Review: Christ and Covenant Theology

35847115Cornelis P. Venema is President and Professor of Doctrinal Studies at Mid-American Reformed Seminary. Venema has a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and is the author of several books, such as The Promise of the Future (Banner of Truth, 2000) and Getting the Gospel Right: An Assessment of the Reformation and ‘New Perspectives’ on Paul (Banner of Truth, 2006). He is also a co-editor and frequent contributor to The Outlook and the Mid-American Journal of Theology. Most recent, Venema has assembled together a number of useful essays summarizing and defending various aspects of Covenant Theology.

Christ and Covenant Theology: Essays on Election, Republication, and the Covenants is divided into three parts: (1) the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, (2) covenant and election, and (3) covenant theology in recent discussions. Part one offers an introduction to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, as Venema argues alongside Westminster Confession of Faith and distinguishes between a pre-fall and post-fall covenant. For Venema, the distinction between these two covenants is vital to understanding God’s redemptive purpose in the person and work of Christ. Part two focuses more narrowly on the topic of election within the realm of covenant. More specifically, as election and covenant relate to the children of believers. Part three seeks to address the contemporary discussions concerning justification and election more broadly within the arena of covenant. Most of Venema’s interaction is with the “Federal Vision” folks, although he does provide a fascinating essay examining N. T. Wright’s interpretation of Romans 5:12-21 as it relates to covenant and justification.

Christ and Covenant Theology is a classic treasure trove of Reformed riches. Those familiar with Venema will appreciate his keen ability to evaluate and examine contemporary issues in view of the confessional Reformed tradition. Venema is both judicious and accessible, though a working understanding of the Reformed confessional tradition is assumed. Still, while readers will likely gravitate towards one of the three parts, it’s interesting to see how Venema naturally allows the whole to hang together. This demonstrates the functional consistency of Venema’s theological conviction and displays his deep familiarity with the Reformed tradition. There will be inevitable disagreement that arises for those in opposition to Reformed theology as articulated by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nonetheless, most readers approaching this book should have a firm understanding of such differences prior to opening the initial pages. Additionally, it should be noted that most will agree that Venema provides some of the best, most reflective and persuasive material on the various topics intersecting with Covenant Theology.

Thus, agree with him or not, Christ and Covenant Theology: Essays on Election, Republication, and the Covenants by Cornelis P. Venema is nothing short of a must-read resource! It is a collection of essays that cannot be ignored.

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Review: Sons in the Son

31243443David B. Garner is vice president of advancement and associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS). Garner received his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary and PhD from WTS. He is author of How Can I Know for Sure?: Christian Answers to Hard Questions (P&R Publishing, 2014) and editor of the influential work Did God Really Say?: Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture (P&R Publishing, 2014). Garner is well-respected in the academic community and his many research interests culminate in a special concern for the interface of theology and missions. Most recently, Garner has written a classic theological exploration of doctrine adoption.

Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ is a groundbreaking examination of adoption in Pauline thought. Garner divides the study into three parts: (1) hermeneutic, history, and etymology, (2) exegetical and theological survey of key texts, and (3) biblical and systematic theology. This threefold division is intentionally oriented towards Garner’s goal of providing an examination of adoption that moves from divine revelation to theological refection, rather than social and cultural reconstruction to theological conclusion (p. xxv). It is also here that Garner offers a somewhat unique approach to the topic of adoption. In part one, Garner provides readers with a hermeneutical and historical-theological survey of adoption and an exceptional treatment of huiothesia. For Garner, huiothesia “captures the whole scope of filial grace enjoyed by means of the Spirit-wrought union with the resurrected Son of God” (p. 54). In part two, the readers are judiciously guided through the three major Pauline huiothesia passages, including Ephesians 1:3-6, Galatians 4:4-7, Romans 8:15-17 and 22-23. Finally, in part three, Garner gathers everything together and begins to uncover the systematic thread of adoption as it joins the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and the doctrine of salvation in the Ordo Salutis and union with Christ.

Sons in the Son is a phenomenal work, full of rich theological reflection and practical wisdom. The organization is appropriate for road traveled and readers will appreciate Garner’s detailed knowledge of the subject. Because the majority of literature on adoption is saturated with social and cultural reconstructions, some readers may be slightly dissatisfied with Garner’s theological approach. There is something to be said about the social and cultural practice of adoption in the Greco-Roman world and how such informed the biblical metaphor in Pauline thought, but the approach that Garner takes seems to offer a more sustainable reflection upon the overall scope behind the metaphor rather than the metaphor itself. That is, these perceived shortcomings are actually a strength when taken within context of the purpose of Garner’s exploration.

Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ by David B. Garner is both timely and timeless. Garner is comprehensive, clear, and readable. I’m honestly flabbergasted that other contemporary Reformed theological minds haven’t attempted to write this book. It’s so basic to the heart of the gospel. But, then again, I’m so very thankful that Garner was the one to do it! It is without a shadow of a doubt that Garner has written one of the most important books of 2017. If you’re looking for a book that with alter how you view and think about the relationship between salvation and Christ, then Sons in the Son should be at the top of your list. I couldn’t recommend it more strongly!

Review: The Essential Trinity

prpbooks-images-covers-md-9781629952987The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance edited by Brandon D. Crowe and Carl R. Trueman is a collection of essays by leading New Testament scholars and theologians who have built a career upon the importance of the Trinity to Christian doctrine— including well-known individuals, such as Richard Bauckham, Benjamin L. Gladd, and Michael Reeves. The essays offer a biblical-theological exploration through the New Testament and culminate with a number of essays that survey the practical relevance of the Trinity in the Christian life.

The Essential Trinity is naturally divided into the two parts detailed within its subtitle: (1) New Testament foundations and (2) practical relevance. The initial part comprises the majority of the book and each chapter takes on a specific New Testament subcorpus. For example, Brandon D. Crowe addresses the Trinity in the Gospel of Mark and Brian S. Rosner takes up Paul and the Trinity. The entire New Testament is handled in eight essays and the initial section closes with a brief essay on the Trinity and the Old Testament. The second section brings the exegetical rigor to a much-needed culmination with essays on the relevance of the Trinity to prayer, revelation, worship, and preaching. The second section does much to establish the widespread importance of Trinitarian theology to nearly every aspect of Christian existence.

The book itself is a refreshing treasure-trove of exegetical riches. The overall presentation and organization of the book is superb, and readers will appreciate the level of detail explored as a consistent witness is uncovered across the New Testament. Bauckham’s essay on the Gospel of John was phenomenal, as most will expect. That said, Jonathan I. Griffiths’ essay on Hebrews was among the best in the book. It is worth the price of the alone. Recognizing the scope of the volume as a New Testament engagement, readers should evaluate the major shortcoming of the book as minimally impactful—a lack of Old Testament engagement. There was a clears sense in the book of the value and importance of the Old Testament to the New Testament foundation that was explored, and some authors explicitly brought such into their essay (e.g. Benjamin Gladd on Revelation). It would have been extremely useful to see further exploration of the Old Testament Trinitarian themes that include Old Testament scholars both exploring shadows of the concept and putting to rest many of the misconceptions propagated in contemporary Christian thought. Again, this is a major shortcoming of the volume, but also recognizably beyond its scope.

The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance edited by Brandon D. Crowe and Carl R. Trueman is undoubtedly one of the most useful books on the Trinity in recent years. Apart from the shortcoming mentioned above, it is hard to think of a more well-rounded and exegetically sound engagement on the Trinity. It comes highly recommended!

Review: God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views

81MwvV6VpNLSome of the most helpful books in the field of biblical and theological studies have come in the form of multiview dialogs. These books are especially useful for laity looking to survey the landscape of ideas, and the format is exceptional for argument analysis. The most recent of these books, from the Spectrum Multiview Books series, seeks to address an age-old problem with a bit of modern flare—God and the problem of evil.

God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views edited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr. brings together five theological minds with very different views of God and the reconciliation of such to the existence of evil in the world. The book is comprised of two parts. Part one is a positive presentation of each of the five views. Phillip Cary represents the classical theist view, arguing that no evil takes place unless God permits it, and in doing so, his purpose is for a greater good to be brought about in the world. William Lane Craig represents the Molinist view, arguing that divine middle knowledge essentially becomes the solution to the problem. William Hasker represents the open theist view and argues that God created humanity as free creatures. Thus, it is impossible for him to know with certainty what they would do in any given situation. Thomas Oord represented a modified open theist view which he refers to as an essential kenosis view. Oord argues that God, for the sake of love, emptied (kenosis) himself of the ability to control the actions and effects of free creatures, and thus, is unable to stop evil from taking place. Lastly, Stephan Wykstra represents a more philosophically abstract approach to the problem of evil which is labeled the skeptical theism view.

The second part of the book comprises the responses of each contributor to the other contributors’ essays. Each response essay is brief and curated into a single chapter. For example, Cary’s response essay interacts with Craig, Hasker, Oord, and Wykstra in a single chapter. In my experience, the format of the book hasn’t provided as much room for interaction, and actually, makes the book more difficult to navigate then if the each response followed the positive presentation in the first section (e.g. each contributor interacts with a single view immediately following the positive presentation). Consequently, while the content of the interaction between the views is helpful, it is rather brief and sometimes seems outright dismissive (e.g. Hasker’s interaction with Carey). That said this is the biggest shortcoming to an otherwise excellent display of scholarly engagement on a very important and far reaching theological topic.

God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views edited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr. offers an up-to-date engagement with the current landscape on one of the most theologically problematic questions to meet the modern age: if an all-loving and all-powerful God exists, then why is there so much evil in the world? Despite the lackluster organization of the response section, the book shines with deep theological reflection and worthwhile interaction. It’s a well-done primer that I wouldn’t have any problem recommending to others interested in the topic. Trust me, its worth the reflection!

Review: Embodied Hope

91jQapQkEyLIf one thing is certain about life on earth, it’s that pain and suffering are inevitable realities regardless of who you are or where you grew up. There has been much Christian literature written to mend this reality and provide hope for a hurting world, and rightly so. But, few of these books have actually sought to share in the lament of human suffering, as they seem to be more focused on providing canned Christian answers that explain away the problem than actually dealing with the reality of suffering itself. Fortunately, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering by Kelly M. Kapic has provided a much-needed breath of fresh air that is both theologically grounded and biblically sensitive.

Kelly M Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Kapic received his PhD from King’s College, University of London and is the author or editor of several books, including A Little Book for New Theologians and Mapping Modern Theology.

Embodied Hope is somewhat of a personal memoir about pain and suffering in the life of the author. As Kapic notes, “although I have a PhD, I find that I rarely know what I think—really think—about something until I have had to write about it . . . therefore, after a few years, and under the encouragement of others—including my wife—I have aimed to wrestle through some of these questions in a more public manner” (p. 3). Still, Embodied Hope is not a personal memoir, but a theological entry ramp into a much larger conversation concerning who we are in this world and how we relate to God therein. “This book will make no attempt to defend God,” Kapic writes, “I will not try to justify God or explain away the physical suffering in this world. Instead, I wrestle with nagging questions about our lives, our purpose, and our struggles” (p. 7-8). This gives the book a very raw, but surprisingly polished and organic feeling.

Embodied Hope is comprised of three parts: (1) the struggle, (2) the strangeness of God, and (3) life together. Kapic recognizes the problem, articulates how God identifies with us through the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and finally provides a solution (if it can be called such) in a community-driven model of life. The heart of the book is discovered in the second section. Kapic points the reader to Jesus as a model for embodied hope. Still, the most rewarding and encouraging section (apart from the necessary road to be traveled in the person and work of Christ), in my opinion, is the destination of the book—namely that life should be lived together in faithful perseverance in Christ.

Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering by Kelly M. Kapic is a book on a familiar topic, done in a not so familiar way. Kapic is deeply entrenched, both personally and professionally, in the realities that knock at the door of every human being. Kapic is bold and unashamed of the suffering that he and his family face, because he knows that it will bring glory to Christ. But, more than that, Kapic is confident that hope—embodied hope—is made manifest in the person and work of Christ, and lived out in faithfulness and community. This is a book that accomplishes what it sets out to do. Kapic does not defend God, he provides hope. Kapic does not offer theological remedies, he demonstrates true theological meditation. Healing and comfort are found within these pages, and I can think of no reason not to recommend Embodied Hope, because everyone will need it at some point.

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.