The Godly Heresy of Sinless Perfectionism

How can a heresy be ‘godly’? In short, it can’t. Godliness is about conformity to sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). However, most cases of (reasonably convincing) false teaching will consist of biblical truths that have been skewed in some way. The ingredients are good, but the recipe is incomplete or else has had unwelcome things added, and the result is a theological and practical mess.

Sinless Perfectionism is a doctrine like that. In short, it holds that it is possible for Christians to completely defeat sin in the present life and to live holy lives like Jesus did. At a glance, it makes a lot of sense. Jesus came to save us from sin. He died for our sins on the cross and he sent his Holy Spirit to empower his people to overcome sin and to live obedient, righteous lives in the present (Titus 2:11-14). Christians should have the highest aspirations for living holy lives and rejecting all sin.

Sinless Perfectionism is Unbiblical

However, the Bible also says that ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). It speaks of the fact that until the resurrection we must be at war with sinful desires (Galatians 5:16-17). Sin is not an enemy ‘out there’. It’s an enemy within that lives and feeds off our fallen human desires and weaknesses (James 1:13-15). That is why sinless perfectionism is not only untrue but also dangerous. People don’t tend to win battles that they don’t even realise they are supposed to be fighting.

There is a much-repeated (but possibly made-up) story about the 19th century Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon in which he debunked perfectionism in a memorable way.[1]

Spurgeon was at a conference where a preacher taught perfectionism in an outspoken manner and even claimed to have reached a state of sinless perfection himself. Spurgeon didn’t challenge him on the spot. Instead, the next morning he poured a pitcher of milk over the man’s head, to which the ‘perfectionist’ responded with the kind of rage and hostility that you’d expect from any sinner. Perfectionism debunked.

We like this story. It’s funny to hear of false teaching being exposed in an amusing way. But I suspect that our reaction is far too smug. It betrays an attitude of self-assurance at precisely the point where we should feel our greatest need. It demonstrates a disturbing lack of concern about the fact that we sin and that our sin is deeply offensive to God. When we remember this then it’s impossible to gleefully say in our hearts: “you stupid perfectionists—of course we all sin!” Are we pleased with the situation? Have we forgotten what sin is? Even though we know that it’s false, shouldn’t we wish that sinless perfectionism were true? Don’t you long to be free of sin?

Spiritual Complacency is Unbiblical Too!

If there is an equal and opposite error to sinless perfectionism then it is the sin of spiritual complacency. It’s shrugging your shoulders at sin’s inevitability. It’s acceptance that sin is just part of life, and I’m OK with that. It’s responding to occasions of sin by almost justifying it with glib lines like: “we know that we all sin.” That is a ghastly attitude for a Christian to have and it needs to be challenged.

It is easy for me to criticise sinless perfectionism because I don’t personally know any Christians who struggle with this doctrine. However, I dare say that I know an entire evangelical culture that is complacent about sin. We’ve forgotten that sin is ugly and grotesque; the complete opposite to righteousness. We’ve forgotten that God’s will for our lives is that we be holy (1 Thessalonians 4:3). We’ve forgotten that what Christians look forward to above all else is Jesus returning to take away our sin completely. We’ve forgotten that anyone who truly desires that day to come will be obsessed with living a holy life now (1 John 3:2-3).

Jesus taught that Christians would ‘hunger and thirst’ after righteousness (Matthew 5:6). Imagine a man who has been deprived of food and water for far too long. Hunger and thirst are not just a thought in his head, but all-encompassing desires that cannot be ignored. His whole body cries out for sustenance! He will never – can never – be satisfied until his desire is satiated. Is our hunger for righteousness like that? That’s what perfectionism (at its best) gets right. It desires to be without sin. That is a profoundly godly ambition, and one that all Christians should share. We recognise that we will inevitably fall short. But we are not happy about it.

Come Lord Jesus!

(Originally posted on the Gospel Coalition Australia website, 22/2/2018)