Christian perfection is the name given to various teachings within Christianity that describe the process of achieving spiritual maturity or perfection. The ultimate goal of this process is union with God characterized by pure love of God and other people as well as personal holiness or sanctification. Various terms have been used to describe the concept, such as "Christian holiness", "entire sanctification", "perfect love", the "baptism with the Holy Spirit", and the "second blessing".
Certain traditions and denominations teach the possibility of Christian perfection, including the Catholic Church, where it is closely associated with consecrated life. It is also taught in Methodist churches and the holiness movement, in which it is sometimes termed Wesleyan perfectionism. Other denominations, such as the Lutheran and Reformed churches, reject teachings associated with Christian perfection as contrary to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.
The terms "perfect" and "perfection" are drawn from the Greek teleios and teleiōsis, respectively. The root word, telos, means an "end" or "goal". In contemporary translations, teleios and teleiōsis are often rendered as "mature" and "maturity", respectively, so as not to imply infallibility or the absence of defects. Rather, in the Christian tradition, teleiōsis has referred to progressing towards spiritual wholeness or health.
Church Fathers and medieval theologians
In antiquity, baptism was commonly referred to as the perfecting of the Christian. This view was expressed by Clement of Alexandria in his work Paedagogus: "Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated we become children [lit. ‘sons’]; being made children, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are immortal." In another work, the Stromata, Clement discussed three stages in Christian life that led to a more mature perfection. The first stage was marked by the change from heathenism to faith and initiation into the Christian religion. The second stage was marked by a deeper knowledge of God that resulted in continuing repentance from sin and mastery over the passions (apatheia). The third stage led to contemplation and agape love. Origen also proposed his own stages of spiritual ascent beginning with conversion and ending with perfect union with God in love.
Gregory of Nyssa defined human perfection as "constant growth in the good." For Gregory, this was brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit and the self–discipline of the Christian. Pseudo-Macarius taught that inner sin was rooted out of the pure in heart, but he also warned against the hidden potential for sin in everyone so that no one should ever say, "Because I am in grace, I am thoroughly freed from sin." By the 4th century, the pursuit of the life of perfection was identified with asceticism, especially monasticism and withdrawal from the world.
In the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux developed the idea of the ladder of love in his treatise, On the Love of God. This ladder had four rungs or degrees. The first and lowest degree was love of self for self. The second degree was love of God for what he gives. The third degree was love of God for his own sake; it would not be difficult, according to Bernard, for those who truly loved God to keep his commandments. The fourth degree was love of self only for God's sake; it was believed that this degree of perfection in love was only rarely achieved before death.
Thomas Aquinas wrote of three possible levels of perfection. The first, absolute perfection, is where God is loved as much as he can be loved; only God himself can be this perfect. The second level, where love for God fills a person constantly, is possible after death but not in life. The lowest level of perfection was thought to be possible to achieve while living. Theologian T. A. Noble described Aquinas's view of this level of perfection as follows:
All Christians have the grace of caritas infused into them at baptism and this love for God excludes all mortal sins. Such sins are not impossible, and, if committed, require the grace of penance, but Christians do not live committing flagrant acts of intentional sin contrary to their love for God. That is incompatible with the state of grace. But those who are no longer beginners, but making progress in the life of perfection, come to the point where everything contrary to being wholly in love with God is excluded: they love God with all their hearts.
According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, something is perfect when nothing is lacking in its nature or purpose. The ultimate purpose of humankind is union with God, also called divinization. This is accomplished on earth by grace and in heaven by the beatific vision. Perfect union with God while on earth is impossible; therefore, absolute perfection is reserved for heaven.
The Catholic Church teaches that Christian perfection is a spiritual union with God that is attainable in this life. It is not absolute perfection as it exists alongside human misery, rebellious passions, and venial sin. Christian perfection consists of charity or love, since it is this virtue that unites the soul to God. It is not just the possession and preservation of sanctifying grace, since perfection is determined by one's action—the actual practicing of charity or the service of God.
The more charity a person possesses, the greater the perfection of the soul. A person who is perfect in so far as being free from mortal sin obtains salvation and can be called just, holy, and perfect. A person who is perfect insofar as also being free from venial sin and all affections which separate a person from God is in a state of active service and love of God. This is the perfect fulfillment of the law—loving God and loving other people.
The Catholic Church teaches that Christian perfection is something all should pursue. There is also, however, what is called "religious perfection", which is pursued by those committed to living religious life, such as members of religious orders. All Catholics are obliged to attain perfection by observing the commandments, but religious life imposes a more exacting obligation, requiring the religious to also observe the evangelical counsels (also known as "counsels of perfection") of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The evangelical counsels are believed to promote perfection in two ways. They remove the obstacles to perfection—lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. They also increase a person's love of God by freeing the affections from earthly ties.
El Camino de Perfección is a method for making progress in the contemplative life written by Saint Teresa of Ávila for the sisters of her reformed convent of the Discalced Carmelites. St. Teresa was a major figure of the Catholic Reformation in 16th century Spain. Christian Perfection is also the title of a book written by theologian Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Perfectae Caritatis, the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, is one of the shorter documents issued by the Second Vatican Council. Approved by vote of 2,321 to 4 of the bishops assembled at the Council, the decree was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965. As is customary for Church documents, the title is taken from the Latin incipit of the decree: "Of Perfect Charity".
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In traditional Calvinism and high church Anglicanism, perfection was viewed as a gift bestowed on righteous persons only after their death (see Glorification). John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was responsible for reviving the idea of spiritual perfection in Protestantism. Wesley's views were elaborated in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, published in 1777.
According to Noble, Wesley transformed Christian perfection as found in church tradition by interpreting it through a Protestant lens that understood sanctification in light of justification by grace through faith working by love. Wesley believed that regeneration (or the new birth), which occurred simultaneously with justification, was the beginning of sanctification. From his reading of Romans 6 and First John 3:9, Wesley concluded that a consequence of the new birth was power over sin. In a sermon titled "Christian Perfection", Wesley preached that "A Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin."
Wesley did not, however, believe in an absolute "sinless" perfection, and he repudiated those who taught that Christians could achieve such a state. Wesley defined sin as conscious, voluntary transgression of known divine law. Involuntary transgressions (such as those arising from ignorance, error, and evil tempers), according to Wesley, were not properly called sins. Therefore, regenerated Christians would continue to be guilty of involuntary transgressions and would need to practice regular confession. Furthermore, Christians continued to face temptation, and Wesley acknowledged that it was possible for a regenerated Christian to commit voluntary sin (if, in the words of Noble, the Christian ceased "actively trusting in God through Christ and living in the divine presence"), which would also necessitate confession of sin.
The power over sin received at regeneration was just the lowest stage of Christian perfection according to Wesley. Based on First John 2, Wesley proposed three stages in the Christian life: little children, young men, and finally fathers. Young men were defined as those who had experienced victory over temptation and evil thoughts. Fathers were defined as mature Christians who were filled with the love of God.
Wesley believed this last stage of Christian maturity was made possible by what he called entire sanctification (a phrase derived from First Thessalonians 5:23). 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" as stated in the sermon "The Scripture Way of Salvation". Wesley described it as having "purity of intention", "dedicating all the life to God", "loving God with all our heart", and as being the "renewal of the heart in the whole image of God". A life of perfect love meant living in a way that was centered on loving God and one's neighbor.
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 Fall and liable to commit unintentional transgressions. In consequence, these Christians still had to depend on forgiveness through Christ's atonement.
Wesley's concept of Christian perfection had both gradual and instantaneous elements. In his 1765 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 that 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 "Thoughts on Christian Perfection" (1759), 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". In addition, Wesley also believed that Christian perfection, once received, might be forfeited.
After Wesley's death, his teachings on Christian perfection remained important to the Methodist church, but, according to historian David Bebbington, "the tradition fell into decay." As later generations of Methodists sought greater respectability in the eyes of other Christian denominations, they turned to "a watered-down version" of the doctrine outlined by William Arthur (who served as Secretary of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society) in his popular work The Tongue of Fire, published in 1856. While Arthur encouraged readers to pray for a greater experience of the Holy Spirit, he de-emphasized the instantaneous aspect of Christian perfection. According to Bebbington, this eliminated the distinctiveness of Wesleyan entire sanctification, and by the 1860s, the idea that Christian perfection was a decisive second blessing or stage in Christian sanctification had fallen out of favor among Methodists.
In contemporary Methodism, Christian perfection remains official doctrine. Candidates for ordination are asked the following question, "Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?" In the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the distinctive Wesleyan teachings are summed up in the phrase "All need to be saved; all can be saved; all can know they are saved; all can be saved to the uttermost" (the word "uttermost" referring to Christian perfection). Nevertheless, Brian Beck, former President of the Methodist Conference in Britain, noted in 2000 that "The doctrine [of sanctification] remains with us in Charles Wesley's hymns, but the formative framework, and even, I suspect, the spiritual intention, have largely gone".
Writing on the need for improved spiritual formation within the British Methodist Church and the US-based United Methodist Church, Methodist theologian Randy L. Maddox commented that the terms "holiness of heart and life" and "Christian Perfection" were considered "prone to moralistic, static and unrealistic connotations, resulting in the growing uncomfortableness with and neglect of this aspect of our Wesleyan heritage". James Heidinger II, former president of the Good News movement, an evangelical caucus within the United Methodist Church, has noted the uncertainty that exists within the denomination over the doctrine: "Our discomfort with this doctrine today is seen in services of ordination when candidates are asked, 'Are you going on to perfection?' Our misunderstanding about this often brings uneasy chuckles and quick disclaimers that we certainly don’t claim to be 'perfect' in our Christian life."
In the 19th century, there were Methodists who sought to revitalize the doctrine of Christian perfection or holiness, which had, in the words of religion scholar Randall Balmer, "faded into the background" as Methodists gained respectability and became solidly middle class. While it originated as a revival movement within the Methodist Episcopal Church, the holiness movement grew to be interdenominational and gave rise to a number of Wesleyan-holiness denominations, including the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), and the Wesleyan Church.
An early promoter of holiness was American Methodist Phoebe Palmer. Through her evangelism and writings, Palmer articulated an "altar theology" that outlined a "shorter way" to entire sanctification, achieved through placing oneself on a metaphorical altar by sacrificing worldly desires. As long as the Christian placed themselves on the altar and had faith that it was God's will to accomplish sanctification, the Christian could be assured that God would sanctify them. In the words of historian Jeffrey Williams, "Palmer made sanctification an instantaneous act accomplished through the exercise of faith." Many holiness denominations require pastors to profess that they have already experienced entire sanctification. This emphasis on the instantaneous nature of Christian perfection rather than its gradual side is a defining feature of the Wesleyan-holiness movement.
Wesleyan Pentecostal denominations also believe in entire sanctification. These denominations include the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, and the United Holy Church of America. For these Pentecostals, entire sanctification is the second in a series of three distinct blessings that Christians experience. The first blessing is conversion (the new birth) and the third blessing is the baptism in the Holy Spirit (which is marked by speaking in tongues). According to church historian and theologian Ted A. Campbell, this three-part pattern is often explained by stating "the Holy Spirit cannot fill an unclean vessel", so the cleansing of the heart that takes place in entire sanctification is necessary before a person can be filled or baptized with the Holy Spirit. Non-Wesleyan Pentecostal denominations, such as the Assemblies of God, reject the doctrine of entire sanctification.
There are Protestant denominations that reject the possibility of Christian perfection. This is true of Confessional Lutherans. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 condemns "those who contend that some may attain to such perfection in this life that they cannot sin." Lutherans, citing Romans 7:14-25 and Philippians 3:12, believe that "although we will strive for Christian perfection, we will not attain it in this life". Modern apologists further note that:
Our salvation is complete and is simply received by faith. Good works are the fruit of that faith. Good works show that we are saved, but have no part in saving us. Becoming more and more God-like in this life is the result of being saved. If we are saved by becoming more and more God-like, our salvation is in doubt because our being God-like is never perfect in this life. The troubled conscience will find little comfort in an incomplete process of theosis, but will find much comfort in God's declaration of full and free forgiveness.
While Presbyterians believe that Christians do "grow in God's grace" or holiness as they become conformed to the image of Christ, they reject the notion that perfection is attainable. In their view, sin will continue to affect one's motives and actions. This means that perfection is only attainable in glorification after death.
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Like Methodism and the other Holiness Churches, the Salvation Army teaches perfectionism or entire sanctification. Lutherans teach that the Christian will remain both sinner and saint until he dies. The Christian will struggle against sin until at death he is freed forever from sin and sin's consequences.
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- Sermon 40: "Christian Perfection" by John Wesley
- Sermon 43: "The Scripture Way of Salvation" by John Wesley