Christian Perfection

This doctrine was for John Wesley the central emphasis of the Methodist movement. Indeed, he believed that it was to spread 'scriptural holiness' that God had providentially raised it up. In 1774, he asked, 'If we do not "go on to perfection", how shall we escape lukewarmness, Antinomianism, hell-fire?', and at the very end of his life he told R.C. Brackenbury that the doctrine of full sanctification was 'the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists'. His doctrine, however, was already controversial in his lifetime and has remained so. He argued that it was God's purpose to bring all believers to a state where they no longer sinned, but were 'made perfect in love'. At first he seems to have regarded this as a 'second blessing', given instantaneously. Later he understood that it could be gradually bestowed. He believed, moreover, that the blessing could be lost, so that the believer is as dependent on graceto retain it as to gain it.

Outler identifies the key publications in Wesley's attempt to define his understanding of perfection as two sermons (1741 and 1765) and his Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766). Recognizing that the notion of 'perfection' is open to misunderstanding, Wesley argued that Christian perfection is compatible with 'sinful' tempers not yet recognized, and with sinning through ignorance, and that it does not involve perfect knowledge. His teaching was vilified by Calvinists who held that a saved person remained always and necessarily a sinner - simul justus et peccator. The adequacy of his doctrine of sin as primarily conscious has also been challenged. It is notable that although Wesley encouraged his followers to testify when they had experienced Christian perfection, he never claimed it for himself.

See also Holiness; Sanctification


Charles Wesley' MS Journal:

September 26, 1740: 'Was greatly assisted in the evening to preach Christian perfection - that is, utter dominion over sin; constant peace and love, and joy in the Holy Ghost; the full assurance of faith, righteousness, and true holiness.'

September 21, 1746: 'To the bands I explainewd the nature of Christian perfection, another name for Christian salvation.'

  • Wilfrid J. Moulton, 'John Wesley's Doctrine of Perfect Love', in London Quarterly Review, July 1925 pp.14-27
  • R.N. Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology (1934)
  • W.F. Lofthouse, 'Wesley's Doctrine of Christian Perfection', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, 1934 pp.178-88
  • William E. Sangster, The Path to Perfection (1943)
  • H. Lindstrom, Wesley and Sanctification (1946), pp.126-160
  • George Lawton, 'A Wesley Autograph on Sinless Pefection?', in WHS Proceedings, 34 pp.29-33; also Frank Baker at 34 pp. 53-57
  • Albert C. Outler, John Wesley (A Library of Protestant Thought, 1964) pp.252-305
  • Leo G. Cox, John Wesley's Concept of Perfection (Kansas City, 1964)
  • John A. Newton, 'Perfection and Spirituality in the Methodist Tradition', in The Church Quarterly, 3:2 (October 1970) pp.95-103
  • A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol. 4, 'Documents and Source Material' (1988), pp. 135-41,157-9, 178-81, 359-60
  • David P.C. Smith, Whatever Happened to our Raison d'ĂȘtre? Taking another look at Christian perfection (Ilkeston, 1997)
  • Randy L. Maddox, 'Wesley's Understanding of Christian Perfection: in what sense pentecostal?', in Wesleyan Theological Journal, 34:2 (Fall, 1999) pp.78-110 (also Laurence W. Wood in ibid pp.111-35)
  • Stella Mills, 'Is the Doctrine of Christian Perfection relevant today?', in Epworth Review, 32:1, January 2005, pp.47-55
  • Andrew Cheatle, W.E. Sangster - Herald of Holiness, Sanctification and Perfection in the Thought of W.E. Sangster (2007)
  • David B. McEwan, Wesley as a Pastoral Theologian. Theological Methodology in John Wesley's Doctrine of Christian Perfection (2008)
  • 'Christian Perfection' in Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies ed. W.J. Abraham and J.E. Kirby (2009), pp.587-601
  • Joseph W. Cunningham, 'The Methodist Doctrine of Christian Perfection: Charles Wesley's Contribution', in Wesley and Methodist Studies, vol. 2 (2010)
  • Randy L. Maddox, 'James Erskine's Critique of John Wesley on Christian Perfection', in Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vol. 59, part 2 (May 2013) pp.39-53
  • Anthony J. Headley, Getting it Right: Christian Perfection and Wesley's Purposeful List, Lexington, 2013