Salvation and Perfection

Have you had the experience of discovering something that you already knew, but because it was phrased in a new way, suddenly the truth of it impressed itself upon your mind?  

I've had that experience in recent months.  In part it came from a conversation I had with someone about John Wesley's conception of salvation as being saved from sin in the fullest sense: not only from the guilt of sins past (which we call "justification" or pardon), but also from actually continuing to commit sins, that is, being saved from the rut of committing the same sins over and over (this spiritual healing of our sin-sick souls, we call "sanctification").  John Wesley freely spoke of the goal of Sanctification as "Christian Perfection" or "perfection in love", by which he meant nothing other than becoming like Jesus Christ in our Love of God and Love of neighbor (see Matt. 5:48).  

It means bearing the image of God, just like Him who is the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15); which is our primal vocation (Gen. 1:26-27).  So Christian perfection means the righting of something that went wrong in God's ordered creation, it means standing back up that which had fallen.

In connection with this, I've not been able to shake Jesus' words from John 5:6 lately, where he asks a man who has been crippled a very long time, "Do you want to be healed?"  I preached on this text a few weeks ago, and it has stuck with me.  On the occasions when I am conscious of being tempted, I find that those words seem to float to the top of my mind.  Do you want to be healed?  Do you want to be made well in your soul and in your desires?

The temptation among Evangelicals and other Christians as well, is to focus being saved entirely on being forgiven and set right with God and set free from guilt and judgement.  This is the vitally important starting point that cannot be neglected, and there is joy in heaven whenever anyone experiences that justifying grace of God.
Yet Jesus is not through with us at that point.  He wants to not only save us from the effects of sin, but he wants to save us from sinning.  He wants us to be healed.  
"Saved" is bigger than is often assumed, it seems to me.

Rev. George MacDonald
I've recently run across a quote from the saintly and, frankly, at times idiosyncratic and unorthodox 19th Century Scottish Preacher, George MacDonald (who was much beloved by C.S. Lewis) along similar lines:

I can well imagine an honest youth, educated in Christian forms, thus reasoning with himself - ..."the Lord said, 'If you would be perfect, go, sell that you have.'  I cannot be perfect; it is hopeless; and he does not expect it." - It would be more honest if he said, "I do not want to be perfect; I am content to be saved." Such as he do not care for being perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect, but for being what they call saved.  They little think that without perfection there is no salvation - that perfection is salvation: they are one. 

MacDonald is concerned that we use the comforting message of saving grace as an excuse not to obey, not to be faithful, not to carry the cross and follow Christ.  Splitting apart Justification/Forgiveness and Sanctification/Soul-Healing from one another may be precisely what gives rise to what Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, called "Cheap Grace."  It happens when I'm content to be saved by grace and accepted by a loving God, but am not willing to be challenged by grace to go on to perfection (Heb. 6:1).  

But, as John Wesley might say, Jesus wants to save you from sin...and from sinning.

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Anonymous Dan said...

Entire sanctification is a slippery slope to works righteousness buttressed by the social holiness concept. Such things led Methodists (and Baptists) to shove Prohibition down the throats of the American people to legislate sanctified behavior, and we all know how well that worked out. I'm convinced that Wesley had some deep emotional problems that forced him to believe that if he could only be good enough then he would be justified before God. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and just call him thoroughly Arminian and not add semi-Pelagian. Much better in my mind to go with Martin Luther's concept of "simul justus et peccator," simultaneously saint and sinner. Even St. Paul wrote that he did not do the things he wanted to do and did the thing he did not want to. There is no entire sanctification this side of eternity

10:05 AM, June 19, 2018  
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12:33 AM, June 20, 2018  
Blogger Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for commenting. I think your concern is very valid - a strong concept of sanctification stands on the knife edge of falling into works-righteousness, with its attendant moral judgementalism (both of the classical conservative forms and the more liberal "social justice" forms). Of course, having a judgemental and pharisaical spirit is precisely one of those things that Jesus wants to heal in us, so that we can more fully bear his image.

However, it is entirely clear from Scripture that we were created to bear God's image (Gen. 1), God calls us to be perfect (Mt. 5), to love him with all we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mk. 12), to show compassion to those in need (Mt. 25), and to be conformed to the image of Christ (Phil. 2) who is the perfect image of God (Col. 1) who perfectly loved God and neighbor (see the cross). In other words, the New Testament itself presents us with a VERY strong concept of sanctification, and the expectation that we are to pursue it. We cannot get away from this. Jesus wants to heal us thoroughly.

We cannot get away from this: we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, trusting always that it is God's grace that is working with us and through us and in us, and God's grace that sustains us when we backslide and fail.

This is the New Testament teaching, and that is why it is found way beyond Wesley. Consider the hymn "There is a fountain filled with blood" - we pray to "be saved to sin no more." That is the goal. Whether anyone reaches it (or stays there long) this side of eternity is up for debate.

The concern you raise about moralism is valid and important - SO important that Jesus himself raised it - do not try to get the speck from your brother's eye as long as there is a log in your own eye (Mt. 7). The moral teachings in the New Testament are intended for us to use as mirrors to examine our own faults and growth areas, not telescopes to examine our neighbors' faults. If more Christians could get their minds around this well-known teaching of Jesus, I think the church would not be so quick to fall into the sorts of errors represented by the Prohibition movement (and would probably have a much better reputation among the non-believers we hope to reach).

1:09 PM, June 25, 2018  

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