THE FATAL TRAP OF HOLINESS PREACHING
- a solemn warning to guard against the error of extremes.
THE FATAL TRAP IS HIDDEN DEEP WITHIN THE DOCTRINE
Oh, the horror of it! There is a terrifying trap; a sinister snare; a wicked wile; a deadly delusion that a great too many saints of the Lord have fallen into to the peril, and sometimes even destruction, of their souls. This is an issue that must be addressed. If you would consider yourself to be a true saint of the Living God, and you adhere to the doctrines of holiness, then donít let anything divert your attention from understanding, recognizing, and identifying this fatal trap. This trap is often laid hidden deep within the doctrines of holiness. We know that holiness preaching is Gospel preaching, and there is no other true Gospel other than that Gospel which promotes holiness through Christ, but dear saints, there is an error of extremes that we must stand guard against! There is a fatal trap in over-emphasizing a hyped up view of holiness, and we must take heed to beware of it, because many, failing to recognize this trap, have fallen into this error.
THE ABSOLUTE NECCESITY OF HOLINESS
Before we begin, let us understand that God is a holy God. The essence, substance and nature of His very Being is holiness. He dwells in a holy place, sitting on a holy Throne, surrounded by the holy angels and holy saints who worship Him in the beauty of holiness. Four living creatures, terrifying angelic beings who are sinless and absolutely holy themselves, surround His glorious Throne and say unceasingly, day and night, nonstop, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty". Not only is God holy Ė He is thrice holy, completely holy, utterly and totally holy without the least imperfection, blemish or inconsistency in His holiness.
It is an undisputable fact that no sin can truly stand in His presence. Nothing but that which is holy may enter in to this majestic dwelling place of such a holy Being and remain in such a terrifying place without penalty. Only those who are holy will inherit this holy Kingdom. Since He is holy, His people are commanded Ė not suggested, but commanded Ė to be holy as well. Without holiness, no man shall see the Lord. Only those who purify themselves even as He is pure in their lives on this earth will ever attain to inheriting the pure holiness of Heaven in their lives hereafter. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God, and woe to those who are not pure in heart, but who live in uncleanness, for they shall not see this holy God in the splendor of His holy perfection.
Holiness of heart, in our lives here and now on this earth, is essential to salvation. Christ came to purchase for Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but one that would be holy and without blemish before Him. Therefore, if any individual is not holy, but is polluted with the spots, wrinkles, and blemishes of known sins, then they are not a part of the true church of God, consisting of His blood-bought saints, whose names are written in Heaven. Christ shed the Holy Ghost forth upon His church to enable and empower His people to be holy and to walk in holiness, so having these great and precious promises, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
The holiness of God and the fact of the essentiality of holiness in the life of any true Christian is a blessed and undeniable fact of the pure, unadulterated gospel truth. Let us preach this truth with a holy unction, proclaim it with a holy zeal, shout it abroad with a holy urgency, and march forth into the frontlines of the enemyís territory with a holy determination, the blood-stained banner of the Lamb of God being raised on high, chanting, "Holiness to the Lord" as our battle-cry, and if we have to die in the midst of the battle, may we die with the truth of holiness upon our lips!
THE ERROR OF OVER-STRESSING HOLINESS
Knowing these blessed truths, however, let us take heed to ourselves, lest we fall into a disastrous soul-dooming snare. We must not be ignorant of the wiles and clever schemes of the wicked one. Oh, how the devil loves it when such an emphasis is placed on holiness that it leads to setting up a standard in the minds of the saints of God such an impossibility of perfection that they can never attain to it. If we must preach, Satan would much prefer that we preach an impossibly high standard of perfection and holiness than to preach no holiness at all, because it is by this that he can get a foothold in the lives of Godís true children through the weakness of their own conscience Ė their consciences being weakened by their failure to measure up to the standards of perfection Ė and through this foothold he can begin his dastardly work of tearing down the walls of their blessed assurance and thereby strip them of the faith by which they were justified.
The sad fact is; there is such an extreme heresy that is propagated abroad across our land today that proclaims a Savior from hell but not from sin. It preaches a salvation of forgiveness but not redemption. It teaches a form of justification by faith but not sanctification by faith. It preaches, "Ye must be born again" but doesnít teach the marks of true regeneration. It teaches that a man becomes a new creature in Christ while he remains just the same. As a result, we have a gospel being spread abroad, which is another gospel (and no gospel at all), that says, "You can live in willful sin and still go to Heaven when you die"; containing a form of godliness that somehow forgives sins but contains no power to redeem from the current presence and dominion of sin in the life of a believer. This is heresy, damnable heresy, and is something the true saints of God donít want to be found touching with a ten-foot stick, unless they are using such a stick to bash it down with a holy violence like that of Jehu when he went on an idol-smashing rampage in tearing down the image of Baal (see 2 Kings 10:24-28).
However, such an intense zeal to combat this error is precisely what leads to the problem. Zeal without the proper knowledge to direct it is potentially more disastrous than the proper knowledge without the zeal to ignite it. In combating the error of "sin-your-way-to-heaven" Antinomianism, many have fallen into the fatal trap of swinging the pendulum too far to the opposite extreme, preaching an impossibly high standard of holiness. Then, since nobody can meet these incredibly high standards, those who are truly born of God begin to condemn themselves and question their salvation because they cannot meet such standards. Thus, their assurance before God is shaken, their faith is destroyed, and they fall into the pit of self-condemnation.
Some, in attempting to combat the error of cheap grace, even go so far as to preach sinless perfection. This is error, serious error, and must be avoided as a deadly plague, lest we fall into the snare of the wicked one and cause the faith of Godís people to be shipwrecked. What is "sinless perfection"? It is a doctrine that teaches that true Christians live in a state of sinless-ness, having no sin. It teaches that from the moment one is truly born again, they will never sin again, and that anyone who does not live and walk in such a state is not saved. It teaches a standard of absolute perfection, and that if a Christian is not perfect and without sin, then such a person is no Christian at all. It teaches that if somebody gets born again, but then stumbles into any form of sin, no matter how small, then they are immediately thrust back under the wrath of God until they repent again (and there are greater and lesser sins; see Matthew 23:14, Luke 17:1-2, John 19:11, 1 John 5:16). Thus, there is no assurance for the believer in the finished work of Christ on the Cross, or in the one and perfect offering for sin by the precious blood of the eternal Covenant. Instead the life of the Christian becomes a fearful and vicious cycle containing bouts of assurance and happiness when they think they are being holy enough, and condemnation and depression when they fail to meet the standards of perfect holiness.
It is not necessary to take our stand on an extreme in order to combat the opposite extreme. Many, trying to refute the heresy of modern teachings that teach the grace of God as a license to sin, going too far to the opposite extreme, preach an incredibly and impossibly high standard of holiness. They have attempted to root out all the tares growing among the wheat. In doing so, however, they have sadly plucked out a few good grains of wheat. This is precisely what Jesus was warning about in Matthew 13:24-30, and this is what holiness preachers need to guard against.
The reason we need to guard against this fatal trap of extreme holiness preaching is because faith is directly related to conscience. When an individual gets born again, the blood of Christ is applied to the heart and the conscience is cleansed. They experience the peace of God that passes all understanding, the weight and burden of sin is removed, and their heart is cleansed by the living faith that the Holy Ghost imparts to their soul. As a result, they obtain the blessed assurance of sins forgiven. Since a man is initially justified by faith in Christ, and faith alone apart from works, and since the assurance of this faith is directly dependant on the state of the conscience, it is imperative that he keeps a clean conscience before God in order to maintain the faith necessary to believe unto salvation, because having true faith is directly related to having a clean conscience.
If the conscience gets spotted or defiled with any known or even perceived wrongdoing, then assurance before God is stripped away. If assurance before God is stripped away, then one begins to feel as if God has cut them off. In thinking this, faith itself in God as the Justifier of the ungodly is stripped away, and the individual is brought into a sad state of self-condemnation. Their faith then becomes utterly destroyed and justification before God becomes an impossibility, because without faith it is impossible to please God.
Over-emphasizing a high degree of holiness causes those who sit under such teaching, if they believe it, to examine themselves vigorously, over and over, to see if there is the smallest or tiniest degree of anything unholy in them. As extreme holiness is continually emphasized, they continue to examine themselves, and as soon as they find something unholy, they condemn themselves for it and fall into the trap of self-condemnation. They then continue to examine themselves almost endlessly, and their focus gets removed from Christ and His love, grace, and mercy, and their focus gets put on themselves and their works. Their righteousness becomes based on their deeds, works, and performance before God, rather than in the finished work of the Cross through the faith of Christ. Perfection becomes an obsession, and the sight of the Cross is at a loss.
Rather than preaching in such a way as to convict sinners and strengthen the faith of the saints, many go to the error of extreme holiness and preach in such a way as to condemn both sinners and saints alike. Now, this is not to say that a true saint will never need to be convicted about anything, or that we should never preach hard messages. Our preaching needs to be designed in such a way that it convicts instead of condemns, and that it is useful for spiritual growth and not spiritual destruction. If our preaching doesnít pierce through and cut asunder the hearts of men like a sharp, two-edged sword, then what weíre preaching isnít the true Word of God! But, at the same time, if it doesnít apply the healing properties of that blessed Balm of Gilead after it wounds, and bind up the broken hearts with the bandages of Christís love, then it is potentially destructive to the souls of men. There is a fine line, and that line is determined by the perfect orderly balance of Godís wisdom according to the leading of the Spirit.
Oh, the trickery of it all! The masterfully orchestrated wiles of the devil! God forbid that we lay anything to the charge of Godís elect when it is God that justified them and they are following the Lord their God with all their heart! God forbid we join sides with the Accuser of the Brethren and condemn the consciences of Godís saints and destroy their faith! God forbid that we, through the good intentions of combating heresy, preach heresy ourselves! But on the other end, God forbid that we fail to preach holiness! God forbid we tolerate any known form of sin in the least! God forbid we fail to stand on the uncompromising truth of the word of God and declare the severity, justice, holiness and wrath of God!
We holiness preachers are walking a tightrope of truth, and erring on either side can be fatal! As it was in the days of Nehemiah, when the men who were building the walls of Jerusalem had to build with one hand and yield a weapon in the other, in the same way, we need to build the Church with one hand to edify the saints with revelations of the true grace of God, and hold our sword in the other to uncompromisingly fight against every sin which so easily besets us (see Nehemiah 4:17)! The enemy is surrounding us on all sides, and when heís attacking the gates on the city walls, weíre still busy dealing with internal problems and uprisings Ė danger from within and danger from without!
The fact is: preaching and overemphasizing an extreme degree of holiness destroys the assurance and faith of the saints. No one is perfectly sinless. Ask any saint, any true born again child of God that has been walking with the Lord for a number of years; ask them if they have sinned even once since their conversion. Ask them if theyíve ever committed a single sin against God since they got born again. If they are not blind and stupid to the laws of God, they will most certainly and ashamedly tell you they have. Does this mean they werenít born again? Does this mean that as soon as they sinned, God cut them off and declared them children of the devil and bound them fit for destruction in Hell?
IF WE SAY WE HAVE NO SIN, WE DECEIVE OURSELVES
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8).
The beloved Apostle John, in inscribing these words on the sacred parchment of his first epistle, being a holy man moved upon by the Holy Ghost to record these holy words, has clearly said in the most plainest and straightforward language, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us". This epistle is addressed to saints, warning against various dangers, extremes, and heresies that were attempting to creep their way into the Church in Johnís old age, and as a guideline to the faith of Christ and the nature of true conversion.
Let us observe some facts concerning this statement of Scripture:
First, as we have already observed, it is written to Christians. John was not writing to heathen, nor was he writing to unconverted sinners. We know that this first epistle was directed toward Christians, "that [their] joy may be full" (1:4). Certainly, he is not writing that the joy of sinners may be full, but that the joy of the saints may be full, which proves that this epistle is directed toward those who already have a degree and measure of the joy of Christ. Only the saints have the joy of Christ.
Second, the great, holy and beloved Apostle includes himself by saying, "we". He didnít say, "If YOU say that you have no sin", but he said, "If WE say that we have no sinÖ" This is a very remarkable and undeniably true observation. As holy as we know this great Apostle must have been, especially in the old age he was in when he wrote this epistle, he was still walking in such a degree of self-abasement and humility as to recognize his true condition before God, a condition that still had a measure of sin dwelling within the flesh and that didnít yet have full and final redemption from the presence of sin (which would take place at final glorification Ė see 1 John 3:2). John knew that even he was not without sin, and he certainly knew he wasnít "sinlessly perfect", as some would say, which is why he includes himself in this statement.
Even the Apostle Paul agreed and admitted to the personal imperfections of his righteousness before God: "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12-14). This was written at about 61 AD, which was after his third missionary journey. If sinless perfection could be obtained, then without a doubt it should have been obtained by the Apostle Paul after enduring so much hardship, living in such devotion, and following hard after God for so many years, being "not a whit behind the chiefest Apostles". In context of the perfection of which Paul is speaking, he is speaking of "attaining unto the resurrection of the dead" (verse 10) by being found in the righteousness of Christ by faith (verse 9). So, namely, he is talking about righteousness, and admitting that even he didnít have a perfect righteousness on this earth, looking forward to full and final redemption, which would take place in the final work of redemption at the time of glorification.
The third thing we must observe is that it is in the present tense. It is not talking in the past tense. In other words, he is not talking about one saying that they have no sin prior to conversion, but one saying they have no sin after conversion. He is talking about sin dwelling in some measure in born again believers, and that if anyone denies this, they deceive themselves, being blind to their own unworthiness in the sight of God.
This is what Jesus meant when He said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit". Being poor in spirit is not something that happens one time before conversion and then no longer applies to a saint, but it is an ever-present admission of our personal wretchedness before God and of our utter and total dependency on Him. Being poor in spirit is a work of Godís grace, and if this grace ever fails to be applied to the heart of a believer, they quickly stumble around in their own delusions, thinking of themselves more highly than they ought, and soon find themselves deceived and in bondage to a despicable self-righteousness.
The Greek word translated, "we have" in the phrase, "If we say we have no sin", is the word, "echo". Thayerís Greek Definitions describes it as having, holding or possessing in present tense, or to have oneself in a certain condition, and as a primary, present tense verb. Both Vincentís Word Studies and Robertsonís Word Pictures, two scholarly and accurate works on the Greek language in which the New Testament was written, agree upon the fact that this scripture is written in the present tense. It is also agreed upon and translated in the present tense by every single English translation of the Bible, proving that the teams of hundreds upon hundreds of Greek scholars who have translated this passage universally agree that this is referring to the present tense. There is not a single well-known English translation that translates this scripture in the past tense, as referring to the past life of a believer prior to conversion, as some people falsely say.
If anybody professes to be a child of God, but has absolutely no admitted unworthiness and admits no present form of indwelling sin in some measure, then they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them. This is precisely what the Apostle John is saying.
The word "sin" literally means, "to miss the mark". Which one of us, even among those of us who are the most holy and devout, can say that we have no emotions, feelings, tempers, thoughts, words or actions which fall short of the standards of Godís perfection? "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23-24). To sin means to come short of the glory of God, and this is something that sinners and saints do alike (though there is a huge difference between the two). Thank God that the saints are "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus", and not by the performance and perfections that proceed after their initial profession of faith, or else we would all be doomed!
In the Lordís Prayer, Jesus taught His disciples to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." This is how the Lord Jesus taught His holy Apostles to pray! Just prior to Him teaching them to pray for forgiveness for their sins, He said, "give us this day our daily bread", clearly implying that this is a daily prayer that should be prayed. In other words, we need to constantly, in humility, recognize our shortcomings in the sight of God and humble ourselves under His mighty hand to ask for His mercy and grace to cover our offenses before Him. If we say we have no offenses before the all-seeing eyes of His holiness, we only deceive ourselves.
Granted, the saints of God do not live in sin. They do not willfully continue in any known form of sin like the unconverted do (Hebrews 10:26). To the saints, as soon as their own unworthiness, shortcomings, stumbles, or sins get brought to light, they are immediately abased and humbled. They utterly despise themselves for it. They hate it! And they confess it, repent and continue no more in it. They donít practice any known form of sin. Once any form of inner or outer sin is brought to light by the searchlight of Godís Spirit, they are humbled at the feet of Christ, and they "go and sin no more".
To the saints, sin is their bed of thorns, but to the unconverted, it is their hypocriteís couch. Saints hate sin and do not continue in any known form of sin, but the unconverted lounge upon sin, and make excuses to justify it. A true saint will continually "walk in the light as he is in the light", purging himself from every thing of darkness and uncleanness as soon as it is brought to the light, despising himself for it, and yield it to God to save him from it in a willing and earnest surrender, and he will continually walk in victory over all known sin; but an unconverted sinner will hold on to his sins because he loves them, and even if he may claim to love God with his mouth, he will continue to commit the same sins over and over and deny God by his actions. Thatís the difference. Saints arenít perfect, but they are striving for perfection, and while they are on the journey toward this perfection, they despise and even abhor themselves for their own imperfections.
This own self-abhorrence for inward corruption is not a self-condemnation or self-pity. These things come from the evil one. It is a self-abhorrence that produces "godly sorrow (which) worketh repentance", and not "the sorrow of the world (which) worketh death" (2 Corinthians 7:10). This godly sorrow is completely different and distinct from depression. It is what Jesus meant by saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit", and "Blessed are those that mourn", speaking of recognizing our own spiritual state before God, our personal guilt, helplessness, and of the utter emptiness of our own nature of everything good, and a conviction and realizing sense of being shut up to the grace of God alone for help. According to Jesus, this is a characteristic of the "blessed", or in other words, a characteristic of true saints. There is a huge and fundamental difference between such godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world.
The error of many of those in the holiness crowd is that they fail to ever mention these truths. They preach holiness and sanctification until such a standard of perfection is implied that it is utterly impossible for anyone to meet these standards. Then, those who are actually true saints, but who have an awareness of their own unworthiness and poorness of spirit in the sight of God, begin to condemn themselves for their shortcomings and imperfections, until they begin to question their very salvation to begin with. Dear Lord, save us from this error!
THE REVIVALISTS AND GIANTS OF THE PAST AGREE TO THIS DOCTRINE
Matthew Henry, the famous Bible commentator, whose commentary was both loved and studied by men of such spiritual stature as George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon, said: "We must beware of deceiving ourselves in denying or excusing our sins. The more we see them the more we shall esteem and value the remedy. If we deny them, the truth is not in us, either the truth that is contrary to such denial (we lie in denying our sin), or the truth of religion, is not in us. The Christian religion is the religion of sinners, of such as have sinned, and in whom sin in some measure still dwells. The Christian life is a life of continued repentance, humiliation for and mortification of sin, of continual faith in, thankfulness for, and love to the Redeemer, and hopeful joyful expectation of a day of glorious redemption, in which the believer shall be fully and finally acquitted, and sin abolished for ever."
Would be to God that He would use these wise words to open the eyes of many believers who wallow around in a despondency of hopelessness, questioning their salvation, doubting Godís glorious promises, and wonder if God even loves them anymore! See what that great holiness preacher, Charles G. Finney, said regarding true believers who stumble into sin in his classic sermon, "Justification by Faith":
"See that holy angel, sent on an errand of love to some distant part of the universe. God's eye follows him, and if he sees him likely to be injured in any way, all the divine attributes are enlisted at once to protect and sustain him. Just as absolutely are they all pledged for you, if you are justified, to protect and support and save you. Notwithstanding you are not free from remaining sin, and are so totally unworthy of God's love, yet if you are truly justified, the only wise and eternal God is pledged for your salvation. And shall you tremble and be faint-hearted, with such support?"
"If a human government pardons a criminal, it is then pledged to protect him as a subject, as much as if he had never committed a crime. So it is when God justifies a sinner. The Apostle says, "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God." Henceforth, God is on his side, and pledged as his faithful and eternal friend."
"Gospel justification differs from legal justification, in this respect: If the law justifies an individual, it holds no longer than he remains innocent. As soon as he transgresses once, his former justification is of no more avail. But when the gospel justifies a sinner, it is not so; but "if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." A new relation is now constituted, entirely peculiar. The sinner is now brought out from under the covenant of works, and placed under the covenant of grace. He no longer retains God's favor by the tenure of absolute and sinless obedience. If he sins, now, he is not thrust back again under the law, but receives the benefit of the new covenant. If he is justified by faith; and so made a child of God, he receives the treatment of a child, and is corrected, and chastised, and humbled, and brought back again. "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance." The meaning of that is not, that God calls and saves the sinner without his repenting, but that God never changes his mind when once he undertakes the salvation of a soul."
"I know this is thought by some to be very dangerous doctrine, to teach that believers are perpetually justified--because, say they, it will embolden men to sin. Indeed! To tell a man that has truly repented of sin, and heartily renounced sin, and sincerely desires to be free from sin, that God will help him and certainly give him the victory over sin, will embolden him to commit sin! Strange logic that! If this doctrine emboldens any man to commit sin, it only shows that he never did repent; that he never hated sin, and never loved God for his own sake, but only feigned repentance, and if he loved God it was only a selfish love, because he thought God was going to do him a favor. If he truly hated sin, the consideration that notwithstanding all his unworthiness God had received him as a child, and would give him a child's treatment, is the very thing to break him down and melt his heart in the most godly sorrow. O, how often has the child of God, melted in adoring wonder at the goodness of God, in using means to bring him back, instead of sending him to hell, as he deserved! What consideration is calculated to bring him lower in the dust, than the thought that notwithstanding all God had done for him, and the gracious help God was always ready to afford him, he should wander away again when his name was written in the Lamb's book of life!" (End Finney quote)
Finney, in the above quote, explains that when a true Christian, who is now under a Covenant of grace, stumbles into sin, he is not immediately thrust back under the Law by the wrath of God. Instead, he is chastised, disciplined, corrected, and straightened out so that he doesnít disobey His Heavenly Father in like manner again. So, we see that even Charles Finney, one of the most strict holiness preachers of perhaps all time, didnít even hold to the doctrines of sinless perfection or extreme holiness. He was very careful in his lectures to explain very clearly that a true Christian will stumble into and un-willfully sin against God, and that such a one will be lovingly brought back into fellowship His Lord through the precious blood and merits of Christís finished work. We are justified by faith, not by works. True faith does work, but it doesnít always work perfectly. It is always growing, always abounding, always being tried, purified, and strengthened. "For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again" (Proverbs 24:16).
That old field preaching revivalist George Whitefield, when speaking about persons who are "righteous over-much", said, "It is of necessity that I speak, when the divinity of Jesus Christ is spoken against, it is the duty of ministers to cry aloud, and spare not. I cannot forbear, come what will; for I know not what kind of divinity we have not amongst us: we must have a righteousness of our own, and do our best endeavors, and then Christ will make up the deficiency; that is, you must be your own Savior, in part. This is not the doctrine of the gospel; this is not the doctrine of Jesus: no; Christ is all in all; Jesus Christ must be your whole wisdom; Jesus Christ must be your whole righteousness. Jesus Christ must be your whole sanctification; or Jesus Christ will never be any of your eternal redemption and sanctificationÖ Our polite and fashionable doctrine is, ĎThat there is a fitness in man, and that God, seeing you a good creature, bestows upon you His grace.í God forbid, my dear brethren, you should thus learn Jesus Christ!"
Whitefield goes on to say, "This is not the doctrine I preach to you; I say, salvation is the free gift of God. It is Godís free grace, I preach unto you, not of works, lest any one should boast. Jesus Christ justifies the ungodly."
In this quote, Whitefield talks about trusting in part of oneís own works to save oneís self, and then, where the works have a deficiency, then Christ steps in to make up for where the works are lacking. "God forbid", as Whitefield had said! Christ must be our all in all Ė our justification, sanctification, and complete righteousness must be in Him and Him alone! When we fail to exalt the Lord Jesus; when we fail to lift up the finished work of the Cross; when we fail to preach justification by faith; when we fail to expound upon the great and hidden treasures of Godís matchless grace by His unearned, undeserved, sovereign favor based upon His own mercy and love, then weíve failed to preach the Gospel!
The sad tragedy of a great too many dear, precious souls is that they began in the Spirit by faith, but then seek to perfect themselves through the flesh by works, and when the unstable tendencies of human nature prevent those works from being good enough to meet the standards of some doctrines of perfection, condemnation sets in and all true faith in Christ alone is lost. Unless your works are rooted and grounded by faith in Christ alone as your righteousness, done out of sincere love and desire to please Him and not out of religious duty, obligation, or a sense of trying to earn your own righteousness, then they are nothing but filthy rags and a rotten stench in the nostrils of God. The focus must be on Christ! Look to Calvaryís Cross Ė not to the filthy rags of your own righteousness!
Interestingly, many of those in the holiness crowd who turn the doctrines of Christ into a kind of legalistic perfection claim to love and follow the teachings of John Wesley, and claim to derive their doctrine from his theology on "Christian Perfection". They claim that they believe the same things as Wesley believed and preached. However, many are totally ignorant of Wesleyís doctrine.
In his sermon called, "On Sin in Believers", John Wesley comes against the Moravians for preaching a form of sinless perfection and driving weaker Christians into a mode of despondency and despair, rather than strengthening and encouraging their faith by which they could overcome such inward unholy tempers and emotions. Listen to his words in this sermon:
"And as this position, ĎThere is no sin in a believer, no carnal mind, no bent to backsliding,í is thus contrary to the word of God, so it is to the experience of his children. These continually feel an heart bent to backsliding; a natural tendency to evil; a proneness to depart from God, and cleave to the things of earth. They are daily sensible of sin remaining in their heart, -- pride, self-will, unbelief; and of sin cleaving to all they speak and do, even their best actions and holiest duties. Yet at the same time they Ďknow that they are of God;í they cannot doubt of it for a moment. They feel his Spirit clearly Ďwitnessing with their spirit, that they are the children of God.í They Ďrejoice in God through Christ Jesus, by whom they have now received the atonement.í So that they are equally assured, that sin is in them, and that "Christ is in them the hope of glory."
"But can Christ be in the same heart where sin is?" Undoubtedly he can; otherwise it never could be saved therefrom. Where the sickness is, there is the Physician, Carrying on his work within, Striving till he cast out sin. Christ indeed cannot reign, where sin reigns; neither will he dwell where any sin is allowed. But he is and dwells in the heart of every believer, who is fighting against all sin; although it be not yet purified, according to the purification of the sanctuary."
Wesley goes on to say a few paragraphs later, "We are Ďreconciled to God through the blood of the cross:í And in that moment the jronhma sarkos, the corruption of nature, which is enmity with God, is put under our feet; the flesh has no more dominion over us. But it still exists; and it is still in its nature enmity with God, lusting against his SpiritÖ I do not suppose any man who is justified is a slave to sin: Yet I do suppose sin remains (at least for a time) in all that are justified."
In the summary of this sermon, Wesley concludes by saying, "The sum of all is this: There are in every person, even after he is justified, two contrary principles, nature and grace, termed by St. Paul the flesh and the Spirit. Hence, although even babes in Christ are sanctified, yet it is only in part. In a degree, according to the measure of their faith, they are spiritual; yet, in a degree they are carnal. Accordingly, believers are continually exhorted to watch against the flesh, as well as the world and the devil. And to this agrees the constant experience of the children of God. While they feel this witness in themselves, they feel a will not wholly resigned to the will of God. They know they are in him; and yet find an heart ready to depart from him, a proneness to evil in many instances, and a backwardness to that which is good. The contrary doctrine is wholly new; never heard of in the church of Christ, from the time of his coming into the world, till the time of Count Zinzendorf; and it is attended with the most fatal consequences. It cuts off all watching against our evil nature, against the Delilah which we are told is gone, though she is still lying in our bosom. It tears away the shield of weak believers, deprives them of their faith and so leaves them exposed to all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil."
"Let us, therefore, hold fast the sound doctrine Ďonce delivered to the saints,í and delivered down by them with the written word to all succeeding generations: That although we are renewed, cleansed, purified, sanctified, the moment we truly believe in Christ, yet we are not then renewed, cleansed, purified altogether; but the flesh, the evil nature, still remains (though subdued) and wars against the Spirit. So much the more let us use all diligence in Ďfighting the good fight of faith.í So much the more earnestly let us Ďwatch and prayí against the enemy within. The more carefully let us take to ourselves, and "put on, the whole armor of God;" that, although Ďwe wrestleí both Ďwith flesh, and blood, and with the principalities, and with powers, and wicked spirits in high places,í we may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand." (End of Wesley Quotations)
Obviously, not even did John Wesley, a prince among holiness preachers, believe in any form of sinless perfection. To the contrary, he clearly and unmistakably preached against it and corrected others who fell into this error.
Regarding Wesleyís theology concerning "Christian Perfection", we must be absolutely clear to distinguish and mark the difference between this and "sinless perfection". They are two totally different and radically opposed doctrines. Wesley himself makes this distinction in his sermons and articles on the subject, and he makes it a very clear point to say that he is not teaching sinless perfection. Christian perfection, as Wesley taught it, was not a perfection of knowledge, or a perfection of absolute righteousness via the absence of sin, but it is a perfection of love, and once this perfect love is obtained, one is able to walk in a state of true heart holiness. This is what he taught; a perfection of love and of the heartís motives toward God and man, not a perfection of being without sin. There is a huge difference, and the understanding of this difference among those who claim to follow Wesleyís teachings can be the difference between sound theology and heresy.
Let us not depart from the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints! The testimony of the Word of God lays out a clear case saying we must constantly beat our bodies to bring them under subjection, to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily, to walk in benevolence toward God and man and be on our constant guard against the snares of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The day we fail to deny ourselves and take up our cross is the day that the flesh prevails over the Spirit and we stumble into sin! We are not perfect and freed from the presence of all sin until that great and glorious day when Christ shall appear and transform us into His likeness; that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is!
The testimony of Scripture clearly declares that there is a constant war going on in our flesh until the day we die. The testimony of the experience of the saints also declares that there will be stumbles and falls until that Day of final redemption. And the testimony of the great men of God from the past also unanimously declares exactly the same. Dare we argue against the three-fold testimony of such truthful and reliable witnesses?
The good news is that we can have victory and dominion over all known forms of sin now, here in this life, and that Christ will empower us to live in such freedom; that through Christ we can be holy; that by the power of the Cross we can be crucified to the flesh with itsí affections and lusts and by the power of His resurrection to walk in the newness of life in righteousness and true holiness of heart before God. In fact, we must walk in such victory, or else our souls are in grave danger!
WHOSOEVER IS BORN OF GOD DOES NOT COMMIT SIN
"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" (1 John 3:9).
The objection arises: "Wait a minute! How do explain this scripture? Does it not totally contradict everything youíve just said?"
Herein lies the truth of this matter. The Apostle John says in chapter one of his first epistle, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves", and then just a couple chapters later declares, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin"; so which one is true? Which scripture do we believe? They are at odds, one against the other! They canít both be true, can they?
They most certainly are both true and they do not contradict each other; but rather, they complement one another and, observed together, lead us to the true understanding of this matter. These verses do not stand face-to-face in a brawl against one another, but they rather stand back-to-back, defending the truth of the gospel against two different heresies. The first heresy being that one can be perfect and sinless, and the second heresy saying that one can continue in known sin and still inherit the Kingdom of God. Both of these extremes must be avoided, and this is what John is warning against.
The key to understanding these scriptures lies in making the distinction being willful and un-willful sin. In other words, sin that is consciously and deliberately committed as a voluntary act of the will (willful sin), and sin that is unconsciously and ignorantly stumbled into against the will (un-willful sin). Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin, that is, he does not commit willful sin as a deliberate act of his own choice to rebel against God. At the same time, if one claims to be born of God and yet says he is without un-willful or unconscious sin within him as a part of his fallen nature, he deceives himself and the truth is not in him. That is the difference, and making this distinction is absolutely essential to correctly understanding the scriptures on this subject.
John makes this distinction later when he says, "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death" (1 John 5:16-17). Notice the terminology he uses when he says, "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death", clearly saying that a man can be a brother in the Lord and stumble into sin, as long as itís a sin thatís not unto death (as long as itís not willful sin). However, there is a sin unto death that we should not pray for, because if a so-called "brother" commits a sin unto death, he is no brother at all! If thatís the case, he doesnít need prayer and restoration, he needs repentance and regeneration!
The difference between the sin unto death and the sin that is not unto death is the difference between willful and un-willful sin. A born again child of God will not voluntarily and willfully commit any known sin against God and continue in it. If someone claims to be a Christian, but says, "I think Iím going to lie to so-and-so to make myself look better", premeditating on telling a lie, choosing to do it, and then actually committing the sin of telling a deliberate lie, then they are no Christian, for all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone (Revelation 21:8). That is a sin unto death that a born again Christian will not ever dare to deliberately do because it is against the nature of the seed of Godís word that abides within him. That is what it means to commit sin in a voluntary and willful transgression of the Law.
However, a true Christian may stumble into stretching the truth and bearing false testimony to something because of such a stretch of truth, not even consciously thinking about what he is doing. Could a born again Christian stumble into an exaggeration, which is in fact bearing false testimony, and still be born again? Yes, no doubt about it. However, as soon as the Spirit of God convicts him of it, he will confess his sin and turn from it, even abhorring his own inner corruption for doing such a foolish thing, and he will endeavor with a holy determination to never even come close to doing it again. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
Hebrews 10:26-27 says, "For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries." In other words, if we claim to be Christians but continue in any known form of willful sin, which means we know it is sin, and yet we continue to do it anyway, after we know the truth as it is in Jesus, then no sacrifice is left to cover our sins and we are still bound under the wrath of God. A true born again child of God will not sin willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth about the one whose name is "JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). This is exactly what John means when he says, "Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin". They do not sin willfully after receiving knowledge of the truth.
A true Christian will be holy, for without holiness no man shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). This means they will live up to the full light of their conscience, endeavoring, laboring and even striving to keep a clean conscience in the sight of God, walking in inward purity and love with everything that is within them. They will not continue in any known form of sin. They will despise their imperfections, abhor the least of their inner corruptions, and cry out to God constantly saying, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us" under a genuine humility and godliness of character. To a true Christian, the smallest and tiniest of his inward imperfections and sins will be as abominable to his new nature as a bowl of hot, steamy vomit would be appetizing to his stomach.
However, a false convert (one who claims to be a Christian but is not) will continue in known sin even though he knows it is sin, and even though he may confess it, he doesnít truly repent to "go and sin no more", thus proving that he is not born of God according to 1 John 1:9. Rather than being free from sin like a true Christian, he is in bondage to sin and wonít be able to get completely free apart from true conversion and regeneration. The fact that he commits sin, and continues to sin willfully after receiving knowledge of the truth, proves that he is not a child of God.
A WORD TO THOSE WHO CONTINUE IN ANY KNOWN SIN
Dear soul: if you have any known form of sin in your life, then repent! Donít dare play the harlot on God by adulterating yourself with the affairs of this world; knowing that whosoever is the friend of the world is the enemy of God (James 4:1-4). Donít dare hold in your own heart the smallest bosom sin Ė it is deadlier than cyanide and will kill your soul a thousand times worse than the most torturous death you can possibly imagine. Know, that whatever your sin, there is time now to repent, but if you refuse to repent, that sin will bring forth a woefully awful eternal death for your soul! As Charles Spurgeon said, "Come to him just as thou art, but renounce thy sins. Ask him to set thee free from every lust, from every false way, from every evil thing, or else, mark thee, thou shalt never find grace and favor at his hands. The greatest sin in the world, repented of, shall be forgiven, but the least unrepented sin shall sink thy soul lower than the lowest hell."
If you have any known disobedience or sin in your life that you refuse to repent from and turn away from once and for all, then donít you dare take any of these words as a justification for your heinous rebellion against God! Willful sin shall never be winked at by the Almightyís piercing eye of justice and holiness! If the Son hasnít set you free, and if you donít have dominion over all known sin in your life, then you are yet a child of the devil and itís the works of your father, the devil, that you do! Go to now, and follow your father into the fires of eternal misery that await him, unless you choose to change your mind and confess your sins so the precious blood of Christ can cleanse you and save you from them! Donít dare think that Christ will save you from the wrath of God if you will not have Him first save you from all known sin! If you are a willful sinner on this earth now, then you shall be brought to a woeful simmer as you burn in the flames of Godís justice in Hell! If this is you, repent!
A WORD TO THOSE WHO ARE SELF-CONDEMNED
Contrary to being a willful sinner, perhaps you are one of those dear souls who have been genuinely and truly converted by the grace of God. You love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and you love your neighbor as yourself. You know you were among the chief of sinners until God transformed you by His love and mercy. You have had a real, dramatic, living and powerful revelation of Christ being revealed to your heart and have received a living faith wherewith you have believed unto the saving of your soul. You became a new creature in Christ, created in the image of God after the inner man, and walked with God in fellowship with His Spirit by faith. You have no known form of sin in your life. You constantly pray, search yourself, examine yourself to see if you are in the faith, and ask God to reveal anything that is hindering you in your relationship with Him.
However, you have fallen into the trap of setting the standard too high, of hearing the holiness of God and the necessity of holiness in the life of a true saint emphasized so much that subconsciously, within your heart of hearts, you have believed that unless you meet some standards of ridiculously high perfection, you must certainly be condemned. You are always feeling guilty because although you have prayed, you havenít prayed enough, or hard enough. Although you read and study the Word of God, you donít understand as you should. Although you love and serve God, and walk in holiness as far as you can possibly know, it feels like you havenít entered into Godís rest by faith, and you are in bondage to constantly trying to work and work your way into maintaining a right-standing with God. Having begun in the Spirit by the grace of God, you have fallen from grace and backslid into a salvation based on works, striving in the flesh to obey God lest He cut you off. Away with such lies in the name of Jesus!
Dear soul: if you are walking in no known form of sin; if you are not sinning willfully against God; if you have forsaken all to follow Jesus; if you have been truly converted and born again and have received the witness of the Spirit within your heart, and you are continuing to follow and serve God with all your heart, then for the sake of Godís glory, donít make Him out to be a liar by doubting His exceeding great and precious promises! He has pledged Himself by covenant to undertake the salvation of your soul if you will only believe!
"For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (Hebrews 8:8-12).
God promises under the New Covenant, purchased by the blood of Christ, to be merciful to your unrighteousness, and to forget your sins and iniquities, if you are walking in true heart surrender before Him to believe in Him with all your heart and to love and serve and obey Him out of love and devotion and gratitude for what He did on the Cross, not out of a fear of punishment, for perfect love casts out all fear. If the gracious Lord has forgiven you much, donít condemn yourself and try to perfect yourself by working up a right standing with God, but love Him much in return Ė thatís all He asks. Show Him you love Him by believing in Him as your righteousness. "Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent" (John 6:28-29).
"What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:31-39).
Your salvation is based on the blood of Jesus and by faith in that blood, not upon your feelings, your performances, or any other thing, "for by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified" (Hebrews 10:14). If you are sanctified and totally devoted to the Lord, then the precious blood of the Lamb has taken away your sin and His one offering perfects you forever!
"Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Are you feeling condemned, even though you have been born of God? Hold fast your profession of faith! Donít waver or doubt! He who has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Christ Jesus! Are you in a time of need and you need grace to help you with your infirmities? Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world! He knows the feeling of your infirmities, and was tempted in all the same ways, yet was without sin, and thereby He invites you to come to Him, just as you are, with all your unbelief, all your questions, all your doubts, all your fears, all your uncertainties, and even all your sins, and He will freely and openly accept you into the everlasting mercies of the Father and give you the grace you need.
"And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death" (Revelation 12:10-11).
Donít listen to the lies of the Accuser of the Brethren! Cast him down in the name of Jesus! Stand unmovable, unshakable, by faith in the precious blood of the Lamb! Hold fast the confession of your testimony before God and never forget the glorious work that His Spirit has undertaken in your soul! Love not your life unto the death, and you will receive the Crown of Life that God gives to those that love Him! Hold fast to your profession of faith, dear saints!
DONíT JOIN THE ACCUSER OF THE BRETHREN
Beware of over-exalting the doctrines of holiness to the extent that a legalistic form of perfection is established in the minds of those who adhere to such teachings, causing them to fall under the condemnation of the devil for failing to meet up to those perfections. Donít join sides with the Accuser of the Brethren to accuse and condemn the saints of God, or even yourself if you are truly a saint, but instead, stand strong in faith, giving glory to God, staggering not at the promise of God through unbelief, but having the anchor of your hope firmly planted in the Rock of Calvaryís Cross!
Donít dare say you are without sin before the face of God, lest you deceive yourself and think more highly of yourself than you ought. You, no matter how holy and righteous you are, need His mercy and grace just as much as the worst sinner that ever walked the face of the earth, and if you will be saved, it will only be by the same way that they will be saved: by grace through faith. The most holy saint needs the grace of God as much as the most wicked, undeserving sinner if any one of them is to be saved. In fact, the saint needs it even more so in order to maintain his walk with God every day. Neither one deserves Godís grace; it is a free gift of His sovereign mercy. And if God has undertaken the work of saving your soul by shedding His grace forth upon you and converting your soul, then dare you question the work He began?
Saints, we have enough against us: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Let us recognize our enemy, expose his lies, and stand strong in faith against his clever schemes and slick wiles. Letís not join ranks alongside the hoards of Hell to condemn the saints and to condemn ourselves along with them by preaching legalism or perfection in the mask of holiness. Letís not be guilty of swinging the pendulum of truth too far, to the opposite extreme when combating the errors of the antinomians. Instead, letís lift up Jesus! Letís raise up on high the old rugged Cross that all men may be drawn to Him! Letís focus on Him as the Lord of all lords and King of all kings! Letís preach His holiness, His righteousness, His justice, His wrath, His mercy, His love, and His grace without fail! And may we never again be guilty of over-emphasizing certain of these attributes of our majestic Lord while totally neglecting other of His glorious attributes, lest we present a lopsided view of God and thereby portray a false image of Him to the world. We want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the whole and entire truth, so help us God! Oh, dear Lord, help us!
N.B. SINCE PUBLICATION, THE AUTHOR HAS ISSUED FURTHER CLARIFICATION OF THIS ARTICLE. TO READ IT, GO HERE