Several objections raised against our doctrine are solved merely by considering the nature of Christian perfectionlt is absurd to say that all our Christian perfection is in the person of Christ. I REPEAT it, if our pious opponents decry the doctrine of Christian perfection, it is chiefly through misapprehension; it being as natural for pious men to recommend exalted piety, as for covetous persons to extol great riches. And this misapprehension frequently springs from their inattention to the nature of Christian perfection. To prove it, I need only oppose our definition of Christian perfection to the OBJECTIONS which are most commonly raised against our doctrine.
I. "Your doctrine of perfection leads to pride." Impossible! if Christian perfection is "perfect humility."
II. "It exalts believers; but it is only to the state of the vain-glorious Pharisee." Impossible! If our perfection is "perfect humility," it makes us sink deeper into the state of the humble, justified publican.
III. "It fills men with the conceit of their own excellence, and makes them say to a weak brother, Stand by, I am holier than thou." Impossible again! We do not preach Pharisaic, but Christian perfection, which consists in "perfect poverty of spirit," and in that "perfect charity which vaunteth not itself, honours all men, and bears with the infirmities of the weak!"
IV. "It sets repentance aside." Impossible! for it is "perfect repentance."
V. "It will make us slight Christ." More and more improbable! How can "perfect faith" in Christ make us slight Christ? Could it be more absurd to say that the perfect love of God will make us despise God?
VI. "It will supersede the use of mortification and watchfulness; for, if sin be dead, what need have we to mortify it and to watch against it?"
This objection has some plausibility; I shall therefore answer it in various ways: (1.) If Adam, in his state of paradisiacal perfection, needed perfect watchfulness and perfect mortification, how much more do we need them who find "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" planted, not only in the midst of our gardens, but in the midst of our houses, markets, and churches? (2.) When we are delivered from sin, are we delivered from peccability and temptation? When the inward man of sin is dead, is the devil dead? Is the corruption that is in the world destroyed? And have we not still our five senses and our appetite, "to keep with all diligence," as well as our "hearts," that the tempter may not enter into us, or that we may not enter into his temptations? Lastly: Jesus Christ, as son of Mary, was a perfect man: but how was he kept so to the end? Was it not by "keeping his mouth with a bridle, while the ungodly were in his sight," and by guarding all his senses with a perfect assiduity, that the wicked one might not touch them to his hurt? And if Christ our head kept his human perfection only through watchfulness, and constant self denial; is it not absurd to suppose that his perfect members can keep their perfection without treading in his steps?
VII. Another objection probably stands in Mr. Hill's way: it runs thus:"Your doctrine of perfection makes it needless for perfect Christians to say the Lord's prayer: for if God vouchsafes to 'keep us this day without sin,' we shall have no need to pray at night, that God would 'forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.'"
We answer: (1.) Though a perfect Christian does not trespass voluntarily, and break the law of love, yet he daily breaks the law of Adamic perfection through the imperfection of his bodily and mental powers: and he has frequently a deeper sense of these involuntary trespasses than many weak believers have of their voluntary breaches of the moral law. (2.) Although a perfect Christian has a witness, that his sins are now forgiven, in the court of his conscience, yet he "knows the terrors of the Lord:" he hastens to meet the awful day of God: he waits for the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the character of a righteous Judge: he keeps an eye to the awful tribunal, before which he must soon "be justified or condemned by his words:" he is conscious that his final justification is not yet come; and therefore he would think himself a monster of stupidity and pride, if, with an eye to his absolution in the great day, he scrupled saying to the end of his life, "Forgive us our trespasses." (3.) He is surrounded with sinners, who daily "trespass against him," and whom he is daily bound to "forgive;" and his praying that he may be forgiven now, and in the great day, "as he forgives others," reminds him that he may forfeit his pardon, and binds him more and more to the performance of the important duty of forgiving his enemies. And, (4.) His charity is so ardent that it melts him, as it were, into the common mass of mankind. Bowing himself, therefore, under all the enormous load of all the wilful trespasses which his fellow mortals, and particularly his relatives and his brethren, daily commit against God, he says, with a fervour that imperfect Christians seldom feel, Forgive us our trespasses, &c; "we are heartily sorry for our misdoings, [my own and those of my fellow sinners;] the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burthen of them is intolerable." Nor do we doubt but, when the spirit of mourning leads a numerous assembly of supplicants into the vale of humiliation, the person who puts the shoulder of faith most readily to the common burden of sin, and heaves most powerfully in order to roll the enormous load into the Redeemer's grave, is the most perfect penitentthe most exact observer of the apostolical precept, "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ;" and, of consequence, we do not scruple to say that such person is the most perfect Christian in the whole assembly.
If Mr. Hill consider these answers, we doubt not but he will confess that his opposition to Christian perfection chiefly springs from his inattention to our definition of it, which I once more sum up in these comprehensive lines of Mr. Wesley:
O let me gain perfection's height!
O let me into nothing fall!
(As less than nothing in thy sight,)
And feel that Christ is all in all!
VIII. Our opponents produce another plausible objection, which runs thus:"it is plain from your account of Christian perfection that adult believers are free from sin. their hearts being purified by perfect faith, and filled with perfect love. Now sin is that which humbles us, and drives us to Christ; and therefore, if we were free from indwelling sin, we should lose a most powerful incentive to humility, which is the greatest ornament of a true Christian."
We answer, Sin never humbled any soul. Who has more sin than Satan? And who is prouder? Did sin make our first parents humble? If it did not, how do our brethren suppose that its nature is altered for the better? Who was humbler than Christ? But was he indebted to sin for his humility? Do we not see daily that the more sinful men are, the prouder they are also? Did Mr. Hill never observe that the holier a believer is, the humbler he shows himself? And what is holiness but the reverse of sin? If sin be necessary to make us humble and keep us near Christ, does it not follow that glorified saints, whom all acknowledge to be sinless, are all proud despisers of Christ? If humility is obedience, and if sin is disobedience, is it not as absurd to say that sin will make us humble, i.e. obedient, as it is to affirm that rebellion will make us loyal, and adultery chaste? See we not sin enough, when we look ten or twenty years back, to humble us to the dust for ever, if sin can do it? Need we plead for any more of it in our hearts and lives? If the sins of our youth do not humble us, are the sins of our old age likely to do it? If we contend for the life of the man of sin that he may subdue our pride, do we not take a large stride after those who say, Let us sin that grace may abound. Let us continue full of indwelling sin that humility may increase! What is, after all, the evangelical method of getting humility? Is it not to look at Christ in the manger, in Gethsemane, or on the cross; to consider him when he washes his disciples' feet; and obediently to listen to him when he says, "Learn of me to be meek and lowly in heart?" Where does the Gospel plead the cause of the Barabbas, and the thieves within? Where does it say that they may indeed be nailed to the cross, and have "their legs broken," but their life must be left whole within them, lest we should be proud of their death? Lastly: what is indwelling sin but indwelling pride? At least, is not inbred pride one of the chief ingredients of indwelling sin? And how can pride be productive of humility? Can a serpent beget a dove? And will not men gather grapes from thorns, sooner than humility of heart from haughtiness of spirit?
IX. The strange mistake which I detect would not be so prevalent among our prejudiced brethren, if they were not deceived by the plausibility of the following argument:"When believers are humbled for a thing, they are humbled by it: but believers are humbled for sin; and therefore they are humbled by sin."
The flaw of this argument is in the first proposition. We readily grant that penitents are humbled for sin; or, in other terms, that they humbly repent of sin; but we deny that they are humbled by sin. To show the absurdity of the whole argument, I need only produce a sophism exactly parallel: "When people are blooded for a thing, they are blooded by it: but people are sometimes blooded for a cold; and therefore people are sometimes blooded by a cold."
X. "We do not assert that all perfection is imaginary. Our meaning is, that all Christian perfection is in Christ; and that we are perfect in his person, and not in our own."
ANSWER. If you mean by our being perfect only in Christ, that we can attain to Christian perfection no other way, than by being perfectly grafted in him, the true vine; and by deriving, like vigorous branches, the perfect sap of his perfect righteousness, to enable us to bring forth fruit unto perfection, we are entirely agreed: for we perpetually assert that nothing but "Christ in us the hope of glory," nothing but "Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith," or, which is all one, nothing but "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, can make us free from the law of sin, and perfect us in love."
But as we never advanced that Christian perfection is attainable any other way than by a faith that "roots and grounds us" in Christ, we doubt some mystery of iniquity lies hid under these equivocal phrases: "All our perfection is in Christ's person: we are perfect in him and not in ourselves."
Should those who use them insinuate by such language that we need not, cannot be perfect, by an inherent personal conformity to God's holiness, because Christ is thus perfect for us; or should they mean that we are perfect in him, just as country freeholders, entirely strangers to state affairs, are perfect politicians in the knights of the shire who represent them in parliament; as the sick in a hospital are perfectly. healthy in the physician that gives them his attendance; as the blind man enjoyed perfect sight in Christ, when he saw walking men like moving trees; as the filthy leper was perfectly clean in the Lord, before he had felt the power of Christ's gracious words, "I will, be thou clean;" or, as hungry Lazarus was perfectly fed in the person of the rich man, at whose gate he lay starving; should this, I say, be their meaning, we are in conscience bound to oppose it, for the reasons contained in the following queries:
1. If believers are perfect, because Christ is perfect for them, why does the apostle exhort them to "go on to perfection?"
2. If all our perfection be inherent in Christ, is it not strange that St. Paul should exhort us to "perfect holiness in the fear of God, by cleansing ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit?" Did not Christ perfect his own holiness? And will his personal sanctity be imperfect, till we have cleansed ourselves from all defilement?
3. If Christ be perfect for us, why does St. James say, "Let patience have her perfect work," that ye may be perfect? Is Christ's perfection suspended upon the perfect work of our patience?
4. Upon the scheme which I oppose, what does St. Peter mean, when he says, "After ye have suffered awhile, the Lord make you perfect?" What has our suffering awhile to do with Christ's perfection? Was not Christ "made perfect through his own sufferings?"
5. If believers were perfect in Christ's person, they would all be equally perfect. But is this the case? Does not St. John talk of some who are perfected, and of others who "are not yet made perfect in love?" Beside, the apostle exhorts us to be perfect, not in Antinomian notions, but "in all the will of God, and in every good work;" and common sense dictates, that there is some difference between our good works and the person of Christ.
6. Does not our Lord himself show that his personal righteousness will by no means be accepted instead of our personal perfection, where he says, "Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, [or whose fruit never grows to any perfection, see Luke viii, 14,] my Father taketh away," far from imputing to it his perfect fruitfulness?
7. In the nature of things can Christ's perfection supply the want of that perfection which he calls us to? Is there not a more essential difference between Christ's perfection and that of a believer, than there is between the perfection of a rose and that of the grass of the field? between the perfection of a soaring eagle, and that of a creeping insect? If our Lord is the head of the Church, and we are the members, is it not absurd to suppose that his perfection becomes us in every respect? Were I allowed to carry on a Scriptural metaphor, I would ask, Is not the perfection of the head very different from that of the hand? And do we not take advantage of the credulity of the simple, when we make them believe that an impenitent adulterer and murderer is perfect in Christ; or, if you please, that a crooked leg and cloven foot are perfectly handsome, if they do but somehow belong to a beautiful face?
8. Let us illustrate this a little more. Does not the Redeemer's personal perfection consist in his being GOD and MAN in one person; in his being eternally begotten by the Father as the "Son of God;" and unbegotten in time by a father, as "the son of man;" in his having "given his life a ransom for all;" in his having "taken it up again; and his standing in the midst of the throne, able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him?" Consider this, candid believer, and say if any man or angel can decently hope that such an incommunicable perfection can ever fall to his share.
9. As the Redeemer's personal perfection cannot suit the redeemed, no more can the personal perfection of the redeemed be found in the Redeemer. A believer's perfection consists in such a degree of faith as works by perfect love. And does not this high degree of faith chiefly imply uninterrupted self diffidence, self denial, self despair? A heartfelt, ceaseless recourse to the blood, merits, and righteousness of Christ? And a grateful love to him, "because he first loved us," and fervent charity toward all mankind "for his sake?" Three things, these, which, in the very nature of things, either cannot be in the Saviour at all, or cannot possibly be in him in the same manner in which they must be in believers.
10. Is not the doctrine of our being perfect in Christ's person big with mischief? Does it not open a refuge of lies to the loosest ranters in the land? Are there none who say, We are perfect in Christ's person? In him we have perfect chastity and honesty, perfect temperance and meekness; and we should be guilty of Pharisaic insolence if we patched his perfection with the filthy rags of our personal holiness? And has not this doctrine a direct tendency to set godliness aside, and to countenance gross Antinomianism?
Lastly. When our Lord preached the doctrine of perfection, did he not do it in such a manner as to demonstrate that our perfection must be personal? Did he ever say, "If thou wilt be perfect, only believe that I am perfect for thee?" On the contrary, did he not declare, "If thou wilt be perfect, sell what thou hast; [part with all that stands in thy way;] and follow me" in the way of perfection? And again: "Do good to them that hate you, that ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven; for he sendeth rain upon the just and the unjust, &c. Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect?" Who can read these words and not see that the perfection which Christ preached, is a perfection of holy dispositions, productive of holy actions in all his followers? And that, of consequence, it is a personal perfection, as much inherent in us, and yet as much derived from him, and dependent upon him, as the perfection of our bodily health? The chief difference consisting in this, that the perfection of our health comes to us from God in Christ, as the God of NATURE; whereas our Christian perfection comes to us from God in Christ, as the God of GRACE.