The Imperfection of Our Sanctification
Chapter XIII, Paragraph 2 of the Second London Confession:
The word “sanctification” carries several different meanings in the Scriptures. Sometimes it refers to being set apart from common to sacred use (Exodus 13:2). Other times, it refers to association with symbols and elements of worship, such as the blood of bulls and goats (Hebrews 9:18–22). But in the soteriological sense, “Sanctification is the real change in man from the sordidness of sin to the purity of God’s image. Ephesians 4:22–24.”1 Soteriological sanctification has two parts: definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification. At the moment the Spirit unites the elect sinner to Christ in his effectual calling, he is definitively sanctified, which means that he is regenerated and justified. In definitive sanctification, the sinner dies to the dominion of sin. He is set free from the dominion of sin’s curse (in justification) and he is set free from the dominion of sin’s power (in regeneration). Though the dominion of sin is broken at his regeneration and justification, sin is by no means completely eliminated. G.I. Williamson puts it well:
[In definitive sanctification] The dominion of sin is broken, though the presence of sin is not entirely eliminated. Just as penicillin may break a fever, thus destroying the dominion of a disease, and yet some time elapses before every trace of the disease is eliminated, so it is with sin. Just as the Allied armies invaded Europe and destroyed the threat of Hitler’s hope of world dominion, and yet required much more time to eradicate every vestige of it, so it is with sin. Sin no longer commands the heart. The main lines of communication have been destroyed. The control center is now in the hands of God. But the alien force still carries on harassment of all kind with all the skill, cunning and desperation of a defeated foe.2
Thus, while definitive sanctification destroys the power of sin in regeneration, it does not destroy the remnants of sin in the believer. That is why progressive sanctification is necessary so that the power of sin is more and more mortified (or killed) and the power of holiness is more and more vivified (or made alive). The following article will explain how the biblical and confessional doctrine of progressive sanctification entails imperfection, or remaining sin, in the believer.
According to William Ames, whose volume, The Marrow of Theology, was highly influential on the Reformed confessional tradition, progressive sanctification is a threefold process. First, negatively speaking, it involves purging of the “filthiness, corruption, or stain of sin.”3 “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Second, positively speaking, “Its end is the purity of God’s image.”4 The Holy Spirit infuses and imparts more and more holiness into the believer, conforming him more and more to the good law of God and thus to the image of Christ. “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25). Third, “The end is called a new and divine creature.”5 The final goal of progressive sanctification is renewal after the image of Christ, restoring the image of God that was marred by the fall, which is only finally attained at glorification. Ephesians 4:24 says believers are to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God.” Progressive sanctification, like definitive sanctification is imperfect.
Versions of Perfectionistic Sanctification
Despite the biblical teaching of the imperfection of sanctification, many have taught that sanctification can be perfect in this life. There are primarily two versions of perfectionistic sanctification, the first is antinomian and the second is legalistic.
Antinomian versions of sanctification viewed believers as wholly sanctified by Christ’s perfect holiness, received by faith alone. According to Robert Shaw, “Antinomians maintain, that believers are sanctified only by the holiness of Christ being imputed to them, and that there is no inherent holiness infused into them, or required of them.”6 The Antinomians collapsed sanctification into justification and failed to distinguish properly between the two.
The result is that they taught all believers are both perfectly just and perfectly holy, regardless of their actual and personal holiness. They claimed that men may be saved and holy without regard to any moral transformation.7 Thus, the Antinomians held to a form of “perfectionism,” believing that they did not need to exert effort to grow in inherent holiness, since they were already perfectly holy through the imputed holiness of Christ.
Perfectionism has also been expressed in versions of legalism. In essence, legalistic perfectionists said that to be sanctified is to be perfectly and inherently holy. The Legalists collapsed justification into sanctification, without admitting degrees of sanctification, insisting those who are actually sanctified are free from the remnants of sin in their own persons. According to David Dickson, “The Papists, Socinians, Quakers, and Anabaptists affirm and maintain a perfect inherent holiness in this life.” Today, the Higher Life, Kewsick movement, and even No-Lordship Dispensationalism teach a kind of perfectionism, calling for believers not only to come to Christ for salvation, but also to be sanctified once-and-for-all through “total surrender” or “letting go and letting God.”
Herman Bavinck explains that in order to actually affirm the possibility of personal perfection, the proponents of legalistic perfectionism, “degrade the moral law and make a distinction between mortal and venial sins, or between committing and harboring sin, and similarly between earthly and heavenly, relative and absolute perfection.”9 In other words, legalistic perfectionism did not affirm the necessity of the absolute purity of perfected Christians; rather, it affirmed a kind of purity in perfect Christians, while still admitting certain kinds of flaws. Correspondingly, legalistic perfectionism distinguished between two kinds of Christians. Ordinary Christians are not yet perfect in this life. But other sanctified Christians have arrived at perfection.
Theological Problems with Perfectionism
Perfectionism has a number of problems. Herman Bavinck’s work, Reformed Dogmatics, outlines the problems with the perfectionistic heresies. The central problem with perfectionism and thus with both legalism and antinomianism is that it divides what ought to be understood as united.
First, the moral law of God is one and cannot be divided.
James 2:10 says, “Whoever keeps the whole law, but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” This moral law of God remains in didactic force for all believers as a single whole, and to sin against any part or degree of God’s law is to sin against it all. Thus, legalistic perfectionists are wrong to teach that one may be relatively perfect without being absolutely perfect, or that one may be perfect while committing sin as long as one does not harbor sin.10
Second, Christ is one and cannot be divided.
The Lord Jesus Christ purchased a whole salvation for all of His elect bride, and it is impossible to possess some of His merits without possessing all of them. Thus, the antinomian perfectionists are wrong to teach that one may be positionally perfectly holy without any accompanying inherent holiness. Jesus died not only to free us from the guilt of sin, but also from its power. Similarly, the legalistic perfectionists are wrong to teach, as the Methodists do, that one may be justified in Christ, without yet being sanctified. Union with Christ brings the whole Christ and all of His benefits to the elect.11
Third, the nature of faith is one; therefore, it both justifies and sanctifies.
Both perfectionistic antinomianism and legalism fail to grasp the Bible’s teaching about the nature of saving faith. Perfectionistic antinomianism teaches that faith merely passively receives Christ’s holiness, but that it does not actively “strive … for the holiness without which none will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Similarly, the perfectionistic legalism found in Methodism and Keswick teaching, for example, teaches that one may be justified by faith, but then only later sanctified. This view fails to understand that saving faith simultaneously passively receives Christ’s righteousness for justification, but also actively pursues Christ and His good commandments for sanctification. Hebrews 4 explains that true faith is a faith of “rest” (Hebrews 4:3) as well as a faith that seeks to “strive” (Hebrews 4:11).12
Fourth, the Christian life is one and cannot be divided.
Legalists deny that any Christians are being sanctified and guided by the whole moral law of God, since they divide it and make distinctions such as relative and absolute perfection. Antinomians, likewise, deny that any Christian is to be guided by the moral law of God. If the moral law of God, however, is not the guide for the believer at the moment he first believes, then he will have to substitute some other ethic derived from philosophy or from the state or society or culture around him. Cultural trends will tend to dominate his personal ethic. But the Christian life is whole, governed from the first moment by God’s good law, not divided, or borrowed from the world.13
Thus, every version of perfectionism, which denies the imperfection of our sanctification in this life, must divide what God has united, but God has joined all of these things in Christ.
The Teaching of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith 13.2 about the Imperfection of Sanctification
The Second London Baptist Confession of 1677/89 speaks of the imperfection of sanctification in chapter 13, Of Sanctification, paragraph 2. It reads:
This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man (1 Thessalonians 5:23), yet imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part (Romans 7:18–23), whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh (Galatians 5:17, 1 Peter 2:11).
This paragraph is constructed to confront the false doctrines of perfectionism and to relate the biblical teaching about the imperfect nature of Christian sanctification. The Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith, the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration, and the Second London Baptist Confession all have identical wording in this paragraph. Consider the three main elements of the paragraph, which teach the imperfection of sanctification.
First, notice that “sanctification is throughout, in the whole man” (2LCF 13.2).
That is to say that we cannot merely be sanctified in our minds. It would be wrong to think that right affirmations of doctrine alone are sanctification without sincere faith in those doctrines that leads to genuine affection for Christ and godly behavior. Neither are we merely sanctified in our hearts, as though feelings or affections of the soul, divorced from rational thought and holy conduct is true sanctification. But neither are were merely sanctified in our behaviors as though outward bodily change is true sanctification. Each of these errors has perfectionistic tendencies, since it is quite possible to hold orthodox doctrine on paper, or to feel great emotions for God in worship, or to be outwardly behaviorally moral and thus to think of oneself as perfect because of these partial achievements.
True sanctification involves the whole man, which includes mind, heart, and will, but also body and soul, and the whole Christian life and experience. The Bible says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 1:23–24). According to William Ames, “Although the whole man partakes of this grace, it is first and most appropriately in the soul and later progresses to the body, inasmuch as the body of the man is capable of the same obedience to the will of God as the soul. In the soul, this grace is found first and most appropriately in the will whence it passes to other faculties according to the order of nature.”14
Thus, the first step to undermining perfectionistic doctrines of sanctification is to affirm that sanctification is in the whole man, that it is not divided, but that it immediately upon conversion involves the whole life of the believer.
Second, notice that sanctification is “imperfect in this life; [and] there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part” (2LCF 13.2).
When this says that sanctification in this life is “imperfect,” it does not mean that sanctification is defective, but that it is incomplete. That is, sin remains in the hearts of true believers. William Ames, who expressed the confessional theology of the seventeenth century, rightly says:
Because sanctification is imperfect while we live here as children, all believers have, as it were, a double form – that of sin and that of grace, for perfect sanctification is not found in this life, except in the dreams of some fanatics … Yet all that are truly sanctified tend [or grow] to perfection… . Sin or the corrupted part which remains in the sanctified is called in the Scripture the Old man, outward man, the members, and the body of sin. Grace or the renewed part is called the New man, the spirit, the mind, and the like.15
Consider the following lines of biblical evidence that sin remains in the believer.
The Bible teaches that no one is without sin. In the Old Testament, 1 Kings 8:46 says, “There is no one who does not sin.” Note the universal negative, “no one,” which includes believers and unbelievers. Proverbs 20:9 says, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?’” The obvious answer to this rhetorical question is, “no one can say that.” Ecclesiastes 7:20 says, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” This verse teaches that absolute righteousness entails perfect sinlessness, and it denies that anyone is righteous in this sense, which is why the imputed righteousness of Christ is necessary for justification. In the New Testament, 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Notice the first person plural “we,” which includes the author. John, the holy Apostle, says that if he denies sin in himself, then he would be deceiving himself and he would not even be a believer. James 3:2 says, “For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man.” The context shows that “stumbling” refers to sin. Therefore, the Bible in both Testaments says that no one is without sin.16
The Scriptures also teach that believers should ask God to forgive them of their sins, which shows that true believers have remaining sin. In the Lord’s Prayer, which is Christ’s example to all Christians of how to pray, He says to ask God to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Ordinary Christians are to pray and ask God for forgiveness, which shows that they have remaining sin. In 1 John 1:9, John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” John assumes that Christians will have sins that they need to confess, and he explains that if faithful penitent Christians confess their sins, then God will forgive them. Of course, the forgiveness of sins mentioned here is not for justification, since all of the believer’s sins were forgiven in justification at the moment he first believed. Rather, this forgiveness is twofold. First, when the believer confesses his sins, the sense of God’s forgiveness in justification terminates again on the conscience, and he experiences God’s forgiveness. But second, a believer’s sins disrupt his communion with God in sanctification, and so he needs to ask for forgiveness to have a clear conscience and to restore faithful communion with God as his Father.17
A classic passage refuting perfectionism is found in Philippians 3:12–15. Paul says:
12. 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. 13. 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, 14. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.
In verse 12, Paul plainly says that he is not “already perfect.” He is pressing on in Christ and seeking holiness in Christ, but he is not “perfect.” There’s an important play on words here. In verse 12, Paul says that he is not perfect. But then in verse 15, Paul says that he is “mature,” which is the same Greek word for perfect. William Hendricksen explains, “Judaizers may regard themselves as being teleioi (perfect), but it is we who are the real teleioi (mature individuals), for the teleioi are exactly the ones who in full awareness of their own imperfection reach for the goal.”18 In other words, perfect Christians realize they are not perfect, but they want to be.19
A question often arises with respect to certain passages of Scripture, which many believe teach the doctrine of perfection. For example, the Bible commands us to be perfect. Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Of course, this is nothing other than the command of the law, and the law’s commands never imply an ability to keep them (Romans 3:19–20). The law of God never requires anything less than perfection, even for the believer. Jesus does not say that the Spirit will make us perfect, or that we have the ability to be perfect, only that perfection is the standard for all.20
Other passages say that those who are born of God do not sin. For example, 1 John 3:6 says, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.” 1 John 3:8–9 says, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” But John is speaking of the definitive sanctification that happens at the new birth, not progressive sanctification. He explicitly references the new birth in verse 9. John is only saying what Paul says in Romans 6:6–14, that sin has no dominion over those who are united to Christ, who have died to sin and have been raised to walk in Christ’s life by virtue of their regeneration. John is in no way denying that sin remains in those who are being progressively sanctified, which is clear from what he says in the first chapter of the letter. In 1 John 1:8, he says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” 1 John 2:1 says, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous,” clearly showing that believers can sin, and that they have an advocate.
Third, notice that the confession says that there “ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war” (2LCF 13.2).
Though sin remains in every true believer, no true believer is at peace with his sin. He makes war against it, seeking to put it to death and to grow in holiness from love to Christ and joy in Him for so great a salvation. Of course, if someone thinks he is perfectly holy (either objectively in Christ or subjectively in himself), there is no need for a war at all. G.I. Williamson said:
As Murray has rightly said, ‘There is a total difference between surviving sin and reigning sin.’ It is impossible that a true believer will rest content with his sin, indulging it freely, turning the grace of God into lasciviousness. Only if we ‘through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body shall [we] live’ (Rom 8:13). And it is a noteworthy fact that the greater progress one makes in sanctification, the more he will be distressed by the sin that is yet present with him (Rom 7:24).21
There is a war in the heart of the believer because, contrary to legalistic and antinomian forms of perfectionism, he has not yet been completely sanctified in mind, heart, or will. William Ames says:
Two things should be noted. First, a spiritual war is continually waged between these parts [the corrupted part and the renewed part]…. Second, there is a daily renewal of repentance. The flesh which remains in the regenerate is not only in the inciting and sensory appetite, but in the will and reason itself (1 Thess 5:23). Flesh or inordinate desire [concupiscentia] is the true reason for sin in the regenerate themselves (Rom 7).22
The Apostle Paul clearly teaches that there is an ongoing war in the soul of the believer. Galatians 5:16–17 says, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” In other words, the flesh wars against the Spirit and the Spirit wars against the flesh, contrary to all forms of perfectionism.
In Romans 7, Paul says much the same thing that he says in Galatians 5. In Romans 7:14, he says, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin,” meaning that Adam’s sin sold him under the curse of sin, and that Paul, the believer, is still experiencing the effects of Adam’s first sin because sin remains in Paul. Paul goes on to describe the war that exists in the heart of every believer in verses 15–23:
15. I do not understand my own actions For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law that it is good. 17. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells in me. 21. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, 23. but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Paul longs to obey God’s law but does not have the ability yet to keep it perfectly. The dominion of sin has been destroyed, but the remnants of sin are still in his heart. And he hates the sin in his heart. And he fights it and makes war against it.23 The Bible everywhere speaks of the need of the believer to fight against sin and for holiness. And we fight by the means of grace, the Word, the sacrament, the prayers, and the fellowship of the saints. As we give ourselves to these means by faith, we see more of Christ and His great redemptive love, and we grow in the knowledge of Christ and love for Christ, and we have the power to keep His commandments more and more. And we must exert effort as we fight this war. The Apostle Peter is very clear: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5). This war requires effort. And the writer of the Hebrews says, we must “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). This war requires striving. The armies of Satan have been broken, and the victory is ours, but we must still fight the remaining skirmishes with diligent effort to overcome.
In conclusion, the perfectionistic teachings of both legalism and antinomianism comport neither with the Word of God nor with the Reformed confessional tradition. The Bible teaches that sin remains in the hearts of believers, that the dominion of sin has been destroyed, but that all sin has not yet been eradicated. This means that believers should not expect perfection on this side of heaven, though they should certainly long for it and strive for it. This doctrine of Christian imperfection explains what sincere Christians feel in their hearts, that they are not yet perfectly holy, that they must continually run to Christ for grace because of their remaining sin, receive the comforts of His promises, and renew their repentance every day, being conformed more and more to the image of Christ, and learning to keep His good commandments more and more for His great glory.
1 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 168.
2 G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes (Philadelphia, PA: P&R, 1964), 115.
3 Ames, Marrow, 169.
6 Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus, 1973), 194.
7 Ernest F. Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993), 23.
8 David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary of the Westminster Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2007), 79.
9 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 263.
11 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 263–264.
12 Ibid., 264.
13 Ibid., 264–265.
14 Ames, Marrow, 169.
15 Ibid., 170–171.
17 Ibid., 171.
18 William Hendricksen, Philippians, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1974), n. 176.
19 For more exegesis of this passage and for a classic and thoroughgoing refutation of perfectionism, see B.B. Warfield, Studies in Perfectionism (Grand Rapids, MI: P&R, 1980).
20 John Broadus, Commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Classics, 1990), 124.
21 Williamson, The Westminster Confession, 115.
22 Ames, Marrow, 171.
23 For an excellent exposition of this passage, see Robert Haldane, Romans, Geneva Series of Commentaries (Carlisle PA: Banner, 1996), 290–299. The view that Paul is speaking as an unbeliever, or as a representative of Israel, rather than a believer is gaining popularity today. But this was not the position of Protestant Reformers, the Puritans or of the Reformed confessional tradition on this passage.