John Wesley spoke of “Christian perfection” as being desirable and attainable, in this life. Many Christians strongly object, saying that in this life we can never be perfect -- though we are saved from sin, we still continue to sin.
Some of this disagreement is due to simply to misunderstandings about how words are being used. What exactly is meant by “perfection”, or “sin”? Here I explain these terms in what I believe to be the sense which Wesley intended.
First of all, perfection refers to the heart. The perfect man is perfect in heart (1 Kings 8:61, 11:4, 15:14, 2 Kings 20:3, 2 Chr. 19:9, 25:2). This is appropriate, for the Lord looks on the heart and not the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:7).
A perfect heart is perfect in obedience. “I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, Thy law is within my heart.” (Ps. 40:8, KJV) Obedience, and not ability or achievement, is cherished by God. Jesus rebuked Martha, the flustered do-gooder: “Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42, Douay-Rheims).
A perfect heart is perfect in purity. A pure heart desires only His desire, delights only in His delight (Ps. 37:4, 73:25, Is. 26:8)
A perfect heart goes hand in hand with a clean conscience. Recall that Paul said, “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” (Acts 23:1, KJV). The High Priest considered this blasphemy – but in Christ this is indeed possible. Having a clean conscience means I do not willfully and knowingly commit sin (1 John 3:6,9). It means that, as far as I know, I am doing everything God requires of me. “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, KJV). Do you do things displeasing to God, all the while saying to yourself, “God will forgive me”? Then you are not walking in Christian perfection. And you may shipwreck your faith (1 Tim. 1:19).
Having a perfect heart does not mean “sinless”, in the sense of never making mistakes. The perfect-hearted man may still sin in ignorance; as did David (1 Ki. 15:5, 2 Sam. 24:1,2,10). But God treats sins of ignorance differently from intentional sin (Leviticus 4). Even idolatry God winks at, when committed in ignorance (Acts 17:30). God only holds men accountable for what He has made evident to them (Ro. 1:19-20; Ro. 5:13).
Perfect does not mean
perfect in knowledge. Jesus Himself, though without sin, was not
perfect in knowledge. As a boy He did err in judgement– for instance,
when He stayed in the Temple without informing His parents. Jesus
was not always perfect in wisdom, for as He grew up He grew also in wisdom
However, though He made wrong choices, Jesus was never disobedient, even
from childhood (Luke 2:51)
(compare Krishna, who was an exceptionally naughty boy!) It
was Christ’s OBEDIENCE, not His perfect knowledge, which gained our salvation:
“For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience
of one shall many be made righteous.” (Ro.
Copyright © 2003 CrossPollen
Last Revised: March 8, 2003
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