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Christians are frequently represented as being perfect, in distinction from those who are not real Christians, or from other real Christians who are not perfect. This has been improved as an argument, that some Christians do obtain sinless perfection in this life, supposing that this is intended by being perfect. But the careful reader of the Bible will find that to be perfect has a various and different meaning, when used with respect to different subjects and relations. When used with respect to God, it means absolute perfection; in which sense it is not applicable to any creature, especially to man in this state. When applied to Christians, it sometimes means real sincerity and uprightness of heart, or their being real Christians, or good men, in distinction from those who are so only in appearance and pretence. In this sense Hezekiah appears to use it, when he says, “ Remember now, O Lord, how I have walked before thee in truth, and with a perfect heart." (Isa. xxxviii. 3.) And in this sense God speaks of Job as a perfect and upright man. (Job i. 8.) Job himself uses the word in a different sense, when he says, “ If I say I am perfect, it would prove me perverse,” (Job ix. 20,) — otherwise, he would contradict his Maker and himself too; for he held his integrity fast, and appealed to God that he was upright. (Job xxxi. 6.). Sometimes it means whole and entire Christians, acting out every Christian grace, or every branch of Christianity, in distinction from those who were defective in some Christian attainments, while they appeared to be chiefly attentive to others. And sometimes they are called perfect who have made greater proficiency in the Christian life, and are stronger and more thorough Christians, in distinction from the weaker, and those of less attainments. He who carefully studies his Bible will find that Christians are not said to be perfect in any higher sense than these. The apostle Paul, in a fore-cited place, says that he did not think himself perfect, yet, in the very next words, speaks of himself and others as being perfect. “Let us, therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded.” (Phil. iii. 12–15.) He must use the word in two different senses, otherwise he would contradict himself. When he says he does not think or pretend that he is perfect, he means sinless perfection. When he says, “as many of us as be perfect,” he means those who had made considerable improvement and advances in Christianity; not being, in this respect, babes, or children, but grown men. (Heb. v. 13, 14.)
It is, certainly, the duty of all Christians to be perfectly holy, in obedience to the law of God, requiring them to love God with all their heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves. And every thing contrary to this, or short of it, which takes place in their hearts or lives, is criminal. The law cannot be abated, nor their obligation to obey it perfectly annulled, in the least degree. But it does not follow from this that any one does, or will, come up to the rule, and do the whole of his duty in this life. For this the Christian depends wholly upon God. He is no further holy than he is made so by the omnipotent energy of the Divine Spirit; and though God requires them to be perfectly holy, yet he is under no obligation, by promise or any other way, to make them perfectly holy in this world. His requiring it of them does not imply any such obligation, and the covenant of grace contains no promise of this. In that there is a divine promise that they shall persevere in holiness to the end of life, and that they shall be perfectly holy in his kingdom forever; for this is necessarily implied in perfect happiness and eternal life. But it contains no promise of any particular degree of holiness, more than is necessary to prevent their falling, totally and finally, from a state of grace. As to the degree of holiness, and the particular exercises of it, in every Christian, God orders it as he pleases, to answer his own wise and infinitely good purposes.
The Redeemer is able to make every believer perfectly holy, from his first conversion, so that he never should be guilty of another sin; and, if this had been wisest and best, it would have been so ordered. Therefore, we are certain it is most wise and best that none of the redeemed should be perfectly holy in this life, though we were unable to see any reason why it is so. But we may now see some of the wise ends which are answered hereby, and reasons why the redeemed are in such an imperfect state, and in so great a degree sinful, while in this world, — a few of which will be mentioned here.
1. If they were perfectly holy, they would not be so fit to live in this disordered, sinful world. There would not be that analogy of one thing to another, which is observed in the works of God, and which is proper and wise. This is not a world and state suited to be the dwelling-place of perfectly holy creatures. It is a proper state of discipline, suited to form and train up the redeemed from among men for a state of perfect holiness and happiness in another world.
2. If Christians were perfectly holy in this life, it would not be so much a state of trial as now it is. Their temptations could not be so many and strong as now they are, and Satan could not have so much power and advantage to tempt and try to distress and seduce them; and their danger would not be so great and visible; and they would not have that opportunity or occasion of the exercise of some particular graces, such as constant humiliation and repentance for their renewed sins, loathing and abhorring themselves, fighting against and mortifying their own lusts, longing for deliverance, and faith and patience in these dark and disagreeable circumstances, as now they have, by which they honor Christ, and are preparing for greater happiness and rewards in his kingdom.
3. Such a state of imperfection and sin is suited and necessary more effectually to teach them, and make them know by abundant experience, their own total depravity by nature, the evil nature and odiousness of sin, their own ill desert, the exceeding, inexpressible, and inconceivable deceitfulness, obstinacy, and wickedness of their own hearts; and their absolute dependence on sovereign grace, to prevent their eternal destruction, and to save them; their need of the atonement which Christ has made, and the greatness of that power and grace which saves such creatures. These, and many other things, are more thoroughly and effectually impressed on their minds, and they are instructed, and learn them to better advantage in the school of Christ, in this state of imperfection and sin, than could be in a state of perfect holiness.
King David, by falling into sin, was led to reflect upon, and confess, his native depravity; the exceeding evil of sin, as against God; his desert of destruction, and the justice of God in punishing him; his need of pardon and of an atonement, and of the renovation of his heart; and his dependence on God for this. On that occasion, the following is his language: “ According to the multitude of thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin; for I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight; that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps. li. 1–5, 10.)
4. Believers, by being sanctified but in part, and attended with so much sin in this life, obtain a more clear view, and greater sense of the evil of sin, and the miserable state of the sinner; and are hereby prepared to know and enjoy the happiness of a perfectly holy state, to a greater degree than otherwise they could. The more sensible they are of the evil from which they are delivered, the greater will the positive good which they enjoy appear to them. And their gratitude and praise for the sovereign grace, of which they are the subjects, will rise proportionably higher, by which God will be more glorified, and they more happy forever; so that all this will turn to their good in the end, and they will be much more happy than if they had been perfectly holy from their conversion, and had not, after that, gone through a state of conflict with sin and Satan, and through much tribulation entered into the kingdom of heaven.
5. By this, the power, wisdom, goodness, truth, and faithfulness of the Redeemer are, in a peculiar manner, exercised and displayed, as they could not be in any other way. This gives occasion and opportunity for the most apparent and glorious manifestation of these; by which he glorifies himself, and the happiness of the redeemed is greatly advanced. Therefore, it is, on the whole, most wise and best, that the work of sanctification should be gradual, and not perfected at once; and that the saints should be sanctified but in part while in this world, and attended with much imperfection and sin to the end of life.
The exceeding greatness of the power of God is exerted and displayed in renewing the depraved heart of man, and forming it to true holiness. (Eph. i. 19.) It is a power which subdues the obstinacy, and all possible opposition of the human heart, and which overcomes and casts out Satan and all his host of combined enemies to God and man. Therefore, this is a greater exertion of power than that by which the natural world was made, for that was formed out of nothing; therefore, there could be no opposition and resistance to creating power in that instance. And the power displayed in creating holiness appears as much greater and more excellent than that which is exerted in creating the natural world, as the former effect is greater, more important, and excellent than the latter.
But this power is made more conspicuous and sensible, in preserving and maintaining a small degree of holiness in the heart of a Christian in the midst of the opposition with which he is surrounded and assaulted, by the strength of evil propensities within him, by the world, and by Satan, than it would be in forming him to perfect holiness at once. the weak Christian, in the midst of strong temptations and potent enemies, constantly seeking, and exerting all their power and cunning to devour and destroy him, is preserved and upheld, through a course of trial, by the mighty, omnipotent hand of the Redeemer; and the little spark of holiness implanted in the believer's heart is continued alive and burning, while there is so much, both within and without, tending to extinguish it, which is really more of a constant miracle and manifestation of the power of Christ, than it would be to preserve a little spark of fire, for a course of years, in the midst of the sea, while the mighty waves are fiercely dashing against it
In this way,
and upon it, attempting to overwhelm and extinguish it. Christian is, by this situation and his experience, made more and more sensible of this, and learns that he lives by the power of Christ, and repairs to this, that he may be " strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might,” or his mighty power, that he may be able to stand and persevere in the midst of enemies. (Eph. vi. 10.) Out of weakness, he is made strong and becomes valiant in the spiritual combat. (Heb. xi. 34.) And Christ, by these babes and sucklings, ordains and displays strength, and perfects praise. To this the apostle Paul attests. My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor. xii. 9.)
The wisdom of the Redeemer is also employed and manifested in carrying all believers, and the church militant in general, through this life, and to the end of the world, safe to a state of perfection inglory. He conducts all things, external and internal, with respect to every Christian, and so orders the degree, manner, and time of his influence and assistance, as to keep them from falling totally and finally, and carries on the work of sanctification in the wisest manner, and so as to defeat Satan in all his wiles and cunning devices, by which he attempts to seduce and destroy them. It requires infinite skill and wisdom to sanctify a corrupt heart, and to order every thing so, with respect to each individual, at all times, and every moment, as effectually to prevent his falling away, though he walks upon the verge of ruin, and has such strong enemies within him and without; and so adjust every circumstance, that even those things and events which seem to be calculated for his ruin, shall promote his holiness and salvation. Were there no such persons, weak, and very imperfect and sinful, to live in a world full of enemies, and to be conducted on through all dangers, in the midst of cunning enemies, having great skill and success in destroying men, and carried safe to heaven at last, there would be no opportunity for such exercise and display of infinite, unsearchable wisdom as this gives. Were not the Redeemer as wise as he is powerful, no Christian could be saved; but on his wisdom they may and do rely with confidence, comfort, and joy. In his bands, they and the whole church are safe, and all adverse things shall work for good, and issue in their perfection in holiness, and eternal salvation. And well may they with admiration exclaim with the apostle Paul: “O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. xi. 33.) And in heaven they will ascribe wisdom to the Redeemer forever. (Rev. v. 12.)