Few British Christians were as influential as John Wesley. During the eighteenth century, Wesley’s preaching helped to spark revival in England and avert civil war. In America, Methodist circuit riders evangelized the frontier as the country expanded westward.
We can appreciate Wesley’s evangelistic work, but at the same time we contend that his views on several matters were questionable. For example, Wesley taught that it was possible for believers to attain a type of sinless perfection before death.
In one sense, it is not too difficult to see how Wesley could think the Bible teaches the possibility of complete sanctification in this life. Today’s passage, at least at first glance, implies that Christians will be sinless. However, as we have seen elsewhere, John understands that sin will still trouble the believer from time to time (1 John 1:8).
John’s use of the present tense in 3:6 tells us that he is not teaching we can be sinless. Rather, he teaches that although believers will sin, lawlessness will not define their lives. Jesus came to take away sin (v. 5) — both its guilt and finally its presence by His death and resurrection. However, this latter work of sanctification is finished in our glorification and not beforehand (v. 2).
Though we will not be perfectly holy until our glorification, we can still live righteously in this life. While our good deeds never merit our right standing before God, the obedience of God’s people is pleasing to Him, and, by His grace, He calls us righteous when we do His will. The righteous approval that God gives to us according to our obedience is not the same as the Father’s judicial declaration of righteousness based on the perfect, holy obedience of Jesus. We must always make this distinction. Yet we would also be wrong never to describe ourselves or others as righteous when the predominant orientation of a professing believer’s life is to please God. As John Calvin writes in his commentary upon these verses: Christians “are designated according to the prevailing principle, that is, they are said to be righteous and to live righteously, because they sincerely aspire to righteousness.”
We do well to remember Martin Luther’s insistence that at the same time we are justified, we are also sinners. Until we are glorified, we will struggle with sin. However, we must not let this knowledge make us think we can have no real victory over sin. We have a Savior who has sent His Spirit to enable us to resist all the temptations of the flesh. Look to Jesus for forgiveness for your transgressions and seek to submit to the sanctifying work of the Spirit today.