Christian Perfection – 15: The Image of God
By: Frank L. Hoffman
Jesus said, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
(Wesley’s writings are in bold)
In this Chapter we shall see an inner warring of the imperfect with the perfect that takes place as we are regenerated back into the image of God. Also, as we shall see, part of John Wesley’s struggle was with his critics, who didn’t like the “perfection” of his teaching. Wesley even back-peddled in his preface to his 1741 hymnal, on a few points, which I don’t believe was necessary; for what Wesley and the Bible teach is true whether or not it is fully perfected in us.
In the thirteenth part of “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”,
Not long after, I think in the spring, 1741, we published a second volume of hymns. As the doctrine was still much misunderstood, and consequently misrepresented, I judged it needful to explain yet further upon the head; which was done in the preface to it as follows:
“This great gift of God, the salvation of our souls, is no other than the image of God fresh stamped on our hearts. It is a renewal of believers in the spirit of their minds, after the likeness of Him that create them. God hath now laid ‘the ax unto the root of the tree, [Luke 3:9] purifying their hearts by faith,’ [Acts 15:9] and ‘cleansing all the thoughts of their hearts by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit.’ Having this hope, that they shall see God as He is, they ‘purify themselves even as He is pure,’ [1 John 3:3] and are ‘holy, as He that hath called them is holy, in all manner of conversation.’ Not that they have already attained all that they shall attain, either are already in this sense perfect. But they daily ‘go on from strength to strength; beholding’ now, ‘as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, they are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, by the Spirit of the Lord.’ [2 Corinthians 3:18]
“And ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’ [2 Corinthians 3:17] such liberty ‘from the law of sin and death,’ [Romans 8:2] as the children of this world will not believe, though a man declare it unto them. ‘The Son hath made them free’ who are thus ‘born of God,’ from that great root of sin and bitterness pride. They feel that all their ‘sufficiency is of God,’ [2 Corinthians 3:5] that it is He alone who ‘is in all their thoughts,’ [which is the reverse of the thoughts of the "wicked" as described in Psalm 10:4] and ‘worketh in them both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’ [Philippians 2:13]
“They feel that ‘it is not they’ that ‘speak but the Spirit of’ their ‘Father who speaketh’ in them, and that whatsoever is done by their hands, ‘the Father who is in them, He doeth the works.’ [John 14:10] So that God is to them all in all, and they are nothing in his sight. They are freed from self-will as desiring nothing but the holy and perfect will of God; not supplies in want, not ease in pain, nor life, nor death, nor any creature; but continually crying in their inmost soul, ‘Father, thy will be done.’
I believe that neither the editor nor the critics of Wesley’s “Tract” fully understood the importance of Wesley’s teachings on Christian perfection. Referring to Wesley’s comment, “They are freed from self-will as desiring nothing but the holy and perfect will of God; not supplies in want, not ease in pain,” the following footnote was added:
“This is too strong. Our Lord Himself desired ease in pain. He asked for it, only with resignation: ‘Not as I will,’ I desire, ‘but as Thou wilt’.” [Luke 22:42]
I believe this footnote was added in the year 1765, and perhaps added reluctantly, when one considers the very last statement (also probably added in 1765) to this thirteenth part of “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”:
“So that whether our present doctrine be right or wrong it is however the same which we taught from the beginning.”
I don’t believe Wesley’s original statement is too strong; it’s simply having the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). If Jesus was willing to bear the pain and death of the cross for us, because it was the will of the Father, then we should be willing to do the same. We may ask, as Jesus did, for an alternative way of serving our Father, but in the end, as a perfect Christian, we should be willing to do as our Father desires.
Let’s go back and pick up where we left off in Wesley’s writing:
“They are freed from evil thoughts, so that they cannot enter into them, no, not for a moment. Afortime, when an evil thought came in, they looked up, and it vanished away. But now it does not come in, there being no room for this in a soul which is full of God. They are free from wanderings in prayer. Whensoever they pour out their hearts in a more immediate manner before God, they have no thought of any thing past, or absent, or to come, but of God alone.
There also seems to have been a problem with Wesley’s description of perfection and particularly with mental “wanderings”, for he added the following footnote:
“This is far too strong. See the sermon ‘On Wandering Thoughts’.”
In Chapter 13, we discussed in what sense Christians are not perfect, and one of these imperfections is that we are not totally free of this world with all its distractions; thus, if our mind accidentally wanders, by “looking up”, as Wesley stated, we refocus on God. Then, by doing this, we’re improving and maturing in our Christian perfection. The more we do this, the less we’ll have these “wanderings”. It is our imperfect nature that wants us to defend our imperfections, as I believe Wesley’s critics were doing, and in some sense, as Wesley himself was doing by adding these footnotes twenty-four years after the first printing. As Christians, we need to mature beyond this “stage”: admitting the truth about our imperfections and seeking to be perfect as our Father who is in heaven is perfect.
“In times past they had wandering thoughts darted in, which yet fled away like smoke; but now that smoke does not rise at all. They have no fear or doubt, either as to their state in general, or as to any particular action.
Here, another footnote was added in 1765 which seeks to limit Wesley’s original and our current thoughts on Christian perfection by saying:
“Frequently this is the case, but only for a time.”
I hear in this footnote the common Christian acceptance of our acquiescence to our sinful state of being rather than to our reborn state of being in Christ Jesus our Lord. There seems to be a continual desire to live in the imperfect past rather than to seek and live in the perfect future.
“The ‘unction from the Holy One’ teacheth them every hour what they shall do, and what they shall speak; nor, therefore, have they any need to reason concerning it.
Returning to the 1765 added footnotes: Wesley’s critics once again seem to be “hung up” on the difference between what happens in the imperfect world and what should be happening in a perfect Christian. When Wesley originally wrote about how the Holy Spirit teaches us, the footnote commented, “For a time it may be so, but not always”. If a person is born-again, the Holy Spirit is in residence and His unction is continuous. The problem is not one of His teaching us only at certain times, but one of whether or not we are listening and learning.
This brings us to Wesley’s comment, “nor, therefore, have they any need to reason concerning it”, about which the footnote comments, “Sometimes they have no need, at other times they have.” Why would a person have a need to reason whether or not something they are about to do or say is within the perfect will of God? Because such people have not read and studied God’s word, the Bible, or because they have been reluctant to learn from the teachings of the Holy Spirit, or because they are struggling with some fleshly imperfection (sin), or because they are reluctant to change their lifestyle to conform to the perfect will of God. We all may have some carried forward sins in our lives. We need to admit that we have them and to seek their removal, but we should never try to find excuses for why they are still there.
We will continue this discussion in our next chapter.