Q&A: Can a Man Achive Sinlessness?

I recently received a letter at monergism.com with the following question:

recently on campus there was a man who came to preach at our commons who claimed he was sinless and that one could lose his or her salvation if they sinned after they were born again. I know this can't be right but I would like to hear your take on it? Also he said "Man and God both play an equal role in salvation" "Man must respond to the Holy Spirit by Faith and thereby receives Grace." We debated and gathered quite a crowd.

Reaction against this kind of perfectionism was typified in the early church by the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius. Although Augustine did affirm the ideal of perfection, the glorious summum bonum, it was a perfection he believed attainable only in when translated into the presence of God. He strongly believed that sinlessness was an impossible moral ideal in this life because of the sinful nature of mankind which resulted from the fall. Pelagius, on the other hand believed it was blasphemy to tell God that what he had commanded in Scripture was morally impossible. As you can imagine, he repudiated original sin and asserted that all people are born with the free God-given capacity to perfect themselves or corrupt themselves as they choose. Augustine responded by explaining that any moral progress made in this life was the result of God's grace alone. The Reformers reflected on and mostly embraced the Augustinian position that sin remains in humanity throughout life, and concluded therefore spiritual perfection not attainable this life.

I think the real issue here is that the preacher who came to your campus is in danger of staking his salvation upon something he did (or does). Remember that repentance means that we turn from trusting in all our "good works" for salvation. We are only justified when we recognize that it is our faith in the finished work of Christ alone that justifies us, despairing of any hope from ourselves, not based how good our behavior is. This is nothing less than trusting in his own sincerity and pietism for his salvation. OUr trust in is Christ's work, not our own. A truly regenerate person has new desires for God and will, therefore, strive for moral excellency, yet remains prone to sin until we are given new bodies in the resurrection. The teaching that grace can be lost is due to one's sin a flat denial of the finished work of Jesus Christ's finished work for us on the cross. Faith and obedience will inevitably result from a true inner working of the Holy Spirit but 1 John clearly teaches that the believer still must deal with sin in his life:

"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives." (1 John 1:10)

Notice that the action of confessing our sins is a present action with extends to the future. James also says to confess our sins to one another. Peter clearly sinned after Pentecost when he drew back and attempted to follow the law again when eating with Jews and Gentiles. Paul goes into the believers struggles in some depth in Rom 7. To teach a kind of sinlessness is to miss the point of the Gospel entirely. The Gospel is about Christ first ... that His work is enough to put away our sins for all time. Justification is a forensic action in which we are declared righteous before God because of what Jesus did (once for all) ... not what we do. Certainly a changed life is the inevitable fruit of a true faith but it is not something we trust in (either pre or post salvation). God is not rewarding us for our changed life but sovereignly reaches down and changes us, according to His good pleasure (Eph 1:4,5). The taking of communion is also a constant reminder to us that we are people who have a need. So the holiness/perfection teaching you are running into is almost a wholesale denial of the Gospel. It is a return to Rome or worse (if it were possible), to pelagianism.

Don't be too discouraged or despair when people do not accept the doctrines of grace. Americans, after the revolutionary war have grown up in an environment where the gospel has been largely man-centered and synergistic. Changing ones mind after hearing the same thing at church year after year is not an easy thing. Many will have to undergo a great deal of deprogramming from their church tradition before they are ready to receive the biblical idea that we are saved by grace alone. Although synergists may use much of the same language, the definition of the words are often quite different. Many also will claim to be saved by grace, but upon closer examination, as we see in the gentleman you encountered, they still fall back to an anthropocentric effort somewhere in their theology. They conclude that it is only fair if somehow the final decision is left up to them, not God. Yet this gentleman takes it a step further and stakes his future upon his own ability to live up to God's holy & perfect standard - which no man can do. Either he is totally unaware of God's holy standard or he is self-deluded. The purpose of the Law, as revealed in Scripture, is that God wanted to shut us all out of His kingdom except by means of His mercy alone as a way of entrance:

"For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." Rom 11:32

"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." Rom 3:20

You also quoted your preacher friend saying "Man and God both play an equal role in salvation" "Man must respond to the Holy Spirit by Faith and thereby receives Grace" - btw, this is not an "equal role" as he defines it, since the final decision is left squarely on the shoulders of man. Man chooses God in this scheme not the other way around as revealed in Scripture (John 15:16, John 6:37,39) Let me make one thing clear: God commands us to repent and believe (this is our responsibility) yet the biblical Gospel also teaches that man is unable to respond. Both are true. The man-centered kind of teaching you have run into is abundant here in the US and needs to seriously be addressed because it is in direct contradiction to the scriptures. It is truly Pelagian and was condemned by the church in the early 5th century (by Augustine and the Council of Orange). Your friend is in fact saying that man (who is dead in sin), without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, turns to Christ on his own and then receives grace as a result. He has flipped the order of salvation that is again clearly revealed in Scripture (Rom 8:30). The average Joe, I admit, will say that God must initiate with His grace BUT he mistakenly thinks that God cannot effect the completion of the work of regeneration without the cooperation and consent of the sinner. In other words the final decision still rests with each person. Unregenerate man, in this scheme, is left with the freewill and ability to believe or reject God so in the end there is not much difference between the pelagian or the arminian positions. (but at least the Arminian synergistic position believes grace is initiated by God) beyond that however, its unbiblical presuppositions fall apart in light of scripture.

The CRUX of the problem that they have failed to take into account is the misreading of the biblical text as to the nature of man before regeneration in his fallen state. They still believe there is an "island of righteousness" in there somewhere. But the Scripture plainly says that there is no one who seeks God and without the Spirit man cannot and will not understand the Gospel.(1 Cor 1:14, ROM 3:11, Rom 8:7) Yes man cooperates with God AFTER regeneration by putting his faith in Christ but in reality faith is merely a witness of God's regenerative grace already working in the inner man - a response rendered certain following the regenerative call of the Holy Spirit. And is itself a divine gift (Eph 2:5,8, 2 Tim 2:25, Phil 1:29)

More Articles Like this:
The False Doctrine of SINLESS PERFECTION By Bob L. Ross
Wesleyan Doctrine of Sinless Perfection by R. L. Dabney
A Critique of the Higher Life Movement by Jay Wegter. This in-depth study of the "higher life" movement, also known as the Keswick teaching, gives some important biblical analysis of this popular teaching that says Chrisitans can permanently conquer their sin nature in this life. Jay also gives the proper view of the doctrine of sanctification.

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