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no moral character, the extirpation, or extinguishment of which is,
consequently, not necessary to sinless perfection. Thus it has been
argued, that the most selfish innate desires and passions are in them-
selves innocent, being nothing more than incentives or occasions to
sin, which must be expected to continue after the heart has become
completely sanctified.

This summary method of disposing of the subject must doubt-
less be very gratifying to those who choose rather to find an apo-
logy for their sins, than to confess and mourn over them before
God. Where there is no sin, there is surely no occasion for godly
sorrow on account of sin. Let the standard of duty be low enough,
and it will be easy to show that perfection belongs to many men,
or to all men, or even to the inhabitants of hell themselves. Sup-
pose, for example, that malice, hatred of God, enmity to creatures,
and furious blasphemy, under circumstances of hopeless suffering,
are not criminal ; and it will follow, incontrovcrtibly, that these
feelings and acts are perfectly innocent in Satan and his hosts, in
their present state of misery. God cannot, therefore, with pro-
priety, punish them for their present irrcconcileable malignity, and
that conduct which flows spontaneously from their hearts. In this
view of the subject, the devils are as truly perfect now as they
were when they existed enthroned seraphs in the heavenly para-
dise. Their condition has, indeed, been changed ; but, then, the
divine law has been altered to suit their new condition. To bring
this reasoning to bear on the case before us — if the natural passions
of anger, revenge, covetousness, pride, and ambition, be not in
themselves wrong, and if nothing but strong resolutions against sin,
a resistance of our evil propensities, a devout and moral life, and
reliance on the grace of Christ, be needful to constitute a sinless
character, then we admit that many of the human race have attain-
ed to perfection in this life. Yea, verily, according to this philoso-
phy, sinless perfection is consistent with an eternal war in the
breast between principle and passion ; and, as there is reason to
suppose that the physical attributes of the soul will continue after
death, it is next to certain that the saints in glory will be obliged
to maintain an unceasing conflict with such innocent things as their
love of self-indulgence, their fondness for distinction and power,
and their constitutional susceptibility to resentment and revenge.
Deny the principle of concupiscence to be sinful, and what hinders
its existence, its disquieting irruptions, its violent onsets even within
the walls of New Jerusalem ?


This philosophy requires an exposition of the law entirely con-
trary to the scriptures. The sacred volume condemns the first
risings of inordinate desire, and, of course, all vicious tendencies
to transgression in the soul. " Whoso hateth his brother is a
murderer," " Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her,
hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." It re-
quires us, not merely to choose and strive after, but to possess and
exercise right affections and passions ; to love God and our neigh-
bour ; to feel kindly even to our enemies. " Thou shalt not covet,"
is one of its express prohibitions. Yet coveting may exist, when
from the restraints of conscience and fear there is no effort, no
purpose to obtain the desired object. The affection is wrong and
is forbidden, though it lead to no correspondent external acts, or
conscious determinative volition of the mind.

It was an apprehension of the spirituality of the law which con-
vinced the Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, of the exceeding corruption
of his heart, and destroyed all his self-righteous hopes. " I had
not known sin but by the law ; for I had not known lust" (concu-
piscence), that is, I had not known that it was sin, " except the law
had said, thou shalt not covet." " For I was alive without" (a just
apprehension and sense of) " the law once ; but when the com-
mandment came" (with a clear view of its spiritual requirements
and immutable obligation), " sin revived, and I died." Thus plain
it is, that whether we call the principle of concupiscence constitu-
tional or not, it is still sinful in the eye of the law. Words may
create confusion in the mind, but they do not change the nature of
things. So long as the Christian is agitated, in any degree, by
excessive or ill-directed desires, he is deficient in his obedience,
and therefore continues to be a transgressor.

Changing his ground, the advocate of the doctrine of perfection
in this life sometimes asserts, that though Christians cannot accom-
plish their own sanctification, and ought not to attempt it, yet if
they cast themselves upon Christ for this boon it will be bestowed
upon them. Instead of working themselves, they must come to
Christ to work in them, both to will and to do, and he will make
them perfect. This notion, too, is affirmed by the very men who
contend, when it suits their purpose, that sinners have perfect
ability to change their own hearts, and believers perfect ability to
do all that is required of them. " I am willing to proclaim it to
the world," says Mr. Mahan,* " that I now look to the very God
of peace to sanctify me wholly." " I have for ever given up all
idea of resisting temptation, subduing any lust, appetite, or pro-
pensity, or of acceptably performing any service for Christ, by
the mere force of my own resolutions. If any propensities which
lead to sin are sacrificed, I know it must be done by an indwelling
Christ." " If you will cease from all efforts of your own, and
bring your sins, and sorrows, and cares, and propensities, which

* Christian Perfection, pp. 189, 190, 191.


lead to sin, to Christ, and cast them all upon him — if, with implicit
faith, you will hang your whole being upon him, and make it the
great object of life to know him, for the purpose of receiving and
reflecting his image — you will find that all the exceeding great and
precious promises of his word are, in your own blissful experience,
a living reality." " You shall have a perpetual and joyful victory."
" Everywhere, and under all circumstances, your peace in Christ
shall be as a river."

From these and other similar passages in the writings of the
new Perfectionists, it would seem that Christians have nothing to
do but to lie passively in the hands of Christ, and " roll the respon-
sibility" of their sanctification upon him. What mean, then, the
numerous scriptural inculcations upon believers to strive, to run,
to wrestle, to fight, to put on the whole armour of God ? It is
manifest from the inspired volume that we are to come to Christ,
not for the purpose of saving ourselves the trouble of a personal
warfare, but that we may engage in such a warfare with good
motives, with becoming zeal, with persevering energy, and with
success. The effect of faith is not drowsiness, but vigilance: not
self-satisfied repose, but self-distrust ; not slothfulness, but untiring
activity. When Christ works in us, both to will and to do, of his
own good pleasure, it is that sustained, quickened by his power,
we may work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. The
present is not the first time in which Pelagian self-sufficiency and
Antinomian indolence have been found co-inhabitants of the same
dwelling, interchangeably occupying one another's places, and
adopting one another's phraseology. But how are these apparent
contradictions to be reconciled ? They cannot be ; yet, after all,
it is not intended by the writers to whom we refer, to ascribe all
holiness to divine agency. Their meaning appears to be, that
Christ will sanctify us wholly, if we look to him for such a bless-
ing ; yet there is no provision in their system to secure the act of
looking itself. Man begins to turn, and God completes the sancti-
fication of man. Hence it is affirmed, that, notwithstanding the
promises of the new covenant, insuring perfection in this life, com-
paratively few of the saints do ever become perfect on this side of
the grave.

The fact that the saints are, in scripture, sometimes said to be
perfect, has been alleged as another argument in favour of Per-

Wc answer, that the word perfection is used in different senses.
It is sometimes employed to express advancement and maturity in
the Christian character and in knowledge, as distinguished from
the comparatively low conceptions, weakness, and inconsistencies
of mere infants in the divine life. " We speak wisdom among
them that are perfect," that is, the thoroughly instructed. " Let
us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded." It is some-
times used to denote evangelical uprightness, or sincere piety, in
distinction from an empty profession of godliness. In this sense


of the word, perfection belongs to all real saints. Thus the Psalm-
ist says, " Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the
end of that man is peace." Here perfect and upright, agreeably
to a well-known rule of Hebrew construction, are evidently sy-
nonymous terms. A perfect man, in this place, then, is a man who
is sincere in his religious profession, a real friend of God, and an
heir of heaven. The wicked are said to " shoot in secret at the
perfect," that is, at the regenerated children of God. " For the
upright," says Solomon, " shall dwell in the land, and the perfect
shall remain in it." In this passage, too, the terms uprightness and
perfection have the same meaning. Noah is said to have been a
perfect man ; yet the phrase is immediately explained as signify-
ing the reality of his piety, or his humble walk with God. That
he was not without the remains of moral corruption, is manifest
from a subsequent instance of intoxication with which he is charged
in the scriptures. Job is also affirmed to be a perfect man. But
that it was not intended to assert his freedom from sin, is apparent
from his conduct, which is recorded, for he afterwards cursed the
day of his birth. He, also, himself confessed his want of sinless
perfection. " If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn
me : if I say I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse." " If I
wash myself with snow-water, and make my hands never so clean,
yet shalt thou plunge me in the ditch, and mine own clothes shall
abhor me." " Behold I am vile ; what shall I answer thee ? I
will lay mine hand upon my mouth." In the same sense we are
to understand the phrase as used by Hezekiah, when he says, " Re-
member now, how I have walked before thee in truth, and with a
perfect," that is, with a sincere "heart." That sinless perfection was
not intended, seems evident from what the scriptures tell us con-
cerning his conduct soon after the prayer in which these words
are contained. " But Hezekiah rendered not again according to
the benefit done unto him, for his heart was lifted up : therefore
wrath was upon him, and upon Judah and Jerusalem. Notwith-
standing, Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart."
Most clearly, therefore, though he was perfect in the sense of sin-
cere, or truly pious, he was yet far from being sinless. Of several
of the kings of Judah, it is said that their heart was perfect with
the Lord, yet actions are attributed to them utterly inconsistent
with the supposition that they were exempt from all sinful defects.
The obvious meaning of the phrase as applied to those good men
is, that they were sincere believers, and maintained by their exam-
ple and public acts, the doctrines, institutions, and laws of true re-
ligion in their dominions. It is affirmed of Zacharias and Elizabeth,
that " they were both righteous before God, walking in all the
commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." In this pas-
sage, it is plainly the design of the inspired writer to teach us that
Zacharias and Ehzabeth were eminent saints, maintaining an ex-
ample of impartial and universal obedience. That he did not
mean to attribute to them sinless obedience is manifest, because in


the context Zacharias is charged with criminal unbelief, for which
he was punished with the temporary loss of the power of speech.
What ! a perfectly holy man subject himself to the divine displea-
sure, and struck dumb for his distrust of God's word ! Paul calls
upon those whom he had addressed as perfect, to be followers of
him, Phil, iii. 15, 17; yet, in the same connexion he says, "Not as
though I had already attained, cither were already perfect." It is
certain, therefore, that, in the one instance, the word has a different
meaning from what it has in the other ; for it is absurd to suppose
that a wise and humble man, who confessed himself to be still im-
perfect, would exhort those whom he regarded as sinless, to look
to him as an example. Some have understood by the perfect,
whom Paul addressed, full grown men in Christian knowledge, in
distinction from children. Accordingly, Beza translates the pas-
sage, " quotquot itaque adulti sumus, hoc sentiamus,"

One of the arguments of Mr. Mahan, on which he strongly in-
sists, is expressed in the following terms. " The Bible positively
affirms, that provision is made in the Gospel for the attainment of
a state of perfection, and that to make such provision is one of the
great objects of Christ's redemption."*

This language is ambiguous in several respects. It may mean,
that God has revealed it as his determination, that his people, or
some of them, shall become perfect in the present world ; and, in
this sense, it is but an assumption of the doctrine to be proved.
It may mean that God's plan includes the complete sanctification
of his children, at some future period of their existence ; a fact
which no one questions, and which proves nothing with respect to
the subject in dispute. God has also made provision for the deli-
verance of his people from sickness, pain and all afflictions, and
for the enjoyment of the Redeemer's presence in glory ; but this
purpose concerning the elect, is not accomplished till they are
released from the present world by death. Does Mr. Mahan
mean, that nothing hinders the perfect obedience of Christians but
their own culpable abuse, or disregard of their privileges ? Very
well ; and it may with equal truth be said, that nothing different
from this, hinders the perfect obedience of impenitent sinners.
Does he mean merely that believers might be perfect but for their
own fault ? It is also true, as the apostle assures us, that the very
heathen are without excuse ; and the damned themselves are doubt-
less inexcusably criminal for their present rebellion. Does he mean,
that the atonement secures the perfect holiness of Christians in the
present life ? This is simply a begging of the question ; and it is
moreover contradicted by fact ; since the great body of believers
are, by the acknowledgment of Mr. Mahan himself, far from per-
fect holiness. Does he mean that the Spirit of God is able and
gracious enough to make them perfect ? So the Spirit of God is
able and gracious enough to make the whole world perfect, and

* Christian Perfection, p. 20.


even to exclude all sin from the universe. But his power and mercy
are ever regulated, in their exercise, by his wisdom and his supreme
regard to the interests of universal being. The only question, in
reference to this subject, is, what is God's revealed purpose ? Has
he anywhere told us that his people, or a part of them, will become
perfectly holy during their abode in this world ? If not, the removal
of external obstacles to their perfection no more proves that they
will be perfect, than God's readiness to receive every true penitent
justifies the conclusion, that all mankind will repent and cordially
embrace the overtures of the Gospel. The loose manner in which
Mr. Mahan expresses himself, makes it difficult to say what he
does mean, except that he intends to assert that God has done or
will do something that renders it certain a part of his people will
grow to a state of perfection, before they exchange earth for
heaven. Excellent, therefore, as Dr. Woods's discussion of this
subject mainly is, we cannot agree with him in saying, that " de-
vout Christians and orthodox divines have in all ages maintained
the same doctrines " with Mr. Mahan, concerning " the provisions
of the Gospel." We must know what Mr. Mahan means by the
provisions of the Gospel, before we can say anything like this.
In all " the practical writings of Calvin, F'lavel, Owen, Bunyan,
Watts, Doddridge, President Davies, and Good," not a sentence
can be found which implies that God has, in such a sense, made
provision for the complete sanctification of his children while they
" abide in the flesh," that his plan includes this result of his admi-
nistration towards them ; and if Mr. Mahan does not mean so
much as this, he means nothing to his purpose.

Mr. Mahan also affirms that " perfection in holiness is promised
to the Christian in the new covenant under which he is placed."*

If it be true that God has promised that his people shall become
perfect in this life, the question is settled. But what are the proofs
adduced of this fact ? Why, he cites a number of passages, which,
if they are at all relevant to his design, prove that all Christians
become completely holy at the moment of their regeneration.
The promises he mentions belong to all under the new covenant.
These are contained in such passages as Jer. xxxi. 31-34, and
Heb. viii. 8-11 ; Deut. xxx. 10; Jer. i. 20; Ezek. xxxvi. 25-27;
Isaiah lix. 21, and Luke i. 74, 75, &c. God circumcises the
hearts of all his people ; he puts his law in their inward parts ;
he takes away the stony heart out of their flesh ; and he causes
them to walk in his statutes. But does Mr. Mahan believe (as he
should, in order to be consistent with himself) that all the elect
are completely sanctified, at the very instant of their conversion.?
So far from it he says, "the great men of the church are slumber-
ing in Antinomian death, or struggling in legal bondage, with
barely enough of the evangelical spirit to keep the pulse of spirit-
ual life faintly beating."t But does Mr. Mahan believe that the

• Christian Perfection, p. 22. t lb., pp. 100, lOi.



promises of the new covenant have failed with respect to " the
great mass of the church ?" How, then, can he argue from these
promises, that any part of the church will be completely sanctified
in this life ? Again, he says, " from the evangelical simplicity of
their first love, they (i. e., the great mass of Christians) fall into a
state of legal bondage, and after a fruitless struggle of vain reso-
lutions wdlh the world, the flesh and the devil, they appear to
descend into a kind of Antinomian death." '• The spirit of Anti-
nomian slumber prevails, and death, not a present Christ, is looked
for as the great deliverer from bondage." What does this mean ?
Has God forgotten his covenant ? Or is it simply conditional ?
But a conditional covenant, from its very nature, does not insure
the compliance of a single individual with its proposals. The
truth, however, is, that the promises enumerated by Mr. Mahan,
have their incipient fulfilment here, and will be accomplished, in
the broadest extent of their meaning, hereafter. God, therefore,
is faithful, though it remain true, that none are entirely free from
sin on this side of heaven.

Some have insisted on those texts, in which God promises to
cleanse his people from all sin, as an evidence that they may attain
to perfection in this life.

In some instances, to be cleansed from sin, is equivalent to pardon,
or gratuitous justification. Thus, in Ps. li. : " Wash me thoroughly
from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin ;" that is, save me
from the deserved consequences of my disobedience. Again, in
allusion to ceremonial purification, which represented atoning
blood, David says in the same psalm, " purge me with hyssop, and
I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow." Thus,
in Jer. xxxiii. 8 : " And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity,
whereby they have sinned against me." That this refers to justi-
fying grace, rather than sanctification, seems evident from what
immediately follows — "and I will pardon all their iniquities, where-
by they have sinned, and wdiereby they have transgressed against
me." Thus, also, in 1 John i. 7, 8, "The blood of Jesus Christ,
his Son, cleanseth us from all sin," that is, obtaineth our pardon ;
for it is not the atonement, but a direct divine influence, which
removes the power and pollution of sin. Again : " If we confess
our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse
us from all unrighteousness." Here, to forgive sins, and to cleanse
from all unrighteousness, appear to be equivalent phrases. In the
sense of pardon, or free justification, all believers are cleansed
from sin, since they are all acquitted, and viewed and treated as
perfectly righteous, for the Redeemer's sake.

Where deliverance from the dominion of sin is promised, refe-
rence is in part had to what takes place in this world, but, more
especially, to the future perfection of the heavenly state. The
purifying process begins in the new birth, and is gradually carried
forward in sanctification, till the work is completed in glory. But
how does the promise of future entire emancipation from the thral-


dom of sin, prove that this blessing will be obtained immediately, or
during the brief term of our earthly existence ? It is also promised
to believers, that they shall be delivered from all sorrow, that they
shall vanquish completely death and hell, and shall live and reign
with Christ ; and it might as well be argued, that these promises will
have their full accomplishment here, as those which relate to the en-
tire purgation of the saints from their moral defilement. The truth
is, God's faithfulness peculiarly appears in sustaining his people,
amidst the temptations and difficulties connected with a state of
sinful imperfection, till death is swallowed up in victory. Every
good thing which the Lord has spoken will be shortly accomplish-
ed ; and is his veracity to be distrusted, because he does not give
to his children in this world, the perfect rest and triumph of heaven ?
Was God unfaithful to his ancient saints, because he did not send
them the promised Messiah in the time of Moses? I may- remark
in general, that if we regard not the scope of a passage, nor the
peculiar import of scriptural phrases, nor the analogy of the faith,
we may, from insulated texts, deduce doctrines as preposterous as
any that were ever advanced by the greatest heretics. Thus from
the passage, " Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin
of the world," we might argue, in opposition to the repeated decla-
rations and general tenor of the scriptures, that Christ sanctifies
or pardons and saves the whole human race. Whereas, the truth
intended to be taught in these words, is the reality and universal
extent of the atonement of Christ.

" I argue," says Mr. Mahan,* " that perfection in holiness is at-
tainable in this life, and that the sacred writers intended to teach
the doctrine, from the fact, that inspired men made the attainment
of this particular state the subject of definite, fervent, and constant

So we have examples of inspired men, praying for the purity
and blessedness of the heavenly state. But do believers, while
sojourning on earth, ever literally become companions of the glo-
rified ? Paul was continually pressing toward the mark, for the
prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus; the acquisition
of this prize was the object of his most earnest labours, of his most
fervent prayers; and Mr. Mahan supposesf that the "mark" at
which the apostle so strenuously aimed was the " resurrection of
the dead." But was Paul actually raised from the dead, during
the period of his abode in this world ? Or, does it follow, because
he continued to sigh and groan, being burdened, that he did not
pray in faith for a glorious resurrection? Christ taught his disci-
ples to pray, " Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it
is in heaven." This prayer was offered by the apostles, and has
been offered by the most devoted Christians, in all later ages ; yet
to this day, much the greater part of mankind continue the slaves
of sin, and ignorant of the way of salvation by the Mediator. Are

* Christian Perfection, p. 34. t I^., p. 60.

Online LibrarySamuel John BairdTheological essays: → online text (page 53 of 90)