I was in discussion with some friends about sin. I believe that passages like "Be Perfect (Mt 5:48)", as well as many of the other tough sayings from Jesus, inform us that the continuing standard is absolute perfection. When you realize you are incapable of obedience, then and only then do you seek Christ with your whole heart. Part of my basis for this belief is from Luther's Heidelberg Disputation:

The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty. Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ. It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.

I'm also influenced by Tullian Tchividjian's sermon:

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants to set us free by showing us our need for a rightness we can never attain on our own–an impossible righteousness that’s always out of our reach. The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to demolish all notions that we can reach the righteousness required by God–it’s about exterminating all attempts at self-sufficient moral endeavor.

Some of my friends, on the other hand, said if you had any sins, you can pray and God would not only help you overcome them (perhaps in a spiritual sense) but will allow you to become free of your participation in them. If you doubted you could pray your way out of sin, you were doubting the power of prayer. If you said that all Christians were ultimately immersed in some inescapable sins, then you were saying sin, disobedience, and fake contrition were okay.

  • Q: Is the view I'm describing here, in essence, "Wesleyan perfectionism" (WP)?
  • Q: Was the "power of prayer" ever invoked in defense of WP?
  • Q: Do the Bible or church fathers offer any critique of "pray to moral behavior"?

3 Answers 3


Q1: I understand Wesleyan perfectionism to be rather more amiable than often assumed. The theory is not that a Christian shall attain to an utter and persistent inerrancy. It is that a moment of pure faith in God is possible and in that moment, for as long as it lasts, there is nothing in which that Christian is morally at fault: past sins are forgiven or otherwise remitted (e.g. resolved in themselves by that pure faith) and momentarily the faith precludes sin, since "whatsoever is not of faith is sin" and thus sin could only proceed from a faithlessness of which the Christian in that moment is not guilty. There are forms of perfectionism which hold a view closer to the one I think you are viewing, but I don't take Wesleyan perfectionism to be one of them.

Q2: This question is partially nullified by my answer above. Nonetheless, I question the aim and motive of such an attempt at attaining, you might say, "perfection by prayer". That we might excuse ourselves of our sins by the consolation that we can merely pray ourselves into a moral perfection and thus not really need to develop the character to will with God against those sins? I imagine the Jesus we see in the Gospels would take issue with that! Why would God give us a will, and then go to lengths to ensure that we exercise that will and grow into alignment in that will with his own will, if in the end the solution is a momentary disavowal of that will, after which we never have to make any conscious effort to continue willing God's will? It seems like the daydream of one who desires to abdicate the moral responsibility God explicitly created him to have (God is the one who created our wills -- and called them good). So, so far as I believe I have understood God in my life, his project in me is to get me to continue to grow in trust of him (to have utter faith in him), that I might be freed to will according to his will, instead of being constrained by my fears to oppose his will and affect my own salvation or immortality (whether literally or symbolically).

Q3: If I understand the concept of "pray to moral behavior" as you mean it, it seems so foreign to the view of moral development in the Jewish mind and the emphasis on obedience in the words of Jesus in the Gospels that I question whether the theory could even be taken seriously enough by the Biblical authors to be addressed directly. What I would expect to find in Scripture, then, would be an assumed understanding that such a method of moral development (if it could be called that) could not possibly fit the nature of God, nor the evident nature of humanity.

Having said that, I would make clear that I hold prayer to be one of the fundamentals of Christian life and moral development, for several reasons, not the least of which being that it is an exercise in several essential things: 1) thinking of God personally; 2) trusting God personally; 3) prioritizing one's thinking in light of matters of eternal significance; 4) thinking of and empathizing with other people than ourselves (even if only God); 5) seeing ourselves with a measure of objectivity (that is, from God's perspective); 6) seeking security and truth outside ourselves; 7) admitting we don't have all the answers and are not sufficient for ourselves (that is, humility); 8) patience; 9) reflection and self-assessment; 10) listening (depending on the case) to the Spirit, to reason, and/or to the consciences God gave us and which may be trying to win our attention.

Furthermore, I believe prayer affects God in some way. Jesus certainly seemed to believe so, as did his brother. Now, I think the common apprehension here is due to our limitation: we think of God so one-dimensionally, as if God existed according to the precise same relation to time that we do. It is not clear that our past is the same, conceptually, as God's past. It may indeed be a category error to even posit such a thing as 'God's past' or 'God's future'. Herein lies the possibility for God both to be responsive to our prayers and to be 'the same yesterday, today, and forever': God exists, as nearly as we can express in human language, ever-presently. Our past, our present, and our future are all concurrent to God. It may be that God heard your prayer in your 2004 when he was forming the foundations of the world and simultaneously was speaking as the Lamb before John and passing before Moses and watching a sunrise in the autumn in Maine in days before European settlers reached the Americas. So God's actions, taken as a whole, are responsive to his own creation, from his perspective, but from our perspective it is equally true to say that he always intended, say, to ensure that a certain person didn't die in a certain storm in 1997. So it must be said that God always intended it, but it must also be said that he always intended it because he heard our prayers from before the foundation of the world. Thus God is both changeless (he would never have done otherwise than he has done) and open (God may respond especially, to any -- or, as it may be, every -- choice of humanity, and no doubt every honest prayer).

And lest someone claim that this seems to threaten his sovereignty, I would call to their attention that if indeed God chose sovereignly to give the power of volition to his creatures, then it follows as a matter of course that he sovereignly wills that they will (else why conceive of giving us wills?). Thus the idea that we have wills, and that he may honor those wills to any extent of his pleasing (even fully), does not in itself threaten God's sovereignty. He can, if he wants, give us wills, and give our wills space to will, to some extent, and himself respond to those wills actively.

  • +1, though "he would never have done otherwise than he has done" seems to me to imply God has no free will -- that everything He does is not by choice but is a necessary action as a result of who He is.
    – Ryan Frame
    May 20, 2013 at 3:09
  • That seems to me a false dilemma. He always makes the best choice. That would of course mean he would always have acted the same way in the same scenario and conditions. Indeed everything "He does is a necessary action as a result of who He is", but it does not necessarily follow that he therefore "has no free will", only that he is in some measure predictable, follows some self-law, is consistent with himself, has a character, is not chaotic, is "the same yesterday, today, and forever" -- because he is the one being who sovereignly self-defines, self-constrains, self-governs. May 20, 2013 at 9:08
  • He is the one being who actually is a "law unto himself". :D And that entails his choice as a matter of course. He wills himself to be as he is. May 20, 2013 at 9:13

I would say l that both WP and what you present are both attempts to describe the same thing. I would not equate them, as Wesley's was well developed, not would I immediately say yours points to his directly, because both are man's interpretation trying to describe what the Bible says (which is also what this is).

Of course the Wesleyan model includes prayer. I believe your Luther quote is missing an important element, which is that while Luther is absolutely right that no thing (prayer included) can obtain grace (you will never get to perfection "just because you prayed"), it is nevertheless a fact that faith elicits grace, and by that grace itself, we walk free from sin and the desire of the flesh (Gal 5:16)..

Grace is Free

The key is Grace. If you ask your dad for $1,000, and he gives it to you, have you earned it? Is "asking" a work? Of course not. If you went to your dad and spent a 80 hours begging on your knees, is he in any way obligated to pay "wages" for your your prayer time? No. Prayer is not a work, and is not worthy of pay. But then, what if you never asked? Would you likely receive anything if you didn't talk to him, even though you are in a grace - filled relationship? Certainly, by no means.

So, Luther is speaking of coming to grace. You will never deserve the $1,000. You can only come on the merits of Christ. Any notion that you have any right to expect the money is contrary to the Gospel, because it is not by faith. But, having received grace, being reconciled, we go and ask Him, and He gives. We haven't earned a thing.

There are two ways to go about this, and two ways to view it when talking about it.

  1. On the one hand, there are those who view prayer by themselves or others as a work. They work hard, thinking prayer is the solution. This always fails, because it is not faith.
  2. The other perspective looks at God as the answer. I do not bring anything of my own, but considering the work of Christ, I ask the one who can supply my needs.

While outwardly these appear to be similar, they are opposites. One says I can do this, let's get to work. The other honestly says "Only God can do this, I need to talk to Him."

Prayer mere talking to God. And, while moral excellence will always only be in connection with a life of prayer, prayer is also NOT the way to personal moral holiness, contrary to some opinion. And, neither Luther nor Wesley would say that it is.

Biblical Holiness

Again, Jesus Christ is the only way to holiness. But all the crying and praying won't necessarily result in moral excellence, because it is not the Biblical solution to such a problem.

The Biblical solution to is found in Romans.

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:13

The Biblical instruction for holiness is the putting to death of the misdeeds of the body through the power of the Spirit.

Colossians 2-3 also lays this out. In Colossians 2, Paul's writes that we have died with Christ, and because of that, we should no longer live by an externally imposed law, not living by the world's ordinances of Do not handle, taste, touch. These are worthless in restraining sensual indulgence. Outward laws can only regulate outward actions, and are incapable of working deeper.

In the next chapter, then, he says, v1, "Since you have been raised with Him...", v5, "Put to death therefore the misdeeds of the body...". Paul the lists the inward sins of the heart, rather than the exterior deeds of the flesh.

An Example From The Law

The instruction for moral excellence is not in laws against muzzling oxen, but rather, if by the power of the Spirit you put to death the coveteousness, greed, and idolatry living in your members (soul), you will not need any externally applied commands. Paul wrote that the goal of the command was hope, but since a law cannot legislate hope, it merely restrained the foolish actions of those who farmed without any.

Therefore, it is not prayer and crying that does it, but Christ Himself. Where we factor into all of that is debatable, but Paul commands us to do it, so our will is somewhere involved--as it should be.

This would also point to the same thing WP does, as well as what "praying to perfection" does, but it is different from how some react when they hear such a phase. Those that advocate a "perfection by prayer" rely on prayer, because it is only in the continual supply of Christ thay we are able to continually put to death what may be inside.

The Sermon on the Mount

As for the other quote, the reference to the Sermon on the Mount, no where in the three chapters of Matthew 5-7 does Jesus ever indicate he's "joking", or that He's trying merely to make a point.

No, he said, in Matthew 7, that whoever hears those words and does them is the man who built his house on a rock, and whoever hears and doesn't do them will fall in a storm.

Despite the popularity of that notion of teaching the Sermon, it is in fact contrary to what Jesus.

What is indicated in the rest of the NT is that through the Holy Spirit within, we will not live a life of habitual sin (see Gal 5:16; 1 John; 2 Timothy 2:19).


Friend, it seems you are making the same mistake most religionist (legalists) make. You may be confusing the SIN NATURE of man with the ACT of sinning. SIN NATURE is the problem Adam got humanity saddeled with when he gave in to the devil. The act of SINNING is the problem we all experience with our flesh daily. The good news is that both of these problems were totally delt with by Jesus at the cross. Since the sacrifice of Jesus nobody alive has been born with sin nature (many religions still teach we are born in sin but that is a lie Rom. 5:18-19) Christ died for all sin past, present, future. Since the sin nature and the acts of sin have been delt with for ALL people (I mean murderers, rapists, homosexuals, liars, thieves, child molesters ect.) then in Gods view we are all in Jesus and, therefore, justified (while on earth) and cannot commit sin against God. We must, however, before we die accept God's free gift of salvation to escape final judgement. This is part of the Gospel of Grace and is not preached from many pulpits. We can now only sin against each other and ourselves and Jesus instructs us to forgive others their trespasses against us and ourselves for our sins against others. This is what is beinging said in 1John 1:8-10.

  • Hi! I left a comment on your other post. I highly suggest you add some references beyond just the scripture verses and also perhaps consider using some paragraph breaks. It's hard to read a very long paragraph like this.
    – wax eagle
    Jun 4, 2013 at 16:31

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