By Rev. Charles G. Finney
V. THAT ENTIRE SANCTIFICATION IS ATTAINABLE IN THIS LIFE.
I will here introduce some things which I have said under this head in former lectures on this subject.
I. It is self-evident that entire obedience to God's law is possible on the ground of natural ability. To deny this, is to deny that a man is able to do as well as he can. The very language of the law is such as to level its claims to the capacity of the subject, however great or small that capacity may be, "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.'["] Here then it is plain, that all the law demands, is the exercise of whatever strength we have, in the service of God. Now, as entire sanctification consists in perfect obedience to the law of God, and as the law requires nothing more than the right use of whatever strength we have, it is of course forever settled that a state of entire sanctification is attainable in this life on the ground of natural ability.
This is generally admitted by those who are called new school divines. Or perhaps I should say, it generally has been admitted by them, though at present some of them seem inclined to give up the doctrine of natural ability, and to take refuge in physical depravity, rather than admit the attainableness of a state of entire sanctification in this life. But let men take refuge where they will, they can never escape from the plain letter and spirit and meaning of the law of God. Mark with what solemn emphasis it says, "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." This is its solemn injunction, whether it be given to an angel, a man or a child. An angel is bound to exercise an angel's strength; a man, the strength of a man; and a child, the strength of a child. It comes to every moral being in the universe just as he is, and where he is, and requires, not that he should create new powers, or possess other powers than he has, but that such as his powers are, they should all be used with the utmost perfection and constancy for God. And to use again the language of a respected brother, "If we could conceive of a moral pigmy, the law levels its claims to his capacities, and says to him, 'Love the Lord thy God with all THY heart, and with all THY strength." And should a man by his own fault render himself unable to use one of his hands, one eye, one foot, or any power of body or mind, the law does not say to him in such a case, use all the powers and all the strength you might have had, but only use what powers and what strength remain. It holds him guilty and condemns him for that act or neglect which diminished his ability; but it no longer in any instance requires the use of that power of body or mind which has been destroyed by that act.
For a fuller development of this truth see Lectures on Ability, No. xlvi, xlvii, xlviii, of this course. Also Lecture i, on Moral Government, pp. 5--11.
2. The provisions of grace are such as to render its actual attainment in this life, the object of reasonable pursuit. It is admitted that the entire sanctification of the Church is to be accomplished. It is also admitted that this work is to be accomplished "through the sanctification of the Spirit and the belief of the truth." It is also universally agreed that this work must be begun here; and also that it must be completed before the soul can enter heaven. This then is the inquiry:
Is this state attainable as a matter of fact before death?
It is easy to see that this question can be settled only by a reference to the word of God. And here it is of fundamental importance that we understand the rules by which scripture declarations and promises are to be interpreted. l have already given several rules in the light of which we have endeavored to interpret the meaning of the law. I will now state several plain common sense rules by which the promises are to be interpreted. The question in regard to the rules of biblical interpretation, is fundamental to all religious inquiries. Until the Church are agreed to interpret the scriptures in accordance with certain fixed and undeniable principles, they can never be agreed in regard to what the Bible teaches. I have often been amazed at the total disregard of all sober rules of biblical interpretation. On the one hand the threatenings, and on the other the promises, are either thrown away, or made to mean something entirely different from that which was intended by the Spirit of God. At present, I will only mention a few plain, common-sense, and self-evident rules for the interpretation of the promises. In the light of these, we may be able to settle the inquiry before us, viz: whether the provisions of grace are such as to render entire and permanent sanctification, in this life, an object of reasonable pursuit.
(1.) The language of a promise is to be interpreted by a reference to the known character of him who promises, where this character is known in other ways than by the promise itself; for example:
[1.] If the promisor is known to be of a very bountiful disposition, or the opposite of this, these considerations should be taken into the account in interpreting the language of his promise. If he is of a very bountiful disposition, he may be expected to mean all that he seems to mean in the language of his promise, and a very liberal construction should be put upon his language. But if his character is known to be the opposite of bountifulness, and it is known that whatever he promised would be given with great reluctance, his language should he construed strictly.
[2.] His character for hyperbole and extravagance in the use of language should be taken into the account in interpreting his promises. If it be well understood that the promisor is in the habit of using extravagant language--of saying much more than he means, this circumstance should, in all justice, be taken into the account in the interpretation of the language of his promises. But on the other hand, if he be known to be an individual of great accuracy, and to use language with great circumspection and propriety, we may freely understand him to mean what he says. His promise may be in figurative language and not to be understood literally, but in this case even, he must be understood to mean what the figure naturally and fully implies.
[3.] The fact should be taken into the account, whether the promise was made deliberately or in circumstances of great but temporary excitement. If the promise was made deliberately, it should be interpreted to mean what it says. But if it was made under great but temporary excitement, much allowance is to be made for the state of mind which led to the use of such strong language.
(2.) The relation of the parties to each other should be duly considered in the interpretation of the language of a promise; for example, the promise of a father to a son admits of a more liberal and full construction than if the promise were made to a stranger, as the father may be supposed to cherish a more liberal and bountiful disposition towards a son than towards a person in whom he has no particular interest.
(3.) The design of the promisor in relation to the necessities of the promisee or person to whom the promise is made, should be taken into the account. If it be manifest that the design of the promisor was to meet the necessities of the promisee, then his promise must be so understood as to meet these necessities.
(4.) If it be manifest that the design of the promisor was to meet the necessities of the promisee, then the extent of these necessities should be taken into the account in the interpretation of the promise.
(5.) The interest of the promisor in the accomplishment of his design, or in fully meeting and relieving the necessities of the promisee, should be taken into the account. If there is the most satisfactory proof, aside from that which is contained in the promise itself, that the promisor feels the highest interest in the promisee and in fully meeting and relieving his necessities, then his promise must be understood accordingly.
(6.) If it is known that the promisor has exercised the greatest self-denial and made the greatest sacrifice for the promisee, in order to render it proper or possible for him to make and fulfill his promises, in relation to relieving his necessities, the state of mind implied in this conduct, should be fully recognized in interpreting the language of the promise. It would be utterly unreasonable and absurd in such a case to restrict and pare down the language of his promise so as to make it fall entirely short of what might reasonably be expected of the promisor, from those developments of his character, feelings, and designs, which were made by the great self-denial he has exercised and the sacrifices he has made.
(7.) The bearing of the promise upon the interests of the promisor should also be taken into the account. It is a general and correct rule of interpretation, that when the thing promised has an injurious bearing upon the interests of the promisor, and is something which he cannot well afford to do, and might therefore be supposed to promise with reluctance, the language in such a case is to be strictly construed. No more is to be understood by it than the strictest construction will demand.
(8.) But if on the other hand the thing promised will not impoverish, or in any way be inimical to the interests of the promisor, no such construction is to be resorted to.
(9.) Whenever the thing promised is that which the promisor has the greatest delight in doing or bestowing; and when he accounts it "more blessed to give than to receive;" and where it is well known by other revelations of his character, had by his own express and often repeated declarations, that he has the highest satisfaction and finds his own happiness in bestowing favors upon the promisee, in this case the most liberal construction should be put upon the promise, and he is to be understood to mean all that he says.
(10.) The resources and ability of the promisor to meet the necessities of the promisee without injury to himself, are to be considered. If a physician should promise to restore a patient to perfect health, it might be unfair to understand him as meaning all that he says. If he so far restored the patient as that he recovered in a great measure from his disease, it might be reasonable to suppose that this was all he really intended, as the known inability of a physician to restore an individual to perfect health might reasonably modify our understanding of the language of his promise. But when there can be no doubt as to the ability, resources, and willingness of the physician to restore his patient to perfect health, then we are, in all reason and justice, required to believe he means all that he says. If God should promise to restore a man to perfect health who was diseased, there can be no doubt that his promise should be understood to mean what his language would import.
(11.) When commands and promises are given by one person to another, in the same language, in both cases it is to be understood alike, unless there be some manifest reason to the contrary.
(12.) If neither the language, connection, nor circumstances, demand a diverse interpretation, we are bound to understand the same language alike in both cases.
(13.) I have said we are to interpret the language of law so as to consist with natural justice. I now say, that we are to interpret the language of the promises so as to consist with the known greatness, resources, goodness, bountifulness, relations, design, happiness, and glory of the promisor.
(14.) If his bountifulness is equal to his justice, his promises of grace must be understood to mean as much as the requirements of his justice.
(15.) If he delights in giving as much as in receiving, his promises must mean as much as the language of his requirements.
(16.) If he is as merciful as he is just, his promises of mercy must be as liberally construed as the requirements of his justice.
(17.) If "he delighteth in mercy," if himself says "judgment is his strange work," and mercy is that in which he has peculiar satisfaction, his promises of grace and mercy are to be construed even more liberally, if any thing, than the commands and threatenings of his justice. The language in this case is to be understood as meaning quite as much as the same language would in any supposable circumstances.
(18.) Another rule of interpreting and applying the promises, which has been extensively overlooked, is this, that the promises are all "yea and amen in Christ Jesus.'["] They are all founded upon and expressive of great and immutable principles of God's government. God is no respecter of persons. He knows nothing of favoritism. But when He makes a promise, He reveals a principle of universal application to all persons in like circumstances. Therefore the promises are not restricted in their application to the individual or individuals to whom they were first given, but may be claimed by all persons in similar circumstances. And what God is at one time, He always is. What He has promised at one time or to one person, He promises at all times to all persons under similar circumstances. That this is a correct view of the subject is manifest from the manner in which the New Testament writers understood and applied the promises of the Old Testament. Let any person, with a reference Bible, read the New Testament with a design to understand how its writers applied the promises of the Old Testament, and he will see this principle brought out in all its fulness. The promises made to Adam, Noah, Abraham, the Patriarchs, and to the inspired men of every age, together with the promises made to the Church, and indeed all the promises of spiritual blessings--it is true of them all, that what God has said and promised once, He always says and promises, to all persons and at all times, and in all places, where the circumstances are similar.
Having stated these rules, in the light of which we are to interpret the language of the promises, I will say a few words in regard to the question when a promise becomes due, and on what conditions we may realize its fulfillment. I have said some of the same things in the first volume of the Oberlin Evangelist. But I wish to repeat them in this connection, and add something more.
[1.] All the promises of sanctification in the Bible, from their very nature, necessarily imply the exercise of our own agency in receiving the thing promised. As sanctification consists in the right exercise of our own agency, or in obedience to the law of God, a promise of sanctification must necessarily be conditioned upon the exercise of faith in the promise. And its fulfillment implies the exercise of our own powers in receiving it.
[2.] It consequently follows, that a promise of sanctification, to be of any avail to us, must be due at some certain time, expressed or implied in the promise: that is, the time must be so fixed, either expressly or impliedly, as to put us into the attitude of waiting for its fulfillment, for if the fulfillment of the promise implies the exercise of our agency, the promise is a mere nullity to us, unless we are able to understand when it becomes due in such a sense that we may wait for and expect its fulfillment. The promise of Christ to the Apostles concerning the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, may illustrate my meaning. He had promised that they should receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit not many days hence. This was sufficiently definite to bring them into an attitude of continual waiting upon the Lord, with the expectation of receiving the promise. And as the baptism of the Holy Spirit involved the exercise of their own agency, it is easy to see that this expectation was indispensable to their receiving the blessing. But had they understood Christ to promise this blessing at a time so indefinitely future as to leave them without the daily expectation of receiving it, they might, and doubtless would have gone about their business until some further intimation on his part that he was about to bestow it, had brought them into an attitude of waiting for its fulfillment.
[3.] A promise in the present tense is on demand. In other words, it is always due, and its fulfillment may be plead and claimed by the promisee at any time.
[4.] A promise due at a future specified time, is after that time on demand, and may at any time thereafter be plead as a promise in the present tense.
[5.] A great many of the Old Testament promises became due at the advent of Christ. Since that time they are to be considered and used as promises in the present tense. The Old Testament saints could not plead their fulfillment to them; because they were either expressly or impliedly informed, that they were not to be fulfilled until the coming of Christ. All that class of promises, therefore, that became due "in the last days," are to be regarded as now due or as promises in the present tense.
[6.] Notwithstanding these promises are now due, yet they are expressly or impliedly conditioned upon the exercise of faith, and the right use of the appropriate means, by us, to receive their fulfillment.
[7.] When a promise is due, we may expect the fulfillment of it at once or gradually, according to the nature of the blessing. The promise that the world shall be converted in the latter day, does not imply that we are to expect the world to be converted at any one moment of time; but that the Lord will hasten it in its time, according to the faith and efforts of the Church. On the other hand, when the thing promised may in its nature be fulfilled at once, and when the nature of the case makes it necessary that it should be, then its fulfillment may be expected whenever we exercise faith.
[8.] There is a plain distinction between promises of grace and of glory. Promises of glory are of course not to be fulfilled until we arrive at heaven. Promises of grace, unless there be some express or implied reason to the contrary, are to be understood as applicable to this life.
[9.] A promise also may be unconditional in one sense, and conditional in another; for example, promises made to the Church as a body may be absolute and their fulfillment be secure and certain, sooner or later, while their fulfillment to any generation of the Church, may be and must be conditioned upon their faith and the appropriate use of means. Thus the promise of God, that the Church should possess the land of Canaan was absolute and unconditional in such a sense as that the Church, at some period, would, and certainly must take possession of that land. But the promise was conditional in the sense that the entering into possession, by any generation, depended entirely upon their own faith and the appropriate use of means. So the promise of the world's conversion, and the sanctification of the Church under the reign of Christ, is unconditional in the sense, that it is certain that those events will at some time occur, but when they will occur--what generation of individuals shall receive this blessing,--is necessarily conditioned upon their faith. This principle is plainly recognized by Paul in Heb. 4:6,11: "Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief;" "Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief."