John Wesley’s teaching on Christians being perfect is based on Philippians 3:12. He taught that Christians are perfect in two senses.1 They are free from outward sin and purified from inward sin. He identified inward sin as evil thoughts and evil tempers. He separated these two senses of perfection according to stages of Christian life identified by Apostle John in 1 John 2:12-14. In this Scripture, three stages of the Christian life are identified as little children, young men and fathers.
Wesley applied the first sense of perfection to little children and stated this sense applies to all Christians. Little children are all persons who have been justified by faith in Christ Jesus. Freedom from outward sin is 1) not continuing in sin 2) an inability to live any longer in sin 3) being planted in the likeness of Christ’s death 4) being crucified with Christ 5) being freed from sin 6) being dead to sin and alive to God 7) being free from the dominion of sin 8) being a servant of righteousness. Wesley’s explanation of this sense of perfection is an exegesis of Romans 6:1-2,5-7,11,14,18.
The second sense of perfection, purification from inward sin was applied to young men and fathers. Young men are Christians who are strong in the Lord and have overcome the wicked one. The word of God abides in them. Fathers are Christians who know the God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost in their innermost souls. They are mature persons who have grown to the measure of the statue of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
Wesley stated young men and fathers are first free from evil thoughts. Evil thoughts are sinful thoughts. These are not thoughts about sin, but thoughts that are sinful. Sinful thoughts proceed from the heart (Mark 7:21). However, young men have hearts that have been cleansed from evil. Therefore, they have no evil thoughts. Instead, they bring forth good fruit. Proud reasoning and unbelief against the Word of God have been cast down (2 Corinthians 10:5)
Young men and fathers are also free from evil tempers. The have been cleansed from pride, self-will, desire and common anger. They do not confer with men void of spiritual discernment (Galatians 1:16). Men void of spiritual discernment are persons whose understanding has not been opened by God (Ephesians 1:18; 4:18). Young men and fathers are as their Master. They desire to do the will of the Father and finish His work [John 4:34].
Wesley taught the second sense of perfection is attainable in this life. He based this teaching on Luke 6:40 and 1 John 4:17. He applied Luke 6:40 to freedom from evil thoughts. He applied 1 John 4:17 to freedom from evil tempers.
Wesley defined Christian Perfection as loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. He stated
“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….every word and action springs from love….every desire is in subjection to the obedience of Christ. The will is entirely subject to the will of God and the affections wholly fixed on [Him].”2
Christian perfection, as Wesley taught it, does not include freedom from 1) ignorance 2) mistakes 3) infirmities 4) temptation.3 Concerning the notion of “sinless perfection”, Wesley stated, “[This is] a phrase I never use lest it should seem to contradict myself.”
Wesley placed great emphasis on the difference between mistakes and sin. He readily affirmed that individuals are susceptible to mistakes in judgment that lead to mistakes in practice. However, he maintained mistakes are not a sin if their sole purpose is love.4
According to Wesley, Christian perfection occurs when a Christian “experiences a total death to sin and an entire renewal in the love and image of God”. As a result, the Christian 1) rejoices evermore 2) prays without ceasing 3) gives thanks in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18). Christian perfection is attained after a Christian has been? “convinced of inbred sin” and has “experienced a gradual mortification of it”. This experience is subsequent to justification and is judged attained when there is a “testimony of the Spirit” that “entire sanctification” has indeed taken place.
Wesley also maintained that Christian perfection or entire sanctification is both gradual and instantaneous. He wrote,
“A man may be ‘dying’ for some time, yet he does not, properly speaking, ‘die’ till the instant the soul is separated from the body. And in that instant he lives the life of eternity. In like manner he may be ‘dying to sin’ for some time; yet he is not ‘dead to sin’ till sin is separated from the soul. And in that instant he lives the full life of love.”5
Pietism indirectly and directly influenced Wesley’s theological beliefs. Pietism is a set of “concerns” that were prevalent during the time period after the development of confessional orthodoxy and before the Enlightenment. These “concerns” were 1) a firm personal experience with God is indeed possible. This experience begins with regeneration. [John 3:3,6; Titus 3:3-5] 2) Experience with God directly affects a Christian’s manner of life. This is sanctification. 3) The Christian community assumes a reforming attitude against the larger social context. These beliefs and concerns were primarily confined to Protestant groups. However, similar ideas were found among Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
Pietism influenced both Puritanism and Anglicanism. Wesley’s mother was a Puritan.6 His father was an Anglican clergyman.7 Wesley received his early theological training from his mother and his father. Therefore, Pietism indirectly influenced him.
A meeting with a Moravian attracted Wesley to German Pietism. On a visit to Herrnhut, he came in direct contact with German Pietism.8 German Pietists who mentored him include Jeremy Taylor, Thomas a Kempis, William Law and Henry Scougal.9 William Law’s works A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life and A Treatise on Christian Perfection were subjects of reading and discussion by Holy Club members at Oxford.10 Therefore, Pietism also directly influenced him.
Wesley was also influenced by writings of ancient Church fathers. Such fathers include Ignatius, Clement, Marcarius, Ephraem and Syrus. Wesley immersed himself in their piety and wisdom.
His theological studies were guided by practical concerns.11 After professors in Methodist Societies who professed to have obtained Christian perfection became overly enthusiastic, Wesley issued the following warnings and admonitions: 1) Watch and pray against pride. 2) “Beware of enthusiasm”. 3) “Beware of antinomianism”. 4) “Beware of sins of omission”. 5) “Beware of desiring anything but God”. 6) “Beware of schism”.12
Christian perfection as John Wesley taught it, is also called [entire] sanctification, holiness or perfect love. Although these terms are used interchangeably, there are slight differences among them. Perfection refers to wholeness or completeness “of Christian character including freedom from sin”. [Galatians 5:16] It is “possession of all the graces of the Spirit of Christ”.
Sanctification involves both “consecration and purification”. Old Testament references to sanctification refer to being set “apart for sacred service”. (Exodus 29:43; 30:29; Leviticus 20:7) New Testament references to sanctification refer to spiritual or moral purification. (John 17:17,19)
Holiness “refers to wholeness and perfection of the soul”. It 1) “originates in conversion” 2) covers the “span of Christian experience in growth and cleansing” 3) “is a state of separation and purity” where the soul moves toward perfect likeness of Christ. Scriptural references to holiness are 2 Corinthians 7:1 and Hebrews 12:14.13