Chapter 30
The Progress of Sanctification (continued-2)

As there are some who deny that there is any such thing as "progressive sanctification," so there are others who go to an opposite extreme and contend for the attainment of "entire sanctification" in this life, teaching "sinless perfection" in the flesh; yea, there have been and still are numbers of professing Christians who claim they have lived for so many years without the commission of any known sin. This book would lack completeness were we to ignore this phase of the matter, and as the present stage seems to be the best one for considering this somewhat vexed question, we have decided to canvass it, ere proceeding further with our present aspect. Is it possible for a Christian to reach the point where he can live in this world without sinning?

Those who answer the above question affirmatively differ considerably among themselves as to what sin is, as to the standard and rule of holiness (i.e., what law we are now obliged to fulfill), and as to the means whereby this perfection may be attained. We will not take the space to describe all the various brands of this error, but rather concentrate upon that which is most likely to affect some of our readers. As can readily be supposed, all "perfectionists" have low and defective views of both sin and holiness. This at once appears in their designating transgressions of God's Law "mistakes of ignorance," "infirmities," while Romanists distinguish between "mortal and venial sins." John Wesley taught that entire sanctification in this life consists in "a state in which perfect faith in Christ and perfect love for God fills the whole soul and governs the entire life," so that "all inward disposition to sin as well as all outward commission of it, is excluded."

That no man, whatever his advantages and attainments may be, does arrive at sinless perfection in this life is clearly asserted in Scripture. "Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?" (Prov. 20:9). "For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not" (Eccl. 7:20). "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would" (Gal. 5:17). "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after . . . Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended" (Phil. 3:12, 13). "For in many things we offend all" (James 3:2). "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the Truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). These Divine testimonies are decisive and prove that we are utterly deceived if we suppose we are living without sin.

When, then, we read "Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not . . . Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for His seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God" (1 John 3:6, 9), it is certain the Apostle did not affirm that every true Christian, or any one of them, is free from sin in this life, for he would not expressly contradict what he had said in this same Epistle (1:8). No, his evident meaning is that none who is truly born of God and united by faith to Christ sins as do the unregenerate, or as he himself did before he passed from death unto life. He no longer lives in sin: he makes it not his trade and practice--rather does he now live a life devoted to Christ, though attended with much imperfection and defiled by much sin.

In like manner, those passages which speak of saints as "perfect" must be interpreted in harmony with the general tenor of Scripture. Such a verse as "Remember now, O LORD, I beseech Thee, how I have walked before Thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Thy sight" (Isa. 38:3) signifies sincerity as opposed to hypocrisy. Accordingly such "perfection" as is mentioned in Scripture is explained as denoting uprightness: "There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil" (Job 1:1)--elsewhere Job disclaims any pretentions to sinless perfection: "If I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse" (9:20). In a number of places in the New Testament "perfection" signifies maturity, in contrast from those who are babes and the inexperienced. He who carefully and impartially studies his Bible will discover that saints are not said to be "perfect" in any higher sense than these. Paul said emphatically, "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect," yet immediately after he spoke of himself and others as being "perfect" (Phil. 3:12, 15): he must use that term, then, in two different senses, otherwise he would contradict himself.

"First, the Scriptures never assert that a Christian may in this life attain to a state in which he may live without sin. Second, the meaning of special passages must be interpreted in consistency with the entire testimony of Scripture. Third, the language of Scripture never implies that man may here live without sin. The commands of God are adjusted to man's responsibility, and the aspirations and prayers of the saints to their duties and ultimate privileges, and not to their personal ability. Perfection is the true aim of the Christian's effort in every period of growth and in every act. The terms 'perfect' and 'blameless' are often relative, or used to signify simple genuineness. This is evident from the recorded fact. Fourth, that all the perfect men of the Scriptures sometimes sinned: witness the histories of Noah, Job, David, Paul" (A. A. Hodge).

"Independent of what passeth in the day in those chambers of imagery within me, were I to be judged for what takes place in the watches of the night in my sleeping hours, even in those things which some may deem involuntary and perhaps venial, yet even here I find it good to confess guilt before God. I know not what the advocates of sinless perfection may think of this statement. It is possible they may assert that no responsibility is attached to any supposed or real criminality in sleep. And, indeed, I am not anxious to go into the inquiry, whether it be so or not. It is simply of the facts themselves for which I contend. Sure I am, that in a multitude of instances, while my body takes rest in sleep, there is another part of me, a thinking faculty, which doth not sleep, and which is not infrequently most busily engaged in thoughts and words and actions. And, indeed, at times so engaged in evil, as I should blush to communicate to the nearest and dearest earthly friend I have. It becomes an important question with such as those who insist upon sinless perfection to answer, from whence do such things arise? I stay not to determine the point as to my responsibility from them. Let that part of the subject be set aside. But it should seem to be a self-evident truth, that if evil were not within, such circumstances of evil could not be produced. They are the words of my Lord which saith 'Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies' (Matt. 15:19).

"Precious Lord Jesus! How can I with such views of indwelling corruption, take confidence from any inherent holiness? Should I not tremble at the very thought of Thine inspection, if my acceptance before Thee is dependent upon the least atom of worth in me? If Thy Word be 'quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow'; if this be a 'discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart,' how 'naked and open must be everything' to Thy knowledge 'with whom we have to do' (Heb. 4:12, 13). And should my Lord, as an almighty spiritual anatomist, cut down to the backbone of my frame, and throw open at one view the whole inward structure, shouldest Thou, great God! make bare the privy chamber of my heart, the depth of which, and the workings of which, I myself cannot explore, but where all my 'secret sins are in the light of Thy countenance' Lord! how should I stand before Thee in the discoveries Thou wouldest make, 'whose eyes are as a flame of fire'? And can I, can any man, in the consciousness of such things, be led to advocate the cause of sinless perfection? The question rings through all the chambers of the conscience, and the walls of the heart reverberate the solemn sound, and echoes to the inquiry 'How shall man be just before God? How can he be clean that is born of a woman?' (Job. 25:4).

"When I look back to the days of old, when I consider the years of many generations, when I read the groans and self-reproaches of the greatest servants of the Most High, not in the days of their unregeneracy, but many of them years after a saving work of grace had been wrought in their heart, I ask myself the question, did these men indeed feel what they have said; and, under such impressions, could any one have made them believe the doctrine of sinless perfection? Nay, hath God the Holy Spirit, in the history of those faithful followers of the Lord given a single instance in all the Bible of such an one? Gracious Lord Jesus! I desire to lay low in the dust before Thy Divine majesty, under a conscious sense that 'in me, that is in my flesh, there dwelleth no good thing.' Yea. Blessed Lord, let me go softly all my days under a deep sense of it, learning more and more my own nothingness, that I may therefrom, under God, know how to value more and more Christ's fullness, suitableness, and all-sufficiency. And if the daily workings of my heart do but endear my Lord the more to me, I am content to be indeed nothing, yea, worse than nothing, so that Christ may be glorified" (Robert Hawker, 1820--a few words altered by us).

Let it be clearly understood that we are not advocates of sinless perfection. While it be true, blessedly true, that the Law has been satisfied by the Lord Jesus for the justification of all His people, yet its righteous requirements upon us have not been abated one iota, for every Christian is under binding obligations to love the Lord with all his heart and his neighbour as himself. He is called upon to be holy in all manner of conversation, to lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset him and to run the race set before him. He is commanded to mortify his members which are upon the earth, to make no provision for the flesh, to abstain from all appearance of evil, to seek the glory of God in everything which he does. Sin is never to be courted or allowed, but resisted and forsaken. The Christian is obligated to follow the example Christ has left him and walk in His steps. He is to constantly aim at sinless perfection, and forgetting all past failure strive for a complete conformity to Christ.

Everything in us and from us which is contrary to God's holiness is criminal. Every falling short of the perfect standard He has set before us is sinful, and is to be confessed by us. But it does not follow from this that any Christian has, does, or will in this life fully conform to the Divine rule of duty. For that, the believer is wholly dependent upon God's sovereign grace. He is no more holy than he is made so by omnipotent operations of the Holy Spirit--and though God requires him to be perfectly holy, yet He is under no obligation, by promise or any other way, to make the Christian perfectly holy in this world. His requiring of holiness does not imply any such obligation on His part, nor has He given any promise to that effect in the new covenant. But He has promised to preserve His people in holiness so that they shall not apostatise, and He has promised to make them perfectly holy at their glorification, so that they shall never sin again for all eternity.

As to the particular degree of holiness and the particular exercises of it in each Christian, God orders it as He pleases, to answer His own all-sufficient purpose. To one there is given five talents, to another only two. The Redeemer is able to make every believer perfectly holy at his first conversion, so that he should never be guilty of another sin. And had that been the wisest and best, it had been so ordered. Remember that God's thoughts and ways are high above ours (Isa. 55:8), and the wisdom of this world is foolishness with Him. We may be certain, however, that it is most wise and best that none of the redeemed should be perfectly holy in this life, even though we were quite unable to now see any of the reasons why the redeemed are still in such an imperfect state and in so great a degree sinful, or the wise (if to us, mysterious) ends which are answered thereby. A few of these shall now be mentioned.

First, if believers were now perfectly holy, they would not be so fit to live in this disordered, sinful world. There would not be that analogy of one thing to another which is observable in all the works of God, and which is proper and wise--i.e., every creature being fitted to its particular environment: fish to water, birds to air, etc. This is not a world suited to be the dwelling-place of immaculate beings. But it does furnish a suitable scene and state of discipline to form and train the redeemed for a state of perfect holiness and happiness in another world.

Second, if Christians were perfectly holy in this life, it would not be a state of trial, as it now is. Their temptations would be neither so many nor strong. Satan could not have so much power and advantage to harass them, seeking to seduce them; and their danger would not be so great and apparent. Consequently, they would not have the opportunity for the exercise of such graces as humiliation and repentance for their repeated sins, loathing themselves for the same, mortifying their lusts, longing for deliverance, and exercising faith and patience through such dark and disagreeable circumstances as now they have, and by which Christ is honoured and themselves prepared for rewards in His kingdom.

Third, such a state of imperfection is both suited and necessary to teach them more effectually and make them feel by abundant experience the total depravity of fallen human nature, the evil character and odiousness of sin, the inconceivable and inexpressible deceitfulness and obstinacy of their own hearts, and their absolute dependence upon the sovereign grace of God to prevent their destruction and save them. Thereby are they enabled to perceive more clearly and appreciate more deeply the atonement which Christ has made for them, and the exceeding greatness of His power which preserves such wretches. Thereby they learn such lessons to better advantage in this state of imperfection and sin than they could in a state of perfect holiness.

Fourth, the power of God is much more conspicuous and sensible in maintaining a small degree of holiness in the heart of a Christian in the midst of the opposition with which it and he is surrounded and assailed, than in making him perfectly holy at once. In this way the weak Christian, in the midst of strong temptations and powerful enemies, constantly exercising all their cunning to devour him, is upheld by the omnipotent hand of the Redeemer, and the little spark of holiness implanted in his heart is kept alive and burning, notwithstanding there is so much within and without tending to extinguish it. This is as great and wondrous a miracle as the preservation of a spark of fire year after year in the midst of the sea. The Christian is by his very situation and experience made in some measure conscious of this, and exclaims, "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:9).

Fifth, the wondrous condescension, goodness, tender love, infinite longsufferance of the Saviour are also exercised and manifested by His constant care of believers, though they be so imperfect and sinful, and offend in many things, and are often guilty of that which in itself is sufficient to provoke Him to give them up. There is much more opportunity for Him to act out and display His grace and forbearance, than if they were perfectly holy from the time of their conversion. This was illustrated by His attitude toward the first of His New Testament disciples. What selfishness, ingratitude, stupidity, and unbelief they manifested, yet how tenderly and patiently did He deal with them. Thus He treats all His disciples while in this life. They are, in measure, conscious of this, and love Him all the more for it--though they grieve bitterly over their sin and failures.

Thus the wisdom and goodness of God appear in so ordering it that no man, even the most eminent saint, shall be perfectly holy in this life, but that all the redeemed shall in this world be very imperfect and sinful, for the reasons mentioned above and the ends which are answered thereby. More might be added, yet the half cannot be discovered by us now. A clear and full view of the infinite wisdom and goodness of God in this is reserved for the future state, when the saved shall review all the dispensations of Heaven and ways of Him who is "wonderful in counsel and excellent in working." Should the carping objector exclaim, "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" The answer is, "God forbid." Nor will those considerations exert any evil influence upon those whose hearts are right toward God--rather will they be the more thankful for the few rays of light which they cast upon a dark problem.

But to turn to the more immediate aspect of our theme. Though the believer be not perfectly sanctified in this life, he does make progress in holiness. This is clear from our Lord's words "every branch that beareth fruit, He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit" (John 15:2). Every living branch in the Vine grows in grace and fruitfulness; or, to express it in another way, he advances both in the work of mortification and of vivification. Most frequently such growth is likened unto that of trees (Psa. 92:12; Hosea 14:5, etc.), and it must be borne in mind that they grow both downwards and upwards: by the deepening of their roots and the spreading of their branches--the one unseen, the other apparent to the eye. But it is this very fact which most deeply exercises an honest heart, for so far from progress in holiness, he can perceive only retrogression: and instead of increasing fruitfulness, the decay of many of his graces.

The Christian's growth in grace is a mystery to be apprehended by faith rather than by sight. Our spiritual life is maintained by faith much more then the discerning of the increase of it. Yea, the spiritual life (strange and paradoxical as it sounds to carnal reason) is advanced by contraries: by falls and dissertations, and therefore is discerned by faith rather than by sense, for "faith is the evidence of things not seen." Moreover, the Christian's desires for grace grow larger, and his sense of want more acute (and this is a growth in itself), which hinders a perception of his progress: "There is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches" (Prov. 13:7). Again: there are great differences among Christians in the matter of growth. Some are planted in a congenial soil (under an edifying ministry), but with others it is quite different. Some are more shielded from temptations. Some grow without intermission (Col. 1:6), others leave their first love. Some die early, and therefore God fits them for Heaven the sooner. Some are most fruitful in their early days (like Isaac), others (like Solomon) bring forth most fruit in old age.

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