The Imperfection of the Saints

In an exchange on Facebook recently, I encountered a Sinless Perfectionist of some stripe. Facebook being what it is, the back-and-forth was… unsatisfying. Eventually, I promised to exposit some Scriptures that taught progressive sanctification. It’s taken me longer than I wanted to get around to it (and I was rightly chided for my tardiness) – but I wanted to do justice to the subject when I did so. Hopefully, this treatment will be of benefit.

Progressive Sanctification is the teaching of the Reformation, and all of the Reformation’s children. That being said, Protestantism in general is a much wider tent. I’m not sure what background the man I encountered hails from, but there are a variety of them that hold to Holiness doctrines of some stripe. That being said, it must be pointed out that formally, very few Holiness traditions avow that man can be entirely sinless. They might state that it is an ideal, but very rarely do they affirm a) The possibility of absolute perfection in this life, b) That only those who attain this perfection are truly Christ’s and c) they themselves have attained said state of perfection. Even Wesley’s experience militates against this view. When in conversation with this gentleman, however, he seemed to affirm that complete sinless perfection was not only a possibility, but was his own personal experience; further, that it should mark every true believer.

So, let me shock you for a moment. I agree that Christians are sinless. Perfectly so.

The question is, however, like it always is when discussing such matters: What do I mean by that?

This sort of thing is what plagues practically all of our discussions about theological terminology. What do I mean by that? Let’s be clear, and make some concise definitions toward the beginning here.

By sanctification, we mean this (and we’ll use the catechisms (gasp!) as they’re intended to answer this:

The Baptist Catechism:
Q39. What is sanctification?

Sanctification is a work of God’s free grace whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Proofs:
2 Thessalonians 2:13
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.

Ephesians 4:23-24
and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Romans 6:11
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism[1] uses the same wording, but slightly different proofs, adding the following in place of Rom 6:11:

Romans 6:4, 6, 14
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. . . knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. . . For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.

Romans 8:4
That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

There are three aspects to Sanctification: Positional, Progressive, Perfect. Put another way, there are three temporal phases to Sanctification.

We are set apart. We are made holy unto God. A particularly is attached to us. We are his, and set apart to his service forevermore. Secondly, we mean that we are made new. While the old man remains (cf: Romans 7) there is a new man created within us (by Union with Christ) that wars against the old – the old man is not “made better” – the old man is being replaced. The two are at war. The new man will win, inexorably, but that war will only end at death, and we are translated to the presence of God.

Positionally, we are sanctified, if we are united to Christ. When Christ died, he died once for all. (Rom 9:10, Heb 7:27, 9:12, 10:10) There is no other atonement for sin, and with that atonement, our sins were covered, and we are seen only in Christ, as our substitute. Our sins are imputed to him, and his righteousness – His sinless perfection – is imputed to us. In this sense, we are sinless, perfectly so. That is what I was referring to with my initial statement. This positional sanctification is the work of God, apart from any human work, or any possibility of human work. In Reformed writings, you may see this referred to as the “already” in the “already/not yet” dichotomy.

Progressively, we are becoming sanctified. “We are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” The old man still wars. The corrupted, fallen flesh is still present. The work of the Spirit in us strengthens and empowers the new man, in opposition to the old. The new man kills off more and more of that old man as it does so. Day by day, we are conformed to the image of Christ[re]Rom 8:29[/ref], and conformed to his death[2]. We are being transformed by the renewal of our minds into living proofs of the well-pleasing and perfect will of God[3].

Perfectly, we are only sanctified completely in glory. As Q37 of the Catechism affirms, it is only at death that we are perfectly sanctified. As Q389 affirms, upon “being raised up in glory” we are then “made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God, to all eternity.”[4] We are still subject to death. It seems an argument against perfectionism that we are – yet it is an expected consequence per progressive sanctification.

That’s what we believe, and a little bit about why. However, we believe in Sola Scriptura – so the preceding is a preface! Let’s examine the Scripture to see whether these things are so!

This is a verse outside the common reading of most of us – but it seems pretty clear.

Ecclesiastes 7:20
Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.

Now, while Ecclesiastes is not an epistle, so it doesn’t follow the pattern of a rigidly logical chain of argumentation as Paul tends to offer, it is wisdom literature. There is a connection to the verse prior, if somewhat looser than we might get elsewhere. The initial word, כִּי, isn’t quite a “therefore” – it’s rendered “indeed” by the NASB. The ESV renders it “surely.” The KJV renders it “For,” as a standard “therefore”. In any case, it’s definitely connective to the previous verses. Solomon is speaking about extremes of “wisdom” and “righteousness” (which are really no such thing), and the need for balance. He charges us to come “forth with both of them.”

Gill comments:

For [there is] not a just man upon earth
Or “although”, or “notwithstanding”, wisdom is so beneficial, and guards and strengthens a good man, yet no man has such a share of it as to live without sin; there was not then one on earth, there never had been, one, nor never would be, nor has been, excepting the man Christ Jesus; who indeed, as man, was perfectly just, while here on earth, and went about doing good, and never sinned in all his life; but this cannot be said of any other, no, not of one that is truly and really just; not externally and in his own opinion only, but who is made so by the obedience of Christ, or by his righteousness imputed to him, while he is here on earth; otherwise in heaven, where the spirits of just men are made perfect, there it may be said of them what follows, but nowhere else;
that doeth good, and sinneth not;
it is the character of a just man to do good, to do that which is according to the will of God, from a principle of love to him, through faith in him, in the name and strength of Christ, and with a view to the glory of God; to do good in such a sense wicked men cannot; only such who are made good by the grace of God, are regenerated and made new creatures in Christ, are quickened by his Spirit, and are true believers in him; who appear to be what they are, by the fruits of good works they bring forth; and this not in a mercenary way, or in order to obtain life and righteousness, but as constrained by the grace of God, by which they are freely justified; and yet these are not free from sin, as appears by their confessions and complaints, by their backslidings, slips, and falls, and their petitions for fresh discoveries of pardoning grace; and even are not without sin, and the commission of it, in religious duties, or while they are doing good; hence their righteousness is said to be as filthy rags, and mention is made of the iniquity of holy things, (Isaiah 64:6) (Exodus 28:38).

The Targum is,

“that does good all his days, and sins not before the Lord.”

Aben Ezra justly gives the sense thus,

“who does good always, and never sins;”

and observes that there are none but sin in thought, word, or deed. The poet says,

“to sin is common to all men;”

no man, though ever so good, is perfect on earth, or free from sin; see (1 Kings 8:46) (Proverbs 20:9) (1 John 1:8) . Alshech’s paraphrase is,

“there is not a righteous man on earth, that does good, and sins not; (בטןב ההןא) , “in that good”;”

which is the true sense of the words.

Henry notes that Solomon says elsewhere that no man is free from sin – so this is not an isolated statement.

1 Kings 8:46
When they sin against You (for there is no man who does not sin) and You are angry with them and deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near;

That is not all, however. Henry also notes that Solomon says this in Pro 20:9:

Who can say, “I have cleansed my heart,
I am pure from my sin”?

Always these statements are nearby to affirmations that men can have integrity, can be righteous. So, when Solomon says there is not a righteous man on the earth who is free from sin – he really does mean a righteous man. He just doesn’t mean a perfectly righteous man.

To go back to Ecc. 7:20, however – Solomon really is saying that there are righteous men. He’s just also saying that even the most righteous of them are not sinless.

Further, when he asks this question – can our answer be, in all seriousness, “Jesus. And me.”? Why do I say that? David sinned, and said he did. Abraham sinned, and said he did. They are in the hall of faith. Peter sinned, and said he did. Paul sinned, and said he did. The list goes on and on and on – and the Bible often goes into quite painstaking detail to ensure that we get this message- that each of our past heroes in the faith were sinners. Are we better, under the new covenant? Yes, and no. Those prior to Christ looked forward to the one who would be their substitute. We get to look back. We, in the new covenant, all have the indwelling Spirit – with explicit teaching on who He is, and what he accomplishes – to be Comforted by. That, however, is the precise problem we are facing here.

Are we truly comforted, if we believe ourselves to be entirely without sin? I would argue not. In 1 John, we are told that if “we” have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. Who is “we”? Follow the pronouns. “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—” (vs1) “and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—” (vs2) “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” (vs3) “These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.” (vs4) “This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” (vs5) “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth;” (vs6) “but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (vs7) “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (vs8)

You catch that? The author is affirming that if he (or the group he is writing for, and responsible for this teaching – probably the body of elders) claims to have no sin, he is self-deceived. So, is the sinless perfectionist more righteous than John? John isn’t speaking about those sinners prior to salvation – but about himself! Note a few additional things.

God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him, yet “walk in” darkness – that “walk in” is a word near and dear to me – a form of peripateō. It’s the Present Subjunctive Active form, in point of fact – περιπατῶμεν – also used in the next verse. *If* we walk – it’s a conditional. However, what is often noted is that it is part of a phrase – and the conditional used, in conjunction with the τῷ σκότει of vs. 6, conjoined to the τῷ φωτί of vs. 7 is equivalent to “frequenting” or “staying in” a place[5]. That old sermon illustration actually has some basis in the language after all!

One last point to make, however. If, as I’ve said, περιπατῶμεν is subjunctive, what is the subjunctive in vs.7? What is the condition? Well, it seems to be this: If we walk in the light, we have fellowship, right? It’s only those with that fellowship whose sins the blood of Jesus cleanses. Hear me here – I’m not actually saying that you have to be righteous before your sins are cleansed – I’m saying that if the perfectionist reading here were true, that it would also follow that only if you are already righteous, already walking in the light could your sins be cleansed at all. In other words, if their reading of this passage were followed, it would entail that we have to be sinless without Christ before we could be sinless with Christ. That seems to be something very much like a “self-defeating position” – don’t you think? Think it through.

  1. [1]It might be useful to the reader to follow the preceding link for more resources on this topic.
  2. [2]Phl 3:10
  3. [3]Rom 12:2
  4. [4]The Scripture proof used here is 1 Cor 15:42-43 – “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.”
  5. [5]cf: Mark 11:27, John 7:1, 10:23, Rev 2:1

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