The gospel is the power of God to salvation (Rom. 1:16). Its power resides in the fact of its being the revelation of the righteousness of God which is applied to the guilty record of the believing transgressor, thereby acquitting his legal guilt and causing him to be accepted as righteous by means of the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness (Rom. 1:17). Thus God, by means of the gospel of Christ, accomplishes by divine fiat what is utterly impossible for the sinful sons and daughters of Adam. In this way He magnifies the power of His grace, being mighty to save those who were without strength, helpless to save themselves (Rom. 5:6).
Yet the same gospel that is the power of God to liberate the criminal from the legal condemnation incurred due to his violation of the divine law is also the power of God to purify the wicked from the pollution of his own depraved heart. Thus the guilty wretch is made “the righteousness of God” with regard to his legal standing in the eyes of the law, and the profane lover of sin is made a “saint” who delights in the very law of which he once lived in utter and total defiance, being made a lover of righteousness. This is the biblical teaching of the doctrines of justification and sanctification.
What this means in practical terms for the believer is that although he is perfectly righteous in a legal sense before the judgment bar of a just Judge in Heaven, being clothed with the impeccable robes of the righteousness of Christ, at the same time, he is not perfectly righteous in his experience on this earth. While our forensic righteousness is perfect, our actual righteousness in terms of our personal freedom from the contamination of sin is never perfected in this life. While justification is an instantaneous, divine legal declaration that perfectly and forever frees the sinner from condemnation, sanctification in the life of the believer who has already been justified is an ongoing process which continually effectuates an experiential purification from sin and an ever-increasing growth in likeness to Christ, and is not perfected until the believer enters glory.
Historically, within the ranks of the church, there have been two major groups which have vehemently denied the biblical teaching of the progressive nature of sanctification: Pelagianism and Wesleyanism.
Pelagianism derives its name from the monk Pelagius (390-418 A.D.). Pelagius is famous (or infamous) due to his debates with Augustine over the doctrine of man’s depravity in the 4th Century. By denying the concept of original sin, Pelagius taught that perfect sinlessness was possible by redefining sin as “a volitional action to disobey a known command of God”. According to him, sin is a choice, and the ability to make the choice to sin or not to sin lies in the inherent natural ability of man. Thus he taught that the empowerment of divine grace is not necessary to stop sinning and obey the law of God.
Applying these grave doctrinal errors to the doctrine of sanctification, Pelagius taught that perfect freedom from sin can be obtained, and must be obtained, at the moment of conversion. For him, repentance means to simply cease from all sin. And since repentance and faith go hand in hand in conversion, and since justification is dependent upon the exercise of faith, then, according to Pelagius, abiding in a state of justification is conditional upon abiding in a state of repentance which is defined as perfectly ceasing from sin. Thus justification is made to be dependent upon the believer’s sinlessness. Justification and sanctification are confused and justification is thought to depend on sanctification. This is nothing more than the malicious heresy of justification by works! By denying original sin, Pelagius denied the truth of progressive sanctification, and all of this as logically harmonized in his humanistic system of doctrine ultimately constituted a practical denial of the biblical gospel. Pelagianism is, therefore, not to be considered as within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Unfortunately, its influence is still alive and well today, and is most often exercised through the ongoing influence of Charles G. Finney (1792-1875), the American revivalist who revived the ancient theology of Pelagius and popularized the evangelistic practice of decisionism which has plagued the modern church with multitudes of false converts.
The other propagator of perfectionist doctrine is known as Wesleyanism, which takes its name from none other than John Wesley (1703-1791), the famous evangelist of the Great Awakening. Yet it is important to make some necessary distinctions at this point so as not to confuse Wesleyanism with Pelagianism. While Pelagianism is certainly heretical due to its denial of foundational truths which are central to the gospel message, Wesleyanism should not be understood as being in the same category since it undeniably affirms historic Christian orthodoxy. Wesley, contrary to Pelagius, not only believed in the doctrine of original sin, he preached it ruthlessly in the face of much persecution together with the doctrines of supernatural regeneration and justification by grace through faith.
However, one of Wesley’s most lamentable doctrinal errors existed with regard to how he understood sanctification. He taught that although man is born in sin and needs the empowerment of divine grace to overcome his sin, it is possible to attain to a state of perfect freedom from sin.
Although Wesley affirmed the progressive nature of sanctification on the one hand, on the other hand he denied it to be necessary by teaching that a believer can be entirely sanctified in this life. This perfection in holiness, according to Wesley, is received by faith through experiencing “the baptism of the Holy Ghost”, which he defined as a second work of grace subsequent to justification which “purges all inbred sin” and results in experiencing “a total death to sin, and an entire renewal in the love and image of God” [A Plain Account of Christian Perfection]. Though he was careful to qualify his statements in order to clarify that the Christian is not without faults of which he is unconscious, and cannot attain to a pre-lapsarian Adamic or Christ-like perfection in holiness (which statements were logically inconsistent with his doctrine in my opinion), Wesley taught that it is possible to attain to such a degree of personal holiness that the believer has no more need for ongoing sanctification in this life. His teachings have greatly influenced church history and have many followers to this day, especially among denominations that trace their roots to his influence, such as the Methodist, Wesleyan, Nazarene, and Holiness churches.
These theological aberrations have done a great deal of harm in church history. Both groups, for different reasons, are guilty of serious error with regard to the nature of sanctification.
The Scriptures emphatically refute all forms of perfectionism. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” In this text, John includes himself by saying, “if we say”, using the first person plural form to signify that he himself is not excluded from this statement. As a holy apostle of the Lamb, writing toward the end of his life, John knew his sanctification was not yet so complete so as to consist of perfect freedom from all sin. Furthermore, he indicates that he is speaking of the believer’s present experience by speaking of “having sin” in the present tense, and all this in the context of explaining how the continual confession of sin is an evidence of walking in the light in fellowship with God (see 1 John 1:4-9). According to John, not only is it not possible to attain to sinless perfection, it is deception to claim to have attained it! (See also 1 Kngs. 8:46; Psa. 130:3; Pro. 20:9; Ecc. 7:20; 1 Cor. 4:4; Jam. 3:2.)
Confessing sin continually is both a biblical pattern and imperative. It is a pattern that is evident in the lives of the most godly of men, such eminent saints as Job (Job 42:6) David (Psa. 32, 51), Isaiah (Isa. 6:5), Daniel (Dan. 9), and Paul (Acts 23:3-5). That it is an imperative can be seen in no less a prominent passage than the Lord’s Prayer, by which he teaches his apostles and disciples to pray “forgive us our sins” (Lk. 11:4). This is immediately following the petition, “Give us each day our daily bread”, implying the necessity of daily making requests such as those exemplified in this prayer, which certainly includes the daily need to confess our sins and place our hope in the grace of God (not in our own performance) for our righteousness.
Though every true believer longs for holiness, and strives to walk in obedience to the commands of His God, he is conscious of an intense inward struggle as sinful impulses manifest through his yet unredeemed flesh and wage war against his soul (1 Pet. 2:11). The sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit and the desires the flesh are at odds with one another (Gal. 5:17), and this battle never ceases until he enters through the gates of eternal glory.
The Biblical Framework
This acknowledgment of lack of perfect holiness must be understood within the framework of Scripture’s teaching on sanctification. It is only by understanding the different aspects of sanctification that we can be spared from falling into the errors of perfectionism on the one hand, and the errors of lawlessness on the other hand.
There are three distinct aspects of sanctification defined in Scripture. Each of these aspects corresponds to a particular period of time with respect to the believer’s experience of the saving grace of God.
First of all, there is what we call definitive sanctification. This is an instantaneous, powerful act of God’s transforming grace, intimately related to regeneration, which frees the believer from the dominion and slavery of sin and works in him the power to do what is well-pleasing in God’s sight. This is what Paul refers to in Romans 6:6, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” By virtue of Christ’s redemptive work and the believer’s union with Christ, he experiences a definitive break with the practice of sin that had characterized his past life. Jesus also spoke of this when He said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). But although this results in freedom from sin’s control, it doesn’t result in total freedom from sin’s presence and contamination, and doesn’t perfect the believer in holiness. This aspect of sanctification marks the beginning of the Christian life, and transitions into the process of sanctification. (See also Rom. 6; Col. 2:11-12; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 Jn. 3:5-9)
Second, there is progressive sanctification. This is an ongoing, continual work of God’s transforming grace which results in being increasingly cleansed from the internal defilement of sin and being renewed in the image of God in all true righteousness and holiness. It empowers the believer to increasingly kill sin and practice righteousness. Thus it consists of both the mortification of sinful impulses (Col. 3:5) and the renovation of the inner man (Col. 3:10) to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). It is graciously guided by God’s moral law (Rom. 7:7, 8:4) and takes place by the power of the Holy Spirit as we fix our gaze upon Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; Heb. 12:2). Paul emphasizes this aspect of sanctification when he exhorts the Corinthians, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Though the Corinthians had already been sanctified definitively at their conversion (1 Cor. 1:2), their sanctification was not yet complete. They were to be diligent to occupy themselves in their sanctification with fear and trembling and by faith in the promises of God, work on continually perfecting their holiness. This aspect of sanctification begins at the beginning of the Christian life, but is not completed until the believer enters glory.
Third, there is consummate sanctification. This is an instantaneous act of God’s power and grace which frees the believer from the presence of inbred sin forever. It perfects the Christian in holiness and results in being perfectly conformed to Christ’s moral image in terms of freedom from sin’s defilement for all of eternity. For most believers throughout history, this takes place in two installments: first at death when the spirit/soul is perfected in righteousness (Heb. 12:23) and then at the resurrection from the dead with regard to the body, which will take place at Christ’s coming. The apostle John spoke of this when he said, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 Jn. 3:2). As we behold what theologians have called, “the beatific vision” of seeing the consummate glory of God in face of Jesus Christ, we will be transformed and our sanctification will be perfected with regard to the entirety of our human nature (1 Th. 5:23) as we glorify God and worship Him in the beauty of perfect holiness forever! Hallelujah!
Extremes are to be Avoided
Typically, the antinomian (one who lives with no regard to God’s commands) denies the first aspect of sanctification and relegates it to a merely positional status. That is, he defines the initial sanctification that a believer experiences in positional terms which only affect the believer’s status before God but leave his experience untouched. Thus, according to him, it is possible to really experience God’s saving grace without being transformed and set free from the practice of sin. This is a grave error.
However, on the other hand, the perfectionist typically denies the distinctions which exist in the different aspects of sanctification and either blurs the lines between these distinctions, or confuses their chronology in terms of the believer’s experience. Avoiding the error of antinomianism, they fall into the fatal trap of legalism, and thrust themselves into many sorrows as they seek to attain to that which is impossible. By setting a false standard which is unattainable, they set themselves up for repeated frustration, and often fall into a conscious sense of feeling as if they’re under condemnation for not being as holy as they ought. This leads to disappointment and discouragement for those believers who have embraced perfectionist doctrine which, ironically, rather than producing a more perfect holiness in them, is actually counter-productive to their sanctification. If they would understand the biblical framework of sanctification and how to interpret their own experience in the light of it, they would be spared from many unnecessary sorrows.
In summary, the power of the gospel secures both the forgiveness of sin and the cleansing from sin for all who believe. However, the perfect purification from sin’s defilement doesn’t occur at any given point in the Christian’s pilgrimage on this earth. We must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily in the fight against sin! Though the battle against sin is fierce, our God has committed to fighting this war with us! With God the Father’s tender care and discipline, with the Son of God interceding for us, and with the Spirit of God empowering us, though the battle be a fight to the death, we can be confident that with the omnipotent power of the Triune God on our side, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us!
Though we can and must rest in the fact of our justification, we must also strive in the progress of our sanctification. And God will never leave us or forsake us, not even on our toughest days or most bitter falls (1 Jn. 2:1). Thank God that even though our holiness is incomplete and flawed, His righteousness is pure and perfect, and the eternal Son has covenanted to be our Advocate and representative righteousness before the throne forever, as flawed as we may be!
“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”
-Charles H. Spurgeon
“If there be any one point in which the Christian church ought to keep its fervor at a white heat, it is concerning missions. If there be anything about which we cannot tolerate lukewarmness, it is the matter of sending the gospel to a dying world.”
—Charles H. Spurgeon