Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Christian perfection

Rev. John Wesley
"Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." - Matthew 5:48


Several years back, while I was gathering books for the LSU Baptist Collegiate Ministry's new library - really more of a 'resource shelf', but 'library' sounds nice - I was browsing through a series of inexpensive, trendy-looking Christian classics, and I found a short book by John Wesley (oh, cool!). It was called "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection" (... huh?).
I never really got past the title. "Perfection"? No thanks. I'd met some Christians in college who believed once they had faith they never did sin again, but I'm not sure how well that was working out for them. And I knew the scriptures: "there is none righteous, no, not one" (Rom 3:10).
I'll pass on the 'perfection' talk, thanks.

Fast forward three years: I'm in seminary, and I'm a United Methodist (long story). Suddenly, not only am I reading a lot of John Wesley (you might call him the 'father of Methodism'), but I'm entering into an ordination process at the end of which I'm going to be asked, "Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?"

And they expect me to answer 'yes'.

So "Christian perfection" isn't any longer some weird, foreign teaching I can just set aside and move on with my day. Christian perfection is now central to the gospel tradition that I've identified with.

And you know what? Now that I've been forced to study it and actually learn what Wesley meant by 'perfection', I have a very different opinion on the matter than I once did.

Wesley's classic sermon "The Scripture Way of Salvation" provides a summary that's as simple and clear as they come:

'Go on to perfection.' But what is perfection? ... it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul... For as long as love takes up the whole heart, what room is there for sin therein? (I.9, III.14)

Here is my dry-erase doodle interpretation of Wesley's doctrine of perfection:

God's love fills your heart up, and there's just no room left in there for sin. That's the hope of Christian perfection.

But why would any realistic believer hope for something like that? I know me. You know you. Nobody's perfect - there's none righteous! We're not going to be free from sin in this lifetime. Where did Wesley even get an idea like that from?

Well, he got it from the Bible.
Jesus, in Matthew 5, calls his followers to "be perfect." Is this some impossible burden Jesus has placed on us, or is it a real option for a Christian?
And in 1 John (one of John Wesley's go-to books), we read: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin" (2:1). Maybe it is possible, at least for a time, to be free from sin's power, to be able to not sin.

That's something to hope for, at least.

This is what John Wesley meant and what United Methodists mean when we talk about 'perfection'. If it still sounds a little strange, a little different, I understand. And I understand if you're thinking 'that probably won't happen to me'.
But, who's to say God couldn't transform your life, won't fill your heart up to the brim with love through the Holy Spirit (see Rom 5:5)? Wesley never claimed to reach perfection himself, and he was routinely skeptical of of those who did claim it - but don't we say that for God all things are possible (Matt 19:26)?

So maybe, just maybe, if we open our hearts up to Spirit's work, you might, one day, just for a minute, feel like you're answering Jesus's call to be perfect as the Father is perfect, like your heart is so full of God's love there's no room for anything else.

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