Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Sinless Christian

I was asked to do a study on sinless perfectionism recently for the first time in my life. You might think that’s a subject we’d have handled here on the blog, given that we’ve been publishing new articles daily since December 2013 and recently passed 3,500 posts; and certainly, we’ve made reference to the concept once or twice. But no, we’ve never gone into the teaching in any depth.

Partly this is because I’ve never encountered someone who believes in it.

An Obscure Heresy

Try googling “sinless perfection”. What you will find are a million articles by orthodox believers responding to those who hold the doctrine, but very, VERY few posts by people who believe it. Most Christians don’t. Try searching for books on sinless perfection on Amazon. You will find books on the sinless perfection of Christ (who didn’t know that?) and books setting out to demonstrate from scripture that sinless perfection in this life is a futile exercise, but nothing that unambiguously attempts to set out the doctrine from scripture. How to Live the Victorious Life, for example, takes an entire chapter to declare it is not teaching sinless perfection.

Victorious, yes. Perfectly sinless, no.

So then, evidence that large numbers of Christians subscribe to this heresy is not exactly thick on the ground, and with good reason. We have our eyes and ears, the scriptures themselves and the conviction of our consciences to tell us otherwise. The Christian life is a struggle. I expect to be perfect the moment I get my new body at the return of the Lord Jesus for his saints. Other than that, the daily task of learning to please God more consistently with my thoughts, words and deeds goes on.

Sinless Perfection and the Church Fathers

Wikipedia has an article on Christian perfection that traces the concept back to the early church fathers, primarily Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen. All three, and a few others, made statements which, taken in isolation, might suggest they believed in the possibility of sinless perfection, but it is unclear whether any or all believed that it is possible to reach a state of complete sinlessness in this life. You would have to do a lot more research to demonstrate that.

As I read Wikipedia’s quotes, the church fathers appear to be discussing an ongoing process of maturity, which is not an unbiblical concept. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, defined human perfection as “constant growth in the good”. Now, growth on its own need not imply prior sin. When Luke writes that the Lord Jesus grew in wisdom, stature and favor with God and man, there is no suggestion he grew in goodness, or that he ever lacked it. However, “constant growth in the good” implies an ongoing state in which every day one is becoming more moral and Christlike than the day before. Great aspiration, to be sure, but it would not be accurate to call it sinless perfection, because you never actually attain that during your lifetime. Tomorrow’s improvement reveals the comparative poverty of my condition today. When you are perfect, you stop moving toward goodness. You are already there. There is no need to grow.

Thus, even the church fathers who are alleged to argue for sinless perfection are a bit of a dead end if you are looking for the doctrine systematically set forth.

The Wesleyan Cheat

Some people allege John Wesley believed in sinless perfection, though he refused to use the term because of its ambiguity. In 1777, he published a book entitled A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, but it’s actually a bit of a cheat. Wesley had to redefine “sin” to get to sinlessness. He limits sin to a “voluntary transgression of a known law of God”, and excludes involuntary transgressions like those arising from ignorance, error and evil tempers, saying they are “not properly called sins”. This is very convenient for those who want to declare themselves to have attained sinlessness, but it remains to be seen whether the victims of their ignorance, error and ill temper agree with them about the sinlessness of their condition. More importantly, it remains to be seen whether God does. My guess would be not. Other Methodists and Pentecostals built on Wesley’s teachings in something called the “Holiness Movement” of the 19th century, but had to adopt Wesley’s limited definition of sin in order to do so with any credibility.

Biblically speaking, Wesley’s cheat doesn’t work. The Bible uses the ordinary word for “sin” repeatedly to describe things done in ignorance. Leviticus 4:2 makes provision for sin committed “unintentionally”, “in ignorance” or “by mistake”. Verse 13 of the same chapter talks about the congregation sinning unintentionally and specifically says they “realize their guilt” at a later time. That is the very definition of an act committed in ignorance, and God calls it a “sin”. The necessity of making atonement for such errors demonstrates conclusively that they are sinful, even if John Wesley wouldn’t have counted them. Again, the law says:

“If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity.”

That’s about as comprehensive a rebuttal of the Wesleyan cheat as we can find. In the Bible, sin includes ignorance.

The BibleBro Demands Perfection

Finally, I found a website whose writers not only believe in sinless perfection, but insist on it:

“Sinless perfection is not only possible, but demanded by God in both old and new testaments.” argues, “If God has placed us in an environment where it is impossible to stop sinning, He cannot send us to Hell AND STILL CLAIM TO BE JUST.”

But this argument does not hold water at all. God does not send genuine believers to hell. He has made provision for us in Christ. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” God has a preference (that we not sin), but he has also made provision in the event we do. And we do, but those sins we commit as believers are already paid for: “He is the propitiation for our sins.” Sin does not invalidate our confession of faith; rather, sin proves the need for a faith-based salvation rather than a works-based salvation, which no flesh could survive.

The Meaning of Perfection

The Greek word translated “perfect” in most versions of the English Bible is teleios, or some variant thereof. Strong’s indicates teleios may mean any of the following: (1) brought to its end, or finished; (2) lacking nothing, complete; (3) mature; or (4) absolutely perfect. Only context can tell us which meaning the writers of the NT intend in each instance. In 1 Corinthians 2:6, teleios means spiritually mature and fully taught, in contrast with knowing only the simple message of the cross but being ignorant of all its implications. In 1 Corinthians 13:10, teleios is better translated “complete”, in contrast to partial. In 1 Corinthians 14:20, teleios means “adult”, in contrast to a child. In Hebrews 9:11, teleios means “actual”, as opposed to merely symbolic. And when John writes about “perfect” love, the best translation of teleios there is probably … well, “perfect”.

In short, many of the commands to be “perfect” in the King James actually mean something quite a bit more attainable. A mature Christian may still sin, but he certainly sins less than an immature Christian. A completely equipped Christian may still sin, but he won’t be ignorant about it for long, and he will repent of it a great deal faster than an ill-equipped Christian who doesn’t yet have the teaching he needs to be able to assess himself correctly.

What mature and completely taught believers won’t do is sin in the same way day after day after day, or sin deliberately and wilfully. And even for those less mature followers of Christ who do, the word of Christ compels their brothers in Christ to forgive them even if they sin against us seven times in a single day. Who is the model for such forgiveness? God himself, who can be counted on to be more forgiving than any standard he requires of his own children.

The passages about forgiveness point out very clearly that God has no expectation of sinless perfection in his children. If he did, forgiveness would be unnecessary.

The Scope of Perfection

Moreover, a great number of the verses cited in the BibleBro website to prove God demands sinless perfection of believers are in reality much more limited in scope (and therefore possible for human beings) than appears when they are quoted out of context.

One of the better examples of this is the Lord’s comment in the Sermon on the Mount that his listeners “must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Make that an absolute in every area of life, and nobody on earth attains to it. But the Lord is talking about being impartial, just as the Father sends rain on the just and the unjust. The actual scope of teleios in this passage is much more limited and attainable than the BibleBros want to make it. Any Christian attentive to the word of God may train himself to behave impartially to others, to respond with love toward his enemies. It’s not natural, but it can be done with the Lord’s help.

The person who behaves in such a way is by no means “sinlessly perfect”, but he is pleasing God and displaying the character of his Father in heaven.

The Demand for Perfection

But even if God were demanding perfection as the ultimate goal for his followers, it does not follow that he actually expects sinless perfection at every moment in the process. He is setting a goal toward which believers are to strive, but he is far too gracious to cut us off or strike us down when we try and fail to make the grade.

“Walk before me, and be perfect,” said YHWH to Abraham, after which Abraham displayed his imperfection by promptly deceiving Abimelech about his relationship to Sarah in chapter 20. One of the godliest men in history could not be “perfect” in the sense demanded by sinless perfectionists. “You shall be holy,” he said to Israel, “for I the Lord your God am holy.” Was Israel sinlessly perfect? Manifestly not, but God has not ceased to deal with them in mercy and grace, even today. Was sinless perfection attainable for Israel under the law? Again, manifestly not. The early Jewish Christians confessed they had learned the lesson of their own inability. When asked to put Gentiles under that same law, they responded, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” The expectation of sinless perfection was unbearable, unattainable and relentlessly legalistic.

Israel’s failure was expected. The law was given to show them they could not keep it. This invalidates every Old Testament command to be perfect cited at

The Expectation of Perfection

The expectation of perfection from Christians forces sinless perfectionists to do ridiculous things with scripture, like insist that the phrase “forgive us our debts” in the Lord’s prayer never includes actual sin, just monetary obligations we can’t meet through no fault of our own; or to argue that when Paul confessed, “I am carnal, sold under sin”, he was referring only to a three-day period in Acts 9 before the actual moment of his salvation; or to argue that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” means being sinlessly perfect all the time.

In short, you can’t argue for sinless perfection from scripture unless you drastically lower the perfection bar, making God less holy in the process, and his standard marginally more attainable.

That’s not a worthwhile trade-off just to feel a little better about ourselves.

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