John Fletcher


St. Paul preached Christian perfection, and professed to have attained itA view of the different sorts of perfection which belong to the different dispensations of grace and gloryThe holy child Jesus' imperfection in knowledge and suffering, and his growing in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man, were entirely consistent with his perfection of humble love.
ST. PAUL'S name appears upon Mr. Hill's list of witnesses against Christian perfection; but it is without the apostle's consent: for Peter and James did not plead more strenuously for the glorious liberty of God's children, than St. Paul. Nay, he professed to have attained it, and addressed fathers in Christ as persons that were partakers of it together with himself. "We speak wisdom," says he, among them that " are perfect," 1 Cor. ii, 6. "Let us, as many as be perfect, be thus minded," Phil. iii, 15.

Nor did St. Paul fancy that Christian perfection was to be confined to the apostolic order: for he wanted all believers to be like him in this respect. Hence it is, that he exhorted the Corinthians "to perfect holiness in the fear of God, 2 Cor. vii, 1; to be perfect, 2 Cor. xiii, 11; to be perfectly joined together in the same mind," 1 Cor. i, 10; and showed them the perfect, or "more excellent way," 1 Cor. xiii. He told the Ephesians, that "God gave pastors for the perfecting of the saints, till all come in the unity of the faith,unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ," Eph. iv, 12, 13. He "taught every man, &c, that he might present every man perfect in Christ Jesus," Col. i, 28. He wanted the Colossians fully to "put on charity, which is the bond of perfection, that they might stand perfect and complete in all the will of God," Col. iii, 14; iv, 12. He would have "the man of God to be perfect, thoroughly furnished to every good work," 2 Tim. iii, 27. He exhorted his converts, "whether they did eat, drink, or do any thing else, to do all to the glory of God, and in the name of the Lord Jesus; rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, and in every thing giving thanks;" that is, he exhorted them to walk according to the of Christian perfection. He blamed the Hebrews for being still such "as have need of milk, and not of strong meat;" observing that "strong meat, esti teleiwn, belongeth to them that are perfect, even to them who by reason of use, [or experience,] have their [spiritual] senses exercised to discern both good and evil," Heb. v, 12, &c. He begins the next chapter by exhorting them to "go on to perfection;" intimating that if they do not, they may insensibly fall away, "put the Son of God to open shame, and not be renewed again to repentance." And he concludes the whole epistle by a pathetic wish that "the God of peace would make them perfect in every good work to do his will." Hence it appears that it would not be less unreasonable to set St. Paul upon "crucifying Christ afresh," than to make him attack Christ's well-known doctrine, "Be ye [morally] perfect, [according to your narrow capacity and bounded power,] even as your heavenly Father is [morally] perfect" [in his infinite nature, and boundless Godhead,] Matt. v, 48.

Mr. Hill will probably attempt to set all these scriptures aside, by saying that nothing can be more absurd than to represent Paul as a perfectionist, because he says himself, "Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect," Phil. iii, 12. But some remarks upon the different sorts of perfection, and upon the peculiar perfection which the apostle said he had not yet attained, will easily solve this difficulty.

Mr. Hill is too well acquainted with divinity, not to know that absolute perfection belongs to God alone; and that Christ himself, with respect to his humanity, fell and still falls short of infinite perfection. Omniscience, and a wisdom admitting of no growth, are essential to absolute perfection: but the man Christ was not omniscient; for he did not know the day of judgment: nor was his wisdom infinite; for he grew in wisdom. Nay, his happiness is not yet absolute; for it daily increases as he sees his seed, and is more and more satisfied. God alone is supremely perfect: all beings are imperfect, when they are compared to him; and though all his works were perfect in their places, yet, as he gave them different degrees of perfection, they which have inferior degrees of goodness, may be said to be imperfect in comparison of them which are endued with superior degrees of excellence. Thus archangels are perfect as archangels, but imperfect in comparison of Jesus Christ. Angels are perfect as angels, but imperfect in comparison of archangels. Enoch, Elijah, and the saints who arose with our Lord, are perfect as glorified saints; and, in comparison of them, the departed "spirits of just men made perfect" continue in a state of imperfection: for the risen saints are glorified in body and soul; but the mouldered bodies of departed saints, not having yet felt "the power of Christ's resurrection," are still under the power of corruption. Imperfect as St. Paul and St. John are now, in comparison of Enoch, Elijah, and the twenty-four elders so often mentioned by St. John; yet they are far more perfect than when they were pressed down by a corruptible body, under which they "groaned, being burdened:" for the disembodied spirits of "just men made perfect" are more perfect than the most perfect Christians, who are yet in a "body dead because of sin." And, as among rich men, some are richer than others; or among tall men, some are taller than others; so among perfect Christians, some are more perfect than others.

According to the gradation which belongs to all the works of God; and according to the doctrine of the dispensations of Divine grace; the least perfect of all perfect Christians, is more perfect than the most perfect Jew; yea, than John the Baptist, whose dispensation linked together Judaism and Christianity. Or, to speak the language of our Lord, "He that is least in the [Christian] kingdom of God, is greater than John;" though John himself was "the greatest born of a woman" under any preceding dispensation. By the same rule, he that is perfect under the Jewish dispensation, is more perfect than he that is only perfect according to the dispensation of the Gentiles.

The standard of these different perfections is fixed in the Scriptures. "To fear God and work righteousness," that is, to do to others as we would be done to, from the principle of the fear of God, is the standard of a Gentile's perfection. The standard of a Jew's perfection, with respect to morality, may be seen in Deut. xxvii, 14-26, and in Psa. xv. And, with respect to devotion, it is fixed in Psalm cxix. The whole of this perfection is thus summed up by Micah:"O Israel, what does the Lord thy God require of thee, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

The perfection of infant Christianity, which is called, in the Scriptures, "the baptism of John," is thus described by John and by Christ:"He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none, &c. If thou wilt be perfect, sell what thou hast, give to the poor, and follow me. If any man come to me and hate not [i.e. is not willing for my sake to leave] his father and mother, his wife and children, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever does not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple."

With respect to adult perfect Christianity, which is consequent upon the baptism of the Holy Ghost, administered by Christ himself, its perfection is described in the sermon on the mount; in 1 Cor. xiii; and in all those parts of the epistles where the apostles exhort believers to walk agreeably to "the glorious liberty of God's children,"

The perfection of disembodied spirits is thus described by a voice from heaven:"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord: even so, saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labours, [not from their sins; this they did before death,] and their works follow them." And the complete perfection of glorified saints is thus described by St. John and St. Paul:"They shall live and reign with Christ in a city wherein there is no temple, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it, and the city hath no need of the sun to shine in it, for the glory of God enlightens it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And there shall be no curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall serve him, and they shall see his face; and his name shall be on their foreheads, and they shall reign for ever and ever" in glorified bodies. For "this corruptible body shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power: it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body: as is the heavenly Adam, such are they also that are heavenly: and as we have borne the image of the earthly, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly: for flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God:" but the spiritual, i.e. the glorified body shall inherit the heavenly Canaan.

Persons, whose orthodoxy consists in obstinately refusing to peep over the wall of prejudice, will probably say that these observations upon the different sorts and degrees of perfection are "novel chimeras," and that I multiply perfections, as I do justifications, "inventing them by the dozen." To this I answer, that we advance nothing but what, we hope, recommends itself to the candour of those who have a regard for reason and revelation.

1. REASON tells us that all God's works are perfect in their places; and that, some having a higher place than others upon the scale of beings, they are of consequence more perfect. If Mr. Hill will not believe it, we appeal to his banker, and ask, if there is not an essential difference between the metallic perfection of brass, that of silver, and that of gold? We appeal to his jeweller, and ask if the perfection of an agate is not inferior to that of an emeraldthe perfection of a ruby to that of a diamond; and if some diamonds cannot be said to be more perfect than others? We appeal to his gardener, and ask if a blackberry is not inferior to a strawberry, a strawberry to a nectarine, and a nectarine to a pineapple: and if, nevertheless, those various fruits have not each their perfection? Nay, we will venture to ask his under gardener, if the perfection of the fruit does not imply the perfection of the blossom; if the perfection of the blossom does not presuppose that of the bud; and if a bud, whose perfection is destroyed by the frost in March, is likely to produce perfect blossoms in May, and perfect fruit in October?

Should the fear of becoming a perfectionist make Mr. Hill refuse his assent to these obvious truths, we will address him as a master of arts, a gentleman who is versed in natural philosophy, as well as in Calvinism. Is it absurd to say that some just men rise progressively from the perfection of a lower, to the perfection of a higher dispensation in the spiritual world? Do we not see a similar promotion, even among the basest classes of animals in the natural world? Consider that beautiful insect, which exults to display its crown, and expand its wings in the sun. Will you not say that it is a perfect butterfly? Nevertheless, three weeks ago it was a perfect aurelia, quietly sleeping in its silken tomb. Some months before, it was a perfect silkworm, busily preparing itself for another state of existence, by spinning and weaving its shroud. And had you seen it a year ago, you would have seen nothing but a perfect egg. Thus, in one year, it has experienced three grand changes, which may be called metamorphoses, births, or conversions. Each change was perfect in its kind: and, nevertheless, the last is as far superior to the first, as a beautiful, flying butterfly exceeds a black, crawling worm; and such a worm, the invisible seed of life, that lies dormant in the diminutive egg of an insect.

2. SCRIPTURE and experience do not support our doctrine of the difference of perfections, less than reason and philosophy. We read, Gen. vi. 9, that "Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generation." We read also, Job i, 1, "There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job, and that man was PERFECT." Now, whatever the perfection of Noah and Job consisted in, it is evident that it was not Jewish perfection" for the perfection of Judaism requires the sacrament of circumcision; and Mr. Hill will hardly say that men were circumcised in the land of Uz, and before the flood. Hence I conclude that Noah and Job had attained the perfection of Gentilism, and not that of Judaism.

Again: "Mark the perfect man" says David, "for his end is peace." No doubt he spake this of the perfect Jew; and such were, I think, Moses, Samuel, and Daniel: if Mr. Hill will not allow it, I produce Simeon or Anna, or Zacharias and Elizabeth, "who were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of God blameless," Luke i, 16. Now these excellent Jews were not perfect according to the dispensation of John the Baptist; for water baptism was not less essential to a perfect disciple of John, than circumcision was to a perfect disciple of Moses, and they, or some of them, probably died long before John opened his dispensation by "preaching the baptism of repentance."

Once more: John the Baptist was undoubtedly perfect according to his own dispensation; his penitential severity, his great reputation for holiness, and the high encomium which our Lord passed upon him, naturally lead us to conclude it. But that he was not a perfect Christian is evident from the following considerations: (1.) Our Lord said, that "the least in the Christian kingdom of God should be greater than John." (2.) John himself confessed the imperfection of his baptism, or dispensation, in comparison of the perfection of Christ's baptism and spiritual dispensation: "I have need to be baptized of thee," said he to Christ, "and comest thou to me?" And to his disciples he said, "I indeed baptize you with water, but he [the Lamb of God] shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire." (3.) John was beheaded before Christ was crucified; and the outpouring of the Spirit, the baptism of the Holy Ghost, did not begin till after Christ's ascension; the apostle St. John having particularly mentioned that "the Holy Ghost was not yet given," or that a full dispensation of the Spirit was not yet opened, "because Jesus was not yet glorified," John vii, 39: an important observation this, which is confirmed by Christ's own words to his disciples, John xvi, 7, "I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you: [the full dispensation of the Holy Ghost shall not be opened:] but if I depart, I will send him to you." Agreeably to this, "he commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, [i.e. the promised Spirit,] which, says he, ye have heard of me; for John truly baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence." And when they had been thus baptized, they began to preach the full baptism of Christ, which has two branches, the baptism of water, and the baptism of the Spirit, or of celestial fire. Therefore, when the penitent Jews asked, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Peter answered, "Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost; for the promise of it is unto you, and unto your children, and to all that are afar off; even as many as the Lord our God shall call" to the perfection of the Christian dispensation: "and we are witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God [since the day of pentecost] hath given to them that obey him," i.e. to obedient believers: compare Acts ii, 38, and v, 32, with John vii, 38.

From the preceding reasons, we conclude that the case of John the Baptist was as singular as that of Moses. Moses knew Joshua, and pointed him out as the man who was to lead the Israelites into the land of promise: but Moses died before Joshua opened the way. Thus Moses saw the good land: he was not far from the typical kingdom of God; but he did not enter into it. In like manner the Baptist knew Christ, and pointed him out as the wonderful person who was to introduce believers into the spiritual kingdom of God. But John was beheaded before Christ glorified opened his peculiar kingdom. Thus John saw the kingdom of heaven: he was not far from it. But yet he did not enter into it. He died a "just man, made perfect" according to his own incomplete dispensation, but not according to the dispensation of Christ and his Spirit. This was the Baptist's grief, not his guilt: for he earnestly desired to be baptized of Christ with the Holy Ghost; but the Holy Ghost was not yet given in the Christian measure. The gift of the Spirit was rather distilled as a dew, than poured out as a shower; "because Jesus was not yet glorified:" but now, that he is ascended up on high to receive that unspeakable gift for men in its fulness; now that the promise of the Father is fulfilled to all who plead it aright; we are culpable if we rest satisfied with the inferior manifestations of the Spirit which belong to the baptism of John or to infant Christianity: and we act in an unchristian-like manner if we ridicule the kingdom of the Holy Ghost, and speak evil of perfect Christianity.

To return: a perfect Gentile sees God in his works and providences; but wanting a more particular manifestation of his existence and goodness, he sighs, O where shall I find him? A perfect Jew ardently expects his coming as Messiah and Emmanuel, or God with us; and he groans, O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down! A perfect disciple of John believes that the Messiah is come in the flesh, and prays, O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, restore the kingdom to a waiting Israelite: baptize me with the Holy Ghost: fill me with the Spirit! And perfect Christians can witness from blessed experience that He who was "manifest in the flesh," is come in the Spirit's power to establish within them his gracious "kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost."

In this blessed kingdom St. Paul lived, when he said, "Let us, as many as are perfect, be thus minded." Nevertheless, though he was not only a perfect Christian, but also able to "preach wisdom among them that were perfect," he justly acknowledges himself imperfect in knowledge, in comparison of perfectly glorified saints. "We know but in part," says he, "but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. For now we see through a glass darkly," but when we shall drop these dark veils of flesh and blood, and be clothed with celestial, incorruptible bodies, we shall be capable of beholding God, "we shall see him face to face," 1 Cor. xiii, 9, &c. "For though we are now the sons of God, it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know, that when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is," 1 John iii, 2.

It is of this final perfecting of the saints in the day of the resurrection that the apostle writes to the Hebrews, where he says, "These, having all obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise," which relates to the full perfection of the just: "God having provided some better things for us [Christians] that they [the Jewish saints] without us should not be made perfect, [that is, that we should all be perfected in glory together.] For we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, (for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,) and we [who shall have died, or shall then be found living in a state of initial perfection] shall be changed," Heb. xi, 39; 1 Cor. xv, 51.

Nor does it follow from hence that all glorified saints shall be equally perfect. I cannot but embrace here the reasonable sentiment of Dr. Watts:"The worship of heaven," says that judicious divine, "and the joy that attends it, may be exceedingly different in degrees, according to the different capacities of spirits; and yet all may be perfect, and free from sinful defects. Does not the sparrow praise its Maker upon the ridge of a cottage, chirping in its native perfection? And yet the lark advances, in her flight and song, as far above the sparrow as the clouds are above the housetop. Surely superior joys and glories must belong to superior powers and services. The word perfection does not always imply equality. If all the souls in heaven be of one mould, and make, and inclination; yet there may be different sizes of capacity even in the same genus, and a different degree of preparation for the same delights; therefore should all the spirits of the just be uniform in their natures and pleasures, and all perfect; yet one spirit may possess more happiness and glory than another, because it is more capacious of intellectual blessings, and better prepared for them. So when vessels of various size are thrown into the same ocean, there will be a great difference in the quantity of the liquid which they receive; though all may be full to the brim, and all made of the richest metal." (Watts on the Happiness of Separate Spirits.)

Having thus proved both by reason and Scripture that there are various sorts and degrees of perfection; and that a man may be perfect according to the dispensation of Divine grace he is under upon earth, though he be not yet perfect according to the dispensation of Divine glory, which will take place when our mortal bodies shall know the power of Christ's resurrection: having proved this, I say, nothing is easier than to reconcile St. Paul with himself, when he speaks in the same chapter of his being perfect, and of his not being yet perfect. For when he says, "Let us, as many as are perfect, be thus minded," he speaks of Christian perfection, that is, of the maturity of grace and holiness, which men still burdened with corruptible flesh and blood arrive at under the full dispensation of the Gospel of Christ. But when he says, "Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect," &c, he speaks of his perfection as a candidate for a crown of martyrdom on earth, and for a crown of glory in heaven. Just as if he said, "Though I am dead to sin, and perfected in love; though I live not, but Christ liveth in me; yet I am not satisfied with my present perfection: I want to be perfected like Christ. Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and [then] to enter into his glory? Luke xxiv, 26. I want, in short, to be perfected in suffering, as well as in love. I cannot, I will not rest, till I end my race of pain and shame, and know the fellowship of Christ's sufferings on the ignominious tree. I am filled with a noble ambition of dying a martyr for him; being persuaded that this perfection of sufferings will ripen me for my heavenly perfectionthe perfection to which I shall be raised at the resurrection of the just."

That this was the apostle's meaning, when he denied his "being already made perfect," will, I hope, appear indubitable to those who consider the context. The words which immediately precede St. Paul's observation that "he had not yet attained," express a pathetic wish of sharing both in Christ's exaltation, by a glorious resurrection, and in his humiliation, by perfect sufferings. "That I may know him," as he says, "and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings; being made conformable unto his [painful, ignominious] death, if by any means I may attain to the resurrection of the dead," which is the full perfection of the human nature; and secure a part in the first resurrection of the just, in which martyrs will be peculiarly interested: witness this plain scripture, "I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, &c, and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years: but the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection," Rev. xx, 4, &c.

But I repeat it, although St. Paul disclaimed his having yet attained a perfection of shame and glory, he nevertheless professed his having attained a perfection of Christian faith working by love. This is evident from the words that follow the controverted text:"This one thing I do, &c, I press toward the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus [which is my complete glorification in heaven.] Let us, therefore, as many as are perfect [in faith and love] be thus minded." Let us press after our perfection of suffering here, and of glory hereafter: a bodily perfection this, which the apostle describes thus at the end of the chapter:"We look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body, according to the working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself," Phil. iii, 21. Hence it appears, if we are not strangely mistaken, that it is not less absurd to oppose our doctrine of Christian perfection from Phil. iii, than to oppose the divinity of Christ from the first chapter of St. John's Gospel.

I shall conclude these remarks upon the various sorts of perfection by an observation which may help Mr. Hill to understand how St. Paul could be perfect in love, when he professed that he was not perfect either in glory, knowledge, or sufferings. Had not our Lord been perfect in love from a child, he would have broken the two great commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets. But "in him was no sin:" therefore he was perfect in love, though his love admitted of an increase, as well as his wisdom and knowledge; just as a perfect bud admits of a perfect growth into a perfect blossom, and such a blossom into a perfect fruit. Hence it is that our Lord's perfect love grew, "he increased in favour with God and man:" an additional degree of approbation being due to him from all rationals, upon every display of his growing perfection, Luke i, 52. But though our Lord was always, perfect in love, yet it is certain that he was not always perfect in sufferings, much less in glory: for he was not perfected in sufferings till after he had expired between the two thieves; nor was he perfected in glory before he took his place at the right hand of God. This is evidently the apostle's doctrine where he says, "It became Him by whom are all things, to make the Captain of our salvation perfect through sufferings," Heb. ii, 10. And again, chap. v, 8, "Though he was a son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered: and being made perfect [in sufferings and in glory] he became the author of eternal salvation to all them that obey him." Mr. Hill must then allow that St. Paul's IMPERFECTION, with respect to sufferings and glory, was no obstacle to the PERFECTION of his love: or he must assert that Christ was sinfully imperfect in love so long as he continued imperfect in sufferings and glory; a supposition this which is too horrible to be admitted by a merely nominal Christians much more by Mr. Hill.

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