04-15-18 “When are we perfect?”
New Testament: 1 John 3:1-7
Gospel: Luke 24:36-48
This passage from 1 John is at the heart of John Wesley’s theology of Christian Perfection. Not just this passage, but throughout 1-2-3 John, we find the dividing line between the commonly held theologies of the time and the newer Wesleyan theology. Which is why we also find some of the most difficult to understand passages in the New Testament. What exactly is the author trying to tell us? Especially when he seems to be proposing two opposing ideas.
One idea is, no one who lives in him keeps on sinning. His second idea is if you do sin, Jesus is there as an advocate. We have a perplexing set of ideas that seem confusing. Let’s focus in the first. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or knows him, meaning Jesus. If no one who lives in Jesus is sinning does that make each of us perfect? Wesley thought this was possible, which sets him apart from John Calvin. So the short answer on Christian perfection is no and the long answer, yes. Confused? You are not the first.
Your confusion depends on how you interpret this passage. We are going to focus on John Wesley’s solution for obvious reasons, because we are Wesleyan. However, I am not so Methodist that I cannot question Mr. Wesley. But let’s use him as a starting point.
According to Wesley, we are perfect. It isn’t something we will achieve – it is something we have achieved. This is how he began his understanding. The blood of Jesus is the purifying agent. The blood is not something we look to the future for, it is something in our past we look back to. It has already happened, and all who believe are made clean from that blood. When the author says we can no longer go on sinning, I believe, he isn’t taking about a perfect physical life. He is talking about the perfected spiritual life through God’s grace.
Wesley concluded that a consequence of the new birth was power over sin. Wesley did not, however, believe in an absolute “sinless” perfection, and he disagreed with those who taught that Christians could achieve such a state. Wesley defined sin as a conscious, voluntary breaking of Divine law. The author of 1st John agrees by putting emphasis on different sins, meaning some worse than others. We’ll discuss that later.
Wesley also believed Christian perfection had both gradual and instantaneous elements. In his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” Wesley emphasized the instantaneous side, stating, “Do you believe we are sanctified by faith? Be true, then, to your principle and look for this blessing just as you are, neither better nor worse; as a poor sinner who has still nothing to pay, nothing to plead but ‘Christ died’. And if you look for it as you are, then expect it now”.
In another sermon, entitled “Thoughts on Christian Perfection,” Wesley stressed the gradual aspect of perfection, writing that it was to be received “in a zealous keeping of all the commandments; in watchfulness and painfulness; in denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily; as well as in earnest prayer and fasting and a close attendance on all the ordinances of God . . . it is true we receive it by simple faith; but God does not, will not, give that faith unless we seek it with all diligence in the way which he hath ordained”.
The instantaneous is God’s work and the gradual is our work.
He believed in stages of perfection and this last stage of Christian maturity was made possible by what he called entire sanctification. In Wesley’s theology, entire sanctification was a work of grace received by faith that removed inbred or Original sin, and this allowed the Christian to enter a state of perfect love—”Love excluding sin”
Even this was not an absolute perfection. The entirely sanctified Christian was perfect in love, meaning that the heart is undivided in its love for God or that it loves nothing that conflicts with its love for God. Christians perfected in love were still subject to conditions of the original fall and liable to commit unintentional transgressions. In consequence, these Christians still had to depend on Forgiveness through Christ’s Atonement.
I Think the author of First John is saying that if you continue living in the darkness of sin you are allowing it to fester under your skin, deeper in your body than just on the surface where others can plainly see it. We hide it where only God can see, but not so hidden we can’t be healed.
Wesley would say, this is not the mark of a Christ follower. What makes us obvious Christian is that we don’t allow the enemy a foothold in our life. In this case we are violating his sacrifice, we are not acknowledging Jesus, in extreme cases, the author of 1 John would say, “we have not met him.”
The Good News here is we have an advocate to cover our debt, to pay our bills or to make our slate clean.
We are not just referring to past debt, but also future debt. Sins we have yet to commit. There is no other pattern or goal than Jesus himself. The Good News is not that Jesus helps us to be “more prayerful, more loving, more compassionate, more trustworthy, more fill in the blank with whatever virtue is missing from your tool box.”
Rather, the Good News is that Jesus himself is the goal and the gift. Jesus is not only the shape of God’s past love toward us through incarnation, cross, and resurrection; Jesus is also the shape of God’s final gracious gift: to conform our lives to God’s perfect love in the Son. All discipleship rests on the declaration of what we already are: loved by God, children now, promised that we will be like Jesus when he appears.
Whatever we dream or vision in our mind about how good the eternal life will be – – has already happened in the eyes of God. Past, present and future seem to co-mingle in the scriptures. We who have limited understandings struggle like the author of 1-2-3 John. Who seems to bounce back and forth between what was, what is and what will be.
Wesley had a unique understanding of the what will be versus the here and now. That is why he could believe Christian perfection is not something we work towards but something we have already achieved.
The original readers of 1 John are NOT simply told to be better, to try harder, or simply get rid of their sin. Even he knew that was not possible. That’s what Jesus came to do. They and we must acknowledge that Jesus has already come, already delivered us, already made us clean. We can’t be any more clean than the day Jesus washed us white with the blood of the cross. If we break the law and sin, we put a smudge on our pure whiteness. Jesus is our advocate, our Tide stick if you will, that if we ask, he wipes us clean again and again and again. In this way we have been perfected already.
We are not perfect by what we do, we are perfect for what Jesus already did. You may be thinking that Wesley is just playing with language and words. May be that the enemy is telling you that so you stop reaching for Jesus’ perfection. If we are convinced that we are not able we may also believe we are not worthy and then we will settle for lesser things.
We have Jesus on the cross, which has already happened. Then we have the Jesus who will return in glory, which has yet to happen. That leaves us in the middle somewhere, but not left without hope. Our hope can be found in the challenge to find ourselves as perfect in grace because of what Jesus did and looking forward to a perfect, peaceful, eternity where we can live out our perfection in Heaven with God. Why wait? Let’s take on the challenge right now to begin living like resurrected, loving Easter Christians today.
Perhaps the tension of this text regarding sin finds its resolution only in the conviction that by God’s grace we will be made like Jesus in the end. Here in Easter season, we have a new identity because of Jesus’ resurrection, and yet we hope and look for that day when the risen Jesus will return and transform us all into his image. In the meantime – Rejoice in the goodness God has given you and allow it to rise up in your life so that it make everything around you seems brighter and more alive.
If I were to ask you if the world was filled with sin you might say yes pastor it is.
If I were to ask if you were filled with sin personally, you might answer, maybe, but not that much.
Perception. How do we perceive the righteousness of Jesus? Do we perceive it as something that we have not obtained or something that has already been given?
Did the cross make us righteous or is that day still far off? John Wesley believed in Christian perfection in this world, right here and now, because of God’s grace. Jesus is no longer just in Heaven, the perfected Jesus is here right now, in us, now and forever.
Leader: Go forth in peace. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all
People: And also with you.