John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection is most-times misunderstood by its opponents.  John Wesley never taught that Christians should be sinless or could achieve sinlessness in this life.  John Wesley believed that sinless Christian perfection occurs at glorification, not in this life.  Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, on the contrary, asserted that believers could be free from volitional sin.  Wesley believed that the human heart and will of the believer, by the work of Christ, could be fully aligned with God’s will.  In other words, Wesley believed that believers could be free from the dominion of sin by the grace of God.  Wesley believed that even though humanity suffers from total depravity, that the death and resurrection of Christ is enough to regenerate the will of the believer.  That believers, through the power of the Holy Spirit[1], could resist temptation and live a life fully devoted to God.  In turn, this does not mean that believers do not commit involuntary sin.

Wesley’s Christian Perfection emerges within the theological and historical context of the reformed tradition.  The reformed tradition, namely five-point Calvinism, is opposed to Wesleyan doctrine on a number of fronts.  To begin, Wesley fully agreed with the reformed tradition on the doctrine of total depravity. Wesley disagreed, however, with unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.  Wesley believed that these doctrines of Calvinism neglected the role of human free will in salvation.  Free will, for Wesley, was critically important because of his understanding of holy love.  Salvation occurred within a loving relationship.  How can one be in a loving relationship without having free will?  Wesley understood Calvinist doctrine to adhere to strongly to the judicial metaphor and too often neglect the familial and nuptial metaphors for salvation.

This is an important distinction to make.  Wesley did not agree with the eastern theological tradition that rejected the doctrine of total depravity on the grounds that the image of God cannot be totally depraved in man.  Wesley believed that nothing good remained in humanity that gave one the ability to respond to the work of Christ.  Wesley writes:

“The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself by his own natural strength and good works to faith and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God preventing us that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will” (Article 8 of Wesley’s four Articles of Religion; emphasis mine).

Here it is apparent that Wesley agreed with Arminius on the doctrine of prevenient grace which is the grace of God that regenerates enough morality in the human heart that allows humanity to still recognize the difference between good and evil.  It is this grace that provides one who is totally depraved with the possibility to respond to the work of Christ.

So Wesley’s prevenient grace restores a moral fiber in the hearts of men; just enough of a fiber that allows for humanity to respond to the divine gift.  There is just enough of human free will activated so as to allow an opportunity to choose the God of love who does not coerce estranged loved ones back into his family.  Wesley’s development of the doctrine of prevenient grace leaves room for total depravity while simultaneously maintaing enough function of the human free will so as to avoid a paradigm of salvation that prohibits the image of God in humanity to function with limits via grace.  Because the responsibility of humanity in salvation is entirely dependent on God’s prevenient grace, humanity has no place to boast in their salvation.  With Wesley’s tradition and presentation of prevenient grace, sola fida, sola gatia.

Wesley’s discomfort with Calvin’s doctrine extended beyond the role of human free will in salvation.  Wesleyan soteriology is also uncomfortable with Calvin’s doctrine because left room for the dominion of sin in the lives of God’s people.  According to Calvinism, one can be “saved” but still live like hell.  A person can continue to live under the domination of sin and be one of God’s chosen elect.  On the other hand, those that God has not chosen can try in all of their strength to accomplish the will of God but will always come up short.  Wesley did not see this sort of way of thinking to be in agreement with Scripture. Calvinism’s view of justification way outweighs the role of sanctification in salvation.  Wesley felt that the reformed tradition allowed the fallen-ness of man to dominate their soteriology over and above the risen-ness of Christ.

Wesley, in his doctrine of Christian perfection, argues that the death and resurrection of Christ is enough.  Why should God lower his standard of morality because of the weakness of humanity?  Rather than lowering his moral standard, God “will tax the remotest star and the last grain of sand to assist us” in maintaining his standard – in this life (Chambers 1927).  To suggest that believers will always live under the dominion of sin is to lessen the power of the cross.  The death and resurrection of Christ is enough to free believers from the power of sin.  This does not mean, however, that believers will be sinless.  This does mean that believers will not be controlled by sin like puppets on strings.  Power will be made available to believers through Holy Spirit to stand up to temptation.  Again, what we have here in Wesleyan soteriology is a view of humanity in the risen-ness of Christ rather than the fallen-ness of man.

It is critical at this point to also note that Wesley never taught that Christians would not be tempted.  Temptation would always be something that the believer faced in life (like Christ).  However, in the face of temptation, God makes power available through the Holy Spirit to overcome the temptation.  Even the possibility of temptation itself is in support of Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace.  If prevenient grace were not a reality, then how would Christians identify good and evil?  The ability to even distinguish between good and evil, Wesley argues, is because of the grace of God.  If God’s grace is available enough to distinguish between good and evil in the heart of the believer, then his grace will also be enough to help believers to overcome sin.  Again, Wesley taught that believers could be free from the dominion of sin not that believers can be sinless.

So what about Romans 7?  Wesley interprets Romans 7 to be Paul’s description of life that has yet to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit (such a life described in Romans 6 and 8).  Romans 7 describes what it is like to be under the dominion of sin; to live without the divine power which raises the believer above falling into temptation.  To interpret Romans 7 as Paul describing the normal Christian life means being in conflict with Paul’s commands to believers in Romans 6 and 8 to be free from the dominion of sin.  How can Paul command believers not to submit their members to sin on the one hand (Romans 6) then tell them that it is impossible to do such in Romans 7?  To assume (because of Paul’s use of the present tense) that Paul is describing the average Christian life in Romans 7 is to make humanity identify with the falleness of man over the riseness of Christ.

The death and resurrection of Christ is enough for believers to live free from the dominion of sin today.  While in this life (prior to the second coming and glorification of believers) there will always be a battle in the form of temptation, Christ can win the battle through his righteousness manifest in us via grace and the Holy Spirit.  The same Spirit that helped Christ to resist temptation is available to believers when faced with temptation.  This life will have its struggles, but power to overcome is promised for as we face temptation today.  The Holy Spirit, it does not seem, would convict the world of sin and not offer a means by which to overcome that sin.  The Holy Sprit convicts the world of sin then glorifies Jesus by offering the life of Christ in and through believers to live victorious from the dominion of sin.  Christian perfection, according to Wesley, is simply Scriptural Christianity.

[1] This is the same Holy Spirit that enabled Christ to resist temptation in his humanness.

Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary


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