The Doctrine of Sinless Perfection

Matthew 5:48

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2010

Do Christians sin? Did you know that some denominations teach the doctrine of sinless perfection?  The Wesleyans teach that a person who has been saved and born-again can achieve SINLESS PERFECTION in this lifetime. They believe in something called “entire sanctification”. One of the articles of faith for the Church of the Nazarene says, “We believe that entire sanctification is that act of God, subsequent to regeneration, by which believers are made free from original sin, or depravity, and brought into a state of entire devotement to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect.”

During the “testimony” period of the church service an old woman stood up and praised God that she had lived the past umpteen years sin-free, thanks to Entire Sanctification. The visiting minister (who never did like this doctrine in the first place) hatched an evil plan to deflate this gross spiritual arrogance. He first complemented her on such a feat. Then he sprung the trap on her: “You must be quite proud of such an accomplishment as this- living all those years without sin!”

Of course she fell for the bait, and especially liked having been singled out for all that attention. She stood up and said that yes, she was indeed quite proud of her sinless life. At that, the minister slammed down his twenty-pound Bible upon the pulpit as he raised his voice to boom out across the auditorium “Pride’s a sin!!! Now sit down, and learn what 1st John 1:8-10 means.

There is another story about a group of men that were getting ready to preach at some conference. One claimed to be sinless and they got in an argument. Another man went and got a bucket of water and poured it on his head and the man started cursing.

About twenty years ago, I was doing some door to door evangelism and I knocked on the door of a man who claimed to be sinless. His wife was standing right behind him. No verses I used seemed to have any impact on him, so finally I said, “You know this man is a sinner. You have to live with him”. She didn’t say anything but she did smile because she knew I was telling the truth.

Why would any Christian think that sinless perfection is possible for believers? One verse they use is Matthew 5:48. In that passage, Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”   This is a verse that has been misinterpreted by several different groups.

Two False Interpretations of Matthew 5:48

1. ΤΕΛΕΙΟΣ in Matthew 5:48 means sinless perfection and is attainable in this life.

The argument is threefold.  One, ΤΕΛΕΙΟΣ refers to sinless perfection.  Two, Jesus commands us to be perfect.  Perfection is a command.  Three, sinless perfection is possible in this life.  If Jesus commanded it, it must be possible.  OUGHT implies CAN.  If we have an obligation to do something, we must have an ability to do it.  Jesus would not command us to do something that is impossible.

Biblical Evaluation

a) The problem is that the Greek word ΤΕΛΕΙΟΣ does not always refer to sinless perfection.

ΤΕΛΕΙΟΣ  is used in Hebrews 5:14 and clearly does not refer to sinless perfection.   The passage says, “But solid food is for the mature (τελειος), who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil”.  Jesus meant when He told the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:21.

Jesus answered, ”If you want to be perfect (τελειος), then go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. If you do this, you will have treasure in heaven.”  Jesus is not saying if the rich man sells all of his possessions that he would become sinlessly perfect.

b) Sinless perfection does not fit the context of the passage.

Jesus talking about loving your enemies in Matthew 5:43-48.  When we love our enemies, we become like God. That is what He does. In the context, this means “to be perfect in love”. We know that this is the correct interpretation from the parallel passage.

Luke’s version of this is “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  The verse is a command and it is something which is indeed attainable but it is not a command to be perfect but a command to love as God loves.  God loves his enemies.

2. ΤΕΛΕΙΟΣ in Matthew 5:48 means sinless perfection and is NOT attainable in this life.

The argument here is that Jesus is intentionally setting the standard for perfection and commanding it to show that it is unattainable.  The only way to become righteous is not by works but by imputation (Romans 4:3, 5, 6, 11, 22, 24)

Biblical Evaluation

a)  Good works are possible in Matthew (5:16; 6:1).

Jesus speaks of the disciples doing both “good deeds” (5:16) and “righteous acts” (6:1).  He even speaks of the Pharisees having a certain kind of righteousness and said that his followers were to surpass it (5:20).  Jesus does not say that the Pharisees were not good.  He says that they were not good enough.

Jesus does not use the term “works” in the same way that Paul used it.  He is not talking about works as a means of salvation and is not contradicting what Paul said.  The whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is for the disciples to live better than the Pharisees.  It was never intended to be a way to earn salvation by works.

b)  The whole context is not dealing with imputed righteousness (cf. 5:10; 6:1).

Righteousness in Matthew is moral, not imputed.  Matthew never uses the term “righteousness” to refer to imputed or forensic righteousness.  The danger is trying to Matthew 5:48 through Paul’s eyes, rather than through its immediate context.

Other passages that are used to teach sinless perfection are found in I John. Four times in the book, he seems to say that Christians don’t sin at all. In fact, not only does he say that Christians don’t sin, he says that they cannot sin (3:9). Below are the following verses in the NLT.

Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is. (3:6)

Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. (3:9)

So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God. (3:9)

We know that God’s children do not make a practice of sinning, for God’s Son holds them securely, and the evil one cannot touch them. (5:18)

Do these verses teach sinless perfection? No. That doctrine is not only refuted by everyday experience, it is refuted by I John itself. Other verses in I John say very clearly that Christians do in fact sin (I John 1:8, 10; 2:1; 5:16-17). I John 1:10 is in the past tense but I John 1:8 is in the present tense.

It is not talking about sin in the past. It is not only wrong to say that some Christians in this life are sinless, it is blasphemous. It calls God a liar. God says, “for all have sinned (past tense) and are falling short (present tense) of the glory of God” Romans 3:23).

What then did John mean “Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin”? What did John mean? All three times he uses the present tense verb. There are two possible ways to interpret this.

John could be using the customary present tense referring to a person’s custom or habit. If that is what he was using, John is talking about an ongoing, continual, habitual pattern of unrepentant sin, not one brief isolated act of sin. A person who claims to be a child of God but does not repent of habitual sin, and does not practice righteousness, is not in fact a child of God. This is one view.

The other possibility is that John is using the Gnomic Present, referring to what is characteristic of a person’s life. (“Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.’ – Matthew 7:17).  Good trees may bear bad fruit from time to time.

The Gnomic present doesn’t deny such a possibility. It simply says it is uncharacteristic. A good tree does not typically and normally bear bad fruit. Then it would not be a good tree but a bad one. Sin is perfectly normal and natural to the unsaved but it is not normal or typical for the Christian.

When John says that a Christian “cannot” sin, he is not saying that it is a physical impossible for a Christian ever to sin but that it is unnatural or abnormal for a Christian to sin. In the same way, Jesus said, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them” (Mark 2:19). We know this because in I John 3 he says Christians “cannot sin” but in I John 2 he says “but if they do sin”.

So we know that Christians can and do sin. If we went around the room, we could all name the one or two weakest areas in our life.  The next question we want to answer is, How do we repent? What are the steps involved? What does the process of repentance look like for a believer? It is not rocket science. It is very simple. I want to give you six steps of repentance.

The Six Steps of Repentance

1. Recognize

The first step to repentance is to admit you have done something wrong. This involves complete honesty and transparency. Take responsibility for what you have done. If you don’t realize that you have sinned, you can’t repent. If you don’t know if you have anything to repent of, you can ask God and He will reveal it to you (Psalm 139:23-24) or you can just ask your wife. She will gladly tell you all of your faults.

2. Regret

The second step of repentance is regret or remorse. If you know you did something wrong but you don’t feel bad about it, if you’re not sorry for what you have done, if you are not ashamed at what you have done, if there’s no contrition, there’s no repentance.

3. Resolve

The third step of repentance is the desire to change. If you know you have done something wrong but you don’t feel bad about it, you probably will not have any desire to change and, if you don’t have any desire to change, there’s no repentance.

4. Recite

The fourth step of repentance is to confess your sin to God and ask him to forgive you. I John 1:9 says, ”f we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Notice, if you confess, the result is not only forgiveness but cleansing from sin, because sin doesn’t just make us guilty, it makes us unclean in God’s sight.

We don’t merely need to be absolved from guilt but purified from stains. After committing adultery, David didn’t just ask to be forgiven but to be cleansed and washed (Psalm 51:7). Notice also, I John 1:9 says that God is “faithful and just” to do this. He is not just merciful and kind. This is a promise you can rely on.

But there is something in this verse that you might not have seen before. Notice also that forgiveness is conditional (cf. Matthew 6:14-15). “IF we confess…” What if we don’t confess our sins? Then we are not forgiven? But you say, “I thought we were already forgiven when we got saved?”

In fact, I John says that we are already forgiven (cf. 2:12). There are two kinds of forgiveness. As Lewis Sperry Chafer pointed out, there is forgiveness for believers and forgiveness for unbelievers. When an unbeliever gets saved, he or she is forgiven. That forgiveness happens one time and affects one’s standing before God.

When a believer sins and has un-confessed sin in his life, his relationship with God is affected. If a child is rebellious to a parent, he is still a child. He is still a member of the family but his relationship with his parents is affected by his actions. Every time we sin, our relationship with God is affected and we need to confess our sins every time we sin, not to get saved or to become a member of the family but to live in fellowship with God.

It affects state, not standing. Jesus gave an excellent example of this principle I John 13:8-10. If you take a bath and then walk around on the sand, you don’t need to take another bath. You just need to wash your feet off. If we are saved we have had a salvation bath (I Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5). When we walk around in the world and get dirty, we don’t need another bath. We just need to confess our sins.

5. Reform

The fifth step of repentance involves a changed life. True repentance produces fruit (Acts 26:20; Matthew 3:8). One example of this was Zacchaeus. He made fourfold restitution (Luke 19:8). Notice that confession and repentance are not the same thing. Confession of sin is one aspect of repentance but it is possible to confess your sin, to say “I have sinned” and not truly repent. King Saul in the OT said, “I have sinned” (I Samuel 15:24, 30) but his very next words were “honor me now” (I Samuel 15:30)

Judas said after betraying Jesus, “I have sinned” (Matthew 27:4) but he never genuinely repented. He went off and killed himself. Suicide is not a fruit of repentance. It is a work of the flesh. If you genuinely repent, you have to not only feel sorry for your sin and confess it to God, you have to prove you really mean it by changing your life. You have to forsake our sin. You have to stop doing what you were doing (cf. Luke 15:11-20). If there is no change in your life, there is no genuine repentance.

6. Replace

The six step of repentance is to replace the bad behavior with good behaviors. In Paul’s language you have to not only put off some behavior’s, you have to put on other behaviors (Ephesians 4:20-27; Colossians 3:8-16) Paul uses the metaphor of clothes.

Every day, we take off clothes and put on clothes, although Paul is not talking about clothes. He is talking about conduct. It involves a negative and a positive action. If you just try to do the negative, it won’t work. If you quit smoking, you have to do something in its place.

If you have a problem with food, the solution is not to avoid eating at all but to eat the right foods, instead of the wrong foods and in the right amount. If you hang around with the wrong kind of people who are a bad influence on you, the solution is not “no friends” but better friends.

Paul says in Ephesians, if you have a problem with stealing, you need to not only stop stealing, he needs to be generous with people and give to them (Ephesians 4:28). Again, Zacchaeus is an example here. After ripping people off as a tax collector, he promised to not only make restitution but to give half of his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:8).

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