22 November 2006

Not Yet Quite Perfect

by Phil Johnson

've said before that I despise all kinds of perfectionist doctrine. During college and after, I was enthralled with a kind of perfectionism for a few years. Far from being any help or encouragement to my sanctification, perfectionism was a constant cause of frustration and failure.

I finally purged every conscious taint of perfectionism from my thinking after reading volume 2 of B.B. Warfield's excellent Studies in Perfectionism. To this day, that book ranks pretty high in the top five whenever I'm asked to list the books that have influenced me the most.


My contempt for perfectionism (and not merely a doctrinaire commitment to Calvinism) is actually the main reason I'm something less than a fan of Charles Finney and his disastrous long-term influence on American evangelicalism.

As a matter of fact, my disapproval of Finneyism and my abhorrence of perfectionism are more than matched by the animus certain perfectionists have directed at me in return. One example of what I'm talking about is this fellow, whose website devotes a page to unmasking my purported attempts to "deceive the Evangelical Movement" through my criticism of Charles Finney.

That website's domain name says everything about the view of sanctification represented there. According the operators of Stopsinning.net, if you want to be holy, all you have to do is stop sinning. It's a choice you make by your own sovereign free will. Human willpower, not divine grace, is the real secret to sanctification, or so they think.

One page on the site defends an extreme variety of perfectionism. "No limit can be put on the degree of perfection attainable in this life," the page intones. "Clearly the only limitation as to how holy you can be is that which you impose by your own free will."

My Answer:

For those who imagine that they have attained perfect holiness in this life, I think more in-depth self-examination might disabuse you of that idea. Here are some questions to consider:

The first and great commandment is "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" (Matt. 22:37). How's your obedience to that commandment? Perfect? If imperfect, how close to perfection do you actually come? In other words, how does your level of "perfection" compare to Christ's absolute perfection?

Seriously: Is your love for God really something that moment-by-moment consumes your entire heart, soul mind, and strength? Have you managed to banish lustful and covetous thoughts forever from your mind? And if not, how frequently and how passionately do you repent of your sin against the First and Great Commandment?

Do you believe you can summon the willpower to obey even the Second Great Commandment (Matthew 22:39) perfectly? Is your love for your neighbor really equal to your self-love?

I'll admit freely that I fail on both counts every time I measure myself by those two commandments. Thank God that the gospel teaches I am justified by a perfect righteousness that is imputed to me—not by the flawed "righteousness" that results from my own behavior. I am saved by what Christ has done on my behalf, not what I can do through my own meager efforts.

A Sincere Plea

Reading perfectionist writings, ranging from Charles Finney to his latter-day heirs, one gets the impression they think their salvation ultimately hinges somehow on how well they obey from now on. Search your heart; if that's the way you think—and yet you still have hope that you will be saved, then you have not truly come to grips with what Scripture teaches about human depravity. You have too much confidence in the flesh.

This is precisely what I despise most about Finneyism and all forms of perfectionism: while talking a lot about "repentance," holiness, and sanctification, these views actually amount to a denial of what Scripture teaches about the depth of human sinfulness.

In other words, that kind of "repentance" (the kind that leaves a person thinking his own future performance is necessary to secure his salvation) is no repentance at all, but a stubborn refusal to acknowledge how truly sinful we really are.

Phil's signature


Matthew Celestine said...

I hate Finney's theology.

Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology had a positive note about Finney's 'Lectures in Systematic Theology' so I bought it and read it.

I was quite disgusted with Finney's appalling system.

Every Blessing in Christ


Martin Downes said...

It is amazing to think that just a few generations ago evangelicals here in the UK were in the grip of perfectionist teachings (of the Higher Life and Keswick varieties). Hard to believe that this was the dominant view.

And then came Lloyd-Jones. Interesting to note that he devoured the ten volume set of Warfield on a visit to North America in the early 1930s.

And then there was Packer as a student in Oxford reading John Owen on sin, mortification and temptation and at last finding an older, deeper, more biblical, and therefore more realistic view of the battle against sin.

By the way your article on Finney is out of the top drawer.

Catez said...

Thanks for posting this Phil. Perfectionism creates a real double bind for people - they can't measure up to perfection but believe they do at the same time. An honest look at one's own life (I appreciated your transparency in the post) reveals the discord between perfectionism as a description of where one is at, and where one is really at.

Which is not an excuse for libertinism (the usual strawman I encounter when trying to discuss this) but is a reason to stop glorifying our decision-making as if human nature were a god itself.

Dan B. said...

When coming to an understanding of the true nature of God's grace, I thought that one of the most freeing things was this: while God never relented his requirement of perfect obedience to the law, it was Christ's perfect obedience to the law and his act of propitiation (at the Cross) that I cling to in my salvation.

We are to strive to be holy in becoming more like Christ, but certainly as you said, perfection in this life? Do they not read Paul's frustration in Romans 7:15-20? He declared himself the foremost of all sinners in 1 Timothy 1:15--I guess the Apostle Paul just needed to try harder.

Tom Chantry said...

It is remarkable to see how the true gospel comes under attack from different directions simultaneously. Your decision to take on perfectionism immediately after closing the thread on "free-grace" antinomianism demonstrates understanding of this. I think I've seen this before in your topic selection, and I always appreciate it.

I can understand why people want to talk of "balance" in theology - provided that they mean avoiding the pitfalls of opposing extremes. However, that language is dangerous, too, tending toward the idea that we should be hesitant and qualified in the defense of the truth. I prefer to remember the Civil War general who found his troops outflanked and threatened from the rear just as they were closing in on another enemy force to their front. He reared up in his saddle and bellowed "Charge!" When asked which direction, he answered, "Both!"

Anyway, thanks for your willingness to defend the gospel, and keep charging in both directions.

Kim said...


I've tried reading Warfield's volumes on perfectionism, and they are not an easy read.

After trying to read the first one, I got about thirty pages into it and I definitely needed to apply something to my forehead.

I'm hoping that I will be able to give it a good try again in the future. They're just sitting on my shelf, taunting me.

Jeremy Weaver said...

The biggest problem with Perfectionism is that it will inevitably lead a person from trusting in Christ for their salvation to trusting in their own works.
After all, if the requirement to enter heaven is perfection, "Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect..", and if we can attain to perfection after salvation by the use of our own free wills, then faith in Christ after salvation is optional.
That's wrong on many different levels.

Brian @ voiceofthesheep said...

I have personally witnessed the results of Finney at our former SBC church of seven years, where the gospel has been replaced by law: Everything there is now focused on the individual doing this, that and the other in order to gain favor with God. Sermons that once covered passages of Scripture (although quite shallow, I must admit), have now been replaced with how-to lectures on budgets, time management, discipline in the home, and keeping one's thoughts pure.

Nothing wrong with the Christian focusing on those areas and desiring to bring glory to Christ by being a better steward of the time and resources he has been given...but without the foundation of Christ, these 'moral' teachings are nothing more than pagan ritual (must credit the White Horse Inn fellows for that summation).

Churches such as the one I reference above are preaching law, not gospel. And what is the goal of preaching law if not to call the hearer to perfection, to a type of obedience that will garner favor with God.

Great post, Phil.

James Scott Bell said...

You've hefted a real hot theological potato here, Phil. Thanks. It is a topic that needs airing. I remember reading Finney years ago and getting depressed. Yeesh.

And yet there is the very biblical doctrine of sanctification, of not practicing sin (esp. 1 John) and the like.

The power of the Spirit for our victory over sin in daily life enters the mix.

But when we do sin, as John says, we have advocate, Jesus. This tells us that earthly perfectionism is not anticipated, and gives us the blessed assurance that Jesus is ours.

Lloyd-Jones found the right dynamic, I believe, in his sermons on 1 John. We do have the obligation to "reason" out what God would have us do and avoid, and then strive to obey. Our "sinless" lives as Christians refers to the "general tenor" of our walk, and not to absolute perfection.

So we do have an obligation on our side of the equation. As long as we understand that it is the Spirit's enablement that makes it all possible, that allows us to "keep in step with the Spirit," we can (and must) lead very practical Christian lives that have a real outworking in the world.

The opposite error to avoid is "defeatism," the idea that we are doomed to sin at any given moment (this is quite apart from the acknowledgment that we have a sin NATURE). That's not the biblical picture, either.

Remember the Charles Atlas method of strength training called "Dynamic Tension"? Maybe he was a theologian.

Mr. Baggins said...

I really think that perfectionism is the new Phariseeism. Well, it's not new, I suppose. But the parallels are exact: both want a doable law, both believe in the ability of the human will to please God, and both have a merit-based works salvation.


Matthew Celestine said...

Martin Downes, it is necessary to distinguish Keswick theology from Perfectionism of the Finney or Wesley varieties.

Most exponents of the Higher Life did not teach the possibility of sinless perfection.

God Bless


FX Turk said...

I didn't think Phil was perfect until I saw that picture of him with the wolf skin on his head.

Now I know for certain that he's perfect. No question.

FX Turk said...

On a more serious note, I'm arguing with a couple of atheists that don't really know anything aboutn Christianity, and I was saying this to them today: "How do you justify this passage of the NT if the point of Christianity is that we ought to be morally-perfect men who meirt God's favor?"

Here's tha passage:

Mt 16:21From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you." 23But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man."

See: if the Christ must go to Jerusalem and die, why must he do that for morally-perfect men?

The death of Christ is God's plan. God planned it that way. The way God did what He did -- it was by the death of Christ.

Not by the fact that Peter was morally perfect.

candy said...

I agree that Finney influenced the modern evangelical church to great detriment. I have an old friend who declares that Finney is his hero. I am amazed at his theology! He really beats himself up. He feels that by this time in his walk, he should be much holier. Needless to say, he think Reformed Christians are heretics.

I also believe Finneyism enables a Christian at times to not confess sins, because to some Finneyites, confession of sins reveals weakness and a lack of discipline. Christians who are disciplined in themselves struggle with pride in their accomplishments. Look how well they are doing after all!

I know many people admired Keith Green and other like minded Christians, but him and many others carried the banner of Finney's theology proudly, and influenced so many Christians. I remember being very discouraged that I could not measure up to what God wanted of me, and believed God to be a harsh taskmaster. It eventually created a lot of rebellion in my heart, which eventually led to a great downfall, which eventually led to a revelation about the Doctrines of Grace.

candy said...

Oops, must correct my grammar. "He" and many others.

Pastor Eldred said...

Well said, Phil.

The graphic at the head of this post deserves a windshield sticker! Awesomeness presented in a logo!!

Anonymous said...


I was studying Philippians 2:12-13 back in February for an upcoming (at the time) preaching assignment, and found your original two articles in this regard to be quite helpful and insightful. This one can be added to those two as must reads for anyone studying these verses or this issue.

Thank you for your insights.

In Him,

Phil Johnson said...

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist: "it is necessary to distinguish Keswick theology from Perfectionism of the Finney or Wesley varieties"

Not for the point I'm making here. In fact, Keswick theology is exactly the kind of perfectionism I was speaking about when I said I was both enthralled and hamstrung by a certain kind of perfectionism during my student years.

The typical idea of that brand of sanctification is this: You can have perpetual victory by faith over all known and deliberate sin. Total victory comes instantly to those who give up struggling and receive their sanctification passively, wholly by faith, with no effort or striving on their part. Struggling against sin and sinful desires is supposedly fleshly and counterproductive.

That's a recipe for disaster on several levels, not the least of which is the way it dumbs down the meaning of "complete victory" (the Keswickian synonym for "perfection") so that it almost sounds attainable: victory over all known sin and deliberate disobedience.

Here's the problem: God's standard is total perfection (Matthew 5:20, 48; James 2:10), and victory over "known" sin is no valid substitute for that. In fact, the distinction between "known sin and deliberate disobedience" on the one hand, and sins of omission, apathy, and carelessness on the other is expressly ruled out by the First and Great Commandment. The spiritual indifference that makes such sins possible is precisely what is declared sin by this principle: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" (Matthew 22:37).

In my assessment, Keswick-style perfectionism is a worse variety than standard run-of-the-mill Wesleyan perfectionism, because of the more subtle way it renders the commandments of God null and void. These days you don't meet many Wesleyans who claim to have attained perfection. But evangelicalism is overrun with Keswickians and Bob George disciples who "claim" victory, yet whose lives are manifestly unholy.

Yankeerev said...

So, where does John Wesley fit into all of this perfectionism? Didn't his teaching also add to the confusion?

donsands said...

"I am justified by a perfect righteousness that is imputed to me"


And because our Savior did this for us, and we know are sins are as far as the East is from the West, we hate the sin in our lives, and we press on and fight the good fight of faith by His grace, and in His power.

Thanks for the edifying words.

HeWhoIsCalledTom said...

As I work out my salvation I am realizing that Grace is like buterfly wings. If you don't touch it you can fly but the minute you mess with it you are done. No mater what you do, if you mess with Grace you always come back to man having some ability to be rightous on his own, which is just wrong.

Phil Johnson said...

Pastor Eldred: Thanks for noticing. That's my favorite version of the logo art, too. I have it on a coffee mug that's the envy of my whole office.

Jeff: Thanks. Here's the first article in that previous series. Here's the second one.

Yankeerev: Yes.

Martin Downes said...

Dyspraxic fundamentalist

Well I guess Keswick and Wesleyian holiness is still by crisis experience, and it is still perfectionism at the end of the day.

Matthew Celestine said...

Martin, the Keswick movement went to some extremes and Robert Pearsall Smith had some odd ideas.

However, Keswick teachers have avoided the teaching that perfection can be attained which is the big problem and they have maintained the importance of confessing sin.

In fact, if you read some of their writings, you actually get the impression at times that they do bring in somed degree of struggle against sin through the back door.

There are plenty of writers who have developed the ideas of Kesiwck and the Brethren to deal more realistically with the realities of the Christian life, such as Miles Stanford and Charles Ryrie. And another guy whose first name begins with Z.

Every Blessing in Christ


Tom said...

candyinsierras experience mirrors my own. I'm so thankful God led me (however cicurtious the route) into the sweetness of His sovereign G.R.A.C.E)

God’s Sovereign Election:

That God is sovereign is an undeniable truth taught throughout the Bible. He is sovereign over all things from the rain that falls on the earth (Amos 4:7) to the kings who reign in the earth (Prov. 21:1). There is no place to which His sovereignty does not reach. This includes the election of human beings unto salvation. The Bible is clear that, as Christians, God chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will (Eph. 1:4-5). We are elect by God not because we ran so hard or willed so strongly, but because He is merciful (Rom. 9:15-16). If God is sovereign, then He must be as sovereign in election as He is in the changing of the weather.

Radical Depravity:

There is no questioning that the Bible represents humans as being in rebellion and even at war with God. This warfare is the manifestation of sin, which when it entered by Adam (Rom. 5:12) pervaded our entire existence. So that now all people are reckoned, apart from Christ, as being spiritually dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). Apart from Christ we are perpetually engaging in the lust of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and are by nature, that is birth, children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). The grip of sin on the natural human being makes him not only unwilling, but even unable to submit to the will and ways of God or to please God by his good deeds (Rom. 8:7-8). This is to say that humans are morally corrupt, even radically depraved.

Accomplished Redemption:

The coming of Christ into the world had an intentional divine purpose. He came to save sinners from their sin. This was the purpose of Christ on the earth because it was the purpose of God from all eternity. The Bible speaks of Christ’s death on the Cross as being intentional and designed. He is spoken of as saving His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). He is said to have been the shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep (John 10:14-15). He is understood as having given His life for the church (Eph. 5:25). His people, His sheep, the church are just synonyms for the elect whom God had chose for redemption before the foundations of the world (Eph. 1:4-5). We are not to think of Christ making salvation possible for His sheep, His people, or the church. We are to understand that the redemption He came to bring to the elect, is the redemption He accomplished, once and for all for His people (Heb. 7:27).

Called Effectually:

Those whom the Father sovereignly elects from eternity and those whom the Son redeems are those whom the Spirit calls and transforms from dead sinners to alive saints. All those whom God has appointed unto salvation (Acts 13:48) not only receive the outward call of the gospel (all who hear the preached Word thus receive this external calling), but also will inevitably receive the inward call of the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:14; Rom. 8:30; 2 Tim. 1:9). By this work of the Holy Spirit they are drawn to God for salvation (Matt. 11:25-27; John 6:37,44; 10:4, 14-16). This regenerating call of God in the heart of a sinner is not thwarted or compromised. For if God determines to save someone, who can deter His purpose (Isa. 14:27)? As the Scriptures declare, Moreover, whom He predestined these He also called, whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified these He also glorified (Rom. 8:30).

Endurance of the Saints:

The final point is a fitting culmination of the previous points. It states that God perseveres with and preserves those who come to faith through the efficacious work of God in redemption. Those whom God has called and justified by His grace will be glorified for His glory. And none of those whom He has ordained unto salvation will be lost. They will endure in grace, because He who has begun a good work in them will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). The saved endure because they are secure; they are those kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Pet. 1:5). In other words, we are not elected by God only to be rejected by God. We, who are elected in eternity, are protected in time.

The above take on T.U.L.I.P. was from the doctrinal statement of a church I visited in Minnesota recently. I really liked it and thought some here might enjoy it as well.


Martin Downes said...


My original point was that, whatever nuances there are to perfectionist teachings, they are all pretty much "two stage" takes on the Christian life. They are crisis versions of holiness that involve a decisive transition in a believer's experience from failure to victory.

And these interpretations of the Christian life are both a departure from an older Biblical-reformed view, and are fundamentally cruel. Perfectionism in any form is pastoral cruelty. Because they are not true they cannot deliver, they hold out a view of the Christian life that is a fantasy.

Packer's critique in "Keep in Step with the Spirit", related to his own experience of this teaching, is well worth reading. I think the chapter is titled "Versions of holiness" or something like that.

donsands said...


I like It. Especially the way it states God's sovereignty.

God is in control, and many today are challenging this.

God is sovereign over everything, from every cancer cell, to every snow flake, from every bullet fired in a war, to every needle that falls from a pine tree.

"And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will." Matt 10:29

Solameanie said...


As someone who is battling this kind of stuff in my own family, I was greatly encouraged to read this. My mother is almost semi-Pelagian in her views of things, while my baptismal regenerationist stepfather also is enamored of the attainable sinless perfection/sanctification idea. They won't listen to me, so I pray that God will open their eyes.

Thanks again for a wonderful reminder of how great our God's grace is.

Phil Johnson said...

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist: "There are plenty of writers who have developed the ideas of Kesiwck and the Brethren to deal more realistically with the realities of the Christian life, such as Miles Stanford and Charles Ryrie. And another guy whose first name begins with Z."

There is definitely a close connection between Keswick-style sanctification and the no-lordship heresy. For my arguments regarding why these men haven't "deal[t] more realistically with the realities of the Christian life," see the long thread on that subject.

Keswickian perfectionism, like every other kind of perfectionism, is spiritual poison, for all the exact reasons I have given.

slf said...

I didn't know that Keith Green embraced Finney. That's a little surprising and disappointing to me.
:( I really like his Prodigal Son Suite and other music he wrote.

Phil, this is a great post. Very helpful to me. Thank you once again for this blog.
In Christ,

Jeremy Weaver said...

How does 'Perfectionism'(either Wesleyan or Keswickian) develop within a system of thought that seems to believe in the sufficiency of Christ for salvation? Do you think there is some kind of unstated perceived lack in Christ's work that gives it a fertile ground?

Kent Brandenburg said...

I absolutely agree that the Keswick Theology and No Lordship beliefs connect. Here's how. You "win someone to Christ" and he doesn't grow, so you explain it by saying that he hasn't "grown" yet because he isn't "dedicated." The truth might be, and probably is, he was never justified and now he is involved in works sanctification, usually by some kind of program.

It becomes cultic because Christian standards get painted on from the outside. It also dovetails with a Charismatic craving for experience, something to validate. It contrasts with living by faith.

Rick Potter said...

Is there such a thing as a "carnal" Christian? Better, can a person who has experienced regeneration, and has answered the gospel call, be a "carnal" Christian? Speaking ontologically, this seems an impossibility to me. Behaviorally, on the other hand I quite understand.

We were discussing I Cor. 3:1-4 in SS class this week and I made the statement that there is no such thing as a "Carnal Christian". The discussion quickly became quite fervent with some even stipulating the since the "sinful nature" still remains, there surely are carnal Christians. I said that while the residue or "stain" of sin remains in the flesh a Christian now has a new nature and the old nature is gone. I'd like some input as I am going to revisit the issue this week.



Gojira said...

Hi yanteerev.

"So, where does John Wesley fit into all of this perfectionism? Didn't his teaching also add to the confusion?"

I don't know if it has been answered in this thread, but yes Wesley does fit into all this. His dreadful Arminian teachings led him to teach a so called "second work of grace" in which the "heart" was made morally perfect. I have heard it myself said by a Nazarine preacher that the above meant that one could be "saved" and yet not be born again. Being "born again" would be the so called second work of grace where one receives the "perfect heart."

Personally, I think it stinks worse than my feet.

Gojira said...

Hi Matthew,

"Most exponents of the Higher Life did not teach the possibility of sinless perfection."

Correct. But, and let's use, say, Charles Stanley or Ryrie, they still taught the same "crises moment decision." Such thinking always comes from a Pelagianistic presupposition, wether they would call it that or not.

Gojira said...

Hi Jeremy Weaver,

I think you nailed it myself.

donsands said...


First I would say this.
The Church will have tares within it. Those who rise up, and teach falsely. Acts 20:30 2 Cor. 11:13-15

For some new converts there will be temptations to hear these wolves. There will be strife, and so on.

My way of seeing this is that the Head Shepherd's sheep will not follow them, but will follow the voice of the Good Shepherd in the end. John 10
At the same time there will be those who will follow these wolves, and leave the fold, because they were not genuine sheep. 1 John 2:19

I agree that true Christians can not be of the flesh. Rom. 8:7-9; Gal. 5:19-21

However, Christians can surely become overtaken with attitudes of sin. I suppose you can call them Christains that are acting carnal.

Those are my thoughts on a deep subject. I'll have to look at this a little deeper myself.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Rick Potter said...

Thanks for your comment. You said: "My way of seeing this is that the Head Shepherd's sheep will not follow them, but will follow the voice of the Good Shepherd in the end. John 10
At the same time there will be those who will follow these wolves, and leave the fold, because they were not genuine sheep. 1 John 2:19
". I agree with this completely. So, I want to be found faithful - as an instrument of means - in my teaching of this class. My frustration is that as I attempt to articulate the coherence of a particular doctrine, I can't seem to finally organize it to their minds. Here's what stymies me; While I know the benefits of propositional truths, I also know that one must also know how to think.

Someone told me "Well, they just aren't reading and studying the scriptures. Scripture will interpret itself." And, of course I know that the second part of that is true....I just don't want to believe the first part.

donsands said...


You can't force feed the Word that's for sure. We only need to share the truth, and with prayer, trust the Lord that other's will hear.

We do need to rightly divide the Word. We need to tremble at His Word with joy unspeakable. And we need to have the peace of God rule our hearts. Colossians 3:12-17

God bless you brother.

Machine Gun Kelley said...

When I was in the Church of God of Prophecy, it was always strange to me how the most "Sanctified" ones were some of the most proud and obnoxious...

Despite what they thought, their sin nature was still alive and well, but they were just fooling themselves into thinking it was eradicated... T

hey usually called their sins "fallinh short or "missing the mark", but it was sin no matter how they tried to label it!

Good post.


striving... said...

Now I do not know about from a theological look, but from a human nature look, I live with someone who is a perfectionist, in all aspects of life, he judges very harshly against other people and has a very hard time reflecting on himself. Reflecting on yourself can be very brutal at times. No matter how much I "strive" to be better, there is always something right around the corner to rear its' ugly head, No matter how hard I try. I am a much better person than I used to be, but I most certainly can be ugly. I love this post and it is very timely for me.
Something off topic. Thanks for my sticker. I was so excited when I recieved it. You all rock :)

Mike Felker said...

Great post Phil. I've been caught up in perfectionism myself after being swayed by a few street screamers...I mean, evangelists, at my University. It wasn't until I truly embraced the doctrines of Grace that I put an end to that theology. So its great to hear that others have shared in the same struggle.

Call to Die said...

I once heard a great quote from R.C. Sproul, who said that he was taught perfectionist doctrine by some friends a while after his conversion. They said that he needed someone to pray over him with the laying on of hands so that he would receive a second work of grace and become sinless. After having a minister with such beliefs pray over him in this way, Sproul was dismayed to find that he still sinned. Sproul concluded, "I was a perfectionist casualty!"

Highland Host said...

Having read the whole works of John Wesley while laid up with a broken kneecap, I concluded that Wesley's perfectionism is a hopless muddle. It seems that he read the word 'perfect' in Scripture and decided that there must be a sense in which perfection is attainable in this life. BUT HE WAS NEVER QUITE SURE OF HOW. Sometimes it seems as if he's agreeing with John Newton, who said that Christian pefection is having every part of a Christian (i.e. Christian maturity), at other tiles it seems he redefines sin in order to affirm sinless perfection.
Quite infuriating.

Leberwurst said...

When I first desired to follow Christ (I was 20, I am 48 now) I had already read the new testament several times, but I was following the teaching of a perfectionist teacher on the radio. I "prayed the prayer" and sincerely wanted to "be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" This essentialy resulted in my locking myself in a room when I was not at work and completely shutting myself off from any contact with the outside world. I was able to "keep from sinning" (outwardly only, and that not perfectly) for about 3 weeks. When I fell back into a weekend of excess I was heartbroken and told myself "I guess I am not really a christian after all" At that point I turned from any contact with the Bible and Christians and continued in a world loving lifestyle. I was, by the Grace of God saved 13 years later. I will never forget during a communion service shortly after I was saved, I was considering not taking the elements because I had willingly sinned that week. While we were praying and confessing our sins I saw the Lord Jesus on the cross, suffering for all of my sins and for the sins of all who believe. I broke down in tears and shame as I confessed that I was not able to stand before God on the basis of my righteousness, but only covered in His. I confessed I would never be able to bring any thing to the cross of my own doing but must cling to it and hide in the work Jesus did alone! I have not looked back, and rejoice in my salvation provided by Grace through Faith and in Christ alone ever since!

John Haller said...

It occurs to me that the so-called preacher of the largest "church" in America bases his sermons on law not grace. If you've ever had the stomach to listen to one of them, they are laced with admonitions to "start doing this" and "stop doing that." He lays more on you than the law ever did.

Unknown said...

Victorious Christian Life teaching is also known as the "Keswick" doctrine (named after a resort area in England where Christian deeper-life conferences were held).

Keswick teaching oscillates uncertainly between its Perfectionist roots and consequent Calvinist efforts to rehabilitate and tame it. The Keswick teachers I knew in SC jumped back-and-forth between crisis and process. They (starting with the President) affirmed an instantaneous, complete, and plenary ability to resist all temptations. The school Statement of Faith asserts that it is never "necessary" to sin. At the same time they taught that the fruit of the Spirit grow slowly. If you had a discerning mind that picked up on these subtle disparaities, this swinging back and forth was very confusing.

Straight-out, traditional Reformed teaching on sanctification is better, because a thoroughly integrated Reformed sanctification teaching allows for optimism for the overcoming of the flesh, but over time.

A difference between Keswick and Reformed sanctification is that the Reformed teaching has the flesh being overcome by the Spirit's fruit -- Christlike character reproduced in us, which clearly takes time. Qualities like love, joy, peace, patience, et.al., are what overcome the flesh. You successfully resist temptations because Christ's own character has developed in you to a certain degree. As an increasingly loving person you are increasingly resistent to the temptation of lust; as an increasingly joyful person you are increasingly resistent to the temptation of despair; and so on.

Keswick, in constrast, promises victory over sin without the in-between element of Christlike character. The Holy Spirit "zaps" you directly, not mediately; and the zap makes you completely impervious to temptation as long as you are "surrendered and trusting.". This puts it squarely in the Perfectionism camp.

It also causes enormous undeserved guilt, since an implication of Keswick is that, if you struggle with a temptation, that also means you aren't surrendered and trusting! So you automatically and always have three sins to deal with, not one!

Keswick causes a wildly unrealistic expectation of Christian experience, which is followed up either by delusion regarding one's own superb, Grade-A spirituality, or a worldly kind of self-loathing.

(Hi, Phil! I met you over the phone back in 1990, when I wrote that Vineyard article for Masterpiece.)

newcovenantliving @ blogspot

Ebeth said...

The church where I was taught perfectionism had an interesting mix of suggested authors: Watchman Nee and Francis Shaeffer. We were also encouraged to just trust the pastor and other elders. I heard that many were seriously damaged spiritually before leaving that church [cult?]. I thank God for protecting me when I was there and getting me out unharmed.