Jesus On Entire Sanctification
Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48
John Wesley is widely known as the founder of Methodism. However, those who are not familiar with John Wesley's story usually do not realize that he had a life-changing experience at a society on Aldersgate Street, in which he felt his heart "strangely warmed," as he was given an assurance of his faith. This he recorded in his journal. After this experience, Wesley developed his doctrine that came to be known as entire sanctification or Christian Perfection. While the latter name is often off-putting to many because of the terminology used, what I would like to do in this post is examine whether there is a biblical warrant for John Wesley's doctrine. Before I can do this, we need to examine John Wesley's doctrine to understand what John Wesley was actually saying.
In his famous work, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, John Wesley describes what entire sanctification is. Through a series of question and answers, John Wesley makes the case that Christian Perfection, or Entire Sanctification, does not mean what it may initially seem to some. While the initial response to the idea of Christian Perfection may be one of concern, thinking that John Wesley implied an absolute perfection in the Christian, this is not what is meant by the term. The shock comes when we realize that absolute perfection is only an attribute of God, and of no one else. As finite creatures, we can never become absolutely perfect. Our nature will not allow it. John Wesley makes it clear that he is referring to a specific type of perfection, not absolute perfection. According to Wesley, Christian Perfection does not mean that a Christian will be perfect in intellect or free from mistakes. Rather, what John Wesley meant by the doctrine is that a person becomes perfect when he or she has a perfect love for God and a perfect love for others. In short, Wesley was concerned with love as he proclaimed this doctrine, not weaknesses or other shortcomings.
The reason that I bring this issue up in today's passage is because this passage is typically used in support of the doctrine of Entire Sanctification or Christian Perfection. The question before us is this: Was Jesus commanding his disciples to have a perfect love for God and for neighbor. If yes, then this passage would clearly support Wesley's doctrine. If no, then this passage does not (although this would not bar another passage from supporting it). So what exactly was Jesus commanding his disciples to do in the passage before us today?
Jesus begins by bringing up a point that others were teaching in his day. The first part of the command is biblical. In Leviticus 19:18, God's people were commanded to love their neighbors. This is likely the passage to which Jesus is alluding. The second part of the teaching that Jesus here criticizes is not biblical. There is no place in the Old Testament where the people are commanded to hate their enemies. There are passages that make it clear that they are not to make treaties with certain nations (Deuteronomy 23:6) or describe a feeling of hatred toward enemies (Psalm 139:21-22). However, neither of these are commands to hate our enemies. Jesus continues in verse 44 to give a command that is in keeping with the commands of Scripture: love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Those who mistreat you for doing right and following God need prayer, not hatred.
Jesus goes on to give the reason behind this action: because we are imitating God in his perfect love when we do so. God gives good things to both the just and the unjust, and we should also do good to both the just and unjust. Jesus is here describing a perfect love for neighbor that is free from all malice. Furthermore, this love is rooted in a love for God and a commitment to imitate him. Jesus stresses that there is no reward for loving only those who love you back or can repay you. In this way, Jesus demands that we be perfect, even as God is perfect (v. 48). Jesus demands that his followers be perfect in love, just as God is.
In this passage, Jesus is commanding his disciples to be perfect in love in imitation of God. This is precisely what John Wesley was speaking of when he coined the term "Christian Perfection." Therefore, I have to conclude that Jesus was speaking of the same thing in this passage.