Thursday, May 27, 2021

As Perfect as Me

“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

A few years ago, I remember hearing about an evangelist who claimed he’d managed to conquer sin absolutely, and eliminate it from his life. In fact, he said he hadn’t committed one in twelve years.

His wife, apparently, backed him up on that.

Now, if you’re a woman that has lived with a man for any period of time longer than fifteen minutes, you probably suspect the wife has gotten into the cooking sherry. It’s just not reality. Sinless perfection just isn’t possible on this earth. And if you meet someone who says he’s achieved it, he probably needs to take a second look — if at nothing else, at the sin of pride.

But I don’t need to tell you that. You know from your own experience. As I do, from mine.

Pobody’s Nerfect

“Nobody’s perfect,” as the old saying goes. And most of us are a good deal farther from perfect than we’d like anyone to know. But as Christians, that’s not a fact with which we live easily. We know God is holy; and we experience daily that we are not. Given both facts, it’s perfectly natural that we should struggle with the distance between what we’ve been saved to become, and what we see in ourselves right now.

And in a way, that’s a righteous struggle. We wouldn’t be having it if we weren’t believers. But it’s also disconcerting, because we can’t help feeling pretty frequently that we are not as good as we ought to be — especially given the One we claim to love and serve.

Fair enough?

Trying Harder

I’ve struggled with that.

Somehow, in my early theological instruction, I absorbed the idea that things work this way: first, you get saved; then, you work as hard as you can to be a better person. And while it’s true that God will help you with this second step, a lot depends on your own commitment, effort and consistency. You begin by the Spirit, but finish up by effort — by trying harder than you did before.

I didn’t know that that was trying to be perfected by the flesh.

The thing that gave me this idea was that I somehow felt that justification (being made righteous in the eyes of God) and sanctification (which I understood as the cleaning up of your life) were distinct, linear phases of the Christian life; “linear” meaning on a timeline, one after the other, and “distinct” meaning two separate issues. So justification came first and was its own thing, and sanctification came afterwards and was its own thing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Broader Confusions

Now, in my defense, I’m not alone in having made this mistake. Far from it. In some quarters, this belief that justification and sanctification are two stages of Christian experience has led to the rise of a thing known as “holiness doctrine”. Also known as “the second blessing” or “entire sanctification”, it has (in extremis) led to a belief called “sinless perfectionism”: namely, the idea that ordinary Christians can have complete freedom from sin in this life, if only they try hard enough.

Some of the churches that teach this idea also insist that this perfection is a work of God, not merely of human effort; but they say something different in practice. In fact, they have a whole line of rhetoric focused on getting believers to work harder at being good. They take failure to sanctify oneself as evidence of either insincerity or loss of salvation, and have prayers and procedures to “restore” the lost “believer” to a state of grace from which he or she is seen to have fallen through lack of commitment.

Their whole teaching is that the problem with us is that we’re just not trying hard enough — if we were, the flesh would not fail us, and we’d become “entirely sanctified”. They even preach that absolute deliverance from the activity of the sinful nature is not only possible now, here, on earth, but that it is the moral burden of every Christian to put in the effort to achieve it in actuality.

Back to Us

Now, I’m not here to bash those folks who believe that. Lots of responses to their ideas, both simple and more complex, are already on the internet, so there’s limited value in me repeating that. You can read it for yourself.

No, what I want to do instead is talk about what happens in the experience of ordinary Christians like us when we start to think that while saving us might be down to God, cleaning ourselves up afterwards is really our responsibility.

If I somehow picked up that idea myself, I don’t blame my teachers — I probably misunderstood what they tried to explain to me, and if I didn’t, I certainly was capable of making that mistake without their help. But you’ve got to admit that it just looks natural: God saves us, and then we’ve got to get busy and clean ourselves up. What could be more obvious?

But this is exactly what Paul is denying in Galatians.

By the Spirit

Let’s track his reasoning.

The Christian walk begins how? By us realizing our sin, facing the fact that we cannot make ourselves good, and crying out to God to save us, because we simply cannot save ourselves.

The Christian walk continues how? By turning to ourselves? By trusting in the very same human efforts that failed to save us? By trying harder, being more committed, and making ourselves holy? By driving our wills through guilt and fear of losing our salvation? Of course not! We started by the Spirit … and that’s exactly how we are supposed to continue.

Now, what does that mean, though? It surely doesn’t mean Christians are free to go wild and start to sin again because they are saved! Of course it doesn't. A person who is led by the Spirit does not think like that. But equally, it does not mean Christians are just trying harder than other people. Having begun our salvation by being indwelt by the Spirit of God, it would simply be contradictory to turn back to the flesh that has already failed us.

And when we do, discouragement is the inevitable outcome. We fail. And we start to despair, and maybe even doubt the reality of our salvation. And because we can’t stand to live like that, we start doing really unhelpful and unspiritual things, like:

  1. trying harder;
  2. giving up;
  3. ignoring the problem, and just continuing as best we can;
  4. defining-down sin, so that it only includes external actions and doesn’t include sins of the mind or intent, or only includes things in which we were willful, conscious or repeating an offence, or doesn’t include sins of failure to act, and so on;
  5. despairing, wallowing in emotional defeat and the return of fear of judgment;
  6. doubting salvation;
  7. re-promising to succeed where we’ve already failed;
  8. self-punishing; and
  9. claiming success.

All of these strategies are merely a turning back to the flesh. But the flesh is no more powerful for making you morally perfect after salvation than it was for saving you in the first place. From beginning to end, the flesh is just a thing that has to die. It does not save.

The Lord saves. And he saves by means of his redemption, sealing and confirming his work by his Spirit. At no point does our flesh come online in a helpful way, to boost that effort or to add to it. Salvation is a “God thing”. It’s not an “us thing”. That’s how we began.

Now, what made us think we’d continue by a different way?

Straightening the Order Out

We don’t. We can’t. It just won’t work. And if it could, then God would only get half the glory — him, for dealing with your justice problems, and you, for cleaning up the mess.

Do we really think God’s going to hand us half the glory?

Of course not. And it’s a good thing he won’t. Because if he did, he’d also have to hand us all the blame when we fail. After all, fair is fair.

Perfection is God’s attribute: not ours.

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