One of the most interesting, and practically one of the most important, questions connected with the divine plan of salvation is, What degree of deliverance from sin is it scriptural for the believer to expect in this life?
I. Preliminary Concessions and Distinctions. — There are several points upon which all schools of theology agree.
1. One is that the complete sanctification of believers. their perfect deliverance from sin in every sense of the term, is an integral part of the great plan of redemption. Differ as they may in regard to the time when it shall be accomplished, they unite in pronouncing sin a thing to be abhorred, a defilement from the last touch or taint of which God's people are at some period to be delivered.
2. Again, all Christians agree that the true followers of Christ hate sin, loathe it, and struggle, and are bound ever to struggle, for complete deliverance from it. Whether continuous victory or daily defeat attend the contest, that war must go on.
3. All writers agree, also, in the conviction that no Christian in this life attains absolute perfection. Some, indeed, hold that through the grace of God the believer may attain what the Scriptures call perfection: consequently, the word itself is not to be condemned, seeing that it is employed by those who "speak not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth." Nevertheless, the term perfection is applicable only in a restricted sense to any part of the Church militant. The holy law demands the absolute right, in word and deed, in thought and intention, in all obedience, love, and devotion. It requires payment of the debt, not only to "the uttermost farthing," but in coin in which there is no trace of alloy.
But such service as this can be rendered only where there is perfect knowledge, not simply of the letter of the law, but of its practical application to the endlessly diversified and complicated events and circumstances of daily life. No mere man since the fall ever possessed such knowledge. The holiest of men are conscious that they are often at a loss to know what God and duty require at their hands, and that there are times when their uncertainty in matters of importance burdens and distresses them. Right and wrong sometimes seem to shade into each other, like the prismatic colors; and the sharpest eye cannot tell where the one ends or the other begins. The tenderest conscience takes alarm the soonest, and the better taught is the less liable to err; but the wisest and the most conscientious have occasion to pause now and then, waiting for clearer light, and, perhaps, wait in vain. When Paul and Barnabas at Antioch were planning a tour among the churches, Barnabas had a very positive desire that "John whose surname was Mark" should accompany them. Paul had an equally decided conviction that Mark ought not to go, seeing that he had "departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work." Neither Paul nor Barnabas would yield; and "the contention was so sharp between them that they departed asunder, one from the other." Here one or both of them failed of the absolute right. Either Paul, without being conscious of it, was unjust to a fellow disciple, or Barnabas, in his ignorance, was ready to imperil the work of the Lord by calling Mark to a position which he was not qualified to fill. Perhaps, in the sharp contention, παροξυσμός, they were unjust to each other, and thus another feature of wrong was introduced. If errors of judgment may thus lead to errors of action, when the holiest of men are counseling in regard to the holiest of causes, what may we expect of those who are immersed in the interests, prejudices, and collisions of common life?
Service may also be defective in degree. Justice, truth, and love are due to our fellow men; but a still higher and nobler duty is required at our hands. We are invited to the fellowship of our Lord Jesus Christ, and God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Ghost; and called to love and serve "in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life." And who that ever by faith caught a glimpse of the glory of God, the great, the holy, and the good, "the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth," did not bow down in lowliest self-abasement, in view of the poor service which he renders? The Christian never feels in this world that his service is all that he would have it. Though faith may never utterly fail, nor obedience be forgotten, nor love grow cold, nor devotion die, yet the most obedient, faithful, and devoted child of God will humble himself in the very dust at the remembrance of his infinite obligations to his Creator and Redeemer and the poor returns which he is daily making. Thus, if we assume that the intent is wholly right and the purpose all controlling, the service rendered will be imperfect in character, marred by lack of knowledge and errors of judgment, and deficient in degree; and sinless obedience, in the absolute sense of the term, is utterly impossible.
4. Still another point needs recognition. As long as we remain in this world, however deep, fervent, and thorough our religious life, there are sources of danger within. There inhere in our nature as essential elements of it, at least in this present life, appetites, passions, and affections, without which man would be unfit for this present state of existence and would cease to be man. These, although innocent in themselves. are simply unreasoning impulses over which we need to keep constant watch and ward, ruling them by reason, conscience, and divine grace, else they lead to sin and death. By these "sin entered into the world, and death by sin." When Eve, in Eden, "saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise," the temptation was a skilful appeal to elements in her nature which were pure from the hand of the Creator. The desire for pleasant food is not sin; nor is the higher taste which finds enjoyment in contemplating beautiful forms and colors. Nor can we condemn the still more elevated instinct of the soul which delights in mental activity and the acquisition of knowledge. If these aptitudes and instincts had not existed in original human nature, the temptation of Satan would have had no power. "The deaf adder hears not the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely." Consequently, in the work of sanctification, the various instincts and passions of original human nature do not need to be rooted out, but to be restrained, chastened, disciplined, made to obey reason and the voice of God. The due enjoyment of pleasant food is not the gluttony which the wise man condemns. A father may provide for his children by a wise foresight which is by no means the "covetousness which is idolatry." When foul outrage is done to the innocent and the defenseless, we may feel our souls flame with fiery indignation, and "be angry and sin not." God "setteth the solitary in families" by the affections with which he endowed man at the beginning; and nothing is more beautiful than the relations which grow out of them, where the divine intent rules, and nothing more debasing and destructive than their abuse.
These elements of our nature survive the deepest work of grace. When the wondrous change has come to the penitent believer and he has "put on the new man which, after God, is created in righteousness and true holiness," he is still human, still nothing less than man. The world appeals to him, Satan assails him, and in himself is the tinder which the glancing sparks of temptation tend to kindle. "There is no discharge in that war." Till life itself is done, some form of peril will remain. Youth may be tempted by fleshly lusts, manhood may become ambitious and proud, age misanthropic and avaricious. The innocent appetite to which, in Eden, the forbidden fruit appealed may be perverted into the despotic thirst of the inebriate; Eve's delight in beauty may be the germ from which shall spring a life given up to frivolity and empty show; and the nobler hunger for knowledge may break away from all authority and madly labor to reason God out of his own creation. Nevertheless, these possibilities of evil do not prove that God's children cannot in this world be saved from moral depravity, nor that the continuous commission of willful sin must stain the lives of the holiest of them till the very hour of death. They are proof, rather, that conversion does not end probation; and that it behooves every man, whatever progress he may have made in divine things, to "keep his body under, lest that by any means he should be a castaway."
5. One more point needs to be stated. Discussion on this subject has often been rendered inconclusive and unsatisfactory by the misuse of terms. The Westminster Confession, as explained by the Exposition published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, makes "original sin" include three wholly different things: (1) the guilt of Adam's sin; (2) the inherited depravity of soul; (3) the damage done the body. Wesley also uses the term sin in three different senses: (1) the depravity inherited from Adam; (2) "voluntary transgression of known law;" (3) involuntary infractions of the divine law. Owing to this confusion of terms, there have been hot controversies where there was little real difference of opinion; whole octavos have been wasted in refuting what nobody holds, and proving what nobody doubts; and theological champions fight imaginary foes, and are happy in imaginary victories. If matters not really belonging to the question of entire sanctification are ruled out, we shall find that just two points need investigation: (a) What scriptural ground is there for the belief that the Christian may in this life be delivered from the moral depravity which he inherited as a member of a fallen race? (b) How far and in what sense may the believer be kept in this life, through grace, from the commission of sin?
II. Different Ecclesiastical Views on the Subject. —
1. The Romish Theory. — The Council of Trent teaches that the sacrament of baptism, rightly administered, washes away guilt and depravity of every kind. It pronounces anathema against those who presume to think or dare to assert "that, although sin is forgiven in baptism, it is not entirely removed or totally eradicated, but is cut away in such a manner as to leave its roots still firmly fixed in the soul." The Council, however, declares that concupiscence, or the fuel of sin, remains. "Concupiscence is the effect of sin, and is nothing more than an appetite of the soul, in itself repugnant to reason. If unaccompanied with the consent of the will or unattended with neglect on our part, it differs essentially from the nature of sin." The Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches also that "the commandments of God are not difficult of observance." "As God is ever ready by his divine assistance to sustain our weakness, especially since the death of Christ the Lord, by which the prince of this world was cast out, there is no reason why we should be disheartened by the difficulty of the undertaking. to him who loves nothing is difficult."
2. The Calvinistic Theory. — The Westminster Confession of Faith has the following chapter on sanctification:
"They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by his word and spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they are more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
"This sanctification is throughout the whole man, yet imperfect in this life; there abide still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
"In this war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord." In respect to the possibility of keeping the law, the following declarations of the Confession and the Larger Catechism of the Presbyterian Church are sufficiently explicit:
"No man is able, either by himself or by any grace received in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed." — Catechism.
"This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself and all the motions thereof are truly and properly sin." — Confession, ch. 6.
Thus the Calvinistic standards answer the two questions by saying, in reply to the first, that as long as a man lives on the earth "there abide still some remnants of corruption in every part" of his nature; and, in reply to the second, that every man, notwithstanding all the grace received, "doth daily break" the law of God "in thought, word, and deed;" and that this residue of corruption, "and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin." Consequently there is no such thing as entire sanctification in this life, but the holiest of God's children must of necessity remain corrupt, at least in part, and go on in the constant commission of actual sin as long as they live. Indeed, it is not entirely clear how "the saints," as the Confession asserts, "grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord," seeing that the highest attainments possible in this life still leave them with corruption within, and an outward life marred by the constant commission of sin, "in thought, word, and deed."
3. Arminian Theories. —
(1.) Arminius himself seems to have taken no very decided position on the subject, his chief fields of battle lying in other directions. Nevertheless, among "certain articles to be Diligently examined and weighed, because some controversy has arisen concerning them, even among those who profess the Reformed religion," he makes a statement to the effect that "regeneration is not perfected in a moment, but by certain steps and intervals," and that the regenerate man "still has within him the flesh lusting against the Spirit;" nor does he speak of any complete deliverance in this life. On the other point, he affirms that "he who asserts that it is possible for the regenerate, through the grace of Christ, perfectly to fulfill the law in the present life, is neither a Pelagian, nor inflicts any injury on the grace of God, nor establishes justification through works." He cites Augustine himself as declaring the abstract possibility of a man's living in this world without sin, and as saying, "Let Pelagius confess that it is possible for man to be without sin in no other way than by the grace of Christ, and we will be at peace with him." Arminius can hardly be said to have held any well- defined theory on the subject.
(2.) Wesley's Theory. — Wesley's views on the subject of entire sanctification were long in the process of formation, and it is no difficult task to find early statements which contradict others made at a later period. As enunciated in the latter part of his life, his views may be defined thus. He taught in regard to the work wrought in us —
1. That man by nature is depraved, so that, aside from grace, he is unfitted for all good, and prone to all evil.
2. That, through the grace of God, this moral depravity may be removed in this life, and man live freed from it.
3. That regeneration begins the process of cleansing, but, except in some exempt cases possibly, does not complete it, a degree of depravity still remaining in the regenerate.
4. That the process of cleansing is in some cases gradual, the remains of the evil nature wearing away by degrees; in others instantaneous, the believer receiving the blessing of "a clean heart" a few days, or even hours only, after his regeneration.
5. That this great gift is to be sought for specifically, and is to be obtained by a special act of faith directed towards this very object.
6. That this second attainment is attested by the Holy Spirit, which witnesses to the completion of the cleansing, as it did to the regeneration which began it.
7. That this gracious attainment, thus attested by the Holy Spirit, should be confessed, on suitable occasions, to the glory of God.
8. That the soul may lapse from this gracious state, and become again partially corrupt, or even fall wholly away from God, and be lost forever.
9. That it is the high privilege of every one who is born of God to live from that moment free from the sins which bring the soul into condemnation: that is, from "voluntary transgressions of known law;" but that involuntary errors and mistakes, needing the atonement of Christ, remain to the end.
This last item in the statement of Wesley's views, as well as those numbered 1 and 2, is accepted by all classes of Methodist thinkers, and therefore need not be referred to again.
(3.) The Theory of the English Wesleyans. — It is presumable that the Compendium of Theology, recently published by the Rev. Dr. Pope, theological tutor in the Didsbury College, a school established by the Wesleyans for the training of the young men who are to enter their traveling ministry, may be taken as a standard of the general sentiment of the Wesleyan body at the present time. In several important points he differs from Wesley. He pronounces sanctification always a gradual work. "It must be remembered that this final and decisive act of the Spirit is the seal set upon a previous and continuous work. The processes may be, hastened, or condensed into a small space; they must be passed through." Instead of lying within the reach of any novice, to be attained at any moment, "Christian perfection is the exceeding great reward of perseverance in the renunciation of all things for God; in the exercise of love to God, as shown in the passive submission to his will, and in the strenuous obedience of all his commandments." He intimates that the time when the work is completed is "known only to God;" or, "if revealed in the trembling consciousness of the believer, a secret that he knows not how to utter;" consequently there is no place for the confession of it. Dr. Pope teaches also that after the highest point is attained there still remains "something of the peculiar concupiscence, or liability to temptation, or affinity with evil, which besets man in this world." His views are almost identical with those set forth by Wesley and the Conference of 1745, but are widely different from the doctrine which Wesley began to preach in 1760.
(4.) There is still another view, which expresses the convictions of not a few of the clearest thinkers in the Methodist Episcopal churches, and is accepted by many of the clergymen and people of other denominations. It is set forth in the following propositions:
1. Moral depravity is a real and positive quality of the unregenerate human spirit.
2. In the renewal of the soul at conversion, whereby man becomes a new creature, a new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness, the inborn moral depravity is removed from the immortal nature, which, so far as the work of cleansing is concerned, is in that moment fitted for heaven itself.*
* The great majority of Methodists, however, hold that this depravity is not wholly removed at conversion, but that its last remains are (usually at least) taken away by a subsequent act of grace. — ED.
3. From the very hour of justification the renewed soul is summoned to live a holy life, a life of continuous victory over sin, and of freedom from condemnation, and is, through grace, equipped for such a life, so that he who fails thus to live falls below both his high privilege and his bounden duty.
4. Such a life — holy, freed from sin, cleansed from all unrighteousness — is the Christian life, to which every child of God is summoned.
5. The believer, thus renewed, is still human, nothing less than man, possessing all the innocent appetites, passions, and affections which belong to human nature; and that these, though in themselves innocent, need to be controlled by reason and conscience, else they lead to sin.
6. It is the privilege of the believer, thus renewed, to grow in grace and in the knowledge of God, gaining day by day more of spiritual strength and beauty, until he becomes a perfect man, and reaches the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; and that this is what is properly called maturity, or Christian perfection.
3. Arguments on the Subject. — The evangelical churches, therefore, divide on this line; the Calvinists holding that believers must of necessity remain in some degree depraved, and go on daily committing sin, "in thought, word, and deed," to the end of their lives; the Arminians, with some differences among themselves in regard to the time and the conditions, holding that entire sanctification, including the cleansing of the human spirit from moral depravity, and freedom from actual sin, in the sense of "voluntary transgression of known law," is attainable in this life.
In support of the Arminian doctrine of entire sanctification, the following arguments are brought forward:
1. To affirm that it is by the will of God that the Christian lives in sin, and sin lives in the Christian, and that God so orders it for his own glory and the good of men, is monstrous, being neither scriptural, nor good morals, nor good sense.
2. The Word of God nowhere represents death as the hour, or the agent, that shall cleanse the heart, or relieve believers from the necessity of sinning against God.
3. Scripture, reason, and the daily experience of God's children show that holiness is the great need of the Church and of the individual Christian.
4. The mission of Christ is to save his people from their sins, and to save them to the uttermost; and this salvation is set forth as attainable in this life.
5. God commands his children to be holy, and promises to help them to be holy, declaring that his grace is sufficient for their spiritual needs, and that he "will not suffer them to be tempted above that they are able" to bear.
6. Believers in general are everywhere in the Scriptures said to be holy, sanctified, purified, saints, new men, new creatures, created anew in righteousness and true holiness; and whenever any conduct inconsistent with this gracious state is charged upon any of them, it is to warn them of their lapsing from the grace of God, and endangering their souls.
7. Not a few of God's faithful servants are named and described in the Scripture: Abel as righteous, Enoch as walking with God, Job as perfect, Zacharias and Elizabeth as righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless; and there is not a word in the history to compel us to take this description of them in any other than the exact, literal sense of the language employed.
IV. Literature. — Many books have been published on the subject of entire sanctification and Christian perfection, but most of them are devotional and practical manuals, rather than theological treatises. The following discuss the doctrine: Wesley, Plain Account of Christian Perfection; Pope, Compendium of Theology; Peck (G.), Christian
Perfection; Foster, Christian Purity; Peck (J.T.), The Central Idea of Christianity; Boardman (H.A.), The "Higher-Life" Doctrine of Sanctification; Steele, Love Enthroned; Franklin, A Critical Review of Wesleyan Perfection; Huntington, What is it to be Holy? or the Theory of Entire Sanctification; Endsley and others, Our Holy Christianity, a series of essays; Crane, Holiness the Birthright of all God's Children; also, article in the Meth. Quar. Rev. Oct. 1878, on Christian Perfection and the Higher Life; Boardman (W.E.), The Higher Christian Life; See, The Rest of Faith; Atwater, The Higher Life and Christian Perfection (article in the Presb. Quar. and Princeton Rev. July, 1877); Simpson, Encyclop. of Methodism, s.v. "Perfection, Christian," p. 704. (J.T.C.)