God’s Ways and Man’s Methods
of Becoming Holy, Contrasted
In What Sense Sinless?
Sinless and Christian Perfection Contrasted
Adear brother and schoolmate, who is not in the experience of holiness, wrote not long since, inquiring if I “believed in ‘sinless perfection.’” As I understand him, he means by this term just what thousands of other misinformed people mean by it, namely, “You claim to get to a place where you can’t sin.” This is what a great many have charged us and others with holding and teaching, and yet scarcely a month has passed since we began to publish, in which it has been declared and shown that we do not. Now we hardly know how to tell any more plainly than we have in the past four years in our publication that we NEVER HAVE and WE DO NOT NOW teach such a thing; and yet, since so many are dull of hearing,2 it seems needful to restate this matter again.
Were it not for the fact of the moral blindness of the natural heart, we should be shut up to the conclusion that on the part of many this accusation is sheer misrepresentation. We presume the old law of “line upon line” applies here.3
In common with other holiness people, including [the] Prophets and Apostles, we disclaim any such perfection that reaches in this lifetime, at least, “a place where we cannot sin any more.” We never saw any scripture for it. We never heard it taught. It is not advocated by any of the holiness periodicals in this country, nor in a number from the old country4 that we have access to. In fact, the only propagators of this teaching that we have ever found are those who, in the face of facts in the case, and contrary to the printed teaching and testimony of the holiness people, charge that we teach it! These opposers of holiness propagate the error, and keep it at work even in the minds of unsaved people, by charging that holiness teachers and papers advocate it.
“Well, then, what kind of Perfection do you believe in?” Well, Christian Perfection, which is neither Absolute (or God’s) perfection, nor the perfection of an angel, nor of Eden, nor of the resurrection. Here is what we mean by Christian Perfection:
- It is the condition of one who loves the Lord “with all his heart,” as Jesus has enjoined.
- It is, further, the state of one who by previous compliance with God’s salvation has no longer any unsettled accounts with God concerning actual transgressions, or past sins. These are, through Christ, settled forever, and so far as those acts are concerned, they are utterly powerless to fall upon that one in penal consequence — just as if he had never committed them. Through the atonement he is made free from them, and in this sense is without sin. Those transgressions are blotted out forever. They shall never appear against him. He is sinless in the sense that God for Christ’s sake has pardoned, forgiven, blotted out, “his sins.” He is not sinless in the sense that he never committed an actual transgression, or that the sins he committed have never occurred as facts. God admits that “he has sinned.” Salvation does not alter past facts. If the man declares he has not sinned, he makes God a liar (1 John 1:10). But such a man is sinless in respect to the guilt of the past acts of a sinner. Remember, we apply the term in this case only to guilt and actual transgression. Other questions suggest themselves, but here we apply the term sinless as above stated. If we dare say that the soul which God for Christ’s sake has freely pardoned is still in this sense guilty and sinful, we deny the very efficacy of the atoning work; this we cannot do and believe in it at the same time. In God’s pardon through Christ, guilt is removed, making the soul guiltless. When the guilt goes, the sinfulness of it goes as well.
- But Christian perfection goes a step beyond this — it is a state in which the carnal mind, the bad “want to” which prompts the bad action, is dead (Galatians 5:24). In our last point, the soul had settled with God for past offenses. In this point we deal with a question of inborn depravity. The man never “committed” inborn depravity, and for being so born he can no more be responsible than for Adam’s sin or for mine. He cannot be pardoned for being so born, for it is an act, not a state, that is the subject of pardon. God’s remedy for a wrong state of the soul is not pardon, but cleansing; and the state called Christian perfection implies this cleansed state. The question of depravity, also called the carnal mind, or indwelling sin, has been answered by a man’s entire sanctification (cleansing) from it. And this entireness extends to the whole “body of sin” (Romans 6:6), as pardon does to the whole record of past offense, so that God reckons a person as one whose account in this matter is as surely settled as guilt is settled in pardon. So far as the issue is concerned, he is done with it. God has cleansed it out, not only as a count in the day of judgment, but out of his soul as an evil principle. Righteousness is imparted to his nature, his individuality, his will, his desire; in his very being he is a “partaker of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), so that we may indeed say, as to the carnal mind, it is dead. And of his soul, as to its state, he is holy and without sin. That is, the question of depravity has been met. The carnal mind is destroyed. God has destroyed or removed it, and in its place planted righteousness. “You are not in the flesh (carnal mind) but in the Spirit” (Romans 8:9). “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto holiness” (Romans 6:22). “And they that are Christ’s have crucified [have put to death] the flesh [carnal, depraved mind] with the affections and lusts” (Galatians 5:24).
- But Christian perfection does not here add infallibility and assume the Absolute, as those who talk about sinless perfection imagine. The perfection we speak of, while it settles past bills, and cures the moral distemper of a depraved nature, does not destroy moral freedom nor alter the conditions of walking with God. The avenues of temptations are still open. Infirmities of the physical nature remain. The realm of human intelligence is not omniscient, and mistakes of the head may be made. “The devil goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8), and God’s standing order is to “Watch.” Adam [Genesis 3], David [2 Samuel 11], Peter [Matthew 26:69-75] and Demas [2 Timothy 4:10] fell. So the liability to sin remains. We know of no exemption from the liability. We know of no perfection that covers the ground so that there is no chance of sinning. Adam had perfection before he fell. The angels that kept not their first estate had it [Jude 6]. Each were holy. Each fell. Adam was a perfect man, and had holiness to such perfection that it held all the measure of divinity that a being created with man’s capacity could. Perfect, yet liable to fall. The angel, with a wider range of equipment and capacity, in this respect was like Adam. So sinless perfection, in the sense that it is a state where liability to sin ceases, is a myth.
- Christian perfection implies a heart in which there is no desire to sin. The heart is for God, often when the head is wrong, So on the line of errors, the man is liable, and in that case in which an error (where the intention was good, though the means used were wrong) may have an injurious result, there is a need for the application of the atoning blood; we know of no perfection that prevents the occurrence of unintentional wrong.
- To say that compliance with God’s terms of keeping a soul in preservable conditions will not secure such keeping is no better than to deny that God can save a soul. To say God’s terms are so hard themselves they secure the man, whether or not he sins, is to deny man his moral freedom and abrogate the condition. Being kept from sin is possible, but the certainty of being kept depends upon compliance with the conditions. No compliance, no keeping. “He that abides in him sins not” (1 John 3:6).
- Christian perfection is to be holy, or freed from sin; it is not
- To be perfect in body;
- To be perfect in knowledge;
- To be INFALLIBLE;
- To be released from temptation.
- Christian perfection makes its possessor perfect in his Christianity, not necessarily in anything else; whereas so-called sinless perfection purports to perfect the man entirely, and his surroundings as well.
- Christian perfection is compatible with imperfect knowledge and judgment, with growth, and with evils arising out of unavoidable ignorance. So-called “sinless perfection” would be incompatible with either or all of these.
- There is no “whether or no” keeping, in which one cannot sin even if he wills to, in Christian perfection; while in so-called sinless perfection there is always this “dead fly in the ointment.”5
- Christian perfection is scriptural and experiental. Sinless perfection is contrary to both.
- The text itself is public domain. The original booklet, God's Ways and Man's Methods of Becoming Holy, Contrasted, was transcribed by Jim Kerwin, biographer of Isaiah Reid, and co-edited and emended with Denise Kerwin. Annotations and emendations are copyright © 2010 by Jim Kerwin along with his other contributions to the online, print, and e-book versions of Isaiah Reid's God's Ways and Man's Methods of Becoming Holy, Contrasted. ↩
- Reid’s King-James-Version readers would instantly catch the phrase “dull of hearing” as alluding to Matthew 13:15 and Acts 28:27 (also Hebrews 5:11), in which both Jesus and Paul, respectively, quote God’s words in Isaiah 6:10 in such a way as to admonish, and even rebuke their listeners. Reid may well have wondered with his namesake, “Lord, how long?” (Isaiah 6:11). ↩
- The quoted words are from the passage Isaiah 28:10-13, especially verses 10 and 13. ↩
- “The old country” — that is, Great Britain, the birthplace of Methodism. ↩
- Ecclesiastes 10:1 says, “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savor: so does a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor.” Translation: Reid thinks that the “can’t possibly sin” teaching of “sinless perfection” is foolish and that such false teaching, by supposed association, gives true holiness “a stinking savor.” ↩