Wesleyan Doctrine of Sinless Perfection

by R. L. Dabney


It has been a question long mooted between Evangelical Christians, and Pelagians, Socinians, Jesuits, and Wesleyans, whether sanctification is ever perfect in this life. The Pelagians and Socinians had an interest to assert that it may be; because such an opinion is necessary to establish their doctrine of justification by works; the Jesuits in order to uphold the possibility of "merits of supererogation;" and the Wesleyans, to sustain their theory of free-will and the type of religion which they foster. As we have, practically, most to do with Wesleyans, on this point, and they reproduce the arguments of the others, let us address ourselves to their views. They assert that it is scriptural to expect some cases of perfect sanctification in this life; because, 1. The means provided by God are confessedly adequate to this complete result, should He please to bless them; and that it seems derogatory to His holy character when He assures us that "this is the will of God, even our sanctification," to suppose He will 'not hear and answer prayers for a blessing on those means, to any extent to which the faith of His children may urge those prayers. And 2. He has actually commanded us to pray for entire sanctification. Ps. cxix: 5, 6. Surely, He does not cause the seed of Jacob to seek Him in vain? 3. Not only has He thus encouraged, but commanded us to seek perfection. See Matt. v: 48. Unless obedience were possible, the command would be unjust. And 4. Perfect sanctification is nowhere connected with the death of the body by explicit texts. Indeed, the opinion that it must be, savours of Gnosticism, by representing that the seat of ungodliness is in the corporeal part, whereas, we know that the body is but the passive tool of the responsible spirit. As to the involuntary imperfections which every man, not insanely vain, must acknowledge, they are not properly sin; for God does not hold man guilty for those infirmities which are the inevitable results of his feeble and limited nature. Here, the Wesleyan very manifestly implies a resort to the two Pelagian principles; that man is not responsible for his volitions unless they are free not only from co-action, but from certainty; and that moral quality resides only in acts of choice; so that a volition which is prevalently good is wholly good. Hence, those imperfections in saints, into which they fall through mere inattention, or sudden gust of temptation, contrary to their sincere bent and preference, incur no guilt whatever. Last: They claim actual cases in Scripture, as of Noah, Gen. vi: g; Ps. cxix: 1; Job i: 1 and 8; David, Ps. xxxvii: 37; Zechariah; Luke i: 6; Jno. iii: 9.

We reply: Perfection is only predicated of these saints, to show that they had Christian sincerity; thatthey had all the graces essential to the Christian character in actual exercise. As if to refute the idea of their sinless perfection, Scripture in every case records of them some fault, drunkenness of Noah, lying of Abraham, adultery and murder of David, unbelief of Zechariah, Luke i: 20, while Job concludes by saying, "I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

The most objectionable trait about this theory of perfect sanctification, is its affinities to Jesuitism and Pelagianism. These are several ways manifest. We saw that the old Pelagians, admitting that a complete obedience is requisite for a justification by works, claimed that the obedience which is formally in strict accordance with the statute, and prevalently right in purpose, is perfectly right. We saw, also, how they defended this view in consistency with their false ethicks. For they place the moral quality of acts in the volition, denying any certain efficiency to subjective (as to objective) motive. Now, volition is, of course, an entire and single act. The motives of a single volition may be complex; but the volition has a perfect unicity. Hence, if the morality of the act is wholly in the volition, and not in those complex motives, if the purpose is right, it is wholly right. But say, with us, that the volition derives its moral quality from the subjective motives, (which is the doctrine of common sense and the Bible,) and it follows that a volition may have a complex moral character; it may be prevalently right, and yet not perfectly right. Now, while volition is single, motive is complex. I showed you, that the least complex motive must involve a judgment and an appetency, and that no objective theory is ever inducement to volition, until it stands, in the soul's view, in the category of the true and the good, (the natural good, 'at least). In the sense of this discussion, we should include in the " subjective motive" of a given volition, all the precedaneous states of judgment and appetency in the soul, which have causative influence in the rise of that volition. Then, many elements may enter into the subjective motive of a single volition; elements intellective, and elements conative. Every one of these elements which has a moral quality, i. e. which arises under the regulative power of subjective, moral disposition, may contribute of its moral character to the resultant volition. Now, then, it is the plainest thing in the world, that these elements may be, some unholy, and some holy. Hence, the volition, while possessed of an absolute singleness as a psychological function, may have mixed moral character,-- because, simply, it %as morally mixed subjective springs in the agent's soul. This solution is simple; and in several problems it is vital. Let it explain itself in an instance. A good Christian man is met in public by a destitute person, who asks alms. With deliberate consideration the relief is bestowed. The things which were present in the Christian's consciousness were these: The rush of instinctive or animal sympathy (morally negative while merely animal): A rational movement of (agape), or love (morally good): Recollection of, and desire for Christ's glory as displayed in the succour of His creature, (morally good): The thought of, and pleasure in, his own applause as a philanthropist (morally negative at least, and if inordinate, criminal): Selfish appetency to retain the money needed by the destitute person, for his own gratification, (morally evil). And last, a judgment of conscience. Now, the nature of that Christian's process of soul, during the instant he stood deliberating, was an adjusting of these concurring and competing elements of motive. The result was, that the better ones preponderated over the selfish reluctance, and the alms were given voluntarily and deliberately. Let us credit the Christian with giving the preponderant weight to Christian love, zeal for Christ's honour, and the conscientious judgment of obligation. Then these elements of motive have constituted the concrete act a prevalently godly one. But there ought to have been no selfish reluctance! Then the very fact, that this evil element was there and was felt, and even needed suppressing, was an element of moral defect. There again, was the personal craving for applause, which was enough felt, to cause at least a partial disregard of our Saviour's rule, Matt. vi: 3, at the time of giving the alms, or afterward. Then. this also detracts from the perfectness of the action. Yet it was a prevalently godly action. So, an act may be socially virtuous, while prevalently ungodly; or an act may be wholly godless and vicious. Only those, in whom concupiscence has been finally extinguished, perform perfectly godly acts. Such, we repeat, is the analysis of common-sense, and of the Bible. But the Wesleyan, acknowledging remainders of concupiscence in his "complete" saint, and yet asserting that his prevalently godly acts are perfect acts, has unconsciously adopted the false Pelagian philosophy, in two points: that " concupiscence is not itself sinful;" and that the " moral quality resides exclusively in the act of soul." Again: when the Wesleyan says that an act, to which the good man is hurried by a gust of temptation so sudden and violent as to prevent deliberation; an act which is against his prevalent bent and purpose, and which is at once deplored, is an infirmity, but not a sin; he is pelagianizing. He has virtually made the distinction between mortal and venial sins, which Rome borrows from Pelagius, and he is founding on that heretic's false dogmas, that responsibility ends when the will is no longer in equilibrio. (In this case it is the sudden gust of temptation which suspends the equilibrium).

There is also a dangerous affinity between these principles, and those horrible deductions from Pelagianism, made by the Jesuits, under the name of the art of " directing the attention," and venial sins. The origin is in the same speculations of those early heretics. The student may see an account and refutation in the unrivalled " Provincial Letters " of Blaise Pascal. The general doctrine is: that if, in perpetrating a crime, the direction of the intention is to a right end, this makes the act right, because the act which is prevalently right is wholly right. The abominations to which this Pelagian dogma led, in Jesuits' hands, were such, that they contributed to their suppression. It is not charged that Wesleyans countenance any of these immoral and loathesome conclusions: but their premises are dangerous, as appears from these results.

To proceed: it is true that the Bible does not say, in so many words, that the soul's connection with the present body is what makes sanctification necessarily incomplete. But it asserts the equivalent truth; as when it teaches us, that at death the saints are made perfect in holiness. It is no Gnosticism, but Scripture and common sense, to attribute some obstacles to entire sanctification to the continuance of the animal appetites in man. While God's omnipotence could overcome those obstacles, yet it is according to His manner of working, that He has seen fit to connect the final completeness of His work of grace in the soul, with this last change. Hence, when the Scriptures show that this is His plan, we are prepared to believe it so.

God commands us, says the Wesleyan, to "be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect," whence its possibility must follow. I reply. True; God cannot require of us a physical impossibility. But our inability to keep God's whole law perfectly is not physical. It began in man's sin. By that sin we lost none of those faculties which, when Adam's will was right, enabled him to keep God's command without sin. Our impotency is an "inability of will." Hence, it ought not to alter the demands of God's justice on His creatures. It is right in God to require perfection of us, and instruct us to seek it, because His own perfect nature can accept no less. Did God allow an inability of will to reduce His just claims on the creature, then the more sinful he became, the less guilt would attach to his shortcomings. A creature need only render himself utterly depraved to become completely irresponsible!

But we argue, affirmatively, that sanctification is never complete in this life. (a). Because the Scripture says expressly that remains of sin exist in all living men. See, for instance, 1 Jno. i: 8; Jas. iii: 2; 1 Kings viii: 46: Prov. xx: 9. How can such assertions be evaded?

(b.) I argue it, also, from the perpetual warfare which theScriptures say is going on between the flesh and the Spirit. See Rom. vii: 10, to end; Gal. v: 17, etc. This warfare, says the Bible, constitutes the Christian life. And it is of no avail for the Wesleyan to attempt evading this picture of Rom. vii: as the language of Paul convicted but not yet converted; for other similar passages remain, as Rom. viii: 7; Gal. v: I7; Phil. iii: 13: I Tim. vi: 12, etc., etc. Now, as long as the contest lasts, there must be an enemy. (c). The impossibility of a perfect obedience by ransomed men is clearly asserted in Scripture. Ps. cxix: 96; Acts xv: 10. It is true, that in the latter place the ceremonial law is more immediately in Peter's view; but the whole law is included, as is obvious from his scope; and if either could be perfectly kept, surely the ceremonial would be the easier. Last: The Lord's Prayer teaches all Christians to pray for the pardon of sin; a command which would not be universally appropriate if this doctrine were true. And if human experience can settle such a point, it is wholly on our side; for those who are obviously most advanced in sanctification, both among inspired and uninspired saints, are most emphatic in their confessions of shortcoming; while those who arrogantly claim perfect sanctification, usually discredit their pretentions sooner or later, by shameful falls. It is well that the Arminians have coupled the doctrine of falling from grace with this. Otherwise their own professors of complete sanctification would have refuted it with a regularity that would have been almost a fatality.

Now. the Almighty Spirit could subdue all sin, in a living saint, if He chose. Bible truths certainly present sufficient inducements to act as the angels, were our wills completely rectified. Why God does not choose, in any case, to work this complete result in this life, we cannot tell. "Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in Thy sight." The Wesleyans are accustomed to claim a more stimulating influence toward the pursuit of holiness, for their doctrine, and to reproach ours with paralyzing results. They say, that with a rational agent, hope is a necessary element in the incentives to exertion; and that it is unnatural and impossible a man should attempt, in good earnest, what he thinks impossible to be achieved. But tell him that success, though arduous, is possible, and he will strain every nerve, and at least make great progress. They say that Calvinists practically teach their converts not to aim high, and to make up their minds to low attainments in holiness. And hence the feeble and crippled character of the most of the religion exhibited in their churches. We reply, that this calculation misrepresents the facts, and leaves out one of the most important of them. We do not forbid hope. We teach our people to hope for constant advances in holiness, by which they approach perfection continually, without actually reaching it in this life. The essential fact left out of the estimate is the invincible opposition of the new nature to all sin. The man renewed by God is incapable of contenting himself with any degree of sin. Here is the safeguard against the cessation of the struggle under the discouraging belief that victory is only after death. If the indwelling enemy is thus as long-lived as the body, and immortal as long as the body lives, yet truce is impossible because the hostility of the new-born soul to it is unquenchable. Does it follow from this view, that the life must be a life-long battle? I reply, even so; this is just what the Bible represents it to be.

We can retort on the Wesleyan, a juster objection to the working of his theory. By giving a false definition of what perfection is, it incurs a much greater risk of inciting false pride, and dragging the conscience into a tolerance of what it calls guiltless, or venial infirmities. The Bible-Christian, the more he is conformed to God, advances just so much the more in tenderness and perspicacity of conscience. Sin grows more odious, just as holiness grows more attractive. Thus, when there is, in God's view, less indwelling sin to extirpate in the heart, it is nerved by its contrition to a more determined war against what remains. Thus an ever progressive sanctification is provided for, conformably to the rational and free nature of man. But our question is: If the Christian be taught that what remains of indwelling sin, after a distinctive and decisive reign of grace begins in the soul, ' is infirmity but not sin," do we not run a terrible risk of encouraging him to rest on the laurels of past attainments; do we not drug his conscience, and do we not thus prepare the way for just those backslidings, by which these high pretenders have so frequently signalized their scheme? Wesleyans sometimes say, that their doctrine of perfect sanctification, as defined by them, amounts to precisely the same with our statement concerning those better Christians, who, with Caleb and Joshua, (Numb. xiv: 24), "followed the Lord fully," and who enjoy an assurance of their own grace and salvation. Our objection is, that a dangerous and deluding statement is thus made of a scriptural truth. All Christians should be urged to these higher spiritual attainments; but they should not be taught to call that "perfection," which is not really perfect, nor to depreciate their remaining sins into mere "infirmities."

A form of virtual perfectionism has become current recently, among Christians whose antecedents were not Arminian, but Reformed. They call themselves advocates of the "Higher Christian Life." This stage, they say, is reached by those who were before Christians, by a species of second conversion. The person gains his own full consent to undertake, in reliance on Christ, a life entirely above sin; a life which shall tolerate no form or grade of shortcoming. As soon as this full resolve is entertained, and is pleaded before God with an entire faith, the believer receives the corresponding grace and strength, in accordance with the promise; "Ask and ye shall receive." This attainment is often accompanied with a new "baptism of the Spirit," bestowing this full victory over sin, with a perfect assurance of acceptance; which baptism is immediately and infallibly recognized by the recipient, and in some cases, is even perceptible to bystanders, by infallible signs. Thencefoward, the recipient "walks in the light," enjoys perfect peace, and lives above all sin. It is pleaded by the advocates of this claim; that there is no limit to the gospel promises, nor to the merits of Christ, nor to the paternal grace of God; that the only reason we do not get fuller grace is, that we do not believingly ask it: and that no scriptural limit may be put upon this last proposition, this side of a perfect victory over sin. If, say they, men had a perfect faith to ask, they would receive of Christ's fulness a perfect answer. They quote such promises as these; "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it," Ps. 1xxxi: 10 "Ask and ye shall receive," Matt. vii: 8. "This is the will of God, even your sanctification." I Thess. iv: 3.

That the promises of God in Christ hold out indefinite encouragement to believers, is a precious truth. That it is the duty of all to press forward to the mark, is indisputable. But when men say, that a perfect faith would receive a perfect answer, they are but uttering a valueless truism. The man who had a perfect faith would be a perfect man. He would need no more sanctification. Unfortunately for this theory, the indwelling sin which creates the need for farther sanctification, inevitably involves some imperfection and weakness of the faith. We shall always have to raise the disciples' cry; " Lord increase our faith," as long as we cry for increase of grace. So, if a believer's heart were finally, immutably, and perfectly united, through every moment, in the resolve to live, by Christ's strength, absolutely above sin, he would doubtless meet with no rebuff in any petition for strength, at Christ's throne of grace. But in order to have such a state of purpose, there must be no indwelling sin in that heart. This scheme, stripped of its robes, comes therefore to this truism: "Were a man absolutely perfect, he would be absolutely perfect?" The picture of the Christian's militant life, which we ever see portrayed in Scripture, is that of an imperfect, but progressive faith uniting him to his Saviour, always finding Him faithful to His promises, and always deriving from Him measures of grace corresponding to the vigour of its exercise, yet always leaving room for farther advances. There is an exceedingly broad and conclusive argument against all forms of perfectionism in this fact: That the provisions of grace described in the Bible are all provisions for imperfect and sinning men. The gospel is a religion for sinners, not for glorified saints. This is the only conception of it which appears in any part of scripture.

Only a little experience and scriptural knowledge are necessary, to make us view the claims of the spiritual baptism advanced above, with suspicion. The immediate visitation of the Holy Ghost should attest itself by miraculous "signs," by "tongues," or "gifts of healings;" as it did in apostolic days. If these be lacking, we have no other test of its presence, than the fruits of holy living; and for these we should wait. The Christian who, instead of waiting for this attestation, presumes on an intuitive and infallible consciousness of the endowment, can never scripturally know but that the impulse he mistakes for the Spirit's baptism is natural fanaticism, or the temptation of him, who is able to transform himself into an angel of light.

Text scanned and edited by Michael Bremmer. Taken from Systematic Theology, 667-674.

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