Christian Perfection or Christian Perfections? John Cassian on Degrees and Kinds of Perfection

just forgiven
“Just” forgiven? Shockingly, good soteriology is hard to do in 5 words.

“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” says a popular evangelical bumper sticker.  My grandpappy in the faith, John Wesley, would disagree – as would many other Christians who think salvation is not less, but certainly more than, justification.  But is the perfection that is a gift of God’s grace one address, or a street with many different addresses?

Wesley famously defended his unique (among Protestants of the time) doctrine in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  He quotes one of his brother Charles’ hymns to show that they had believed and taught perfection from the beginning of their ministry:

Safe in the way of life, above
Death, earth, and hell we rise;
We find, when perfected in love,
Our long-sought paradise.

O that I now the rest might know,
Believe, and enter in!
Now, Saviour, now the power bestow,
And let me cease from sin!

If we back-pedal many centuries, though, we find that what Wesley rediscovered for Protestants was something present quite early in the Christian tradition.  John Cassian, a great influence on Benedict and his Rule, spends a chapter in his famous Conferences discussing perfection.  He records the following from a conversation with Chaeremon, an Egyptian anchorite:

“Scripture summons our free will to different degrees of perfection, and this in proportion to the condition and the measure of the individual soul. It was not at all possible to propose to all together the same crown of perfection, since everyone does not have the same virtue, the same disposition of will, or the same zeal. Hence the Word of God lays down the different degrees and the different measures of perfection.”

He quotes a variety of Scriptures to back up this claim, including Psalms ascribing blessedness for a host of different virtues, and 1 Cor. 15:41-42, “Star differs from star in brightness. And so it is with the resurrection of the dead.”  Chaeremon adds,

“So you see, then, that there are different grades of perfection and that from some high points the Lord summons us to go higher.  Someone blessed and perfect in the fear of God will walk, as is written, ‘from virtue to virtue’ (Ps. 83:8), from perfection to some other perfection.  That is, with eager spirit he will rise up from fear to hope, and then he will be invited to a holier state, that of love.  He who was ‘the faithful and prudent servant’ (Mt. 24:25) will pass to the relationship of a friend and the adopted condition of sons.” (Conferences, 11.12)

In a sense, this is where Cassian and Wesley finally meet on Christian Perfection: love.  Earlier in Conference 11,  Chaeremon notes that three things keep us from sin: fear of punishment, hope of the Kingdom, and love.  He then goes on to describe lesser and greater perfections in terms of this sequence: “We should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue.” (11.7)

For Wesley, the perfection that is possible for the Christian to attain, with God’s abiding presence and gracious gift, is always a perfection “in love.” It is not a complete freedom from temptation or fault, but a transformation of “tempers,” a habit of the soul which has been so marked by the Spirit that it is completely filled with love for God and neighbor.

Christian perfection, for John and the early Methodists, was only a possibility for a long-time saint, probably near death.  Later Wesleyans would distort what he took to be a long process into an instantaneous gift, of course.  But the early Fathers and Mothers would agree with Wesley that virtue and holiness are not quickly obtained.

So are there a variety of perfections open to the Christian, or just one?   Cassian opens up the possibility that perfection is not merely a single destination, but several along the way to that final glorification for which we long – when we at last can behold the blessedness of God, not in a mirror, darkly but in full and magnificent splendor.  Like John Climacus – and, much later, John Wesley – Cassian reminds us that complete salvation is not achieved in an instant, but given by the grace of God over a long, grace-imbued road.

None of this is to our credit (this is worth repeating at the end because we Wesleyans are often accused of Pelagianism), but rather as Charles Wesley reminds us again, our boast is in the goodness and mercy of God:

Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.

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5 thoughts on “Christian Perfection or Christian Perfections? John Cassian on Degrees and Kinds of Perfection”

  1. I was with you, and cheering, up until you said that “later Wesleyans would distort what he took to be a long-term process into an instantaneous gift, of course.” I just don’t see how you can square that statement with the conclusion (paragraph 18) of Wesley’s great sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” [The reader can go look it up! I won’t quote in full but I will say he uses the word ‘now’ a few times.] I’m not saying I’ve experienced it, or even that I fully agree with Wesley (although I’m supposed to, cause it’s part of our Doctrinal Standards! So if anyone asks again, I agree with Wesley.) But I’m saying that you are reading Wesley wrong (or at least selectively) if you think later Wesleyan believers in instantaneous sanctification *as a possibility at least* were somehow “distorting” Wesley. No, they were simply *reading* him. *Some* of them, to the extent that they standardized the experience into something that must look a certain way or happen at a certain time or happen for everyone, then did distort the teaching. Others would distort it by assigning privileges which properly belong to the new birth / initial sanctification to Christian perfection / entire sanctification, thus gutting regeneration of its power. But such things can be straightened out by a few more readings of the Standards. (I’ve been wading back in myself thanks to the new Collins/Vickers edition of 60.)

    But anyway, nitpicking aside, thank you for the thoughts on perfection(s) and the tip on Cassian!

  2. This is a wonderful reflection on perfection, Drew. Thanks for offering it. I really enjoyed reading your comparisons between Cassian and Wesley.

    Couple of comments here: First, the ‘instantaneous’ character of entire sanctification gets used in a couple of different ways—and I suspect that what you and Mr. Lambert are disagreeing about has to do with that. There is the sense that perfection can be given now, in an instant, as a sudden gift of God. It doesn’t happen often perhaps, but there is a sense in which it is always possible when God chooses to grant it. Then there is also the sense in which there is always a moment that perfection is reached, no matter how long and gradual the process of sanctification that leads one to it. (In the latter point, it is like the finish line of a marathon. You were completing the marathon over the whole course of the race, in a sense, but there was also the single moment that the marathon was completed, which is the moment you crossed the finish line.)

    Wesley sometimes can be confusing in that he will mix the two senses of ‘instantaneous’ as I have described them above. Take as an example this passage from a letter to Arthur Keene dated Jun 21, 1784: “A gradual work of grace constantly precedes the instantaneous work both of justification and sanctification. But the work itself (of sanctification as well as justification) is undoubtedly instantaneous. As after a gradual conviction of the guilt and power of sin you was justified in a moment, so after a gradually increasing conviction of inbred sin you will be sanctified in a moment. And who knows how soon? Why not now?”

    Wesley seems to be explaining the latter sense of ‘instantaneous’ (meaning a moment at which one becomes perfected after a long process) right up until the end of his description, where he alludes to the former sense (of a sudden gift right now). It’s almost funny in a way—a careful and deliberate theological explanation followed by a preacher’s exhortation (Who knows how soon? Why not now??). I attribute that to Wesley’s deep optimism about the power of grace, as well as his deep sense in which extraordinary gifts of grace are something that God controls and which will be given variously as God chooses.

    The second point, which I’ll make briefly, has to do with what I suspect you are referring to when you mention later Wesleyans who distort Wesley’s own teaching about perfection. If you mean Phoebe Palmer, et al., in the mid-19th century Holiness movement, then I think you are entirely correct. The altar theology and embrace of the idea of a second blessing that comes as a result of one’s personal dedication—Palmer’s “shorter way”—bears little resemblance to what Wesley meant. The later version of entire sanctification almost becomes an act of the human will, which Wesley would have disagreed with entirely.

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