The ontological ground of Christian perfection, part 1
March 23, 2009
Can the Christian — the elect and regenerate — sin? Do sins make him or her un-Christian — debaptized? If you think these are silly questions, then you haven’t read Paul, Hebrews, James, or 1 John. There is a wide range of options in the Church for dealing with the issue of the Christian’s relation to continuing sin. The Holiness option claims that the Christian does not sin, or, at least, this can be achieved. The Reformed option claims that the Christian sins, but it does not affect his salvation. The Catholic option claims that the Christian can sin, and, under conditions of clarity and type of sin, he can lose his salvation (though not a certain “indelible mark” of baptism). There are more options, and within these major options there are critical qualifications. The difficulty is largely thanks to scripture itself. The early fathers didn’t know what to make of it, as reflected in contradictory baptismal beliefs and understandings of penance. Eventually a more or less coherent and systematic tradition developed in the Medieval West, challenged by the Reformers, resulting in the confessions of the 16th century — Reformed, Lutheran, and Tridentine — which, of course, are still authoritative for confessional Protestants and Catholics. The Free Church of subsequent centuries has likewise offered a range in confessional response.
So, it is refreshing that P. T. Forsyth, Scottish Congregationalist minister-theologian, settled the matter for us in his 1899 essay, “Christian Perfection.” Okay, maybe that is an overstatement, but I love this essay. I am reproducing much of it here, in parts. The essay is a treatment of 1 John. The second part will brilliantly deal with the vexing issue of “sin that leadeth unto death,” while the first part (below) deals with the foundational matter of sin for those who have faith. Here it is:
I. THE SIN OF THE REGENERATE
“Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not. Whosoever is born of God cannot sin.”—I John iii. 6, 9.
[“No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. Those who are born of God will not continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.” 1 John 3:6-9. TNIV]
This is one of the hard sayings which are so fascinating in the Bible. It raises one of the problems that are so engaging to our moral thoughts, and one of the anomalies that are so irritating and depressing to our moral experience. Statements like these texts seem to be met with every kind of contradiction:—
1. In the first place, there is the contradiction offered by John himself. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar.’ We are to keep confessing, even as sons of God, which means that we keep sinning; for we cannot be urged to confess over and over sins we did before conversion, and which we had forgiven us as we entered on peace with God by faith. The children of God in John’s own view keep sinning; yet here you have it, ‘Whoso is born of God cannot sin.’
2. In the next place, there is the contradiction offered by our own experience. We know that we sin as surely as we know our life in Christ. As often as we confess Christ we have to confess Him as Saviour and as Eternal Saviour. We have to come as penitents. Our blessedness is always a salvation, not a mere donation. And we have new sins to confess since we last confessed His salvation and took His forgiveness. We cannot deny that we abide in Him; that would be to deny our faith altogether. But just as little can we deny our daily sin, that it is our fault if we are not more after His mind. If a Christian’s sin mean his severance from Christ, then the more Christian we feel the more severed we must be; because the more Christian we are in conscience the more sensitive we are to our sin, and therefore the less we must feel that we abide in Him and are born of Him, if this text have its face value.
And our own experience is only enlarged by what we know of the
experience of greater saints than ourselves. The history of holiness is a
record of self–abasements on daily cause. It is a story of triumph and
joy, but it is a daily humiliation all the same, and a real, concrete
humiliation; not a vague and sentimental self–accusation, but a definite
self–indictment as the fruit of a serious self–examination.
3. Moreover, texts like these seem in contradiction with the very nature of faith itself. We are told sometimes that it is faithless on our part not to expect sinlessness in this life from the power of God’s grace, deliverance entire not only from sin’s guilt but from sin’s power, not only from its power but even its presence. But it is just the other way. To say ‘I have now no sin’ is to give up that relation to God which is the essence of faith, and to stand upon a new and subtle kind of legalism. The man who says that tries to enter on a relation to God which is higher than faith, and therefore he falls out of faith. There is no higher relation possible. Love is but faith in its supreme and perfect form. It is the impassioned expression on the face of faith. There is but one attitude of conformity to the will of God, and that is faith: a faith that, being itself an act of will and obedience, always works outward into love. To go beyond that is to step outside the right relation to God. Faith is not the mere sense of dependence on God, but something much more definite, positive, and real. It is the sinner’s trust in God the Redeemer. Once a sinner always a sinner—in this sense at least, that he who has but once sinned can never be as if he had never sinned. His very blessedness to all eternity is a different thing from the blessedness of the sinless. The man whose iniquity is not imputed is a very different being from the man whose iniquity was never committed. One sin is, in a sense, a sin in all. The whole nature is affected by it, and always. Pardon is not the cure of a passing illness, but a new birth in which the whole constitution is changed. It is not the dispersion of a cloud by the same sunny action as lights the ground. It was I who, at my will’s centre, did that thing. It was my will and self that was put into it. My act was not the freak of some point on my circumference. It came from my centre. It was my unitary, indivisible self that was involved and is infected. Faith is the attitude of that same self and will of me to God. And as it has become a sinful self through me or my race of me’s, therefore for ever faith is not the faith of the sinless but of the redeemed, not of the holy but of the sanctified, the faith and the love of those who have been forgiven much, forgiven often and long, forgiven always. The very nature of faith is trust of a Saviour, who is not the saviour of my past but of my soul; and it is trust for forgiveness, for forgiveness not only of the old life but of the new. That life is only what it is by reason of grace; and grace is not simple benediction, but blessing as the fruit of incessant forgiveness. It is the same forgiving grace that sanctifies us sinners in heaven and has mercy upon us on earth.
It is a fatal mistake to think of holiness as a possession which we have
distinct from our faith, and conferred upon it. That is a Catholic idea
still saturating Protestant pietism, and making a ready soil for the virus
of Rome and the plague of unethical sacraments. Faith is the very
highest form of our dependence on God. We never outgrow it. We
refine it, but we never transcend it. Whatever other fruits of the Spirit
we show, they grow upon faith, and faith which is in its nature repentance. Penitence, faith, sanctification, always co–exist; they do not destroy and succeed each other; they are phases of the one process of God in the one soul. It is untrue to think of holiness or sinlessness as a possession, a quality, an experience of the soul, and so distinct from a previous and qualifying faith. There is no such separate experience. Every Christian experience is an experience of faith; that is, it is an experience of what we have not. Faith is always in opposition to seeing, possessing, experiencing. A faith wholly experimental has its perils. It varies too much with our subjectivity. It is not our experience of holiness that makes us believe in the Holy Ghost. It is a matter of faith that we are God’s children; there is plenty of experience in us against it. That we are justified and reborn is matter of faith. The spirit we have is no possession of ours. It is God’s Spirit, and it is ours by an act of faith. To claim sinlessness as the perfect state superseding faith is to fall from faith, not to rise from it. It is because we have sin that we believe—as belief must go in a religion whose nature is for ever revealed as Redemption. Our perfection is not to rival the Perfect, but to trust Him. Our holiness is not a matter of imitation but of worship. Any sinlessness of ours is the adoration of His. The holiest have ever been so because they dared not feel they were. Their sanctity grew unconsciously from their worship of His. All saw it but themselves. The eye is the beauty of the face because it sees everything but itself; and if it betray self–consciousness the charm is dimmed. The height of sinlessness means the deepest sense of sin. If we ever came to any such stage as conscious sinlessness we should be placing ourselves alongside Christ, not at His feet. We should have ‘life in ourselves’, with Him but not through Him, or through Him only historically. We should pass out of faith into experience, or actual, personal possession like our common integrity. We should be self–sufficient. We should cease to live on a constant look to God in Christ, and repentance would cease. We should be near the fall that so often comes to the sinless. We should be in the moral peril of those who, feeling they have attained this sinlessness, are ready to call each impulse good and lawful, as born from the Spirit with which they are now possessed. Moral perceptions are confused. Evil is called good because it is deduced from the Spirit. ‘Out of a state of holiness can come no sin. I may do what I am moved to do and it is not sin.’
All this is contrary to the true nature of faith in a Saviour and His
righteousness as the standing essence of the Christian life.
4. Perfection is not sinlessness. The ‘perfect’ in the New Testament are certainly not the sinless. And God, though He wills that we be perfect, has not appointed sinlessness as His object with us in this world. His object is communion with us through faith. And sin must abide, even while it is being conquered, as an occasion for faith. Every defect of ours is a motive for faith. To cease to feel defect is to cease to trust. To cease to fed the root of sin would be to have one motive the less to cast us on God for keeping. Every need is there in order to rouse the need for God. And we need God chiefly, not as a means to an end, not to satisfy earthly need, to keep the world going, to comfort us, or to help us to the higher moral levels. We do not need God chiefly as a means even to our own holiness. But we need God for Himself. He Himself is the end. We need chiefly communion with Him; which is not confined to the perfectly holy but is open to all in faith, and possible along with cleaving sin. To treat a living person as an end, to seek him for himself, has but one meaning. It is to love him, to have our desire and energy rest in him, to have our personal finality in him. So it is that we need and seek God, not His help nor His gifts–even of sanctity, but Himself. His great object with us is not our sinlessness but our communion. “Give me thy heart.” He does not offer us communion to make us holy; He makes us holy for the sake of communion.
It has pleased God to leave us in our sin (though not to our sin) that we
may be driven to seek more than His help, namely Himself. We do not
receive a new will, a new nature, from God, and then go on of ourselves, having got all that He can give. We are compelled by our cleaving sin to press on into, close and permanent communion. “My grace is thy sufficiency.’ It is not simply our ability, but our sufficiency. It is our perfection no less than our power. We end with it as we began. We end with the same forgiving grace as started us. The recipients of grace are much more than the servants of uprightness. The prodigal was more after God’s heart than his brother. And the same would have been true had the brother been sinless by a far finer standard than he had, so long as it was sinless self–sufficiency, a self–contained sinlessness. The headlong sin is perhaps a safer thing than the sinless security. All life, it has been said, is the holding down of a dark, wild, elemental nature at our base, which is most useful, like steam, under due pressure. So with sin and its mastery by faith. The pressure from below drives us to God, and the communion with God by faith keeps it always below. The outward pressure of nature, and even of perverted nature, in man develops in him through God, a power which converts, controls, utilises, and exalts nature. It is doubtful if real holiness is quite possible to people who have no’ “nature” in them, no passion, no flavour of the good brown earth. Take away fiat elemental rage from below and you make faith a blanched and inept thing. You have no more than quietist piety, passive religion, perfect in sound happy natures as an enjoyment, but very imperfect as a power. Faith, in the true sense, is all–sufficient, because it brings a rest which is itself power, force, will. It is the offspring of God’s power and man’s; it is not the mere occupation of man by God, which as often means suppression as inspiration.
P. T. Forsyth, “Christian Perfection,” in A Sense of the Holy (Wipf & Stock, 1996), pp. 59-63.
Professor Paul Moser has an extensive collection of Forsyth’s books and essays, in pdf format.