Perfection is a concept used frequently by the first generations of Friends to speak of the foundations of the Quaker revelation of Christianity, both in the usage that we choose today, and in several other senses. Where a modern speaker might restrict the use of the term “perfection” to mean flawless, unblemished, or without error, a speaker from the 17th century would also use it to denote the related ideas of being complete, blameless, mature, unspoiled, repaired, and so on. In the Authorized Version, the English word “perfect” is translated from several corresponding Greek terms, including teleios, katartizō, holoklēria, epiteleō, artios, and plēroō. All mean approximately the same thing, but the two terms used most frequently in the NT are forms of telios and katartizo. In the first, “perfect” means “complete,” indicating maturity, something of final stature, a finished work. In the second, “perfect” indicates the state of something that had been broken and is now mended.
The Friends’ understanding of perfection was foundational to their beliefs, and was one of the unique aspects of the Quaker revelation of Christianity that got the early Friends into hot water with the Reformed Protestants and Anglicans of 17th century Britain and America. To Friends, perfection was the end-product of sanctification, of becoming holy. Friends’ understanding of perfection was closely tied to their belief that genuine, internal righteousness was a requirement imposed by God in order to justify a human and grant salvation. Perfection was the ultimate state that the Friend hoped to attain, the degree of sinless immunity to temptation assigned to them as his or her unique measure of the Light.
On the other hand, the Puritan interpretation of grace was that God imputed righteousness to you, and accounted you justified, while in life you remained depraved, a helpless prisoner to sinning “in thought, word, and deed.” The Friends’ view was vastly more optimistic and generous. The function of the Light was not to impute a forced righteousness, but to lead to a life of genuine righteousness, to a real state of inward holiness. George Fox regularly accused his opponents of “pleading for sin” when they cried that earthly righteousness was beyond man’s reach. Fox countered with the words of Paul from Ephesians 4:13 that “a measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” is not only attainable but an essential step in the Christian walk of faith. In his Epistles, “perfection” comes up frequently:
“Now what value, price and worth have they made of the blood of Christ, that cleanses them from sin and death, and yet [they] told people that they would bring them to the knowledge of the son of God and to a perfect man, and now tell them that they must not be perfect on the earth, but carry a body of sin about them to the grave?” Fox, Epistle 222.
But were the early Friends always “perfect?” Did they exhibit a state of complete sinlessness, of mended completeness, of total spiritual maturity? It doesn’t seem so. They feuded at times, and were unquestioned backsliders at times. What does this mean?
Robert Barclay provides the concise Quaker answer in the Apology for True Christian Divinity. For most of us all of the time, and for all of us some of the time, “perfection,” “completeness,” or “maturity” is not a static event, but a benchmark in a process. Just as all of us have been granted different measures of the Light, all of us have been assigned different levels-- and schedules-- of expectation. What is “conformed to the image of his Son” may be different for one believer than for another, and it may be a lesser value at one time in the life of a believer than it may become for him later in the process. Barclay is very careful to emphasize that this is what he usually means by “perfection:”
“. . . by this we understand not such a perfection as may not admit of a growth, and consequently mean not, as if we were to be as pure, holy, and perfect as God in his divine attributes of wisdom, knowledge and purity; but only a perfection proportionable and answerable to man’s measure, whereby we are kept from transgressing the law of God and enabled to answer what he requires of us . . . “ Robert Barclay, Apology
Barclay states that Christian perfection is exactly parallel to the perfection of the “good and faithful servants” in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In that example, the servant who did his best with only two talents was just as justified as the servant who did much better with ten. It isn’t the amount of the Light that we have that is important, for all of us have enough. Rather, it is important that we are completely faithful to the measure of grace with which we have been blessed.
Fox puts it clearly: “Therefore comes Christ, the first and the last, to destroy the devil and his works in men’s hearts and sanctify them by his blood, his Life, which was the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world and destroys the devil and his works through death . . . and sanctifies and washes men and women, and presents them back again to God perfect . . . .” Epistle 232.
Barclay devoted the whole of his Eighth Proposition to this subject in the Apology: “Yet we do believe that to those in whom Christ comes to be formed and the new man brought forth and born of the incorruptible seed, as that birth and man in union therewith naturally doth the will of God, so it is possible so far to keep to it as not to be found daily transgressors of the law of God.” Apology.
And in his writings, John Wilbur refers repeatedly to sanctification as the endpoint of the workings of grace. In his second letter to George Crosfield, for example, he refers to the workings of the Holy Spirit within men and women, in order to keep the opportunity presented by Jesus Christ’s atonement from being wasted:
“. . . for without [the mediation of Jesus Christ], man could not so much as be brought to repentance, and much less, to that which is the hardest of all attainments; the forsaking and ceasing from sin . . .”
And later, “And here we see the supreme excellency of the light and grace of this provision; that if observed, is able to keep us from a state, out of which the atonement itself is not designed to redeem us—even that of sinning against the Holy Ghost.”
A very important additional point is often forgotten, which is that achieving Christian righteousness is a gradual process, and not one of instantaneous, permanent salvation based on a snatch from the hands of the devil. It is achieved by steps, accompanied by works of faith performed through grace, by being faithful to one’s measure of the Light. And next, by receiving more Light and being faithful to that increased responsibility as well. Fox described his own first steps in his Journal:
“Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I say I was come up into the state of Adam which he was in before he fell. . . . And the Lord showed me that such as were faithful to him in the power and light of Christ, should come up into that state in which Adam was before he fell . . .”
Even though the initial event lasted no more than a few minutes, it impressed Fox so singularly that it became the turning point of his life. Similarly, when the Apostles were granted the infilling of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), this state of sinless grace didn’t persist uninterruptedly for the rest of their lives. The tongues of fire went away, after all. But the Holy Spirit didn’t leave them, and it returned again and again, working within them again and again.
And it can do the same for you. Have you ever experienced a moment, a minute, an hour or two, when you felt the Light so strongly influencing you to the good that all thought of sin passed away? A time when your soul was so perfectly in time with the rhythms of God that unfaithfulness was not even conceivable? Were you “sinning in thought, word, and deed,” even as God breathed the power of the Holy Spirit into you? Or were you experiencing the workings of the Light: perfection, sanctification, holiness, during that time, however long it was? The Friends’ message was that these moments were possible, and should be expected, if we remained faithful. And that they would continue, and continue to build holiness within us. Because over and over, Jesus Christ commands us to live without sin, and if this command is not achievable, then the Gospel is false.
Barclay is quick to point out that it would be presumptuous to pronounce himself sinless, and denies that he has achieved the state. “Others may perhaps speak more certainly of this state, as having arrived to it.” But perfection is the goal for Christians to pursue, as they work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (Philomen 2:12), the life of holy righteousness that Jesus told us to live when he said, “You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you,” (John 15:14). Friends of the 17th century died in prison for making this command of Jesus their goal.
Freedom from sinning in this life is a traditional goal of the Society of Friends, and perfection in this life can be expected to arrive in steps and stages, as events, rather than as a full-blown conversion. This is encouraging, as small steps to a goal are more easily accomplished than attempts to leap a giant chasm all at once, and more easily attained for most of us. But history repeats itself. Just as the Puritans denied this to be possible in the 17th century, the Gurneyite Orthodox Friends would deny it to be possible in the 19th. What has been the belief of our own tradition, of the Wilburite Ohio Yearly Meeting Conservative?
There are various journals and records available to us. One such is a treatise entitled An Appeal for the Ancient Doctrines of the Religious Society of Friends, originally published in Philadelphia in 1847, and officially adopted by OYM in 1848. In that Yearly Meeting, clerked by Wilburite Benjamin Hoyle, the Meeting for Sufferings directed that 1500 copies were to be printed and distributed among the Ohio quarters in 1848, as representing the sound doctrine of the Society.
This lengthy treatise expresses the sentiments of OYM prior to the Gurneyite departure in the 1850s. It is hard-core Wilburite in tone, emphasizing the primacy of the Spirit over Scripture as the chief guide to faith and practice, the fallacy of imputed righteousness, and the Wilburite interpretation of the crucifixion as only the first step in the salvation process. It refers repeatedly and at great length to the writings of Robert Barclay. Sanctification in this life is mentioned repeatedly as a point upon which the Wilburite Friends differed from Protestants, and from those following the Gurneyite path that would soon lead to the second separation. The OYM opinion on perfection is concisely summed up in the introduction, which ends with this criticism of the non-Wilburite Friends: “Accordingly, under a high profession of religion, but in an intolerant spirit towards those who differed from them, they denied the possibility of being made free from sin in this life, at the same time that they considered themselves justified by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So Friends, when you feel the Holy Spirit filling you with Light, when the grace of God commands you to rise atop of sin and overcome it, when you feel both the call to be perfect and the strength to achieve it, don’t reject these gentle promptings in your heart. Receive them, keep them, live them, but never view them as unattainable. The belief that perfection in this life is the goal of the Christian is one of the founding beliefs of the Society of Friends, and one of the points upon the Wilburites divided from the old Orthodox Friends, creating Ohio Yearly Meeting. In the words of the Apostle:
“But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” (1Peter 5:10).