I was ‘baptized’ and brought up a Methodist in the county of Lincolnshire, England, the birthplace of the Wesleys. This being the case, it was almost inevitable that I became aware that John Wesley taught a doctrine of Christian perfection. Though it was occasionally referred to and even debated, it did not appear to be given much credence in the churches I attended. Wesley never claimed that he himself was an exemplar of what he called “perfect love”, but he seemed to think that the saintly Fletcher of Madeley was. I, like others, think he was profoundly mistaken. Wesley rightly made the quest for holiness the goal of his life as he pursued God’s “imitable perfections” (Works, 8:352), but the Bible whose support he claimed tells decisively against the notion that any of us fully attain to it. We need to examine the issue more closely.
The Plan of Salvation
As I understand it, God’s plan from the beginning was to make the man(kind) he had created in his image his perfect likeness (Lev. 19:2; Mt. 5:48; Eph. 1:4). While it is true that scholars have been unable to distinguish satisfactorily between the words ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ in their Hebrew form (Gen. 1:26), Scripture in general seems to support this view (e.g. 2 Cor. 3:18, cf. Eph. 4:24). Otherwise expressed, what appears to be involved in man’s creation is not merely static ontology but also dynamic function and transformation. In Genesis 1 we read that Adam is called to exercise dominion over the creation of which he himself is the pinnacle. The Psalmist interprets this as a call to achieve glory and honour on the assumption that it is done successfully (Ps. 8:5f., cf. Heb. 2:6-9; Rom. 2:7,10). In Genesis 2:16f. Adam, who, as a product of the earth which is naturally temporal and corruptible and in conspicuous contrast with its eternal and incorruptible Creator (1* Under the baneful influence of Augustine who posited initial perfection, the church has failed to appreciate this, but the evidence for it is clear.), is promised (eternal) life if he keeps the commandment and, in the light of subsequent revelation, by implication the whole law (Lev. 18:5, cf. Dt. 30:15-20, etc.). If keeping the commandment provides the righteousness which is the condition of life (Dt. 6:25; 1 John 3:7), breaking it spells failure and consequent death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12; 6:23, cf. 6:16).
The entire OT testifies unmistakably to the fact that Adam and all his posterity failed to achieve the glory, honour and life they were promised. All to the very last man and woman came short of their vocation to be holy and righteous like God himself (Gen. 3:22-24; 17: 1; Ex. 19:5f.; Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2; Rom. 3:23; 1 Pet. 1:15, etc.). All without exception were pronounced sinners (1 K. 8:46; Ezra 9:7; Job 15:14-16; Ps. 130:3; 143:2; Eccl. 7:20, cf. Rom. 3:9-20). While the new birth or eternal life was promised in the future (Dt. 29:4; 30:6; Jer. 32:39, etc.), no one in the OT achieved it (1 K. 8:46, etc.). None from Abraham, the supreme exemplar of faith, Moses, the mediator of the law, Isaiah, the visionary of the holiness of God (Isa. 6:1-6), to John the Baptist, whom Jesus calls the greatest of the prophets born of woman (Mt. 11:11), was granted life and acknowledged as God’s son. That designation was confined exclusively to Jesus (Mt. 3:13-17) and later to those who believed in him (Rom. 8:14-17).
Though true, to say with an eye on his birth by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35) that this merely confirmed his divine origin highlighted at his incarnation (Luke 1,2, etc.) is to miss the point. The author of Hebrews, not to mention Paul with his stress on the second Adam, makes it crystal clear that Jesus came into this world as a man to achieve for man what he could not achieve for himself, that is, the glory or perfection that God required of his children (Mt. 5:48; 19:21, and see espec. Heb. 2).
The Meaning of Perfection
But what does perfection entail? Until comparatively recently, the doctrine of perfection, which is clearly taught in the Bible, has had a rather poor press, and that for two main reasons: first, as I have intimated above, the Wesleyan view has been almost universally rejected as an inconsistency or aberration within the terms of Wesley’s own Augustinianism, Arminian though he was, but, second, it sits ill in general with the Augustinian view of Christianity which dominates the West. (I suspect that more latterly naturalistic evolution has caused many fundamentalists who are more Augustinian than they are biblical to steer clear of the notion of perfection.) Since Augustinianism is obsessed with sin, we all tend to associate perfection with sinlessness. So if we are all born sinful in Adam, perfection is out of the reckoning from the start. The very idea of the perfectibility of man must be regarded as erroneous in principle (cf. Chadwick, p.119). After all, man as God originally created him was, according to Augustinian tradition, holy and righteousness and from that “high estate” “fell” into ignominy, corruption and shame. In contrast, Jesus, having been born of a virgin apart from carnal concupiscence, came into this world unsullied by Adam’s sin and was as the Son of God necessarily sinless and hence perfect. The picture, as it was presented to me as a student, was, then, not one of the development, maturation, perfecting and the ascent of man to heaven and the very presence of God but one of his devolution or degeneration. How do we respond to this?
There is no question that in the Bible perfection is associated with the holiness and righteousness of God (cf. Lev. 11:44f., etc.). But to be “blameless”, as for example Noah was (Gen. 6:9), by no means puts one on a par with God. Something else is involved. It needs to be appreciated, contrary to Augustine, that while God himself is inherently righteous and does what is right, as Abraham (Gen. 18:25) and Job (8:3, cf. 34:10), for example, were well aware, man (Adam) begins life in total innocence. He knows neither the law nor good and evil. This is as true today of his posterity as it was of Adam and Eve themselves (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22; Dt. 1:39; 1 K. 3:7; Isa. 7:15f.; Heb. 5:12-14, etc.). In other words, we all enter this world as babies created by God (Job 31:15) knowing nothing. And just as we are expected to develop and grow to physical perfection or maturity like all plants and animals, so, as those made in the image of God, we are called to attain to the moral or spiritual perfection or completeness (Heb. 5:12-6:1; 12:23, etc.) of which God himself is the supreme paradigm (Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2; Mt. 5:48). (2* B.B.Warfield’s essay, pp.158ff., on the human development of Jesus is highly relevant to my theme. Warfield refers at length to the writings of Irenaeus who, as Denis Minns OP points out, pp.135f., was regrettably eclipsed by Augustine.) So, according to the Bible, only God is perfect, complete or fully mature (cf. Mt. 5:48; James 1:4). While the Psalmist was well aware that man was totally dependent (Ps. 104:14f., etc.), God himself was self-sufficient, needing nothing (50:12-15, cf. James 1:4). Job could say that in his hand was the life of every living thing (12:10; 33:4; 34:13-15, cf. Acts 17:28). As King over all (Ps. 103:19) his throne was the eternal heaven, and earth was merely his footstool (Isa. 66:1f.). The entire creation existed by his will (Rev. 4:11; Acts 4:24). However, for man, God’s creature, studying the way that is blameless is one thing (Gen. 17:1), attaining to it is another (cf. Ps. 101:2).
Against the OT background of universal sin (Ps. 143:2), Jesus, as the pre-existent Word, was sent into this world like Adam knowing nothing and having to begin the journey or pilgrimage of human life like the rest of us from scratch (Isa. 7:15f.). But whereas Adam had stemmed from the corruptible earth (Gen. 2:7; Ps. 139:15) and been nurtured in an earthly paradise, the Garden of Eden, Jesus emanated from the eternal heaven and, having emptied himself (Phil. 2:7), gestated in the womb (garden) of Mary. Once he was born incarnate, that is, flesh, of earthly woman, he had to undergo all the trials and tribulations, tests (Gen. 2:16f.; Ex. 16:4; Phil. 2:8) and temptations (Mt. 4:1-11; Heb. 4:15) common to man in the weakness of his flesh (2 Cor. 13:4; Heb. 2:17). As Luke testifies, having begun like all babies, he grew in wisdom and years in favour with both God and man (2:52). Having, like circumcised Israel God’s son (Ex. 4:22), spent time as a slave in Egypt (Mt. 2:15, cf. Gal. 4:1), he became a son of the commandment under which he was further tested (cf. Dt. 8:2,16). Then, in his physical maturity (perfection), as the true Adam (cf. Rom. 5:14) and true Israel, having demonstrated undeviating commitment to the law, he was eventually acknowledged at his baptism as the true Son of his Father who was well pleased with him (Mark 1:9-11). In other words, he had matched pedigree with performance, ontology with function. So, having fulfilled all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) and achieved perfection (cf. Mt. 19:21), he uniquely completed his human pilgrimage from earthly dust (Ps. 78:39; 103:14) to his heavenly destiny/destination at his ascension (Heb. 2:6-9; 6:19; 9:24, cf. 1 Cor. 15:49; 1 Pet. 3:18,22). In violent contrast with the first Adam who at his very first test came short and returned to the dust from which he was created (Gen. 3:19), he achieved as man the perfection of eternal life and heavenly glory promised to but forfeited by all others.
To paint the picture differently, Jesus had kept the covenants (cf. Gal. 4:4). As one born of woman, he had done by nature what the law required (Rom. 2:14); as a son of the commandment like Israel (Ex. 4:22) he had kept the law revealed to Moses, gained life and confirmed his Sonship; and as the acknowledged Son of God he set out to fulfil the righteousness which meant exceeding that of the legalistic Pharisees (Mt. 3:15; 5:20; Heb. 7:18f.). While this included living out both the letter and the spirit of the law, it specifically involved giving himself for his fellows who were completely incapacitated by their sin. He did this on the cross at Calvary laying down his life as a ransom for many. It was there that he finished the work his Father had given him to do (John 17:4; 19:30), rose from the dead and ascended transformed into heaven (1 Pet. 3:18,22, cf. 1 Cor. 15:51). Since he had done the will of God, he received what was promised (cf. Heb. 10:36). So it was that he who had descended, ascended (John 3:13; 6:62; 16:28, etc.); he had progressed from ground to glory as a man, the pioneer and perfecter of our salvation (Heb. 6:20; 12:2). (It is important here to remember that man is an anthropological dualism, flesh and spirit. As flesh the Lord Jesus needed to be changed (1 Cor. 15:50ff.). As spirit he was perfected in the image of God.) Having finished his work, he returned in his perfect(ed) humanity to his Father’s house (John 14:2f.) to regain the glory he had had before the world began (John 17:5). He had triumphed as the representative of his brothers (Heb. 2:10f.) so that they could be perfected with him (Heb. 10:14; 12:23) at his Father’s right hand (John 17:24, cf. 14:2f.19; Rev. 3:21).
The Apostolic Gospel
Is this the picture painted by the rest of the NT? The typology provided by the pilgrimage of the children of Abraham travelling to the Promised Land is in general not explicitly extensive, but it is nonetheless subtly pervasive (cf. Mt. 2:15; Heb. 3-4; 11:16, etc.). Just as Israel was tested in the wilderness (Dt. 8:2,16) so was Jesus, the true Israel (Mt. 4:1-11). In Luke 13:32 Jesus talks of finishing his course, and in Luke 9:31, in the context of his transfiguration, of completing his exodus. In 9:51 this is expressed in terms of his ascension which is finally accomplished in 24:51 (cf. Acts 1-11). Thus, with his exodus complete, like Israel who having reached the Promised Land was forbidden to return to Egypt (Dt. 17:16), Jesus was never to return to corruption again (Acts 13:34). (The idea that Jesus will return to earth to establish his kingdom involves a major misunderstanding. See my essays Is Jesus Coming Back to Earth?, No Return to Corruption, etc.) Having attained as man the glory he shared with his Father before the world began (John 17:5,24), he would only return in the glory of God (Mt. 16:27; Luke 9:26, etc.) to rescue his people (Heb. 9:28, etc.) and, as a consuming fire, to condemn his enemies (2 Thes. 1:8; Heb 12:29; Rev. 14:14-20).
John’s gospel is full of references (42, it has been said) to Jesus being sent by the Father to do his will (4:34; 5:30; 6:38), as Adam did not, before returning to his presence (John 6:62) in triumph (Heb. 1:6) with his people in train, mission accomplished (John 17:24; Heb. 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:18).
Paul refers explicitly to the goal of perfection in Christ. After sketching man’s course from slavery, through servanthood to sonship (perfectly recapitulated on the one hand and pioneered on the other by Jesus, Gal. 4:1-7), he briefly presents Jesus as having humbled himself at his incarnation and through obedience having attained to glory (Phil. 2:5-11). Then in Philippians 3 the apostle claims to be striving to follow in his steps. While acknowledging that he, Paul, has not yet achieved the perfection or Christ-likeness he desires, he constantly makes that his aim (v.12, cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Phil. 3:10f.). And in verse 14 he sees its culmination in the upward call of God in Christ (cf. 3:20f.; Col. 3:1-5; 2 Tim. 4:18). Elsewhere he encourages the process of sanctification in his readers urging them on to full maturity (1 Cor. 13:10f.; 14:20; Eph. 4:13-16; Phil. 3:15; Col. 1:28) with its final goal of life in the presence of God (Rom. 5:1f.; 6:22; 2 Cor. 4:17; Col. 1:5,27; 3:1-5; 2 Tim. 4:8) through Jesus, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). In Romans in particular, the apostle portrays our predestined path to perfection as conformity to the image of Christ accomplished through calling, justification and glorification (Rom. 8:29f., cf. 2 Cor. 3:18).
If James and Peter see perfection in heavenly terms (James 1:4,12; 1 Pet. 1:3f., 3:18,22; 4:6; 5:4,10), how much more the author of Hebrews who spells it out in detail. First, like Paul in Philippians 2, he describes Jesus, having made purification for sins (cf. 10:12,14), as enthroned perfect at his Father’s right hand (1:3, cf. 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). He then lays heavy emphasis on the process of his perfecting or his being made perfect (2:10; 5:9; 7:26; 12:23) by stressing Jesus’ truly fleshly or Adamic nature. He insists that he was a true human being who underwent all the challenges, tests and temptations experienced by his fellows (Heb. 2:17; 4:15). Again like Paul, he makes it clear that in responding to mankind’s heavenly call (3:1, cf. Gen. 2:17; Rom. 2:7,10; Phil. 3:14; 1 Thes. 2:12; 1 Pet. 5:10, cf. Heb. 6:1), Jesus achieved perfection and glory through obedience and suffering (Heb. 2:9; 5:7-9) and so became our elder brother (Heb. 2:10-13, cf. Rom. 8:29) and heavenly high priest (5:10; 6:20, cf. 2:17), the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2). Our author goes yet further and tells us that Jesus passed through the heavens (4:14, cf. Eph. 1:20f.; 4:9f.) to be permanently separated (spatially) from sinners (7:26) and enthroned in the world to come (1:6; 2:5). From there (cf. Phil. 3:20) he will come again (cf. 1 Thes. 4:13-17) not to deal with sin but to rescue those who are eagerly waiting for him (9:28, cf. 1 Thes. 1:10; 4:17; Tit. 2:13). This presumably means that at the end of the age he will return in the glory of the Father (Mt. 16:27) as a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29, cf. 2 Thes. 1:7f.; 2:8; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12) in judgement. And with all his people finally made perfect (Heb. 6:1; 11:39f.; 12:23; 13:20f., cf. Col. 1:28; 4:12) and his enemies soundly subjected beneath his feet (10:13), his kingdom will be complete and unshakable (cf. Col. 1:20). The city of God, the heavenly Zion, will be perfection and journey’s end (11:10,16; 12:22-24; 13:14, cf. Ezek. 48:35; Rev. 21:22-22:5).
The progress from ground to glory (or arguably from eternity to eternity, Rom. 8:30; Eph. 1:4,9) is also sketched in the book of Revelation. While the victory of the Lamb is central, what is especially noticeable is the replacement of the original earthly paradise in Genesis with the perfect heavenly paradise. True, God as Creator was present with man in his imperfect or embryonic state at his physical birth in Genesis 2 and 3 (cf. Acts 17:28), but he is only fully so in Revelation 21 and 22 where maturity is achieved and faith gives way to sight (22:4, cf. John 17:24; 1 Cor. 13:12). For there the people on whom he has set his seal (7:2f.; 11:1) and drawn from every tongue and tribe and people have passed through the great tribulation and now worship him in unison (7:9f.). For them grief, pain, darkness, sin, death and corruption are permanently banished along with the physical creation that spawned them (Rev. 20:11; 21:1,4). God and the Lamb himself will supply their every need as in the Garden of Eden (Rev. 22), and they will reign forever and ever in the endless glory of perfection.
This, however, raises the question of the nature of perfection. As God’s creatures and his potential sons and daughters, it involves our attaining not merely to his moral but also his generic likeness. Since John lays heavy stress on the wonder of our being the children of God (1 John 3:1f., cf. Rom. 8:14-17), it is hardly surprising that Peter insists that we are destined to live in the spirit (1 Pet. 4:6, cf. 3:18) like God who is spirit (John 4:24) and who, as our heavenly Father, has begotten us by his Spirit (1 Pet. 1:23, cf. John 1:12f.; 3:1-8; 1 John 3:9). In his second letter Peter underscores this conclusion by asserting that those who believe in Christ become partakers of the divine nature (1:4, cf. Rom. 5:2; Heb. 12:9,23) like Jesus (1 Pet. 3:18,22, cf. John 17:5,22-24). In other words, it is a question of like father like son both morally and generically. Just as we were once like Adam both generically (flesh) and morally (sinners), so now we take on generic and moral image of the glorified Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42ff.). Little wonder that Jesus tells us quoting Psalm 82:6 that we are gods (John 10:34)! We can further support this by appealing to our likeness to Christ as our elder brother (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:10-13) who the author of Hebrews tells us is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (1:3, ESV). And Paul tells us that his glorious spiritual body is the model of our own (Phil. 3:21, cf. 1 Cor 15:44f.). Just as God himself is light (1 John 1:5, cf. 1 Tim. 6:16), so we as his children will shine as lights in the kingdom of our Father (Mt. 13:43). When that occurs we shall at last be perfect, that is, true and complete children of our heavenly Father in universal family likeness (cf. Eph. 3:15).
What I have tried to do above is to argue that the Bible’s concern is to sketch the story or process of human perfection or maturation which in all but Jesus’ case is a process of salvation (3* James Dunn especially lays great emphasis on the process of salvation, see ch. 6. There is a real sense in which Jesus too was not merely perfected but also divinely saved, see Heb. 5:7. John’s gospel stresses his complete dependence on his Father, 5:19f., etc. Apart from John 10:17f., for example, the NT underscores his resurrection by God, Acts 2:24; 1 Cor. 15:4, etc. Truly no flesh will boast before God.) Man who is created in the image of the eternal God is called to share his glory (Rom. 2:7,10; 5:2; 1 Thes. 2:12; 1 Pet. 5:4,10) or generic nature (1 Pet. 4:6; 2 Pet. 1:4) by achieving the perfection, completeness or full maturity of his likeness to God in Christ (Rom. 8:29, cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). This process of perfection, which begins in the womb or the earthly paradise, achieves its goal in the heavenly paradise or the presence of God. It is true of both the individual and the race (Rev. 7:9, cf. Heb. 11:39f.). In Jesus’ case it means that as the true incarnate Son of his Father, he attained to divine glory as a man and thus regained the glory he shared with the Father before the world began (John 17:5,24, cf. 1:1-3). It also means that as the second Adam he embodied all those who put their trust in him (Eph. 1:10). In our case, perfection means conformity to his image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). While he was the ‘natural’ Son who proved his pedigree by achieving the perfection of his Father (Mt. 3:15; 5:48; 19:21; Heb. 1:3,13; 7:26,28; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), we are adopted children saved by his blood who come to corporeal (2 Cor. 5:1), corporate (Rev. 21:9f.) and spiritual maturity in him (Heb. 12:23). And, as those who receive his generic nature (1 Cor. 15:45-50), we also share his heavenly heritage as his bride (Rom. 8:16f.; 1 Cor. 6:17, cf. Eph. 5:25-32).
There is, however, a downside to all this. For alongside perfection in Christ there is another story of perfection or maturation in evil (Rev. 13, cf. Gen 15:16; James 1:15). While all men and women are called to be imitators of God (Lev. 11:44f., 19:2; Eph. 5:1; 1 Pet. 1:15f.), many choose to reject that call preferring to imitate the devil (3 John 11, cf. 1 John 3:10), the god of this world, who was a liar and murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). And just as the former will rule eternally in the presence of their Lord in heaven (John 14:2f.; 17:24; 2 Cor. 4:14; 1 Thes. 4:17), so the latter will share the fate of their god (2 Cor. 4:4) in hell (Rev. 20:10, cf. 21:8; 22:15; 2 Thes. 2:9-11).
In the OT the choice between curse and blessing was depicted in unmistakable terms (Dt. 11:26f,; 30:15-20). In the NT the same reality is presented with equal starkness (Mt. 3:12; 13:30,38f.; Rev. 14:14-20). Ultimately we all achieve perfection – in Christ or Satan (Mt. 25:46; John 5:29; Gal. 6:8). There is no middle ground (Mt. 25:31-46; Rom. 2:6-11)._______________________________________________________
H.Chadwick, Augustine, Oxford, 1986.
J.D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London/New York, 2003.
Denis Minns OP, Irenaeus, London, 1994.
B.B.Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings 1, ed. Meeter, Nutley, 1970.