| Revival Reformation Classics|
'A Plain Account of Christian Perfection'
The Annotated Edition
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. His Statement of Purpose 19
2. Wesley Embraces Perfection 22
3. Thomas `a Kempis 24
End Note: Wesley's Early Views 25
4. William Law 27
5. The Imitation of Christ 28
6. The Circumcision of the Heart 30
7. Early Poems on Perfection 35
End Note: Wesley's Evangelical Conversion 37
8. Full Assurance of Faith 40
9. Hymns and Sacred Poems I 42
10. The Character of the Methodist 44
11. Early Opposition of Perfection 51
12. Christian Perfection 54
13. Hymns and Sacred Poems II - Preface 67
14. Hymns and Sacred Poems II - Selections 75
15. Hymns and Sacred Poems III - Preface 79
16. Hymns and Sacred Poems III - Selections 85
17. The Conference Minutes 1744-1747 92
End Note: Additional Conference Minutes 102
18. Hymns and Sacred Poems IV 107
19. Thoughts on Christian Perfection 113
20. The Danger of Enthusiasm-Maxfield and Bell 145
21. A Friend's Letter 149
22. The False Ideas of Enthusiasts 152
23. Questions to Critics 154
24. The Testimony of Jane Cooper 161
End Note: Testimonies of Perfect Love 169
25. Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection 175
26. Wesley's Summary Statement on Christian Perfection 244
27. A Plea for Impartial Judgment 253
28. An Appeal to Friends of the Revival 257
End Note: An Early Methodist Definition 260
Resource Section: 261
Synonyms in A Plain Account 302
Synonyms in Wesley's Journal 1761-1766 306
Wesley's Writings in the Annotations 309
Essential Readings of John Wesley 314
Select Bibliography on Christian Perfection 322
Primary Sources 322
John Wesley 322
Charles Wesley 323
Secondary Sources 324
John Wesley 324
Charles Wesley 326
Biographical and Historical 326
Wesleyan and Holiness 328
Differing Perspectives on Christian Perfection 330
Standard Resources 331
Upcoming Vols. II & III 333
This book was born out of passion. When I began to study
Wesley over 20 years ago, I mostly stumbled through his collected
works (Jackson edition) to find all the writings relevant
to his perfection beliefs. Since Wesley did not write a systematic
formulation of his perfection doctrine, he left it to his posterity
to organize what he believed and taught. The secondary
literature over the last several decades has contributed much to
our understanding of Wesley–his personal life and historical
context. It is out of this passion that John Wesley’s ‘A Plain
Account of Christian Perfection’ is now being offered in this
This volume offers a wealth of information under a single
cover: The entire text has been divided into chapters and
verses, enabling detailed study and cross-referencing. The
verse by verse commentary includes 150 quotations from
Wesley, plus the insights of many Wesley scholars. Five end
notes explore Wesley’s early doctrinal development and include
other relevant material from early Methodism. The Introduction
probes into the questions of when and why Wesley
wrote A Plain Account, offering historical context. Finally, an
exhaustive resource section offers the tools for one’s own
study of A Plain Account and Wesley’s theology of perfection.
The collection on synonyms and letters are unique to Wesley
Some recommendations could be helpful to the reader of
this ANNOTATED EDITION. Even if a person has studied
Wesley before, the best place to begin is with the Introduction.
Most important is the section, “Why Wesley Wrote A Plain
Account.” The survey in that section explains the larger historical
context one should keep in mind when reading A Plain
If the reader has never studied A Plain Account before, it
is recommended they first read through the text before perusing
the commentary. One can read a chapter, or better, several
chapters, and then work through the annotations. This allows
the reader to engage Wesley directly. The annotations serve
only to supplement Wesley's text.
The reader should keep in mind the inductive nature of
the commentary. The annotations move along with the text
and include comments relative to the text under discussion.
There is no attempt to systematize Wesley's views in A Plain
Account. This will be done in Volume III of the series. What
the annotations offer is historical background, explanation and
clarification, cross-references, brief summaries of specific topics,
highlights of key themes, and, most importantly, quotations
from Wesley's other writings that illuminate the text under
discussion. This means the reader is left the task of working
through the text and commentary to formulate their own
conclusions on Wesley's theology of perfection. This also allows
one to begin reading the commentary at any place. The
cross-references will notify the reader of related topics elsewhere
in the text and commentary. The reader should also
keep in mind that the annotations evolve along with the text.
While the early chapters in A Plain Account are short, the later
chapters grow considerably in length and depth. The commentary
moves through this same process by becoming more indepth
as the book unfolds.
If the reader keeps these recommendations in mind, they
will find this ANNOTATED EDITION beneficial in their study of
A Plain Account, and Wesley's theology of perfection.
A main reason why John Wesley wrote A Plain Account
was to encourage Christians, of all varieties, to seek after holiness
of heart and life. He understood that for believers to attain
all that God's grace provides, they would need to become
seekers after holiness. It is with this same motivation that this
ANNOTATED EDITION is now being offered to the public.
Every author finds him or herself indebted to other people
when it comes to writing and publishing a book. I am no exception.
I want to thank my friend Gene Colburn for his words
of encouragement, and for the inspiration to publish the book
in the first place. I am grateful to Randy Maddox for answering
my many email questions, and doing so in a timely manner.
His openness and accessibility was a continual encouragement
in my research. I express appreciation to Rick Friedrich
and Alethea In Heart. From the moment he heard of the
book, Rick has been very supportive to see the book published,
and he gave his time generously during the editing
process. I thank my wife, Lorrie, for her support and patience
while I focused my attention to a little box and screen–we call
the computer. I further want to express gratitude to those
whom I have never met personally, but from whom I have
reaped a rich harvest from their research on John Wesley.
Last, but most importantly, I thank my Lord Jesus Christ for
his saving and perfecting grace. Though I am still a “work in
process,” I offer him my worship and undying devotion.
Mark K. Olson
John Wesley (1703-1791) is the chief architect and source
of inspiration to the teaching commonly referred to as Christian
perfection. Among his many publications, the book that
best summarizes his views is A Plain Account of Christian
Perfection, as believed and taught by the Reverend Mr. John
Wesley, from the year 1725, to the year 1777. John Peters calls
it, “Wesley’s most comprehensive exposition of his doctrine.”1
A Plain Account was written at a critical time in Wesley’s life
when his beliefs were crystallizing into their mature position.
Wesley scholars divide his ministry into three periods: the
early years 1725-1738, the middle years 1738-1765, and the
mature years 1765-1791.2 As the subtitle indicates, A Plain
Account went through several printings during Wesley’s lifetime
(six editions). Thomas Jackson, in his edition of Wesley’s
works, includes this preface:
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. (Works 11:366)
About This Annotated Edition
My interest in John Wesley began in 1983 as I was
working through my own Christian beliefs. I found Wesley to
be expounding truths from God’s word that spoke deeply to
1 Peters, 32.
2 Maddox, Responsible Grace, 20; Rack, xi.
my own heart. My interest in A Plain Account became more
serious in the summer of 1995 as I studiously poured over its
pages. I felt at the time, and still do, that this is the book to
master if one is to understand Wesley on the subject of
Christian Perfection. My purpose in writing this annotated
edition is to aid others in their study of Wesley’s doctrine of
perfection as presented in A Plain Account. Wesley never
provided a systematic presentation of his beliefs. What he did
leave us is a large amount of sermons, tracts, essays, and
letters, along with his journals and diaries. A Plain Account is
the closest thing we have from his pen that resembles a comprehensive
presentation of his doctrine of Christian perfection.
This Annotated Edition is divided into two sections: the
text of A Plain Account with annotations, and a resource
section to empower one’s own study. In the future I plan, Lord
willing, to write two sequels that will systematically synthesize
Wesley’s perfection theology as presented in A Plain
Account, and address other relevant issues related to his
doctrine of perfect love and its proclamation today.
A Plain Account of Christian Perfection
The text comes from the 1872 Jackson edition of Wesley’s
works. In 1777 Wesley made his final editorial changes
to A Plain Account, and in 1789 he included it without further
revision in The Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Jackson edition is still the most popular, the most accessible,
and the most affordable of Wesley’s collected writings.
While the new Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John
Wesley is partly finished, and offers unsurpassed introductions
and footnotes, it is still incomplete. To date the Jackson
edition continues to be the most complete edition of Wesley’s
writings, and the only one that contains A Plain Account. For
these reasons the Jackson edition was chosen to be the primary
text used throughout this annotated edition to reference and
Wesley originally never had an y chapters in A Plain
Account ; he just numbered each new section at the beginning
of the paragraph. This annotated edition follows the example
of J. Fred Parker and Beacon Hill Press in making each
numbered section a chapter. Each chapter title reflects the
sermon or writing Wesley uses in that chapter, or the ke y
person or thought that the chapter focuses on. I also decided to
go through the entire text and place verse numbers in the text.
This allows for more exact cross-referencing and detailed
commentary. The verse numbers are in a normal roman font
style to distinguish them from Wesley’s own numbering,
which he uses frequently.
The reader will find the annotations to be very complete.
My decision to no t have meager notes is driven by m y purpose:
to help you, the reader, better understand Wesley’s doctrine
of perfection as presented in A Plain Account . Background
information, definitions, scholarly explanations, and many
quotes from Wesley’s other writings are included in the commentary.
A few comments about the annotations might be
helpful. The reader will find that the commentary develops
along with the book. In A Plain Account, Wesley’s views go
through an ever-deepening evolution, reflecting his own
growth in understanding. I have tried to let the commentary
develop along with the book. Therefore, it pays to keep
pressing on. I also sought to minimize cross-referencing in the
early chapters to the later chapters. In a book of this nature
where the same ideas and themes are often repeated, it would
be easy to load up the front of the book with the developed
ideas of later chapters. This robs the reader of experiencing the
evolution of Wesley’s thought. The reader will then miss
understanding John Wesley, which is the purpose of this
annotated edition. The reader should know that summary
statements on key terms and ideas are presented when first
introduced, but these summaries are not meant to be exhaustive
in nature. Five endnotes are included in chapters 3, 7, 17,
24 and 28. The first two endnotes address Wesley’s early
perfection views, and the importance his evangelical experience
at Aldersgate had in shaping his perfection doctrine. The
last three endnotes include the 1744-1747 conference minutes
left out of A Plain Account, several testimonies of perfect
love, and a definition of Christian perfection from an early
Methodist lay leader. This additional material helps the reader
to grasp the full range of Wesley’s perfection theology.
Another idea incorporated into this annotated edition was
to identify synonyms for Christian perfection in bold type.
This alerts the reader to key terms Wesley uses to communicate
his perfection doctrine. Two indexes are included in the
resource section that exhaustively list all the synonyms found
in A Plain Account and in Wesley’s Journal 1761-1766.
The Resource Section
The resource section is designed to empower one’s own
study of A Plain Account and Wesley’s doctrine of Christian
perfection. Included is a timeline, several indexes, an essential
readings list from Wesley’s collected works, and a select
Timeline: Covers every event relevant to A Plain Account in
Scripture: Quotations and allusions to nearly five hundred
Annotations: All annotations in the commentary section
Subject: Topics are located by chapter and verse and are
Synonyms: From A Plain Account and Wesley’s Journal
Wesley’s Writings: Citations from Wesley’s writings in
the commentary section.
Author: Everyone quoted in the annotations are listed.
Essential Readings Section:
This section aids those less familiar with Wesley’s overall
perfection theology to know where to search and find his
relevant writings on the subject in The Works of John Wesley.
Included are twenty sermons, several writings, and an exhaustive
listing of relevant letters.
Select Bibliography on Christian Perfection:
I have listed primary and secondary literature. I have chosen
not to compile an exhaustive bibliography for two reasons.
First, there are an endless number of sources on Wesley.
Second, it is often more helpful to list those sources which
have proven most useful. Also included is a section listing
sources that offer a contrasting perspective on the subject.
When Did Wesley Write A Plain Account?
There is general agreement Wesley published A Plain
Account in the year 1766.3 Timothy Smith dates it February
1766.4 Clues as to when Wesley wrote A Plain Account can be
found within the book and from other sources. From the book
itself we can learn the following.
In chapter 26, Wesley begins by stating that in 1764 he
took time to review the “whole subject.” While this comment
points to the gathering of his thoughts and ideas in an
organized way, it also could indicate he was considering the
idea of writing a book on the subject. In chapter 27, he
mentions the year 1765 (27:13), so we know he had not began
writing anything of substance before that year. Also, the first
published edition of A Plain Account included the subtitle,
“from the year 1725, to the year 1765.” This is a clear state-
3 Collins, Scripture way, 172; Heitzenrater, 228; Peters, 32.
4 Smith, A Chronological List, 103.
ment he wrote A Plain Account in 1765. This is what we can
learn from the book itself.
A more precise time of his actual writing can be discerned
from his Journal and from the annual conference in 1765. W.
Stephen Gunter notes that at the conference in August Wesley
read excerpts from the book.5 This shows that the writing
process had begun before the conference began. Since A Plain
Account was not published until the following year, it is safe
to assume the writing process was not yet complete.
Another important piece of information is found in Wesley’s
journal. He includes an interesting letter he wrote to John
Newton on May 14, 1765, just four months prior to the annual
conference. In this letter he gives the following explanation as
to how he came to believe in Christian perfection:
But how came this opinion into my mind? I will
tell you with all simplicity. In 1725 I met with Bishop
Taylor’s ‘Rules of Holy Living and Dying.’ I was
struck particularly with the chapter upon intention,
and felt a fixed intention ‘to give myself up to God.’
In this I was much confirmed soon after by the
‘Christian Pattern,’ and longed to give God all my
heart. This is just what I mean by Perfection now: I
sought after it from that hour.
In 1727 I read Mr. Law’s ‘Christian Perfection,’
and ‘Serious Call,’ and more explicitly resolved to be
all devoted to God, in body, soul, and spirit. In 1730 I
began to be homo unius libri to study (comparatively)
no book but the Bible. I then saw, in a stronger light
than ever before, that only one thing is needful, even
faith that worketh by the love of God and man, all
inward and outward holiness; and I groaned to love
God with all my heart, and to serve Him with all my
5 Gunter, 212.
January 1, 1733, I preached the sermon on the
Circumcision of the Heart; which contains all that I
now teach concerning salvation from all sin, and
loving God with an undivided heart. In the same year
I printed, (the first time I ventured to print any thing,)
for the use of my pupils, ‘A Collection of Forms of
Prayer;’ and in this I spoke explicitly of giving ‘the
whole heart and the whole life to God.’ This was
then, as it is now, my idea of Perfection, though I
should have started at the word.
In 1735 I preached my farewell sermon at Epworth,
in Lincolnshire. In this, likewise, I spoke with
the utmost clearness of having one design, one desire,
one love, and of pursuing the one end of our life in all
our words and actions.
In January, 1738, I expressed my desire in these
O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell but thy pure love alone!
O may thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown!
Strange flames far from my heart remove,
My every act, word, thought be love!
What stands out is the close similarity this letter has, both
in thought and structure, with the opening chapters of A Plain
Account. From this letter three inferences can be drawn:
First, Wesley must have already formed a purpose for
writing A Plain Account. When we consider the date and
situation when this letter was written, and the similarities
that exist between the letter and A Plain Account, they
point to one conclusion: Wesley intended on writing a
book defending himself against the criticisms he was
receiving over his perfection theology.
Second, Wesley must have decided on how he was going
to structure the book. Both the letter and the book follow
the same pattern—Wesley telling his story on how he
came to believe in Christian perfection, thereby explaining
what he believes on the subject.
Third, Wesley had not yet completed the book. The letter
includes some material Wesley chose not to include in the
book, namely, his collection of prayers (published 1733)
and the sermon he preached in 1735. Another difference
is the inclusion of a poem included in A Plain Account
(cf. 7:2) but not in the letter.
In conclusion, it appears Wesley began putting together
his ideas, possibly as early as 1764, but definitely by the
spring of 1765. It is possible he may have begun to write a
rough draft later in the spring.6 The main writing was done in
the summer months for him to read portions of it to the annual
conference in August. Since it was published the next year,
Wesley finished the final draft in late fall or early winter. If
Timothy Smith is correct it was published in February 1766.
Why Did Wesley Title It A Plain Account?
Once, when I commented to a ministerial colleague that I
was writing a book on Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian
Perfection, his reply was, “You mean the not-so-plain
account.” Obviously, for many, A Plain Account is anything
6 Another piece of evidence is that Wesley finished the final draft of
a major literary project on April 25, 1765 (Notes on the Old
Testament). It is doubtful he would have started another major
writing project until this task was completed.
but “plain.” What did Wesley mean by giving it the title, A
Wesley was fond of “accounts.” This is probably why he
wrote so many of them.7 Another title, which is similar and
often used by Wesley, is “extract.”8 When the word “account”
was used in a title, he would usually prefix it with something
like “Brief,” “Plain,” “Short,” or “Some.”9
To understand Wesley’s meaning of a “Plain Account,”
we must look at how he uses the word “plain” in his other
writings. In an early sermon he concludes a point with, “This
is God’s short and plain account of true religion and virtue.”10
In A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists he writes,
“This is the plainest and clearest account I can give of the people
commonly called Methodists. It remains only to give you a
short account of those who serve their brethren in love.”11
Another example is found in his journal entry on February 8,
1738, when Wesley speaks of giving the Board of Trustees
(who sponsored his trip to America) a “short but plain account
of the state of the colony.”12 These examples illustrate a
couple of meanings that the word “plain” meant to him. Wesley
often combines it with the word “short,” meaning, a “plain
account” is one that is concise and to the point. He also
connects it with the word “clear,” meaning, an account that is
straight forward, transparent, and understandable.13
There is more to consider. In An Earnest Appeal to Men
of Reason and Religion Wesley states his purpose for writing
7 List Of Works alone includes 16 such writings with the title; Works
8 E.g. An Extract of the life and death of Mr. Thomas Haliburton;
9 E.g. A Short Account of the Death of Samuel Hitchens, Works
14:217,218; A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,
10 Circumcision of the Heart, Works 5:210.
11 Works 8:261.
12 Journal, Works 1:84.
13 See A Compendium of Natural Philosophy: Preface, Works
14:300; The Imitation of Christ: Preface,Works 14:209-10.
is to “give any that are willing to hear a plain account, both of
our principles and actions; as having ‘renounced the hidden
things of shame,’ and desiring nothing more ‘than by manifestation
of the truth to commend ourselves to every man’s
conscience in the sight of God.’”14 In a letter late in his life
(1789) he contrasts a “plain account” to a “false” one.15 In
these two examples Wesley obviously meant by a “plain
account,” one that was accurate and factual. Wesley was a
person who valued “plain truth for plain people,” therefore; he
tried to communicate in the “clearest manner” what his
For many who read A Plain Account, they expect it to be
a simple, straightforward statement that requires little effort to
be understood. Instead, what they find is a book that demands
just the opposite, much effort and thoughtful reflection, especially
if one is to mine the depths of Wesley’s views. By
contrast, Wesley had very different motivations for writing the
book. He was seeking to give a straightforward chronicle of
his perfection views, from 1725 to 1765, that would be
accurate, transparent, and concise (cf. 1:2-3; 27:1-2). He must
have felt this was the best way to win people’s trust. So he
shares the relevant facts of his spiritual pilgrimage he deemed
important, and those writings he thought best represented his
views throughout his ministerial career. He does not try to
integrate or harmonize what he says at different times, and he
does not present a systematic statement of his doctrine. Instead,
he records in a concise manner what he taught, when he
taught it, and then offers in the end a brief summary statement
of his present convictions (26:1-12). Therefore, A Plain
Account lacks the internal consistency we normally look for in
doctrinal writings. It often can be repetitious and disjointed in
how the material is put together. This is primarily due to the
reasons why he wrote the book. It is to this question we now
turn our attention.
14 Works 8:3, cf. Second Letter to Rev. Mr. Clark,Works 13:214.
15 Letters, Works 13:113.
16 Sermons, Preface, Works 5:1, 2.
Why Did Wesley Write A Plain Account?
Wesley opens with a general explanation of his reasons
for writing (1:1-3; cf. 27:1-2). He tells us he plans to give “a
plain and distinct account of the steps by which” he was led to
“embrace the doctrine of Christian perfection.” While this tells
us what he plans to accomplish with the book, it really does
not reveal his deeper motivations for writing. If we are to
understand why he wrote A Plain Account, we must look elsewhere
within the book and to other sources, like his Journal.
One of the main characteristics of A Plain Account is its
apologetic tone. Wesley repeatedly defends himself against
the criticism he has been inconsistent in his perfection views
(6:16-17; 10:30; 13:33; 14:11; 15:20; 17:24; 18:21-22; 27:13).
In chapters 10 and 11, Wesley mentions the early opposition
he faced over his doctrine of perfection. It was the criticisms
at that time, which motivated him to write and publish the
polemic sermon Christian Perfection (ch 12). He also ends A
Plain Account with a very strong apologetic appeal to those
who are critical of his perfection beliefs (27:3-9; 28:1-12).
Through the years Wesley would continue to defend himself
against those who were critical of his perfection theology (cf.
On Perfection, Works 6:411).
In 1758, fresh winds of revival were beginning to be felt,
and a new interest in attaining perfection was included in this
outpouring of the Spirit. Henry Rack informs us that at the
1758 annual conference questions were asked concerning
perfection.17 In 1759 Wesley records that “perceiving some
danger that a diversity of sentiments should insensibly steal in
among us, we again largely considered this doctrine” at the
annual conference (19:1). “Diversity of sentiments” did steal
in among them. Within three years Wesley found himself in
the middle of a schism over the subject of perfection. While
Wesley wrote three tracts and two sermons to bring correction
17 Rack, 335; Outler, John Wesley, 177; cf. 19:11.
and balance, it was to no avail.18 Two Methodist preachers,
Thomas Maxfield and George Bell, had come to embrace what
Wesley calls “angelic” perfection. Both men claimed they had
attained a state in which it was impossible for them to sin, or
to be tempted. They also claimed they would not physically
die (20:3). George Bell believed he had the gift of healing. It
was claimed he healed a person of blindness, and that he
attempted to raise another person from the dead. Their meetings
were full of emotion and created quite a stir among the
Methodists. Many, including his brother Charles, wanted John
to act more swiftly and decisively. But Wesley thought he
must be cautious. He feared he would hinder the move of
God’s Spirit as many were making claims to being entirely
sanctified.19 In John’s journal, we see him leaning toward the
side of caution. He continues to point out the positives, as well
as the negatives, in Bell and Maxfield’s ministries.20 In December
1762, George Bell finally went too far. He predicted
the world would end on Februar y 28, 1763 (ch 22). Wesley
finally took a public stand and renounced the prophecy. By the
beginning of February things came to a head with both
Maxfield and Bell separating from Wesley.21 The importance
this schism had in the writing of A Plain Account is apparent
in that Wesley devotes three chapters to the schism and
prophecy of George Bell (chs 20-22). These chapters contribute
little to Wesley’s explication of Christian perfection.
Their purpose is apologetic. This time, though, it was not only
from critics outside of Wesley’s societies he was defending
himself against, but also from those who were under his
ministry and pastoral care.
18 The tracts are: Thoughts on Christian Perfection, 1759, ch 19;
Cautions and Directions Given to the Greatest Professors, 1762,
incorporated into ch 25; and Farther Thoughts on Christian
Perfection, 1762, ch 25, cf. Journal, Works 3:76; The two sermons
are: Wandering Thoughts, 1762; On Sin in Believers, 1763, cf.
Journal, Works 3:130.
19ƒnJournal, Works 3:122.
20 Journal, Works 3:119; Gunter, 220.
21 Journal, Works 3:125-28,130-33.
The effects of the perfectionist controversy were long
lasting. Two years later (May 1764) John wrote to his brother
Charles, “The frightful stories wrote from London had made
all our Preachers in the north afraid even to mutter about
perfection... It is what I foresaw from the beginning; that the
devil would strive by Thomas Maxfield and company to drive
perfection out of the kingdom.”22 In the years ahead, the
controversy caused Charles to drift toward a progressive view
of perfection, in contrast to John who sought to emphasize the
instantaneous aspect of the experience.23 The annual conferences
continued to be taken up with the subject of perfection,
24 as Wesley continued to deal with many who were
deeply affected by the whole affair. Even 30 years later people
still remembered the schism and were turned off to any experience
of perfection in this life.25 At the 1763 annual conference
the schism moved Wesley to pass the model deed,
which made his four volumes of sermons and Explanatory
Notes on the New Testament the authoritative basis for all
doctrine and teaching within the Methodist societies.26
The revival, with its critics, schism and continuing controversy,
was the setting which finally compelled Wesley to
publish a definitive statement on what he believed concerning
Christian perfection. Since Wesley was always concerned to
communicate in plain words, he chose a style that he felt
would serve him best: to simply tell his story on how he came
to embrace Christian perfection and to state clearly what his
views were at specific periods of his ministerial career. To
accomplish this task he thought it best to quote his various
writings at different periods of his career. Those who followed
Wesley were looking for him to point out the spiritual path
22 Letters, Works 12:126.
23 Letters, Works 12:131; Tyson, C. Wesley on Sanctification, 248-
24 Gunter, 212.
25 Gunter, 226.
26 For overview of the perfectionist controversy, see Goodwin, 58-
91; Heitzenrater, 209-211; Rack, 333-342; Tyson, C. Wesley on
they felt called b y God to travel down, and Christian perfection
was at the heart of this path. Wesley, sensing this, knew he
needed to communicate clearly to avoid any confusion (if that
was really possible). This brings us to another reason why he
wrote A Plain Account. I refer to this as his pastoral concern.
Wesley gives much space in chapter 25 to professors of
perfection. The tone is pastoral as he advises them on how to
behave toward others and what to guard against within their
own hearts (25:108-167). He then offers his people a series of
“reflections” for them to ponder and weigh (25:168-217). As
mentioned before, Wesley did believe in recent years many
were experiencing God’s perfecting grace (cf. ch 24 end n).
His shepherd’s heart felt compelled to give his people the
necessary counsel they needed to stay on the right path, and
not fall into the devil’s trap as had Bell and Maxfield. As his
letters demonstrate, Wesley repeatedly recommended A Plain
Account to his followers for their spiritual development.27 This
pastoral concern is a major reason why he repeatedly reissued
the book, and why it has had such an enduring history in the
life of the Christian community. After all, the perfectionist
controversy of the early 1760’s is long past, but A Plain
Account is continually being reprinted. Today, A Plain
Account is a devotional and theological classic. Wesley did
have deeper motivations than the situation at hand, and his
pastoral concern gives us insight into his deepest motivation
for writing the book. This leads us to our next inquiry as to
why he wrote.
Christian perfection is what John Wesley believed to be
God’s purpose for every believer in Christ. The doctrine
encapsulates in two words what he taught was God’s goal,
through the cross, for ever y Christian. We could even say, that
for John Wesley, Christian perfection is Christianity and perfection
is the theme of the God’s Word.28 The ideal of perfection
captured his imagination as a young man and became
the spring from which his entire life and ministry flowed. This
27 See Letters, Works 12:371, 393, 445, 501; Great Holiness
Classics, 4:68, 69.
28 Tracy, 32; Letters, Works 13:9.
is why his conversion to perfection in 1725 is so significant
(2:2 n; ch 7 end n).
The essence of Christian perfection is this: God s o transforms
your dispositional nature, that his love, even his perfect
love, becomes the natural and habitual characteristic of your
life. Added to this, God can do this work of grace in this life,
which is so characterized by ignorance, mistake, temptation,
and trial —all the human frailties that are inescapable in this
This became the great challenge. How does one reconcile the
ideal of perfect love with the realities of this world? How does
one live in this fallen world with God’s love reigning in their
thoughts, words, and actions? What would such a life look
like? How would we recognize it? What are the essential
qualities of such a life? How does one attain it? This is the real
task Wesley sets out to accomplish in A Plain Account. This
was a daunting challenge. His critics were in two camps. The
first camp included spiritual elitists, who so emphasized the
ideal of perfection that they came to believe they could not
even be tempted b y sin. The y attacked Wesle y for not trul y
believing in perfection at all.30 In the second camp were selfdefined
spiritual realists, who so emphasized the evils and
frailties of this life that they believed no one could ever be so
changed and transformed by God’s grace. Wesl ey attempted,
as he saw it, to walk down the middle. He had to define
according to scripture, reason, and experience
31 what was the
true nature of this experience, how to recognize it, and how to
attain it. He had to present it in as simple a format as possible,
so that everyone, from the regular Methodist attendee to the
highly educated Anglican bishop, would be able to understand
29 Maddox, Responsible Grace, 188; Collins, Scripture Way, 171-
30 Maxfield, “Mr. W. pulled it down.” Works 3:126.
31 In A Plain Account Wesley never appeals to tradition in support
or defense of his views. His references to Taylor, Kempis, and Law
in chs 2-4 relate to Wesley’s own spiritual journey and reflect his
own early beliefs. As such, they do not serve as supports or defenses
of his doctrine of perfection as presented in A Plain Account.
what he believed, how he came to believe it, and why he
believed it. In this way he hoped to defend himself against his
critics and point his people to the goal of perfect love. This is
what he set out to accomplish, and this, I believe, was his
deepest motivation for writing A Plain Account of Christian
Perfection, as believed and taught by the Reverend Mr. John
Wesley from the year 1725 to the year 1777.