The best way of opposing the doctrines of Christian imperfection and a death purgatory, is to place the doctrine of Christian perfection in a proper light. Christian perfection is the maturity of a believer’s grace under the Gospel of Christ.
It is absurd to suppose that this perfection is sinless, if it be measured by our Creator’s law of paradisiacal innocence and obedience. Established believers fulfil our Redeemer’s evangelical law of liberty. While they fulfil it, they do not transgress it, that is, (evangelically speaking,) they do not sin.
MOST of the controversies, which arise between men who fear God, spring from the hurry with which some of them find fault with what they have not yet examined, and speak evil of what they do not understand. Why does Mr. Hill, at the head of the Calvinists, attack the doctrine of Christian perfection which we contend for?
Is it because he and they are sworn enemies to righteousness, and zealous protectors of iniquity? Not at all. The grand reason, next to their Calvinian prejudice, is their inattention to the question, and to the arguments by which our sentiments are supported. Notwithstanding the manner in which that gentleman has treated me and my friends in his controversial heats, I still entertain so good an opinion of him as to think that if he understood our doctrine, he would no more pour contempt upon it, than upon the oracles of God.
I shall, therefore, endeavour to rectify his ideas of the glorious Christian liberty which we press after. If producing light is the best method of opposing darkness, setting the doctrine of Christian perfection in a proper point of view will be the best means of opposing the doctrines of Christian imperfection, and of a death purgatory.
Begin we then by taking a view of our Jerusalem and her perfection: and when we shall have “marked her bulwarks,” and cleared the ground between her towers and Mr. Hill’s battery, we shall march up to it, and see whether his arguments have the solidity of brass, or only the showy appearance of wooden artillery, painted and mounted like brazen ordnance.
CHRISTIAN PERFECTION! Why should the harmless phrase offend us? Perfection! Why should that lovely word frighten us? Is it not common and plain? Did not Cicero speak intelligibly when he called accomplished philosophers PERFECTOS philosophos, and an EXCELLENT orator PERFECTUM oratorem?
Did Ovid expose his reputation when he said that “Chiron perfected Achilles in music,” or “taught him to play on the lute to perfection?” And does Mr. Hill think it wrong to observe that fruit grown to maturity is in its perfection? We, whom that gentleman calls perfectionists, use the word perfection exactly in the same sense; giving that name to the maturity of grace peculiar to established believers under their respective dispensations; and if this be an error, we are led into it by the sacred writers, who use the word perfection as well as we.
The word predestinate occurs but four times in all the Scriptures, and the word predestination not once; and yet Mr. Hill would justly exclaim against us, if we showed our wit by calling for “a little Foundry [or Tabernacle] eye salve,” to help us to see the word predestination once in all the Bible.
Not so the word perfection: it occurs, with all its derivatives, as frequently as most words in the Scriptures, and not seldom in the very same sense in which we take it. Nevertheless, we do not lay an undue stress upon the expression; and if we thought that our condescension would answer any good end, we would entirely give up that harmless and significant word.
But, if it is expedient to retain the unscriptural word trinity, because it is a kind of watchword by which we frequently discover the secret opposers of the mysterious distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the Divine unity, how much more proper is it not to renounce the Scriptural word perfection, by which the dispirited spies, who bring an evil report upon the good land of holiness, are often detected?
Add to this that the following declaration of our Lord does not permit us to renounce either the word or the thing: ”Whosoever shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father.” Now the words of my motto, “Be ye perfect,” &c, being Christ’s own words, we dare no more be ashamed of them, than we dare desire him to be ashamed of us in the great day. Thus much for the word perfection.
Again: we give the name of “Christian perfection” to that maturity of grace and holiness which established adult believers attain to under the Christian dispensation: and thus we distinguish that maturity of grace, both from the ripeness of grace, which belongs to the dispensation of the Jews below us; and from the ripeness of glory, which belongs to departed saints above us. Hence it appears, that by “Christian perfection” we mean nothing but the cluster and maturity of the graces which compose the Christian character in the Church militant.
In other words, Christian perfection is a spiritual constellation made up of these gracious stars, perfect repentance, perfect faith, perfect humility, perfect meekness, perfect self denial, perfect resignation, perfect hope, perfect charity for our visible enemies, as well as for our earthly relations; and, above all, perfect love for our invisible God, through the explicit knowledge of our Mediator Jesus Christ.
And as this last star is always accompanied by all the others, as Jupiter is by his satellites, we frequently use, as St. John, the phrase “perfect love,” instead of the word perfection; understanding by it the pure love of God shed abroad in the hearts of established believers by the Holy Ghost, which is abundantly given them under the fulness of the Christian dispensation.
Should Mr. Hill ask if the Christian perfection which we contend for, is a sinless perfection, we reply, Sin is the transgression of a Divine law, and man may be considered either as being under the anti-evangelical, Christless, remediless law of our Creator; or, as being under the evangelical, mediatorial, remedying law of our Redeemer: and the question must be answered according to the nature of these two laws.
With respect to the FIRST, that is, the Adamic, Christless law of innocence and paradisiacal perfection, we utterly renounce the doctrine of sinless perfection, for three reasons:
(1.) We are conceived and born in a state of sinful degeneracy, whereby that law is already virtually broken.
(2.) Our mental and bodily powers are so enfeebled, that we cannot help actually breaking that law in numberless instances, even after our full conversion. And,
(3.) When once we have broken that law, it considers us as transgressors for ever: nor can it any more pronounce us sinless, than the rigorous law which condemns a man to be hanged for murder, can absolve a murderer, let his repentance and faith be ever so perfect.
Therefore, I repeat it, with respect to the Christless law of paradisiacal obedience, we entirely disclaim sinless perfection; and, improperly speaking, we say with Luther, “In every good work the just man sinneth;” that is, he more or less transgresses the law of paradisiacal innocence, by not thinking so deeply, not speaking so gracefully, not acting so properly, not obeying so vigorously, as he would do if he were still endued with original perfection, and paradisiacal powers.
Nor do we, in the same sense, scruple to say with Bishop Latimer, “He [Christ] saved us, not that we should be without sin; that no sin should be left in our hearts: no; he saved us not so. For all manner of imperfections remain in us, yea, in the best of us: so that, if God should enter into judgment with us, [according to the Christless law given to Adam before the fall,] we should be damned.
For there neither is nor was any man born into this world, who could say, I am clean from sin, [I fulfil the Adamic law of innocence,] except Jesus Christ:” and in that sense we have all reason to pray with David, “Cleanse thou me from my secret faults;” for “if thou wilt mark what is done amiss, Lord, who may abide it?”
If thou wilt judge us according to the law of paradisiacal perfection, “what man living shall be justified in thy sight?” But Christ has so completely fulfilled our Creator’s paradisiacal law of innocence, which allows neither of repentance nor of renewed obedience, that we shall not be judged by that law, but by a law adapted to our present state and circumstances, a milder law, called “the law of Christ,” i.e. the Mediator’s law, which is, like himself, “full of evangelical grace and truth.”
To the many arguments which I have advanced in the Checks in defence of this law, I shall add one more, taken from Heb. vii, 12:”The priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” From these words I conclude, that if the law under which the Jews were, was of necessity changed when God substituted the priesthood of Christ for that of Aaron, much more was the Adamic law of paradisiacal innocence of necessity changed, when God gave to Adam by promise “the Bruiser of the serpent’s head, the High Priest after the order of Melchisedec.”
For if a change in the external priesthood of necessity implied a change of the Mosaic law, how much more did the institution of the priesthood itself necessarily imply a change of the Adamic law, which was given without any mediating priest!
If Mr. Hill, therefore, will do our doctrine justice, we entreat him to consider that “we are not without law to God,” nor yet under a Christless law with Adam; but “under a law to Christ,” that is, under the law of our royal Priest, the evangelical “law of liberty:” a more gracious law this, which allows a sincere repentance, and is fulfilled by loving faith. Now as we shall be “judged by this law of liberty,” we maintain not only that it may, but also that it must be kept; and that it is actually kept by established Christians, according to the last and fullest edition of it, which is that of the New Testament.
Nor do we think it “shocking,” to hear an adult believer say, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law [of innocence, or the letter of the Mosaic law] could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son, condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be [evangelically] fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit,” Rom. viii, 2, &c.
Reason and Scripture seem to us to confirm this doctrine: for we think it is far less absurd to say that the king and parliament make laws which no Englishman can possibly keep; than to suppose that Christ and his apostles have given us precepts which no Christian is able to observe: and St. James assures us the evangelical law of Christ and liberty is that by which we shall stand or fall in judgment: “So speak ye, and so do,” says he, “as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty,” James ii, 12.
We find the Christian edition of that law, in all parts of the New Testament, but especially in our Lord’s sermon on the mount, and in St. Paul’s description of charity. We are persuaded, with St. John and St. Paul, that as “sin is the transgression,” so penitential, pure “love is the fulfilling of that evangelical law;” and therefore do not scruple to say with the apostle, “that he who loveth another hath fulfilled it; and that there is no occasion of stumbling, i.e. no sin in him;” fulfilling the law of Christ, and sinning, (in the evangelical sense of the word,) being as diametrically opposite to each other as obeying and disobeying, working righteousness and working iniquity.
We do not doubt but, as a reasonable, loving father never requires of his child, who is only ten years old, the work of one who is thirty years of age; so our heavenly Father never expects of us, in our debilitated state, the obedience of immortal Adam in paradise, or the uninterrupted worship of sleepless angels in heaven. We are persuaded, therefore, that, for Christ’s sake, he is pleased with an humble obedience to our present light; and a loving exertion of our present powers; accepting our Gospel services “according to what we have, and not according to what we have not.”
Nor dare we call that loving exertion of our present power, sin, lest by doing so we should contradict the Scriptures, confound sin and obedience, and remove all the landmarks which divide the devil’s common from the Lord’s vineyard. And if at any time we have exaggerated the difficulty of keeping Christ’s law, we acknowledge our error, and confess that, by this mean, we have Calvinistically traduced the equity of our gracious God, and inadvertently encouraged the Antinomian delusions.
To conclude. We believe, that although adult, established believers, or perfect Christians, may admit of many involuntary mistakes, errors, and faults; and of many involuntary improprieties of speech and behaviour; yet so long as their will is bent upon doing God’s will; so long as they walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit; so long as they fulfil the law of liberty by pure love, they do not sin according to the Gospel: because (evangelically speaking) “sin is the transgression, and love is the fulfilling of that law.”
Far then from thinking that there is the least absurdity in saying daily, “Vouchsafe to keep me this day without sin,” we doubt not but in the believers, who “walk in the light as Christ is in the light,” that deep petition is answered,the righteousness of the law, which they are under, is fulfilled; and, of consequence, an evangelically sinless perfection is daily experienced.
I say evangelically sinless, because, without the word evangelically, the phrase “sinless perfection” gives an occasion of cavilling to those who seek it, as Mr. Wesley intimates in the following quotation, which is taken from his “Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” p. 60:”To explain myself a little farther on this head:
(1.) Not only sin, properly so called, that is, a voluntary transgression of a known law; but sin, improperly so called, that is, an involuntary transgression of a Divine law, known or unknown, needs the atoning blood.
(2.) I believe there is no such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality.
(3.) Therefore sinless perfection is a phrase I never use, lest I should seem to contradict myself.
(4.). I believe a person filled with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions.
(5.) Such transgressions you may call sins if you please: I do not, for the reasons above mentioned.”
Last Check To Antinomianism Section I by John Fletcher