Much to the annoyance of other Christians (like John Bunyan), the early Friends placed a strong emphasis on the presence of Christ within. If Christ truly works within us, can we expect any limit to our transformation? In Barclay's words, "How far may he prevail in us while we are in this life?"
Barclay laments the fact that many Christians seem intent on limiting the power of Christ. They seem to believe that the power of Christ can only go so far. In Barclay's words, many people believe "it is impossible for a man, even the best of men, to be free of sin in this life" (we can assume that women carry a similar burden). From this perspective, we always fall short of the mark.
In fact, some are even more extreme in their pessimism. Some Christians have said "that the very best actions of the saints, their prayers, their worships, are impure and polluted."
Compared to this dismal view, Quakers are ecstatic optimists! As Barclay points out, why would God admonish us towards righteousness and perfect obedience if this state is impossible to obtain? Such a proposal makes God into the worst of tyrants. Barclay writes: "What is this but to attribute to God the height of injustice, to make him require his children to forsake sin, and yet not afford them sufficient means for so doing? Surely, this makes God more unrighteous than wicked men, who if (as Christ saith) their children require bread of them, will not give them a stone; or instead of fish, a serpent. But these men confess we ought to seek of God power to redeem us from sin, and yet they believe they are never to receive such a power; such prayers then cannot be in faith, but are all vain. Is this not to make God as unjust to his children as Pharaoh was to the Israelites, in requiring brick, and not giving them straw? But blessed be God, he deals not so with those that truly trust in him, and wait upon him..."
Typically, those Christians who feel pessimistic about God's ability to transform us completely build their arguments upon certain passages of Scripture. For example, in I John 1:8, the apostle says forcefully, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
However, the very next verse proclaims the amazing power of transformation. The very next verse says that we may be purified from all unrighteousness: "...God is faithful to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Clearly, the universality of sin does not prohibit our transformation.
As Barclay sees it, there may remain "a seed of sin" within us. There may always be an inclination within us to separate ourselves from God, to separate ourselves from authentic community, to be cut off from our true selves and from creation. However, these inclinations can be overcome by the Spirit of Christ active and living within us.
Those who habitually follow Christ may lay other habits aside. We may learn to live in perfect obedience.
Interestingly, Barclay does not point to himself as an example. Barclay says that such perfection has eluded him. Indeed, who would want to step forward as the model of perfection? Even if our faults are not obvious to ourselves, they seldom escape the attention of those around us! Most likely, anyone claiming perfection would find a crowd of witnesses eager to argue the contrary.
Even though there are few models of perfection around us, we ourselves must strive towards this goal. Scripture makes this demand of us ("Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect") and we must not lose this hope.
We must strive for complete surrender, always expecting God to draw us closer to God's self. In fact, Barclay makes it clear that even the "perfect" need further growth.
For Barclay, the "perfect" must continue growing because perfection is contextual. Perfection means being in step with God. In other words, what is perfect today will not be perfect tomorrow -- because by tomorrow God will be further down the path. The expectations of today are not the expectations of tomorrow (a perfect acorn is not a perfect oak tree).
It's helpful to think of perfection in this sense as "perfect obedience," Because "obedience" implies the fluidity of a relationship. Barclay illustrates this principle by pointing to the parable of the Talents: "He that improved his two talents so as to make four of them, perfected his work, and was so accepted of his Lord as to be called a good and faithful servant, nothing less than he that made his five ten."
Perfection is not found in the outward appearances, but in obedience to the inward promptings of the Lord.
Friends are optimistic about God's ability to transform us. We proclaim that God can transform us so completely -- so perfectly -- that we may come to respond to God's leadings with perfect obedience.
Here are a few questions:
1. Do you think "perfect obedience" is a reasonable goal?
2. What does it mean to follow Christ, habitually?
3. What do you think God requires of us? What do you think God would like from us?
Continue reading Proposition Ten (pt. 1)