I want to begin with some points of importance:
- It is a proper desire to want to live without sin before God. John told the brethren, "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not" (1 John 2:1). We should always aim to avoid sin in our lives.
- The believer never has to commit any single sin. God's grace is sufficient to avoid each and every sin. For the one who is indwelled by the Spirit of God (that is, every true believer), there is no such compulsion as, "the devil made me do it."
- There is a victorious Christian life that is far above what most believers experience. It is an abundant life (John 10:10). It is a Spirit-filled life (Ephesians 5:18). It is a life surrendered to God and lived by the faith of the Son of God (Romans 12:1-2; Galatians 2:20).
The major error in the teaching of sinless perfection is that it thought to be a state that can be entered into by some sort of experience and maintained from that time without sin; or, as many teach, without conscious sin. There is no Bible doctrine of a state of sinless perfection for the believer.
However, your correspondent took this error a step further and has gone into major heresy. He teaches that this state of sinless perfection is not only possible, but it is necessary for the new birth. It is required for salvation. This goes against so much clear teaching in scripture that I will not address it here. Just understand that this is a heresy so serious that it can keep people from getting saved. It should be avoided at all costs.
Yet, many who have taught some form of sinless perfection do not fit into this category. This includes men like John Wesley who taught a form of sinless perfection based on abiding entirely in the love of God. It also includes several men who follow what are known as the Keswick teachings of holiness. What is confusing about this is that much of the teaching known as Keswick is wonderful and much needed today. Only occasionally does one of its advocates stray into sinless perfection territory. More well known, the historical teaching of the Salvation Army as founded by William and Catherine Booth is that of sinless perfection.
So, if so many good people have taught it, why oppose it? Well, for one thing, if it is not taught in scripture, then it is a false doctrine and should be opposed. However, as with most false teaching, it leads to other errors. It tends to make people seek an experience-the experience of sinless perfection. God want us to know him not have an experience. Also, those who think they have received it tend to be proud that they have it and want to recruit everyone else into their experience. There are those who sin and those who do not. They belong to the second group and need to advertise their experience. But, in order to convince themselves that they have kept the experience, the proponents of sinless perfection tend to redefine sin and make it softer than the Bible teaches (more on this later). Finally, some fall into much greater error by teaching that sinless perfection is not just a possibility for those who are born again; it is a necessity for the new birth.
Those who teach sinless perfection make a number of major errors in interpretation. I will mention three of them.
They misinterpret a few key passages.
- For instance, your correspondent uses Galatians 2:17 which states, "But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid." Verse 16 had just made a wonderful statement on justification by faith. This verse which immediately follows shows us that if we are found to be sinners while we seek to be justified by Christ, then Christ is not the source of our sin. It does not teach that a justified believer cannot commit any sin. This is preposterous. It is also contradicted by many passages in the Bible. It simply teaches that Christ is not the source of sin in the believer.
- Another verse you usually see in this teaching is 1 John 3:9, which states, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." I recognize that this is a challenging verse, but it is not impossible.
The verse has at least three possible interpretations: 1) sinless perfection; 2) that the one who is born of God does not habitually commit serious sin; 3) that the part of man that is born again [his spirit] does not commit sin.
I lean to the third interpretation, but I know that the first interpretation must be wrong. The first epistle of John was written one man at one time to a certain group of people. He is not going to teach two completely opposite doctrines to the same people at the same time. This would be confusion. Yet, John is clear in teaching that believers do commit sins. 1 John 1:8 states, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." More evidence can be found in 1 John 1:10 and 2:1. This passage cannot teach what some claim. Therefore, an alternative has to be found and there are viable alternatives.
They confuse the believer's position with his practice (this distinction is what some call standing and state).
- Position - the person who has trusted in Jesus Christ as personal Saviour and has been born again is placed, or positioned, in Christ. That is why so many New Testament verses speak of us being "in him." In Christ the Father sees us as sinlessly perfect. We are complete in Him (Colossians 2:10). In Christ, we are already seated in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). That is, we are already positionally in heaven. What we have by being in Christ is the possession of every believer.
- Practice - this refers to the practical daily life and walk of the believer. We may have all things in Christ, but that does not mean that we apply all of these things to our daily lives. God sees me as perfect in Christ, but I may not live perfectly in practice. Our calling is to bring our practice into line with our position. We are to walk worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1) and to apprehend that for which we are also apprehended of Christ (Philippians 3:12).
- Note: if one reads only the passages dealing with our position and ignores those dealing with our practice, he can teach sinless perfection. But this entirely misses the point.
They weaken the Biblical meaning of sin, sometimes to the point of redefining what sin is.
Those who claim sinless perfection tend to minimize sin. Years ago, I heard a preacher talk about his personal experience. He worked with a man who claimed to be sinless. One day, this man was hammering a nail, struck his finger instead, and let out a curse word. When reminded that he was supposed to be sinless, he replied, "O no, that was just a mistake. It was not a real sin." Consider the following Biblical definitions of sin.
- Sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4)
- All unrighteousness is sin (1 John 5:17); that is, if it is not righteous, it is sin.
- Failing to do something you should have done is sin, because James 4:17 states, "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin."
- Whatsoever is not done in faith is sin (Roman 14:23)
- The thought of foolishness is sin (Proverbs 24:9)
- A proud heart is sin (Proverbs 21:4)
This last one may be the most condemning of all. For, when one man says to another, I have no sin, he certainly reveals his proud heart. We should always seek to live the life of Christ in our own bodies. We should desire the victorious Christian life. But more than all, we should seek to know Him, the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings (Philippians 3:10).