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§ 8. Theories of Perfectionism.

Pelagian Theory.

The two radical principles of Pelagianism are, first, that the nature of man is uninjured by the fall, so that men are free from sin until by voluntary transgression they incur guilt. Secondly, that our natural powers, since, as well as before the fall, are fully competent to render complete obedience to the law.

From these principles Pelagius inferred, (1.) That a man (even among the heathen) might live from birth to death free from all sin, although he did not assert that any man ever had so lived. (2.) That when converted, men might, and numbers of men did, live without sin; perfectly obeying the law. (3) That 251this obedience was rendered in the exercise of their ability, assisted by the grace of God.

By grace, Pelagius says that we are to understand, (1.) The goodness of God in so constituting our nature that we can completely obey the law in virtue of our free agency. (2.) The revelation, precepts, and example of Christ. (3.) The pardon of sins committed before conversion. (4.) The moral influences of the truth and of the circumstances in which we are placed. The effect of grace thus understood, is simply to render obedience more easy.

In the Council of Carthage, A.D. 418, the Pelagians were condemned, among other things, for teaching, (1.) That the effect of grace was merely to render obedience more easy. (2.) That the declaration of the Apostle John, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” is, as to some, a mere expression of humility. (3.) That the petition in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses,” is not suited to the saints. They use it only as expressing the desire and necessity of others.

According to the Pelagian theory, therefore, (1.) The sin from which the believer may be perfectly free is the voluntary transgression of known law. Nothing else is of the nature of sin. (2.) The law to which perfect conformity in this life is possible, and in many cases actual, is the moral law in all its strictness. (3.) This obedience may be rendered without any supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit.

Romish Theory.

Romanists teach, (1.) That by the infusion of grace in justification as effected by or in baptism, everything of the nature of sin is removed from the soul. (2.) That good works performed in a state of grace are free from the taint of sin, and are perfect. “Si quis in quolibet bono opere justum saltem venaliter peccare dixerit . . . . anathema sit.240240Council of Trent, Sess. V., Canon 25; Streitworlf, vol. i. p. 36. (3.) That the law may be and often is, perfectly obeyed by the children of God in this life. (4.) That men may not only do all that the law requires, but may even go beyond its demands. (5.) Nevertheless, as there is in higher law than that by which men are to be judged, no man is entirely free from venial sins, i.e., sins which do not bring the soul under condemnation, and therefore all men in this life have need to say, “Forgive us our trespasses.”


From this statement it appears,

1. That by sin from which advanced believers are said to be free, is meant only what merits condemnation, and in itself deserves the forfeiture of grace or divine favour. It is admitted that “concupiscence,” or the remains of original sin, is not removed by baptism, but it is not of the nature of sin, in the sense just stated. Neither are venial sins, i.e., sins which do not forfeit grace, properly sins, if judged by the law under which believers are now placed. So far, therefore, as the negative part of perfection, or freedom from sin is concerned, the Romanists do not mean freedom from moral faults, but simply freedom from what incurs the sentence of the law. It is perfection as judged by a lower standard of judgment.

2. The law to which we are now subject, and the demands of which Romanists say are satisfied by the obedience of the saints, is not the moral law in its original strictness, but the sum of that which is due from man in his present circumstances; in other words, the demands of the law are accommodated to the condition of men in this life. This is evident, because they say that the saints obey the law so far as it is now binding, and because they admit that saints commit venial sins, which can only mean sins which, under a stricter rule of judgment, would merit condemnation.

3. As stated above, they distinguish between the law and love. The former is that which all men, and especially Christians, are bound to observe, but love is a higher principle which prompts to doing more than the law or justice demands. Consequently, the positive part of perfection, or conformity to the law, does not imply the highest degree of moral excellence of which our nature is susceptible, but only such as answers to the lower demands of the law to which we are now subject. In a passage already quoted, Bellarmin says, “Defectus charitatis, quod videlicet non faciamus opera nostra tanto fervore dilectionis, quanto faciemus in patria, defectus quidem est, sed culpa, et peccatum non est. Unde etiam charitas nostra, quamvis comparata ad charitatem beatorum sit imperfecta, tamen absolute perfecta dici potest.241241De Justificatione, IV. xvii.; Disputationes, edit. Paris, 1608, vol. iv. p. 933, b. In like manner Moehler says,242242Symbolik, 6th edit. Mainz, 1843, p. 216. “In modern times the attempt has been made to sustain the old orthodox doctrine by assuming that the moral law makes ideal demands, which, as every other ideal, must remain unattainable. If this be true, then the man who 253falls short of this ideal is as little responsible, and as little deserving of punishment, as an epic poet who should fall short of the Iliad of Homer.”

The Romish theory is consistent. In baptism all sin is washed away. By the infusion of grace full ability is given to do all that is required of us. Nothing can be required beyond what we are able to perform, and, therefore, the demands of the law are suited to our present state. By obedience to this modified law, we merit increased supplies of grace and eternal life.

The perfection, therefore, which Romanists insist upon is merely relative; not an entire freedom from sin, but only from such sins as merit condemnation; not holiness which is absolutely perfect, but perfect only relatively to the law under which we are now placed. It is clear that there is a radical difference between Romanists and Protestants as to the nature of sin and the limits of moral obligation. If they were to adopt our definition of sin, they would not pretend to any perfection in the present life.

The Arminian Theory.

The perfection which the Arminians teach is attainable, and which, in many cases, they say is actually attained in this life, is declared to be complete conformity to the law; including freedom from sin, and the proper exercise of all right affections and the discharge of all duties.

Episcopius defines it to be, keeping the commandments of God with a perfect fulfilment; or loving God as much as we ought to love Hun, according to the requirements of the Gospel; or according to the covenant of grace. “By a perfection of degrees is meant that highest perfection which consists in the highest exertion of human strength assisted by grace.” “This perfection includes two things, (1.) A perfection proportioned to the powers of each individual; (2.) A desire of making continual progress, and of increasing one s strength more and more.”

Limborch defines it as “keeping the precepts of the Gospel after such manner, and in such degree of perfection as God requires of us under the denunciation of eternal damnation.” This obedience is “perfect as being correspondent to the stipulations contained in the divine covenant.” “It is not a sinless or absolutely perfect obedience, but such as consists in a sincere love and habit of piety, which excludes all habit of sin, with all enormous and deliberate actions.”243243Theologia Christiana, V. lxxix. 2, 8, 14; edit. Amsterdam, 1715, pp. 658, a, 659, b, 661, a. This perfection has three degrees 264(1.) That of beginners. (2.) That of proficients. (3.) That of the truly perfect, who have subdued the habit of sin, and take delight in the practice of virtue.

Wesley244244Plain Account of Christian Perfection, p. 48. says; “Perfection is the loving God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by love.” Dr. Peck245245Christian Perfection, New York, 1843, p. 292. says that it is “a state of holiness which fully meets the requirements of the Gospel.”

Although these definitions differ in some respects, they agree in the general idea that perfection consists in entire conformity to the law to which we are now subject, and by which we are to be judged.

The Law to which Believers are subject.

What, according to the Arminian theory, is that law? The answer to that question is given in a negative, and in a positive form. Negatively, it is said by Dr. Peck not to be the Adamic law, or the law originally given to Adam. Fletcher246246See above, p. 192. says: “With respect to the Christless law of paradisiacal obedience, we utterly disclaim sinless perfection.” “We shall not be judged by that law; but by a law adapted to our present state and circumstances, called the law of Christ.” “Our Heavenly Father never expects of us, in our debilitated state, the obedience of immortal Adam in paradise.” The positive statements are, “It is the law of Christ.” “The Gospel.” “The standard of character set up in the Gospel must be such as is practicable by man, fallen as he is. Coming up to this standard is what we call Christian perfection.”247247Peck, Christian Perfection, p. 294.

From this it appears that the law according to which men are pronounced perfect, is not the original moral law, but the mitigated law suited to the debilitated state of man since the fall. The sin from which the believer may be entirely free, is not all moral imperfection which in itself deserves punishment, but only such delinquencies as are inconsistent with the mitigated law of the Gospel.

On this point the language of Limborch above quoted, is explicit. It is not “an absolutely sinless perfection” that is asserted. And Fletcher says, We utterly disclaim “sinless perfection” according to the paradisiacal law. Wesley says, By sin is meant 255(1.) Voluntary transgression of known law. In this sense all who are born of God are free from sin. (2.)It means all unholy tempers, self-will, pride, anger, sinful thoughts. From these the perfect are free. (3.) But mistakes and infirmities are not sins. “These are,” indeed, “deviations from the perfect law, and consequently need atonement. Yet they are not properly sins.” “A person filled with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions. Such transgressions you may call sins, if you please, I do not.”248248Plain Account, pp. 62-67. The question, however, is not what Wesley or any other man chooses to call sin; but what does the law of God condemn. Nothing which the law does not condemn can need expiation. If these transgressions, therefore, need atonement, they are sins in the sight of God. Our refusing to recognize them as such does not alter their nature, or remove their guilt.

According to the Arminian system, especially as held by the Wesleyans, this perfection is not due to the native ability, or free will of man, but to the grace of God, or supernatural influence of the Spirit. Perfection is a matter of grace, (1.) Because it is solely on account of the work of Christ that God lowers the demands of the law, and accepts as perfect the obedience which the milder law of the Gospel demands. (2.) Because the ability to render this obedience is due to the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit. (3.) Because believers constantly need the intercession of Christ as our High Priest, to secure them from condemnation for involuntary transgressions, which, judged by the law, would incur its penalty.

Oberlin Theory.

This theory is so called because its prominent advocates are the officers of the Oberlin University in Ohio. President Mahan249249Christian Perfection, p. 7. says, perfection in holiness implies a full and perfect discharge of our entire duty; of all existing obligations in respect of God and all other beings. It is loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. It implies the entire absence of selfishness and the perpetual presence and all pervading influence of pure and perfect love.

Professor Finney says: “By entire sanctification, I understand the consecration of the whole being to God. In other words, it is the state of devotedness to God and his service required by the moral law. The law is perfect. It requires just what is right, all that is right, and nothing more. Nothing more nor less can 256possibly be perfection or entire sanctification than obedience to the law. Obedience to the law of God in an infant, a man, an angel, and in God himself, is perfection in each of them. And nothing can possibly be perfection in any being short of this; nor can there possibly be anything above it.”250250Oberlin Evangelist, vol. ii. p. 1.

The law which now binds men and to which they are bound to be perfectly conformed, is the original moral law given to Adam. But that law demands nothing more and nothing less than what every man in his inward state and outward circumstances is able to render. The law meets man at every step of his ascending or descending progress. The more grace, knowledge, or strength he has, the more does the law demand. On the other hand, the less of knowledge, culture, moral susceptibility, or strength he possesses, the less does the law require of him.

President Mahan says, Perfection does not imply that we love God as the saints do in heaven, but merely that we love Him as far as practicable with our present powers.

Professor Finney says, The law does not require that we should love God as we might do, had we always improved our time, or had we never sinned. It does not suppose that our powers are in a perfect state. The service required is regulated by our ability.

The principle of this perfect obedience is our own natural ability. A free moral agent must be able to be and to do all that the law can justly demand. Moral ability, natural ability, gracious ability, are distinctions which Professor Finney pronounces perfectly nonsensical. “It is,” he says, “a first truth of reason that moral obligation implies the possession of every kind of ability which is required to render the required act possible.”251251Sermons, vol. iv. No. 18.

The Oberlin theory of perfection is founded on the following principles: —

1. Holiness consists in disinterested benevolence, i.e., a perfect willingness that God should do whatever the highest good of the universe demands. A man either has, or has not, this willingness. If he has, he has all that is required of him. He is perfect. If he has not this willingness he is in rebellion against God. Therefore it is said, “Perfection, as implied in the action of our voluntary powers in full harmony with our present convictions of duty is an irreversible condition of eternal life.”252252Oberlin Quarterly Review, May 1846, p. 468.

2. There is no sin but in the voluntary transgression of known law.


3. There is no moral character in anything but generic volitions, or those purposes which terminate on an ultimate end. There is no moral character in feeling, and much less in states of mind not determined by the will. When a man’s purpose is to promote the happiness of the universe he is perfectly holy; when it is anything else, he is perfectly sinful.

4. Every man, in virtue of being a free agent, has plenary ability to fulfil all his obligations. This principle, though mentioned last, is the root of the whole system.

The Relation between these Theories of Perfection.

The Pelagian and the Oberlin theories agree as to their views of the nature of sin; the ability of man; and the extent of the obligation of the law.

They differ as to their views of the nature of virtue or holiness. The Pelagian system does not assume that disinterested benevolence, or the purpose to promote the highest good of the universe, is the sum of all virtue; i.e., it does not put the universe in the place of God, as that to which our allegiance is due. They differ also in that, while the Oberlin divines maintain the plenary ability of man, they give more importance to the work of the Holy Spirit; and in that, it is generally admitted that although men have the ability to do their whole duty, yet that they will not exert it aright unless influenced by the grace of God.

The Romish and Arminian theories agree, (1.) In that both teach that the law to which we are bound to be conformed is not “ideal excellence;” not the Adamic law; not the moral law in its original strictness; but a milder law suited to our condition since the fall. (2.) That by freedom from sin is not meant freedom from what the law in its strictness condemns, and what in its nature needs expiation and pardon, but from everything which the milder law, “the law of Christ,” condemns. (3.) They agree in denying to men since the fall ability perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but attribute the ability and disposition to obey to the grace of God; or the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit.

They differ as to the mode in which this grace is communicated, in that the Romanists say that it is only through the sacraments, whereas Arminians say that sufficient grace is given to all men, which, if duly improved, secures such larger measures of grace as will enable the believer to become perfect. They differ also as to the nature of good works in so far as Romanists include under that category many things not commanded in the Scriptures; and 258as they teach the possibility of performing works of supererogation, which the Arminians deny. The Romanists also teach that good works merit eternal life, which evangelical Arminians do not.

These theories, however, all agree in teaching that the law of God has been lowered in so far that its demands are satisfied by a less degree of obedience than was required of Adam, or of man in his normal state; and therefore in calling that perfection which in fact is not perfection, either in the sight of God or of an enlightened conscience. It is a contradiction to say that a man is perfect whose acts and shortcomings need expiation and the pardoning mercy of God.

It may be safely assumed that no man living has ever seen a fellow-man whom, even in the imperfect light in which a man reveals himself to his fellows, he deems perfect. And no sound minded man can regard himself as perfect, unless he lowers the standard of judgment to suit his case. And here lies one of the special dangers of the whole system. If the law of God can be relaxed in its demands to suit the state of its subjects, then there is no limit to be assigned to its condescension. Thus perfectionism has sometimes, although not among the Methodists, lapsed into antinomianism.

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