A Plain Account of Christian Perfection

by John Wesley
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151

A Plain Account of Christian Perfection was written by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, which is a denomination of Christianity. The work is a guide on devotion and the daily work to become closer to the Christian God. Wesley opens the work by discussing the research and discoveries of his youth which persuaded him to devote his life to religion. It was Wesley's belief that all Christians should strive to conform to the will of God as wholly and perfectly as possible.

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Wesley explains that perfect Christian living is a conglomeration of habits, and it is the holiness of one's daily activities that bring them closer to God. He claimed that God's work was not regular, that great changes could come about all at once or over time. This is why Wesley encourages Christians to strive daily to adhere to God's will: they would reap the benefits of their devotion.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2880

First published: 1766

Edition(s) used: A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. London: Epworth Press, 1952

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Sermons; spiritual treatise

Core issue(s): Awakening; conversion; evangelization; Holy Spirit; Methodists and Methodism; mysticism; perfection; Protestants and Protestantism; sanctification; sin and sinners

Overview

The circuit rider in American history was usually a Methodist; but it would be a mistake to superimpose our image of the frontier evangelist on the founder of Methodism, who, for all his traveling and out-of-doors preaching, was an Oxford don who had taken Anglican orders. During their university days, John Wesley and his brother Charles (the hymn writer) were leaders in a group known as the Holy Club, devoted to charitable works and to holy living. Nothing in the regimen of this pious band gives any hint of the great popular revival movement with which the names of the Wesleys and of George Whitefield (another member of the Holy Club) are so closely connected. The exception might be a certain mystical and ascetic ideal of Christian living that, in John Wesley’s view, was an essential part of the Anglican tradition and that he fought to retain in the societies that he founded, often in opposition to other evangelical leaders, including Whitefield.

Wesley is remembered chiefly as a man of action. Of his writings, only the Journal has excited general interest, and that less for its literary qualities than for the story it narrates. Excerpts from the Journal were published serially as part of his attempt to allay prejudice and to promote understanding. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection may be thought of as a supplement to the published Journal. In the 1760’s some people were saying that Wesley had shifted his ground on the matter of Christian perfection. This provided him an occasion to publish the cumulative record. The main statements from which he quotes are his first published sermon, “Circumcision of the Heart”; a tract, “The Character of a Methodist”; another published sermon, “Christian Perfection”; and two booklets, Thoughts on Christian Perfection (1759), and Further Thoughts on Christian Perfection (1763). Excerpts and summaries from these are pieced together chronologically and are interspersed with hymns, personal recollections, and reports of conferences and conversations. Because the purpose of the book is to show that his stand on perfectionism remained the same throughout his ministry, one is prepared for a good deal of repetition. On the other hand, Wesley’s teaching does not seem to have been quite as uniform as he claimed. It has been said of Wesley that, although he was an insatiable reader (he read as he traveled on horseback), he was never a close reader, and one gets the impression that he was not a close reader of what he himself had written.

A Plain Account of Christian Perfection begins with Wesley’s youthful resolves. He was twenty-two when, reading Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying (1831; originally as The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, 1650, and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, 1651), he was persuaded of the importance of purity of intention and of the need to dedicate every part of his life to God. This resolve was strengthened when he went on to read Thomas à Kempis and William Law. Studying the Bible in this light, he saw the “indispensable necessity of having the mind which was in Christ” and of “an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master.” His sermon “Circumcision of the Heart” (1733) belongs to this first period. In it he defines holiness as a habitual state of the soul, so renewed as to be “perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect.” The first and great commandment is said to contain all the virtues. The one thing that God desires of us is the living sacrifice of the heart that he has chosen. No creature is to share our love for God, for he is a jealous God. “Desire not to live but to praise his name; let all your thoughts, words, and works tend to his glory.”

When we turn to Wesley’s next publication, “The Character of a Methodist” (1739), we are on different ground. These are not the vaporings of an Oxford fellow but the manifesto of an evangelist answerable for his vocation. As a Methodist, Wesley does not sigh after perfection; he vaunts it—a Methodist prays without ceasing. In retirement or in company, his heart is ever with the Lord. He loves his neighbor as himself, including his enemies. His heart is purified from envy, malice, and every unkind temper. He keeps all the commandments with all his might.

Other leaders in the evangelical revival were not long in voicing their opposition to these claims. In response, Wesley published the sermon “Christian Perfection” (1740). Drawing heavily from the Bible, Wesley allowed that Christians are not perfect in the sense of committing no mistakes, but he argued that intention is all that counts. Sins have to be intentional. Even newborn Christians are perfect in that they do not commit sins, while more adult Christians are perfect in the higher sense of being freed from evil desires. “It remains, then, that Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect, as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and tempers.” Much in the same tenor is the preface that Wesley wrote for a book of hymns (1741). Christians are freed from pride; they feel it is not they that speak or act but God in them. They no longer desire anything for themselves, neither possessions nor relief from pain. It is impossible for them to entertain evil thoughts. Their minds do not wander when they pray. They are free from all fear and doubt. Temptations fly about them, but their souls are unmovable.

Then, as if making a new start, Wesley allows that the change does not come all at once: God’s work is partly instantaneous, partly gradual—at one moment the believer received a clear sense of forgiveness, at another the abiding witness of the Holy Spirit, at another a clean heart. There are times of lamentation mixed with times of rejoicing. On occasion God lets them see all the abominations of pride and self-will that are hidden in their hearts; but “in the midst of this fiery trial . . . they feel after a full renewal,” and God, observing their desire, visits them anew with his Son and with the Holy Spirit. Wesley appends a footnote (1765) calling attention to what he had said in 1741 about the hidden corruption of the heart, to prove to his critics that he had even then been mindful of the believer’s possible deficiency of self-knowledge.

In 1744, at the first annual Methodist conference, an early session was given to considering “the doctrine of sanctification or perfection.” Owing to the presence in early Methodism of Calvinist and Arminian parties, the statements agreed to are little more than scriptural texts that speak of God saving Israel from all uncleanness and of Christ giving himself that his Church might be without spot and wrinkle. Wesley mentions successive conferences where the issue hung fire. That of 1758 was memorable as subscribing to the distinction between intentional and unintentional transgressions of the law and in acknowledging that unintentional transgressions require atonement as much as intentional ones do.

This is the starting point for Wesley’s Thoughts on Christian Perfection. The work is conciliatory. Wesley goes so far as to say that “sinless perfection” is a phrase he avoids using because some people use the word sin carelessly to include involuntary as well as voluntary transgressions. The rest of the book is devoted to problems that perfectionism poses for the pastoral ministry. Methodist preachers, usually self-taught laymen, are advised not only of their duty to preach the necessity for holiness but also of their responsibility for counseling those who believe that they have received this blessing. Some of the questions dealt with seem trivial, such as whether one who has reached perfection will prefer pleasing food to unpleasing, and whether the children of perfect parents will be born without sin. More serious is the question of how one can tell whether a person is perfect. Wesley’s answer is not very different from that of other spiritual advisers: I know that this person is not a liar, and if he says that he feels no sin but all love and that he has the witness of the Holy Spirit, then I ought in all reason to believe him.

A letter from one of Wesley’s London converts serves well to illustrate the experiences of one passing from justifying faith to what came to be known as the second blessing. Jane Cooper wrote Wesley on May 2, 1761, relating her prayers and distresses. Moved by his sermon on the text, “We wait for the hope of righteousness,” she began to wait and pray for the blessing. With the music of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah running through her head, she appropriated to herself the prophecy, “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple” and sit there “as a refining fire.” She felt as if she were nothing and enjoyed great quiet, but she was not sure whether God had destroyed her sin. She conversed with friends, opened the Bible at random, and read, “The unbeliever shall be cast into a lake of fire” and again, “Be not affrighted: ye seek Jesus. He goeth before you into Galilee.” One of her friends reminded her that God is no respecter of persons, and in a moment she found full salvation. “I saw Jesus altogether lovely; and knew he was mine in all his offices.” Some six months later Jane Cooper died, but Wesley is able to append a letter from one who was witness of her last days. In spite of strong convulsions and extreme pain, she was reasonable to the end. Her last words were, “My Jesus is all in all to me: glory be to Him through time and eternity.”

Further Thoughts on Christian Perfection was Wesley’s response to the extravagances of a revival that had visited London the previous year. Earlier he had issued a tract called “Cautions and Directions Given to the Greatest Professors in the Methodist Societies,” warning preachers against pride, enthusiasm, antinomianism, and other dangers that he saw in store. Further Thoughts on Christian Perfection incorporates this tract, while addressing itself also to substantive issues. Questions that had earlier been debated by preachers at the annual conferences were now being argued by everyone. The book is heavy on the side of doctrine. Classical Protestantism had distinguished between justification (pardon of sins through faith in Christ’s atoning death) and sanctification (the inner working of the Holy Spirit), holding that the former is instantaneous and the latter gradual. Wesley, like the German Pietists from the time of Johann Arndt, complained that the clergy neglected to preach sanctification, thereby making Christianity seem too easy. This was no doubt a legitimate complaint; nevertheless, in refusing to deal publicly with questions concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in each person’s soul, the established churches steered clear of much futile controversy. Wesley held that in most cases sanctification proceeds gradually and that the believer attains complete holiness only in the instant preceding his death, but he insisted, both on the basis of Scripture and on the evidence of his own pastoral experience, that some are entirely sanctified soon after their conversion. It was inevitable that many would ask, How can I know? In answer, Wesley could refer only to the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. There were endless questions, however: for example, whether one could be mistaken about the witness; whether the witness could be lost even though a person remained in a state of grace; and, indeed, whether one can fall out of a state of grace. All of these questions Wesley answered in the affirmative. “Have any a testimony from the Spirit that they shall never sin? We know not what God may vouchsafe to some particular persons; but we do not find any general state described in Scripture, from which a man cannot draw back to sin.” This explains the emphasis that Wesley placed on deathbed behavior and last words.

Further Thoughts on Christian Perfection concludes with a series of “reflections,” which Wesley recommends to his readers for “deep and frequent consideration, next to the Holy Scriptures.” These are interesting mainly because they echo a long mystical tradition and can be represented by the following:

•The best helps to growth in grace are the ill usage, the affronts, and the losses which befall us.

•True resignation consists in a thorough conformity to the whole will of God. . . . In order to do this, we have only to embrace all events, good and bad, as His will.

•To abandon all, to strip one’s self of all, in order to seek and to follow Jesus Christ naked to Bethlehem . . . to Calvary, where He died on the cross, is so great a mercy, that neither the thing, nor the knowledge of it, is given to any, but through faith in the Son of God.

•True humility is a kind of self-annihilation; and this is the center of all virtues.

•Prayer continues in the desire of the heart, though the understanding be employed on outward things.

•God does not love men that are inconstant, nor good works that are intermitted. Nothing is pleasing to Him but what has a semblance of His own immutability.

As a popular evangelist, Wesley spoke ill of mysticism, even in so honored a person as the English devotional writer William Law. In his early years, however, Wesley had visited Law, and on Law’s recommendation he had read widely in mystical theology, both ancient and modern. Thus, it is not surprising that we find here passages reminiscent of mystical writers. All that is surprising is that they are appended to a work written long after he had cut himself off from this tradition—unless, as seems likely, these are reflections penned by Wesley in his Holy Club days. If this is the case, and if some of the reflections are lifted, in whole or in part, from mystical authors, we understand somewhat better how Wesley can place them next to the Scriptures. In any case, their appearance at the end of his last published work on perfection provides unintentional evidence of the underlying unity of Wesley’s convictions through the years.

Christian Themes

Wesley’s perfectionism, therefore, held that to be a Christian is to have the mind of Christ and to live in entire conformity to his example. Holiness is a habitual state of the soul so renewed as to be “perfect even as the Father in Heaven is perfect.” The sincere convert to Christianity is perfect from the beginning, in the sense that he cannot commit sin; the more advanced convert is perfect in the sense that he has no evil thoughts or desires. Finally, the higher perfection is directly attested to a person by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit within him.

Sources for Further Study

  • Abraham, William J. Wesley for Armchair Theologians. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. Part of the publisher’s Armchair Theologians series, designed to introduce the most important Christian thinkers to a lay audience. Lively and engaging. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • Flew, R. Newton. The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology: An Historical Study of the Christian Ideal for the Present Life. 1934. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1968. Holds that despite appearances to the contrary, Quakerism, Pietism, and Methodism were a return to a more Catholic view of Christianity obscured by the Protestant Reformation. Chapter 19, “Methodism,” while deeply sympathetic with Wesley’s teaching, makes most of criticisms that occur to the reader of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
  • Hattersley, Roy. The Life of John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Shows the human, social, and spiritual sides of Wesley. Includes a fifteen-page bibliography and index.
  • Knox, R. A. Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. 1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Chapters 18 through 21 are on Wesley and Methodism. Critical but respectful treatment of Wesley by an English monsignor.
  • Rack, Henry D. Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism. 3d ed. London: Epworth Press, 2002. A tome at 662 pages, covers Wesley and his theology from his youth through the consolidation of Methodism and the 1780’s. Bibliography, index.
  • Turner, John Munsey. John Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and the Rise of Methodism in England. London: Epworth Press, 2002. Places Methodism in the context of the worldwide revival of the early eighteenth century, along with Wesley’s political and social influence. Bibliography, index.
  • Wesley, John. The Journal of John Wesley: A Selection. Edited with an introduction by Elisabeth Jay. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Based on the “standard” Journal, deciphered in 1909. Provides a nice snapshot, in 290 pages, of Wesley’s journals.
  • Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. Edited by Albert C. Outler. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1984. Representative sermons, letters, theological statements, and polemical writings, with helpful introductory material by the editor. Contains the sermon “Christian Perfection” and “Thoughts on Christian Perfection.”

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