Less than a year before his death, John Wesley called Christian perfection “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appears to have raised us up” (“Letter to Robert Carr Blackenbury,” in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 13; Jackson edition, 1879] 9]. This observation, made after fifty years of ministry, goes to the very heart of Methodism. From 1725 (long before Aldersgate) to his death in 1791, the focus of Wesley’s entire way of salvation was theologically governed by Christian perfection as the goal.
It was also highly controversial and much misunderstood, rejected by conventional Anglicans and ardent Calvinists alike. Wesley was forced to clarify his teaching by saying what Christian perfection is not as well as what it is. But he never backed away from proclaiming it as a promise of God for this life; indeed, the central point of divine redemption.
When saying what it is not, Wesley was clear Christian perfection did not enable us to understand everything accurately or always make sound judgments. It did not exempt us from temptation or deliver us from bodily ailments. It certainly did not mean everything we do is in accordance with the perfect will of God. Even with pure intentions, there would always be “involuntary transgressions” and a need for continued growth in perfection.
Of his many statements describing what Christian perfection is, here is one of his best: “Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is neither more nor less than pure love—love expelling sin and governing both the heart and life of a child of God” (“Letter to Walter Churchey,” in Works [vol. 12; Jackson edition, 1879], 432]). It is love for God and neighbor governing our hearts and lives, our motivations and desires, such that there is no longer room for intentional sin therein.
Salvation, then, is the process by which God restores humanity to its original condition, prior to its fall into sin. As we have seen, this is not restoration to the vigor and intelligence Wesley believes marks pre-fall humanity, but to the love that governed their lives. Salvation is thus “a restoration not only to the favour, but likewise to the image of God; implying not barely a deliverance from sin but the being filled with the fullness of God (“The End of Christ’s Coming,” ¶111.5, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 2; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985]). Salvation is not simply a matter of forgiveness of our sins (justification) but of a new life of love (sanctification); it is a gift of God for life in the here and now as well as the life to come.
Christian perfection, as the culmination of sanctification, restores us to the image of God in which we were created. But it does more than this. It restores us more fully to the image of God than was possible for humanity prior to the fall. For, as Wesley argues in “God’s Love to Fallen Man,” had there been no fall into sin, there would have been no cross. We then would not have known the very depth of God’s love, which is revealed in Christ’s death for us. Since our love for both God and neighbor is in response to God’s love for us, because of what God has done in Christ we can now image that love more fully. Christian perfection, then, is not simply a restoring of our original creation; it is a real anticipation of the new creation to come.
I have suggested that the way of salvation is at the heart of salvation. But deeper than this is the love of God itself. In the end, the core of Wesley’s theology is “God is love,” a love that is revealed in Christ’s life and especially his death on the cross, and a love triumphant over death in Christ’s resurrection. It is a love made manifest through the power of the Holy Spirit, who first brings it to birth in our hearts and then perfects our hearts in love.