Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Sinless Perfection of the Saint

I thought the doctrine of sinless perfection was passé until my son told me about an individual whom he communicated with via facebook, who claimed not to sin. The claimant was a professing Christian and the idea was quite simple; since she was a saint, she doesn’t sin.

A saint is one who is holy according to the strict meaning of the NT word, ho hagios, literally, the holy (one, thing, etc.). When used to refer to the believer, it is more or less a technical term, but the basic meaning is not absent; the believer is holy. This holiness is something that he pursues now (Pursue...holiness, without which no one will see the Lord, Heb 12:14) and it is the destiny to which he is called.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, Eph 1:3,4

For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness, 1 Thess 4:7

It is difficult to see how one can claim perfection in this life in the light of what the Scripture says about the matter. One verse that might be construed to teach sinless perfection is 1 John 3:6, Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.

“Is it not clear?” the perfectionist would argue. “The one who knows him does not sin. The implication then, if you sin, you do not know him. If you know him, you do not sin. And, if you do not sin, it can only be so because you cannot sin.”

Such an interpretation can only come by ignoring the context of what John has written elsewhere in the letter (1:8-10, which we will look at). But even the language of the verse itself prohibits such a teaching. In the first part of the verse, John writes, Whoever abides in Him does not sin. The present tense of the verb 'to sin' has inherently the idea of sin as occurring in a continuous manner; it is a way of life; the sinner here is one who habitually sins, not one who from time to time commits sin. A better translation of the verse would be, Whoever abides in Him is not sinning.

This is even more pronounced in the latter part of the verse which may be translated, Each sinning one (or, Each sinning person) has not seen him nor has he known him. The stress again is on the continued, persistent activity of sinning. One who habitually and persistently sins, whose life-style is one of constant sinning, has not seen Christ or come to know him. Such a one does not abide in Christ (harking back to the parable of the vine and the branches, John 15 - except the branch remains vitally united to the vine it will wither and die and no longer bear fruit).

The one who is in Christ does not sin as a way of life, though this does not preclude sinning occasionally. By occasion, we mean that when the life of the believer is taken as a whole, the sin is an exception, not the rule. The Christian may sin grievously, perhaps even for an extended time (such as David’s adultery and murder in which there was no repentance for possibly a year). This occasional, non-characteristic sinning is precisely what John emphasizes in 1:8, 10.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1:8
If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. 1:10

At first glance, one might think John is more or less repeating in verse ten what he writes in verse eight. But there is a distinct and important difference.

Verse eight uses the noun hamartian (sin) without the article, i.e., the article 'the' is absent. A general rule in Greek grammar is that when the article does accompany the noun (the word, the sky, the sin), a specific instance of the noun is in mind. If John had written, If we say that we have not the sin, he would have had a particular sin that both he and his readers were aware of. An example of how the article denotes specific sins is Hebrews 2:17.

Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

But John does not use the article in verse eight. The absence of the article is called the anarthrous form of the noun, and this construction is often used to denote the character and nature of something, rather than a specific instance of it. In our text, it refers to the character or quality of sin (i.e., sinfulness) rather than specific acts or deeds of sin (e.g., lying, stealing, lusting, etc.). It should be taken to read, “If we say that we do not have a nature of sin...,” or perhaps, “If we say that we do not have sinfulness...” John is making the point that none of us as Christians can claim to be without a natural bent to sin. Sin, as part of our nature, is at work in us.

The conditional clause in verse ten uses the perfect indicative, If we say that we have not sinned (oukh hemartekamen). The perfect indicative means that the sin has taken place in the past and is a completed action. Whatever may have resulted from such sin continues in the present. John is referring to the past of those to whom he is writing, and we may take that to mean their past as a believer, not their past before they were a believer. A freer translation that catches the nuance of the tense and context would be, If we say that hitherto we have not sinned in our past Christian life, we are making Him a liar, and his word is not in us.

The perfectionist might say that since the sin referred to in verse ten is in the past, it is not descriptive of the present state of the individual, that is, he is no longer in a state of sinning. But the reference to our past sin in verse ten is on the heels of what the apostle says in verse nine, If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Those whom John exhorts to confess their sins are those who remain in Christ (3:6), whom the world does not know because it does not know Christ (3:1), who are born of God in which the seed of God remains in them (3:9), who have passed from death to life (3:14), who keep his commandment and do those things that are pleasing to God (3:22), who find the commandments of God not to be burdensome (5:3). Specifically, he is exhorting believers, saints, to confess their sins with the assurance they will be cleansed.

These three verses (1:8-10) taken together confirm the following truths: (a) believers have a nature to sin, 1:8, (b) believers not only have the inclination to sin, but in fact have sinned, (1:10), (c) believers are assured that if they confess their sins (a humble acknowledgment of them produced by a loathing of them and a desire to depart from them), God is just to forgive and cleanse them of their sins (through the blood of Christ).

How can the believer be construed to be without sin if he still has the nature to sin, has actually committed sin (in his past as a Christian), and is assured of forgiveness of sin (as a Christian) through confession? He cannot. Paul identifies the moment when our whole body, soul, and spirit are made perfect - the day when Christ comes again:

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess 5:23.

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