Of Man's Inability to Keep the Law Perfectly
by Thomas Boston
ECCLES. 7:20.—For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.
HAVING at considerable length endeavoured to open up and explain the law of God, as abridged in the ten commandments, in some measure in its spirituality and extent, by describing the several duties required, and sins forbidden therein; and shewn the absolute impossibility of yielding a perfect obedience thereto, in order to give a title to eternal life; and directed you to come to Christ by faith, as the end of the law for righteousness, that your guilt may be removed by the application of his blood to your consciences, and that ye may be sanctified by his Spirit: I now proceed to the exposition of the remaining questions in the Catechism, which I shall mostly discuss in a very short discourse on each, as I have been so long on the former part of this excellent composition.*
Here is the undoubted character of all the human race, fixing imperfection and sinfulness on the best of the kind in this world, and so concluding all to be liable to sin, and under it. In the words there are two things.
1. A position, There is not a just man upon earth. By the just man in this text is not meant an evangelically just man, or one just in respect of parts, though not of degrees; but one who is legally so, just in the eye of the law, as having yielded perfect obedience to all its commands; this is plain from the original pointing. Compare Psal. 143:2. 'Enter not into judgment with thy servant; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.' By this time the man Christ had not appeared on the earth: so it is meant of mere men. On the earth; to denote that in heaven they are just in that sense, arrived to legal perfection.
2. The explication of it; There is none who doeth good, and sinneth not. There are some who do good, as all the godly; but they sin withal, and that daily, for so the word is to be understood of their using to sin.
The doctrine arising from the words is.
DOCT. 'Legal perfection is not attainable in this life, but the best sin daily.' Or, 'No mere man, since the fall, is able, in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God; but doth daily break them, in thought, word, and deed.' In discoursing from this doctrine, I shall,
I. Shew what is legal perfection, or perfect keeping of the commands.
II. Consider the attainableness of this perfection.
III. Shew how the saints sin daily, and break the commands.
IV. Confirm the point, That perfection is not attainable in this life.
V. Give the reason of this dispensation.
I. I shall shew what is legal perfection, or perfect keeping of the commands. It is a perfect conformity of heart and life to the commands of God; and implies,
1. A perfection of the principle of action, Matth. 22:37. 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.' For if the heart and soul be not sinless and pure, as in innocent Adam and Christ, but be polluted as our nature is, there can be no perfect keeping of the commands of God. That pollution will stain all.
2. A perfection of the parts of obedience. No part must be lacking, every command of whatsoever nature must be kept: 'For it is written, cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them,' Gal. 3:10. If one be wanting, all is wanting, all is marred. Hence says James, chap. 2:10, 'Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point he is guilty of all.'
3. A perfection of degrees in every part, Matth. 22:37. 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.' Sincerity is not enough in the eye of the law. In every thing one must come to the highest pitch, or there is no perfection.
4. A perfection of duration or continuance, Gal. 3:10 forecited; without apostasy or defection, continuing to the end; for one bad trip after a course of obedience will mar all.
II. Let us consider the attainableness of this perfection.
1. Adam before the fall was able to have kept the commands perfectly; he might have attained it; for 'God made him upright,' Eccl. 7:29. That law was the rule of Adam's covenant-obedience; and perfect obedience to it was the condition of the covenant, which God could not have proposed to him, if he bad not given him strength sufficient to perform it.
2. The man Christ, who was not a mere man, but God-man, who was not only able to keep the law perfectly, but actually did so. He made out what the first Adam failed in, to the salvation of the elect, and in their stead; and this in the whole extent of legal perfection. His obedience was perfect in the principle, Heb. 7:26 being holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners;' in the parts, Matth. 3:15. 'It becometh us to fulfil all righteousness;' in the degrees, John 15:13. 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends;' and in continuance, Phil. 2:8. 'He became obedient unto death.'
3. The saints in heaven are able, and do actually perfectly obey whatever God's will to them is: so that though in this life they do not attain it, yet in the life to come all the children of God shall attain perfection, Heb. 12:23 where mention is made of 'the spirits of just men made perfect;' and there they shall be fully freed from sin, and all possibility of sinning.
4. But since Adam fell, no mere man is able, while in this life, either of himself, or by virtue of any grace now given, to keep the commands perfectly. Of himself he cannot do it; neither is there any measure of grace given to any in this life, whereby they may be enabled to do it: for 'in many things we offend all,' Jam. 3:2. This inability is owing to the remains of corruption that cleaves to every one of them in this mortal state, Rom. 7:23; and from which they ardently long to be delivered, ver. 24. And there is no promise of grace given in the word, whereby believers may be enabled to keep the commands of God perfectly; nor would it be consistent with the nature of spiritual growth, which is manifestly, like the natural, gradual; and it is certain that the saints do not arrive at their full stature till they come to the mansions of bliss, 1 Thess. 3:13.
III. I shall shew how the saints sin daily, and break the commands. And here I shall consider,
1. How many ways the commands may be broken.
2. In what respect the saints sin daily.
3. How these failures of theirs break the commands.
First, I am to shew how many ways the commands may be broken. They may be broken three ways, in deeds, words, and thoughts.
1. In deeds, done contrary to the command of God, or not done, though required. God's commands are the rule of men's outward life and conversation; and whatever we do or commit contrary to the law, is our sin, whether it be public, private, or secret, Psal. 14:2, 3.
2. In words, either speaking what we ought not, or not speaking what we ought, or speaking what we ought, but not in the manner commanded. (The same is to be said of actions or deeds.) God's commands are a rule to our tongues, and tell us what to speak, how to speak, and what not to speak; and by regardlessness of the rule, the tongue is 'a fire, a world of iniquity,' Jam. 3:6.
3. In thoughts. Here God's law goes beyond men's laws as to the whole kind; for our thoughts are open to God, who is omniscient, as words or actions are equally open to him, Heb. 4:13 and liable to his law. For says Christ, 'Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart, Matth. 5:28. And so one may sin by thinking what he ought not, by omitting of good thoughts, and by not managing good thoughts, in the manner required by the law.
Secondly, I shall shew in what respect the saints sin daily, in thought, word, and deed.
1. Negatively: not that the saints fall into gross sins daily, against the letter of the law, either in thought, word, or deed. God will disown those for saints who entertain vile thoughts daily, swear daily, lie daily, do unjust things, or neglect his worship daily, Gal. 5:19–21; 'Now, the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these, Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I also have told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.' Such spots are not the spots of God's people. Christ's dwelling by his spirit in them, the breaking of the reign of sin in them by the power of divine grace, and their habitual tenderness and watchfulness, hold them off that way of life. But,
2. Positively. Besides that saints may be surprised into gross sins in thought, word, and deed, sometimes by inadvertency, weakness, and violence of temptation, which is the burden of their souls, they sin every day in thought, word, and deed, when they keep the strictest watch, and have most of the divine assistance. What day passes, if without vile thoughts, yet without vain ones; without idle words, if without mischievous words; when there is not something done or undone, which God's law condemns, though perhaps the world cannot quarrel them? Besides, what good thought is thought, good word spoken, or good deed done by them, which the holy law will not spy a flaw in, as to the manner of its performance?
Thirdly, I am to shew how these failures of theirs break the commands, while they sincerely endeavour to obey them. Why, the moral law is the eternal rule of righteousness, and in whatever state the creature be, he is bound to obey his Creator, whether in a state of nature or grace, glory or damnation. And though perfection be not attainable in this life, yet it is the saints' duty, as well as that of others, Matth. 5 ult. 'Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.' So every coming short of that perfection is their sin, needing to be taken away by Christ's blood.
And thus men daily break the commands of God in thought, word, and deed; which is the only possible way of transgressing the divine law; and our doing so in these respects shews the equity of that charge which the Lord has against every man, 'Behold thou hast done evil, as thou couldst,' Jer. 3:5.
IV. I shall now confirm the point, That perfection is not attainable in this life.
1. The scripture attests, that there is no man without sin, 1 Kings 8:46; 'For there is no man that sinneth not:' and that 'in many things we offend all,' Jam. 3:2. If any man set up for it in himself, the Spirit of God Bays he deceives himself, 1 John 1:8. See an unanswerable question, Prov. 20:9; 'Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?
2. The best have a corrupt as well as a gracious principle, making the spiritual combat, never ending till death give the separating stroke, Gal. 5:17. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.'
3. We are taught always to pray for pardon, 'Forgive us our debts:' but sinless creatures need no pardons. This clearly shows, that all sin, and so come short of perfect obedience.
4. Lastly, Consider the spirituality of the law, and its extent, with human weakness, and you will see this clearly. And hence it is that perfectionists are strangers to the spirituality of the law: for if they rightly viewed it, they would be far from dreaming of having attained to perfection, which never a mere man did in this life.
Object. Noah was perfect, Gen. 6:9;* Job perfect, Job 1:8 Ans. They, and all saints, have a gospel-perfection, which is a perfection of parts. They had a comparative perfection; that is, they were more holy and circumspect than many others. But that they were not legally and absolutely perfect, is clear from Noah's drunkenness and Job's impatience. And where is the saint whose history we have at any length in scripture, but we see their imperfections recorded, to stain the pride of all glory?
But is it not said, 'Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin?' 1 John 3:9. Ans. The meaning is not, that the saints do not sin at all; but that they do not commit sin with the full consent of the will; do not take pleasure and delight in it; do not make a trade of it, as unregenerate persons do; and do not commit the sin unto death, 1 John 5:17, 18.
Object. But seeing it is impossible to yield perfect obedience to the law, how is it consistent with the justice and wisdom of God to require of us that which we are not able to perform.
Ans. The laws of God are both possible and just; and there is no duty now required of us which he did not endow us with strength in our creation to perform. Yet in our fallen and corrupted estate, perfect obedience is become impracticable through our weakness and aversion to duty. And there can be no injustice in God to require what is impossible for us to perform, when the impossibility solely arises from our own fault. It is not God, but we ourselves, that have made the perfect observation of his laws impossible; and though we have wasted our stock, and are become bankrupts, yet he may in righteousness exact from us that debt of obedience which we justly owe him.
Object. But are not believers delivered both from the commanding and condemning power of the law, and how are they then bound to yield any obedience to it?
Ans. Believers are certainly delivered as well from the commanding as condemning power of the law, considered only as it is the covenant of works, which requires obedience to it in order to justification; but they are by no means delivered from it as it is the law of Christ, or a rule of duty. For the moral law is the eternal rule of righteousness, a transcript of the divine perfections, which every believer is bound to copy after, and to apply to the blood of Jesus for pardon so far as he falls short of obeying it: for without holiness no man shall see the Lord. Personal holiness is as necessary to the possession of glory, or to a state of perfect holiness and happiness, as is the morning-light to the noon-day warmth and brightness; as is a reasonable soul to a wise, healthy, strong, and full-grown man; as an antecedent is to a consequent; as a part is to the whole; and as motion is necessary to evidence life. And the ten commandments, being the substance of the law of nature, a representation of God's image, and a beam of his holiness, behoved, for ever, unalterably to be a rule of life to mankind, in all possible states, conditions, and circumstances. Nothing but the utter destruction of human nature, and its ceasing to be, could divest them of that office; since God is unchangeable in his image and holiness. Hence there being a rule of life to Adam and his posterity, had no dependence on their becoming the covenant of work: but they would have been that rule, though there never had been any such covenant: yea, whatever covenant was introduced, whether of works or of grace, and whatever form might he put upon them, they behoved still to remain the rule of life. No covenant, no form whatsoever, could ever prejudice this their royal dignity.
V. I shall give the reason of this dispensation. God could make the saints perfect in the moment of conversion. He does it not. So it seems good in his sight. Many things are said to account for this; but what is most satisfying is, that it doth exalt the freedom of grace and the power of it most, Eph. 2:4, 7; 'But God, who is rich in mercy, for the great love wherewith he loved us—that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace, in his kindness towards us through Christ Jesus.' The more sins are pardoned to a sinner, he is the deeper in Christ's debt. The faster the root of sin appears in one's nature, the more appears the power of grace in rooting it up. It is surely the glory of our great Pilot, that he brings the broken ship to land, through so many hazards.
Caution. Abuse not this doctrine, to think light of sin because of it. It is the worst of diseases which most men die in, and no man is perfectly cured of until death. Make not your way to hell the easier, because of the difficulties in the way to heaven: for they that strive towards perfection here will get it at death, when ye sitting still at your ease will be carried down the stream to destruction.
Keep not ye some particular lust, because none are perfect: for all the saints are perfect in parts, though not in degrees; so far perfect, as to 'hate every known sin,' Psal. 119:128.
Inf. 1. There is no justification, favour, and peace with God, by our own works, Psal. 143:2. 'In thy sight shall no man living be justified.' Far less can there be works of supererogation. We must be justified by the righteousness of Christ received by faith, or not at all.
2. Whatever your attainments be, be not proud of them; your wants and defects may always keep you humble. The barren branches are towering ones, while the fruitful boughs hang down their heads.
3. Inexpressibly miserable is the case of unbelievers. They are without Christ; they must stand or fall by the law, and it is quite beyond their power to keep it.
4. Bear one another's burdens; for every man offends. We are in an hospital where most are dying of their disease, and the best but in the way of recovery.
Lastly, Let the struggling saints long for heaven, for there the perfection they would fain be at shall be attained, and not till then. And this may comfort them under all their failures, which they mourn over, that in the other world they shall arrive at full perfection in holiness.
From The Ten Commandments by Thomas Boston