Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:4)
According to James, one of the ways God wrests good from a bad situation is by allowing perseverance to fully develop within us. The Greek word James uses here is hypomone, meaning endurance or steadfastness. “Perseverance” is also a good choice for its English translation because perseverance implies a sense of hopefulness… patience for the bad situation to finally right itself, and patience for us to mature from the experience so long as we just hang in there!
You see, perseverance in and of itself is not the end-goal. James says, when perseverance finishes its “work,” we will be “mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” There! That is the goal. John Wesley, the father of Methodism, referred to that goal as, “Christian Perfection.”
In 1741, during the earlier part of his preaching career, Wesley published his sermon on the doctrine of Christian perfection. In doing so, it became one of the most distinguishing features of his theology and influenced many of his other sermons throughout his career. However, it was met with a good deal of disagreement from Protestant Reformers at the time of its publication.
Dr. Kenneth Kinghorn, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Asbury Seminary from 1965-2003, concisely summarizes the disagreement in his modern translation* of Wesley’s sermons:
“Reformers powerfully championed the biblical doctrines of justification and adoption, which are works of grace that God does for us to change our position before God…. [Nothing we do – no works – can gain this for us.] To be sure, Wesley agreed with the Protestant Reformers, [however] Wesley also accentuated a “realized righteousness” which God imparts to believers to change their state.” Wesley was primarily standing up against the incorrect belief that all one needs is faith, and that good works are not required. At all! (Kinghorn, p124)
Wesley’s choice of the term “perfection” for this doctrine wasn’t received any better by the Reformers than his concept of realized righteousness. They said perfection could only be attained by God, thus the need for God’s grace; humans could not be “perfect.” But Wesley drew the term “perfection” from the Greek word teleiosis – the same word used by James in verse 4, translated as “mature and complete.”
For the Greeks, teleiosis conveyed not just the state of being mature and complete, but the continual growth and movement toward an ever-greater maturity. For Wesley, Christian perfection is a process of becoming what God has always wanted for his creation. With that definition in mind, consider Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of James 1:4 from The Message:
You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. (James 1:4 MSG)
To me, James 1:4 says (well… actually, in my mind it yells): Hang on! Don’t give up! Don’t you ever give up, because God is going to use this horrible thing you’re experiencing right now – that he never wanted for you – and he’s going to show you how redemption works, how faith can flourish in the weeds, and how you can become more like Christ while standing in the middle of a mess. Yes, this right here. Yes, right now. And, yes, praise God, you!
In Part 3, we’ll see what James says about how we find the strength to hang in there. We’ll also check in with another of John Wesley’s sermons to get his perspective on how our actions, including our responses to challenging times, spring from the root of our faith: our hearts.
* Kinghorn, Kenneth Cain, John Wesley on Christian Practice Vol 3: The Standard Sermons in Modern English, 34-53.