What is “sinless perfection?” What do the so-called “holiness churches” believe about growth in Christ and sanctification? Is there really a difference between, say, a Nazarene church and a Baptist congregation about the Holy Spirit’s work in a believer’s life? Today, we allow a Nazarene theologian, H. Orton Wiley, to explain for himself.
In this excerpt, Wiley explains what “Christian perfection” means:1
Christian perfection in the critical sense, represents the more positive aspect of the one experience, known theologically either as entire sanctification or Christian perfection. Entire sanctification, however, is a term which applies more to the aspect of a cleansing from sin, or the making holy; while Christian perfection emphasizes especially the standard of privilege secured to the believer by the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
“We give the name of Christian perfection,” says Mr. Fletcher, “to that maturity of grace and holiness which established adult believers attain to under the Christian dispensation; and thus we distinguish that maturity of grace, from both the ripeness of grace which belongs to the dispensation of the Jews below us, and from the ripeness of glory which belongs to departed saints above us.
Hence it appears that by Christian perfection, we mean nothing but the cluster and maturity of graces which compose the Christian character in the Church militant.
In other words, Christian perfection is a spiritual constellation, made up of these gracious stars: perfect repentance, perfect faith, perfect humility, perfect meekness, perfect self-denial, perfect resignation, perfect hope, perfect charity for our visible enemies, as well as our earthly relations; and, above all, perfect love for our invisible God, through the explicit knowledge of our Mediator, Jesus Christ.
And as this last star is always accompanied by all the others, as Jupiter is by his satellites, we frequently use, as St. John, the phrase ‘perfect love’ instead of the word ‘perfection’; understanding by it the pure love of God shed abroad in the hearts of established believers by the Holy Ghost, which is abundantly given them under the fullness of the Christian dispensation.”
Here the word perfection, used in connection with the graces of the Spirit, must be understood to refer solely to their quality, as being pure and unmixed, not to their quantity, as precluding further growth and development.
Later in his discussion, Wiley anticipated a question about how a Christian who is “entirely sanctified” handles temptation from sin, or if such a thing is even possible:2
Temptation is reconcilable with the highest degree of evangelical perfection. Jesus was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, but was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin. Temptation seems to be necessarily involved in the idea of probation. No temptation or evil suggestion becomes sin, however, until it is tolerated or cherished by the mind. As long as the soul maintains its integrity, it remains unharmed, however protracted or severe the temptation may be.
Several questions arise in this connection:
When does temptation become sin?
To this most difficult question Bishop Foster replies, “Sin begins whenever the temptation begins to find inward sympathy, if known to be a solicitation to sin. So long as it is promptly, and with full and hearty concurrence of the soul, repelled, there is no indication of inward sympathy, there is no sin” (FOSTER, Christian Purity, p. 55).
What is the difference between the temptations of those who are entirely sanctified, and those who are not?
The difference lies in this, that in the latter, temptation stirs up the natural corruption of the heart with its bias toward sin; while in the former, the temptation is met with uniform resistance.
But how may I distinguish the temptations of the enemy, from the carnal mind or corruption of my own heart?
Mr. Wesley admits that sometimes “it is impossible to distinguish, without the direct witness of the Spirit.” In general, however, there need be no confusion. In the sanctified soul there is a fullness of love, humility and all the graces of the spirit, so that a temptation to pride, anger, or any of the works of the flesh is met with the instant recoil of the whole being. Holiness in man, as in Christ, is found in that fundamental ethical nature which loves righteousness and hates iniquity.
Temptation and trial may appear to be evils, but in reality they are God’s method of establishing the believer in holiness and preparing him for the life to come. By them, God empties the appeals of the world of their urgency, and strengthens the motives of faithfulness in the kingdom of God. Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him (James 1:12; Heb. 12:11).
What does “Christian perfection” actually look like, in real life? Wiley tackles this question:3
It is the uniform testimony of those who believe and teach the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection, that the Spirit bears witness to this work of grace in the heart, exactly as He bears witness to Christian sonship.
“None, therefore, ought to believe that the work is done,” says Mr. Wesley, “till there is added the testimony of the Spirit witnessing his entire sanctification as clearly as his justification. We know it by the witness and by the fruit of the Spirit.”
Dr. J. Glenn Gould says that “This inner assurance is made up of three distinct phases. That is, they are logically distinct, though the sinner’s experience of them may seem to be instantaneous. They are (1) the witness of the seeker’s own heart; (2) the witness of God’s Word; and (3) the inner illumination of the Holy Spirit” (GOULD, The Spirit’s Ministry, p. 8).
The sanctified soul may know by the testimony of his own spirit, and the witness of the Holy Spirit, that the blood of Jesus Christ has cleansed him from all sin. Here we have the testimony of consciousness, which we can no more doubt than our own existence. And in addition to this, there is the direct and positive testimony of the witnessing Spirit.
To the scriptural evidences already cited, we may add also, those personal examples which confirm the doctrine of evangelical perfection:
- Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generations (Gen. 6:9).
- Job was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil (Job 1:1).
- Zacharias and Elisabeth were both righteous before God walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless (Luke 1:6).
- Our Lord said of Nathanael, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! (John 1:47).
- St. Paul also speaks of those in the apostolic church who were evangelically perfect. Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect (I Cor. 2: 6); and Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded (Phil. 3:15).
Were we to attempt to present here, the testimonies of those men and women who have enjoyed the experience of perfect love, our task would be too great. Inspiring as they are, we cannot include them. “A study of the biographies of Christian leaders,” says Dr. D. Shelby Corlett, “reveals the fact that with few exceptions they all had a second crisis experience. While it is true all would not interpret this experience in terms of Wesley’s ‘second blessing properly so-called’; it is also true that this second experience made a distinct change in their lives and ministry. Universally unbiased Christians long for and seek a deeper experience than that which they obtain in regeneration. Thousands have enjoyed a ‘second blessing’ without being instructed in the truth as taught by believers in the Wesleyan emphasis on the doctrine of entire sanctification” (DR. D. SHELBY CORLETT, Herald of Holiness, Vol. 27, No. 11).
Earlier in his discussion on this topic, Wiley helpfully summed up the whole matter:4
We may conclude, then, that nothing is clearer from the Scripture than that there is a perfection which may be attained in this life; that this perfection consists solely in a life of perfect love, or the loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength; that this perfection of love has no reference to the degree or quantity of love, but to its purity or quality; that this state of perfect love is a consequence of the purification of the heart from all sin, so that love remains in soleness and supremacy; that this purification is accomplished instantaneously by the baptism with the Holy Spirit; that the resultant state of perfect love is regarded as adulthood in grace, in that the believer enters into the fullness of privilege under the New Covenant; and last, in that love is the fulfilling of the law, this state of pure or perfect love, is known as Christian perfection.