“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…” First John 2:1
Whenever Christians begin talking about revival, and seeking the Lord for the revival that is needed, criticism of such things comes up among the brethren. Church leaders criticized Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening back in the eighteenth century; theologians condemned the evangelists of the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century; and religious leaders in Wales attacked young Evan Roberts during the revival there in the early twentieth century. Criticism of revival and revival truth is no new thing. We are not surprised then that, with the rise of interest in revival in some circles of the Fundamentalist movement, there has also come sharp criticism. One of the strangest charges being leveled at the new revivalists is that they teach “sinless perfection.” This charge is false. The teaching of perfectionism in its classic theological definition cannot be found among any significant group of Fundamentalists, and certainly not among Fundamental Baptists.
Real perfectionism was taught by John Wesley and his followers, and also by Charles Finney and some influenced by him. Wesleyans have called this doctrine “Christian Perfection,” and connected it with the experience of a “second work of grace” after regeneration which essentially negates the power of the old sinful nature in the believer. Finney (whose views developed into so-called “Oberlin perfectionism,” named after the college where he taught} also believed that the believer in Christ can live in a state of sinless perfection, although he approached the issue in a different way. The distinction between Wesleyan and Oberlin perfectionism could be simplified (perhaps oversimplified) by saying that Wesley emphasized the work of God in the perfecting of a life, and Finney gave weight to the ability of man to obey God’s law. In either version of the doctrine, sinless perfection asserts that Christians can live sinless lives. Except for the very few who regard themselves as Wesleyan, Fundamentalists do not teach this doctrine.
However, many who believe in revival do believe in the power of Christ to free us from the power of sin. While not saying that anyone has reached the point where they never sin, they do affirm the Bible teaching that Jesus saves us from sin’s power as well as its penalty. Victory over our sinful nature, and over sins in our lives that have often defeated us, is achieved by faith in Christ, and not simply by redoubled human effort. Those who oppose this teaching (and falsely label it “sinless perfection”) beg a few intriguing questions.
Is it permissable for a Christian to sin?
To sound the alarm because somebody calls on believers to give up their sins certainly is an odd reaction in the light of the New Testament.
“Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” asks the Apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The answer is, “God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1-2). He then asserts that “Sin shall not have dominon over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace…Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness,” (Romans 6:14 and 18). Paul also wrote, “Awake to righteousness, and sin not,” (I Corinthians 15:34). Paul teaches us that sinning is unacceptable behavior, and that Christians are free from it. We notice that he does not say that we are free of sin, although he does say that we are free from sin (See also Romans 6:22 and 8:2).
The Apostle John tells us in I John 1:8 that, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” but then he begins the next chapter with the words, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.” In spite of the fact that a Christian will sin, he is told emphatically not to sin. Although provision has been made through Christ for the keeping of our souls when we do sin, we are commanded to refrain from sinning. When we read I John 2:1, where we are assured that, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ,” we are not being encouraged to go ahead and sin. As we have noted, the same verse says, “Sin not.” The exhortation is like the one a flight attendant gives the passengers of an airliner before takeoff when he says, “In the event of an emergency, your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device.” The safety provision is for “just-in-case.” It doesn’t imply that people should plan on using it.
In the chapter where the adulteress is told, “Go, and sin no more,” we read the words of Jesus promising, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8). The emancipation of which He speaks is liberation from slavery to sin (“Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin,” verses 31-36). Clearly, the Lord Jesus does more for the sinner than rescue him from Hell. He releases him from captivity to sin. So saved people are never encouraged to go ahead and sin. They are exhorted not to sin.
What's wrong with perfection?
To a reader of the Bible, it is strange to put the word “perfection” in a bad light. Have we forgotten how the scriptures use the term “perfect” in regard to godly people?
“Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations…” (Genesis 6:9).
“I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.” (Genesis 17:1)
“Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God.” (Deuteronomy 18:13)
“…that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God…” (Job 1:1)
“Let your heart therefore be perfect with the LORD our God, to walk in his statutes, and to keep his commandments…” (I Kings 8:61).
“Asa’s heart was perfect with the LORD all his days.” (I Kings 15:14)
“…the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.” (II Chronicles 16:9)
“Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace.” (Psalm 37:37)
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
“If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor…” (Matthew 19:21).
“…we speak wisdom among them that are perfect…” (I Corinthians 2:6).
“Be perfect…” (II Corinthians 13:11).
“…that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus…” (Colossians 1:28).
“That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (II Timothy 3:17)
Although the Hebrew and Greek words translated “perfect” in the English Bible have the idea of completeness rather than flawlessness, we cannot miss the fact that God wants us to be fully devoted to Him. He wants all-out servants. He wants us to want to be all we can be for Him. There is nothing wrong with desiring perfection, and the Bible encourages us to have such a desire.
Can we live holy lives?
The point many of the critics are missing is that the Lord has shown us the way to live holy lives, although many Christians are not living this way. Notice the questions at the beginning of Galatians 3.
“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?”
How are we to live the Christian life? Is it by the flesh or by the Spirit? Is it by works or by faith? Behind these questions is one suggested by the previous chapter, “Is the Christian life lived by law or by grace?” The answers to these questions given by the book of Galatians are the same as the answer to the question of how a sinner is justified before God. He is justified by God’s grace, through his faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians, grace/ faith/Spirit produces liberty; and law/works/flesh produces bondage. These formulas are true both for justification and for sanctification, for salvation and Christian living. Galatians 2:16 says that, “A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” Galatians 2:19-20 says that we, “Live unto God…by the faith of the Son of God.” We live for the Lord the same way that we were converted. We trust in Christ and what He did for us on the cross and at the empty tomb for the power to live for Him Who died for us.
Many have the impression that people become obedient Christians about the same way that dogs are trained to obey their masters. We learn new habits and make them habitual by practice. Christian growth is pictured as occurring through training and learning. But this is not really the way it works, and it is not really Christian living. It is the law-works-flesh formula, the way to bondage. Training our flesh to behave in a Christian way is not Christian growth. Just hearing sermons and learning verses, and then disciplining ourselves to live according to the rules, will not bring us the victory we want nor the liberty Christ came to give us. The holy life is obtained only by trusting Christ for victory, and relying on the Spirit for power to overcome the flesh. Not that learning the Word of God and practicing self-denial and discipline have no part in a holy life; it is just that they are not enough to bring about the situation where Christ is living through us (as in Galatians 2:20 and 4:19).
Once a college student who had attended a series of meetings with me where an evangelist had preached some helpful sermons on Romans 6, asked me if he would have once-and-for-all, final victory over the downward pull of the flesh if he just made the decision to “reckon” himself dead to sin and alive to God. “Would the struggle be over?” he asked. I thought about it, and said, “No. The challenge of the flesh is not ended by claiming victory. Trusting Christ for victory is not about ending the war; it’s about how you fight the battle.” And I was right. We don’t get holier by trying harder; we win the battle with sin by trusting more! Every time we trust Jesus rather than ourselves, we win!
This is the message of victory at the heart of revival. It isn’t sinless perfection. It is the life of the perfect, sinless One, living in us and living through us. The more we live by faith in Him, the less we sin. And sinning less is a good thing. It is what the Bible teaches in I John 3:6.
“Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not…”
Is victorious living heresy?
The great Baptist pastor, A.J. Gordon of Boston, considered by historians to be a forefather of the Fundamentalist movement, commented that, “If the doctrine of sinless perfection is a heresy, the doctrine of contentment with sinful imperfection is a greater heresy.” He went on to say, “It is not an edifying spectacle to see a Christian worldling throwing stones at a Christian perfectionist.” Gordon considered, “The doctrine of ‘instantaneous sanctification’…the conception…of a state of sinless perfection into which the believer has been suddenly lifted…deliverance from a sinful nature which has been suddenly eradicated…as dangerously untrue,” but he saw the fallacy of “contentment with sinful imperfection.” Christianity is not simply a way to escape the wrath to come, coupled with a system to deal with a life of defeat between conversion and heaven. It is good news of deliverance. Salvation is deliverance, and the deliverance from sin is not achieved by ourselves. It is bestowed by the Deliverer. And this Bible doctrine has been believed, taught, and proven by non-perfectionists for a long time.
Many of the Christians who have been persuaded to be skeptical of the revival movement actually, to some degree, believe in the truth of victory by faith. They teach it in their “R.U.” meetings. They preach it in their sermons. They sing it in many of the hymns they love.
“I will praise my dear Redeemer, His triumphant power I’ll tell, How the victory He giveth Over sin, and death, and hell.”
Jesus gives victory over sin, as well as death and Hell. This victory is appropriated by simple faith.
“Yes, ‘tis sweet to trust in Jesus, Just from sin and self to cease, Just from Jesus simply taking Life and rest and joy and peace.”
We just take the life we need by faith. His Holy Spirit (the Breath of God) overwhelms our life so that Christ can be seen in it.
“Breathe on me, Breath of God, Till I am wholly Thine, Till all this earthly part of me Glows with Thy fire divine.”
The revival movement is not teaching the false doctrine of sinless perfection. It is bringing back the neglected truth that holy living is not only desirable but also achievable. The power to overcome is found in Christ, and the victory is to the glory of God. The revivalists do not preach “second-blessing,” eradication, “entire sanctification,” as the Wesleyans do. One of them has said clearly that the victorious life by faith in Christ, “Is not receiving something you do not already have as a child of God, as some ‘second blessing’ theologies teach. This is accessing the victory of Christ which was made yours at salvation!”* The saints can live much more like saints than they generally do, and revival has everything to do with restoring to us the New Testament level of holy living. Let us welcome this resurgence of a needed emphasis, and not discourage it.
*John R. Van Gelderen, THE WIND OF THE SPIRIT In Personal and Corporate Revival (Menomonee Falls, WI: Preach the Word Ministries, 2003), p. 92.