My first semester as a college professor ended in early June. I taught both Use of English II and United Methodist Distinctives. Of course the UM Distinctives was my favorite. During one of my classes we were talking about the different ways that Wesleyans (United Methodists) talk about the grace of God. There is prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. And then there is the most controversial of them all: perfecting grace.
Our founder, John Wesley, believed that it was possible to become perfect in this life.
Now, whenever this is taught, it is always the most questioned of our church doctrines. I remember being in seminary classes where we argued and argued and argued about it. We can’t be perfect! How’s that even possible?! It’s not possible. It’s not. And yet, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus himself said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Even for all the pushback, we stand by Christian Perfection. We believe that it is possible to be made perfect in this life. In fact, when every single United Methodist elder or deacon is ordained, that person must answer yes to these two questions:
Are you going on to perfection?
Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
These questions are so important they come as the second and third of nineteen questions, the first of which is “Have you faith in Christ?” If we get ordained, this is a central theme in our call as ordained people—to go on to perfection, to have full expectation that we will be made perfect in this life (not in the life to come).
Now, in order to understand that, you have to qualify it a little bit. It doesn’t mean that we can be physically perfect. It’s possible to be perfect in the Wesleyan sense with a body that is sick and broken. It doesn’t mean that we know everything there is to know. Perfection is not perfect knowledge or intellect. Perfection in the way that we mean it does not even mean that you don’t ever commit sin.
What it means in a Wesleyan way of thinking and being is perfection in love. That means that you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
Now if you ask me, perfection isn’t something that happens in a sustained way. I believe that in a Christian’s life there might be moments when one is perfect in love. There may be acts of love and connections with God in which the Christian is perfect in love. Then you might fall out of that perfect love in the hopes of returning to it. And the goal of the Christian life is to make those moments closer and closer together in time until eventually they join together to make a life that is perfectly holy in the love of God. That’s my personal take.
I write all this to give you a basic framework for the story that I’m about to tell in three parts on this blog.
It was a Thursday afternoon in late May. I was teaching this to my students. And after we talked about Christian perfection in theory I asked them to give me an example of someone they knew that they believed might have reached perfection in this life, that is they were seated perfectly in the love of God and neighbor.
My students struggled a bit to think of anyone they knew that would fall in this category. They struggled with the whole concept of Christian perfection and what it means as well.
The students gave a few examples that didn’t quite reach the heights of this kind of perfection (including some students who named themselves, which I put the kibosh on very quickly. If you think you’ve reached perfection, you definitely haven’t!). Then one student spoke up with an example of a pastor who gave up his very lucrative job in the Sierra Leone non-profit world for the call to pastor. And not only that but he asked the bishop to place him out in the bush where few pastors want to go. He did this out of obedience to the call and a desire to serve those who are often forgotten.
While he was speaking I started writing down on the whiteboard words to describe that kind of love—perfect love. Sacrificial. Risk Taking. Others-focused. Principled. Joyful. The list was eight, nine, maybe ten words long.
And at this, the understanding of the room began to turn. This Christian perfection business is no small thing. It’s something that makes your life bigger and deeper and more true than anything else.
At this, two stories were shared that have become a part of my soul. I asked permission to write them in this blog. They are two stories of different people in Kono District during the Ebola outbreak. And I hope that they are for you what they were for me: an example of the kind of love that changes the world.
To be continued…