Christian Perfection – 16: If We Truly Love 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)
As we continue in the thirteenth part of “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”, we see that a vital aspect a being in the image of God is our ability to love unconditionally.
To truly love someone is to desire to please the other person more than oneself. If we truly love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our might, then we should naturally desire to do everything that would please Him. With this unconditional love, why would we want or need to reason whether or not something was in the perfect will of God? We should instinctively know! This is the context of Wesley’s comment that we discussed in the previous chapter and continue here.
“They are in one sense freed from temptations; for though numberless temptations fly about them, yet they trouble them not.
However, even to this statement another footnote was added in 1765:
“Sometimes they do not, at other times they do, and that grievously.”
Let’s think about this footnote for a moment. To grieve is to be deeply saddened over a loss. If people are grievously troubled over some temptation, are they grieving over the fact that they can no longer carry out the temptation, or are they grieving because of their weakness which caused them to fall into temptation? In both cases we are talking about being imperfect in an imperfect world. Originally, Wesley was speaking about our desire and willingness to be perfected in the heavenly realm of God, even though we are still upon this corrupted earth.
The apostle Paul never tells us what his thorn in the flesh was (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), but that it remained to keep him humble so that he wouldn’t exalt himself, but would always rely upon the strength and grace of the Lord to carry him past it. Could this thorn have been a temptation of some kind? It is quite possible, for even Jesus was tempted by the devil, but turned the evil temptation back upon His tempter (Luke 4:1-13). These are examples of Christian perfection acting upon temptation to overcome it. Our overcoming temptation should be joyous and not grievous.
“At all times their souls are even and calm, their hearts are steadfast and unmovable. their peace, flowing as a river, ‘passeth all understanding,’ [Philippians 4:7] and they ‘rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.’ For they ‘are sealed by the Spirit unto the day of redemption,’ [Ephesians 4:30] having the witness in themselves, that ‘there is laid up for’ them a ‘crown of righteousness, which the Lord will give’ them ‘in that day.’ [2 Timothy 4:8]
Another footnote was added in 1765, still trying to justify or accept imperfection in Christians’ lives, which states:
“Not all who are saved from sin; many of them have not attained it yet.”
Why wouldn’t many “saved” people attain this unspeakable joy and a crown of righteousness? Perhaps the answer is that they are not really saved, or that they have not willingly and fully submitted their will to the will of God. We are saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8), and not by some “cheap grace” that allows us to continue in our sins. We should be freed from our sinful nature and thankfully rejoice. We don’t have to soften the fundamental principles of Christianity, because some critics “don’t like them”.
Let’s consider this in the light of the Philippians 4:4-7 passage to which John Wesley refers. We are to rejoice always because our forbearing spirit knows that the Lord is near and that we no longer have to worry or be anxious; because whatever we request of Him with thanksgiving will give us a peace that surpasses all understanding; because our hearts and minds are focused upon Jesus and the will of our Father who is in heaven.
“Not that everyone is a child of the devil till he is thus renewed in love; on the contrary, whoever has ‘a sure confidence in God, that, through the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven,’ he is a child of God, and, if he abide in Him, an heir of all the promises. Neither ought he in any wise to cast away his confidence, or to deny the faith he has received, because it is weak, or because it is ‘tried with fire,’ so that his soul is ‘in heaviness through manifold temptations.’
“Neither dare we affirm, as some have done, that all this salvation is given at once. There is, indeed, an instantaneous, as well as a gradual, work of God in His children; and there wants not, we know, a cloud of witnesses, who have received, in one moment, either a clear sense of the forgiveness of their sins, or the abiding witness of the Holy Spirit. But we do not know a single instance, in any place, of a person’s receiving in one and the same moment, remission of sins, abiding witness of the Spirit, and a new, a clean heart.
I have heard many Christians limit the apostle Paul’s theology to salvation by grace, and that there is nothing more for us to do. Such Christians fail to remember that Paul also taught us that we are saved “for good works, which God prepared beforehand. that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10); and to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12) Both of these passages affirm that our salvation, our sanctification, our being perfected is a gradual but continual process until we are freed from the corruption of this world. On the other hand, it is also a warning that we are no longer free to live as the unsaved live. Grace comes with responsibility.
“Indeed, how God may work, we cannot tell; but the general manner wherein He does work, is this: those who once trusted in themselves that they were righteous, that they were rich, and increased in goods, and had need of nothing, are, by the Spirit of God applying His word, convinced that they are poor and naked. All the things that they have done are brought to their remembrance and set in array before them, so that they see the wrath of God hanging over their heads, and feel that they deserve the damnation of hell. In their trouble they cry unto the Lord, and He shows them that He hath taken away their sins, and opens the kingdom of heaven in their hearts, ‘righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ Sorrow and pain are fled away, and ‘sin has no more dominion over’ [Romans 6:14] them. Knowing they are justified freely through faith in His blood, they ‘have peace with God through Jesus Christ’; they ‘rejoice in hope of the glory of God,’ and ‘the love of God is shed abroad in their hearts.’
“In this peace they remain for days, or weeks, or months, and commonly suppose they shall not know war any more; till some of their old enemies, their bosom sins, or the sins which did most easily beset them (perhaps anger or desire), assault them again, and thrust sore at them, that they may fall. Then arises fear that they shall not endure to the end; and often doubt whether God has not forgotten them, or whether they did not deceive themselves in thinking their sins were forgiven. Under these clouds, especially if they reason with the devil, they go mourning all the day long. But it is seldom long before their Lord answers for Himself, sending them the Holy Ghost to comfort them, to bear witness continually with their spirits, that they are children of God. Then they are indeed meek and gentle and teachable, even as a little child. And now first do they see the ground of their heart, which God before would not disclose unto them, lest the soul should fail before him, and the spirit which He had made.
Almost from the moment of my rebirth, I came to realize that the closer I came to God, the further I really was from Him, because I now was able to see my own sinful nature in comparison to the absolute holiness and righteousness of God. This is what I believe Wesley also experienced and expressed as, “And now first do they see the ground of their heart”.
In 1865 John Wesley added a footnote to this comment:
“Is it not astonishing that while this book is extant, which was published four-and-twenty years ago, anyone should face me down, that this is a new doctrine, and what I never taught before?”
How could it be a new doctrine when the apostle Paul wrote: (Romans 7:24-25)
“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” (NASV)
“Now they see all the hidden abominations there, the depths of pride, self-will, and hell; yet having the witness in themselves, ‘Thou art an heir of God, a joint heir with Christ, even in the midst of this fiery trial,’ [Romans 8:17 and 1 Peter 4:12] which continually heightens both the strong sense they then have of their inability to help themselves, and the inexpressible hunger they feel after a full renewal in His image, in ‘righteousness and true holiness.’ Then God is mindful of the desire of them that fear Him, and gives them a single eye and a pure heart; He stamps upon them His own image and superscription; He createth them anew in Christ Jesus; He cometh unto them with His Son and blessed Spirit, and fixing His abode in their souls, bringeth them into the ‘rest which remaineth for the people of God.”‘
Here I [John Wesley] cannot but remark
(1) that this is the strongest account we ever gave of Christian perfection; indeed, too strong in more than one particular, as is observed in the notes annexed;
(2) that there is nothing which we have since advanced upon the subject, either in verse or prose, which is not either directly or indirectly contained in this preface.
So that whether our present doctrine be right or wrong it is however the same which we taught from the beginning.
Perhaps part of our problem with being conformed back into the image of God is that we live in the present and look at the conditions in and around our own lifetime. Our “beginnings” are too current.
We need to seek the Alpha, the Creator of the “very good” and perfect world, and we need to see ourselves as being with and reconformed into the Image of the Omega, the Re-creator of the perfect world to come. As we more and more look into the perfect heavenly realm, and seek that heavenly will of our Father here on earth, we will more and more come to see the regenerated perfect Christian looking back at us in the mirror.
This will happen if we truly love God.