By Aaron Hills
Stones Of Stumbling Removed; Or, Opposing Texts Examined
There are a few passages of Scripture which seem, on the face of them, to be against the doctrine of sanctification. They have long been a "soothing syrup" to the babies in Christ, who love chronic spiritual babyhood. They have been long used as conscience balms and quieting opiates to those who are content to be at "ease in Zion" and "have only a name to live." They are stones of stumbling, which those who are "conformed to the world," and ''mind earthly things," have industriously gathered together and built a fortification around themselves, so that neither truth nor the Spirit of God may reach them with promptings to higher and holier things. It is fair to give them at least a brief examination.
1. We will take I. Kings viii. 46: "If they sin against thee (for there is no man that sins not) and thou be angry with them," etc. This can not teach the perpetual sinfulness of the saints; for, in verse forty-eight, they are supposed to "repent with all their heart and soul." We will let two scholars speak on the passage. Dr. John Morgan, a lifetime Professor in Greek and Hebrew in Oberlin Seminary, says: "The parenthesis ought to be rendered, 'for there is no man who may not sin', (Holiness Acceptable to God, p. 78). Dr. Daniel Steele, of Boston University (Theological Seminary), writes: "It is very much like the Governor of Massachusetts at the laying of a corner-stone of an insane asylum being reported as saying, in the dedicatory address, 'If any citizen of the Commonwealth become crazy, and there is no citizen who is not crazy, let him come here and be cured of his mental maladies.' All would say the reporter blundered, and it ought to read, 'For there is no citizen who may not be crazy.' Now, an examination of the text in the original Hebrew develops the fact that the word for 'sins' is in the future tense, the only form in the Hebrew for expressing the potential mood (See Nordheimer's Grammar, sec. 993; Green, Sec. 263; Rodigers' Genesius, p. 238 a). The correct rendering then would be. 'For there is no man who may not sin.' The Latin Vulgate of the Roman Catholic Church translates 'non peccet,' 'may not sin.' " (Half Hours, p. 152).
2. The same criticism and correction apply to Eccl. vii. 20: "For there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sins not." It should read, "and may not sin," as the Vulgate and Septuagint and ancient versions read. "A little scholarship," says Dr. Steele, "applied to these texts would improve the theology of some people" (p. 153).
3. Job ix. 2, 3: "How should man be just with God? If he will contend with him he can not answer him one of a thousand." Dr. Morgan says: "These words say nothing at all on the question of constant sinfulness. They speak only of the numberless sins of which every man in the course of his life has been guilty, so that on the ground of sinless perfection from the commencement of moral agency, no man can 'be just with God.' The words might be properly employed by a saint who had been a thousand years in heaven " (Holiness Acceptable, pp. 79, 80).
4. Job ix. 20: "If I justify myself mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse." Dr. Steele says: "This verse lies just as strongly against justification as against entire sanctification. In the evangelical sense, in which God is the Justifier and the Sanctifier of the believer in his Son, this verse contradicts neither. Job disclaims justification, by works and absolute perfection. That he had evangelical perfection, unfaltering faith, unquestioned loyalty, and perfect love, the root of all obedience, God's testimony ought to be conclusive: 'Hast thou considered my servant Job, ... a perfect and an upright man, one that fears God, and eschews [is shy of] evil?' " (Half Hours, p. 153). Job himself made the following stout profession of his righteousness: "All the while my breath is in me, my lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit till I die. I will not remove mine integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live" (xxvii. 3-6).
5. Psalm xiv. 2, 3: "God looked down from heaven upon the children of men. ..... They are all gone aside; they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one." St. Paul quotes this in Rom. iii. 10, as a proof of the universal depravity of the race; but it does not at all militate against our privilege as believers, through regenerating and sanctifying grace, to live without sin.
6. Ps. cxix. 96: "1 have seen an end of all perfection; but thy commandment is exceeding broad." Martin Luther renders it: "I have seen an end of all things, but thy law lasts." "Hence, the word perfection not being in their version, the Germans have no difficulty with this text. All earthly things end, but the Bible lasts, as is taught in Isaiah xl. 6-8 and I. Pet. i. 24, 25, 'All flesh is grass . . but the Word of the Lord endures forever.' We confidently make the assertion that no candid scholar, however strong his prejudices against evangelical perfection, or loving God with all the heart, after a thorough study of this text, will ever again hurl it against this precious Scriptural doctrine and blessed conscious experience of myriads of saints" (Half Hours, p. 155).
7. Ps. cxxx. 3: "If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared." "Who," says Dr. Morgan, "uninfluenced by a theory in need of support, would resort to such a text as this? Not a syllable is dropped from which we could gather that the Psalmist refers to present sin. Is it for present, and, of course, unrepented sin, that there is forgiveness with the Lord?" (p. 8o).
8. Isa. lxiv. 6: "But we are all as an unclean thing and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags." Evidently the prophet here speaks in the name of the backslidden Jews, who were all "fading as a leaf." In the two verses immediately preceding we see the contrast of the righteous: "From the beginning of the world men have not perceived or heard or seen what God hath prepared for him that waits for him. Thou meetest him that rejoices and works righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways." Says Dr. Morgan: "This text, instead of disproving the doctrine of holiness, appears, when taken with its context, decidedly to sustain it,' (Holiness Acceptable, pp. 81, 82).
9. Prov. xx. 9: "Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?" Such interrogative sentences are often intended as a form to express a universal negative but not always, as is shown by Prov. xxxi. 9: "Who can find a virtuous woman?" The context shows that the writer did not mean to intimate that there were no virtuous women, but that there were comparatively few: so the men of "clean hearts" and "pure from sin"' are comparatively rare. (See Ps. lxxiii. 13.)
10. Rom. vii. 14-25. This is a passage too long and too familiar to be quoted. There are some that would have us believe that this is a picture of St. Paul in his best Christian experience, and of all believers in their most exalted state. This chapter has been a battleground of theologians. Only the briefest statement of some of the difficulties in the way of such an interpretation of this remarkable passage, in the support of the doctrine of unavoidable and continuous sin, is needed.
(1) If this was St. Paul's highest and lifelong Christian experience, it contradicts all that he has declared about his life in the other epistles. He elsewhere called men and God to witness how "holily and unblameably" he had lived (I. Thess. ii. 10).
(2) It violates the immediate context. In vi. 2 he says: "We who died to sin, how shall we any longer live therein?" In vii. 14, "I am carnal, sold under sin." In viii. 2, "The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin." In vii. 17 he says, "It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me," while in vi. 12, 13, "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body: but present yourselves unto God as alive from the dead and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God." And in viii. 4, "That the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit." In vii. 18, "For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing," while in vi. 19 he says "Present your members as servants to righteousness unto sanctification." And in viii. 9, "Ye are not in the flesh but in the spirit." In vii. 23, "I see a law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity, under the law of sin which is in my members," while in vi. 22, "But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end eternal life." And in viii. 10, "If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the spirit is life because of righteousness." In other words, the seventh chapter of Romans details an entirely different experience from that described in the sixth chapter and the eighth chapter. (The sixth and eighth chapters depict the ideal Christian experience of righteousness and sanctification and eternal life; the seventh chapter is a dark picture of a servant of sin groaning in bondage and crying out for deliverance from the body of death. The eighth is the shout of a victor "more than a conqueror through him that loved us." It is a false interpretation which thus makes a writer contradict himself.
(3) Such an interpretation makes the gospel itself and all the atoning work of Christ as great a failure as the law, in reconstructing human character and redeeming man from sin.
It is evident to the logical mind that the apostle was either using himself in an earnest vivid style of composition, to represent others who were living very much below their privilege as believers or he was depicting some past experience of his own, when, as a legalist, and without the help of Christ whom he was rejecting, he laboured in vain to satisfy the law, and thus was once a representative of a very large class, whom now he is trying to lead into a better way.
''The best scholarship." says Dr Steele, " discredits this chapter as the photograph of regenerated man. The Greek Fathers, during the first three hundred years of church history, unanimously interpreted this scripture as describing a thoughtful moralist endeavouring without the grace of God, to realize his highest ideal of moral purity. Augustine, to rob his opponent Pelagius of the two proof-texts, originated the theory that the seventh of Romans delineated a regenerate man. Luther and Calvin followed him. The trend of modern scholars is to return to the view of the Greek Fathers. Among these are Moses Stuart, Calvin E. Stowe, Meyer, Julius Muller, Neauder, Tholuck, Ewald, Ernesti, Lepsius, Macknight, Doddridge, A. Clark, Turner, Whedon, Beet, and Stevens, of Yale" (Half Hours, p. 74).
President Mahan gives the names of thirty-three commentators, from Erasmus down, who have thus gone back to the theory of the early church. He then adds: "If we suppose that Paul, in the words, 'I am carnal, sold under sin,' did, as the primitive church understood him, intend to describe a legal experience, and in the words, 'The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death,' intended to describe a faith experience, then all is plain. But if the other interpretation holds, and we must believe that the apostle affirmed that both of these declarations were true of him at one and the same time, he as palpably contradicts himself as he would have done had he said that the same thing may, at the same moment of time, exist and not exist" (Autobiog., pp. 347, 348).
There are three verses that seem on their face to resemble a Christian experience: "The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good" (Rom. vii. 12). "For I delight in the law of God, after the inward man" (22). "So then I myself with the mind serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin"(vii. 25). This mental delight in the law of God may be only the intellectual ideal of morality contemplated by wicked men with admiration, but never practiced. So drunkards praise temperance, but continue their revels; and the licentious admire virtue and seek it in marriage, and still live in licentiousness. So learned Brahmins, at the "Congress of Religions," in Chicago, declaimed beautifully about love to God and love to man; but when at home in India they would pass a brother of another caste dying by the roadside of thirst without thinking of offering him a drink. Noble moral sentiment is one thing; noble character is quite another. The well known lines of Ovid will occur to the reader:
"My reason this, my passion that persuades; I see the right, and I approve it too; condemn the wrong, and yet the wrong pursue."
Dr. Steele says "the last sentence of the chapter is an epitome of the whole struggle between the 'mind' or moral reason, and the flesh or sinful proclivity. The emphatic words are 'I myself,' alone, on the plane of nature, without the aid of Christ, can do no better than to render a dual service, with the mind serving the law of God, by my admiration of its excellence, but with the flesh the law of sin, by such a surrender as carries my guilty personality with it." (See Half Hours, pp. 74-77.)
Professor Morgan, adopting similar views with Dr. Steele, says: "We confess to an intense interest in the true interpretation of this important passage; for we believe that the current false view has done more to hinder the saints and to flatter the hopes of hypocrites than any other single error that has prevailed among good men" (Holiness Acceptable to God, p. 59).
Bishop Ryle, of England, says: "We have in Rom. vii. 14-25 a correct and perfect daguerreotype of the experience of every true saint of God." Malian adds: "Had Ryle said. 'Of every saint of God who has not received the Holy Ghost since he believed.' he would have been correct in his affirmation. That was the only form of the Christ life which he then knew. In this state the believer is not 'spiritual but carnal, a babe in Christ,' 'carnal, sold under sin,' 'the law of his members warring against the law of his mind, and bringing him into captivity to the law of sin which is in his members.' Well may he exclaim, 'O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?' Apostles, and Christ, and heaven, and all Pentecostal believers sympathize with such a saint, and they also marvel at his unbelief. I know what such a wretched life is, for I have experienced it', (p. 408).
On the other hand, Dr. Steele, says: "How sad the blunder of mistaking the profile of the sinner for the saint, and hanging it up for imitation by believers."
Whichever of these two views is correct, the third, which makes Rom. vii. a picture of Paul's best, and a support for the doctrine of necessary and perpetual sin, can not possibly stand. In St. Paul's mature experience, he was not a bond slave, "carnal, sold under sin," making miserably abortive efforts to do good, and avoid evil. No more is it a picture of our best estate, with the help of an indwelling Christ and a sanctifying Spirit. Such a conclusion is monstrous in itself, and out of harmony with a hundred passages of Scripture, and can not stand a moment.
11. Phil. iii. 11-15: "If by any means I may attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on, if so be that I may apprehend that for which also I was apprehended by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded."
This is the chosen text for preachers who appear to hug the doctrine of necessary and perpetual sinfulness, and fight the doctrine of sanctification, and deny the possibility of holiness. It would seem as if they were in love with weak and worldly churches, and were afraid to have their members become "spiritually minded" and Christlike. But such ministers only use verses 12-14. I have purposely added the eleventh and fifteenth verses, which utterly vanquish their misinterpretation.
Notice, first, that the verb "obtained" in verse 12 has no object. Its logical object is "the resurrection of the dead" in verse 11. When Paul, therefore, says, "Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect," he simply says that he had not yet attained to the perfection of the resurrection state." Jesus spoke in the same way in Luke xiii. 32: "Behold, I cast out devils and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I am perfected." Jesus, by that remark, did not brand himself as a perpetual sinner, sinning ''daily, in thought, word, and deed," neither does St. Paul.
"But why," asks Dr. Steele, "should St. Paul assert a fact so manifest as this, that he had not risen from the dead? Did any one assert that he had risen? Yes; some were spiritualising the resurrection, perverting St. Paul's own words in Eph. ii. 6 and Col. iii. 1 into an argument against the resurrection of the body, while others were boldly declaring that the resurrection is past already' (II. Tim. ii. 18). Under this state of facts it was not the declaration of a mere truism for Paul to aver that his resurrection was future, not past" (Half Hours. p. 64).
Now, secondly, you will notice that in the fifteenth verse St. Paul does make a claim to perfection: "Let us, therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded." Spiritual imperfection is not so much as hinted at in verse 12, but only an affirmation that the unseen glory is yet ahead; but in the fifteenth verse he affirms his Christian evangelical perfection in the present life, as a servant of Christ and a racer for glory. "The twelfth verse is beautifully harmonized with the fifteenth. In the twelfth St. Paul disclaims perfection as a victor, since he has not finished his race and touched the goal; in the fifteenth verse he claims perfection as a racer 'having laid aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset ' " (Half Hours, p. 65).
Prof. Morgan wrote on the same passage: "An erroneous translation of one word has alone occasioned this glorious passage to be cited to prove the dogma of constant moral imperfection in the saints. Prof. Robinson, in his Lexicon, p. 812, has corrected this mistake. His interpretation is: 'Not that I have already completed my course and arrived at the goal, so as to receive the prize.'
Thus understood, the passage exhibits the apostle as an illustrious example of the full performance of all the duties of the Christian race -- one of which can not be to be all the time at the goal" (Holiness Acceptable, pp. 96, 97).
12. Gal. v. 17: "For the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary the one to the other, that ye may not do the things that ye would." The old version reads: "So that ye can not do the things that ye would." The new version is a great improvement -- taking from indolent, unaspiring Christians their standing excuse for sin, namely, inability to be holy.
It is characteristic of sinners that they fulfil the desires of the flesh. But, in order that his people may not do this, God has placed his Spirit in them, to oppose and govern these desires; yea, to put an end to them. "Walk in the Spirit and ye shall not fulfil them." There is no longer any "can not" in the problem of Christian living.
Dr. Steele's comment is too good to leave unquoted: "'So that ye can not do the things that ye would.' Alas! how many unsanctified souls have made this astounding mistranslation the pillow upon which they have slept the deep of death! There is no 'cannot' in the original nor in the Revised Version, which is word for word the version of John Wesley a century and a quarter before: 'that ye may not do the things that ye would.' The doctrine taught by Paul is that in the regenerate, but not in the entirely sanctified, there is a struggle going on; the purpose of which is this: When ye would do the works of the flesh the Spirit strives to prevent you, and when you would follow the leading of the Spirit the flesh opposes. This warfare ceases when 'the flesh is crucified' (24) 'and the body of sin is destroyed' (Rom. vi. 6). Of this mistranslation Wesley says: 'It makes Paul's whole argument nothing worth; yea, asserts just the opposite of what he is proving." The author was once giving a Bible reading on the subject of practical holiness, when an official of his church arose and read this mistranslation, alleging the impossibility of living up to his moral ideal. With such a conception of God as a hard Master, he soon after became so demoralized as to wreck a national bank and flee to Canada, where he died. Apologies for sin, and extenuations of sin as unavoidable, are fraught with the utmost peril" (Half Hours, pp. 68, 69).
13. I. John i. 8: "If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." This verse, and the passage in Phil. iii. 12-14, and the seventh of Romans, already examined, are the great reliance of the advocates of the doctrine of continuous sin. Many use this text to keep themselves, and drive all others, away from the hope of holiness. On its face, it does seem to declare that all Christians do sin continually, and if any say they do not, they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them. But there are absolutely fatal objections to such an interpretation. For, notice
(1) That this view makes John flatly contradict himself in the same breath. It puts verses 7 and 9 in opposition to 8 and 10. A man whose "sins are forgiven" and who is "cleansed from all unrighteousness" does not "have sin," as a co-existing fact. I. John iii. 9 reads: "Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin," and iii 6 reads: Whosoever abides in him sins not." It is the privilege of all Christians to thus "abide in Christ" and abstain from sin. Plainly, then, verses 8 and 10 can not assert continual sin of Christians.
(2) Dr. Steele quotes Bishop Wescott and Bengel as pointing to the fact that the phrase to "have sin" is one of the strongest expressions for sin, and always implies guilt and desert of punishment. Is every Christian, trusting Jesus and abiding in him, still in guilt and under wrath? To "have sin" can not be a present experience of a devout Christian heart, living in a justified state. It is a general statement, meaning simply, "if we say that we have no blameworthiness (on account of sins, no matter when committed) needing atoning blood and pardoning mercy, we deceive ourselves." That is its only possible reference to Christians. " This," says Dr. Steele, "is the dilemma of the Alford school of expositors. Their theory that all Christians have guilt negatives justification, and contradicts St. Paul's joyful exultation in Rom. viii. 1, 'There is therefore now no condemnation.' The steps in our argument are few and plain. Guilt and the new birth are mutually exclusive. Sinning -- a course of wilful violations of the known law of God -- excludes being born of God (iii. 9) because guilt is incurred. 'To have sin' in the meaning of St. John is to have guilt. Therefore the words 'to have sin' exclude from regeneration and the spiritual life" (Half Hours, p. 259).
(3) It is pertinent to ask how it was, then, that St. John came to write in this remarkable and apparently contradictory way. A historical fact makes the matter plain. A body of false teachers had arisen who were seducing the churches. They were liars and antichrists. Jude and Peter tell us they "were going everywhere and drawing disciples after them." These men professed to have fellowship with God, and yet led the most scandalous lives, "turning the grace of God into lasciviousness." These Dualists, or Doceta, taught that all sin or evil belongs only to the body and existed in all matter, and denied that the mind or soul could possibly "have sin." But Christ had a body: and these seducers were logically driven to teach, therefore, that Christ was a man, a physical being, only in appearance. He was a "sham man," and his atoning death was ''a phantom appearance" only. Of course, Satan induced them speedily to draw another inference, namely, that their souls, being immaterial, had no sin, whatever their bodies might do, and had no need of an atonement. Sin could defile, and must defile, their physical beings only, but could not reach their souls. Inspired by such a philosophy, they plunged into all manner of beastly excesses -- gluttony, drunkenness and licentiousness, still holding that their souls remained untarnished amid all this sensual sin, like a jewel in a dunghill. When these people were pointed to Christ, and urged to repent and believe and be saved, they impudently replied that they were not sinners -- "had no sin" and "had not sinned "; they had nothing to repent of, and Christ was a man only in appearance, and the atonement was only an illusion, and was of no use to them. It was to save the churches from the onsweep of this seductive and Satanic error that John wrote this epistle. Read it now, with this thought in mind. In the first verse he begins. Jesus was not a sham, phantom Christ, for we "have heard" him, " we have seen [him] with our eyes," "and our hands handled" him. "And this message we have heard of him and announce unto you. If we say we have fellowship with him [God] and walk in darkness" (as these vile seducers and their followers are doing) we lie (I. John i. 5, 6). " But if we walk in the light -- the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (v. 7). "If we say we have no sin" (8), "if we say we have not sinned" (10) (as these vile, false teachers are saying while living in their shameless sins), "we deceive ourselves, and make him a liar, and his word is not in us." In other words, the apostle is saying, "We can not practice iniquity and have fellowship with God." And if we say that we have never sinned and have no need of an atoning Saviour, and of his forgiveness and cleansing, we simply deceive ourselves, and make God a liar. But if we humble ourselves in repentance and confess and forsake our sins "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
It is now plain why the holy apostle wrote as he did. What a wretched interpretation it is to take these words, hurled against vile seducers of the bride of Christ, and force them to teach, as a divine revelation, that the bride herself, with all the Heavenly Bridegroom's sanctifying indwelling, and the "cleansing" of the Holy Spirit, can not herself be pure and clean! President Mahan says: "The use that is made of I. John i. 8, by the advocates of the dogma of continuous sin in all believers, changes the weapon with which inspiration has furnished us against all who, in any age, may deny the fact of sin and consequent need of atoning grace, into a herculean club, with which to knock out the brains of such believers as Polycarp, Clement, Barnabas, Hermas, Ambrose, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Fenelon, Madame Guyon, Wesley, Fletcher, James Brainerd Taylor, Upham, and Finney (St. John and St. Paul), by holding them up as self-deceivers, void of truth, and as making God a liar" (Autobiog., p. 350).
We have now examined all the passages which appear to a superficial view to affirm the necessity of continuous sin; but we clearly see that they do not do it. The Bible is a book against sin from cover to cover, and is consistent with itself. God does not command us to be holy and reveal a Saviour and sanctifying Spirit, "able to save to the uttermost," and then tell us in the same breath that we must live in sin till death.