Earlier this week I posted: John Wesley and Spiritual Gifts. There I attempted to show that while Wesley was open to both extraordinary spiritual gifts and miracles, he did not insist on them as proof of the Holy Spirit’s presence. So, now let me say something about the distinctive pentecostal and charismatic teaching about Baptism with the Holy Spirit.
There is a relationship between early Methodist teachings and the later development of Pentecostal teaching. In fact, a direct line can be traced from the teaching of the early Methodists to the teaching of the early Pentecostals. Wesley’s preaching about the Christian life — and what he called Christian Perfection — gave rise to the holiness movement. The holiness movement, in turn, provided the seedbed from which the early Pentecostal movement would arise. Once people’s thinking about Christian experience begins to go down a particular road, certain directions become inevitable. (more…)
The original Methodist revival was a movement intended to produce “real Christians,” that is, Christians who would actually live out the faith they professed. In my opinion: we are in desperate need of such a thing today.
In the Methodist revival, the means used to achieve this goal were:
- a message of experienced religion & holiness which drew heavily from the Bible,
- large praise and preaching gatherings (the Societies),
- small accountability groups (the classes, bands & select societies),
- works of service and mercy (generally: addressing the needs of the poor or imprisoned).
This was not intended to produce “Church Growth” or some such thing, it was intended to produce Christians who visibly and noticeably loved God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and their neighbors as themselves.
What can be learned by this evangelistic & discipleship strategy for our day? (more…)
Eugene Peterson paraphrases Psalm 15:1 this way:
“GOD, who gets invited to dinner at your place? How do we get on your guest list?”
Or we might state it this way:
Lord God, what is it like to be the kind of person who is fit to live in Your Presence from day to day?
Verse 2 gives us the response to this question: (more…)