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 12-A, 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.
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.
"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.