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ON CHRISTIAN PERFECTION,
“Not as though I had already attained, either were already
perfect.” Phil. iji. 12.
1. There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ, which has given more offence than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. And whosoever preaches Perfection, (as the phrase is,) i.e. asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican.
2. And hence some have advised, wholly to lay aside the use of those expressions; “because they have given so great offence.” But are they not found in the Oracles of God? If so, by what authority can any Messenger of God lay them aside, even though all men should be offended? We have not so learned Christ; neither may we thus give place to the Devil. Whatsoever God hath spoken, that will we speak, whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear; knowing, that then alone can any Minister of Christ be "pure from the blood of all men,” when he hath “not shunned to declare unto them all the counsel of God.”
3. We may not, therefore, lay these expressions aside, seeing they are the words of God and not of man.
But we may and ought to explain the meaning of them; that those who are sincere of heart may not err to the right hand or left, from the mark of the prize of their high calling. And this is the more needful to be done, because, in the verse already repeated, the Apostle speaks of himself as not perfect; “ Not,” saith he, “as though I were already perfect.” And yet immediately after, in the fifteenth verse, he speaks of himself, yea, and many others, as perfect : “Let us,” saith he, “ as many as be perfect, be thus minded."
4. In order, therefore, to remove the difficulty arising from this seeming contradiction, as well as to give light to them who are pressing forward to the mark, and that those who are lame be not turned out of the way, I shall endeavour to show,
First, In what sense Christians are not; and,
I. 1. In the First place, I shall endeavour to show, In whal sense Christians are Not Perfect. And both from experience and Scripture it appears, first, that they are not perfect in Knowledge: they are not so perfect in this life, as to be free from Ignorance. They know, it may be, in common with other men, many things relating to the present world; and they know, with regard to the world to come, the general truths which God hath revealed. They know, likewise, (what the natural man receiveth not; for these things are spiritually discerned,) “ what manner of love" it is, wherewith “ the Father” háth loved them, “ that they should be called the sons of God:” they know the mighty working of his Spirit in their hearts, and the wisdom of his Providence, directing all their paths, and causing all things to work together for their good. Yea, they know in every circumstance of life what the Lord requireth of them, and how to keep a conscience void of offence both toward God and toward man.
2. But innumerable are the things which they know not. Touching the Almighty himself, they cannot search him out to perfection. “Lo, these are but a part of his ways; but the thunder of his power, who can understand?” They cannot understand, I will not say, how “there are Three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and these Three are One;” or how the eternal Son of God “ took upon himself the form of a servant;”—but not any one attribute, not any one circumstance of the Divine Nature. Neither is it for them to know the times and seasons when God will work his great works upon the earth; no, not even those which he hath in part revealed by his servants and prophets, since the world began. Much less do they know, when God, having “ accomplished the number of his elect, will hasten his kingdom;" when “the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat."
3. They know not the reasons even of many of His present dispensations with the sons of men ; but are constrained to rest here,- Though “clouds and darkness are round about him, rightcousness and judgment are the habitation of bis scat." Yea, often with regard to his dealings with themselves, doth their Lord say unto them, “What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter." And how little do they know of what is ever before them, of even the visible works of his bands? How “he spreadeth the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing? How he unites all the parts of this vast machine by a secret chain, which cannot be broken? So great is the ignorance, so very little the knowledge, of even the best of men !
4. No one, then, is so perfect in this life, as to be free from Ignorance. Nor, secondly, from Mistake; which indeed is almost an unavoidable consequence of it; seeing those who “know but in part,” are ever liable to err, touching the things which they know not. It is true, the children of God do not mistake, as to the things essential to salvation : They do not “put darkness for light, or light for darkness ;” neither“ seek death in the crror of their life.” For they are “ taught of God;" and the way which He teaches them, the way of holiness, is so plain, that “the wayfaring man, though a fool, need pot err therein." But in things wessential to salvation they do err, and that frequently. The best and wisest of men are frequently mistaken, even with regard to facts; believing those things not to have been, which really were, or those to have been donc, wbich were not. Or, suppose they are not mistaken as to the fact itself, they may be, with regard to its circumstances ; believing them, or many of them, to have been quite different from what, in truth, they were. And hence cannot but arise many farther mistakes. Hence they may beliere either past or present actions, which were or are cvil, to be good; and such as were or are good, to be evil. Hence also they may judge not according to truth with regard to the characters of men; and that, not only by supposing good men to be better, or wicked men to be worse, than they are, but by believing them to have been, or to be, good men, who werc, or arc, very wicked; or perhaps those to have been, or to be, wicked men, who were, or are, holy and unreprovable.
5. Nay, with regard to the Holy Scriptures themselves, as carefuil as they are to avoid it, the best of men are liable to mistake, and do mistake day by day; especially with respect to those parts thereof, which less immediately relate to practice. Hence, even the children of God are not agreed as to the interpretation of many places in Holy Writ: nor is their
difference of opinion any proof that they are not the children of God on either side : but it is a proof, that we are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient.
6. If it be objected to what has been observed under this and the preceding head, that St. John, speaking to his brethren in the faith, says, “ Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and know all things :” (1 John ii. 20 :) The answer is plain : 'Ye know all things that are needful for your souls' health. That the Apostle never designed to extend this farther, that he could not speak it in an absolute sense, is clear, first, from hence; that otherwise he would describe the disciple as “above his Master;"-seeing Christ himself, as man, knew not all things: “Of that hour,” saith he, “knoweth no man; no, not the Son, but the Father only.” It is clear, secondly, from the Apostle's own words that follow : “ These things have I written unto you concerning them that deceive you ; as well as from his frequently repeated caution, “ Let no man deceive you;" which had been altogether needless, had not those very persons, who had that unction from the Holy One, been liable not to ignorance only, but to mistake also.
7. Even Christians, therefore, are not so perfect, as to be frec either from ignorance or error: We may, thirdly, add, nor from Infirmities :-Only let us take care to understand this word aright: Only let us not give that soft title to known sins, as the manner of some is. So, one man tells us, Every man has his infirmity, and mine is drunkenness: ' another has the infirmity of uncleanness : another, that of taking God's holy name in vain : and yet another has the infirmity of calling his brother, “Thou fool,” or returning “ railing for railing.” It is plain that all you who thus speak, if ye repent not, shall, with your infirınities, go quick into hell! But I mean hereby, not only those which are properly termed bodily infirmities, but all those inward or outward imperfections, which are not of a moral nature. Such are weakness or slowness of understanding, dulness or confusedness of apprehension, incoherency of thought, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such (to mention no more of this kind) is the want of a ready or retentive memory. Such, in another kind, are those which are commonly, in some measure, consequent upon these; namely, slowness of speech, impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. These are the infirmities which are found in the best of men, in a larger or smaller proportion. And from these none can hope to be perfectly freed, till the spirit returns to God that gave it.
8. Nor can we expect till then, to be wholly free from Temptation. Such perfection belongeth not to this life. It is true, there are those who, being given up to work all uncleanness with grecdiness, scarce perceive the temptations which they resist not; and so seem to be without temptation. There are also many, whom the wise enemy of souls seeing to be fast asleep in the dead form of godliness, will not tempt to gross sin, lest they should awake before they drop into everlasting burnings. I know there are also children of God, who, being now justified freely, having found redemption in the blood of Christ, for the present feel no temptation. God hath said to their enemies, “ Touch not mine anointed, and do my children no harm." And for this season, it may be for wecks or months, he causeth them to ride on liigh places, be beareth them as on cagles' wings, above all the fiery darts of the wicked one. But this state will not last always; as we may learn from that single consideration, that the Son of God himself, in the days of his flesh, was tempted even to the end of his life. Thereforc, so let his servant expect to be; for “ it is enough that he be as his Master.”
9. Christian Perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance, or mistake, or infirmitics, or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for Holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus, every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sensc, perfect. Yet we may, lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any Absolute Perfection on earth. There is 'no perfection of degrees, as it is termed; none which does not admit of a continual increase. So that how much soever any man has attained, or in how high a degree soever he is perfect, he hath still need to “grow in grace,” and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Saviour.
II. 1. In what sense, then, are Christians Perfect? This is what I shall endeavour, in the Second place, to show.
But it should be premised, that there are several stages in christian life, as in natural ;--some of the children of God being but nowborn babes; others having attained to more maturity. And accordingly St. John, in his first Epistle, (chap. ii. 12, &c.,) applies bimself severally to those he terms little children, those he styles young men, and those whom he entitles fathers. "I write unto you, little children,'' saith the Apostle, “because your