This article has a history. Some time ago a western correspondent sent us an earnest letter urging his view of holiness, and putting certain questions to us to be answered. The letter was so frank and cordial as well as earnest that we fully intended to reply to it at length, and took it with us on a journey to prepare an answer. But somehow it became mislaid or was left behind on the train, and the circumstance dropped out of mind. Later the notes we had prepared in reply came to light, and we believe their publication will interest and aid our readers. We are at a disadvantage in the absence of the letter, which contained the questions to which these notes are supposed to be the answer, but we can supply that lack in part from memory. In the meantime, if this should fall under the eye of the esteemed correspondent, we wish him to understand that it is not to be regarded as an absolutely accurate reply, because his questions are not perfectly recalled.
1. We were asked if we did not believe that Christ can save us from all sin all the time, to which we reply in the affirmative. Christ can save us not only from the penalty of sin, but from the power of it, and what is more, He will save us if we really desire it, and surrender ourselves to Him to do it. There are Christians on Earth today, we have little doubt, in which this miracle of grace is being wrought, and we heartily congratulate the brother now in question if it is being wrought in him.
2. He urged us to get out of living in 1 John 1:8, which says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” To which we reply that we are not living in that verse at all, but in the next which he warmly commends, and which reads, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We are continually confessing our sins, and continually receiving forgiveness of and cleansing from them, which is what we understand by living (present tense) in verse nine. To acknowledge the existence of verse eight is not necessarily to be living in it.
3. That which drew the letter from our correspondent was something said by us editorially, or in our department of Practical and Perplexing Questions, about sin in the Christian lurking beneath the consciousness; and he challenged us with the remark, “What about the beatitude, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart?’” His thought was that If one were “pure in heart,” no sin could be lurking beneath the consciousness. But this is not so, because the beatitude is not dealing with the absolute but the relative. It is a question of knowledge and intent in the heart, and not a question of angelic whiteness.
Take the case of Job, to whom we have the witness of God Himself that he was “perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil.” Satan could find nothing in him, his friends could bring no evidence against him and even Job himself knew nothing, that is, so long as he knew God only by “the hearing of the ear.” But when his eye sawGod, then he abhorred himself and repented “in dust and ashes.” Here was a man “pure in heart,” but with sin lurking beneath his consciousness.
Or take another Scripture which our correspondent referred to, 1 Peter 1:22, “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth.” These persons were “pure in heart” seeing they had purified their souls, but they had sin somewhere about them, because they are subsequently exhorted to “lay aside all malice and all guile, and hypocrisies and envies and evil speakings.” What shall we say to this? One thing we must say is that it is not right to build up a great doctrine on an isolated text, but rather to follow the synthetic reading of the Bible in order to arrive at a well-balanced understanding of the truth.
4. “But,” said the brother, “have you read in that remarkable first chapter of Hebrews, ‘Himself purged our sins’?” “Look up that word ‘purged’” said he, “and see if any sin remains anywhere after it is purged.” But the brother is only reasoning in a circle. He is saying just what he said before only in different words, and our reply must be about the same as before. Christ had indeed purged our sins in the sense that He has removed our defilement in the sight of God, but this is not to say that He is not now interceding for us as the High Priest over the house of God. But why is He interceding, if no sin remains in His people anywhere? Sin is not onthem, but is it not still inthem?
It is as follows that the learned and devout Adolph Saphir speaks of this word in his great exposition of the epistle to the Hebrews: “When once you see that Jesus, the Son of God, died upon the Cross and purged your sins…you have no more conscience of sin. You do not require day by day as it were to receive the forgiveness of your sins. You have been washed, you have been made clean, you have received full absolution and remission…You need only to confess day by day your continual transgressions and trespasses that your feet may be washed; …and thus forgiven and accepted, as pure and spotless we appear before God; in the light of His love we behold and acknowledge our sin.”
5. But our correspondent returns to that sin “lurking beneath the consciousness,” and puts the question, “How would you like the rendering, ‘Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world except that which lurks beneath the consciousness?’” We would not like that rendering at all, because, besides being untrue, it would be so discouraging and hopeless. But, thank God, it is not true in the case of them that believe. He takes away all their sin, all the penalty of it by His work for them on the Cross, and all the power of it by His work in them through His Holy Spirit. Moreover the day is coming when He will present them faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy (Jude 24). But they will not be in the flesh then, but their “bodies of humiliation will be changed like unto his own glorious body according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself” (Philippians 3:21). The brother’s own reference to Peter illustrates this, for while he was one of the disciples who “got pure hearts” as he says, on the day of Pentecost, yet the “pure” heart of Peter did not enable him to escape blameworthiness at Antioch (Galatians 2:2).
6. As we regard it, the fundamental mistake of the correspondent is reached when he affirms that the “pure heart” was the fruit of Pentecost. In his judgment, prior to this, the disciples, believers though they were, did not possess “pure hearts.” This we believe to be untrue. Every believer, the moment he accepts Christ by faith, receives the “pure heart,” and Pentecost was, in comparison, the baptism of such “pure hearts” into the body of which Christ is the Head (1 Corinthians 12:13).
Here is the crux of the matter. Our friend says, “There is something in the breast of every regenerated man to be eradicated by the delightful grace of entire sanctification.” This “something” seems to be sin “lurking beneath the consciousness,” though perhaps he would not use that phrase. And it is eradicated, according to him, by “the delightful grace of entire sanctification.” The difference between him and us, therefore, is simply one of time. He thinks this eradication takes place as soon as believers receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but we think it takes place only when the Lord Jesus comes a second time apart from sin unto salvation (Hebrews 9:28; 1 Thessalonians 3:13). He thinks the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a peculiar blessing limited to some believers, we think it is a general one and belongs to all believers. He thinks this baptism occurs subsequent to conversion and regeneration, but we think it is coincident with both.
The point is this: If in the breast of every regenerated man “there is something to be eradicated,” then the purging of our sins by Christ left sin remaining somewhere within us.This disposes of a lot of texts on which the advocates of “entire sanctification” rely to show that sin does not remain anywhere within us. This “somewhere” is the “flesh,” “the old man,” our fallen nature. We believe it remains there as long as the fallen nature remains. Our brethren on the other side of this question believe it remains there only until this “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” this “second blessing” as they call it, is received; but with us it remains there until death or translation takes us to be with Christ.
The Affirmative Side
7. Having replied to the brother’s questions as well as we are able, we will now state from the affirmative side what we believe the Scriptures teach, and what Christian experience supports, concerning sanctification. For example, at the moment of faith in Christ, the believer is sanctified in the sense that he is then set apart by God, and for God, forever. “It is God taking possession, and actually executing His claim to the believer’s self as His special treasure. It is God at home in the soul in all the nearness of Fatherhood!”—Bishop W.R. Nicholson.
In that moment the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within the believer, and it is His office to make that real in the experience of the believer which has become true of him positionally before God. This work in him is gradual or progressive, but not always, or necessarily, so slow and unobservable as some suppose. There are great crises in the lives of some Christians recalling Pentecost, when through surrender to God, a fullness of the Holy Spirit is vouchsafed to them which may well be called a “second blessing.” We believe it is not only the privilege but the duty of every believer to be thus surrendered and thus filled, and that when this blessing comes it will mean that power comes with it for a life of victory over every known sin.
This fullness of the Holy Spirit may not continue with the believer (though the indwelling of the Spirit is something that is never lost), but if it should be withdrawn, thank God there is such a thing as the renewing of the filling so that one’s whole life may be a life of joy in overcoming sin (Romans 12:1, 2; Titus 2:5).
8. We wish to add to this expression of our own views that of Dr. W.H. Griffith Thomas, of Wycliffe College, Toronto, in his tract, “Must Christians Sin?” where he says: “There are three views about the relation of sin to the believer, and the believer to sin, which have a very special bearing on our life. Two of them are wrong; one of them is right.
“The first is often called eradication,and means the eradication of the sinful principle within. This goes beyond Scripture, and is contrary to experience. ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,’ but we do not deceive anybody else.
“Ask anyone who teaches eradication these questions: ‘Do you believe in the perpetual need of the atonement to cover any defects from the moment of supposed eradication? Is the atonement necessary for the rest of your life?’
“ ‘Certainly,’ says the man.
“Then you are a sinner! As long as you need the atonement there is sin, whether in defect or otherwise. Let us never forget that sinlessness is not merely the absence of sinning; it is the presence of the complete will of God fulfilled in our life, and to mention this is to see at once the need of the atoning sacrifice, to the very end of our days.
“The second view is called suppression,but if eradication goes too far, this does not go far enough, because suppression emphasizes that fighting and struggling which will almost inevitably land us in defeat again and again. Suppression is miserably inadequate to the truth of God.
“The real word and the real thing is counteractionwhich just expresses the truth. ‘The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.’ There are two laws, and just as gravitation can be counteracted by volition, the higher law of the will, so the lower law of sin and death is forever counteracted by the presence of the Holy Ghost in our hearts. This is why in Romans 7 there are about thirty occasions where you find ‘I,’ ‘I,’ ‘I,’ with no reference whatever to the Holy Spirit, while in Romans 8 you get some twenty references to the Holy Spirit and very little about ‘I,’ ‘I.’ It is the law of counteraction.
“A little girl, so it is said, was once asked by her teacher: ‘What did St. Paul mean by the words, “I keep under my body?” ‘How did he do it?’ Her answer was, “by keeping his soul on top.’ That is the law ofcounteraction.There is a sinful principle. Do not dream that it is eradicated, and do not trouble about suppressing it. Let the Holy Spirit come into your life, and reign supreme in the throne room of the will, and then shall be this constant, continuous, blessed, and increasing counteraction.
“That is the work, or something like it, that St. Paul had in mind when he said, ‘Our old man (our unregenerate self) was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be rendered inoperative (not destroyed).’ The Greek word used, katargeo, always means to rob of power, to render inoperative,to put out of employment, to place among the unemployed. That is why St. Paul stopped short always of eradication,and is never content with suppression,and this is what I mean when I say that our life is a life of continual safety.”
These words of Dr. Thomas impress us as those of truth and soberness.
The late A.J. Gordon used to say with reference to the doctrine of holiness, that he had rather aim high and miss the mark than aim low and hit it. We are influenced by this bit of sanctified humor whenever we are taken to task by our holiness brethren for non-agreement with them. They never arouse antagonism in us, nor waken a merely polemic or controversial spirit. We rather honor them for their ambition and their zeal although their criticisms and unmerited censure are sometimes hard to bear. Our feelings in the premises found illustration in our willingness to publish our brother’s letter in full had it not been mislaid, and in this attempt courteously to reply to it.