After the last three weeks, I hope you’ll be able to remember John Wesley’s three kinds of grace. If you forget, just remember the title to that musical:
Next comes “You’re Perfect,” in the way that justifying grace brings us into perfect alignment with God. This is just like the words on a page being justified – perfectly lined up with the margins. We love God back and God receives our love, and we are justified thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Finally, “Now Change” reminds us of sanctifying grace. This is the grace that keeps working in us even after we say “yes” to God. It keeps changing us to make us holy, to set us aside for God (which is what the word “sanctify” means).
So there you go – Wesley’s three kinds of grace. That’s all you need to know. Go and do it!
…except, well, there’s one more thing. And it’s kind of a big deal. Near the end of his life, John Wesley said that this particular teaching is THE reason that God raised up the Methodists, so that others would know it and work for it. *
Do you want to know what it is?
This sounds like we’re revisiting justification – “You’re Perfect” – but this time it’s different. This time we’re talking about for real perfection – Christian perfection.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Yeah, right, like any of us can be perfect…” then what do you make of today’s Scripture?
You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
Wesley believed Jesus when he said that, so much so that his “way of salvation” is just getting started with prevenient grace, and justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. That way is building to the moment when, through God’s grace, we are made perfect.
This easily sounds like a theological bluff, something we might say but not really believe. But Methodists aren’t bluffing on this point of perfection. When we pastors are ordained, we answer 19 questions before our bishop and 1,700 or so already-ordained clergy. The first question is the most important one for a Christian pastor: “Do you have faith in Christ?” Then check out questions 2 through 4 – I think you’ll notice some relevance for today.
2. Are you going on to perfection?
3. Do you expect to be made perfect in this life?
4. Are you earnestly striving after it?
To be perfectly honest, I struggled with these questions. I knew there was only one acceptable answer if I wanted to get ordained, and that was “yes.” I had some doubts about being made perfect in this life, though. I wasn’t so sure I could stand up there before God and all my peers and answer honestly in the affirmative.
In the end, not only could I and did I – I also became pretty passionate about Christian perfection in the process. Here’s how:
Let’s start with what Christian perfection is not. From Wesley’s sermon on the subject, this is not perfection from everyday mistakes, or personal inadequacies, or temptation, or ignorance. And thank goodness, because I have no expectation of being made perfect in any of those ways. I don’t expect that I’ll stop losing my keys or gain a mind for chemistry. I don’t think I’ll ever keep a clean car or become blind to the daily opportunities to sin. If Christian perfection meant that kind of “perfection,” I would have been awkwardly silent on ordination questions 2, 3, and 4.
There’s a more important thing to expect be made perfect in than any of those.
That thing is love.
You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. That sentence comes at the end of a paragraph, and that preceding paragraph is about love. “Loving the people that love you is easy,” Jesus says, in essence. “What’s the big deal in that? No, I need you to love so well that you even love your enemies, and pray for them. Because you can see that God treats them the same as God treats you: the sun shines on them and on you, and the rain falls on them and on you. God loves them and God loves you.
“So be perfect, as God is perfect.”
Being perfect as God is perfect is loving as God loves. That means loving all people as God loves them: “…if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). It also means loving God as God loves us. As Wesley put it, “Let your soul be filled with so entire a love of him that you may love nothing but for his sake.” **
So this is what Christian perfection IS: being perfect in love as God is perfect in love.
That’s wonderful. That’s much better than some kind of worldly, always-color-in-the-lines perfection. But there’s still a problem of possibility. Can I really expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
Here’s the answer I finally came to: I *must* expect to be made perfect. There’s no other way.
The Greek word translated as “perfect” in Matthew 5:48 is a derivative of the word telos, which means “goal.” Perfection is the goal, the end. And I need a goal.
When we have goals, we’re motivated. If I register to run a 5K, I get out there and log more miles. If Alan and I RSVP to a wedding, I mind what I eat so I can feel good in my dress. If my dad invites me to go on a golfing trip with him, I start swinging my clubs so as not to embarrass myself.
When we have goals, we also have a direction. We learned this from the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.*** Alice asks which way she should go, and the Cat clarifies: “That depends on good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care,” says Alice.
“Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go,” says the Cat.
“…as long as I get somewhere,” continues Alice.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that, as long as you walk long enough,” concludes the Cat.
Goals help us, right? They give us motivation; they give us direction.
Being followers of Christ in the Wesleyan tradition comes with a danger. We celebrate grace in all its kinds: prevenient, justifying, sanctifying. We bask in these wonderful, undeserved, unexpected gifts from God. But all that grace can become very comfortable. God loves us and accepts us, right? So why not take a rest, stop all this working at our faith? Why not be satisfied with whatever “somewhere” we might arrive at?
We can’t rest, and we can’t be satisfied – there’s far too much God wants to do in us and through us!
So we have to keep the goal in mind: You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
With that as my goal, I work to love God more today than I did yesterday. When I miss a chance to love my neighbor, I forgive myself – but I determine to do differently next time. When I am challenged to love my enemies – the ones that I really don’t want to love – I rise up to that difficult challenge and I get on my knees and I pray for them. Every day I do these things because I have a goal: to be perfect as God is perfect.
So I have a question for you:
Do you expect to be made perfect in this life?
Before you answer, “No,” I’ll warn you – “No” is a dangerous answer. “No” can lead to spiritual lethargy. “No” can mean you don’t believe that God can grow you in love in miraculous ways.
But before you answer, “Yes,” I’ll warn you – “Yes” is a dangerous answer… but the danger is a good one.
So what will it be. Do you expect to be made perfect?
* See Randy Maddux’s Responsible Grace, page 180.
** “The Circumcision of the Heart,” II. 10.
*** Credit for this reference goes to Jim Harnish’s A Disciple’s Path.