My favorite thing about the Kindle is that so many books are available for free or for a very small cost! This is causing me to read books that I might never have read simply because I did not want to purchase them at a bookstore. Along with that, I am reading more and more classics. I do not want to sound elitist, but when I read the works of Christians who have been dead for centuries my heart is often moved. So much of what is published today is simply…fluff.
On that note, I am going to be offering blog posts sharing insights from what I have learned in reading such works. Today I start with two I read just in the last few days and it is interesting how these two works were similar in many ways: John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection and Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.
Wesley was a revival preacher in the 1700s in England. He was also a thoughtful theologian and the founder of Methodism which became one of the largest Christian denominations in the USA. One of his distinguishing viewpoints is the theology of Christian perfection. This seems to be an oft misunderstood point. Wesley agrees that justification, being made right with God, is by grace alone through faith alone. Once a person is forgiven of sins and welcomed into the family of God, the Christian life is a pursuit of sanctification: becoming holy. Wesley argues that a Christian can become entirely sanctified in this life.
Throughout A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley is clear on what he is NOT saying: “They are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake“. Christian perfection is not a God-like perfection. For example, though God could solve a differential equation easily, a Christian’s failure to do so has nothing to do with perfection. Christian perfection is not absolute perfection.
Christian perfection is, according to Wesley, “The loving God with all our heart, and mind, and soul. (Deut. 6:5)”. It is “that love of God and neighbor, which implies deliverance from sin.” Love is the key: “Pure love reigning in the heart and life, – this is the whole of scriptural perfection“. In other words, Christian perfection is perfect love in the life of the Christian.
A large part of Wesley’s argument is that since God commands this of us, then it is obvious that it should be possible. He also spends a good amount of time refuting attacks on this doctrine. Some say it is too human centered. Wesley’s response is that those who reach this perfection do so by God’s grace and are so in touch with God that they recognize, more than other Christians, their need. Along the same lines:
“If we were not utterly impotent, our good works would be our own property; whereas now they belong wholly to God, because they proceed from him and his grace: While raising our works, and making them all divine, he honors himself in us through them”.
He says that those who are perfect can continue to grow in grace “not only while they are in the body, but to all eternity”. Further, these are not super-Christians, Wesley even says that they can still learn from those who have not yet achieved this perfection. Finally, it is not impossible for a Christian to fall from this perfection.
I am not sure if I am with Wesley on this. But I think part of the challenge is that so much of the Christian subculture, at least the impression I get, is an emphasis on our sin and how we will never be holy in this life. I wonder though, is not this emphasis on our sin an emphasis on who we were? And now, are we not new creations in Christ? Does not the emphasis on sin leave out truths about the resurrection and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?
All that aside, reading Wesley’s work moved me, I want to grow closer to God, to be consumed by the love of God. I want to love God with my heart, soul, mind and strength and to love my neighbor as myself. That is my prayer.
I think Brother Lawrence was consumed by this love of God. His classic book, The Practice of the Presence of God, is a must read. It is short, any Christian could read it (Wesley’s work might be more difficult).
Brother Lawrence was a monk in the 1600s in Paris. The book is a report on conversations with Brother Lawrence, so it is often written as “Brother Lawrence said…”. Half the book consists of letters Brother Lawrence wrote. There were get his first-person voice.
Like Wesley, Brother Lawrence emphasized the love of God. Brother Lawrence calls us to converse with God at all times, to meditate and praise and pray constantly. In the monastery he spent years working in the kitchens, and in the book there is a prayer he prayed:
“O my God, since Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy Presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance. Receive all my works, and possess all my affections”.
Reading Brother Lawrence, I was struck by how practical (not necessarily easy) it is. This is the sort of prayer any businessperson, teacher, engineer or any person could say before going to work. The hope is to realize God’s presence in all things in life, not just in the “holy” things. As Brother Lawrence says, “The least little remembrance will always be pleasing to Him.”
It is not just our love of God that is in mind here, but God’s radical love for us. A few times Brother Lawrence spoke of how he sinned, or perhaps neglected to pray or think about God. Rather than get down in the dumps or depressed, he records that he simply asked forgiveness, welcomed God’s grace and returned to communion with God. He was not able to do this because of a flippant disregard for the seriousness of sin, but rather for a deep realization of God’s grace. To have such trust in God’s love and grace is beautiful and it leads to the kind of person who can say this:
“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of continual conversation with God”
Reading Brother Lawrence and John Wesley gave me a lot of food for thought and prayer. I am not sure if I can say that last statement from Brother Lawrence. I am nowhere near being filled with the love Wesley spoke of. I go through much of my day ignoring God’s presence. But I believe I have grown in my faith over the years and I desire to continue to change. In that, I am thankful for a Catholic monk and a revival preacher for reminding me of the beauty of God’s love.