Are You Tired of the Word?: Sermon Introduction from “The Little Scroll” (Revelation 10:1-11)

Are you tired of the Word?

Perhaps the greatest trouble facing the Church today is our tendency to grow tired of the Word, and lose interest in the gospel, so that we seek out theologies and programs and excitement that, while not necessarily bad in and of themselves, are often based more on the world than they are on the Word. And so I ask you this morning, are you tired of the Word? Have you lost interest in the gospel?

Toward the end of the last century, American evangelicals became fascinated by end times particulars, hosting prophecy conferences and often undermining their pulpits through politics associated with holding various views. Toward the beginning of this century, a phenomenon now known as ‘New Calvinism’ swept across the younger generation in our country, focusing on the doctrine of election to the exclusion of robust ecclesiological considerations. And now, since roughly the beginning of this decade, otherwise theologically conservative evangelicals have tipped their hats to the teachings of so-called ‘social justice,’ which is a term historically associated with a Marxist worldview and the Critical Race Theory which currently dominates most higher academic institutions. Now, the Bible never uses the term ‘social justice,’ although it has much to say about doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. In our church, we practice what some Christians call ‘social justice’ through our caring for the widows, and the orphans, and providing and praying for the hungry, and other activities so many of us are involved in throughout the week. But we do these good works as an implication of the gospel, and to ‘adorn’ the gospel, not as a definitive component of the gospel. So I was troubled this past week to see a prominent, theologically conservative, Southern Baptist pastor in Nashville seemingly approve of a Washington Post article which claims that ‘social justice’ is a definitive component of the gospel. Folks, if we’re deriving our definition of the gospel from the Washington Post, then we’re in serious trouble. I am amazed that people from our camp, who are our friends, are so quickly turning away from him who called us by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel which is no gospel. I would remind you brothers and sisters, of the gospel you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. This unchanging, propositional truth of the authoritative, inerrant Word of God is not a ‘reductionistic gospel,’ it is the gospel, and it is sufficient to save and to spark the process of progressive sanctification and transformation that necessarily follows from true conversion.

And so I ask you this morning, are you tired of the Word? Have you lost interest in the gospel?

Adventures in Misgendering

The rapidly changing landscape of supposed non-binary genders is dizzying to most of us – myself included. This isn’t an attempt to help you navigate that mindfield of pronouns – because in all likelihood, by the time you read this, it would have all changed anyway. Which pronouns they want us to use, or not use, is irrelevant in most ways. We’re being told that “misgendering” is now rude – more than rude, really – a cardinal sin of oppression. One of my sons, a high-school senior, was recently the subject of an “intervention” by his classmates for his refusal to “use the correct pronouns.” Well, more accurately, for the implication, that should such an instance arise, that he wouldn’t use the correct pronouns – because he hadn’t actually had the opportunity to even meet the person in question yet.  So goes our Brave New World.

In our continuing Sexual Revolution, the gender identity debate has eclipsed, in some ways, the debates over feminism, homosexuality, and abortion – but it will be helpful to note that that this new focus has actually taken much of the “cultural” force away from those other debates. For instance, if becoming a “woman” now only takes a solemn pronouncement, then anyone’s all in the feminist camp, aren’t they?  While I was (understandably) annoyed at the treatment my son received, I was also intrigued by the assertion made by his classmates. My son already has the habit of using the singular “they/them/their” to avoid the discussion when inopportune (or when he has no earthly clue what they are when they‘re t’home). That, you see, wasn’t good enough.

It’s good enough for the Boston Globe, whose protagonist (you know that pieces about conformist ideas in the “new normal” of this Revolution  have protagonists now, right?) argues strenuously for the use of they:

Corey Prachniak-Rincón self-identifies as genderqueer because “male” just doesn’t seem sufficient. Born male and married to a man, Prachniak-Rincón has had various styles over the years — sometimes wearing longer hair and a more feminine look — and a few years ago dropped the masculine pronouns for the more ambiguous, if plural, “they/them/theirs.”

Still, they aren’t attached to “they.” They would adopt another pronoun if one came along. They understand that “they” is difficult.

And if you’re having trouble reading this story right now, they sympathize.

“It can be grammatically awkward for people who aren’t used to practicing this,” Prachniak-Rincón acknowledged. “It’s a change in grammatical structure as well as a change in norms, how they’re conceptualizing gender.”

Rapidly changing gender norms, resisted by many traditionalists, are prompting changes to the language that can be jarring to almost everybody at first. Words like “them” used to be scolded out of speech when used to refer to a singular, identifiable person or object. Now, they’re being put to work as benign stand-ins for individuals whose gender identities are not that easily described.

Some gender-nonconforming individuals fully embrace the pronoun “they.” Others who reject the strict confines of traditional gender roles use it by default.

“If there were some new, popular nonbinary form to emerge, I would probably jump on the bandwagon for the sake of simplicity and camaraderie,” said Prachniak-Rincón.[1]

I do appreciate the admission that it is a bandwagon – but it’s illustrative of the issue at hand, is it not? As he points out, it’s a change in grammatical structure and a change in norms. This “new normal” is just that – a novelty.  It’s a revolutionary novelty – and if there’s anything certain, it’s the fate of reactionaries after a Revolution. What wasn’t good enough for my son, I suspect, was that he had “improper motives” for his usage of they.  It isn’t good enough to merely use the word – you have to celebrate the lifestyle, and acquiesce to the new normal as reigning over you, and your grammar. He was engaging in wrongthink, whatever the wording. That’s what gets their goat.

That’s also what got the goat of the Romans, when they insisted on the pluralism that (they felt) kept their Pax Romana. Back then, we were the revolutionaries – so keep that in mind – it’s not just a staid conservatism at work here. What’s actually at issue is not the overthrowing of a mere cultural norm – but the deconstruction of an objective truth. See, the Romans were just fine with Christianity – if it would just assimilate. They didn’t care about yet another religion. What they cared about was that this religion claimed to take supremacy above the demands of the Empire. Especially an Empire with a divinized Emperor. When Domitian took the throne after the death of Titus, he decided that some changes were in order. These were conservative changes, of course. Going back to the good old days – when due honor was given to the gods who brought them to their present status, and worship was properly done. Just some down home, good old fashioned polytheism! Not nearly enough rallying around the… standard, the home gods, and the Empire was going on – and Domitian had just the plan to fix that. The Romans were quite enlightened, when all is said and done. Anyone was free to worship the gods of their people. Some allowances had to be made (although let’s not take it too far, the just-cooled ashes of Jerusalem cautioned!), but all in all, they were quite the pluralists. You were free to worship whatever you wished – as long as you also, under Domitian’s scheme, would drop a pinch of incense at the altar to Caesar’s genius (divine spirit, divinization – you take your pick. They weren’t picky.) and declaimed “Caesar est Kurios!” Christians… not so much. Like those pesky Jews, they weren’t interested in pluralism, accommodationism, or getting along. They only had one Kurios – and that was Christ.

All they had to do was add a little pinch of incense, say the words – and poof, no more problems. They couldn’t. Not knowing what it meant, what it was intended to convey – and not knowing the Triune God. But, many will object at this point – isn’t your son already doing that now? Well, if he was, they certainly wouldn’t have gone after him, would they? It wasn’t enough to simply avoid the image of Caesar; to avoid pinching the incense, or the declaration. My son uses “they” substitutionally, because it is acceptable (if unpopular) grammar which avoids the issue. However, they want my son to use “he” for a female who “identifies as” male. You can’t just leave well enough alone. You must, at all costs, pinch the incense and make the declaration. Just to be clear – these are his high school peers, not administrators. This is a case of “peer pressure”, nothing more.  It illustrates the direction of the culture, though. These two (putatively) Christian teens are going out of their way to have an “intervention” with another teen to get him to renounce an article of faith – or, at least, to go along with societal mores.

So, let’s look at what Scripture says, since our assertion is that this is something we cannot render under Caesar – or to our fellow citizens. Not even for the Pax Romana.

When Christ speaks of creation, he is twice recorded quoting Genesis 1:27, and emphasizing that man was created male and female.  Not only does God incarnate say it, but he’s quoting the words of our foundational creation story; the same passage that says we were created in God’s image,the imago Dei.  What this means is that sex is assigned – but it is assigned by God, not just an arbitrary “assignment” by the doctor who delivered the baby. It also means that we believe that gender is equivalent to sex. Necessarily. We aren’t exaggerating here when we say this is all foundational stuff. When the choice we are given is whether to deny the foundational truths of Scripture or to accede to the demands of societal mores, we are being given the choice of whether to burn incense to Caesar – or to affirm, as our forebears did, that Jesus is Lord, instead. It’s no choice at all.  κύριος Ἰησοῦς

As many love to point out, “In approximately 1 in 2,000 infants, there is enough variation in the appearance of the external genitalia to merit hesitation about appropriate assignment by the physician involved[2]” – which sounds serious, until you look into the rest of the numbers. Also according to the same wikipedia article (but lacking a citation this time) “[a]pproximately 1 in 20,000 infants is born with enough ambiguity that assignment becomes a more drawn-out process of multiple tests and intensive education of the parents about sexual differentiation.” This seems to be akin to the claim on[3] that “1 in 20,000 men has no Y chromosome, instead having 2 Xs.” This would mean, the article goes on to say, that assuming that women have the corresponding problem equally often, that there are approximately 15,000 Americans who don’t show the chromosomes they are “supposed” to have. Given that we also teach that we live in a fallen world – with a concomitantly disordered functionality – this is not an argument against Christian teaching, It is an argument for it.  If creation is fallen in Adam, and we are part of creation, it follows that we would also be affected. In fact, the Scriptures say that we are fallen, and that we do have disordered bodies, minds, and affections.

What we typically encounter, however, is not an individual with a chromosomal disorder. It is someone experiencing some sort of gender dysphoria[4]. Note that “[c]hildren who meet the criteria for gender dysphoria may or may not continue to experience it into adolescence and adulthood.” While this is all well and good – what about those for whom it does persist? Well, my question is, what about those for whom kleptomania[5] persists? To be brutally honest here, there are a plethora of disorders – both physical and moral – for which our current society has a far better response.  This one, however, is considered acceptable – so it is tolerated – and we are now being told to celebrate it, at the risk of being castigated for “bigotry.” It is now something for which we must now have have “interventions”, if others engage in wrongthink concerning it.

Lest we be accused of hanging it all on one verse (not that there’s anything particularly wrong with doing so – and not that this was a single verse – but the ways of objectors are always mysterious), let’s examine some more.  We believe, as Jesus said, that the Scripture cannot be broken. If woman is bone of bone and flesh of flesh of man[6] – and if, when a man and a woman join together, they become one flesh[7], then there is something particular about the sexes in view here.  Not just any sex can do – that gender binary is correlative. They complement each other, and together, when joined, they are one.  Not just anyone can be one flesh – the man and his wife are one flesh. This isn’t a plug and play situation here.  We can talk about Leviticus 18:22, and Deuteronomy 22:5 too – but please understand me here. When we tell you that we cannot accede to these demands, we aren’t just being “conservative.” We believe the same thing about our identity that we believe about your identity. Who and what we are is what God created us to be. We will not and we cannot submit on this point.

For if we have become united with [Him] in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be [in the likeness] of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with [Him], in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.  Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.  Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts,  and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin [as] instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members [as] instruments of righteousness to God.  For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:5-14, NASB)

If I, as Scripture says, am united to Christ in His death – I am also united to Him in His resurrection life. My old self – my old identity – was crucified with Christ. I am not a slave to my disordered identity. I am free, in Christ. Death and sin no longer control me – no longer shackle me. Life is mine – for I am alive in Christ Jesus. Sin does not, cannot reign over me. That is the demand of the world on this point. I cannot obey. I cannot “present the members of my body to sin.” Note the interesting parallel here to “present yourselves” in the transgender lexicon. The language of identity used here.  We cannot offer that pinch of incense. We cannot say that this sexual revolution’s novel ethics are Lord over our life. We already have a Lord. This is, and will remain, an antithesis with no synthesis.

Repent of your allegiance to sinful desires that contravert God’s created order[8]. Ask for deliverance from these disordered affections, plea for God’s salvation from the ravages of sin that result from the Fall.  In Adam, all died – but in Christ, one can live, and live to God. Only he can save you from this body of death[9]. Only if Christ is Lord, not Caesar, can you be truly free. Just don’t be surprised if the world hates you[10]. After all, that’s a promise from Christ[11], too.

If you’re aghast that we can’t submit over a small thing like a preferred pronoun – incense and a few words wasn’t any bigger a deal, was it? That also involved itself in the foundational beliefs of Christianity. See how that turned out.

  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. [3]
  4. [4]
  5. [5]
  6. [6]Gen 2:23
  7. [7]Gen 2:24
  8. [8]Rom 7:5
  9. [9]Rom 7:24
  10. [10]1 John 3:13
  11. [11]John 15:18-19

John Frame on Natural Law and Abortion

On page 243 of John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life, Frame writes, “Roman Catholics have argued that the case against abortion is not religious at all, but based only on scientific judgments about the nature of the unborn. So they oppose abortion by appealing to natural law.”

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1 Peter 1:14 and the Continuing Sexual Revolution

While listening to my pastor’s continuing exposition of 1 Peter 1 this morning, I was struck by the timeliness of the passage he used for a subject he didn’t directly address. His sermon was about personal holiness (which is, of course, the main thrust of the passage) – but I have been unable to leave verse 14 alone all afternoon. In the wake of the recent Revoice conference, it struck me that this passage wasn’t highlighted very often in responses. I believe it should, going forward. Here’s why.

1 Peter 1:13 has a “therefore”, so it behooves us to go back to the previous context to find what it’s there for. We’ll start in verse 10.

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that [would come] to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven– things into which angels long to look. – 1 Peter 1:10-12

So, we’re speaking of the Gospel and salvation – as well as the earnest searching of our spiritual forebears into the details of its accomplishment in future.  Those details are what we possess – details which even angels long for a clear glimpse of.  Now, verse 13;

Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober [in spirit], fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts [which were yours] in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all [your] behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” – 1 Peter 1:13-16

Therefore, (as a result of the previous things) there follows a number of things we are to do, as a consequence. First, prepare your minds. Literally, “gird the loins of our minds”. Get ready – there’s work to do! Mental work – heavy thinking – don’t be dull, or apathetic! Second, be/keep sober – be watchful – collectedly, calmly – without impairment due to excess. Often paired with “be alert”, and martial imagery elsewhere.[1] Thirdly, “fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you“. Literally, “perfectly hope” (τελείως ἐλπίσατε). The “fixed” stems from the implication of “to the end”, or “to completion” in τελείως – perhaps in the sense of “fixed determination”, this is a “fixed hope” on the grace to be brought.

Like I said, however, the next verse won’t let me alone. As obedient children (ὡς τέκνα ὑπακοῆς) –  as a contrast to “disobedient” children, yes – but the picture is that of a child obeying his parent.  ὑπακοὴν is used earlier in vs. 2 – it is Jesus Christ we are obeying.  Notice the various parallels in usage and context. We’re speaking of much the same thing as vs. 14 is.  In vs. 22, we are told that since we have purified our souls in ὑπακοῇ – obedience – for a sincere love of the brethren, we are to love one another from the heart.  Note 1 John 3:3 here – “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” The parallels are unmistakable. Hope, purification, obedience, holiness. This is an act of obedience. An active, fixed hope. An act of purification – striving toward holiness. What does that look like? Well, the verse continues, with an obvious parallel to Romans 12:2.  Do not be conformed to the former lusts in your ignorance. Or, possibly, do not be conformed in your ignorance to your former lusts. The word for “conformed” is interesting. It’s a compound of “sys” (with, beside, accompanying) and “schema,” from where we derive “schematic.” In this context, it refers to the “manner of life” – our discourse, actions, etc. In short, our identity – with an implication of fashioning/constructing as well.

To rephrase it, it’s saying “do not fashion your identity around your former lusts, in your ignorance.”  The application should be immediate – and helpful in the context of our current discussion about “identity” in Christ, no?

From comparison with our parallel passage, we can also glean a few applications. Our minds should be transformed – as should our hopes, our attention – and last but not least – our identities. We are united with Christ – and that union brings forth an identity which replaces the identity of the old man. Our minds are transformed, (gird those mental loins!) that we might (also) approve the will of God – that which is good, acceptable, and perfect. Not those former lusts. Those are not us any longer. Those no longer enslave us – and we can no longer identify with those worldly chains, can we?

  1. [1]1 Th 5:6&8, 2Ti 4:5, 1 Pe 4:7, 5:8

The Urgency of Apologetics

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 3-4, ESV)

Jude addresses his audience as the “beloved,” both of God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit, and of Jude. Jude expresses his eagerness to write to the beloved regarding a “common salvation.” Jude’s letter is to the saved. And yet, Jude cannot bring himself to celebrate the benefits and glories of the common salvation of the beloved. Instead, the beloved are urged to “contend for the faith.” Contend! A letter initially intended to encourage believers regarding their common salvation with the author becomes an urgent plea to fight for the faith.

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Al Mohler’s Definitive Response to Nate Collins and Revoice

After listening to an interview of Nate Collins at Sheologians, and reading another at Christianity Today, I intended to write a response to the overall program set forth by Collins. However, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. responded to the CT  interview with Collins and the Revoice Conference in a rather decisive fashion today with his article, “Torn Between Two Cultures? Revoice, LGBT Identity, and Biblical Christianity.”

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Responding to the Argument for the Possibility of Foreknowledge from Transcendence (By Brian Knapp, Founder/Contributor Emeritus)

If God foreknows person P will make choice C at time T, then it is not possible for this choice to not be made. After all, if P does not choose C at T, then God’s foreknowledge was incorrect, in which case God actually did not foreknow this choice would occur at all as truth is a necessary component of foreknowledge. Stated differently, if it is not true that P chooses C at T, then God could not have foreknown that they would. So, when we say that God foreknows that P will choose C at T, there is no doubt in our mind that they will do so. In other words, we can be certain that they will make this choice.

Given the fact that God knows that P will choose C at T, it seems difficult to see how one might believe that P is “free” in the Libertarian sense of the word. How can one believe that P could have chosen otherwise, given that God foreknew, with certainty, that they would choose C at T. There seems to be a real problem of God’s foreknowledge being compatible with the (Libertarian) free will of man.

In posing this question to one who believes in such a view of the will, a number of responses may be forthcoming, but typically with a common theme. Generally, an appeal to God’s transcendence is made. That is, the claim is made that God is “outside of time”. The response may be that God “sees down the corridors of time”, or that He sees all of time simultaneously, including our choices. The specific wording of this kind of response isn’t germane to this argument. What matters is the appeal to God’s transcendence as a solution to the problem outlined above.

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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.

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