The doctrine of perfectionism is very prominent in some of our churches today. The holiness movement is often found in some of the charismatic movements of today, and it is equally often traced back to John Wesley. And it of course is found heavily in the Methodist movement itself, but the doctrine itself also predates Wesley by many years, even centuries. I do not personally ascribe to the doctrine of perfectionism, but I also think, and will attempt to show, that Wesley was often very careful to nuance his definitions of sinless perfectionism to fit a more common Biblical understanding. Says Randy Alcorn, “This teaching has, at various times, had considerable prominence. There are some branches of Wesleyan, Pentecostal and Keswick thought that teach this. There are several passages of Scripture we can look at that I think make clear this doctrine of sinless perfectionism is incorrect. I believe it to be a false doctrine.”
The history of this doctrine, its development and growth, is far beyond the scope of this three-page answer, but it is not beyond the scope of this answer to write about the error, why it is an error, and the more correct doctrine to follow. For the sake of brevity, I will borrow from Wesley and his followers, though it is important to remember that Wesley did not originate this doctrine.
In writing about errant doctrines, it is important to remember that as far as faith goes these believers caught in this errant doctrine are brothers and sisters in Christ, and most of them, if not all, were probably Christians living a far better life than I am able to live. There is a famous quote ascribed at different times to either Spurgeon or Whitefield (contemporaries) about Wesley. The quote talks about one day when we shall all be in heaven together, and up close to Jesus, almost in the inner circle, shall be Wesley, while Spurgeon (or Whitefield) pictures himself as being so far away as to barely be able to espy Wesley. Spurgeon and Whitefield both knew Wesley to be a brother in the Lord, and quarreled with his doctrines, not with his example of holy living, nor with his foundation of faith in Christ.
These are 22 questions the members of John Wesley’s Holy Club asked themselves every day in their private devotions over 200 years ago:
1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
3. Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
4. Can I be trusted?
5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
7. Did the Bible live in me today?
8. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
9. Am I enjoying prayer?
10. When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
11. Do I pray about the money I spend?
12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
13. Do I disobey God in anything?
14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
17. How do I spend my spare time?
18. Am I proud?
19. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
22. Is Christ real to me?1
If anyone were to ask these questions seriously of themselves each day, would not better behavior be a probable result? I think it obviously so, and yet in asking that question the very error of the doctrine should become more apparent. If I were to make a list of things that I wanted to happen in my life, I might (with more diligence than I probably have) find success in staying away from those things, but I would have to ask what about all the things I had not listed? Would I be perfect because of such a list?
It is interesting to note that Wesley when questioned about this doctrine would not claim perfection. His lifestyle had much diligence in it to do the right thing, and undoubtedly he spent more hours of each day in prayer and study, in devotion and teaching than you and I would in a month. Yet, tellingly, he would not claim this perfection state for himself. He did, however, postulate that a man “could” and should become perfect as he continued to live to the Lord each day. He speculated that such perfection might happen towards the end of one’s Christian life, but then corrected himself, saying that it might even happen much earlier. I do not find much to disagree with him about when he temporizes so much, and, at any rate, it was those who came after him—following his doctrine—that began to error more grievously.
American Christianity is so lukewarm. I do indeed worry about the admonition in Revelation not to be lukewarm, and I think that worry originates from a study of our forefathers. Wesley was not at all alone in his struggle for piety. Luther, Calvin, and even Edwards disciplined themselves most severely, constantly seeking to do more in terms of service to God. In fact, Luther, Edwards, and Wesley all three had something common in their struggle for piety—all three severely disciplined themselves for a long time before they even became Christians. Luther went to “extra” confessions, trying in vain to remove his burden of sin. Edwards pressed hard for salvation, his zeal sharp, until in his last year of divinity school found assurance of God’s salvation. So zealous was Edwards that he wrote his wonderful resolutions as a young man (his resolutions make excellent reading for young men), before he even had assurance of salvation. Wesley actually came to America before he was a Christian, trying to be a missionary to the Indians, all before he became a Christian. The structure of life was very harsh, and these men kept figurative whips on their backs all the time to induce themselves to do more. Eventually all three of these men came to recognize that salvation did depend on God alone, but they still were powerfully motivated to discipline themselves to live a pious life. Today, Americans live easily, trusting in His Grace (as they should), but have lost most of the motivation to live a complete life before him.
In Romans 8:13, Paul tells us, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Almost all of our well-known Christian forefathers were zealous in “mortifying” the deeds of the body. We should do well to let their example spur us on to better deeds, but having said that, perfection in us is fundamentally not possible while we continue in these bodies of flesh. The problem comes in when we have a literal checklist—like the Wesleyan one up above—or when we have a mental check list that we try to monitor our behavior with. I think it is human nature, at least in me, to give myself “stars” of accomplishment when I successfully do something. And at least with me, I find that my improved behavior makes me feel better about myself, and then, before I know it, pride rears her ugly head and I fail all over again. I think it safe to say that most of us have experienced this miserable jump upwards, only to have the long fall coming afterwards.
But I think it goes even deeper than that. Why would I ever think that I could change my whole nature by following a checklist? And here I do need to be careful. People live wonderfully exemplary lives, and some of them undoubtedly do follow checklists. I am not at all trying to say there is not room for a great deal of improvement—at least in me. What I am trying to uncover is that sinful pattern that I am stained with until the coming of the Lord. When I make myself appear better that may be all well and good for the sake of the church and the others who have to suffer me, but there is always great danger in having a grand and bright testimony, but not changing the base darkness much at all. In fact, does not Lucifer do just that? He appears as an angel of light, yet his wickedness is unparalleled.
Far be it from me! I would not appear as any angel of light, but find my simple peace in presenting to the world the Light of the world, and that ought to be enough for me. Let us all acknowledge with Paul that we are the chiefs of sinners, never forgetting that, but with that confession let us do better in pursuing the high calling of God. In just a short time much that we see as reality will pass away, and our lives will be forever changed. How that ought to motivate us towards doing better now!