Dr. Clark, over at the Heidelblog has written a couple of great posts about the difference between the Reformed understanding of the doctrine sanctification and the misunderstanding known as perfectionism. In the first article, he explains the error of perfectionism:
Perfectionism—This is the error that says that, in this life, we can, if we will, attain to sinless perfection. This view probably existed prior to Pelagius (fl. c. 380–420) but he certainly articulated it on the premise that, in Adam’s fall, we did not sin. Adam was merely a bad example and Christ a good one. In his commentary on Romans he wrote that Paul could not possibly mean what he seems to say in 5:12–21. According to Pelagius, each of us, even after the fall is, as it were, Adam. Because we are not inherently sinful, we can achieve sinless perfection in this life. By the 9th century, even though the Western church formally rejected Pelagius (the Eastern Church did not) it had become mostly semi-Pelagian insofar as it downplayed the effects of the fall and emphasized human ability even after the fall to cooperate with grace. Throughout the history of the church, before the Reformation, there were adherents to the notion to notion that, in this life, prior to death, with sufficient effort in cooperation with grace, Christians may achieve sinless perfection. In the modern period the Wesleyans are the group most closely associated with the doctrine of sinless perfection. B. B. Warfield wrote the great Reformed response to perfectionism (2 vols. Oxford, 1931)
Dr. Clark points out that Paul’s teaching on sanctification rejects perfectionism:
It has been said to me that Paul must be speaking in another persona or speaking as if he were not a believer. The immediate difficulty is that there is no obvious sign that Paul has stopped answering the question that he asked at the outset of chapter 7 (Romans), about relation between the Christian and the law. The metaphor he uses is that of marriage. As long as one’s spouse is still alive one is bound. When the spouse dies one is free. In our case, by virtue of our union with Christ through faith, we have died with Christ and thus we are no longer under the for justification.
There is nothing wrong with the law (7:7). The law did its good and holy work by revealing my sin (vv. 7—12) It was not the law that brought death but rather it was the toxic combination of my sinful nature with God’s holy law.
From this foundation Paul then turns to the contrast between the law as it is in itself, “spiritual” and to himself, as he is in himself, “sold under sin.” The conflict is between what he is in Christ and ongoing sin, between the principle of new life which is at work in him but which is not fully realized and cannot be fully realized in this life.
In his second article, Dr. Clark addresses the the difference between our status as heirs and saints, and our experience as believers in this world:
Paul says two things essentially (Romans 6:9-19).
- In Christ, by virtue of our union with Christ by faith, we have died decisively to sin and have been made alive with Christ;
- Experientially, we continue to struggle with sin.
We have to affirm both things simultaneously. This is why Paul says that we must reckon ourselves, think of ourselves, as dead to sin. Why? Because we are not yet experientially dead to sin. This is why he writes, “Do not present your members to sin” because, we are still struggling and too often inclined to do just that.
So, how should we think of our experience of sin, grace, and sanctification? I have the impression that some folk think that we can make a list of sins and sort of tick them off one by one as “overcome” and they seem to think that we need only to apply ourselves to eradicate the remaining sins—as if sin is like a stain in the carpet—if we scrub harder it will come out.
Behind this, I suspect, lies an over-realized eschatology. All forms of perfectionism rely on the notion that more of heaven has been introduced into history than has actually occurred but the idea that there can be a sort of heaven on earth before Christ’s return has been deeply influential in American Christianity.
In conclusion, Dr. Clark uses the imagery of a tidal pool to illustrate how sanctification is often at work in the life of a believer:
We are being changed but it’s much less like a laundry list or carpet cleaning and more like the ebb and flow of a tidal pool. At low tide the water has left and we never saw it leave and didn’t know exactly how it was happening. If we filmed it and played back the film we could see the process and result but standing in the pool we weren’t aware and, in this life, we don’t really get to watch the film. We have the testimony of Scripture that it’s true, that it’s happening but I suspect that the moment we attempt to document it, that very act or the next one will be sin.
I highly recommend you read both articles in their entirety. I look forward to the next installment.