Wisdom of Wesley: Christian Perfection

Philippians 3:7-21

7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. 15 So all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16 Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached.

Imitate Paul

17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

“The greatest single cause of atheism today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny him with their lifestyles. This is what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable.” These are the words of Brennan Manning, a Christian writer and priest. In many ways, they echo a sentiment that exists in our culture and our world. For many people, there is a dissonance and disconnect between the professed faith of Christians and our actions. People know that the fundamental message of Christ is one of love and grace and yet too often they see Christians who do not exhibit that love and grace in their lives.

One of the more controversially topics that John Wesley dealt with was on this question of Christian perfection. At its heart the question is this: how are our lives transformed as followers of Christ? Wesley’s own views on this subject were evolving. Earlier in his ministry, Wesley staked out a more extreme claim. He believed that once a person was saved that they were no longer able to sin. Through the grace of God and Christ’s death, a Christian is transformed and so is perfect in Christ. He clarifies that this perfection relates to sin, not an inability to make mistakes. Christians are capable of math errors or doing things wrong, but through grace they are not able to sin. His argument, made in the sermon “Christian Perfection” is largely based in the claims of scripture, that a person who has a new life in Christ will no longer sin.

Over time, Wesley’s views on this subject evolved. Given the abundance of good people who fail to live into perfection, this does not seem surprising. It does not seem too hard to see how even those of us who have had a transformative experience and have given our lives to Christ can still fall into temptation. Unfortunately, Christians are far from perfect. Wesley comes to recognize this later in his life and his views change.

One of my favorites phrases from Wesley is “moving on to perfection.” Every ordained United Methodist Clergy takes a vow that we hope to be made perfect in this life. While Wesley realized that conversion did not equal perfection, he still staked a claim that perfection was possible and should be sought after in this life. He believed that through God’s grace we could be perfect. Our lives then become a process of seeking after this perfection.

In doing so, I think Wesley is echoing the sentiments of Paul that we see in his letter to the Philippians. Paul both acknowledges his own fallen state and yet at the same time, thanks to God’s grace believes that he can seek after perfection. He challenges others to join him in this quest. Paul holds onto a tension that requires human effort towards perfection but still acknowledges the need for Christ to be at work in that transformation as well.

What Paul and Wesley understand and many in our culture do not is that Christianity is not about being perfect, but instead about seeking after perfection. The belief is not that as Christians we are perfect like Christ, but rather our goal is to seek to be more like Christ. We know that such perfection is not possible on our own, but instead requires God’s grace. Despite the perception, Christians are not holier than anyone else, but we seek to be. Not because we want to be better than others, but because we want to be more like Christ. Not because we need to be perfect to get to the next life, but because we have already been promised perfection in the next life and we want to live into in this life.

Christianity is a religion for broken people. Christianity is a religion for people who know that we cannot do it on our own. What the world often forgets is that the church is a mirror of the world. The same temptations, the same personalities, all of those things that exist in the world exist in the church. The difference between the church and the world is that we are not okay with it. We have come to recognize and acknowledge our brokenness. We have come to know that we are not as we should be and we want help.

This is where Christ comes in. Christ is the lifeline that we grasp after in our lives. We seek Christ because we know that without him we are lost. We know that we need Christ because we have been drowning without him. We have tried to be perfect, we have tried to do it on our own, and in the end, we have all failed. We have all fallen short. We have all sinned. We all need God’s grace to enter into our hearts.

The moment of our baptism is not the moment that are made perfect. For Paul and for Wesley, it is the moment that such perfection becomes possible. When we are baptized we accept the grace and love that God gives us. We reach out and take the hand that God has been offering to help us up. Now we stand, not on our own feet, but carried by Christ. Now, when we seek perfection, it is not through our own actions, but with the grace of God, and with God we know that anything is possible.

So, what are you doing to be made perfect in Christ? The challenge for Christians is to take that next step. Once we have seen our brokenness and we have asked for God’s help, what are we doing next? Paul challenges us to set aside our past and let go of our failings. Now instead we are supposed to seek after that call that God has placed in our hearts and reach for Christ who goes before us.

God has saved us and God has called us. We are not a perfect people. We are broken and we are human. Yet, through us, God is seeking to be at work in the world. Let us open ourselves up to be instruments of God’s peace and God’s grace. Let us take on the challenge and seek to be like Christ. It is in Christ that we can be made perfect, thanks be to God.

Questions to Ponder:

What does Christian perfection mean to you?

Who is someone who lives a faithful life that you might seek to emulate?

What challenges do you face in aspiring to be more like Christ?

Prayer:

God, you love us, you challenge us, and you forgive us. Give us the strength to respond to that call you have for our lives. Give us the courage to turn from our brokenness and accept your grace. Help us to know that all that we do is made possible through the grace and glory of your son, our savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen