They have especially four grounds. In the first place, they appeal to those passages of Holy Writ that command the child of God to walk holily, and to be holy as God is holy. Thus, for instance, they refer to the text in Matthew 5:48, where the Lord says: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Also they appeal to II Cor. 7:1: “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” And once more, they refer to passages such as are found in the first epistle of I Peter 1:14-16: “As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation: Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.” Secondly, these perfectionists call attention to the fact that the Scriptures designate the church as being holy and perfect. In I Cor. 2:6 we read: “Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought.” And in II Cor. 5:17 the apostle writes: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Thirdly, they appeal to examples of perfection and holiness that are mentioned in Scripture, such as Enoch and Noah, who walked with God. And finally, they also appeal to passages in Scripture that apparently teach perfection in the child of God, such as, for instance, I John 3:9, where the apostle writes: “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.” And in the same epistle, 5:18, the apostle writes: “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.”
Reformed theologians and Reformed people strongly repudiate this theory of the perfectionists. They have a profound insight into Holy Writ, and, at the same time, a more sober view of the reality of the life of the Christian, the child of God, in the present world. Besides, they took the reality of sin over against the righteousness and holiness of God usually far more seriously than the perfectionists do. And in their theory they saw a great danger. A theory, so our fathers taught; that claims that the child of God is able to live perfectly in this world and that he can actually attain perfection must necessarily lower the criterion or standard of perfection. He who takes sin seriously and has any idea of the righteousness and holiness of God certainly cannot be satisfied with the outward keeping of some of the commandments of God; but he understands that God demands truth in the inmost parts. And the child of God who knows himself and gains an ever deeper insight from a spiritual, ethical point of view into his own sinful heart and existence will not easily be tempted to imagine that his walk is perfect before the Lord. He is too vividly conscious of the very opposite. Those who claim that the child of God is able to attain to perfection usually speak in a very superficial way about their conversion to God. They commonly speak of some very gross sins in which they used to walk and from which they are now delivered. Formerly they were drunkards, or lived an immoral life; but since they were converted, they live soberly and in chastity. Little they speak of the inner fountain of the heart, out of which are the issues of life. Lack of proper self-knowledge is the basis of their imagination that they can walk perfectly before God. Sin is excused, and the life of sanctification consists in the external walking in some of the commandments of God. The teaching of the perfectionists, moreover, leads to a neglect in regard to. watching and praying, a neglect of a daily seeking refuge in the cross of Jesus Christ in order there to find forgiveness of sins and peace of mind and heart. Of this they have no need. They really have no need, of course, for the remission of their sins: for now they sin no more. For all these reasons Reformed people have always contested this serious error of the perfectionists.
It is not difficult to refute the arguments of the perfectionist. It may readily be granted that the Lord indeed does demand holiness in the life and conversation of His people. In fact, Reformed theologians emphasize this demand with far more seriousness and in a far deeper sense than the perfectionists do. But from this’ demand of God does not follow the possibility that the Christian can live perfectly according to that demand of God, that he can live without sin. It may also be granted that the church of Christ in the world is called holy and that actually she is holy in Christ Jesus. But it is true at the same time that the church possesses that holiness in Christ only in principle. In the same epistle in which the church and the saints are called holy in the Lord the believers are rebuked because of all kinds of sins and corruptions. And as far as the texts’ are concerned to which the perfectionists appeal and that apparently teach perfection in this life, it is very clear from other parts of the same epistle in which those expressions occur that they mean perfection only in principle. In I John 3:9 we read: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; but his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” But in the same epistle, namely, I John 1:8 we read: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And in the ninth verse of the same chapter we read: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to for give us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And again, in the same chapter, verse 10, we read: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” And as far as the examples in Holy Writ are concerned to which the perfectionists refer, and. that are supposed to teach that the saints can and do walk in perfection before God in this world, we may certainly remark that the entire cloud of witnesses in the old dispensation were one and all sinful, and there never was one of them that lived in perfection and without sin before God.
Over against this presentation of the perfectionists Reformed people emphasize the necessity of a daily and continual conversion to God, of a very serious struggle between flesh and spirit, the old and the new man, and of the calling continually to put off the old man and to put on the new man. They conceive of the Christian in this life as indeed perfect in principle, but as still living in the flesh and as characterized by many sins and infirmities.
This is the teaching of the Reformed confessions. Thus, for instance, in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day XXXIII, Questions and Answers 88-90, we read: “Of how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist? Of two parts; of the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man. What is the mortification of the old man? It is a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them. What is the quickening of the new man? It is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.” But in this same Lord’s Day good works are described not according to their outward appearance, but according to their inner nature. They are those “which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations., or the institutions of men.” Q. and A. 91. And in Lord’s Day XLIV, Q. and A. 114, we confess: “But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments? No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.” On the other hand, how seriously the Catechism takes the demand of God to walk in all sanctification of life may be evident from Q. and A. 115, where we read: “Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them? First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and, thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection; proposed to us, in a life to come.”
In the Netherland Confession, Article 24, we read of man’s sanctification and good works as follows: “We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true, that this justifying faith, makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man: for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith, which is called in Scripture, a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works, which God has commanded in his Word. Which works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by his grace: howbeit they are of no account toward our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do, good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more than the fruit of a tree can be good, before the tree itself is good. Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them (for what can we merit?), nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Let us therefore attend to what is written: when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do. In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them. Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior.”
In the Canons of Dordrecht, V, 1, 2, we read: “Whom God calls, according to his purpose, to the communion of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, he delivers also from the dominion and slavery of sin in this life; though not altogether from the body of sin, and from the infirmities of the flesh, so long as they continue in this world.
“Hence spring daily sins of infirmity, and hence spots adhere to the best works of the saints; which furnish them with constant matter for humiliation before God, and flying for refuge to Christ crucified; for’ mortifying the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer, and by holy exercises of piety; and for pressing forward to the goal of perfection, till being at length delivered from this body of death, they are brought to reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.”
In Article 4 of the same chapter of the Canons we read: “Although the weakness of the flesh cannot prevail against the power of God, who confirms and preserves true believers in a state of grace, yet converts are not always so influenced and actuated by the Spirit of God, as not in some particular instances sinfully to deviate from the guidance of divine grace, so as to be seduced by, and comply with; the lusts of the flesh; they must, therefore, be constant in watching and prayer, that they be not led into temptation. When these are neglected, they are not only liable to be drawn into great and heinous sins, by Satan, the world, and the flesh, but sometimes by the righteous permission of God actually fall into these evils. This, the lamentable fall of David, Peter, and other saints described in Holy Scripture, demonstrates.”
This is the teaching of the Reformed fathers, who must have nothing of the theory of the perfectionists. Indeed, they know very well that the people of God are principally holy. They know too that the. Word of God exhorts them constantly to walk in newness and holiness of life. But they deny that the perfectionists’ theory is true, namely, that they are able in the midst of the present world and while the flesh is still in them to walk in perfection.
And the same is also clearly taught in Holy Writ. The teaching of the perfectionists is certainly quite foreign to Scripture. All the admonitions in the Word of God to the effect that the saints must walk in the world in a new and holy life nevertheless presuppose that sin is still in their members. Thus, the church is admonished in Ephesians 4:22-24: “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” And what this means is explained in the verses that follow. The saints must put away lying, and speak truth every man with his neighbor. They must be angry without sinning. They must not give place to the devil. They must not steal, but rather labor, working with their hands the thing which is good, that they may have to give to him that needeth. No corrupt communication must be allowed to proceed out of their mouth, but only that which is good to the use of edifying. They must beware that they grieve not the Holy Spirit of God. They must put off all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and evil speaking and all malice. And they must be kind one to another, tenderhearted, and forgive one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven them. They must be followers of God, as dear children. They must walk in love, and put off all fornication and uncleanness and covetousness and. filthiness and foolish talking and jesting. For they must be warned that no. whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. And because of all these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. All this is not presented as an ideal that is already attained, but as one that must constantly be striven after. Throughout their whole life they must fight the good fight of faith. Throughout their whole life they must put off the old man and put on the new man in Christ Jesus their Lord.
This same note of admonition is sounded throughout Holy Writ. In Romans 6:6 we read: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” But in the following verses the congregation is admonished as follows: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: put yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.”
The apostle certainly figures with the reality of the members of sin which are still present in the believers when he writes in Colossians 3:5: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” In Galatians 5:16-23 the apostle refers to the same reality: “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time) past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” And to quote no more, in Romans 8:12, 13 we read: “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Everywhere in Scripture, therefore, we find the same note. Everywhere all the admonitions that are directed to the saints presuppose that sin is still in their members, and that they must continually put off the old man and put on the new man in Christ Jesus. Everywhere the Christian in the world is presented as indeed perfect in principle, but very imperfect according to his sinful nature that remains with him until the grave.