Hebrews Week 12
By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Hebrews 6:1
One of John Wesley’s most familiar and misunderstood pastoral benedictions is “go on to perfection” [see Author’s Note 1]. In fact, his summary and most mature expression of his controversial teaching begins by defending his use of the word “perfection,” viewed by many of his critics as imprudent if not downright offensive [see Author’s Note 2]. His argument is that “perfection” is a biblical word, used in Hebrews 6:1, and therefore is relevant for us today [see Author’s Note 3]. With biting sarcasm, he asks his opponents whether they would dare “send the Holy Ghost to school and teach Him to speak who made the tongue” (Works 12:257)!
What is Christian Perfection, According to Wesley?
Whether Wesley’s appropriation of the Preacher’s vocabulary and idea of perfection serves the Preacher’s end is an entirely different matter — one that we want to explore in this final Lectio. Before doing so, however, let me briefly outline Wesley’s signature doctrine [see Author’s Note 4]. His strict use of the adjective “Christian” is important to note first of all: he embraces the expectation of a true Christian’s perfection. However else we define perfection, its only source is God’s sanctifying grace, and it is the exclusive property of Christian existence. Only those who have been justified by grace through faith and reborn as children of God can experience perfection of their love and devotion to God. Moreover, the mature Wesley finally came to believe, based upon his close reading of Scripture and his pastoral experiences of transformed lives, that the reborn sinner can be transformed and made perfect by God’s sanctifying grace in his or her lifetime.
Christian perfection is not an absolute quality of Christian existence. The sinner is gradually transformed by degrees into Christ-likeness, but never once and for all or all at once. Moreover, the dynamic process by which God’s sanctifying grace transforms the believer is cooperative, requiring partnership with Christ (Hebrews 3:14) and the steady connection to God’s empowering graces made available to the Spirit-drenched community (prayer, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, Scripture, worship, mission, charity, justice, fellowship, etc.) [see Author’s Note 5].
At its epicenter, the true Christian’s perfection regards the transformation of character — her intentions, affections, desires, and dispositions, all of which are fully inclined toward communion with God through the Holy Spirit. In this sense, the gradual process of Christian perfection is initiated by the believer’s new birth, not by her justification that only pardons sin [see Author’s Note 6]. Nonetheless, the believer’s perfection is fully experienced by her salvation from sin’s power, which frees her to love God and neighbor (and even her enemy!).
The dynamic quality of Christian perfection is reflected by Wesley’s insistence that Christian character is not only formed one inch at a time by our steady practice of the spiritual disciplines, but also that this longing and love for God can be gradually lost inch by inch if we are inattentive to our life with God (cf. Hebrews 5:11–6:12) [see Author’s Note 7]. Wesley consistently champions those congregational practices that cooperate with God’s sanctifying grace and provide its membership with resources to cultivate its progress toward entire sanctification. In this sense, the pastoral exhortations that conclude Hebrews 13 parallel the confirming signs of a believer’s reception of the apostolic word (Hebrews 2:3–4; 6:4–6; cf. Mark 16:20).
A final thought about Wesley’s “plain account” [see Author’s Note 2]. The mood of the Preacher’s exhortation, “go on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1 NKJV), which I also think is pivotal in this letter, squares well with Wesley’s idea. Perfection is less a noun and more an imperative to act upon God’s Word. While Wesley’s sermons begin with theological exposition — with a careful definition of key (and typically contested) ideas of Christian faith — they always conclude with the practical implications of receiving and acting upon (or not) those ideas. That is, Christian perfection is the triumph of God’s grace over sin and the prospect of experiencing the full salvation that God promises. It is the centerpiece of a congregation’s instruction. Wesley puts it this way: “all believers should mind this one thing [i.e., perfection], and continually agonize for it.” The practical (and radical) implication of aiming for complete sanctification in this lifetime is that the practice of loving God and our neighbors becomes the ordinary rhythm of our lives, by which the triumph of God’s grace over sin is fully realized.
“Go On to Perfection” in Context
Wesley’s principal proof text is Hebrews 6:1 (read in context) because it supplies both the language and the logic of his revolutionary doctrine. But the letter uses the noun “perfection” only here, and to sound a particular warning. Does Wesley misuse its biblical intent? Does perfection in Hebrews mean the same for Wesley? Yes and no. In Hebrews, perfection refers to the anticipated learning outcome of the letter’s robust exposition of Christ. There are two important elements of the context within which we receive this biblical catchword.
First, “go on to perfection” (6:1) is the Preacher’s pivotal exhortation of his pivotal warning (5:11–6:12). Every section of his sermon, including this one, creates a dialogue between a pastoral exhortation, sounded as a warning (cf. 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 10:19–39; 12:12–17), and a related Christological exposition. The Preacher’s exposition in Hebrews sets out a curriculum that teaches God’s Word about Christ, as witnessed by His apostles (2:3), to today’s congregation of readers (3:13; cf. 12:25).
Second, the Preacher’s appropriate concern in all five warning passages, then, is apostasy — that is, the believer’s rejection of the apostolic witness to the incarnate Son (2:3–4). For this reason, his pastoral exhortations first chide today’s congregation of readers for their inattentiveness to the apostolic word (2:3), for allowing their hearts to be “hardened by […] sin” (3:13, NRSV), for their laziness in learning about Christ (5:11; 6:12), for abandoning worship practices (10:25), and for failing to repent of sin (12:17). Only then does he confidently tell them to right their wilderness journey by attending to God’s Word.
In the instance of this pivotal passage, the Preacher lays bare that his instructional aim is to usher his readers beyond the first principles of God’s Word (5:12) by feeding them “solid food.” He hopes readers will train their senses to know the difference between good (i.e., apostolic) and bad (i.e., non-apostolic) Christology (5:14). This is the mark of end-of-time Israel (12:18–29; cf. Romans 10:9).
The principal meaning of “perfection” in Hebrews, then, regards the result of a congregation’s theological formation and the practical skills that enable them to distinguish apostolic from non-apostolic instruction. While no rival to the apostolic word is mentioned in Hebrews (as it is in 1 John or 2 Timothy), the intent of the Preacher’s catechism of Christ is more generally to cultivate the competency to identify any bogus claim about the Christian faith that might lead to spiritual failure. Without denying its implication for character formation, then, “perfection” in Hebrews is the state of knowing the apostolic witness of Christ so thoroughly (i.e., to “perfection”) that error is easily recognized and rejected out of hand (see 1 John 2:18–27 for a biblical case study). This practical skill is as relevant today as it was when the letter was first read toward the end of the first century.
The debate over the letter’s so-called warning passages, already waged in the early Church, is typically misplaced. A concern for the community’s moral rigor, whether it is being matured to perfection by covenant-keeping practices or has lapsed beyond repair with the prospect of a lost salvation, is not the issue. The Preacher does not focus on the details of the apostasy (cf. Hebrews 6:6).
Simply put, the Preacher emphasizes that there is zero tolerance for Christological error within a community of Christ’s followers. The preventative measure commended by the Preacher — and this is the occasion of his word of exhortation — is the congregation’s catechesis of Christ (or perhaps more generally a catechesis of the “word” in its various iterations; see Hebrews 4:11–13), not its moral reform or spiritual renewal, which are the natural effects of theological understanding (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15–17) [see Author’s Note 8].
The Perfection of Christ
This practice of covenant-keeping follows Christ’s own example. In his stunning interpretation of the Son’s incarnation, the Preacher claims that although Jesus is God’s Son, “he learned obedience from what he suffered” (5:8) so that God could “make perfect the pioneer of salvation” (2:10). The “making” of perfection is understood by the general confession that the Creator is the maker of all things. This apparently includes the formation of Christ’s character as a part of God’s redemption of all things (cf. Hebrews 1:2–3). In this regard, God forged the Son’s perfect character, making Him the skilled pioneer of our salvation [see Author’s Note 9].
Against the heretic Arius, who taught that Jesus was God’s Son in name only and was Himself a creature of God’s making (even if He was the best creature ever born), I take it that the Preacher contends it’s the Son’s divinity that is “made perfect” (5:9). One purpose of the incarnation regards practical knowledge: the Son gains experience by bodily suffering the rejection and spiritual tests (including potential martyrdom) of those who confess Him as the living “Jesus, God’s Son” (4:14), and whom He presently pastors as the “pioneer of salvation” (2:10; cf. 4:15–16). Let me develop this point a bit more.
The practical question the Preacher addresses in teaching God’s Son to his readers is, “Why His incarnation?” What conditions require a transcendent God to prepare the divine Son for His new role as pioneer of God’s way of salvation? Insofar as this role includes the pastoral care of a wilderness people (see 5:2), who suffer hardship and are continually tempted to sin, the Son’s prep work must include experiences which the pre-existent Son — the Son before He became Jesus of Nazareth — never had. The incarnation is seen as a season of learning to prepare for the future ministry of the exalted Son. His perfection is a learning process that brings to completion the Lord’s preparation for His assigned task. The majestic Son’s suffering and spiritual testing, elements of the incarnation “from below”(see Hebrews 2:5–18) [see Author’s Note 10], molds Him into a fully wakeful “pioneer of salvation” (2:10) capable of pastoring a suffering, tempted community into glory (2:17–18) [see Author’s Note 11].
Perfection and Jesus’s Priestly Work
The use of “glory” as the destination of God’s salvation in Hebrews 2:10 employs a familiar biblical metaphor for God’s presence or appearance, and by implication, the place where God resides. To lead the congregation into God’s glory envisions its life with God in God’s kingdom (Isaiah 60:19; 1 Corinthians 15:42–43). Most significantly in Hebrews, this destination is the Promised Land (4:10) of a wilderness people whose epicenter is Mount Zion (12:22) in the heavenly Jerusalem (11:10; 12:22), God’s kingdom come to earth (cf. Hebrews 12:28; Revelation 21:2). Entrance into God’s glorious presence is possible only if the people themselves have been purified of sin (Hebrews 2:11). In this second sense, the living Jesus’s priestly leadership includes His present pastoral care, which makes it possible for a people to have access to the “city of the living God” (Hebrews 12:22).
For this reason, Jesus’s perfection and His work in sanctification are introduced together in Hebrews 2:10–11. The opening “this is because” of 2:11 connects these two messianic performances. The presumption is that purification from sin is necessary to enter into the presence of Israel’s holy God. The repetition of “perfection” language in the letter’s central portion (7:11, 19, 28; 9:9; 10:1, 14) creatively develops this point by comparing Melchizedekian and Levitical priesthoods (see 7:1–10:18). God’s Son, “made perfect forever,” doesn’t share the weaknesses of the Levitical priesthood, and therefore His mediation of a sin offering on behalf of His people upgrades the Levitical temple apparatus (7:28; 9:9).
This is the business of Christ’s messianic mission the first time around: to prepare His people for His work the second time around (cf. Hebrews 9:28). Even the faithful saints of old “wouldn’t be made perfect,” and therefore wouldn’t be capable of entering into the presence of God, without Christ’s priestly mediation for them, now confirmed by the testimony of His purified followers (11:40).
Yet Jesus’s schooling by His experiences of suffering also forges His present role as the empathetic sanctifier who comes to the aid of His people during their own suffering and spiritual testing. He helps guide their way through the present age into God’s kingdom (cf. Hebrews 2:18; 4:15–16). The Son learned to obey God (5:8) and was “made perfect” (5:9) in order to exemplify the way of salvation for those who, in the midst of their suffering and temptation, turn to Him to learn obedience to God.
The preceding allusion to Luke’s story of Jesus’s “loud cries and tears” in the Garden (cf. 5:7) — according to some, the last temptation of Jesus — may indicate that the four gospels are the curriculum from which Christians discover how Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (5:8). The gospels’ testimony of Jesus’s life not only narrates the Son’s formation as “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:10), but also illustrates the manner of a people’s obedience in order to secure the Promised Land. Scripture’s testimony of the Lord’s learning as Son becomes in turn the curricular arc of a people’s learning curve.
The Practical Implication for Believers
The practical importance of the fact that the exalted Son was schooled in the experiences of a wilderness people is secured by the Preacher’s obscure confession that God had called Him to a ministry as “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:10). He allows that such a claim is difficult to understand and requires much explanation (5:11); however, this exposes the real occasion of his word of exhortation: the congregation’s catechesis in the “solid food” of God’s “word of righteousness” (5:12–13; cf. 6:3), which they are unprepared to receive as lazy learners (5:11; 6:12). They have learned the first principles of God’s Word, which, while necessary, are insufficient to form a perfected people destined to inherit God’s promises (6:12).
There is nothing in Hebrews that conveys Wesley’s insistence that perfection (either of learning or of character) is possible in this lifetime. In fact, the final mention of perfection in Hebrews 12:23 would appear to transport readers to the Mount Zion of heavenly Jerusalem, the Promised Land of a wilderness people. It is there, the Preacher envisions, where God’s “firstborn children” are found — the “spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect” (12:23). This is a dense text that is notoriously difficult to interpret. In fact, the professional scribes responsible for transcribing the manuscript of Hebrews for wide circulation among early Christians corrupted 12:23 in their pious attempt to make its meaning plain. They didn’t succeed!
Here’s my quick take. The default position of most New Testament writers when envisioning the future of God’s salvation — the unseen and not yet — is the otherworldly, poetic (often called “apocalyptic”) language we find in Revelation. In this case, heaven is pictured as the mountaintop experience of “God’s firstborn [or reborn] children” (12:23), which now includes those saints of Hebrews 11 (see 11:40). They have gathered where the prophets and psalmists placed Israel’s departed, faithful remnant: on Mount Zion. The Preacher envisions that their guardian angels (cf. 1:14) join them, as their appointed work is now finished. This is truly a “festival gathering” (12:22)! God is there too as “judge of all” (12:23) — that is, the final arbiter of salvation. Also present is the exalted Jesus, whose “sprinkled blood” (12:24) mediates the blessings promised by the new covenant (Hebrews 8:6).
The note sounded that inclines our ear is the population of the righteous there “who have been made perfect” (12:23). The “righteous” remnant of the Hebrew people are those faithful disciples who don’t “[shrink] back” and give up on Christ (10:38–39) [see Author’s Note 12]. I take it that these “righteous” now dwell in this heavenly place as “spirits,” whose existence will be transformed in line with the unshakeable goods of the coming kingdom, and whose address is on earth rather than in heaven (cf. 12:25–29; 1 Corinthians 15:42–57; 2 Corinthians 5:1–5, 16–17).
There’s not much nuance here. This apocalyptic vision sounds the gospel in a dualistic note — either/or, this/not that, good/bad, right/wrong, true/false, heaven/earth — to vocalize God’s Word by a more definitive or decisive lyric. Hebrews does not portray the life of the sanctified character as suitable for framing; there isn’t a Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection literally found here. But Wesley’s insistence that our faithful cooperation with God’s sanctifying grace elicits the Christian’s perfect love for God and our neighbors in this lifetime just might be the heart of the Preacher’s word of exhortation. Indeed, to love perfectly is the public mark of those radical disciples who heed heaven’s warning (12:25) and do not “[shrink] back” (10:38) from complete devotion to the exalted Son in both doctrine and practice. They are the company of the righteous who will not be shaken when the unshakeable reign of God descends from heaven to its eternal address on earth (12:26–28; cf. Revelation 21:1–4).
Questions for Further Discussion
- What is your gut reaction to the Preacher’s phrase “go on to perfection”? What do you think he means by this exhortation?
- Does Dr. Wall’s description of Christian perfection change your perspective of it? If so, how? If not, why not?
- What does Christ’s perfection mean for us as Christians “in the wilderness”? Do you think it is possible for Christians to be made perfect in this life? What might that perfection look like?
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