Rev. John Wesley (1703-1791) used this verse as his text: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect.” Phil. 3:12.
Wesley broaches the topic of perfection in this sermon. He intends to show in what sense Christians are not perfect and in what sense they are. They key to understanding his message is threefold: first, he applies the sinless Scripture to Christians; second, he applies the Scriptural references to sining to unbelievers and thirdly he identifies words people use to allow sin that are not in the Bible and rejects the words and their intent.
Wesley begins with how Christians are not perfect.
“First, that they are not perfect in knowledge: they are not so perfect in this life as to be free from ignorance.” For instance touching the Almighty himself, they cannot search him out to perfection. (Job 26:14; I John 5:7; Phil 2:7; 2 Peter 1:4; Acts 1:7; Amos 3:7; 2 Peter 3:10). “They know not the reasons even of many of his present dispensations with the sons of men; but are constrained to rest here.” (Psalm 97:2; John 13:7; Job 26:7).
Second man is not free from mistake. In matters unessential to salvation they often err and frequently. Erring includes facts and judgements regarding men. Also concerning the Holy Scriptures men often make mistakes especially regarding Scripture that does not involve practice. Wesley points to the Scripture 1 John 2:20 “Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things:”; however, this knowing is in regard to your souls:“Ye know all things that are needful for your souls’ health.” [3 John 2]. Otherwise, and this appears significant, you would be greater than your Master and thus violate the teaching of Christ that you only need to be as your Master who did not know all things: “Of that hour,” saith he, “knoweth no man; no, not the Son, but the Father only.” [Mark 13:32]
Next, man is not perfect from infirmities too which are not sins or of a moral nature but physical inabilities like weakness or slowness of understanding, dulness or confusedness of apprehension, incoherency of thought, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination, lack of a ready or of a retentive memory, slowness of speech, impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behavior.
Lastly man is not free from temptations ultimately affirmed by Wesley in this statement: “that the Son of God himself, in the days of his flesh, was tempted even to the end of his life. [Heb. 2:18;4:15;6:7] Therefore, so let his servant expect to be; for “it is enough that he be as his Master.” [Luke 6:40]”
Wesley’s conclusive statement: “Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus every one that is perfect is holy, and every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, perfect. Yet we may, lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, as it is termed; none which does not admit of a continual increase. So that how much soever any man hath attained, or in how high a degree soever he is perfect, he hath still need to “grow in grace,” [2 Pet. 3:18] and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Saviour. [see Phil. 1:9].”
Wesley continues with how Christians are perfect.
He addresses fathers as referred to by John in I John:
“I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning.” [1 John 2:13] Ye have known both the Father and the Son and the Spirit of Christ, in your inmost soul. Ye are “perfect men, being grown up to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” [Eph. 4:13]”
Here Wesley appears to see fathers as mature Christians and to them he ascribes the following perspectives regarding perfection.
Wesley, who’s sermons are saturated with Scripture and therefore reading them in his context is the most explanatory says this:
“Now the Word of God plainly declares, that even those who are justified, who are born again in the lowest sense, “do not continue in sin;” that they cannot “live any longer therein;” (Rom. 6:1, 2;) that they are “planted together in the likeness of the death” of Christ; (Rom. 6:5;) that their “old man is crucified with him,” the body of sin being destroyed, so that henceforth they do not serve sin; that being dead with Christ, they are free from sin; (Rom. 6:6, 7;) that they are “dead unto sin, and alive unto God;” (Rom. 6:11;) that “sin hath no more dominion over them,” who are “not under the law, but under grace;” but that these, “being free from sin, are become the servants of righteousness.” (Rom. 6:14, 18)”
Wesley says that the Christian, as a privilege of being a son of God, should at a minimum not sin at least outwardly.
Wesley continues with these verses to show the comprehensive nature of sinlessness and the absence of any qualifying words like sinning willfully or habitually.
“He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: And he cannot sin because he is born of God.” [1 John 3:8, 9] And those in the fifth: (1 John 5:18:) “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.”
He rhetorically refutes the accusations that sin is permissible as seen in the life of Abraham, Moses and David by quoting Jesus who said John the Baptist was the greatest. Wesley says John the Baptist was greatest because he was, “greater in the grace of God, and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therefore the Old Testament dispensation was inferior to the New Testament one and we have a greater witness to the grace of God and to Jesus Christ and hence should not sin.
Again, rhetorically, Wesley mentions the idea in Proverbs 24:15 that man does fall into sin but he says the reference is falls into temptation. He again mentions that some say even Solomon said men sin: ‘There is no man that sinneth not;’ (1 Kings 8:46;2 Chron. 6:36;); but again this is before “the Son of God was manifested to take away our sins.” Further Wesley states that upon Pentecost was the power given to conquer sin (Romans 8:37) testifying to the power finally given when Christ sat at His Father’s right hand.
To summarize Wesley he is saying in Christian salvation the necessity to sin is not laid upon us. Any excuse is just that an excuse: “So that whosoever is tempted to any sin, need not yield; for no man is tempted above that he is able to bear. [1 Cor. 10:13]”.
Wesley answer the potential assertions that the Apostle Paul was speaking of sin when he discussed his thorn in the flesh and James when he says in James 3:2, “In many things we offend all..” He points out that Paul who glorifies in his weakness is not glorying in his sin and the eventually he is made strong in his weakness and with James Wesley ask who is James referring to that offends? Not James nor any Christian who is a new creature.
Wesley discusses the seeming contradiction in I John but says the ultimate message is:
“As if he (the Apostle John) had said, “I have before affirmed, The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin; but let no man say I need it not; I have no sin to be cleansed from. If we say that we have no sin, that we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves, and make God a liar: But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just,’ not only ‘to forgive our sins,’ but also ‘to cleanse us from all unrighteousness:’ [1 John 1:8–10] that we may ‘go and sin no more.’ ” [John 8:11].”
Wesley says John affirms his point in I John 3: “Little children,” saith he, “let no man deceive you:” (As though I had given any encouragement to those that continue in sin:) “He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin: For his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil.” (1 John 3:7–10.)
The conclusion: “A Christian is so far perfect, as not to commit sin.”
Wesley continues that the Christian is free from evil thoughts and tempers, and that their heart is now not corrupt (Matt 7:17, 18) and therefore able to bring forth good fruit. Paul in 2 Cor. 10:4 discusses the weapons of our warfare to live without sin.
Wesley uses the Apostle Paul to affirm Christians are able to live freed from evil tempers in his statements “I have been crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” The verse indicating deliverance from sin inwardly and outwardly.
As Wesley concludes the sermon he cites numerous verse articulating the complete deliverance of Christians from sin: Acts 15:9; Col 1:27; 1 John 3:3; Matt 11:29; John 4:34, 5:30; I john 1:5, 1:9, 4:17) Perhaps this verse sums up his view in that it does not have any condition or limit to it nor does it delay His work: “Thus doth Jesus “save his people from their sins:” [Matt. 1:21] ”
Wesley says, “It remains, then, that Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect, as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers.”
The sermon ends with references to verses referencing purity (Deut 30:6; Psalm 51:10; Ezekiel 36:25; 2 Cor 7:1); and an exhortation to his hearers to “crying unto him day and night, till we also are “delivered from the bondage of corruption, into the glorious liberty of the sons of God!” [Rom. 8:21]”.