The John Wesley Reader On Christian Perfection 1725 - 1791
John Wesley (1703-1791) is widely recognized as the chief architect and source of inspiration for the modern doctrine of Christian perfection. From the year 1725, when Wesley was "exceedingly affected" and resolved to "dedicate all (his) life to God," holiness became the DNA of his spiritual temperament. For the next sixty-six years Wesley taught and proclaimed a gospel of holy love, graciously given to sinful humanity in Jesus Christ, for the recovery of the divine image lost by the first Adam. Yet this vision of perfect love did not take shape over night. The path Wesley journeyed in developing his theology of holiness was often arduous, at times turbulent, became personally painful at specific junctures, and was long. It took Wesley many years to work through the particulars of his theological principles and finally integrate them into a holistic theological system. The purpose of this Reader is to tell the story, in Wesley's own words, how he developed his mature theology of Christian perfection. By placing Wesley's writings on the subject, in their chronological order, the student of Wesley can examine for themselves what he believed at specific periods of his career, and how his theology of perfect love took shape over time.
Wesley lived a full life and enjoyed a long ministerial career. In fact, his career stretches nearly seven decades (hence the subtitle: 1725-1791). At present no comprehensive reader on the subject is available that covers the entire length of his career. Though The Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766) includes several of Wesley's writings, spanning approximately four decades, in reality the Plain Account does not present Wesley's views as they developed over time. As Thomas Jackson, early editor of the Plain Account, made plain:
It is not to be understood, that Mr. Wesley's sentiments concerning Christian Perfection were in any measure changed after the year 1777. This tract underwent several revisions and enlargements during his life-time; and in every successive edition the date of the most recent revision was specified. The last revision appears to have been made in the year 1777; and since that period, this date has been generally continued on the title-page of the several editions of the pamphlet.1
Instead, Wesley's primary motive for writing the Plain Account was apologetic. In the wake of the 1760's perfection revival and ensuing schism, Wesley felt the need to defend himself against mounting criticism that he had been inconsistent in his perfection views. Critics rose from within the Methodist ranks and from without. Their central charge was that Wesley had changed his views over time. So in 1765 Wesley compiled a couple sermons along with a number of other writings, most of which were heavily edited, to show he had been consistent in his principles over time. But as recent research has shown, Wesley's perfection theology did evolve throughout his life. In a prior volume of this series I thoroughly explored this doctrinal evolution in detail.2 The goal of this Reader is to show this development by placing Wesley's writings in their chronological order, allowing for comparative study and reflection. It is my hope that the Wesley of different periods will be more appreciated and better understood.
This leads to another reason why this Reader is necessary. There is a tendency within Wesley studies to ignore the chronological development of his thought embedded in his sermons and writings. Often, Wesley is quoted while ignoring the chronological and historical context. This has led to mistaken notions as to what Wesley believed about perfect love and Christian holiness at a given time. By reading Wesley's writings in their proper sequence fresh insights begin to open up for the reader. Writings from one period of his career can be compared to writings of another. This allows for patterns of change to become more visible. It also makes clear the unchanging principles that guided his theological development. We gain a much deeper appreciation for what Wesley believed (and wrote) at a given time, and why he believed it. It is the hope of this editor that this chronological Reader will help students of Wesley to clarify the developing nuances found in his doctrine of full salvation.
Wesley was a prolific writer and publisher. This is especially true regarding the topic at hand. Christian perfection was Wesley's most beloved theme and he wrote on it often. No single book could include everything he wrote; nor would this be advantageous. Too much material would only bury the reader in details. Therefore, a process of selection and editing was essential to make this Reader fulfill its purpose. The following steps guided the process.
First, the Reader is organized according to standard divisions of Wesley's career: early (1725-1738), middle (1738-1767), and late (1768-1791). But two adjustments were made to better highlight his doctrinal development.3 In 1738 Wesley moved through a series of major theological changes that requires an additional section be added. Then Wesley's middle period is divided into two parts to bring out the doctrinal transitions that happened in each era. So the Reader has five sections instead of three.
Second, a landmark sermon was chosen that summarizes and expresses the theology of each period. The five sermons are The Circumcision of the Heart (1733), Salvation By Faith (1738), Christian Perfection (1741), The Scripture Way of Salvation (1765), and On Working Out Our Own Salvation (1785). A comparative study of these five sermons in their chronological order offers important insights into Wesley's theological development and the nuances that shaped his doctrine of perfect love.
Then, other sermons were chosen that played a significant role in Wesley's doctrinal evolution. Next, selections from Wesley's journal, letters, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, and other writings were chosen because they help tell the story how his theology of perfection took shape over his long career. Several selections from the journal are included because they are necessary to telling the story, since Wesley's doctrine develops in step with his own faith journey. In the end, this Reader offers the student of Wesley a comprehensive sample of his views on full salvation in a chronological format covering his entire career.
A word should be said about punctuation. Since writings were selected from both the Jackson edition of Wesley's works (Works J) and the Bicentennial edition (Works B), and the two editions do not use the same styles of punctuation, I adjusted the latter to conform to the former in style. My purpose was to maintain evenness in the text for the reader.
Last, each section begins with a series of study questions to alert the reader to significant themes and motifs in that section. These can be used for personal or group study. The introductory comments in each chapter further serve to place the selection within its historical context and to inform the reader of which major specific themes and motifs to look for.
The John Wesley Christian Perfection Library
With the release of this third volume the series is one more step toward completion. Together, the first three volumes offer one of the most comprehensive and complete studies on Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection available today. Each volume serves a specific purpose.
Volume one offers a thorough study on Wesley's mature theology of perfection as presented in The Plain Account of Christian Perfection. The annotations are filled with pertinent comments from many Wesley scholars and specialists, and include over 150 quotations from Wesley himself. No other book presents a more thorough study of Wesley perfection theology as outlined in the Plain Account.
Volume two probes into the reasons why Wesley's perfection theology took the path it did, and how it took shape through his career. No stone is left unturned as his early, middle and late periods are mined for critical insights into his motivations and those key junctures in his faith journey that profoundly shaped his spiritual DNA and theology. One of the unique features of volume two is the in-depth survey of Wesley's early theological system (early period). This era has been neglected too long to the detriment of correctly grasping why Wesley did radical surgery on his theology upon his return to England in 1738. Aldersgate and its aftermath are examined with startling conclusions into the reasons why Wesley continued to struggle with doubt following his "heart warming" conversion on May 24. This volume further explores why Wesley's perfection theology shifted in emphasis in the mid to late sixties to form his mature theological system in the 1780's. All together, volume two offers unsurpassed insights into the evolution of Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection.
Volume three complements the other two volumes by including material from the Wesley corpus not included in the Plain Account. In this way a broader sample of Wesley's views can be studied and appreciated. The Reader also presents those writings discussed in volume two in their historical order and context. Again, this empowers the reader to study these particular writings in their chronological context. Combined, the first three volumes of the series give the reader unsurpassed access into Wesley's theology of holiness.
A brief word should be said about the last two projected volumes. Wesley was no systematic thinker. His most comprehensive work on the subject, the Plain Account, includes only a select number of writings from his early and middle periods. So volume four will draw upon the text of the Plain Account to present Wesley's mature doctrine of holiness in a systematic format. This volume will be titled: John Wesley's Doctrine of Christian Perfection: Systematic Formulation for Contemporary Relevance. Wesley's views will be compared to that of the Holiness Movement, both past and present, to identify shifts in Wesleyan thought on the subject of holiness. Also, each chapter will include a study guide by which the reader can develop their own views according to scripture, reason, tradition and experience. In this way the reader can build their own biblical and systematic theology of holiness, drawing upon Wesley and the Holiness Movement for inspiration.
It requires no insight to say that the world has changed dramatically since Wesley's day. The need to communicate the scripture truth of heart holiness is arguably greater now than ever before. Yet many holiness organizations are stymied in their ability to present a cogent message of holiness today.4 While I do not pretend to think I can solve the issues that confront us, I do believe a study into how Wesley promoted his message could be helpful to his descendants today. Thus, volume five, John Wesley's Preaching of Christian Perfection for the 21st Century, will explore the variety of means he used to communicate to his generation. Maybe there is something we can learn from this saint of holy love on how best to teach and pass on the blessed truth of scripture holiness.
To close, it is with joy that this Reader is offered to seekers of holiness. John Wesley firmly believed that God can so transform the believer's dispositional nature in this life that his love, even his perfect love, can become the natural and habitual characteristic of that person's life. Yet, Wesley also affirmed that a life perfected in love is still characterized by ignorance, mistake, temptation and trial—all the human frailties which are inescapable in this present age. To this end John Wesley gave himself completely and without reserve. To this end he encouraged all his people to pray:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom all secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.5
1 Works J 11:366.
2 Volume two of the series: John Wesley's Theology of Christian Perfection: Developments in Doctrine & Theological System. Fenwick: Truth in Heart, 2007.
3 See my John Wesley's Theology of Christian Perfection for a fuller treatment of my reasons for doing so. In that volume Wesley's doctrinal evolution is organized according to his core understanding of the gospel in each era: The Gospel of Holiness (early), The Gospel of Faith Alone (Aldersgate), The Gospel of Two Works of Grace (middle), and The Gospel of Universal Holiness (late). The middle period was further divided into two sections as in this volume to highlight the unique features of his perfection theology in each section.
4 By saying this I cast no aspersions. The reasons are many and complex. The statement just reflects current reality. My own denomination (The Church of the Nazarene) is currently wrestling with the issue (Quanstrom, Mark R. A Century of Holiness. Beacon Hill: Kansas City. 2004).
5 White, Jame F. John Wesley's Prayer Book: The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. OSL Publications: Akron, 1991; 125.
For another classic from a later Methodist Reformer on the same subject see Asa Mahan's Scripture Doctrine of Christian Perfection. 1837, 1875. Vol. 11 in the New 20 vol. Series: Life and Works of Asa Mahan. $16 HC
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