Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


In whom this holy and pure birth is fully brought forth the body of death and sin comes to be crucified and removed, and their hearts united and subjected unto the truth, so as not to obey any suggestion or temptation of the evil one, but to be free from actual sinning, and transgressing the law of God, and in that respect perfect. Yet doth this perfection still admit of a growth; and there remaineth a possibility of sinning, where the mind doth not most diligently and watchfully attend unto the Lord.
[Barclay's Apology, Proposition 8]

The Quaker doctrine of perfection was perhaps one that got the Quakers into the most trouble with their contemporaries and it is probably also the most misunderstood today. This was a shocking claim in the 17'th century and it is shocking to some today as well. But if you look at what it says carefully, it is a qualified perfection. It is not mean free from error or flawless. What it means is that the process of justification and sanctification can proceed to a point where our hearts have been transformed such that it no longer responds to temptation and so the person is free from sinning.

Let me draw an analogy to something that is on many people's mind here in New England, football. Say that sin is like committing a penalty. You, even your whole team could play an entire game without having a penalty called on them. The yellow flags could just stay in the referees pocket for the entire game. You might even go so far as to not commit any penalties, not even the ones the referees miss or ignore. In that regard you have played perfectly. But you might have fumbled the ball, thrown interceptions, missed blocks or done any number of things poorly and so have lost the game. So it is possible to be perfect and still have room for improvement.

This concept of perfection does not mean that you will not be tempted or have trials. It means that when you are tempted, you will not succumb to that temptation. It is also not a static idea of perfection. It allows room for growth. Barclay uses the example that a child's body is as perfect as an adult's body, but it certainly has room for growth. The servant who was given two talents and made four perfected them as much as the one who was given five and made ten. Again, an ounce of gold is as perfect as a pound of gold. We often conflate perfection with prissiness. One common image of perfection is someone like Martha Stewart who is over the top in having every outward detail just so. We resent people like that, they make us feel inadequate and it does not seem to be something we would even want to be. Perfect does not only mean flawless. It also means whole or complete. When I recast Jesus' injunction to “Be ye whole as your Father in heaven is whole,” I find it resonates with me much more. The goal stops being an attempt to make everything look good on the outside but to grow into inward completeness and health.

What Barclay is talking about is not an outward perfection, but an inward condition. It is a state in which temptation does not grab a hold of us. What he is describing is being so spiritually filled that nothing that would take you away from that state is of any interest. When you are whole, you do not need to be desperately trying to fill up a void inside you or try to cover up what you lack. It is like having had a wonderful meal and not even a slice of chocolate cake or other favorite dessert is of any interest to you because you are sated and you already have a good taste in your mouth. I have had glimpses of such a spiritual state. When I am particularly blessed they may last for a day or two. My experience has been that when I become conscious of this happening, it usually means that it will not last for much longer. Then I am back into the muck and grime or my everyday condition.

Most of Barclay's arguments in support of this proposition turn on showing the effects of denying it. Denying that perfection is possible is to deny the power of God. It says that there are things that God cannot do. “He that sinneth is the servant to sin.” (Romans 6:16) How is it possible to be both a servant to sin and a servant to God? Denying perfection is inconsistent with the justice of God. God does not require of us things that are impossible for us to do. But Jesus tells us “Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Denial of perfection denies the power of Christ to save us from our sins. “How is it that the servants of Christ are less his servants than the devil's are his?”

If people cannot come to perfection in this life, then it makes the work of ministers useless and ineffectual. (Maybe it is because we do not believe any more in the attainability of perfection that the status of ministers has fallen so far among Friends.) Without perfection, no one can be said to be justified and sanctified as it was discussed in the previous proposition. If justification is to be made to be actually just, then this work must be able to be completed. Finally, if perfection is not possible, it means that there is no difference between the Law and the Gospel. Perfection, as it is used here, is the result of having the Law written on our hearts. If that does not happen, then we are left with trying to follow an outward law and our Quaker and Christian faith is in vain.

This vision of the life in Christ as something attainable in this life was what motivated early Friends. They were not seeking something far off. They were seeking to know God directly and to led by God in all things. This was the driving force behind the entire Quaker movement. This is why they spoke so harshly against those priests and preachers who were, in their view, preaching sin by saying that one could not overcome the power of sin in this life. The entire Quaker witness was to a life that could be lived in faithfulness in this world.

Blessings to all,

Will T


Blogger Bill said...

Thanks for your insights. My background is with the conservative holiness movement which has caused me much anguish over this subject. Bill

January 20, 2008 12:45 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

I am glad you found this useful. If you are able, could you say a little bit about your understanding of the conservative holiness position on perfection? We often use very similar words to mean very different things so I am always interested in what other people have meant.


January 21, 2008 8:05 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

The theory is basically this: There are 2 separate distinct experiences: 1- Saved; 2- Sanctified. A person repents, believes and is saved, but as one lives he realizes that there is still something wrong since the same tendencies are present. As a result of seeking and "praying through" the person is supposed to receive this second, instantaneous experience of entire sanctification. The roots of sin are removed from the heart and he goes on to live in this state of Christian perfection. I was constantly dealt with to go to the altar and receive this, because without it I was not pleasing to God, and the "tendencies" that were present in my character would only lead me astray. The final result would be the lose of my salvation and the judgment of God condemning me to an eternity of endless torment and pain. As I listened to testimonies given by people who claimed to have been sanctified for many years, even marching around the church shouting glory, hallelujah, I knew those people gave evidence that there were inconsistencies in their lives. Even though they urged and prayed loud prayers for me, I never budged from my seat. I did spend many hours privately tearfully praying that God would deliver me from my most "abominable" life. I finally came to realize the unconditinal love and acceptance of God, apart from all such religious shenanigans. Enough. Too many disturbing memories. I wish I could do this by personal email. Bill

January 22, 2008 3:14 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Thank you for your story. Growing up in liberal Friends meetings I was not exposed to many of the varieties of Christian theology so I like to hear about them. I was not meaning to drag up painful memories or to ask you to share more than you were willing.

One of the reasons why Barclay's theology resonates so much with me is that it matches my experience. There was a time when I wanted the Saul on the road to Damascus experience of sudden instantaneous change and salvation. It never happened to me (and a careful reading of Acts indicates that it may not have been so instantaneous for Paul either.) I came to see that, for me, this desire for a sudden change was laziness. I wanted it to be done for me, without having to do any work myself.

What I have had is a spiritual life of sometimes plodding growth. It has been marked by taking two steps forward and one step back. And more often than I would like to admit, one step forward and two steps back.

I commend you for the spiritual honesty I hear in your story, that you did not want to claim outwardly what you had not experienced inwardly. If you want to continue this discussion by email you may contact me at:
w t 3 3 @ v e r i z o n . n e t.



January 22, 2008 9:30 PM  

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