Christian Perfection is something John Wesley taught. It has been retained in the current United Methodist Church in the question asked of those being ordained Elder: “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” The expected answer is Yes.
I don’t remember ever hearing teaching or preaching on Christian Perfection when I was growing up. Our modern intuition – which likely isn’t all that different from the intuition of many in Wesley’s audience – is that perfection is impossible. Given that intuition, the fact that we continue to talk about it at all is seen as a quaint survival from times when people must not have known as much as we do. I don’t think things are that simple.
Instead of arguing here for perfection, I’m going to try something different. In fact, let’s set aside the word “perfection” and just look at what Wesley was trying to do with the doctrine.
Wesley was convinced that Christians did not have to sin. More, he was convinced that through Jesus and the resources he offers us, Christians can live a life pleasing to God, a life characterized by love of God and neighbor.
Let me take this one step further. From what I see in the Bible I am convinced that it there is no temptation, no inclination to sin that we have to give in to. Sure there are some temptations that will be difficult for us to resist. There may even be some sins that we have practiced enough that doing them has become our nature. But as those who belong to Jesus, there are no sins that we have to say YES to.
If we have this conviction, it will help us in our fight against sin in our lives. Knowing that something is possible, even if difficult, is often a first step to making it reality.
There’s another consequence. If we believe the contrary, that there are some sins that we cannot say NO to, then we will commonly come to the point where we cease to identify those actions as sin. After all, God would not hold me accountable for something I can’t help, would he?
When it comes to Christian Perfection then, forget the big picture. Forget the objective of a whole life entirely pleasing to God. Don’t forget it because it’s not a good thing; forget it because it’s mind-blowingly large, so large we get discouraged of ever reaching it.
Instead of the big picture, try the small picture. Try one thing at a time. Look at one sin in your life and give that area over to Jesus. Seek his power and resources at the one point.
Even more, don’t let your life be dominated by either sin (a sin that you think is inevitable) or the fight against sin (the heroic stand). Instead, focus on the positive response to God. Focus on loving God and neighbor. Let the worship that overflows your heart and the service that guides your hands crowd out the sin that distracts. Try that see what happens. Leave the perfection to God.
I think the daunting thing about “going on to perfection” is because we remain so unaware of the things in our lives that fall short of the glory of God. God takes us one step at a time as we are able to bear it (if we allow Him to do so). But if we are honest, we are not sure we even know how far we have yet to go, or if we could say with certainty “it has been achieved in me” because life takes another turn and our fallen nature is revealed again, that we might give that new revelation of self over to God.
I no longer think of sin as individual acts that displease the Father. I think of sin as the smallness of self that God would have me outgrow. The lack of sensitivity that causes me to say something hurtful to my neighbor. The laziness that causes me to fail to help someone else. The lack of adequate skills in controlling my temper. The lack. The lack. The lack. “When the perfect is come …” there will be none of that lack in me.