“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.