I came across the Biblical context of the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection in yesterday’s Daily Office reading. It’s Hebrews 6:1-2: “Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teachings about Christ and not laying again the foundation: repentance from works of death and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”
It’s a mysterious passage. I obviously don’t think it means that our move onward towards perfection means that we leave behind the basic teachings about Christ in the sense of rejecting them for something entirely different. But there does seem to be a sense that if we’re still spending all of our time talking about the basics, then we aren’t moving on toward perfection. I’ve often felt that the evangelical church of my roots sounds like a broken record player reiterating over and over again concepts like justification by faith and salvation illustrations that seemed profound to me as an eighth grader but don’t seem so mind-blowing when I hear them as a 35 year old. So it’s comforting to hear Hebrews affirm the sense that yearning to go deeper is not just some sort of spiritual rebelliousness but actually what we’re supposed to be doing.
So what needs to be added to the foundation of doctrinal basics in order to move on toward perfection? Hebrews 6 doesn’t answer this question directly. It next goes into talking about how “it is impossible to restore to repentance those who have once been enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift… and then have fallen away” (vv. 4-6). That’s certainly an unpleasant thought that directly contradicts the popular “once saved always saved” understanding of popular evangelicalism today. The text doesn’t elaborate on exactly what constitutes “falling away.” There are no vice lists here like in the Pauline epistles.
Hebrews seems to suggest in more than one place that even one-time back-sliders are finished as far as salvation occurs. I hope that’s just a hyperbolic threat and not something to be taken at literal face value because if sinning once after receiving the Holy Spirit throws the whole thing out, then heaven will be a lot smaller than even the Calvinists think and I certainly won’t be there.
In any case, Hebrews offers a metaphor to explain. Some Christians are fertile ground that soaks up the rain of God’s word and becomes a blessing (v. 7). But those who have “fallen away” are like a land so filled with “thorns and thistles” that nothing else can grow (v. 8). I’ve met Christians who may not have fallen away from Christ in obvious scandalous ways like substance abuse or adultery, but their hearts are nonetheless filled with the thorns and thistles of bitter spiritual pride like the older brother of the prodigal son. It is as if their “salvation” is the very thing that damns them and keeps them from tasting God’s mercy. They constantly recite the “basic teachings of Christ,” but these teachings have availed them nothing in gaining the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22.
I don’t know what becomes of Christians whose faith in their own correctness seems to be the reason that they cannot be moved by the heart of Christ. I think of Jesus standing in the synagogue waiting to be judged by the teachers of the law for violating his Jewish Book of Discipline by healing on the Sabbath day: “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5).
When Hebrews talks about thorns and thistles, I don’t see the incidental sins that all of us continue to struggle with. I see rather the sin which hardens our hearts and immunizes us against God’s love. Spiritual pride is probably the most pernicious sin because it is the most subtle. Greed, gluttony, anger, lust, sloth, and envy are a lot more obvious and easier to call out, though falling into their clutches unrepentantly will harden our hearts pretty quickly. Pride is a thoroughly internal thorn. It is the thing I most hate about myself with which I am in continual warfare. I know that there are thorns and thistles constantly taking root in my heart, but I am willing to make my fingers bleed ripping them out.
I do consider it eternally dangerous when Christians have defined their faith in a way that so vindicates their pride that they say and do all the correct things without the love that melts us and makes us vulnerable and weak enough to be breathed into by God. Of course, I shouldn’t presume to know others’ motives. I just hope that God will break through the impossible clay of our hearts with His giant tiller that shreds the roots of our thorny pride so that holier fruit can grow and rips apart the thistles of the knowledge that we are so infatuated with so we can leave behind that infatuation and go on to the perfection that is pure love of God and neighbor.