Marks of a Methodist 6: Perfection
By Thomas Lambrecht
This edition of Perspective concludes our survey of the marks or characteristics of a Methodist, as put forward by Bishop Gerald Kennedy in his 1960 book of that name. We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love. We noted the mark of Discipline, a focused and structured effort toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We saw Methodism characterized by Mission, the outward focus of the church to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of people. In the previous article, we noted the tendency toward Freedom of thought and proclamation, leading to freedom from sin and the world, yet within a framework of shared doctrinal commitments.
The final mark that Kennedy and Wesley identify is Christian Perfection. As in Kennedy’s day, United Methodists in the time of my ministry have tended to regard Christian Perfection as a joke. Often the only allusion to perfection comes when someone makes a mistake and then remarks that they are “going on to perfection” (using Wesley’s language).
Yet, holiness is not a joke. “Make every effort … to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
Christian Perfection does not mean that a person will never make a mistake. In Kennedy’s words, Wesley “said that [people] could be perfect in their love and their motives.” Wesley believed that one could be free from willful or intentional sin, guided by love and the Holy Spirit. He believed that one could reach this goal in this life, not just at the moment of death. And if one could reach it, one ought to strive for it.
Kennedy notes, “the complete surrender of the life to God was the goal. … If a [person] becomes single-minded, then so far as his love is concerned, he has reached perfection. The disease is always double-mindedness, and Methodism believed that it could be cured by an experience of religion.”
Kennedy points to Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus describes a God who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (vs. 45). Love for all, and behavior expressing that love, makes us like our heavenly Father, which is the standard of holiness.
Kennedy believed that the pursuit of holiness or Christian perfection raises the bar on excitement, enthusiasm, and commitment to the Christian life. “The early Methodists expected miracles and it did not seem unreasonable to them that perfection should be their aim. We are short on enthusiasm. … There [is] a noticeable lack of any sense that the message proclaimed could change a [person’s] life or turn the world upside down.
“There are not many of our meetings where anybody gets excited. … We seem to have lost the sense of the Gospel as good news, and we put our emphasis on new laws. And yet there is no sense in thinking we can stir up enthusiasm by appointing a committee or passing a resolution.”
Striving for spiritual “greatness” motivates our journey of faith much more than just going through the routines of religiosity. In our own time, there is beginning to be a recovery of this emphasis on the pursuit of holiness that is energizing the church.
The idea that Christians can live in perfect love in this life gives tremendous hope to the believer. In contrast with a world that sees only hopelessness, pain, and brokenness, the Gospel gives us hope that our lives can be transformed into the likeness of Christ.
For Kennedy, this hope was particularly manifested in the ministry that Wesley had with the “miners, tradesmen, and servants” – the forgotten common man. “Beginning his work with the people neglected by society as being of little worth, he came to see in them unlimited possibilities through the grace of God. He saw that the perfect will and motive were just as open to them as to the gentry. Perhaps more so! So he preached the same promises and held forth the same marvelous expectations to [people] of all sorts and conditions.
“There is a great need to get things turned around in our thinking. We are so much aware of the newspaper headlines, where the news is always bad, that we forget to listen to the Good News from another source. It may seem naïve to speak of Christian Perfection as our aim in a world preparing weapons of warfare more horrible than we can imagine. It seemed naïve to preach that doctrine to the gin-soaked inhabitants of London. But all of our trouble springs out of the human heart, which is very sinful, and we have a promise that Christ has won a victory over both sin and death. We must begin to proclaim the reality of hope.”
Along with this hope for the potential of humanity comes a belief in the reality of that potential. Kennedy affirms salvation by faith in God through Christ alone. He calls for us to be “rescued from our service club do-goodism which makes God merely the president of the club. Faith in good works and social planning is nothing to build life on and these puny efforts cannot deal with sin.”
At the same time, he goes on, “It does not follow that we must despise human nature because it is weak and sinful. It does not mean that we must regard human effort as altogether futile. There is a sense in which faith in God must always increase faith in [humanity] and its potentialities. You do not glorify the Creator by despising His creation.”
The challenge is maintaining a balance between dependence upon God and acknowledging the contribution of human effort in spiritual growth. “The danger of believing in the possibility of Christian perfection is that it will lead to pride. … Let us make sure that we are not clearing the way for societies of perfectionists who thank God that they are not as other men [Luke 18:11]. What do we claim? Only that we have faith to believe that people can be perfect in love and that we do not propose to aim for anything less.”
The Holy Spirit
Crucially, Kennedy saw the work of the Holy Spirit as essential in transforming the life of the believer into the likeness of Christ. It is interesting that he points to the need for a “reformation in our day, which I expect to be more deep and searching than that of the sixteenth century, [which] will turn upon the Spirit’s presence and life” (quoting English theologian, Frederick Denison Maurice). In the decade after his book, the Charismatic Renewal hit the church and ushered in the reformation that Kennedy thought was coming.
Kennedy saw that the presence of the Holy Spirit in life was the power of God at work transforming us. He notes Wesley’s Journal “gives the clear impression of a living power at work among the people. There was an invisible stream which, once entered, affected people in wonderful ways. They were exalted and inspired; strengthened and comforted; made confident and unafraid.”
Here, Kennedy becomes practical. “How shall we find this new experience of the Spirit and its promise? We should begin by knowing people who already possess it. We should make a serious search for the path to spiritual power. We must search our own lives for the habits and attitudes which cut us off from God. We can find a like-minded group within our churches to study, pray, experiment. To sum it all up, we must resolve that we shall make it possible for God to brand this ancient mark of a Methodist on our own lives.”
This is exactly what is being captured in the return to an emphasis on accountable discipleship. The recovery of the “class meeting” of early Methodism allows modern-day disciples to go deeper in our walk with Christ, encouraged and supported by fellow travelers. Engaging the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, worship, Holy Communion, fasting or abstinence can help us continue to be remade into a new creation, with the goal of loving God and one another perfectly.
Kennedy concludes, “We are pressured into watering down our convictions in the name of being tolerant and broad. Sometimes we subscribe to an unwritten theory that we will be better Christians by becoming nondescript Methodists. But I believe we are especially fitted for the living of these days because God has put His hand upon us. … As the Methodist part of the Body of Christ, we bear the marks of our faith in Experience, Results, Discipline, Mission, Freedom, and Christian Perfection. Let no worldly fear trouble us!”
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Image: Shutterstock.