[Aug 14]—Perfection, Part Two

1 Timothy 1:15-17

Today we’re going to examine the other main argument people make in defense of perfectionism, the practical one. Basically it comes down to this: To deny it is to invite antinomianism or despair. “If you don’t believe that you can achieve a goal, then who’s going to strive for it? If you don’t believe that you’re going to have complete victory over sin in this life, then isn’t that a depressing prospect? If Romans 7:14-25 really is a description of Paul’s life as he wrote the Epistle, then what do we have to look forward to in this life besides despair? A constant, life-long striving, a battle in which the best we can hope for is a stalemate (and one in which we frequently lose) doesn’t seem to be a recipe for a victorious attitude. Or won’t it also lead to people just giving up on the pursuit of holiness? Won’t they just throw up their hands and say ‘Well I guess I’ll just go ahead and sin, since I’m never really ever going to win the battle.’?”
Before I need to answer that, I need to address today’s passage and Romans 7 as it relates to Paul’s level of closeness to the Savior. Believe it or not, there are people who admit that Paul confesses himself a sinner, but they still stick to their argument. Dr. Sproul--who agrees with me on this issue--tells an amusing-and-sad story about a disagreement he had with someone about this. This young man had been a Christian for about a year, and sincerely believed--because he'd experienced a “second blessing” of the Holy Spirit--he'd actually attained sinlessness. They went over the passages in Paul’s writings which made it clear that even at Paul's level of spirituality, the apostle didn’t claim to be sinless, and freely confessed to the opposite. The person with whom Dr. Sproul was arguing finally agreed with him that Paul was, in fact, still a sinner, but the young man's reply was “Well, maybe Paul was speaking of his present experience, but he just hadn’t received the second blessing yet.”
            Dr. Sproul was flabbergasted. He asked the young man point blank, “You mean that you, at age nineteen, after one year of Christian faith, have achieved a higher level of obedience to God than the Apostle Paul enjoyed when he was writing the Epistle to the Romans?” And the young man’s answer was an unhesitating “Yes!” All I can say is, if you make the same claims this young man did, then we really have nothing more to discuss. You’re either unbelievably prideful and arrogant and blind to your own sinfulness, to the point of neurosis, or you’re the actual spiritual equivalent--no, the superior--of Paul the apostle. I think you can deduce which is my first guess. Either way, we’re not going to make any headway on this subject.
            But for those of us not superior to Paul the apostle, then we need to deal with these passages. This is my response to the practical argument. First and foremost, I have to teach what the Scripture says. I can’t be worried about the potential consequences if someone abuses the truth. That’s Satan’s main strategy: To take God’s truth and pervert it and have people misuse it. Not to compare my opponents to the heretics who deny the message of salvation, but it’s the same principle. Paul had to write the 6th chapter of Romans to completely refute false teachers and confused believers who conflated his Message with a license to sin. Why did he feel the need to do this? Because he was preaching the truth. As I heard from someone once, if you preach the Message of Christ and you’re accused of handing out a license to sin, you’re in the best of company.
            Or, to take it down a notch, I also hear this when I’ve taught the doctrine of eternal security: That once you’re truly redeemed by the Savior, once you possess eternal life, there’s nothing you can do to “lose it.” This is one of the main arguments they present against it—that if people believe it, then they’ll live however they please, since they know that no matter what they do, they’ll make it to Heaven. My response is the same here: I have to teach what the Bible proclaims, and carefully do it so that there’s as little misunderstanding as possible. But after I’ve done everything I can, the Enemy will still use God’s truth and cause people to misuse it. I can’t let the Enemy’s tactics hold me back from proclaiming what the Lord clearly says, on this or any other issue.
            And to be brutally frank, I can think--right off the top of my head--plenty of counterexamples. There are lots of people who are fighting in a ceaseless struggle into which they enter knowing that they're never going to completely and finally win, and in which they know they're going to sometimes lose some battles. Our government is constantly fighting a war on crime. In a sense, we're never going to win a "war on speeding" or the "war on child abuse." Those thing are never going to be completely eliminated until Jesus returns. Does that mean that those fighting it might as well give up? 
            And to be completely frank, since we’re moving from scriptural to practical arguments, I have to respectfully point out that perfectionism has its practical downsides as well. My first nomination on that would be pride, just like we read concerning the young man above. If you actually believe that you’ve attained a state of sinless perfection, I can’t for the life of me see how you’re not being incredibly prideful. You think that sin in your life is an enemy that you’ve really defeated once and for all? I don’t mean re: your position in Christ, but in your daily living, you see sin in your life as something you’ve finally defeated and don’t need to struggle with anymore? Really?
            Per usual, MacArthur puts it so much better than I can:

Church history is littered with examples of sects and factions who taught various versions of Christian perfectionism. Nearly all these groups have either made utter shipwreck of the faith or been forced to modify their perfectionism to accommodate human imperfection. Every perfectionist inevitably comes face-to-face with clear and abundant empirical evidence that the residue of sin remains in the flesh and troubles even the most spiritual Christians throughout their earthly lives. In order to hang onto perfectionist doctrine, they must redefine sin or diminish the standard of holiness. Too often they do this at the expense of their own consciences. 

            Do you see the problem here, besides pride? Do we spend a lot of time worrying about the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany? Do we keep watch on them as mortal enemies? Do we build up defenses against them, plot out strategies about how to defeat them? Of course not. They’re a defeated foe, and have been for decades now. In every sense of the term, we’re under no threat from Hitler’s Germany, so therefore we don't spend any resources fighting them, right? I'd propose that anyone who actually believes that they—in this life—could ever say of their sinful nature “I have it handled. I have final victory” is fooling themselves. Why would you fight against an enemy that’s no longer a threat? Why waste the energy on it? And if someone fell into that (wrong) line of thinking, wouldn't that be a source of danger, an avenue for the Enemy to gain a foothold of sin in our lives?
            But someone might say “Well, I don’t claim that I have it handled right now. I still have sin in my life that the Spirit’s working on. But maybe possibly hopefully someday I’ll have final victory in it.” I’m sorry, but I think that’s extremely dangerous. How could you ever know? Would you ever feel safe saying that you’ve “arrived”? You might at some point think that your sinful nature is once-and-for-all defeated like the Nazis were, but I for one would never feel comfortable with saying that.
            Let me be up front here. Romans 7:14-25 is my personal testimony as well as Paul’s. I want to do right, to please God more and sin less, ideally pleasing him perfectly and not sinning at all. But I’ve been a Christian for about 30 years, and I can readily confess that I’m not sinless, not by a long shot. Just when I think I have something pretty much handled, the Spirit lovingly tells me either A) No, you really don’t have that sin handled nearly as well as you thought you did, or B) Yes, you’ve got that one handled, but here’s something else you and I need to work on. It’s like the classic whack-a-mole game at the carnival: You hit one down with a hammer, and another one jumps right up. Despite my best intentions, I still end up sinning and hurting my Lord.
            And there’s something else I’ve discovered. I can honestly say that—with all my ups and downs—the direction of my life has been towards Christ instead of away from him. I love him more than I ever have. I’d like to think that I’m making some progress in my pursuit of holiness. But the closer I get to him, the more I see just how far I have to go. As I’ve made (faltering) steps in pursuit of holiness and made any progress at all, that’s when I see the remaining sin in my life more clearly in all its ugliness. It’s been the times in my life when I was less mature and (quite frankly) more prideful and sin-blinded that I saw the sin in my life as not really all that bad (especially when compared to that guy), and basically under control. 
            Let me give another example regarding our sinful nature. Compare it to purity in the water. Let’s say you have water taken from a river, and it’s nasty. It’s filled with impurities, biological and otherwise, and if you drink that mess, the best you can hope for is an upset stomach. So you run it thru a purifier, which removes 99% of the impurities. That leaves about 1%. So you run it thru again, or maybe thru a more stringent sifter, and remove 0.5% of what’s left. And then you run it again, and remove another 0.5%. You see the problem? There’s really no such thing as “pure” water anywhere on earth. No matter how hard we try, we’re always going to have some impurity that’s going to crop up and display itself in our behavior, or at least our thoughts. Look hard enough--or more accurately, let the Spirit examine you thoroughly enough--and you'll find something you need to work on. 
            As I see it, it’s the same way with our level of personal righteousness, how well we really obey and please him. When Christ comes in, he clears out most of the really obvious sins. If someone’s been a believer for a year and they’re still living with their girlfriend or still curse like a sailor (with no attempt to change), then something’s wrong. And then over time, after the Holy Spirit's dealt with obvious ones like blatant sexual immorality or murderous rages, he starts to work on more subtle (but no less deadly) sins like pride or lust or bitterness or ingratitude or a complaining spirit.
            Let me try to be abundantly clear. Nothing that I’ve said in any way condones or excuses any sin. By God’s grace, we need to fight it as a mortal enemy. Love for God and hatred of sin (especially my own) must go hand in hand, and you can claim the former only inasmuch as you display the latter.
            So I’ve got some bad news for you. As long as you’re in this world with an unredeemed human body, you’re going to struggle with your sinful nature, and sometimes you’re going to lose. Those losses should come less and less, and you should grow closer and closer in your relationship with your Savior.
            Finally, as I pointed out a couple of days ago, the passage in Romans, which can be pretty depressing, doesn’t end that way. After bemoaning his ongoing struggle (with some losses) with sin, he asks a question and responds with its glorious answer. Question: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” Answer: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Not just will deliver me, but delivers me now. In all my faults and failures and sins, he delivers me. He's delivered me already from the penalty of sin, and he’s in the process of delivering me—day by day, moment by moment—from the power of sin. And one day, he'll deliver me from the presence of sin, and my struggles will be a distant memory. Wow. Can’t wait. As I’ve heard it put before, I’m not what I’m supposed to be, but thank the Lord I’m not what I used to be, and I’m not what I one day will be.

Father God, Lord Jesus, Spirit of Holiness, you are working as one to do this. Thank you. By your grace, further up and further in. 

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