Brothers, We Are Not Perfectionists

In the doctrine of sanctification there are several errors to be avoided. First, let’s define our terms and understand what the basic biblical (and confessional Reformed) doctrine of sanctification is. The verb “to sanctify” is Latin. It is the word from which our English word “saint” is derived and it means “to set apart” and “to make holy.” What is holiness? In short it is Spirit-wrought conformity to the moral will of God, Spirit-wrought conformity to Christ, the dying of the old man, and the making alive of the new (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A88). It is:

Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more (HC Q/A 89.


Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works (HC Q/A 90).

Perhaps the three great errors the church has committed regarding the doctrine of sanctification are:

  1. Justification through sanctification—This is one of Rome’s greatest errors (and that of all moralists). In order to get sinners to obey moralism makes our acceptance with God contingent upon our obedience. It matters not whether we begin with grace (as Rome does) so long as we end with works. This is exactly Paul’s point in Galatians 3:3 and Romans 11:6. Grace plus anything nullifies grace and denies Christ’s finished work.
  2. Sanctification as a second blessing—This is the error of “Easy Believism, which is the result of the Second Great Awakening revivalist system whereby one walks the aisle, prays the prayer, and signs the card. These acts are treated roughly the way Rome treats baptism, as if it works ex opere operato(by the working it is worked). In this system people are told that it is a good thing if they grow in grace by not strictly necessary. In their effort to protect free justification against the errors of the moralists This view fails to understand the organic relation between free justification and the sanctification which follows it as fruit and evidence.
  3. Perfectionism—This is the error that says that, in this life, we can, if we will, attain to sinless perfection. This view probably existed prior to Pelagius (fl. c. 380–420) but he certainly articulated it on the premise that, in Adam’s fall, we did not sin. Adam was merely a bad example and Christ a good one. In his commentary on Romans he wrote that Paul could not possibly mean what he seems to say in 5:12–21. According to Pelagius, each of us, even after the fall is, as it were, Adam. Because we are not inherently sinful, we can achieve sinless perfection in this life. By the 9th century, even though the Western church formally rejected Pelagius (the Eastern Church did not) it had become mostly semi-Pelagian insofar as it downplayed the effects of the fall and emphasized human ability even after the fall to cooperate with grace. Throughout the history of the church, before the Reformation, there were adherents to the notion to notion that, in this life, prior to death, with sufficient effort in cooperation with grace, Christians may achieve sinless perfection. In the modern period the Wesleyans are the group most closely associated with the doctrine of sinless perfection. B. B. Warfield wrote the great Reformed response to perfectionism (2 vols. Oxford, 1931)

Biblical Realism About Sanctification
For some time I’ve been concerned that we might be losing track of the biblical realism about the degree to which sanctity is achieved in this life. One place I see the influence of this shift away from realism, if you will, is in the way Romans 7 is treated. When, in his commentary on Romans, Pelagius came to 7:14–25, he knew a priori that Paul could not be describing himself or a Christian. This, of course, is opposite the Augustinian and later the orthodox Reformed view of Romans 7. I have heard Reformed folk say, “No Christian could say”:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (ESV).

It has been said to me that Paul must be speaking in another persona or speaking as if he were not a believer. The immediate difficulty is that there is no obvious sign that Paul has stopped answering the question that he asked at the outset of chapter 7, about relation between the Christian and the law. The metaphor he uses is that of marriage. As long as one’s spouse is still alive one is bound. When the spouse dies one is free. In our case, by virtue of our union with Christ through faith, we have died with Christ and thus we are no longer under the for justification.

There is nothing wrong with the law (7:7). The law did its good and holy work by revealing my sin (vv. 7—12) It was not the law that brought death but rather it was the toxic combination of my sinful nature with God’s holy law.

From this foundation Paul then turns to the contrast between the law as it is in itself, “spiritual” and to himself, as he is in himself, “sold under sin.” The conflict is between what he is in Christ and ongoing sin, between the principle of new life which is at work in him but which is not fully realized and cannot be fully realized in this life.

When one says “no Christian could say, ‘sold as a slave’” I reply, “No unbeliever could possibly say “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being….” This is the testimony of the believer, one in whom there is, by God’s free, sovereign grace, a principle of new life.

There’s just no clear, obvious, prima facie change of person (first suggested by Pelagius) or subject or any indication that Paul is speaking about an unbeliever. He speaks consistently in the first person.

Hence Calvin says (on vv. 15ff):

He now comes to a more particular case, that of a man already regenerated; in whom both the things which he had in view appear more clearly; and these were, —the great discord there is between the Law of God and the natural man, — and how the law does not of itself produce death. For since the carnal man rushes into sin with the whole propensity of his mind, he seems to sin with such a free choice, as though it were in his power to govern himself; so that a most pernicious opinion has prevailed almost among all men — that man, by his own natural strength, without the aid of Divine grace, can choose what he pleases. But though the will of a faithful man is led to good by the Spirit of God, yet in him the corruption of nature appears conspicuously; for it obstinately resists and leads to what is contrary. Hence the case of a regenerated man is the most suitable; for by this you may know how much is the contrariety between our nature and the righteousness of the law. From this case, also, a proof as to the other clause may more fitly be sought, than from the mere consideration of human nature; for the law, as it produces only death in a man wholly carnal, is in him more easily impeached, for it is doubtful whence the evil proceeds. In a regenerate man it brings forth salutary fruits; and hence it appears, that it is the flesh only that prevents it from giving life: so far it is from producing death of itself. That the whole, then, of this reasoning may be more fully and more distinctly understood, we must observe, that this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God: for man, left to his own nature, is wholly borne along by his lusts without any resistance; for though the ungodly are tormented by the stings of conscience, and cannot take such delight in their vices, but that they have some taste of bitterness; yet you cannot hence conclude, either that evil is hated, or that good is loved by them; only the Lord permits them to be thus tormented, in order to show to them in a measure his judgment; but not to imbue them either with the love of righteousness or with the hatred of sin.

From a larger perspective, given Paul’s doctrine of law in chapters 1–2, his doctrine of justification in chapters 3–5, his doctrine of sanctification in chapter 6 and his renewed proclamation of justification and sovereign grace in chapters 8–11, it’s hard to see what else he might have written except an account of the struggle of in the believer between the remaining sin and the new life in Christ. Only in light of this struggle can one really appreciate the declaration of 8:1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

and the renewed doctrine of sanctification that flows from the triumph announced. The Spirit is at work in us, but we read of the triumph in chapter 8 chastened by the realty of the struggle in chapter 7. This is why Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), one of Calvin’s students and a pastor and teacher in Heidelberg and one of the contributors to/editors of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), taught that the new life is “inchoate.”

Calvin’s account of Romans 7:15–25 taken with Olevianus’ description of the Christian life may both be described as “realistic” as distinct from the somewhat triumphalist, Wesley-influenced or Higher Life-influenced approaches to the new life that dominated among Evangelicals since the 18th century.

There is no question that there is a new principle of life in the believer. Paul says in Romans 6:3–4,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Baptism, of course, does not accomplish this union. Here Paul uses baptism as way of describing our identity with Christ and a picture of the union that we have with by grace, through faith. The same teaching appears in Ephesians 2:4–6:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….

We were dead but by grace alone we’ve been made alive, by virtue, of which, ironically, we’ve died to sin are being sanctified progressively into the image of Christ (2Cor 3;18). We are, according to Paul, a “new creation” (2Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15) in Christ.

These categories of “death” with Christ and “new life” indicate a decisive, divinely wrought, break with life before Christ. They signal an inauguration, a beginning, of new things. They do not, however, signal the completion of all things. The consummation is not yet. The principle (beginning) of the end has been introduced and is at work in us, by grace alone, through faith alone, in union with Christ. We are becoming what we shall be but we have not yet become what we shall be (1John 3:2).

Romans 6
There are a few central passages that we must consider when we think about our state in Christ and the progress (or lack thereof) in the Christian life. The first of these is Romans 6:9–19:

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (ESV).

Paul says two things essentially.

  1. In Christ, by virtue of our union with Christ by faith, we have died decisively to sin and have been made alive with Christ;
  2. Experientially, we continue to struggle with sin.

We have to affirm both things simultaneously. This is why Paul says that we must reckon ourselves, think of ourselves, as dead to sin. Why? Because we are not yet experientially dead to sin. This is why he writes, “Do not present your members to sin” because, we are still struggling and too often inclined to do just that.

Perhaps the most difficult part of this passage is the clause in v. 14,

“Sin will have no dominion over you.”

One reason it is difficult is because it is often taken as a promise that, if we do our part, we might achieve sinless perfection. This, however, is not what Paul intends to say or imply.

The reason I know this is because of what Paul says in the very next clause:

For you are not under law but under grace

This clause is best understood to be speaking not in experiential language or speaking directly about our experience but rather about what is objectively true about us because of Christ’s coming and saving work for us.

We are not seeking to be accepted with God on the basis of the law because Christ has already done that for us. We have been graciously accepted by God for the sake of Christ’s righteousness for us and credited to us.

For this reason, the power of sin has been broken decisively. Sin will not ultimately win because the power of sin is the law and we’re no longer under the law for righteousness with God. Were we under the law, then sin would have dominion because the power of sin is the law but, in Christ, all that has changed.

The objective truth and reality of God’s actions for us in Christ do have experiential, subjective consequences for us but Romans 6:14 is no promise that we will not ever sin again nor does Paul intend to say, as many have taken it, “if you simply apply yourself you can achieve victory of this particular sin and the reason you have not achieved victory is because you have not applied yourself.”

That’s a rather large and unsubstantiated assumption that people have read into Romans 6:14. It’s an assumption that comes from perfectionism or perhaps from the higher life movement but it does not come from Paul, who is far more realistic about the effects of the fall and the continuing struggle with sin in this life.

Realism is not despair, which is sin. In v. 17 Paul does issue a glorious doxology:

“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become… slaves of righteousness

When Paul says “slaves to sin” and “slaves to righteousness” he certainly does not mean to say, “you no longer sin” or “you can no longer sin.” He’s not speaking of our experience but of our status. The only way to be a slave to sin is to be under the law for righteousness but we aren’t under the law in that way so we are now slaves to righteousness.

Outside of Christ we could not ever be “obedient from the heart” but now, in Christ, we are, at least sometimes, obedient from the heart. This does not mean that we do not experience the grave sort of struggles, grief, and doubt that sin brings as Paul describes in chapter 7. Our experience does sometimes make us think that we are “sold as a slave under sin.”

Now, however, in Christ, there is a decisive break in the old reality. The new reality, introduced in Christ, is that we no longer belong to the law for righteousness and we no longer belong fundamentally to sin. We have been justified and the Spirit who raised us from death to life is at work in us but that work is gradual and often imperceptible.

Over-Realized Eschatology
So, how should we think of our experience of sin, grace, and sanctification? I have the impression that some folk think that we can make a list of sins and sort of tick them off one by one as “overcome” and they seem to think that we need only to apply ourselves to eradicate the remaining sins—as if sin is like a stain in the carpet—if we scrub harder it will come out.

Behind this, I suspect, lies an over-realized eschatology. All forms of perfectionism rely on the notion that more of heaven has been introduced into history than has actually occurred but the idea that there can be a sort of heaven on earth before Christ’s return has been deeply influential in American Christianity.

As I argued in “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America” (in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91) Reformation Christianity has been on alien soil in North America for a long time. Therefore the air we breathe is full of alien, toxic influences of which we should be aware and which we need to filter from our lungs as it were.

Perfectionism is one such influence. It’s harmful because it’s not true and because it doesn’t lead to the thing desired, greater godliness and sanctity. Perfectionism misleads by creating a false impression. If we think we have arrived we will not face our sins for what they are. If we do not face them, we cannot repent of them and die to them. Further, perfectionism cheats by lowering God’s moral standard. No redeemed person can honestly say that they have loved God with all their faculties and their neighbor as themselves perfectly. Any claim to have achieved “perfection” re-defines the standard and that, by definition, cannot lead to greater godliness because sanctity has an objective standard: God’s immutable, perfect holiness and his unchanging moral law.

Because of the influence of perfectionism in American Christianity many (most?) American evangelicals are more comfortable with Wesley than with Luther and yet, for my money, Luther was much closer to true godliness than Wesley, if only because he didn’t cheat, if only because he was ruthlessly honest about our sinfulness, our sin, and our need for grace. The publican was closer to grace and sanctity than the pharisee, right?

We are being changed but it’s much less like a laundry list or carpet cleaning and more like the ebb and flow of a tidal pool. At low tide the water has left and we never saw it leave and didn’t know exactly how it was happening. If we filmed it and played back the film we could see the process and result but standing in the pool we weren’t aware and, in this life, we don’t really get to watch the film. We have the testimony of Scripture that it’s true, that it’s happening but I suspect that the moment we attempt to document it, that very act or the next one will be sin.

Our Inchoate Obedience
Everyone who knows the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) knows the first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” and perhaps question 21, “What is true faith?” and maybe even question 60, “How are you righteous before God?” Few, however, have probably paid much attention to questions 114 and 115 but they bear directly on how we should think about the nature of the progress of the Christian life.

In question 113, the issue is the implications inherent in the tenth commandment:

That not even in the least inclination or thought against any commandment of God ever enter our heart, but that with our whole heart we continually hate all sin and take pleasure in all righteousness.

In short, the Reformed Churches interpret the tenth commandment to be a summary of the entire moral law and they interpret the moral law to require moral perfection in our faculties. It mentions two, the intellect and the affections but no one could imagine that the will is excluded as if the law demands perfection in two faculties but not the third.

This interpretation raises another question: Can believers keep these commandments perfectly?

No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God (HC, Q/A, 114.

The language of the catechism reflects the widespread Reformed doctrine that our obedience in this life is only “inchoate.” The theologians who used the expression obedientia inchoata and “inchoate sanctity” (sanctitas inchoata) to describe the degree to which we achieve sanctity in this life is like a who’s who of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries (e.g., Peter Martyr Vermigli, Ursinus, Olevianus, Pareus, Alsted, Gomarus, Rivet,and Marck). Zacharias Ursinus, on questions 89 and 90, describes the “new obedience,” which the Spirit works in us, as “inchoate” or beginning or a sketch or a draft.
That’s a good way to think about the Christian life short of glory, a rough draft. The outlines of the consummate state are being drawn but there are many erasures, as it were. This is not a counsel of hopelessness. We’ve been renewed in order that we might be sanctified.

Let’s be clear. As Louis Berkhof wrote, the source of our new life is the gospel:

God has the right to demand of us holiness of life, but because we cannot work out this holiness for ourselves, He freely works it within us through the Holy Spirit on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us in justification. The very fact that it is based on justification, in which the free grace of God stands out with the greatest prominence, excludes the idea that we can ever merit anything in sanctification (chapter X, section G.2)

The law, however, never stops being the law. So, even as it serves as the standard of the Christian life it continues to prosecute the sin and sinfulness that remains:

115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

As we know from the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism

How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

From where do we know the greatness of our sin and misery?

From the Law of God.

Again, even in Christ, even though we come, by the grace of God alone, to love the law the law never becomes anything other than the law. Thus, as Berkhof reminds,

According to Scripture there is a constant warfare between the flesh and the Spirit in the lives of God’s children, and even the best of them are still striving for perfection. Paul gives a very striking description of this struggle in Rom. 7: 7-26, a passage which certainly refers to him in his regenerate state. In Gal. 5: 16-24 he speaks of that very same struggle as a struggle that characterizes all the children of God. And in Phil. 3: 10-14 he speaks of himself, practically at the end of his career, as one who has not yet reached perfection, but is pressing on toward the goal. (ibid, ch. X, sect H.2.(c).2)

The struggle drives us to grace (free acceptance by God) in Christ, it drives us back to the gospel, the announcement of free acceptance for Christ’s sake, to the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and to the gift of prayer.

Consider the last part of q. 115:

… that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

The Good News Of Gracious Sanctification
Questions 114 and 115 aren’t as well known as some others in the catechism but, as we muddle through this life, we should be encouraged that we aren’t the first to think about these issues and we’re not the first try, fail, confess, and try again by God’s grace.

The good news is that, even though you and I are not perfect, perfection did happen after the fall, once. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, was perfect for us. The Spirit is at work, gradually, faithfully, renewing us in the image of Christ and we will attain the goal of perfection “after this life.”