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§ 7. Perfectionism.
The doctrine of Lutherans and Reformed, the two great branches of the Protestant Church, is, that sanctification is never perfected in this life; that sin is not in any case entirely subdued; so that the most advanced believer has need as long as he continues in the flesh, daily to pray for the forgiveness of sins.
The question is not as to the duty of believers. All admit that we are bound to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Nor is it a question as to the command of God; for the first, original, and universally obligatory commandment is that we should love God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves. Nor does the question concern the provisions of the Gospel. It is admitted that the Gospel provides all that is needed for the complete sanctification and salvation of believers. What can we need more than we have in Christ, his Spirit, his word and his ordinances? Nor does it concern the promises of God; for all rejoice in the hope, founded on the divine promise, that we shall be ultimately delivered from all sin. God has in Christ made provision for the complete salvation of his people: that is, for their entire deliverance from the penalty of the law, from the power of sin, from all sorrow, pain, and death; and not only for mere negative deliverance, but for their being transformed into the image of Christ, filled with his Spirit, and glorified by the beauty of the Lord. It is, however, too plain that, unless sanctification be an exception, no one of these promises besides that which concerns justification, is perfectly fulfilled in this life. Justification does not admit of degrees. A man either is under condemnation, or he is not. And, therefore, from the nature of the case, justification is instantaneous and complete, as soon as the sinner believes. But the question is, whether, when God promises to make his people perfectly holy, perfectly happy, and perfectly glorious, He thereby promises to make them perfect in holiness in this life? If the promises of happiness and glory are not perfectly fulfilled in this life, why should the promise of 246sanctification be thus fulfilled? It is, however, a mere question of fact. All admit that God can render his people perfect before death as well as after it. The only question is, Has He promised, with regard to sanctification alone, that it shall be perfected on this side of the grave? and, Do we see cases in which the promise has been actually fulfilled? The answer given to these questions by the Church universal is in the negative. So long as the believer is in this world, he will need to pray for pardon.
The grounds of this doctrine are, —
1. The spirituality of the divine law and the immutability of its demands. It condemns as sinful any want of conformity to the standard of absolute perfection as exhibited in the Bible. Anything less than loving God constantly with all the heart, all the soul, all the mind, and all the strength, and our neighbour as ourselves, is sin.
2. The express declaration of Scripture that all men are sinners. This does not mean simply that all men have sinned, that all are guilty, but that all have sin cleaving to them. “If,” declares the Apostle, “we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John i. 8.) As the wise man had said before him, “There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Eccles. vii. 20.) And in 1 Kings viii. 46, it is said, “There is no man that sinneth not.” And the Apostle James, iii. 2, says: “In many things we offend all.” It is a manifest perversion of the simple grammatical meaning of the words to make ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ ἔχομεν to refer to the past. The verb is in the present tense. The truth is not in us, says the Apostle, if we say we have no sin, i.e., that we are not now polluted by sin. In the context he sets forth Christ as the “Word of Life,” as having life in Himself, and as being the source of life to us. Having fellowship with Him, we have fellowship with God. But God is light, i.e., is pure, holy, and blessed; if, therefore, we walk in darkness, i.e., in ignorance and sin, we can have no fellowship with Him. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, and do not need now and at all times the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Argument from the General Representations of Scripture.
The declarations of Scripture, which are so abundant, that there is none righteous, no not one; that all have sinned and 247come short of the glory of God; that no flesh living is just in the sight of God; and that every one must lay his hand upon his mouth, and his mouth in the dust in the sight of the infinitely holy God, who accuses his angels of folly, refer to all men without exception; to Jews and Gentiles; to the renewed and unrenewed; to babes in Christ and to mature Christians. All feel, and all are bound to acknowledge that they are sinners whenever they present themselves before God; all know that they need constantly the intervention of Christ, and the application of his blood, to secure fellowship with the Holy One. As portrayed in Scripture, the inward life of the people of God to the end of their course in this world, is a repetition of conversion. It is a continued turning unto God; a constant renewal of confession, repentance, and faith; a dying unto sin, and living unto righteousness. This is true of all the saints, patriarchs, prophets, and apostles of whose inward experience the Bible gives us any account.
Passages which describe the Conflict between the Flesh and the Spirit.
3. More definitely is this truth taught in those passages which describe the conflict in the believer between the flesh and the Spirit. To this reference has already been made. That the seventh chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is an account of his own inward life at the time of writing that Epistle, has already, as it is believed, been sufficiently proved; and such has been the belief of the great body of evangelical Christians in all ages of the Church. If this be the correct interpretation of that passage, then it proves that Paul, at least, was not free from sin; that he had to contend with a law in his members, warring against the law of his mind; that he groaned constantly under the burden of indwelling sin. At a still later period of his life, when he was just ready to be offered up, he says to the Philippians, iii. 12-14, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” This is an unmistakable declaration on the part of the Apostle that even at this late period of his life he was not yet perfect; he had 248not attained the end of perfect conformity to Christ, but was pressing forward, as one in a race, with all earnestness that he might reach the end of his calling. To answer this, as has been done by some distinguished advocates of perfectionism, by saying that Paul’s not being perfect, is no proof that other men may not be is not very satisfactory.
The parallel passage in Galatians, v. 16-26, is addressed to Christians generally. It recognizes the fact that they are imperfectly sanctified; that in them the renewed principle, the Spirit as the source of spiritual life, is in couffict with the flesh, the remains of their corrupt nature. It exhorts them to mortify the flesh (not the body, but their corrupt nature), and to strive constantly to walk under the controlling influence of the Spirit. The characteristic difference between the unrenewed and the renewed is not that the former are entirely sinful, and the latter perfectly holy; but that the former are wholly under the control of their fallen nature, while the latter have the Spirit of God dwelling in them, which leads them to crucify the flesh, and to strive after complete conformity to the image of God. There was nothing in the character of the Galatian Christians to render this exhortation applicable to them alone. What the Scriptures teach concerning faith, repentance, and justification, is intended for all Christians; and so what is taught of sanctification suits the case of all believers. Indeed, if a man thinks himself perfect, and apprehends that he has already attained what his fellow believers are only striving for, a great part of the Bible must for him lose its value. What use can he make of the Psalms, the vehicle through which the people of God for millenniums have poured out their hearts? How can such a man sympathize with Ezra, Nehemiah, or any of the prophets? How strange to him must be the language of Isaiah, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Argument from the Lord’s Prayer.
4. Not only do the holy men of God throughout the Scriptures in coming into his presence, come with the confession of sin and imperfection, praying for mercy, not only for what they were but also for what they are, but our Lord has taught all his disciples whenever they address their Father in heaven to say, “Forgive as our trespasses.” This injunction has ever been a stumbling 249block in the way of the advocates of perfection from Pelagius to the present day. It was urged by Augustine in his argument against the doctrine of his great opponent that men could be entirely free from sin in the present life. The answer given to the argument from this source has been substantially the same as that given by Pelagius. It is presented in its best form by the Rev. Richard Watson.239239Theological Institutes, II. xxix.; edit. New York, 1832, p. 545. That writer says, “(1.) That it would be absurd to suppose that any person is placed under the necessity of trespassing, in order that a general prayer designed for men in a mixed condition might retain its aptness to every particular ease. (2.) That trespassing of every kind and degree is not supposed by this prayer to be continued, in order that it might be used always in the same import, or otherwise it might be pleaded against the renunciation of any trespass or transgression whatever. (3.) That this petition is still relevant to the case of the entirely sanctified and the evangelically perfect, since neither the perfection of the first man nor that of angels is in question; that is, a perfection measured by the perfect law, which in its obligation, contemplates all creatures as having sustained no injury by moral lapse, and admits, therefore, of no excuse from infirmities and mistakes of judgment; nor of any degree of obedience below that which beings created naturally perfect, were capable of rendering. There may, however, be an entire sanctification of a being rendered naturally weak and imperfect, and so liable to mistake and infirmity, as well as to defect as to the degree of that absolute obedience and service which the law of God, never bent to human weakness, demands from all. These defects, and mistakes, and infirmities, may be quite consistent with the entire sanctification of the soul and the moral maturity of a being still naturally infirm and imperfect.”
The first and second of these answers do not touch the point. No one pretends that men are placed under the necessity of sinning, “in order that” they may be able to repeat the Lord’s prayer. This would indeed be absurd. The argument is this. If a man prays to be forgiven, he confesses that he is a sinner, and if a sinner, he is not free from sin or perfect. And therefore, the use of the Lord’s prayer by all Christians, is an acknowledgment that no Christian in this life is perfect. The third answer which is the one principally relied upon and constantly repeated, involves a contradiction. It assumes that what is not sin requires to be forgiven. Mr. Watson says the petition, “Forgive us our 250trespasses,” may be properly used by those who are free from sin. This is saying that sin is not sin. The argument by which this position is sustained also involves a contradiction. Our “infirmities” are sins if judged by “the perfect law”; but not if judged by “the evangelical law.” As we are not to be judged by the former, but by the latter, want of conformity tc the law is not sin. The only inability under which men, since the fall, labour, arises from their sinfulness, and therefore is no excuse for want of conformity to that law which it is said, and said rightly, is “never bent to human weakness.”
Argument from the Experience of Christians.
5. Appeal may be made on this subject to the testimony of the Church universal. There are no forms of worship, no formulas for private devotion, in any age or part of the Church, which do not contain confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness. The whole Christian Church with all its members prostrates itself before God, saying, “Have mercy upon us miserable sinners.” If here and there one and another among this prostrate multitude refuse to bow and join in this confession, they are to be wondered at and pitied. They are, however, not to he found. Consciousness is too strong for theory, and therefore,
6. We may appeal to the conscience of every believer. He knows that he is a sinner. He never is in a state which satisfies his own conviction as to what he ought to be. He may call his deficiencies infirmities, weaknesses, and errors, and may refuse to call them sins. But this does not alter the case. Whatever they are called, it is admitted that they need God’s pardoning mercy.
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