Sinlessness – Attainable Ideal or Hopeless Aspiration?

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.

The Inequality of Sins

A multitude of teachings from many religions, especially Christianity, have exacerbated the perception of sin within the church and society.  The nature of sin, its many nuances, and its relevance, should and must be understood by Christians in order to avoid misrepresenting and defiling the Word of God among civilization (1 Peter 3:15).  One of the main misconceptions of sin is the false notion, unfortunately held by many believers, that all sins are equal in the eyes of God.  While it is true that all sins separate each individual from God, there is no Biblical evidence or logical reason for the position that all sins are equal.  On the contrary, there are many reasons and passages supporting the inequality of sins.  Three prominent reasons supporting this theory are the differences in punishment given in the Old Testament, the condition of the heart during a sin, and the fact that Jesus stated it Himself.

The first reason, which is logically derived from the Jewish justice system, is there are many different punishments for various different offenses, some much more severe than others.  It is important to note this justice system is no longer in effect, nor should it be, since the new covenant has been instituted.  Adultery was punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10).  When men quarreled and someone was struck, payment equal to the loss or punishment equal to the injury was required of the perpetrator of damage (Exodus 21:22-25).  Concerning thievery, it was different.  If a robber was caught while in possession of what was stolen, he was required to repay double (Exodus 22:4).  If, however, a stolen animal was sold or killed, then the thief was required to repay the owner four to five times depending on the livestock (Exodus 22:1).  If food was stolen out of hunger, then he repaid seven-fold (Proverbs 6:30-31).  Clearly, restitution for a stolen animal was necessary because the owner was at a loss, but there was a much more severe punishment for robbers who sold or slaughtered the livestock.  Basically, if a man was caught with a stolen ox, he only paid double; if the ox was dead or sold, then he paid fivefold.  The scale changed based on the sin committed.  Also, when an innocent person was struck, the punishment was equal to the injury inflicted.  There is not some universal punishment for every sin or crime.  The punishments changed accordingly, and it is vital to know that God instituted the standards by which the Israelites were to establish their justice system.  Scripture is clear that God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8), and He will not pervert it (Job 34:12).  Since God cannot and will not be unjust, the justice system, including punishments by which He commanded the Hebrew people to abide, must also be just and fair.  The punishments vary drastically depending on each sin, so it follows logically that the sins worthy of each different punishment cannot be equal.  If all sins have equal value in the eyes of God (or are equal by some other vague standard that advocates of this misconception insist to be true), then the punishments would be equal.  Yet for some reason stealing a loaf of bread, resulting in a retribution of seven loaves of bread, is unequal to killing an innocent bystander in a fight, resulting in death.  Essentially, because God who is just determined greater and lesser punishments, there must exist greater and lesser sins deserving those punishments.

The next reason accounts for the condition of man’s heart while sinning.  The heart, which is the volitional intent of the will, determines the level of malice or wickedness in each person.  To put to rest any doubts of there existing people of differing degrees of wickedness, king Manasseh was more wicked than all other Amorites before him (1 Kings 21:11).  However, Jesus preached in Matthew 5:28, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NASB).  From this verse it can be induced, if a man wishes evil, it is equivalent to and just as morally reprehensible as acting upon the evil he desires, regardless if he ever does have the chance to act upon it.  That is why Jesus said, “…has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Likewise, it says in Matthew 5:22 – “But I say to you that everyone who continues to be angry with his brother or harbors malice against him shall be guilty before the court…” (AMP).  From these two brief passages, sin is not limited to physical acts but also thoughts.  Furthermore, it is clear that the intention of one’s action (the condition of the heart) should determine punishment.  Exodus 21:12-14 – “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.  (13) But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. (14)  If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die” (NASB).  For the same crime there is a different punishment.  In the case in which the murder was planned, the punishment is death, but in the case in which it was unintentional to kill but still ended in death, the punishment is less severe because a place of refuge is provided.  The reason God determined a different punishment for the same crime (murder in this case) can be deduced from the following verses:

• Proverbs 16:2 – “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives.”
• Jeremiah 12:3 – “But You know me, O Lord; You see me; And You examine my heart’s attitude toward You.  Drag them off like sheep for the slaughter and set them apart for a day of carnage!”
• 1 Samuel 16:7 – “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”

From these verses it is clear that God weighs the motives of men, examines the attitudes of the heart, and looks at the heart.  It is already established that differing degrees of punishment implies differing degrees of sin.  Because the punishments differ in severity for the murder described in Exodus 21, the sin in each case must differ in value.  However, the physical results (murder) were the same in each case.  Therefore, the condition of the heart determines which sins are lesser and greater, not just the physical action.  Sentencing capital punishment or exile for the same crime is justified because the evil intentions of the heart from both scenarios are disparate; they are unequal, and so, God’s reputation is untainted.  Since the conditions of the heart in both cases are unequal, neither are the sins equal.  A simple way to understand this is to ask the question: Would a person’s desires be just as wicked if he steals food for sustenance as they would be if he stole food to spite his neighbor?

Probably the most blatant reason for holding to a position of the inequality of sins is that Jesus iterated it himself.  Jesus was responding to Pilate’s question in John 19:11 – “Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason, he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”  Jesus was referring to the sin of those who handed him over to be crucified, deeming it as the greater sin.  The possibility of a greater sin ensures the option of a lesser sin, which proves that not all sins are equal.  Also, consider Matthew 22:36-39 – “‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’  (37) And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  (38) This is the great and foremost commandment.  (39) The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  There are two commandments, one greater than the other.  Logically, disobeying the greater commandment is a greater sin than disobeying the lesser commandment, otherwise it is futile mentioning the salience of one commandment over the other.

Additionally, it is insinuated that some sins contain more morbid consequences than others in 1 John 5:16 – “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death.  There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.  (17) All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.”  Verse sixteen differentiates sins leading to death and those that do not.  Not to be overlooked is the emphasis in verse seventeen about how all unrighteousness is sin.  Nonetheless, the revelation that only some sins lead to death renders indubitably the inequality of sins.

To be fair, an adequate representation of the contrary position should be made.  Most proponents of the sins-are-all-equal position emphasize with unwavering fervor that all sins separate humanity from God, which is true (Isaiah 59:2).  However, it cannot be deduced that sins are equal just because they all separate humans from God.  The main line of argument comes from James 2:10 – “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.”  In order to fully understand the literal meaning of this passage, it must be viewed in light of the entire context.

James 2:8-12 – “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture,  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.  But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  (10) For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (11)  For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.”  Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.  (12) So, speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.”

Verses eight and nine reveal that committing a seemingly minor sin is enough to render one a lawbreaker or guilty of transgressing the law.  Verse ten is self-explanatory; a broach of one area in the law makes the lawbreaker guilty under the entire law.  Verse eleven unmistakably stresses the insignificance of which law is broken, for if any are broken, then the perpetrator is guilty by the standard of the law.  In other words, someone caught speeding on a highway is just as guilty of breaking the law as someone caught in murder, yet the respective laws broken are disparate in nature.  This analogy only serves to make sense of the text, not to bolster the point.  Verse twelve is basically a call to obedience.

The truth is clear, and scripture leaves no room for discrepancies on this subject.  An important caveat from this message should be practiced, and that is to abstain from falsely assuming some sins are trivial just because they are lesser or do not lead to death.  All sin is offensive to God, no matter how inconsequential the results may be.