Be Perfect

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
—Matthew 5:48

Each week, as we imagine the “Gospel,” we are exploring how a different author or figure from the faith has uniquely understood and articulated the “good news.” This week, we turn to someone who not only offers a unique perspective on the Gospel but someone whose unique perspective on the gospel led to the creation of an entire religious movement, a movement called Methodism.

Reared and ordained in the Anglican tradition and educated at Oxford University, John Wesley was steeped in the theology of the Reformation and the practices and beliefs of the western institutions of the church. Shaped, in part, by the systematizing thought of Richard Hooker, this theology centered heavily upon (1) scripture as the primary and necessary source of God’s salvation narrative, (2) the informing importance of traditions from the church’s worship life and historic claims, (3) and the use of reason as an interpretive, mediating tool for making theological determinations about appropriate thinking and moral practices in light of scripture and tradition. Following Wesley’s encounter with some Moravians, particularly his conversations with Moravian Peter Bohler, Wesley saw the essentiality of personal religious and broader life experience to round out this interpretive formula.

Yet, this linking of personal experience with scripture, tradition, and reason is not the most significant of Wesley’s theological emphases. Rather, more significant is Wesley’s commitment to a gospel that demands personal and social transformation as a necessary consequence to encountering the good news of Jesus Christ. His term for this concept of transformation is “perfection,” and perfection is a result of sanctification. Held together, perfection and sanctification are part of a larger theological formulation where the grace of God dominates everything Wesley imagines.

Heavily influenced by Eastern Church writers, Wesley proffered a threefold notion of God’s grace, beginning with what he called prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the idea that all of life is imbued with God’s gracious love as a dual result of both willed creation and the incarnation. Both mark the primary initiative of God to enter into and restore relationship with us. Building on God’s prevenience, justifying grace is the notion that through the gift of faith—again imparted by God—we come to recognize God’s love for us and our restoration to a proper relationship with God. Next, if justification is about being united with God, then sanctification is about being (re)made into the image of God. Distinguishing justification from sanctification, Wesley said in his sermon “Justification by Faith” that “[justification] is not the being made actually just and righteous. This is sanctification . . . .” Or said another way, it is the difference between being with God—i.e., justification—and becoming like God—i.e., sanctification. It is this notion that our lives in faith actually transform us to be like God that is distinctive in Wesleyan theology and that sets him apart from many of his theological contemporaries.

So, if sanctification is being like God, how does Wesley assume this happens? This is the perfect question, because for Wesley the answer is Christian perfection.

In Wesley’s estimation, sanctification is a gift of God experienced through the transforming, repetitive presence of the Holy Spirit encountered through our engagement in holy habits of love or being “habituated in love,” e.g., participating in the life of the church, celebrating the sacraments, sharing in small groups, praying, fasting, caring for the poor, looking after each other, concern for the powerless and dispossessed, etc. In other words, perfection is loving God and loving each other. For Wesley, Christian perfection is nothing more than saying we must learn to love as God loves. These acts of loving gradually change us, molding our nature from one form to another. Thomas Langford, a Methodist theologian, summarizes Wesley’s theology this way: “The experience of sanctification is the restoring of the defaced image of our creation. As fallen, persons have forfeited their authentic humanity; as sanctified, they are restored to and mature in the life that God intends.”

Wesley was insistent that his articulation of Christian perfection is not work’s righteousness. Rather, Christian perfection is always God’s gracious presence and initiation that is the cause of our righteousness and perfection. However, human participation is a necessary condition of sanctification. Wesley was adamant about that point. God does not force but invites. Prevenience enables us to respond.

Importantly, this notion of perfection is different from how we often used the term. When we think of perfection, we think of a complete whole, a perfect state, one where something cannot change because it “is” perfect. To add to what is perfect would alter it, moving from perfection to something else. Similarly, to take away from this perfection, would be to diminish it, again moving it away from perfection to something else. As with Wesley’s notion of sanctification, his concept of perfection similarly derives more from an eastern perspective rather than a western one.

Our word “perfect” in English originates with a Latin word “perfectus.” Like most Latin words, “perfectus” is substance-based. Meaning, the word connotes a material reality. For example, a house is a “perfect” example of a particular style. A book is a “perfect” masterpiece. We most often use “perfect” to indicate a fix state of being, describing a material quality of a certain object. However, unlike Latin, Greek is a relational language. This relational environment is what produced the concept of “perfection” that Wesley borrowed. In this context, perfection is not a static notion but a kind of “teleiosis,” or a transformation by progression from one level of love to another, much like a growing relationship. (It is this word—“teleiosis”—that is used in our text from Matthew, above.)

For Wesley, this is always a kind of perfection depicting how we love and our willingness to love, not necessarily depicting results. We may act with the purest of intentions but will always be limited by the realities of our existence and others’. As Kenneth Kinghorn—another Wesleyan scholar—states, “[b]ecause sanctification does not free us from the human limitations of understanding and judgment . . . [our] performance remains flawed by our human finitude and handicaps, but our intentions can be pure and loving” (109).

Since in perfection we love as God loves, our loving becomes all encompassing, merging the transformation of self and society into a single purpose because of the singular love that accounts for both creation and the incarnation. Thus, our faith assumes the necessary outpouring of loving intentional acts for God and others, acts that gradually change God’s world and us. Such a faith is always a faith that assumes our souls and the world should be loved wholly and transformatively. In Wesley’s estimation, there is no complacency in faith, no static place but always a progression toward a more complete image of God. Such a transformative faith means that there can be no separation between our concern for the self and our concern for our neighbors, societal systems, and creation itself. A lack of concern about one would be an abdication to them all.

This leads us to ask, for Wesley over what is the victory that the Gospel proclaims? For him, the victory is twofold: (1) a recognition that faith is always an initiative of God and never a human achievement and (2) that faith is not a description of an individual’s assurance but is a description of a transformation of the individual and the world through our embodied love of God.

What does this kind of Gospel mean for us? If we are to embrace this kind of Gospel, we must always press towards a loving transformation of the self and society on the way to our inhabiting the image of God perfectly imprinted in everything.

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