John Wesley: Sin in a Framework of Perfection

Introduction 

From the beginning of his ministry, John Wesley has continuously encountered opposition against his adherence to Christian perfection. Wesley preached several sermons on the topic and published a number of well-articulated tracts and books in his defense. Still, serious biblical and theological disagreement confronted him from almost every direction. Despite the variegated nature of the disagreements directed at Wesley, few efforts have sought to examine Christian perfection through the means of his definition of sin. Did Wesley advocate for a biblical understanding of sin in his defense of Christian perfection? Do the biblical authors speak of sin in a similar manner as Wesley? How Wesley comprehends and defines sin in relation to the perfected Christian is an imperative element in evaluating the truthfulness of the doctrine of Christian perfection. Therefore, the following will seek to provide an examination of John Wesley’s definition of sin and its overall relation to the doctrine of Christian perfection —concentration intentionally aimed at his understanding of sin in the daily endeavors of the perfected Christian. In the end, an examination of John Wesley exhibits a narrow redefinition of sin neatly packaged to accommodate a framework of perfection.

 

Wesley and his Framework of Christian Perfection

Wesley was first exposed to the doctrine of Christian perfection at the age of twenty-three. It was the pious work of Jeremy Taylor, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying, which initially oriented Wesley’s heart towards a holy devotion to God. Wesley was so challenged by the exhortation that he found in Taylor’s writing that he immediately pledged to dedicate all of his being to God [1]. In the coming years, Wesley continued to encounter a number of influential works that further aided his adoption of Christian perfection. However, the turning point for Wesley was his encounter with William Law’s Exhortation to Christian perfection and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy life. Wesley writes of these two influential works, “These convinced me more than ever . . . and I determined, through His grace (the absolute necessity of which I was deeply sensible of), to be all-devoted to God, to give Him all my soul, my body, and my substance” [2]

Motivated by the substantive nature of Christian perfection, Wesley was deeply determined to bring his theological conviction to the public square. The Character of a Methodist was Wesley’s first published attempt at packaging the doctrine of Christian perfection for the use of the average churchman. This little booklet was a clear proclamation of Christian perfection and more specifically Wesley’s description of the perfect Christian. Wesley writes,

For none can take from him what he desires, seeing his love is not of the world nor any of the things of the world . . . being dead to all that is in the world, both to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life . . . For as he loves God, so he keeps His commandments; not only some, or most of them but all, from the least to the greatest . . . He is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God as revealed in the written Word. He thinks, speaks, and lives according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ. His soul is renewed after the image of God in righteousness and in all true holiness. And having the mind that was in Christ, he walks as Christ also walked [3].

As opposition continued to come against Wesley the articulation of his convictions became more clearly defined and more expressly solidified. Wesley preached several sermons in defense of Christian perfection and published a number of well-documented tracts and books. Despite the difficulty that one discovers in finding a clear and consistent definition of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, it is within these public declarations that one gleans the most developed understanding of his theological proclamations. For Wesley, Christian perfection is contained in, overflows from, and is motivated by one’s holy devotion and unwavering heart of love for God [4]. Moreover, Wesley understood Christian perfection as the universal holiness of the Christian life, both an inward and outward righteousness [5]. Wesley asserts, “Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness: that they are now in such a sense perfect as not to commit sin and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers” [6]. Thus for Wesley, Christian perfection entails complete freedom from all sin, liberation from self-willed desires, and deliverance from all unrighteous thoughts and inclinations.

 

Wesley and his Structure of Sin

The doctrine of Christian perfection naturally encouraged much discussion regarding the nature of sin in the life of the perfected Christian. Wesley encountered a number of thought-provoking questions that continued to challenge him to further articulate his theological beliefs. How could every conceivable function of an individual be governed by perfection and yet be subject to so many shortcomings and imperfections? Furthermore, how could an individual truly experience freedom from all sin and yet continue to make everyday mistakes and errors? For Wesley, the doctrine of Christian perfection was never characterized by an exemption from shortcomings such as ignorance, mistakes, infirmities, and temptations [7]. He rightly recognized that there are certain ongoing traits in the life of the perfected Christian that continue to exhibit a clear appearance of sin, but yet they remain guilt-free and distinct from an actual transgression. Leo G. Cox helpfully categorizes this important aspect of the Wesleyan understanding of sin as characteristic of a fallen nature of man. Cox writes, “Wesley did not include in his definition of sin in believers everything that might appear to be sin in the believer’s life. . . . there still remains those shortcomings, failures, and mistakes, which are common to our fallen, human nature” [8]. Thus, Wesley’s view of Christian perfection acknowledged that the fallen nature of man continuously produced traits in one’s life that appeared sinful, but such traits were not to be considered actual sin.

Wesley carefully divided sin into two general categories: (1) “sin, properly so called (that is, a voluntary transgression of a known law),” and (2) “sin, improperly so called (that is, an involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown)” [9]. The former category, according to Wesley was understood as an intentional “transgression of any commandment of God acknowledged to be such at the time that it is transgressed” [10] The interpersonal nature of one’s acknowledgment prior to the transgression provides an important distinction in the Wesleyan thought concerning sin. R. L. Shelton explains, “In contrast to Augustine’s Platonic view of sin as being inseparably related to concupiscence and the body, Wesley saw it as a perverted relationship to God” [11]. Furthermore, the latter category afforded Wesley an opportunity to recognize various limitations in the life of the perfected Christian. While these involuntary transgressions have little practical importance in the daily endeavors of the perfected Christian, for Wesley this was an essential component to his defense of Christian perfection and it’s relationship to his doctrine of sin.

So, did Wesley advocate for a biblical understanding of the doctrine of sin in his defense of Christian perfection? Do the biblical authors speak of sin in a similar manner as Wesley? Having now briefly examined the nature of Wesley’s view concerning Christian perfection and sin, attention will now be directed to the overall framework and faithfulness of his outspoken conclusion. However, before seeking to scrutinize Wesley’s assertions it will first be necessary to briefly illustrate the biblical doctrine of sin—the universal, guilt-ridden, all-reaching corruption of the human race.

           

Biblical Extent of Man’s Corruption

The unified declaration of the Bible recognizes that every aspect of the human nature—body, soul, mind, heart, and will—continues to be corrupted by the disastrous result of the Edenic Fall. Consistent with the biblical authors before him, Herman Bavinck carefully details the severity of this event as an all-encompassing reality to the present human condition:

The first sin, the sin for which our original human ancestors are responsible, has had calamitous consequences for them as well as all their descendants and unleashed a flood of misery on the human race. In consequence, humanity as a whole, and every person, in particular, is burdened with guilt, defiled, and subject to ruin and death [12].

Subsequent to the Edenic Fall mankind continued to exemplify the wicked nature inherited from Adam. Sin had successfully darkened every inch of human existence, including the very heart of man—the innermost being of his nature that functions as the driving force of his every desire and deed. The author of Genesis gruelingly chronicles the truthfulness of this reality, declaring, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5) [13]. Likewise, Jeremiah universally proclaims, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). Furthermore, Jesus fully recognizes the sinful production of man’s corrupted heart, declaring, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander” (Matt. 15:19).

Sin is an unavoidable epidemic that has universally infected the human race. Historically the Christian church has largely understood the nature of sin as indivisible from the human existence—an all-consuming blemish that is intrinsically connected to the everyday experience and reality of human life. As Augustine carefully explains, “everyone, even little children, have broken God’s covenant, not indeed in virtue of any personal action but in virtue of mankind’s common origin in that single ancestor in whom all have sinned” [14]. Accordingly, Augustus H. Strong sought to define sin in light of a threefold representativeness that encompassed all human endeavors. Strong plainly writes, “Sin is lack of conformity to the moral law of God, either in act, disposition, or state” [15]. Wayne Grudem describes the essence and extent of sin in comparable terms, writing, “sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature” [16]. Thus, the biblical doctrine of sin not only includes the outward actions and inward inclinations of man that are overtly contrary to the moral command of God, but also includes the motivating factor that is responsible for the production of such rebellion—the heart.

 

Examining the Wesleyan Distinction

While the biblical definition of sin remains largely unified in scope, Wesley sought to formulate a functional distinction to provide the necessary room needed for his doctrine of Christian perfection. For Wesley, there was an overarching theme in the Bible that endlessly pointed him to the reality of Christian perfection. Thus, the doctrine of sin thus required a proper articulation that was cohesive with these biblical demands. Wesley sought to eliminate the apparent dichotomy by intentionally reducing the doctrine of sin to only voluntary transgressions, and thus discharging any form of guilt or condemnation from an involuntary demonstration of the fallen nature. Thomas C. Oden rightly identifies the foundational necessity of such distinction to the overall framework of Wesley’s argument. Oden writes, “If one uncritically defines perfection as a simple state of freedom from sin attainable in earthly life without qualifying how freedom from sin differs from finitude or ignorance or error or infirmity, then the doctrine . . . [becomes] a laughable straw man waiting to be knocked down” [17]. It is here that the weakness of Wesley’s theological endeavor is most noticeably exposed.

First and foremost, the biblical authors never discuss the nature of sin in a manner that would necessitate a distinction between voluntary and involuntary sin. Still Wesley frequently makes use of a number of biblical passages as support for his vital distinction. But even a brief examination of such passages hardly functions to prove Wesley’s dogmatic conclusion. An important example is found in Matthew 1:21—“He will save his people from their sins.” According to Wesley, this angelic declaration was a foreshadow of complete “salvation from sin, from all sin, [and] is another description of perfection” [18]. But did Matthew really intend for his audience to conclude this statement as a theological announcement in favor of Christian perfection? Was Matthew’s intent to substantiate a defense of Christian perfection in this life by distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary sins? For Matthew, the primary intention of this declaration is recognizably intertwined into the overall purpose of his gospel narrative: (1) to provide a functional description of Jesus’ God-given name, and (2) to place emphasis on the messianic fulfillment of Jesus’ incarnational ministry. Thus, David L. Turner rightly clarifies, “The name Jesus (Ἰησοῦς) fits the predicted mission of Jesus. . . . By naming him Ἰησοῦς, Joseph will be making a statement about Jesus’s redemptive mission” [19]. Unfortunately, there is nothing in this passage would necessitate or substantiate a Wesleyan distinction in the doctrine of sin, nor does it provide any warrant for the “salvation from sin” as Wesley adamantly defended.

Secondly, the writers of the early church completely lack discussion surrounding a distinction between voluntary and involuntary sin, particularly as it relates to the concept of Christian perfection. Countless examples could easily illustrate this point, however for the sake of space the following will be sufficient. Clement of Alexandria plainly states, “I know no one among men who is perfect in all things at once, as long as he is still human” [20]. Tertullian likewise proclaims, “God alone is without sin. And the only human without sin is Christ, since Christ is also God” [21]. Similarly, Cyprian of Carthage reminds his readers, “Lest anyone should flatter himself that he is innocent . . . he is instructed and taught that he sins daily. For he is told to pray daily for his sins” [22]. Methodius of Olympus also concludes, “No one can boast of being so free from sin as not even to have an evil thought” [23]. Furthermore, Lactantius explains, “No one can be without defect as long as he is burdened with a covering of flesh. For the infirmity of the flesh is subject to the dominion of sin in a threefold manner: in deeds, words, and thoughts” [25]. Of course, there is always a possibility that Wesley could have fundamentally agreed with these early declarations by his recognition of the continuous nature of infirmities and mistakes. However, the primary point here is that the means in which Wesley is able to recognize such attributes as anything other than actual sin are utterly unobservable among early Christianity.

Finally, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary transgressions only fabricates a false illusion of perfection amid the daily endeavors of the perfected Christian. If the sinful nature of man continues to remain in the Christian post-perfection, regardless of outward or inward transgressions being suppressed, such perfection is superficial at best. In what meaningful sense is an individual able to claim perfection if a remnant of imperfection—the fallen nature of man—continuously seeks to manifest itself in one’s everyday involvements? How can an individual be completely free from all inward and outward transgression, and yet remain in bondage to the lesser consequences of the very same nature—ignorance, mistakes, infirmities, and temptations? Wesley narrowly reduced the doctrine of sin to only known and voluntary transgressions, and intentionally removed any form of guilt or condemnation from an involuntary work of the fallen nature. Consequently, Wesley boldly declares with great transparency, “such [involuntary] transgressions you may call sins if you please; I do not” [25]. Norman L. Geisler accurately follows the weakness in Wesley’s dismissal to its necessary conclusion, declaring, “Wesley’s criteria for what qualifies as sin reveal that those who claim to have reached this state of sinless perfection are still sinning, only under another name for it. . . . What is this but a redefinition of sin so as to accommodate belief in an alleged state of sinlessness?” [26]. Consequently, while Wesley appropriately acknowledges the motivating factor behind involuntary transgression as sinful in nature, he seemingly dodges its implications out of a stronger desire to accommodate his belief in Christian perfection.

           

Conclusion

Through forcefully restricting the doctrine of sin to only voluntary transgressions of a known law, John Wesley was able to effectively embrace and defend his convictions regarding Christian perfection. But such revision was far from cohesive, and even further from biblical truth. The meritorious distinction that Wesley constructed between voluntary and involuntary sin is completely absent from having the Scriptural support needed to function as Christian dogma—a fact that is made more abundantly clear by the lack of documented discussion in the earliest writers of the Christian church. Furthermore, the intentional redefinition of the doctrine of sin painfully exposes a motivating presupposition in the desire of Wesley to arrive at the validity of Christian perfection. There is certainly much more than articulated here that could further aid communication and understanding concerning the complicated nature of Wesley’s doctrine of sin. Nonetheless, even the briefest of examinations effectively exhibit the unnatural conclusion of Wesley’s doctrine of sin—sin forced into a framework of perfection.


[1] John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” in The Essential Works of John Wesley: Selected Sermons, Essays, and Other Writings, ed. Alice Russie (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011), sec. 2.

[2] Wesley, “Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” sec. 4.

[3] John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist,” in The Essential Works of John Wesley: Selected Sermons, Essays, and Other Writings, ed. Alice Russie (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011), sec. 10-17.

[4] John Wesley, “Sermon LXXVI. On Perfection,” in The Essential Works of John Wesley: Selected Sermons, Essays, and Other Writings, ed. Alice Russie (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011), sec. I.4.

[5] Ibid., sec. I.8.

[6] John Wesley, “Sermon XL. Christian Perfection,” in The Essential Works of John Wesley: Selected Sermons, Essays, and Other Writings, ed. Alice Russie (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011), sec. II.28.

[7] John Wesley, “Affirming the Faith: ‘To the Law and to the Testimony!’ An Ernest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” in The Essential Works of John Wesley: Selected Sermons, Essays, and Other Writings, ed. Alice Russie (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011), sec. 55.

[8] Leo G. Cox, “John Wesley’s Concept of Sin,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 5, no. 1 (Winter 1962): 23.

[9] Wesley, “Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” sec. 19.

[10] John Wesley, “Sermon XIX. The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God,” in The Essential Works of John Wesley: Selected Sermons, Essays, and Other Writings, ed. Alice Russie (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011), sec. II.2.

[11] R. L. Shelton, “Perfection, Perfectionism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 906.

[12] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.), 78.

[13] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).

[14] Augustine, City of God, 16.27.

[15] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 549.

[16] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 490.

[17] Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit: Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 1992), 231.

[18] Wesley, “On Perfection,” sec. I.8.

[19] David L. Turner, Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 68.

[20] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, bk. IV, chap. XXI.

[21] Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, chap. XLI.

[22] Cyprian, On the Lord’s Prayer, sec. 22

[23] Methodius, Discourse on the Resurrection, pt. 1, sec. V.

[24] Lactantius, Divine Institutes, bk. VI, chap. XIII.

[25] Wesley, “Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” sec. 19

[26] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, Sin, Salvation, (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2004.), 240.

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