A Plain Account of Christian Perfection
by John Wesley
“Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection”
The next year , the number of those who believed they were saved from sin still increasing, I judged it needful to publish, chiefly for their use, Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection:—
Answer: In order to understand this, you must understand what law is here spoken of; and this, I apprehend, is:—
- The Mosaic law, the whole Mosaic dispensation; which St. Paul continually speaks of as one, though containing three parts, the political, moral, and ceremonial.
- The Adamic law, that given to Adam in innocence, properly called “the law of works.” This is in substance the same with the angelic law, being common to angels and men. It required that man should use, to the glory of God, all the powers with which he was created. Now, he was created free from any defect, either in his understanding or his affections. His body was then no clog to the mind; it did not hinder his apprehending all things clearly, judging truly concerning them, and reasoning justly, if he reasoned at all. I say, if he reasoned; for possibly he did not. Perhaps he had no need of reasoning till his corruptible body pressed down the mind, and impaired its native faculties. Perhaps, till then, the mind saw every truth that offered as directly as the eye now sees the light. Consequently, this law, proportioned to his original powers, required that he should always think, always speak, always act precisely right, in every point whatever. He was well able so to do; and God could not but require the service he was able to pay.
But Adam fell; and his incorruptible body became corruptible; and ever since it is a clog to the soul, and hinders its operations. Hence, at present, no child of man can at all times apprehend clearly, or judge truly. And where either the judgment or apprehension is wrong, it is impossible to reason justly. Therefore, it is as natural for a man to mistake as to breathe; and he can no more live without the one than without the other. Consequently, no man is able to perform the service which the Adamic law requires.
And no man is obliged to perform it: God does not require it of any man; for Christ is the end of the Adamic as well as the Mosaic law. By His death, He hath put an end to both: He hath abolished both the one and the other with regard to man; and the obligation to observe either the one or the other is vanished away. Nor is any man living bound to observe the Adamic more than the Mosaic law.1
In the room of this, Christ hath established another, namely, the law of faith. Not every one that doeth, but every one that believeth, now receiveth righteousness, in the full sense of the word; that is, he is justified, sanctified, and glorified.
Question #2: Are we then dead to the law?
Answer: We are “dead to the law by the body of Christ” given for us (Rom. vii. 4); to the Adamic as well as Mosaic law. We are wholly freed therefrom by His death; that law expiring with Him.
Question #3: How, then, are we “not without law to God, but under the law to Christ”? (I Cor. ix. 21)
Answer: We are without that law; but it does not follow that we are without any law; for God has established another law in its place, even the law of faith [Romans 3:27]: and we are all under this law to God and to Christ: both our Creator and our Redeemer require us to observe it.
Question #4: Is love the fulfilling of this law?
Answer: Unquestionably it is. The whole law under which we now are is fulfilled by love (Rom. xiii. 8, 10). Faith working or animated by love [Galatians 5:6] is all that God now requires of man. He has substituted (not sincerity, but) love, in the room of angelic perfection.
Question #5: How is “love the end of the commandment”? (I Tim. i. 5)
Answer: It is the end of every commandment of God. It is the point aimed at by the whole and every part of the Christian institution. The foundation is faith, purifying the heart; the end, love, preserving a good conscience.
Question #6: What love is this?
Answer: The loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and the loving our neighbour, every man, as ourselves, as our own souls.
Question #7: What are the fruits or properties of this love?
Answer: St. Paul informs us at large: “Love is longsuffering” [1 Corinthians 13:4]. It suffers all the weaknesses of the children of God, all the wickedness of the children of the world; and that not for a little time only, but as long as God pleases. In all, it sees the hand of God, and willingly submits thereto. Meantime, it is “kind” [v. 4]. In all, and after all, it suffers, it is soft, mild, tender, benign. “Love envieth not” [v. 4]; it excludes every kind and degree of envy out of the heart. “Love acteth not rashly“ [v. 4], in a violent, headstrong manner; nor passes any rash or severe judgment. It doth not behave itself indecently” [v. 5]; is not rude, does not act out of character. “Seeketh not her own” [v. 5] ease, pleasure, honour, or profit. “Is not provoked” [v. 5]; expels all anger from the heart. “Thinketh no evil” [v. 5]; casteth out all jealousy, suspiciousness, and readiness to believe evil. “Rejoiceth not in iniquity” [v. 6]; yea, weeps at the sin or folly of its bitterest enemies. “But rejoiceth in the truth” [v. 6]; in the holiness and happiness of every child of man. “Love covereth all things” [v. 7], speaks evil of no man; “believeth all things” [v. 7] that tend to the advantage of another’s character. It “hopeth all things” [v. 7], whatever may extenuate the faults which cannot be denied; and it “endureth all things” [v. 7] which God can permit, or men and devils inflict. This is the “law of Christ, the perfect law, the law of liberty” [Galatians 6:2; James 1:25; 2:12].
And this distinction between the “law of faith” (or love) and “the law of works”) is neither a subtle nor an unnecessary distinction. It is plain, easy, and intelligible to any common understanding. And it is absolutely necessary, to prevent a thousand doubts and fears, even in those who do walk in love.
Question #8: But do we not “in many things offend all” [James 3:2], yea, the best of us, even against this law?
Answer: In one sense we do not, while all our tempers, and thoughts, and words, and works spring from love. But in another we do, and shall do, more or less, as long as we remain in the body. For neither love, nor “unction of the Holy One” [1 John 2:20], makes us infallible: therefore, through unavoidable defect of understanding, we cannot but mistake in many things. And these mistakes will frequently occasion something wrong, both in our temper, and words, and actions. From mistaking his character, we may love a person less than he really deserves. And by the same mistake, we are unavoidably led to speak or act, with regard to that person, in such a manner as is contrary to this law, in some or other of the preceding instances.
Question #9: Do we not then need Christ, even on this account?
Answer: The holiest of men still need Christ as their Prophet, as “the light of the world” [John 8:12; 9:5]. For He does not give them light but from moment to moment: the instant He withdraws, all is darkness. They still need Christ as their King; for God does not give them a stock of holiness. But unless they receive a supply every moment, nothing but unholiness would remain. They still need Christ as their Priest, to make atonement for their holy things. Even perfect holiness is acceptable to God only through Jesus Christ.
Question #10: May not, then, the very best of men adopt the dying martyr’s confession: “I am in myself nothing but sin, darkness, hell; but Thou art my light, my holiness, my heaven”?
Answer: Not exactly. But the best of men may say, “Thou art my light, my holiness, and heaven. Through my union with Thee, I am full of light, of holiness, and happiness. But if I were left to myself, I should be nothing but sin, darkness, hell.”
But to proceed: the best of men need Christ as their Priest, their Atonement, their Advocate with the Father; not only as the continuance of their every blessing depends on His death and intercession, but on account of their coming short of the law of love. For every man living does so. You who feel all love, compare yourselves with the preceding description. Weigh yourselves in this balance, and see if you are not wanting in many particulars.
Question #11: But if all this be consistent with Christian perfection, that perfection is not freedom from all sin: seeing “sin is the transgression of the law” [1 John 3:4]; and the perfect transgress the very law they are under. Besides, they need the atonement of Christ; and He is the atonement of nothing but sin. Is, then, the term sinless perfection proper?
Answer: It is not worth disputing about. But observe in what sense the persons in question need the atonement of Christ. They do not need Him to reconcile them to God afresh; for they are reconciled. They do not need Him to restore the favour of God, but to continue it. He does not procure pardon for them anew, but “by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. x 14).
For want of duly considering this, some deny that they need the atonement of Christ. Indeed, exceeding few: I do not remember to have found five of them in England. Of the two, I would sooner give up perfection; but we need not give up either one or the other. The perfection I hold, “Love rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, and in everything giving thanks” [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18], is well consistent with it: if any hold a perfection which is not, they must look to it.
Question #12: Does, then, Christian perfection imply any more than sincerity?
Answer: Not if you mean by that word, love filling the heart, expelling pride, anger, desire, self-will; rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, and in everything giving thanks. But I doubt few use sincerity in this sense. Therefore, I think the old word is best.
A person may be sincere who has all his natural tempers—pride, anger, lust, self-will. But he is not perfect till his heart is cleansed from these, and all its other corruptions.
To clear this point a little farther: I know many that love God with all their heart. He is their one desire, their one delight, and they are continually happy in Him. They love their neighbour as themselves [Galatians 5:14; James 2:8]. They feel as sincere, fervent, constant a desire for the happiness of every man, good and bad, friend or enemy, as for their own. They rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks. Their souls are continually streaming up to God, in holy joy, prayer, and praise. This is a point of fact; and this is plain, sound, scriptural experience.
But even these souls dwell in a shattered body, and are so pressed down thereby, that they cannot always exert themselves as they would, by thinking, speaking, and acting precisely right. For want of better bodily organs, they must at times think, speak, or act wrong; not indeed through a defect of love, but through a defect of knowledge. And while this is the case, notwithstanding that defect, and its consequences, they fulfil the law of love.
Yet as, even in this case, there is not a full conformity to the perfect law, so the most perfect do, on this very account, need the blood of atonement, and may properly for themselves, as well as for their brethren, say, “Forgive us our trespasses” [Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4].
Question #13: But if Christ has put an end to that law, what need of any atonement for their transgressing it?
Answer: Observe in what sense He has put an end to it, and the difficulty vanishes. Were it not for the abiding merit of His death, and His continual intercession for us, that law would condemn us still. These, therefore, we still need for every transgression of it.
Question #14: But can one that is saved from sin be tempted?
Answer: Yes; for Christ was tempted [Hebrews 4:15].
Question #15: However, what you call temptation, I call the corruption of the heart. And how will you distinguish one from the other?
Answer: In some cases, it is impossible to distinguish, without the direct witness of the Spirit. But in general one may distinguish thus:
- One commends me. Here is a temptation to pride. But instantly my soul is humbled before God; and I feel no pride; of which I am as sure as that pride is not humility.
- A man strikes me. Here is a temptation to anger. But my heart overflows with love. And I feel no anger at all; of which I can be as sure as that love and anger are not the same.
- A woman solicits me. Here is a temptation to lust. But in the instant I shrink back. And I feel no desire or lust at all; of which I can be as sure as that my hand is cold or hot.
Thus it is, if I am tempted by a present object; and it is just the same if, when it is absent, the devil recalls a commendation, an injury, or a woman, to my mind. In the instant the soul repels the temptation, and remains filled with pure love.
And the difference is still plainer, when I compare my present state with my past, wherein I felt temptation and corruption too.
Question #16: But how do you know that you are sanctified, saved from your inbred corruption?
Answer: I can know it in no otherwise than I know that I am justified. “Hereby know we that we are of God,” in either sense “by the Spirit that He hath given us” [1 John 4:13].
We know it by the witness and by the fruit of the Spirit. And, first, by the witness. As, when we were justified, the Spirit bore witness with our spirit that our sins were forgiven; so, when we were sanctified, He bore witness that they were taken away. Indeed, the witness of sanctification is not always clear at first (as neither is that of justification); neither is it afterward always the same, but, like that of justification, sometimes stronger, and sometimes fainter. Yea, and sometimes it is withdrawn. Yet, in general, the latter testimony of the Spirit is both as clear and as steady as the former.
Question #17: But what need is there of it, seeing sanctification is a real change, not a relative only, like justification?
Answer: But is the new birth a relative change only? Is not this a real change? Therefore, if we need no witness of our sanctification because it is a real change, for the same reason we should need none that we are born of or are the children of God.
Question #18: But does not sanctification shine by its own light?
Answer: And does not the new birth too? Sometimes it does; and so does sanctification: at others it does not. In the hour of temptation Satan clouds the work of God, and injects various doubts and reasonings, especially in those who have either very weak or very strong understandings. At such times there is absolute need of that witness; without which the work of sanctification not only could not be discerned, but could no longer subsist. Were it not for this, the soul could not then abide in the love of God; much less could it rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks. In these circumstances, therefore, a direct testimony that we are sanctified is necessary in the highest degree.
“But I have no witness that I am saved from sin. And yet I have no doubt of it.”
Very well: as long as you have no doubt, it is enough; when you have, you will need that witness.
Question #19: But what scripture makes mention of any such thing, or gives any reason to expect it?
Answer: That scripture, “We have received, not the spirit that is of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we may know the things which are freely given us of God” (I Corinthians ii. 12).
Now surely sanctification is one of “the things which are freely given us of God.” And no possible reason can be assigned why this should be excepted, when the apostle says, “We receive the Spirit” for this very end, “that we may know the things which are” thus “freely given us.”
Is not the same thing implied in that well-known scripture, “The Spirit itself witnesseth with our spirit, that we are the children of God”? (Romans viii. 16). Does He witness this only to those who are children of God in the lowest sense? Nay, but to those also who are such in the highest sense. And does He not witness that they are such in the highest sense? What reason have we to doubt it?
What if a man were to affirm (as indeed many do) that this witness belongs only to the highest class of Christians? Would you not answer, “The apostle makes no restriction; therefore, doubtless, it belongs to all the children of God”? And will not the same answer hold, if any affirm that it belongs only to the lowest class?
Consider likewise I John v. 19: “We know that we are of God.” How? “By the Spirit that He hath given us.” Nay, “hereby we know that He abideth in us” [1 John 3:24; 4:13]. And what ground have we, either from Scripture or reason, to exclude the witness, any more than the fruit, of the Spirit, from being here intended? By this then also “we know that we are of God,” and in what sense we are so; whether we are babes, young men, or fathers [1 John 2:12-14], we know in the same manner.
Not that I affirm that all young men, or even fathers, have this testimony every moment. There may be intermissions of the direct testimony that they are thus born of God; but those intermissions are fewer and shorter as they grow up in Christ; and some have the testimony, both of their justification and sanctification, without any intermission at all; which I presume more might have, did they walk humbly and closely with God.
Question #20: May not some of them have a testimony from the Spirit, that they shall not finally fall from God?
Answer: They may. And this persuasion, that neither life nor death shall separate them from Him, far from being hurtful, may in some circumstance be extremely useful. These, therefore, we should in nowise grieve, but earnestly encourage them to “hold the beginning of their confidence steadfast to the end” [Hebrews 3:14].
Question #21: But have any a testimony from the Spirit that they shall never sin?
Answer: We know not what God may vouchsafe to some particular persons; but we do not find any general state described in Scripture, from which a man cannot draw back to sin. If there were any state wherein this was impossible, it would be that of those who are sanctified, who are “fathers in Christ” who “rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks” [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18]; but it is not impossible for these to draw back. They who are sanctified, yet may fall and perish (Heb. x. 29). Even fathers in Christ need that warning: “Love not the world” (I John ii. 15). They who “rejoice, pray,” and “give thanks without ceasing,” may, nevertheless, “quench the Spirit” (I Thess. v. 16, etc.). Nay, even those who are “sealed unto the day of redemption” may yet “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. iv. 30).
Although, therefore, God may give such a witness to some particular persons, yet it is not to be expected by Christians in general; there being no scripture whereon to ground such an expectation.
Question #22: By what “fruit of the Spirit” may we “know that we are of God,” even in the highest sense?
Answer: By love, joy, peace, always abiding; by invariable long-suffering, patience, resignation; by gentleness, triumphing over all provocation; by goodness, mildness, sweetness, tenderness of spirit; by fidelity, simplicity, godly sincerity; by meekness, calmness, evenness of spirit; by temperance, not only in food and sleep, but in all things natural and spiritual [Galatians 5:22-23].
Question #23: But what great matter is there in this? Have we not all this when we are justified?
Answer: What! total resignation to the will of God, without any mixture of self-will? gentleness without any touch of anger, even the moment we are provoked? love to God, without the least love to the creature, but in and for God, excluding all pride? love to man, excluding all envy, all jealousy and rash judging? meekness, keeping the whole soul inviolably calm? and temperance in all things? Deny that any ever came up to this, if you please; but do not say, all who are justified do.
Question #24: But some who are newly justified do. What, then, will you say to these?
Answer: If they really do, I will say they are sanctified; saved from sin in that moment; and that they never need lose what God has given, or feel sin any more.
But certainly this is an exempt case. It is otherwise with the generality of those that are justified: they feel in themselves more or less pride, anger, and self-will, a heart bent to backsliding. And, till they have gradually mortified [Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5] these, they are not fully renewed in love.
Question #25: But is not this the case of all that are justified? Do they not gradually die to sin and grow in grace, till, at or perhaps a little before death, God perfects them in love?
Answer: I believe this is the case of most, but not all. God usually gives a considerable amount of time for men to receive light, to grow in grace, to do and suffer His will, before they are either justified or sanctified; but He does not invariably adhere to this; sometimes He “cuts short His work” [Romans 9:28]: He does the work of many years in a few weeks; perhaps in a week, a day, an hour. He justifies or sanctifies both those who have done or suffered nothing, and who have not had time for gradual growth either in life or grace. And “may He not do what He will with His own? Is thine eye evil because He is good?” [Matthew 20:15]
It need not, therefore, be affirmed over and over, and proved by forty texts of Scripture, either that most men are perfected in love at last, that there is a gradual work of God in the soul, or that, generally speaking, it is a long time, even many years, before sin is destroyed. All this we know: but we know likewise, that God may, with man’s good leave, “cut short His work,” in whatever degree He pleases, and do the usual work of many years in a moment. He does so in many instances; and yet there is a gradual work, both before and after that moment, so that one may affirm the work is gradual, another it is instantaneous, without any manner of contradiction.
Question #26: Does St. Paul mean any more by being “sealed with the Spirit,” than being “renewed in love”?
Answer: Perhaps in one place (2 Cor. i. 22) he does not mean so much; but in another (Eph. i. 13) he seems to include both the fruit and the witness; and that in a higher degree than we experience even when we are first “renewed in love.” God “sealeth us with the Spirit of promise,” by giving us “the full assurance of hope” [Hebrews 6:11]; such a confidence of receiving all the promises of God, as excludes the possibility of doubting; with that Holy Spirit, by universal holiness, stamping the whole image of God on our hearts.
Question #27: But how can those who are thus sealed, “grieve the Holy Spirit of God”? [Ephesians 4:30]
Answer: St. Paul tells you very particularly—
- By such conversation as is not profitable, not to the use of edifying, not apt to minister grace to the hearers [Ephesians 4:29].
- By relapsing into bitterness, or want of kindness [v. 31].
- By wrath, lasting displeasure, or want of tenderheartedness [vv. 31-32].
- By anger, however soon it is over; want of instantly forgiving one another [vv. 31-32].
- By clamour or bawling, loud, harsh, rough speaking [v. 31].
- By evil-speaking, whispering, tale-bearing; needlessly mentioning the fault of an absent person, though in ever so soft a manner [v. 31].
Question #28: What do you think of those in London, who seem to have been lately “renewed in love”?
Answer: There is something very peculiar in the experience of the greater part of them. One would expect that a believer should first be filled with love, and thereby emptied of sin; whereas these were emptied of sin first, and then filled with love. Perhaps it pleased God to work in this manner, to make His work more plain and undeniable; and to distinguish it more clearly from that overflowing love which is often felt even in a justified state.
It seems likewise most agreeable to the great promise: “From all your filthiness I will cleanse you; a new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you” (Ezek. xxxvi. 25,26).
But I do not think of them all alike: there is a wide difference between some of them and others. I think most of them with whom I have spoken, have much faith, love, joy, and peace. Some of these, I believe, are renewed in love, and have the direct witness of it; and they manifest the fruit above described, in all their words and actions. Now let any man call this what he will, it is what I call perfection.
But some who have much love, peace, and joy, yet have not the direct witness; and others who think they have, are, nevertheless, manifestly wanting in the fruit. How many, I will not say—perhaps one in ten; perhaps more or fewer. But some are undeniably wanting in long-suffering, Christian resignation. They do not see the hand of God in whatever occurs, and cheerfully embrace it. They do not in everything give thanks, and rejoice evermore. They are not happy; at least not always happy; for sometimes they complain. They say this or that is hard.
Some are wanting in gentleness. They resist evil, instead of turning the other cheek. They do not receive reproach with gentleness; no, nor even reproof. Nay, they are not able to bear contradiction without the appearance, at least, of resentment. If they are reproved or contradicted though mildly, they do not take it well; they behave with more distance and reserve than they did before. If they are reproved or contradicted harshly, they answer it with harshness; with a loud voice, or with an angry tone, or in a sharp and surly manner. They speak sharply or roughly when they reprove others; and behave roughly to their inferiors.
Some are wanting in goodness. They are not kind, mild, sweet, amiable, soft, and loving at all times, in their spirit, in their words, in their look and air, in the whole tenor of their behaviour; and that to all, high and low, rich and poor, without respect of persons; particularly to them that are out of the way, to opposers, and to those of their own household. They do not long, study, endeavour by every means to make all about them happy. They can see them uneasy, and not be concerned; perhaps they make them so; and then wipe their mouths, and say, “Why, they deserve it; it is their own fault.”
Some are wanting in fidelity; a nice regard to truth, simplicity, and godly sincerity. Their love is hardly without dissimulation [Romans 12:9]; something like guile is found in their mouth [1 Peter 2:22; Revelation 14:5]. To avoid roughness, they lean to the other extreme. They are smooth to an excess, so as scarce to avoid a degree of fawning, or of seeming to mean what they do not.
Some are wanting in meekness, quietness of spirit, composure, evenness of temper. They are up and down, sometimes high, sometimes low; their mind is not well balanced. Their affections are either not in due proportion—they have too much of one, too little of another; or they are not duly mixed and tempered together, so as to counterpoise each other. Hence there is often a jar. Their soul is out of tune, and cannot make the true harmony.
Some are wanting in temperance. They do not steadily use that kind and degree of food which they know, or might know, would most conduce to the health, strength, and vigour of the body: or they are not temperate in sleep; they do not rigorously adhere to what is best both for body and mind; otherwise they would constantly go to bed and rise early, and at a fixed hour: or they sup late, which is neither good for body nor soul: or they use neither fasting nor abstinence: or they prefer (which are so many sorts of intemperance) that preaching, reading, or conversation, which gives them transient joy and comfort, before that which brings them godly sorrow, or instruction in righteousness. Such joy is not sanctified; it doth not tend to, and terminate in, the crucifixion of the heart. Such faith doth not centre in God, but rather in itself.
So far all is plain. I believe you have faith, and love, and joy, and peace. Yet, you who are particularly concerned know each for yourself that you are wanting in the respects above mentioned. You are wanting either in long-suffering, gentleness, or goodness; either in fidelity, meekness, or temperance. Let us not then, on either hand, fight about words. In the thing we clearly agree.
You have not what I call perfection: if others will call it so, they may. However, hold fast what you have, and earnestly pray for what you have not.
- I mean, it is not the condition either of present or future salvation. ↩