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THE DOCTRINE OF CHRISTIAN PERFECTION, EXPLAINED AND
DEFENDED ; WITH SOME STRICTURES ON MR. Folsom's “ REVIEW OF MAHAN ON CHRISTIAN PERFECTION." Am. Bib. Repos. for July, 1839.
By Rev. Asa Mahan, President of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, Oberlin, Ohio.
EXPLANATORY Note by The EDITORS.
[The doctrine of Christian Perfection, as recently promulgated by the writer of this article, and some others, has attracted so much attention, that it seems worthy of a more specific and thorough examination than it has yet received ; and, having permitted the little volume by Mr. Mahan to be reviewed in a former No. of the Repository, we have thought it proper, and for the interests of truth, to allow him space for a brief statement and defence of the doctrine in question on the pages of the same work. We are not to be understood, however, as cherishing views in accordance with the main point here attempted to be established. Several of the writer's positions we regard as untenable. Yet they are the strong arguments in support of the doctrine, and we are glad to present them to our readers, so condensed and clearly stated. In this form they may hereafter be met without any danger of misapprehension ; and our expectation is that they will be examined in a future No. of the Repository. We do not propose to encou
courage a long controversy on this subject, but trust that a single article, in reply to the following, will be all that will be judged necessary to place the truth in clear light. For the present we refer our readers to the article by Dr. Pond on the same subject, in the Repository for January, 1839, and also to Mr. Folsom's “Review."
It is due to Mr. Mahan to state, that we have stricken from his manuscript several paragraphs which seemed irrelevant to his principal purpose, and have also omitted to insert several passages marked for quotation from his book, the entire substance of which is repeated in his present article. But we have been careful to exclude nothing which could contribute in any measure to the support of his main positions.]
NEAR the commencement of his review, Mr. Folsom remarks : “ It was due from Mr. Mahan to his brethren, and to the cause of truth, to present, in the outset, the real question at issue; to state what they believed and what they did not believe.” Have I not done precisely what Mr. Folsom says I ought to have done? Has he not himself overlooked or misapprehended what I have said upon the subject; and for this reason misstated the question at issue between the advocates and opposers of the doctrine of Christian Perfection? That the reader may form a correct judgment in respect to this subject, I will cite a passage from the work reviewed. After endeavoring to explain the nature of the doctrine, and the important points of agreement between its advocates and opposers, I thus state the question in respect to which we differ: “We will now, in the second place, consider the question in respect to which they differ. It is the simple question, Whether we may now, during the progress of the present life, attain to entire perfection in holiness, and whether it is proper for us to indulge the anticipation of making such attainments. One part of the church affirm, that the perfect obedience which God requires of us, we may render to him. The other affirm, that it is criminal for us to expect to render that obedience. One part affirm that we ought to aim at entire perfection in holiness, with the expectation of attaining to that state. The other part affirm, that we ought to aim at the same perfection in holiness, with the certain expectation of not attaining to that state. On the one hand, it is affirmed, that we ought to pray that the
very God of peace will sanctify us wholly, and preserve our whole spirit, and soul, and body, blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” with the expectation, that God will answer our prayers by the bestowment of that very blessing. On the other hand, it is affirmed, that we ought to put up that identical prayer, with the certain expectation of not receiving the blessing which we desire of him.' On the one hand, it is affirmed that grace is provided in the gospel to render the Christian, even in this life, 'perfect in every good work to do the will of God.' On the other hand, it is affirmed, that no such grace is provided.”
In respect to the question, as here stated, I conceive the advocates and opposers of the doctrine of Christian perfection are really at issue. The question is entirely distinct from
SECOND SERIES, VOL. IV. NO, II.
the question, What attainments do Christians actually make? Now, how shall this question be settled, viz. the question whether we are authorized to aim at and pray for “ perfection” with the expectation of attaining it?' Not by a reference to our natural ability. This may exist in all its fulness, with the absolute certainty that no attainments at all in holiness will be made. This is in fact true of all fallen spirits, and with all mankind in the absence of the influence of the grace of the gospel. But suppose it to be shown, that provisions are made and revealed in the gospel, for this specific object, the entire sanctification of Christians in this life; and that specific promises to that effect are there given. Are we not, then, as fully authorized to expect perfect, as partial holiness in this life? It is “ by the promises” that we are to be “made partakers of the divine nature.” When we have determined the nature and extent of the promises," have we not determined the degree of holiness which we are authorized to expect? The question, then, What are the nature and extent of “the promises ?” is a question of fundamental importance to us as Christians. Now, it is upon this question, that the advocates of the doctrine of Christian perfection are endeavoring to fix the attention of the church. They contend that there are three questions connected with this doctrine. 1. What is the natural ability of men? or, have men natural ability to yield perfect obedience to the commands of God? In respect to this question, most Christians agree. 2. Are we authorized, in view of the provisions and promises of divine grace, together with the other teachings of inspiration, to expect to attain to a state of perfect holiness in this life? 3. Do the Scriptures teach us that any have attained, or will attain to a state of entire sanctification in this life? The opposers of this doctrine overlook entirely the second question, and fasten upon the third, as the only important question in respect to which we are at issue.
In the book reviewed by Mr. F., the second is the great question to which the attention of the reader is perpetually directed. The third is referred to only incidentally, and that on account of its bearing on the main question. The argument under this head is this : We are authorized to expect to attain to a state of entire sanctification in this life, because the Scriptures inform us, that others have attained to that
state. Every thing is said as a means to one end—the determination of the great question, To what degree of holiness do the Scriptures authorize us to expect to attain in this life? That which is practicable to us on the ground of our natural ability, is in one sense attainable. That which is rendered practicable, not on the ground of natural ability, but by the provisions of divine grace, is attainable in a different and higher sense of the term. It is in this last sense, that the term is used by me throughout the entire work under consideration. *
Mr. F. meets the arguments adduced to sustain my position by starting another and different question, and then replying to that, and not the one which I had started. This will appear evident as we proceed to consider his reply to my arguments.
The first argument to sustain the position that perfection in holiness is attainable in this life, is thus stated. “The Bible positively affirms that provision is made in the gospel for the attainment of that state, and that to make such provision is one of the great objects of Christ's redemption.”+ To sustain this declaration, the following passages are cited : Rom. 8: 3, 4. 1 Pet. 2: 24. 2 Cor. 5: 15. 1 Pet. 1: 4. 2 Cor. 7:1. But Mr. F. replies, that this does not prove that any will attain to that state, and consequently, “proves nothing respecting the real question at issue, unless it be contended, that the object of the Saviour's coming, being, as Mr. Mahan states, to raise Christians to a state of perfect and perpetual holiness in this life, that object has failed of being accomplished, except so far as real Christians have been
raised to such a state." I reply: The fact that provision is made in the gospel for the entire justification of sinners, does not, by itself, prove that any actually are justified. But does it not authorize us to seek for that blessing with the expectation of obtaining it ? For the same reason, does not the fact, that provision is made in the gospel for the entire sanctification of Christians in this life, authorize us to seek for that state, with the expectation of attaining to that also ? If the fact that provision is made in the gospel for the declared and specific object of putting us in possession of a certain blessing, does not authorize us to seek for that blessing, with the ex
* See pp. 19, 20, etc.
† Page 20.
pectation of obtaining it, how can it be shown that we are authorized to seek for any blessing promised in the Bible, with the expectation of obtaining it?
My second argument is thus stated :* “ Perfection in holiness is promised to the Christian in the New Covenant, under which he is now placed. The moral law, as all admit, requires perfect and perpetual holiness. The position assumed is, that whatever is required of us by the moral law, is definitely promised to us in the gospel. In 2 Pet. 1: 4, we are informed, that it is "by the promises,” that we are to be rendered “partakers of the divine nature;" that is, of the holiness and blessedness of God, and “escape the corruption that is in the world through lust.” If it can be shown, that perfection in holiness is definitely pledged to us in the promises," then I affirm, that they authorize us to expect perfection in holiness.
To show that the promises do authorize us to expect perfection in holiness, the following, among other passages of Scripture, were cried. Jer. 32: 39, 40. Ez. 36: 25. Deut. 30: 6. Jer. 1: 20. 1 Thes. 5: 23, 24.1
Let us look particularly at two or three of these passages. Deut. 30: 6, “ And the Lord thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul. In Deut. 10: 12, the following question is asked: “And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God, with all thy heart and with all thy soul?” Now, why are we told that the phrase, “with all thy heart and with all thy soul,” in the latter passage, and in all the precepts of the Bible, implies perfect holiness, while in the former passage the same phrase implies but partial holiness? If this construction is to be put upon this phrase in Deut. 30: 6, why not in all other instances ?
i Thess. 5: 23, 24, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly," &c. The original term here translated wholly, is composed of two terms, each of which means perfection. Hence Professor Robinson renders it “wholly complete, perfect.” The term rendered whole in the succeeding clause, is also a strong intensive. The true meaning of the passage Page 22.
+ Pages 83, 84.