It was 1763, and Rev. John Wesley was in trouble again. Wesley, a vocal evangelical reformer in the English church, was accustomed to conflict. Church leaders were often hostile to his theology, preachers and chapels, which competed for the attention and loyalty of the Anglican flock. This time, however, Wesley’s problems lay not only with his usual opponents, but also with friends in the evangelical movement and with some of his own Methodist co-workers.
The issue was, of all things, a “perfectionist outbreak.” Christians, it seems, have a long history of trying to sort out how Jesus — and the rest of us — might model a mistake-free life.
John Wesley held a lifelong fascination with the experience of becoming holy. He termed this process “Christian perfection,” “entire sanctification” or “perfect love.” Wesley reasoned that being forgiven and set free was not the end of Christian life, but rather its beginning. It seemed to him both scriptural and logical that to live in a constant loving relationship with Jesus Christ would involve a gradual elimination of all sin and wrongdoing from the believer’s life. His brother Charles also carried the perfection banner and evoked it in many of his hymns, including Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, with its plea, “Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.” Wesley reasoned that a Christian might attain this perfection just before death. Methodists and other evangelicals debated this, but it remained more a suggestion than a quarrel until the perfectionist outbreak.
In 1760, some Methodists in Yorkshire told Wesley they had been “cleansed from all unrighteousness.” Similar reports began to emerge from other parts of the country. People not only believed in Christian perfection but claimed to have attained it — and not on their deathbeds. The issue came to a head when two prominent Methodist leaders in London declared that their entire sanctification had endowed them with prophetic and healing powers. One even announced that the world would end on Feb. 28, 1763.
Wesley faced a dilemma: how could he distance himself from this excess without having to give up his treasured belief in perfect love?
Did Jesus make mistakes? The question is similar to the Wesleys’ contemplation of perfection. It sets a trap and can get us equally entangled. If we say Jesus never erred, his credibility as a human being is in question. If we say he did make mistakes, his divinity gets murky. Divinity, humanity, perfection, error: how do we put them together?
The Christian Scriptures do not discuss Jesus and mistakes. The few times the word “wrong” appears in the Gospels, it is usually Jesus telling people that their perceptions are mistaken about God and God’s realm. Perfection, however, gets considerable attention. The Greek word for perfect means “completed” or “fulfilled.” Matthew’s Jesus is blunt: “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give your money to the poor” (Mt. 19:21). Paul states that Jesus “knew no sin” and that it is possible for believers to become perfect. The Letter to the Hebrews highlights perfection. Jesus is made perfect through his sufferings (Heb. 2:10) and then becomes the “perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). Believers can and should “go on to perfection” (Heb. 6:1). Some of our Methodist forebears claimed to have done just that.
In response to the 1760s perfectionist outbreak, Wesley tried to clarify his position. He acknowledged that Christians cannot ever know everything or be free from making mistakes. However, he simply could not deny the power of grace: the gift and promise that in Jesus Christ something actually happens in us. We can now love both God and neighbour in a more whole and pure way. As Jesus did.
The Bible shows us a Jesus who was in constant dialogue — with friends, with adversaries, with the needy, with the haughty. Good dialogue involves give and take, receptivity and reconsideration. Jesus did that. Still, in describing Jesus’ faithfulness to God and to the new way of living God had sent him to proclaim, Scripture shows us a man who did not make mistakes. He loved God and creation with a complete, fulfilled, “perfect” love. The Wesleys believed Christians could do the same. Can we? If so, what would it look like in us, our church, our world?
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