A less popular yet vital doctrine taught by some theologians is the complete sanctification of certain believers, which can be more descriptively coined: The Potential for Sinless Perfection Among Believers in the World. Although it is a controversial subject among theologians today, arguments were formed on varying views of sanctification two centuries ago (and before then). The famous American preacher Charles Finney taught – in reference to verses which describe sanctification – that such verses seem to offer prima facie1 evidence that total sanctification is a possibility for all believers, and a reality for some.2 Roughly 56 years later, another theologian argued a contrary doctrine, emphasizing that certain passages indicate Christians cannot escape sin.3 Point being, theologians differ greatly on this subject. In any case, the most biblically tenable and logically sound view is that sinlessness is indeed attainable for all people for three reasons: God commands it; Libertarian freewill exists; God is perfectly just.
First point: God commands it
God commands sinlessness in Matthew 5:48 – “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NASB). It would be preposterous for Jesus to teach that people could exemplify perfection while living in sin. If the biblical standard of moral living, which Jesus commanded for all those listening to pursue, is not a realistic possibility, then the overall message becomes nonsensical. This sermon emphasizes the duty of disciples and Christ-followers to treat others selflessly. Morality, as it pertains to lifestyle, was central to the entire message in the sermon. Therefore, perfection in this context could only be referring to sinlessness since morality was the chief focus of the sermon.
Secondly, Jesus specifically told individuals to go and sin no more. In the first instance, Jesus heals an ill (crippled) man: John 5:14 – “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.’” It is profound that Jesus did not specify any sin, nor was there any account of the sin the lame man committed. Jesus’ command was all-encompassing. Had this healed man committed any type of sin afterwards, he would have disobeyed Christ.
There is also the second instance, when Jesus commands the adulterous woman to sin no more. John 8:10-11 – “Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.’” One might suggest Jesus is only referring to her adultery. However, if she is able to refrain from adultery indefinitely, then what would disable her from refraining from any other sin? Regardless of whether Jesus was just referring to adultery, the command remains: “Go and sin no more.”
Furthermore, blamelessness is unmistakably asserted to be the ideal state of spirituality for Christians. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 – “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There are few verses more cogent4 than this one. Paul is telling these believers to strive for blamelessness and that, with the power of Christ working in them, they can become “entirely preserved” to the degree of blamelessness. Ephesians 4:13 speaks of Christians “maturing to the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Hebrews 13:21 emphasizes Christians being equipped by Christ in “every good thing to do His will,” which implies Christians are to carry out His will of living blamelessly. Surely His will does not include sin of any genre.5 Simply put, Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica expecting them to attain blamelessness.
Second point: Libertarian freewill exists
For purposes of clarity, libertarian freewill (LF) is defined throughout this article as the ability to choose good or evil in any moral dilemma or circumstance.6
If sinlessness is attainable, then LF must intrinsically be a part of the human experience. This is assuming God does not force people to refrain from sin. For this case, however, the converse is true; if LF exists, then sinlessness is attainable. The Bible attests to LF. Consider the dialogue between Cain and God in Genesis 4:4-7:
“Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So, Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.’”
Both brothers are in nearly identical circumstances here. They are both one of four people on the planet.7 They probably were taught the same principles with the same environment, circumstances, and parents, Adam and Eve. Given the same circumstances, Cain sins via envy of God’s regard of his brother’s offering, and he also sins by “not doing well” with his own offering. In contrast, Abel does well with his offering and refrains from sin. How? How did Abel refrain and Cain sin in the same circumstance apart from mere choices they each made? If not for their LF, then either God coerced one and not the other or the sin nature8 did not apply to Abel for this moment in time.
Furthermore, God inquires of Cain’s countenance, giving him the solution to his anger and envy. The solution is very simple. God essentially states, “If you do well, then your countenance will rise; if not, then it will plummet.” All this implies the choice is entirely left for Cain. God commands Cain: “You must master it (sin).” If LF does not exist, this advice is nonsense. Without the ability to master sin, God is misleading Cain with deceitful instructions by telling him to master something entirely out of his control. He might as well say, “Master your sin…but, by the way, you cannot.”
Another example of LF is given in 1 Kings 21:27-29, 22:19-28 with King Ahab – one of the most sinister kings to rule over Israel (1 Kings 16:30). The evidence of his LF is in a moment of righteousness recorded during his reign as king.
1 Kings 21:27-29 – “It came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but I will bring the evil upon his house in his son’s days.’”
This is a prime example of a wicked man who had no record of finishing his life in obedience to Christ; and who had a change of heart for only a short segment of his life, only to revert to his wickedness. After humbling himself for a short-lived time, he neglected the counsel of God through the prophet Micaiah and then proceeded to adhere to the instructions of his false prophets (1 Kings 22:24-28). After imprisoning Micaiah, King Ahab started an ungodly war, resulting in his own defeat and death (1 Kings 22:34-35). He rejected God and acted of his own counsel in defiance to every attempt God used to change his heart. All this took place after he genuinely repented and humbled himself as noted in 1 Kings 21:27-29.
The two narratives – God’s regard for Abel’s offering and Ahab’s renewed and repentant thinking – raise an important question. If, as these two accounts show, people can refrain from evil for a time, why not indefinitely? Because they have refrained from evil when given the opportunity to act wickedly, they prove it is indeed possible to resist temptation. It follows then, that this conscious decision-making could be repeated in all circumstances and situations. There is no reason why the choice to refrain from evil would only be possible in some but not all circumstances. This concept is further implied and assumed to be true in multiple passages where God pleads with Israel (in the Old Testament) and unbelievers (in the New Testament) to live obediently.
Matthew 13:58 – “And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.”
Isaiah 30:15 – “For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said, ‘In repentance and rest you will be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength.’ But you were not willing.”
Jeremiah 18:7-8 – “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.”
Jesus revisits Nazareth as recorded in the first reference (Matthew 13). First, it would be futile to perform miracles for the purpose of converting unbelievers when they have no ability to change their own minds. Second, Matthew states that Jesus limited the number of miracles because of their unbelief, which implies that He would have performed more had the Nazarenes been less overtly skeptical. Contrast their unbelief with the man in Mark 9:24 who believed in Christ’s miracles before observing them. Now, if Jesus truncated his miraculous demonstrations in Nazareth because of the response He was receiving, then He is operating under the assumption that their beliefs are malleable. Keep in mind, only after Christ observed their rejection of Him (v.54-57) did He decide to limit his ministry in Nazareth. It was their willful rejection of miracles that compelled Christ to not perform more, for their hearts were hardened of their own accord.
God is speaking to the nation of Israel in the second reference. He iterates a solution for their downfalls by demanding they repent and trust in Him, but a rift of unwillingness separated Israel from the humility it needed to repent. Thus, the key factor preventing repentance and trust was not God but their unwillingness, insinuating the burden was on their shoulders to become willing.
In the third passage Jeremiah relays God’s message. This message is significant in that it is conditional. God’s plan to punish Israel is contingent on Israel’s choice to “turn from its evil.” If, as some theologians suggest, there is no LF, then why would God suspend his punishment or even bother giving Israel an option that is only possible when LF exists? The fact that God has a stipulation where He will destroy kingdoms who disobey and preserve the ones who obey proves that God’s judgment is suspended by mankind’s responses to commands. Thus, God’s judgment is conditional to human obedience. Therefore, LF must exist.
Third point: God is perfectly just
The first two points are illustrated through observations of historical figures as well as various passages of Scripture. This last point centers on reasoning more than the others, yet the premises are all derived from Scripture.
First, Scripture states God is perfectly just in every way as illustrated in the following:
• There is no partiality with God (Romans 2:11; Job 34:19; 2 Chronicles 19:7; Ephesians 6:9; Acts 10:34)
• God hates unjust sentences (Proverbs 17:15)
• Yahweh is a God of justice (Isaiah 30:18)
• God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8; Psalm 99:4)
• God is without injustice (Deuteronomy 32:4)
• God condemns injustice (Isaiah 10:1-3; Amos 1:3-4)
• God executes judgment equally (Psalm 9:8, 146:7)
• God will maintain justice (Psalm 140:12)
• God does no injustice (Zephaniah 3:5)
The second premise is that God judges people for their choices, namely their thoughts and actions.
• God judges deeds (2 Timothy 4:14; Ecclesiastes 12:14; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 20:12)
• God will repay actions (Romans 2:6)
• Reward is proportional to labor (1 Corinthians 3:8)
• God judges thoughts (Romans 2:16; Hebrews 4:12; Jeremiah 17:10)
• Consequences are proportional to the wrong that is done (Colossians 3:25)
• People are not judged for the choices of others (Ezekiel 18:20, 30)
These verses can be surmised to say one thing: God holds humanity accountable for its actions. More specifically, each individual is judged for his/her respective conduct. Ezekiel 18:20 and 30 respectively – “The righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct….”
These two premises raise a crucial question. Can a perfectly just God condemn people for their actions when they are incapable of refraining from committing such actions? To phrase it differently, if someone does not have the option to obey God, how could God condemn him/her for disobeying? The word “option” used in this context must be legitimate; it must truly be within human capabilities. Otherwise, it is futile.
This dilemma is unique. For if sinlessness is unattainable, people would be born into a world without consenting,9 only to be condemned for falling short of a spiritual standard that is impossible to attain. As an analogy, suppose a man is playing fetch with his dog. He throws a stick in a tree, far out of the dog’s reach. There are no branches near the trunk, rendering it impossible for the dog to fetch the stick. The owner yells, “Fetch! Fetch!” but it is all a lost cause. Then, to exercise his “justice,” the owner punishes the dog for not fetching the stick. Would it be just for the dog to receive punishment for failing to fetch the stick? Bringing this line of reasoning to focus again, why did God punish Adam in the Garden of Eden? Adam was punished for disobeying God only because he was free to obey Him. Had Adam not been free to obey, then disobedience would have been the only option. If sin occurred in this state, the blame would deflect onto God for creating a human only capable of disobedience.
If this reasoning is insufficient, then here is the proof. The two facts above, both derived from Scripture, are denoted as Fact A and Fact B.
Fact A: God is just such that He condemns people for sin (John 3:18).
Fact B: God is just in that He only holds people accountable for their own choices and thoughts (Ezekiel 18:20, 30).
Premise: Suppose sinlessness is unattainable.
1st inference: A person must sin at least once before death for the premise to be true.
2nd inference: If a particular sin is guaranteed to occur, then an individual cannot be the determining factor for that sin.
3rd inference: If an individual who sins is not the determining factor, then the sin was not a choice on the individual’s part.
Recalling Fact A, God would be condemning someone for a sin that has no part in his/her choice or volition, which defies Fact B.
Therefore, the premise is false because it contradicts Scripture. As a result sinlessness is attainable.10
Application of doctrine
Since perfection has been proven to be attainable, there are many applications for the Christian (and everyone for that matter) which can be derived from Scripture. First, there is no temptation or sin too great to resist. The Bible explicitly confirms this: 1 Corinthians 10:13 – “No temptation has overtaken you, but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” Paul is speaking to the Christians in Corinth, letting them know there is no excuse whatsoever for sinning. In application, Christians can identify and eradicate any sin in their lives, just as Christ commanded in Matthew 5:48.
Additionally, the pursuit of sinlessness strengthens the union between the believer and God. Consequently, this union, in the optimal state, bears much fruit. John 15:4-5 – “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” How exactly does one abide in Him? By “keeping His commandments” (v.10).
In conclusion, presenting oneself as holy, sinless, and pure will illustrate to unbelievers that striving for moral perfection is realistic and attainable. It can provide a means for witnessing to the lost on the basis that there is hope for overcoming sin, which most (if being honest) would acknowledge is the cause of nearly all of life’s problems. Becoming a living example of holiness is a fantastic way to illustrate the hope which is only offered in Christ.
- Defined – based on the first impression; accepted as correct until proved otherwise.
- Charles G Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology (London: William Tegg, 1851), 604-13.
- Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1907), 879.
- Defined – clear, logical, and convincing.
- Romans 6 also carries much weight on abandoning sin and striving for sinlessness.
- LF also encompasses repentance and belief, two mandatory elements for salvation.
- Seth was not born yet, and it is unlikely any daughters were born yet, or at least Scripture never mentions it.
- Sin nature is addressed in another article in “Doctrinal Matters.” For argument’s sake it is considered a possibility.
- All this means is that people have no say in their own birth. They are born of no fault of their own. They do not ask for life, yet it is given anyway.
- This article does not address the concept of sin nature. That issue will be resolved in another article in “doctrinal matter.” Nonetheless, the logic and Scripture from this article is still sound and valid.