By Pastor Glenn Pease
There's an old story about a couple who lived by the sea and kept a boarding house. There boarders had only one complaint, and that was lack of variety on the menu. Breakfast consisted of fish, chicken, and eggs; dinner consisted of chicken, eggs, and fish, and for supper they had eggs, fish, and chicken. The boarders finally rebelled and insisted on something different. The woman said, "All right, what would you like?" The spokesman said, "We don't care just so its meat. Why don't you make some sausages." She said, "I've never made them, how do you do it?" The spokesman was no cook either so he just said, "The same as you cook fish." The next evening as they all sat at the table a large tray was brought in as they sat in excited anticipation. They could hardly wait for it to be uncovered. When it was, it was a tragic sight, for in the center of the dish were some dark brown looking things huddled together like sand bugs in the desert. The old lady was on the verge of tears. She broke out in a sobbing voice, "I know something went wrong, but you know there just isn't much left in those things after they are cleaned."
She certainly made a mistake in cleaning or gutting her sausages as she did her fish, and some people feel it is just as big a mistake to cleanse your life from sin. These are people who consider this as a destruction of life, for if all evil were removed life would be nothing but an empty shell, or dried up skin with all the meat of life removed. They hesitate to receive Christ, because they feel that giving up sin is giving up the best part of life. They want to go to heaven, but they think the path of getting there is so drab and lifeless they just can't see it is worth it.
As Christians, we can recognize the folly of their thinking, for they only know the pleasures of the flesh, and have not experienced the joys of spiritual blessings and the peace of God. They are unable to conceive of the superior pleasures of abundant life in Christ, so they hold back and cling to their sins and lose life's best. There are two kinds of people then. There are those who feel life's best is in sin, and those who feel it is in salvation from sin. But as one has said, there are only two kinds of people in the world: Those who think there are only two kinds of people in the world, and those who know better. We know better, for in the second category there are also different kinds of people. There are Christians who believe in entire sanctification, or, that one can be completely victorious over sin in this life. Then there are those who feel that this is impossible, and that we must remain sinners to some degree all our life.
The amount of literature and debate on this subject is staggering, and the more one reads the more he becomes aware that both sides of the issue can be well defended. When godly men can be equally convinced of opposite points of view, it usually indicates that there is truth on both sides, and what is needed for a total view is to combine the truths of both. This, I feel, is exactly what the Apostle John does. Both those who hold to the doctrine of Christian perfection, and those who reject it, quote I John for support. John teaches the paradoxical truth that the Christian can be victorious over sin, and yet at the same time be always in need of cleansing from sin. The first verse of chapter 2 brings out this paradox very clearly. We want to examine this verse in detail, and look at two key aspects of John's teaching. First-
I. IDEALISTIC PURPOSE.
John is writing to these Christians in order that they may cease to sin. It would be possible to read all that John had written so far and come to an opposite conclusion. One could say, since we are all sinners, and there is no use denying it, and since all we need to do is confess and they will be forgiven, then there is no point in getting excited about sin. Why bother to fight it? In other words, the good news of forgiveness could lead us to a lite view of sin.
John says for us not to get any such misconceptions. I am writing, not so you can sin and not worry about it, but that you sin not. Complete freedom from sin is the idealistic goal for which John is aiming. The sinless Christ is our model, and it is to be our aim to be conformed to Him, and to obey His command, "Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." This goal can only be attained by a continuous walking in the light with Christ, and that is why John speaks so much about the Christian walk. B. H. Benson said, "No man can advance three paces on the road to perfection unless Jesus Christ walks beside him."
Many feel that even then one can never make it, but none can deny that John had the goal of perfection as his ideal. John refused to set the Christian goal lower than that of the Gnostics he combated. Their goal was perfection, but they attained it by watering down the definition of perfection so as to exclude sins of the flesh. John says the Christian aim is for perfection, and he includes victory over sins of the flesh. There is no true sanctification that does not include the body. It is nothing but self-deception to think you can separate the soul and body, and be perfect in spirit while our body like a snake slithers in the slime of sin.
The Gnostics may pursue their goal of perfection without ceasing to sin, but John says, I am writing that Christians attain the goal by ceasing to sin. Forgiveness is not to entice us to further sin, but to make us so grateful for the chance to begin again with a clean slate that we go forward, determined more than ever to keep it clean. John Wesley, the father of Methodism, and also the father of all the modern perfectionists movements, felt it was possible to keep the slate clean and be filled with perfect love, and there are testimonies of hundreds of his followers who claim to have attained this goal. Wesley himself never claimed to have reached the goal but he felt it to be the most essential doctrine for Christians to believe and aim for. He wrote of visiting one place: "I was surprised to find 50 members fewer than I left in it last October. One reason is, Christian perfection has been little insisted on, and wherever this is not done, be the preacher ever so eloquent, there is little increase, either in the number or the grace of the hearers."
John Wesley felt he was only following the path of John the Apostle when he urged Christians on to entire sanctification, and it is hard, if not impossible, to dispute it, for John could say that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin and all unrighteousness, and then go on to urge us to sin no more, he certainly believed this was possible. We must be aware, however, that both John the Apostle and John Wesley were speaking of a perfection that cannot rightly, or without confusion, be called sinless perfection, for this leads to such criticism as that of F. Osborn who writes, "He that seeks perfection on earth leaves nothing new for the saints to find in heaven; as long as men teach, there will be mistakes in theology, and as long as they govern, errors in state." Entire sanctification does not eliminate mistakes, errors, and ignorance, nor sins of omission. There is plenty left for the saints to find in heaven even if they reach the highest goal in this life. John says in 3:2, "It doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he shall appear we shall be like him for we shall see Him as He is."
In the context of what John is saying, and knowing the conduct of the Gnostics which he is combating, it is clear that John is saying that willful disobedience to the known will of God can be eliminated from the Christian life. Wesley defines the sin that Christians can be free from as, "Willful transgression of a known law." In other words, even the perfectionists like Wesley recognize that the Christian is far from perfect, and will never be that until he is transformed at the second coming of Christ. But he feels the New Testament warrants the belief that the Christians can be so filled with love, and in such fellowship with God, that he never willfully breaks anything he knows to be God's will. F. Faber wrote,
O keep thy conscience sensitive
No inward token miss;
And go where grace entices thee;
Perfection lies in this.
There is much more than can and ought to be said on this matter, but since we will come to it again in this epistle we will conclude that all must agree that John had an idealistic purpose in writing this letter, and that he certainly must have believed that it could be attained, and that believers could cease to sin in the sense of willfully transgressing God's known will. In this sense I believe the New Testament clearly teaches Christian perfection. Even the Old Testament suggests it when it says, "Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might sin against thee." John wants Christians to hide the truth he writes in their hearts for the same idealistic purpose that they sin not. But then John goes on, and we see his statement on a-
II. REALISTIC PROVISION.
"And if any man sin we have an advocate." It may seem that John is the enemy of his own purpose here. He says do not sin, but if you do, here is the good news, for we have an advocate. Those who reject the possibility of Christian perfection say that John is clearly revealing that he knows it will never be, and so as soon as he mentions it he follows up by making it clear we will need a constant defense, for we will always be sinners. This is reading too much into John's statement, however, all John is doing is being realistic. He knows many will fall in their climb to perfection, and he wants to assure them that they are not eliminated from the race. They can be pardoned and forgiven, and still press on for the goal. John did not say they would certainly fall. He simply says, if they do, they have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
We learn from this verse the necessity of combining realism with our idealism. If we do not, it will lead to a perversion of truth. Many who have set their goal where John says it should be set, have not gone on to include John's provision for those who fall as they strive for the ideal. For example, many perfectionist retain their perfection by denying sins, just as the Gnostics did. They do not want to admit that they have done wrong, and so they call their disobedience a mistake, or in some other way cover it up. This is the very danger that John was afraid of, and that is why he went on to immediately point out the only realistic way for a Christian to deal with sin. Plead guilty; seek a pardon, and go on. The Christian does not arrive at the goal of Christian perfection by denying sin, and neither does he maintain his relationship with God by covering up sin. He does so by admitting his sin, and taking full advantage of God's provision for pardon and cleansing.
Just as the only way a sinner can become a saint is through Christ, so the only way a sinner can remain a saint is through Christ. The Christian who is truly sanctified and living close to Christ will be sensitive to sin, and as soon as he offends, he will seek a pardon. There are only two ways to deal with sin: The Gnostic way of denying it, and the Christian way of confessing it and being cleansed. John wants to make sure that the high ideal of the Christian does not lead them to fall into the same error with the Gnostics, and so he adds this realistic provision to his idealistic purpose. This provision does not mean the ideal is not possible. It only means it is not necessarily permanent. One can only maintain it in a moment by moment walking with Christ, and if he stumbles off the narrow path he loses his state of perfection, but this loss is also not permanent, for God has provided a way to restore him. Christian perfection is relative, and not a once for all experience.
The provision is an Advocate, who is Jesus Christ Himself. And advocate is a defender, or a lawyer. We get a picture here of the court of heaven. A just God is judge, and everyone who breaks His holy law is held accountable. Even the Christian whom He has redeemed cannot violate His law and expect it to be overlooked. Every sin must have its day in court. The Christian, however, does not stand before God alone, as does the unsaved. He has a defender-Jesus Christ the righteous. The fact that we are there in itself shows that the sin that John is speaking of is willful transgression of a known law. The believer knows he has offended the holiness of God. He is there to plead guilty, and he has an advocate, not to defend his innocence, but to plead for mercy, and to gain his pardon. John Wesley wrote,
Guilty I stand before thy face, on me I feel thy wrath abide,
Tis just the sentence should take place, tis just, but O, thy Son hath died;
See where before the throne He stands and pours the all prevailing prayer,
Points to His side and lifts His hands and shows that I am graven there.
The Christian has an advocate to gain mercy and not justice, for God will always do justice anyway, but justice will lead to condemnation. We who have Jesus as our Advocate will gain mercy and be pardoned. Jesus, who was innocent, had no advocate at His trial, and the result was He was condemned and suffered the punishment of the guilty. Now, as a result of that, we who are guilty can be pardoned, for He who bore our guilt is present before the throne of God to plead for us. Jesus not only bore our guilt and sin on the cross, He now lives to make intercession for us that we might gain the full benefit of His sacrifice.
There is some controversy over the matter as to whether or not the intercession of Christ is necessary for our salvation. I personally believe it is and feel the Scripture definitely teaches this, but this will have to wait for another sermon. We have accomplished our goal for this message. We have seen that Christian perfection is definitely possible, and every Christian is to aim for a life in which all willful disobedience is eliminated. We have also seen that he must, like John, recognize that his perfection, even when attained, is relative, and he who stands must beware lest he fall, but if he does, he does not need to be saved all over again, but needs to plead guilty and trust his Advocate to gain him a pardon. The conclusion on the whole matter is this: Is it possible to be entirely sanctified? The answer is yes. Will Christians always need provision for pardon and cleansing from sin? The answer is yes. Both are true and only as we combine the idealistic purpose of John, and his realistic provision, do we have a total picture of the doctrine of Christian perfection.