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,