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Wesley and Christian perfection

Perhaps the strongest account of the regeneration of the heart was offered by the Anglican minister John Wesley (1703-1791), typically considered the co-founder of the Methodists along with his brother Charles. A prolific preacher, writer and a tireless reformer, Wesley was influenced in significant ways by the Puritans and the Pietists. (Wesley had, in fact, several fateful encounters with Moravians in England and the Colonies, spent several months at Herrnhut and translated some of the hymns of the German Pietists, including Zizendorf, into English.) One of Wesley’s most significant legacies is his promotion of the idea of ‘Christian perfection’, complete sanctification and renewal, a total ‘circumcision of the heart’ (Rom. 3.29). On Wesley’s account, after being reborn, believers gradually die to sin and grow

FAITH AND REBIRTH: PIETISM

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in grace. At some point in their life, whether as a result of a process or in one instantaneous moment, a Christian could be saved entirely from the power of sin by the Holy Spirit and love with a fully renewed heart. ‘Christian perfection’ was Wesley’s term for being made perfect in one’s love of both God and neighbour, as thus being made like Christ. While believers may pray and hope for such a blessing from the Holy Spirit, the initiative remains wholly God’s: ‘the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live’ (Deut. 30.6). In the words of Wesley, Christian perfection is ‘loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions are governed by pure love’.11 Wesley thought that Christian perfection was not merely a pleasant idea or a distant hope, but a reality which present-day Christians could experience.

In his sermons and writings on Christian perfection, Wesley often attempts to clear up various misunderstandings regarding his doctrine of Christian perfection. Complete sanctification does not mean that one is infallible or no longer beset by temptations or worldly woes. While Christian perfection means that one is pure in love and in intention, it is not merely a matter of being sincere or simply being really nice. Notions of sincerity or niceness seem too narrow for what Wesley has in mind. Christian perfection is ‘love filling the heart, expelling pride, anger, desire, selfwill; rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, and in everything giving thanks’.11 [1] [2] Likewise Christian perfection is not some static state, for believers can still grow in perfection and should remain watchful and diligent so as not to lose this gift. While admitting that losing such a perfect love was indeed possible, Wesley always preferred emphasizing the positive aspects of Christian perfection and his hope that ‘[i]n a Christian believer love sits upon the throne, which is erected in the innermost soul; namely love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival’.[3] One is reborn so that one can grow into perfection.

Study questions

  • 1. What do you think the relationship between faith, rebirth and conversion is?
  • 2. Which of the characteristics of Pietism seem familiar and which seem strange? Which of their proposals regarding the life of faith seem most helpful and which seem unhelpful?
  • 3. What do you think of the three guidelines for the community at Herrnhut?
  • 4. What do you think of Wesley’s proposal regarding Christian perfection?

Further reading

The Gospel of John, Chapter 3.

Wesley, John, ‘The Circumcision of the Heart’, Sermon XVII in Albert C. Outler (ed.), The Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, Sermons 1-33 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), pp. 401-414. Zizendorf, Count Nicolaus, ‘Brotherly Union and Agreement at Herrnhut’, in Peter C. Erb (ed.), The Pietists: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), pp. 325-330.

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  • [1] John Wesley, Christian Perfection as Believed and Taught by John Wesley, ed. Thomas S. Kepler (NewYork: Cleveland, 1954), p. 54.
  • [2] Wesley, Christian Perfection, p. 96.
  • [3] John Wesley, ‘On Zeal’, in John Emory (ed.), The Works of the Reverend John Wesley,vol. 2 (New York:Emory and Waugh, 1831), pp. 287-294 (289).
 
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