Christian Perfection – 14: In What Sense Christians Are Perfect
By: Frank L. Hoffman
Jesus said, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
(Wesley’s writings are in bold)
It was a little after 6:30 in the morning on 13 October 2001, and as I sat in front of the computer publishing the Knapweed section for The Wild Flowers of Sleepy Hollow Lake, I was contemplating how beautifully God has created everything. And, the Knapweed represented only an extremely small part. But, however small it was, it was nevertheless a part of God’s perfection. As I thought about the beautiful little flower, the words of Paul in Romans 1:20 came to mind:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (NASV)
Then, all of a sudden my peace and meditation were shattered by hunters along the Hudson River. It sounded as though a war had broken out, but I realized that it was only the reverberation of the hunters’ depraved indifference to the pain of another of God’s magnificent creations. This was the opposite of Christian perfection.
It was the sadistic sound that comes from taking pleasure in causing suffering and death. Only a spiritually, morally, and ethically deficient person would find it enjoyable to deliberately take a life rather than preserve it.
The words of John Wesley also rang true:
“(2) In what sense, then, are they [Christians] perfect? Observe, we are not now speaking of babes in Christ, but adult Christians. But even babes in Christ are so far perfect as not to commit sin. This Saint John affirms expressly; and it cannot be disproved by the examples of the Old Testament. For what if the holiest of the ancient Jews did sometimes commit sin? We cannot infer from hence that ‘all Christians do and must commit sin as long as they live.’
“But does not the Scripture say, ‘A just man sinneth seven times a day’? It does not. Indeed, it says: ‘A just man falleth seven times.’ [Proverbs 24:16] But this is quite another thing; for, first, the words, ‘a day,’ are not in the text; secondly, here is no mention of falling into sin at all. What is here mentioned is, falling into temporal affliction.
“But elsewhere Solomon says: ‘There is no man that sinneth not’. [2 Chronicles 6:36; Proverbs 20:9] Doubtless thus it was in the days of Solomon, yea, and from Solomon to Christ there was then no man that sinned not. But whatever was the case of those under the law, we may safely affirm, with Saint John, that, since the gospel was given, ‘he that is born of God sinneth not.’ [1 John 3:9]
Let’s stop here for a moment and contemplate a few things. In Chapter 1 of his book, the prophet Isaiah spoke out for God against the irreverent Israelites and even called the people who killed an animal as a sacrifice, without a truly repentant heart, murderers (v. 21).
They killed without necessity or compassion. The people who made an animal sacrifice were to have great remorse for both the animal and their unintentional sin, and such remorse that they would do everything in their power not to sin again. Intentional sin was never covered by a sacrifice. Additionally, the last “sacrifice” occurred nearly 2,000 years ago, and He was Jesus. Above all, remember that God desires obedience and not sacrifice.
“Sport hunting”, the taking of pleasure in killing an animal, is obviously not a necessary act of survival. Also, because the killing is part of a “sport”, by definition, remorse and compassion are removed, which makes “sport hunting” a sin. A pious Jew recognizes this fact, as should all Christians.
Think about this as we continue with Wesley’s writing, and remember that in the kingdom of heaven there is no death (Revelation 21:4). Likewise, we are not talking about hunting only, but all things outside the will of our Father who is in heaven.
“The privileges of Christians are in no wise to be measured by what the Old Testament records concerning those who were under the Jewish dispensation; seeing the fullness of time is now come, the Holy Ghost is now given, the great salvation of God is now brought to men by the revelation of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth, concerning which the Spirit of God declared of old time (so far is David from being the pattern or standard of Christian perfection): ‘He that is feeble among them, at that day, shall be as David, and the house of David shall be as the angel of the Lord before them’ (Zechariah 12:8).
“But the apostles themselves committed sin; Peter by dissembling, Paul by his sharp contention with Barnabas. Suppose they did, will you argue thus: ‘If two of the apostles once committed sin, then all other Christians, in all ages, do and must commit sin as long as they live’? Nay, God forbid we should thus speak. No necessity of sin was laid upon them; the grace of God was surely sufficient for them. And it is sufficient for us at this day.
“But Saint James says, ‘In many things we offend all.’ [James 3:2a] True; but who are the persons here spoken of? Why, those many masters or teachers whom God had not sent; not the apostle himself, nor any real Christian. That in the word ‘we’, used by a figure of speech, common in all other as well as the inspired writings, the apostle could not possibly include himself, or any other true believer, appears, first, from the ninth verse: ‘Therewith bless we God, and therewith curse we men.’ Surely not we apostles! not we believers! Secondly, from the words preceding the text: ‘My brethren, be not many masters,’ or teachers, ‘knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. [James 3:1] For in many things we offend all.’ We! Who? Not the apostles, nor true believers, but they who were to ‘receive the greater condemnation,’ because of those many offenses. Nay, thirdly, the verse itself proves that ‘we offend all,’ cannot be spoken either of all men or all Christians. For in it immediately follows the mention of a man who ‘offends not,’ as the ‘we’ first mentioned did; from whom, therefore, he is professedly contradistinguished, and pronounced a ‘perfect man.’
“But Saint John himself says: ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,’ [1 John 1:8] and, ‘If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.’ [1 John 1:10]
(1) the tenth verse fixes the sense of the eighth: ‘If we say we have no sin,’ in the former, being explained by, ‘If we say we have not sinned,’ in the latter verse;
(2) the point under consideration is not whether we have or have not sinned heretofore, and neither of these verses asserts that we do sin, or commit sin now;
(3) the ninth verse explains both the eighth and tenth: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ [1 John 1:9] As if he had said, ‘I have before affirmed the blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin.’ [1 John 1:7] And no man can say, ‘I need it not; I have no sin to be cleansed from.’ ‘If we say we have no sin,’ that ‘we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves,’ and make God a liar; but ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just,’ not only ‘to forgive us our sins,’ but also ‘to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,’ that we may ‘go and sin no more.’ [John 8:11]
In conformity, therefore, both to the doctrine of Saint John, and the whole tenor of the New Testament, we fix this conclusion: a Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin.
“This is the glorious privilege of every Christian, yea, though he be but a babe in Christ. But it is only of grown Christians it can be affirmed they are in such a sense perfect as, secondly, to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers. First, from evil or sinful thoughts. Indeed, whence should they spring? ‘Out of the heart of man,’ if at all, ‘proceed evil thoughts.’ If, therefore, the heart be no longer evil, then evil thoughts no longer proceed out of it: for ‘a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.’ [Matthew 7:18]
We should very carefully meditate upon Wesley’s words, and those he quoted from the Bible. If any of us have not been “freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers” (evil acts), then such a person must seriously consider if he or she is really born again. Confessing our sins and asking God to forgive us and come into our life and change us into the person He wants us to be, and be Lord of our life does no good, if immediately afterwards we pick up these sins again and reject His Lordship in some aspect of our life. We must allow the Lord to cleanse us from all evil thoughts and actions, and give Him our undivided and uncompromised love. This is where our free will comes into play; for if we are unwilling, then God is unable to accomplish the full restorative work He desires to do in us. God’s grace is all around us, but we must be willing to receive it. Think of the words of Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.
The key to our understanding is the word faith. Do we have enough faith to confess all our sins and trust God to not only forgive us, but also to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, which includes our desire to do, or even to dwell upon, the things that are sinful in the eyes of God? If our answer is, “Yes!”, then He is faithful and true to accomplish it. When we allow this to happen, then the desire of our heart becomes as Paul says in verse 10:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
With this in mind, let’s return to what Wesley is saying:
“And as they are freed from evil thoughts, so likewise from evil tempers. Every one of these can say, with Saint Paul, ‘I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’ [Galatians 2:20] – words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin. This is expressed both negatively, ‘I live not,’ my evil nature, the body of sin, is destroyed; and positively, ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and therefore all that is holy, and just, and good. Indeed, both these, ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and, ‘I live not,’ are inseparably connected. For what communion hath light with darkness, or Christ with Belial? [2 Corinthians 6:14-15]
“He, therefore, who liveth in these Christians hath ‘purified their hearts by faith,’ [Acts 15:9b] insomuch that everyone that has Christ in him, ‘the hope of glory, purifieth himself even as He is pure.’ [1 John 3:3] He is purified from pride, for Christ was lowly in heart; he is pure from desire and self-will, for Christ desired only to do the will of His Father; and he is pure from anger, in the common sense of the word, for Christ was meek and gentle. I say, in the common sense of the word; for he is angry at sin, while he is grieved for the sinner. He feels a displacency at every offense against God, but only tender compassion to the offender.
“Thus doth Jesus save his people from their sins; not only from outward sins, but from the sins of their hearts. ‘True,’ say some, ‘but not till death, not in this world.’ Nay, Saint John says: ‘Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because, as He is so are we in this world.’ [1 John 4:17] The apostle here, beyond all contradiction, speaks of himself and other living Christians, of whom he flatly affirms that, not only at or after death, but ‘in this world,’ they are ‘as their Master.’
“Exactly agreeable to this are his words in the first chapter: ‘God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. [1 John 1:5] If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.’ [1 John 1:7] And again: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ [1 John 1:9] Now, it is evident, the apostle here speaks of a deliverance wrought in this world: for he saith not, The blood of Christ will cleanse (at the hour of death, or in the day of judgment), but it ‘cleanseth’ at the time present, us living Christians ‘from all sin.’ And it is equally evident that, if any sin remain, we are not cleansed from all sin. If any unrighteousness remain in the soul, it is not cleansed from all unrighteousness.
Neither let any say that this relates to justification only, or the cleansing us from the guilt of sin: first, because this is confounding together what the apostle clearly distinguishes, who mentions, first, ‘to forgive us our sins,’ and then ‘to cleanse us from all unrighteousness; secondly, because this is asserting justification by works, in the strongest sense possible; it is making all inward, as well as all outward holiness, necessary previous to justification. For if the cleansing here spoken of is no other than the cleansing us from the guilt of sin, then we are not cleansed from guilt, that is, not justified, unless on condition of walking ‘in the light, as He is in the light.’ It remains, then, that Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers.”
It could not be but that a discourse of this kind, which directly contradicted the favorite opinion of many, who were esteemed by others, and possibly esteemed themselves, some of the best of Christians (whereas, if these things were so, they were not Christians at all) should give no small offense. Many answers or animadversions, therefore, were expected; but I was agreeably disappointed. I do not know that any appeared; so I went quietly on my way.
John Wesley is going back to the absolute basics of Christianity. To compromise these basic understandings is to allow Christianity to be hijacked by the devil, who is the father of sin and a liar. If we compromise any of the perfection of God’s creation or of heaven, and say that these things don’t apply to us upon this earth, we are saying that God is a liar and unable to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
We can lie to ourselves and preserve our “pet sins”, and find all kinds of excuses for them, but this will never alter the truth that God is faithful and true to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Christian perfection is a reality for the here and now, if we truly desire it. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)