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I became interested in this topic after having experienced a man at a former church named Fred that zealously held to a Perfectionist theology. Fred zealously held to a perfectionist view and could not be convinced otherwise despite the attempts of myself and others to persuade him. This man often tried to persuade others that perfectionism is taught in the scriptures, and he often would quote random passages throughout the OT and NT to support his perfectionist view. 1 Cor 15:34 is one of many verses that Fred would quote in his defense. The verse says to “Sin Not” in the KJV and to Fred, this was to be interpreted literally. If Fred was asked if he ever sinned, he never gave a straight answer, but continually quoted 1 Cor 15:34 from memory and told others that the Bible says that we need to not sin or “do not go on sinning” as the ESV puts it. Instead we need to be Holy and this means to give our hearts wholly to God and allow Him to be the master of our lives.
According to John Wesley Perfectionism can be defined as;
that habitual disposition of the soul, which, in sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies, the being cleansed from sin, “from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit,” and, by consequence, the being endued with those virtues which were also in Christ Jesus; the being so “renewed in the spirit of our mind,” as to be “perfect as out Father in heaven is perfect.”
There is a difference between the kind of perfectionism that Wesley taught and the perfectionism that I will be treating in this article. Wesley did not advocate sinless perfectionism, which is the type of perfectionism addressed in this article, but Christian perfectionism. There is a difference between them, for Wesley never believed to be free from the power to sin, and never taught that it was possible. However, he seems to be one of the originators of perfectionism, and his name seems to be attached to the doctrine of sinless perfectionism, regardless of whether or not he taught it.
According to Millard J. Erickson, most perfectionists tend to be Arminian and the major perfectionistic denominations are the Church of the Nazarene and the Pentecostal groups. Calvinists are not normally perfectionists. Perfectionists hold that it is possible to come to a state where a believer chooses not to sin. Perfectionists believe that once a believer has arrived at this level of perfectionism a believer can sin, but that the person chooses not to sin. Perfectionists believe that there is a need for grace and the help of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. (Erickson, 984). There are a number of biblical passages in support of perfectionism, many of which are quoted by proponents of Perfectionism to aid their argument. Some of these verses are listed below. This list is not exhaustive, but is only some of the most commonly used verses.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
1 Corinthians, Chapter 15, Verse 34
Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame.
1 Thessalonians, Chapter 5, Verse 23
And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 John, Chapter 3, Verse 6, English Standard Version
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.
VERSES ARGUING AGAINST PERFECTIONISM
Matthew, Chapter 6, Verses 12
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
7, Verses 18-19
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
1 John, Chapter 1, Verses 8-10, New American Standard Version
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
Also in Matt 5:48 the Greek word (teleioi) does not mean “flawless” or “spotless”, but rather “complete.” Being complete does not mean being completely free from sin. No one for example completely possesses all attributes of the fruits of the spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23. But we are to strive to possess them to the full. Jesus nor Paul ever intended that we would reach perfection in this life, but that we were to continually strive for perfection. When Paul left this earth he spoke as if he were running a race and fighting a fight (2 Tim 4:7). If Paul was completely free from sinning, then there would be no need to be running a race, since Paul would have already won the race. All Christians are running a race, and none have arrived at complete perfection. Also scripture portrays the great men and women of the past as sinners. For the list of those in the Hall of Fame is in Hebrews 11. Its interesting to note that Samson is included in the list of the great saints. Samson was not exactly “perfect” and sinned against the Lord much during his life, yet he is included in the list of the great saints. It was not his works that saved him, but his faith.
Another argument against perfectionist theology is found in 2 Peter 1:9 (NIV) Peter says “But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.” Verses 5-8 mention attributes and then imply that it is possible to live a life without much goodness, knowledge, godliness, brotherly kindness, self-control, perseverance, or love, and still be saved and cleansed from sin. However those that have these attributes will receive a rich welcome into the kingdom of God. Some perfectionists may believe that those that are truly saved cannot sin, and those that continue to sin are not really saved. But how can they argue against the Lord’s Prayer or 2 Peter 1, and1 John 1:8-10? Perfectionists may not rebut the verses above but may throw them out and quote verses like 1 John 3:3-6 which appears to be in support of their position. The NIV states in verse 6 that no one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. This verse seems to support the perfectionist position until a look at the Greek. The verb forms in verse 4 (“who sins”) and also in verse 6 (“who continues to sin”). These are in the present tense, and would imply that those who live a life of sin, or sinning are not saved. These type have neither seen nor known Christ, for if they had, they would not live as they do. They are guilty of lawlessness.
Perfectionism is not taught in the scriptures. However we strive to be perfect (Mt 5:48), to be free from sin (Rom 6:22), to possess the fullness of God (Eph 4:13), to possess the fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and to crucify the sinful nature (Gal 5:24-25). In some ways I envy the man I mentioned earlier Fred since he strives to be perfect and to be completely free from sin. In this life no one can obtain perfection, but perfection is a worthy goal. Those serious about their sanctification, holiness and testimony will probably refrain from involving themselves with the lusts of the flesh and other things that so easily lead to sin. Movies, worldly music, worldly parties, hanging out with the wrong people (Pro 13:20), and such are just a few of the many areas that can lead someone into sin, and should be avoided by the follower of Christ. These things are what needs to change if one is going to walk in victory and strive toward the likeness of Christ and be freed from the bond of sin. The author of Hebrews says in verse 1 of chapter 12 to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. This would imply that separation from sin and a strive towards Christ-likeness and Christian perfection are what the author is implying. So, in that sense perfection is emphasized, but perfection can never be complete in this life. John Wesley never claimed to be perfect in this life, but emphasized perfectionism over sinless perfectionism. “Love is the keynote of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection: perfect love toward God and man” (Panosian,126). So, in the same way, we should love others like what Wesley, but more importantly, Christ advocated. For Jesus said that, “all men would know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35, NIV).
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Elwell, Walter A.
Christian Theology. Erickson, Millard J.
New Dictionary of Theology. Wright, David F.
John Wesley’s Doctrine of Christain Perfection. Panosian, Edward M.
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