An issue that arose within the life of the church has also helped shape the biblical understanding of the doctrine of sanctification: the question as to the degree of sanctification that is to be attained in this life, with some following in the thought of John Wesley advocating perfectionism. They suggest that because God has commanded that we should be holy as he is holy, then it must be his will that we shall be so, and he has enabled us to accomplish this. Yet the Scripture leaves us in no doubt that perfection is not attainable now. The apostle John stated this plainly when he wrote:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8–10).
With these words the apostle makes clear that all believers continue to sin; indeed that is the reason that we rely upon the grace of God that brings to us both repentance and pardon. Well into his own life, the apostle Paul affirms the same truth, ruling out moral perfection for himself:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12–14)
The root of perfectionism lies in the false premise that God will never demand from us what we cannot ourselves do, and reflects the influence of the Pelagian teaching that sees man’s nature uninjured by the Fall of Adam. Instead such teaching sees mankind as being guilty of only those sins that are committed personally and voluntarily. It further argues that men and women both before and after Adam’s Fall were and are fully able to obey God’s law, therefore being able to live sinlessly. Such a teaching of course understands grace as simply making human obedience easier.
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