The Rev. CHARLES G. FINNEY’S SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY (1851)
In discussing this subject I will–
I. GIVE SOME ACCOUNT OF THE RECENT DISCUSSIONS THAT HAVE BEEN HAD UPON THIS QUESTION.
II. REMIND YOU OF SOME POINTS THAT HAVE BEEN SETTLED IN THIS COURSE OF STUDY.
III. DEFINE THE PRINCIPAL TERMS TO BE USED IN THIS DISCUSSION.
IV. SHOW WHAT THE REAL QUESTION NOW AT ISSUE IS.
V. THAT ENTIRE SANCTIFICATION IS ATTAINABLE IN THIS LIFE.
VI. POINT OUT THE CONDITIONS OF THIS ATTAINMENT.
VII. ANSWER OBJECTIONS.
VIII. CONCLUDE WITH REMARKS.
I. I am to give some account of the recent discussions that have been had upon the subject of entire sanctification in this life.
When lecturing and writing on polemic theology, it is important and even indispensable, that we should entertain just ideas of the views and arguments of our opponents. In entering upon the discussion of the question before us, it seems impossible to proceed without noticing the recent discussions that have been had, and without giving you the substance of the principal things that have been said of late in opposition to our views. This will prepare the way for a fuller and more intelligent examination of the question under consideration, than could be otherwise had. I shall therefore make no apology for introducing in this place a brief history of the discussions alluded to, although they have so recently appeared in print.
About the year 1832 or 1833, the sect called Antinomian Perfectionists, sprang up at about the same time, in several places in New York and New England. We have in their leading organ, “The Perfectionist,” published at New Haven, Ct., their articles of belief, or their Confession of Faith, as it professes to have been carefully prepared and published by request. It is as follows:–
WHAT WE BELIEVE.
1. We believe that God is the only rightful interpreter of the Bible, and teacher of theological truth; hence–
2. We believe that no doctrine can become an article of true faith, which is not recognized by the believer as an immediate revelation to him from God; yet–
3. We believe that God, “who worketh all in all,” can and does teach his own truth, through his written word, and through the testimony of his sons; therefore–
4. We believe it is proper that we should state, as witnesses for God, the fundamental articles of our own faith.
5. We believe “there is none good but one, that is God;” that all the righteousness in the universe is God’s righteousness.
6. We believe that God’s righteousness may be revealed in his creatures, as a man’s spirit is revealed in the motions of his body.
7. We believe that “the works of the flesh [that is, human nature], are adultery, uncleanness, envyings, strife, and such like” only.
8. We believe that all attempts to produce better results from human nature, by instruction and legal discipline, only increase the evil–inasmuch as they refine and disguise without removing it.
9. We believe that the Son of God was manifested in human nature for the purpose of destroying (not reforming), the works of the flesh, and revealing the righteousness of God.
10. We believe that the righteousness of God was never revealed in human nature till the birth of Jesus Christ.
11. We believe that the object of all God’s dealings with the human race, before the birth of Christ, was not to promote the righteousness of the flesh, that is, self-righteousness, that is, the perfection of sin; but to prepare the way for the manifestation of his own righteousness through Jesus Christ; hence–
12. We believe that the righteousness of the saints, under the law before Christ, was only “a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things,” bearing a relation to the true righteousness of God, like that of a type to its anti-type.
13. We believe that the servants of God under the law, by submission to the discipline of the dispensation in which they lived, were prepared for and became heirs of the righteousness of God, afterward revealed by Jesus Christ.
14. We believe that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself,”–that the union of human and divine nature in him, made the righteousness of God accessible to all men.
15. We believe that Christ is properly called the second Adam, and as the human race in spirit is one body, that he became, by his incarnation, “the light that lighteth every man.”
16. We believe that all who are apprized by the gospel of the fact that the Son of God has come, are thereby called to choose, whether they will hold the fallen or the risen Adam as their head.
17. We believe that faith alone receives, and unbelief rejects, the blessings given to man by the second Adam; by faith men awake to a perception of the truth as it is in Christ; unbelief is the devil’s dream.
18. We believe that Christ, as he is in his resurrection and glory, is given to every member of the human race.
19. We believe that all the faith, righteousness, liberty, and glory of the risen Son of God, are given to every man.
20. We believe that Christ, in his incarnation was “made under the law,” and that the Christian dispensation did not commence, in any sense, till he ascended up on high.
21. We believe that none are Christians, in any sense, till they receive Christ in his resurrection; hence–
22. We believe that the disciples of Christ, during his personal ministry in the flesh, were not Christians.
23. We believe that Christ, in the resurrection, is free from sin, from the law, from all ordinances, and from death: hence, all who are subject to any of these are not properly called Christians, as not having attained the hope of their calling.
24. We believe that the history which the Bible contains of the church after Christ’s ascension, commonly called the primitive church, is a history rather of the latter-day glory of Judaism, than of the commencement of Christianity.
25. We believe that the apostles and primitive believers, so far as they were subject to sin, law, and death, were Jews, and not Christians.
26. We believe that Christ plainly and repeatedly promised to his disciples, that he would come to them a second time, and complete their salvation within the life-time of some of his immediate followers.
27. We believe that the primitive church, living in the transition period, from the first to the second coming of Christ, were more or less partakers of the resurrection, holiness, liberty, and glory of Christ, according to their faith.
28. We believe, that at the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of the Jewish dispensation, Christ came to believers the second time according to his promise.
29. We believe, that, at the period of the second coming of Christ, Christianity, or the kingdom of heaven, properly began.
30. We believe, that this was the period of the full developement of the NEW COVENANT, (Heb. viii.,) which secures to believers perfect and eternal salvation from sin, full freedom from written law and human instruction.
31. We believe, that the whole body of Christ, that is, the church, attained the perfect resurrection of the spiritual body at his second coming.
32. We believe, that antichrist, at the same period, attained the perfect resurrection of damnation.
33. We believe, that this was the period of the commencement of the judgment, (CRISIS, see the Greek,) of this world.
34. We believe, that after this period, the salvation given to all men in Jesus Christ, included nothing less than a perfect and eternal salvation from sin, a perfect redemption from the law and legal instruction–a perfect resurrection of the spiritual body, and a standing on the plain of eternity beyond the judgment.”
In the winter of 1836-7, I preached a course of lectures to Christians, in the church of which I was then pastor, in the city of New York, which were reported by the editor of the New York Evangelist, and published in his paper. Soon after they were published in that form, they were published in a volume, and went into extensive circulation, both in Europe and America. Among these lectures were two on the subject of Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, from Mat_5:48 –“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
In the first of these lectures I endeavoured to show,
1. What perfection the text does not, and what it does require.
2. That this perfection is a duty.
3. That this perfection is attainable in this life.
4. I proceeded to answer objections.
I regarded the perfection demanded by the text as consisting in entire obedience of heart and life to the law of God. And so I taught. I then proceeded to show, that this state of obedience is attainable in this life. The remainder of this and the following lecture were occupied in answering objections to the doctrine of the first discourse. These lectures were soon spread before thousands of readers. Whatever was thought of them, I heard not a word of objection to the doctrine from any quarter. If any was made, it did not, to my recollection, come to my knowledge.
In the year 1840, President Mahan published a small work on the subject of Christian perfection. Several pieces had previously been published by him and myself in the “Oberlin Evangelist,” upon the same subject. Prof. Cowles, about the same time, published a series of articles in the “Oberlin Evangelist,” upon the subject of the holiness of Christians in this life, which were, soon after their first appearance, collected and published in a small volume. Nearly at the same time I published a course of lectures in the same paper, which were soon also put into a volume by themselves. All three of us gave a definition of Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, amounting in substance to the same thing, making it to consist in entire consecration to God, and entire obedience to the law, and supported the attainability of this state in this life, by substantially the same course of argument. We agreed in stating the attainability of this state, as the thing which we proposed to prove, and to the proof of which we shaped our whole course of argument. The attainability of this state we attempted to establish by many arguments, among which are the following:–
1. We argued the possibility of attaining this state from the fact, that God expressly commands it.
2. From the fact that man, by virtue of his moral agency, is naturally able fully to obey God.
3. From the fact, that provisions are made in the gospel for the entire sanctification of believers in this life.
4. From the fact, that we are commanded to pray in faith for the entire sanctification of believers in this life.
5. From the fact, that Christ and the apostles prayed for this.
6. From the fact, that the entire sanctification of believers in this life is expressly promised in scripture.
Pres. Mahan and myself, especially, urged the attainability of this state, not only from the foregoing and many other considerations, but also from the fact, that this state has been attained, and instanced Paul the apostle, as an example of this attainment.
Immediately upon the publication of the above-named works, the public journals opened a battery upon us, strangely, and I must say, unaccountably confounding our views with those of the antinomian perfectionists. What analogy was discernible between our views, as set forth in our writings, and those of the antinomian perfectionists, as expressed in their own formula of doctrine, as above given, I am utterly at a loss to understand. But it was insisted, that we were of that school and denomination, notwithstanding the greatest pains-taking on our part to make the public acquainted with our views. Many honest ministers and laymen, in this country and in Europe, were doubtless misled by the course pursued by the public press. Some of the leading religious journals refused to publish our articles, and kept their readers in ignorance of our real views. They gave to the public, oftentimes, the grossest misrepresentations of our views, and refused to allow our replies a place in their columns. The result for sometime was a good deal of misapprehension and alarm, on the part of many Christians who had been among our warmest friends. Soon after the publication of President Mahan’s work, above alluded to, it was reviewed by Dr. Leonard Woods, of Andover Theological Seminary. Dr. Woods committed in his review four capital errors, which laid his review open to a blow of annihilation, which was in due time levelled against it by President Mahan. The president had defined what he intended by Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, and had also stated what he did not understand it as implying. He defined it to consist in a state of entire conformity of heart and life to the law of God, or in consecration of the whole being to God. He very expressly took issue upon the question of the attainability of this state in this life, and was at special pains to guard against the true point at issue being mistaken, and protested against any one’s making a false issue. Dr. Woods noticed this, and his first error consisted in assuming, that the real point at issue between him and President Mahan was just what he, Dr. Woods, chose to make it. Hence, secondly, Dr. Woods proceeded to take issue with the author he was reviewing, not upon the possibility of attaining the state in question in this life, which was the proposition stated and defended by his author, but upon the fact of this state having been attained in this life. This was the doctor’s second error. His third error consisted in the fact, that having made a false issue, he replied to the arguments of his opponent, as if they had been designed to establish, not the attainability, but the actual attainment of this state in this life.
He certainly had a right to controvert, if he chose, the fact of actual attainment, or to deny any other argument President Mahan used to prove the attainability of this state. But he had no right, and it was utterly absurd and unjust, to make a false issue, to take issue upon the fact of attainment, and represent the president’s argument, as adduced to sustain that position, when in fact it was framed in support of a totally different position; and this Dr. Woods knew full well.
But the doctor fell into a fourth error as fatal to his object as either of the preceding. He did not at all define his views of what constitutes Christian perfection or entire sanctification, nor did he notice his opponent’s definition. We are therefore left to the necessity of inferring what he understands by entire sanctification or Christian perfection from his course of argument.
From this we learn, that he founded his argument against the fact of attainment, which was the point that he aimed to overthrow, upon a grossly false assumption, in respect to the nature of Christian perfection. The following are specimens of his course of reasoning: He denied that any Christian had ever attained to a state of entire sanctification in this life, because the Bible requires Christians in all their earthly course to grow in grace. Now it will be seen at once, that this argument is good for nothing, unless it be assumed, as a major premise, that Christian perfection or entire sanctification implies the impossibility of further progress in holiness. The argument in syllogistic form would stand thus:–
“Christian perfection or entire sanctification implies the impossibility of further progress in holiness. The Bible requires all Christians in all time to progress in holiness, which implies the possibility of their doing so. Therefore, no Christian is in this life entirely sanctified.”
The assumption of a grossly false major premise alone gives his argument the colour of relevancy or plausibility. But suppose any one should pursue the same course of argument, in respect to total depravity, and insist that no sinner is ever totally depraved in this life, because the Bible represents wicked men and seducers as waxing worse and worse; would Dr. Woods, or those who agree with him, acknowledge the conclusiveness of such an argument? But if total depravity does not imply, as every one knows that it does not, the impossibility of further progress in sin, so neither for the same reason does entire or total sanctification imply the impossibility of further progress in holiness.
But President Mahan had expressly excluded from his definition of Christian perfection the idea of its implying a state in which no higher attainments in holiness were possible. He had insisted that the saints may not only always in this life grow in holiness, but that they must for ever grow in grace or holiness as they grow in knowledge. How strange, then, that Dr. Woods should not only make a false issue, but also proceed to sustain his position, by assuming as true what his author had expressly denied! There was not even the shadow of disagreement between him and his opponent, assuming as he did, that Christian perfection implied the impossibility of further progress in holiness. President Mahan as much abhorred the idea of the actual or possible attainment of such a state in this or any other life, as the doctor did himself. The doctor had no right to represent him as holding to Christian perfection, in any such sense as that he was controverting. In the face of President Mahan’s disavowal of such a sentiment, the doctor shaped his argument to overthrow a position which the president never maintained. Having created his own issue, and supported it by his own assumption, he was pronounced by multitudes to have gained a complete victory.
Again: Dr. Woods denied that Christian perfection ever was or ever will be attained in this life, because the Bible represents Christians in all time as engaged in the Christian warfare. Here again we get at the doctor’s view of Christian perfection; to wit, that it implies the cessation of the Christian warfare. But what is the Christian warfare?
The doctor plainly assumes, that it consists in warring with present sin. Yet he holds all sin to be voluntary. His assumption then that the Christian warfare consists in a warfare with present sin, represents the will as opposing its present choice. Choice warring with choice. But the Christian warfare implies no such thing. It is a warfare or contest with temptation. No other warfare is possible in the nature of the case. Christ was a subject of it. He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin. While our circumstances remain what they will always be in this world, we shall be subject to temptation, of course, from the world, the flesh, and Satan. But Christian perfection is not at all incompatible with the existence of this strife with temptation. This argument of the doctor was based wholly, like the preceding, upon the begging or assumption of a totally false major premise. He made an issue between himself and President Mahan, when there was none. The president no more held than he did, that such a state ever was or will be attained in this life, as implies the cessation of the Christian warfare, properly so called. Thus Dr. Woods set out without giving his readers any definition of Christian perfection, and stumbled and blundered through his whole argument, totally misrepresenting the argument of the author whom he reviewed, and sustaining several of his own positions by sheer assumptions.
The applause with which this review was received by the great mass of ministers and by many laymen, shows the deep darkness in which this whole question was and had been for a long time enveloped. We shall see, in its proper place, that the erroneous view of nearly the whole church upon this subject, was the legitimate result of a totally false philosophy of moral depravity. The review of Dr. Woods was looked upon very extensively as a complete using up of President Mahan’s book. It was soon published, by request, in a separate volume. But the president’s answer appeared in due time, and, so far as I know, was universally regarded by those who candidly read it, as a complete refutation of Dr. Woods’s review.
The doctor admitted in his review, that entire sanctification was attainable in this life, both on the ground of natural ability, and also because the gospel has made sufficient provision for this attainment. But with his assumed definition of entire sanctification, he should not have admitted the possibility of such attainment. For surely it is not possible, on the ground of natural ability, to attain such a state, either in this life or in any other, that no further advances can be made. Nor has the gospel made provision to render such attainment possible in this life. Nor is it possible, either on the ground of natural ability, or through the provisions of grace, to attain a state in this life, in which the warfare with temptation will cease. It is difficult to conceive how Dr. Woods, with his ideal of entire sanctification, could admit the possibility of attaining this state in this life. Certainly there was no consistency in making both the assumption and the admission. If he assumed the one, he should have denied the other. That is, if, in his view, entire sanctification implied a state in which there could be no further advances in holiness, or in which there could be no further war with temptation, he should have denied the possibility of the attainment in this life, at least.
Nearly at the same time with the review of Dr. Woods, just named, the presbytery of Troy, New York, by a committee appointed for that purpose, issued a review of our opinions, and, as I suppose, intended especially as a reply to my work already alluded to.
The letter or review of the presbytery was published in the “New York Evangelist,” and, I believe, in most of the leading public journals of the day. I replied, but my reply was not admitted into the columns of the journals that published the review. This fact seems to demand, that both the letter of the presbytery and my reply should have a place in this account of the discussion. I therefore here give them entire.
“ACTION OF THE TROY PRESBYTERY.
“Statement of Doctrine.
“In the progress of human investigation, it not unfrequently happens, that truth and error are so connected, that the work of distinction becomes as indispensable as that of refutation. In this form, error is always the most dangerous, not only because it is the least likely to be perceived, but because from its relation, it is liable to share in that confidence which the mind is accustomed to assign to admitted truth. In this form, also, it is often, relatively to our perceptions, the same as truth; but the moment this unnatural union of repellent elements is sundered, both assume their distinctive and peculiar marks.
“These prefatory thoughts find an ample illustration in the present state of opinion, in some sections of the church, relative to the doctrine of ‘Christian Perfection.’ That all the sentiments of this system are false, it would be difficult to show; and as difficult to show their entire truth. The system is a subtle combination of truth and error. Any partial prevalence that it may have had, is easily explained on this principle. Where the truth is made most prominent, the whole assumes an imposing aspect; but an inversion of this error will as signally mark its defects. The work, therefore, of exposing the one, without injury to the other, becomes a duty with every devout and honest inquirer. This is what your committee purpose to undertake; and for this purpose it will be sufficient to answer the two following questions:–
“1. What is the controverted point in this system?
“2. What is truth in relation to that point?
“Let us take up these questions in the above order.
“1. In the first place, What is the controverted point–what is the real issue?
“That there is some issue, admits of no doubt. What is it? It is not, whether by the requirement of the moral law, or the injunction of the gospel, men are commanded to be perfectly holy; not whether men are under obligations to be thus holy; not whether, as moral agents, such a state is to them a possible state; not whether the gospel system is competent to secure actual perfection in holiness, if its entire resources be applied; not whether it is the duty and privilege of the church, to rise much higher in holy living, than it has ever yet done in our world. To join issue on any or all of these points, is to make a false issue; it is to have the appearance of a question without its reality. Some or all of these points form a part of the scheme of ‘Christian Perfection,’ but certainly they do not invest it with any peculiar character; for they involve no new sentiment differing from the ground taken by the great body of orthodox Christians in every age. It cannot be supposed that their advocacy has led to the various and fearful solicitudes of learned and pious men in regard to the truth and tendency of this system. It must therefore be fraught with some other element. What is that element? The assertion, that Christian men do attain in some cases during the present life, to a state of perfect holiness, excluding sin in every form, and that for an indefinite period they remain in this state. This position requires a moment’s analysis, that it may neither suffer nor gain by an ambiguous use of terms.
“(1.) A state of perfect holiness is the general thing affirmed under several relations–such holiness, as leaves not a solitary point of the divine requirements, either in kind or degree, that is not absolutely and completely met by the subject of this predicate–such holiness as involves entire conformity to God’s law, and excludes all sin. Anything short of this, is not perfect holiness, even at the time when its possession is alleged; such a state would be one of imperfect or incomplete sanctification. In establishing the reality of this assumed attainment, it is not allowable to abate or decrease the purity and rigour of the divine law–this would at once change the nature of both categories involved in this question, that is, sin and holiness. We must take the law as it is, and use it as the infallible standard of measurement.
“(2.) This affirmation of a fact is made under several relations. The first is one of speciality, that is, that some Christians have reached this state. It is not contended that it is the state of all Christians, and by consequence, that none are Christians but those who are perfectly sanctified. The second involves two relations of time, that is, that this attainment has been made in the present life, and that it has remained the permanent state for a period more or less indefinite–a day, a week, a month, a year, or years. It is not denied that it is a state in which defection is possible; hence a Christian in this state may relapse into one of imperfect sanctification. Such a phenomenon would be apostacy from perfect to imperfect holiness, and might be succeeded by a return to the former state. These relapses and restorations may be of an indefinite number, for they admit of no necessary limitation but the life of the individuals. They are not however to be confounded with that theory of moral actions, which regards each as wholly good or wholly bad, for they contemplate a longer period of time than is assigned to the production of any given moral act.
“Such is the real question at issue–such is the import of ‘Christian perfection,’ so far as it has any peculiarity. This is the question to be decided; to argue any other, is to lose sight of the real one–it is to meet an opponent where there is no debate, but entire agreement.
“2. In the second place it is proposed to inquire–What is truth in relation to this point?
“It is obvious that the burden of proof lies with him who affirms the truth of this sentiment. He must moreover direct his proof to the very thing affirmed, and not to something else. It is easy to carry a question by stating one proposition and proving another. If the proposition in debate be established, the discussion is at an end, the doctrine of Christian perfection must be acknowledged.
“(1.) It may be well, therefore, in the first place, to insist on our logical rights, and inquire, ‘has the proposition yet been proved?’ This question involves a variety of subordinate ones, a brief allusion to which is all that can be made.
“(i.) It has sometimes been urged, that because perfection in holiness is attainable in this life, therefore it is actually attained. How much validity this argument possesses, we shall be able to judge, if we state it in a syllogistic form. It would be thus: whatever is attainable in this life, is actually attained in this life; a state of perfect holiness is attainable in this life; therefore it is actually attained in this life. It must be confessed that this syllogism has the attribute of logical conclusiveness, but ere we grant the truth of the inference, it may be well to decide the truth of the premises. Is the first or major premise true? If so, then every sinner who hears the gospel, must attain to actual salvation; then not some, but all believers must be perfectly sanctified in the present life: then every man actually reaches, in the present life, the highest possible intellectual and moral good of his being. It must be palpable to every discriminating mind, that this reason takes for granted a false premise; and although conformable to the rules of logic, it is liable to prove an untruth; it confounds the broad distinction between what is merely possible and what is actual.
“(ii.) Again, it is urged in defence of this system, that the gospel contains adequate provisions for the perfect sanctification of believers in this life, and therefore some believers are thus sanctified. The logical formula will place this reasoning in its true light. It will stand thus: Whatever is possible by the provisions of the gospel in this life, will take place in this life; the perfect sanctification of some believers in this life is possible by these provisions; therefore it will take place in this life. This is a most extraordinary method of reasoning. With some slight changes, it will prove what even the advocate of perfection will be slow to admit. In the second or minor proposition, substitute the word ‘all’ for ‘some,’ and then it proves that all believers are perfectly sanctified in this life. Again, in place of ‘some’ or ‘all believers,’ insert the words ‘all men,’ then it proves that all are perfectly sanctified in this life. There must therefore be some radical difficulty in the first or major proposition. What is that difficulty? It lies in a limitation which is not expressed, but which, the moment it is seen, overturns the whole argument. The provisions of the gospel are sufficient for perfect sanctification at any time and place, if they be fully applied, and not otherwise. Their partial or full application contemplates the action of a rational and voluntary agent. Hence, while competent, they may fail of this effect, owing to the non-application, and not to any fault in the provisions themselves. Before therefore this argument is entitled to the least weight, it must be proved that some believers, or all, fully appropriate these provisions in the present life. This being done, then all is clear. This has never yet been done; but it has been lately assumed, as if it were an undisputed truth. The main argument of President Mahan on Perfection is embarrassed with this very fallacy.
“(iii.) Again, in support of this scheme, much use has been made of the commands, promises, and prayers, recorded in the Bible.
“In relation to the commands, it will be sufficient to say, that although the Bible does command a state of perfect holiness in this life, it does not follow that the command is in any instance fully obeyed on earth. Before we can arrive at this conclusion, we must adopt the following principle; that is, that whatever is commanded in the Bible is actually performed by the subjects of that command. This would exclude the existence of all sin from the world; it would prove all men to be holy, without a single exception; it would establish the perfect sanctification, not of some, but of all believers. It is certainly a most formidable engine of demonstration, too potent for an ordinary hand to wield.
“So also the argument based on the promises of God involves fallacies of reasoning not less apparent. It is a glorious truth, that God has promised to all believers a final victory over sin, which undoubtedly will be accomplished at some period of their history. But does it follow then, because believers are to be perfectly sanctified at some time and somewhere, the present life will be the time and place of this perfect sanctification? Let a promise be adduced, if it can be, that fixes the period of this event to the present life. The divine promises, like the provisions of the gospel, are conditioned as to the degree of their results, by appropriative acts on the part of the believer. Hence the fallacy of the argument is apparent, in that it takes for granted that some believers in the present life do fully comply with all the conditions contemplated in the promises themselves. Without this assumption it proves nothing. Besides, it is not to be forgotten that the promises are general, addressed alike to all believers; and hence the rules of reasoning by which they are made to prove the perfect sanctification of some Christians in the present life, equally prove that of all in every period of time, past, present, and future. The argument from promises has no relation to, or limitation by, any specific time. But two alternatives seem to be possible; either the reasoning must be abandoned as not valid, or we must admit that every regenerated man is sinless, and that too from the moment of his conversion.
“Similar defects characterize the arguments drawn from the prayers which the Bible records, as well as those which it authorizes Christians to make. It is true that Christ prayed for his disciples in language the most elevated,–‘Sanctify them through thy truth.’ The same may be said of the great apostle when he prayed,–‘And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly.’ We are directed to pray that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven; and in general authorized to pray for a perfect victory over all sin at every time. These are the facts; now what is the inference? The advocate of perfection responds, that some believers are perfectly sanctified in the present life. These and kindred facts we offer, to prove this conclusion. Is there, then, between the two a certain connexion? If we admit the one, must we logically admit the other? Facts speak a very different language. Were those included in the prayer of Christ thus sanctified, and that from the moment of its utterance? Was the same true of all the Christians of Thessalonica? Has the will of God yet been done on earth, as perfectly as in heaven? Has every believer who has hungered and thirsted after righteousness, attained to sinless perfection in this life? Did not Paul most fervently pray for the salvation of Israel, and have not thousands of Jews died since, in their sins? Did he not pray that the thorn in his flesh might be removed? and was it removed? The grand mistake in this reasoning is, that it fixes what the nature and terms of prayer do not fix; that is, the time when, and the place where, the sought blessing shall be obtained. Applied as evidence to any believer who claims to be wholly sanctified, it would prove his sanctification an hour, a week, month, or year, before he was thus sanctified, as really as at the moment in which he professed to have made this high attainment. Contemplated in its most general form, it would prove that everything which is a proper object of prayer, and which will be obtained in some state of being, will actually be obtained in the present life. There is a vast abyss between the facts and conclusion, which the utmost ingenuity is unable to remove.
“(iv.) Finally, on this branch of the argument, a variety of proof-texts has been summoned to the service of this system. A critical examination of all these is inconsistent with the limits of the present statement. It will be sufficient to advert to the false principles of interpretation to which they have been subjected. These are three in number:–
“(a.) The first consists in a misapplication of passages; as when Paul says, ‘I take you to record this day, that I am free from the blood of all men’–or when Zacharias and Elisabeth are spoken of as ‘walking in all the commandments and ordinances blameless.’
“(b.) The second consists in regarding certain terms as proofs of perfection in holiness, which are merely distinctive of Christian character, as contrasted with the state of the unregenerate. These are such words as ‘holy, saints, sanctified, blameless, just, righteous, perfect, entire,’ &c. That these and kindred terms are designed to be characteristic, and not descriptive of the degrees of holiness, is proved by the fact that they are indiscriminately appropriated to all Christians, and that in many cases they are applied, when the context absolutely charges sin upon their subjects.
“(c.) The third false principle consists in interpreting certain passages in an absolute and unrestricted sense, where evidently they are designed to have a qualified sense. This error may perhaps be illustrated by a single passage. Take that remarkable saying of the apostle John: ‘Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin because he is born of God.’ Stronger language or a better proof-text cannot well be conceived. In an unrestricted sense, it affirms not only that every regenerated man is sinless, but an impossibility that it should be otherwise; it dislodges all sin and moral agency from a converted mind at a single blow. What will the advocate of perfection do with this passage? Will he acknowledge either or both of these consequences? This can hardly be supposed. How then will he escape them? There is but one way for him; this lies in placing a restricted and qualified sense upon the passage, and in a moment all is plain and harmonious. But why subject so plain a passage to this law of interpretation, and deny it to others less harmonious and decisive? No reason can be perceived but the one which grows out of the necessities of a favourite theory. Indeed, there is logically no stopping place to this system short of the bold affirmation, that all believers are perfectly sinless from the moment of conversion. Every argument in its last analysis must terminate in this extraordinary result. To arrest the inference at any other point is to betray a logical inconsistency. Are the advocates of perfection prepared for this bold and unbiblical doctrine? If not, it is time they had reviewed their arguments, and abandoned principles fraught with such a conclusion. Their weapons of defence are not less destructive than constructional in their character.
“(2.) Having tried the merits of the positive testimony on this subject, we remark in the second place, that in the present state of the question, the position is absolutely incapable of proof. When a man affirms his own sinless perfection for any given period, as a day, a week, or a year, he affirms his own infallible knowledge on two points; that is, that at the present moment he can recall every moral exercise during that period, every thought, feeling, desire, purpose, and that he does infallibly judge of the moral character of each exercise. Will any pretend to this knowledge? To do so, manifests the last degree of presumption, as well as ignorance, both of facts and the truths of mental science. Every effort to recall the whole of our mental exercises for a single day, must always be a failure; it can only be partially successful. This shows how little weight is due to the testimony of a man who asserts his own perfection; he may be honest, but this is no proof of the truth of his statement. If a case of ‘perfection’ were admitted to be real, still it is impossible, in the present state of our faculties, to find and predicate certain knowledge of it. The evidences of ‘Christian perfection,’ are then not only inconclusive, but its main proposition is absolutely unknowable to us.
“(3.) In the third place we remark, that this proposition is disproven by an amount of evidence that ought to be conclusive. To secure the greatest brevity of statement, this evidence may be condensed into the following series of propositions:–The Bible records defects in the characters of the most eminent saints, whose history it gives; it speaks in moderate terms of the attainments of the pious, when put in contrast with those of Christ, who hence is an exception to our race; it points the believer to the heavenly world as the consummation of his hopes, and exemption from all sin and sorrow; it describes the work of grace as going forward by successive and progressive stages, and fixes no limit to these stages, antecedent to the period of death; it speaks of those as being self-deceived who deny their own sinfulness–‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us;’ it represents Christians here as in an imperfect state–‘For in many things we offend all’ [the word ‘all’ in the original qualifies ‘we’ and not ‘things;’] it exhorts Christians to lowly and humble views of their own attainments; it declares Christians in the present life to be under a process of providential discipline, the object of which is to make them more fully partakers of God’s holiness; the most eminent saints that have ever lived since the days of the apostles, have uniformly expressed a painful consciousness of remaining sin, and spoken of their attainments in language far different from that of self-confidence; the higher Christians have risen in holiness, the more deeply have they been humbled with their own sinful imperfections, owing to a clearer discernment both of God and themselves. These propositions might each of them be amplified into as many arguments. Taken together, they seem conclusively to set aside the pretensions of any class of men who claim for themselves sinless perfection in the present life. We cannot but think, that however sincere such persons may be, they labour under a most dangerous delusion. With them we have no controversy; our controversy is with their system. It appears to us in no other light than that of a system, totally disconnected with its proposed evidence, demonstrably unknowable by the present state of our faculties, and in direct contravention to an amount of proof, biblical and experimental, that must for ever discredit its claims.
“1. Resolved, That in the judgment of this Presbytery, the doctrine of ‘Christian perfection’ in this life, is not only false, but calculated in its tendencies, to engender self-righteousness, disorder, deception, censoriousness and fanaticism.
“2. Resolved, That it is contrary to the Confession of Faith adopted by the Presbyterian church in the United States. See chap. 12, sec. 2.
“3. Resolved, That it is the duty of all orthodox ministers to acquaint themselves with this error, and at such times and in such measures as may seem to them most expedient, to instruct the people on this point.
“4. Resolved, That we view with regret and sorrow, the ground taken on this subject by the theological professors at Oberlin.
“5. Resolved, That we hail with joy every improvement in human opinion that conforms to the Bible, and promises, in its practical tendency, to decrease the sins, or increase the moral purity, of the church.
“6. Resolved, That the above statement and resolutions be signed by the Moderator and Stated Clerk, and published in the New York Evangelist, New York Observer, the Christian Observer, and the Presbyterian.
“Fayette Shipherd requested that his dissent from the above report of the Committee be appended to it, entered on the records of the Presbytery, and published with it. All the other members present voted in the affirmative.
“Troy, June 29, 1841.
“THOMAS J. HASWELL, Moderator.
“N. S. S. BEMAN, Stated Clerk.