Wesleyan perfectionism, sometimes called entire sanctification, is a view held by John Wesley that taught that Christians could to some degree attain perfection in this life. Wesley described it as,
"...that habitual disposition of the soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies being cleansed from sin, 'from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit'; and, by consequence, being endued with those virtues which were in Christ Jesus; being so 'renewed in the image of our mind,' as to be 'perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect' ( A Plain Account of Christian Perfectionism, p. 12). Furthermore,
"In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness: the royal law of heaven and earth is this, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.' The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end" (ibid.). Lastly, perfection is "deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin" (ibid., p. 26) and "a Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin" (ibid., p. 25).
How one attains perfection
Wesley says that perfection is "spoken of as receivable by mere faith, and as hindered only by unbelief." Moreover, "this faith, and consequently the salvation which it brings, is spoken of as a given in an instant... It is supposed that instant may be now" (ibid., p. 34).
What perfection is not
Wesley was clear what perfection doesn't mean,
"They are not perfect knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination... (ibid., p. 23). He later clarified that,
"We willingly allow and continually declare, there is no such perfection in this life, as implies either a dispensation from doing good, and attending all ordinances of God, or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood (ibid., p. 35).
Sin is that which is contrary to the nature and character of God. The word sin, as understood by Wesley, refers to:
- ...thoughts, intentions, and acts contrary to God, wherein the offender is a sentient, morally accountable being (e.g. angels, human beings/mankind-the children of Adam).
- ...the nature posessed by fallen beings. This nature, also called the flesh is a product of the fall and is imputed to the children of Adam - every man, woman, and child. It is a nature with which we are born and is present in every descendant of Adam and Eve, except the virgin born Jesus Christ. The flesh is at war with God's Spirit, compelling men and women to do that which is contrary God.
- ...an oblation (i.e. a sacrifice offering). The Old Testament animal sacrifices represent the one ultimate sin offering of the Messiah. Customarily, in recognition of the sin nature with which every man is born, and in recognition of personal, individual sins, the transgressor would put his hands of the head of the offering. This was a solemn moment, in which the offerer of the oblation acknowledged that an innocent victim was to suffer and shed its blood for the sinner. Laying the hands on the head represented the sin being transfered to the sacrifice, so that the oblation would die for the sin comitted. This was ultimately fulfilled in the Lamb of God, Jesus. Thus, because of the identification with the sin of the transgressor, and the oblation, the offering became known of as, :sin." "He who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God.
One of the Hebrew words translated sin means, "to miss the mark." This sort of sin can be typified by the archer who misses the bullseye. There could be various reasons why he misses the mark. He could be out of practice, or his aim could be off, for example. Hitting the mark is analogous to doing that which is right. Thus, when we don't put out enough effort to be obedient to God (out of practice), or when our focus is on something other than God's will (misdirected aim), we are liable to miss the mark.
There are also sins of rebellion (blatant defiance of God), and sins of omission, in which we neglect to do that which is right.
Sin and death have been conquered by the LORD.
Scripture is clear that perfection is commanded of us (see passages below), however, it is important to understand what this really means. The Greek word teleioi, found in Matthew 5:48, does not mean "flawless" or "spotless". Rather, it means "complete". It becomes possible, then, to be "perfect" without being entirely free from sin. "That is, we can possess the fullness of Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:13) and the full fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) without possessing them completely" (Erickson, p. 985).
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Wesley dealt with objections to the doctrine in several sermons and letters, and most notably in a brief treatise entitled A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Many Christians, particularly those adhering to some form of Calvinism, have objected to the doctrine, seeing contradictions between Wesleyan thought and Scripture passages such as James 3:2, 1 John 1:8, and Ecclesiastes 7:20.
Today this view is held by some churches in the Nazarene, Church of God, and Pentecostal Holiness Church denominations.
"...Wesley’s doctrine of perfection, as he and his brother Charles set it forth in homiletic prose and ecstatic hymns respectively, gave the Wesleyan version of the Christian life a quality of ardor, exuberance, and joy—-joy in knowing God’s love, and praising his grace, and resigning oneself into his hands—that went beyond anything we find in Calvin, the Puritans, and the earlier Pietists," (Packer, p. 134).
Passages used to support perfectionism
- Ezekiel 36:25-26
- Matthew 5:48
- Romans 6:1-2
- Romans 6:14
- Philippians 3:15
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17
- Hebrews 6:1
- Hebrews 13:20-21
- James 1:4
- 1 Peter 5:10
- 1 John 4:16-18
Passages used against perfectionism
- Ecclesiastes 7:20
- Job 9:20
- Romans 7 (for those who believe Paul is describing his own experience as a believer)
- 1 Thessalonians 5:23
- 1 John 1:8-10
- James 3:2
- Proverbs 24:16
Relationship with belief in libertarian free will
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- Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume Three: Sin & Salvation. (Bethany House, 2004)
- J. I. Packer, Keep in Step With the Spirit. (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984)
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology. (Baker, 2003) pp. 983-986
- John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfectionism. (1968 reprint)
- Wesleyan Doctrine of Sinless Perfection, by R. L. Dabney
- Perfectionism, by Charles Hodge
- The False Doctrine of Perfectionism - 1 John 1:8-10