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 Christian Perfection
P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921)  

Editorial Note: P.T. Forsyth was an English theologian who is best known for his passionate concern with the theology of the atonement, and with vital Christian experience in contrast to formal religion. His contention was that the battle for New Testament Christianity must be waged to the end. We here reproduce excerpts from his work entitled Christian Perfection.1 Although we may not subscribe to all that Forsyth has written, we can appreciate his keen insight into the Biblical concept of perfection, especially in view of false "holiness" theology so prevalent today.

The Sin of the Regenerate

    "Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not. . . . Whosoever is born of God cannot sin" (1 John 3:6, 9).

Statements like these texts seem to be met with every kind of contradiction:

In the first place, there is the contradiction offered by John himself. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

In the next place, there is the contradiction offered by our own experience. We know that we sin as surely as we know our life in Christ.

And our own experience is only enlarged by what we know of the experience of greater saints than ourselves. The history of holiness is a record of self-abasements on daily cause. It is a story of triumph and joy, but it is a daily humiliation all the same, and a real, concrete humiliation; not a vague and sentimental self-accusation, but a definite self-indictment as the fruit of a serious self-examination.

Moreover, texts like these seem in contradiction with the very nature of faith itself.... To say "I have now no sin" is to give up that relation to God which is the essence of faith, and to stand upon a new and subtle kind of legalism. The man who says that tries to enter on a relation to God which is higher than faith, and therefore he falls out of faith. . . The very nature of faith is trust of a Saviour, who is not the saviour of my past but of my soul; and it is trust for forgiveness, for forgiveness not only of the old life but of the new.... grace is not simple benediction, but blessing as the fruit of incessant forgiveness.

It is a fatal mistake to think of holiness as a possession which we have distinct from our faith, and conferred upon it. That is a Catholic idea still saturating Protestant pietism. . . Penitence, faith, sanctification, always co-exist; they do not destroy and succeed each other. . . . Faith is always in opposition to seeing, possessing, experiencing. . . . It is not our experience of holiness that makes us believe in the Holy Ghost. It is a matter of faith that we are God's children; there is plenty of experience in us against it. That we are justified and reborn is a matter of faith. . . . To claim sinlessness as the perfect state superseding faith is to fall from faith, not to rise from it. It is because we have sin that we believe — as belief must go in a religion whose nature is forever revealed as Redemption. Our perfection is not to rival the Perfect, but to trust Him. Our holiness is not a matter of imitation but of worship. Any sinlessness of ours is the adoration of His. The holiest have ever been so because they dared not feel they were. Their sanctity grew unconsciously from their worship of His. All saw it but themselves. The eye is the beauty of the face because it sees everything but itself; and if it betray self-consciousness the charm is dimmed. The height of sinlessness means the deepest sense of sin. If we ever came to any such stage as conscious sinlessness we should be placing ourselves alongside Christ, not at His feet. . . . We should be self-sufficient. We should cease to live on a constant look to God in Christ, and repentance would cease. We should be near the fall that so often comes to the sinless. We should be in the moral peril of those who, feeling they have attained this sinlessness, are ready to call each impulse good and lawful, as born from the Spirit with which they are now possessed.

Perfection is not sinlessness. The "perfect" in the New Testament are certainly not the sinless. And God, though He wills that we be perfect, has not appointed sinlessness as His object with us in this world. His object is communion with us through faith. And sin must abide, even while it is being conquered, as an occasion for faith. Every defect of ours is a motive for faith. To cease to feel defect is to cease to trust. To cease to feel the root of sin would be to have one motive the less to cast us on God for keeping.

Where does the solution of these contradictions lie?

John himself believes in two kinds of sin, and both of them are possible to the believer. "There is a sin unto death . . . and there is a sin not unto death" (1 John 5:16, 17). It was a distinction current in the Old Testament, and it explains much in the New, where it is deepened. The sin unto death is when a man falls entirely out of communion with God. He loses the life of God from his soul permanently — I do not say eternally. He has not Eternal Life abiding in him. The world conquers him. The habit of his mind becomes earthly. . . . That is the sin unto death. And the sin not unto death is every transgression which still leaves the habit and sympathy of the soul for God a living thing. There are lapses which a man by vigilance, repentance, prayer, and well-doing can repair. Sin is a region he may visit, but it does not become his element. He falls into sin, but not into godlessness. . . . Every believer has more or less of this sin in him, and the risk of it always. But it does not cut him off from the divine life. There is a daily confession, a daily forgiveness, a daily cleansing of the channels of the grace of God.

"Cannot sin" means not that he is not able to sin, but that his principle will not allow him to sin. As the regenerate personality he cannot do it. He may, of course, be at the same time something other than the regenerate personality in his actual condition so far. But in so far as he is the servant of that personality he cannot. "You cannot do it," we say to a man, not denying the physical possibility, as if he were paralyzed or in jail, but denying the moral possibility. . . Ideally, whoso is born of God cannot sin. That is the absolute truth. That is a judgment of faith as distinct from a judgment of experience. It arises from what we know of God, of Christ, not of human life. . . John concludes from Christ to man as the normal man in Christ should be, as Christ alone is. It is not a logical but a Christological judgment.

What is the thing most deep and assertive in him [the professed believer]? I mean, what is most continuous in him? I do not ask what asserts itself oftenest, but what asserts itself most persistently on the whole, and in the end most powerfully and effectively. What is the real and only continuity of his life? Is it a sinful temper and bias, a sinful joy or indifference, broken only occasionally, and ever more rarely, by spasms of goodness, glimpses of holiness, freaks of mercy and truth? Or is it the sympathy and purpose of holiness, clouded at times by drifts of evil, and cleft, to his grief, by flashes of revolt? That is the question. And it is the way the question will be put at the last. It will not be, How many are your sins and how many your sacrifices? but, On which side have you stood and striven, under which King have you served or died? A man may abide in the many-mansioned, myriad-minded Christ, even if the robber sometimes break into his room, or if he go out and lose his way in a fog. You stay in a house, or in a town, which all the same you occasionally leave for good or for ill. The question is, What is your home to which your heart returns, either in repentance or in joy? Where is your heart? What is the bent of your will on the whole, the direction and service of your total life? It is not a question settled in a quantitative way by inquiry as to the occupation of every moment. God judges by totals, by unities not units, by wholes and souls, not sections. What is the dominant and advancing spirit of your life, the total allegiance of your person? Beethoven was not troubled when a performer struck a wrong note, but he was angry when he failed with the spirit and idea of the piece. So with the Great Judge and Artist of life. . . . Perfection is not sinlessness, but the loyalty of the soul by faith to Christ when all is said and done.

We may be essentially parted from our sin while yet it hangs about us. The constitution is renewed, but the disease recurs in abating force. The new nature asserts itself over the head of reactions. We lust for the fleshpots of Egypt, and we return upon our tracks and move in a circle; but it is, after all, but a loop upon our larger line of onward march. The enemy is beaten, though he makes guerilla raids and carries off something we deplore. Our progress is a series of victories over receding attacks which sometimes inflict loss. And the issue turns on the whole campaign, not on a few lost battles.

Sanctity and Faith

"Every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (Col. 1:28). "Complete in Him" (Col. 2:10). Christianity is the perfect religion because it is the religion of perfection. It holds up a perfect ideal, it calls us incessantly to this ideal, and it calls all to this ideal. Each man is called, and each man is always called, to it. . . . [but] the means of reaching this perfection for us sinners is not achievement but faith.

Christianity is not the perfect religion in the sense of being revealed as a finished, rounded, symmetrical whole. It is not perfect in the sense of a closed circle, or a plastic form, which can be altered in nothing without being spoiled. That is the Greek, pagan idea of perfection; whereas in Christianity we enter into perfect life maimed. The pagan idea of perfection is balance, or harmony of parts with each other. It is self-contained and self-poised. The Christian idea is faith, or harmony of relations with the will and grace of God. It is self-devoted, complete in Him; the perfection not of finish but of faith. It is perfect, not because it presents us with perfection, but because it puts us in a perfect attitude to perfection. Our perfection is not some integrity which we possess, in the sense in which the Vatican possesses the faultless Venus, or Christ's infallible Vicar. The one is as pagan in its idea of perfection as the other. . . . But Christian perfection is something which we are put in the perfect way to realize, in the sense that we realize a living, moving ideal of character and life. . . it is something into which we are redeemed. The perfection of Christianity is not even in the ideal of perfection it offers, but in the power of perfection it implants; not in its ideal of a Son of God, but in the power it gives, with the Son of God, to become sons of God by believing in His name.

There are two notions of perfection which are wrong, and a third which is right. But all three are right compared with the notion that we are to wait for perfection till some indefinite time in the infinite future. All three urge that Christian perfection is a condition of actual, living people in this world. It is a religion, a faith; it is not merely a hope.

The first idea is Pietist; the second is Popish; the third is Protestant, Apostolic, Christian.

1. The Pietist idea pursues perfection as mere quietist sinlessness with a tendency to ecstasy. Its advocates are people sometimes of great grace and beauty; but it represents a one-sided, narrow, and negative spirituality. Its religion is largely emotional, mystical, and introspective. Its adherents are apt to be the victims of visions and moods. They seek perfection in a state of sinlessness. It is a condition largely subjective, ascetic, anaemic, feminine. It prescribes an arbitrary withdrawal from the interests, pursuits, and passions of life. It is a cloistered virtue.... There is an absence of true humility.

2. The Popish idea of perfection has much in common with the Pietist. It is unworldly in the negative sense; it flees from the world, it does not master it. It is embodied in the monk and the nun. In the Roman system the monk is the ideal man, the nun the ideal woman. These stand on the summit of moral and spiritual greatness. They are likest Christ. They obey Christ most perfectly.

The whole Roman system rests on the double morality involved in this distinction. It is a religion by double entry. It teaches that only some are called to perfection, while for the majority the demands made are much more ordinary. . . . There are thus two grades or morality, two classes of men, two moral standards set up inside Christianity and inside the race. All are not alike before God. And all are not called to perfection in Jesus Christ; only a minority, only an aristocracy of Christians are. . . .

3. The Protestant idea of perfection is the possession of the righteousness of God. And the righteousness of God, in the New Testament idea, is something which is a gift of God to us, and no achievement of ours before Him. It is a justification of us, a righting of us, effected by Him, and on our side appropriated by the obedience not of conduct but of faith. On the human side, indeed, it is faith, which is held by God to be our righteousness, our true adjustment to the ultimate moral reality, which is Christ. In faith we are in the right and perfect relation to God. But God's justification of us is a perfect and complete thing. In faith, therefore, we possess the perfect will of God concerning us. We enter on a full salvation. We have as ours the fulness of Christ. The Roman theology knows only of a perfection, a righteousness, which is an acquisition, which is always growing and never there, which is not complete in the act of union by living faith, but must always be eked out by the sacraments and the obedience of the Church. There is, indeed, a true sense in which the perfection even of faith grows. It becomes actual in life and practice; but that adds nothing to the perfection which is ours in the incredible salvation which we take home by supernatural faith. Faith is implicit; what is explicit is experience. We but unfold a perfection which is in God's sight there, we do not accumulate a perfection which we are always striving to place there. The queen and mother of all the virtues is not our subjection and obedience to the Church. Implicit faith in anything institutional is usurped faith. The true faith is implicit in Christ, in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Faith is in its nature obedience, but it is the will's obedience to Christ. This is the root and mother of virtue; this is the new life with the promise and potency in it of all the perfection which may become actual in us by any sanctification. Our sanctification only unfolds in actual life the ideal perfection in which we really stand by faith in Christ. And yet this ideal perfection, being of pure and free grace, is not the vision foreseen by God of our moral effort's final success. But it is the finished and forgone gift of God in Christ through our faith, and the thing which alone promises the final success of any moral efforts. In giving Christ He gave us all things—i.e. perfection. It is not our moral success that is presented as perfection to God even in anticipation; it is God's present to us of perfection that makes morral success possible.

The error at the root of all false ideas of perfection is this: it is rating our behavior before God higher than our relation to God—putting conduct before faith, deeds before trust, work before worship. That is the root of all pharisaism, Romanism, paganism, and natural and worldly morality.

Growth and Perfection

    "Not as though I were already perfected" (Phil. 12). "Let us who are perfect be thus minded" (Phil 3:15).

He [Christ] has been so treated as our perfect example that His outward fashion of life has been copied at the cost of His inward principle. . . . our faith and fellowship in Christ is worth far more for our perfection than any effort to live up to Him as our example —useful as that may be. We are complete Him, not merely by His help but by His indwelling it is better to trust Christ and His work than even imitate Him. He is worth infinitely more to the world as its Savior than as its model, as God's promise than as man's ideal. He is more to be admired than copied, more to be loved than to be admired, and e is to be trusted more than all. This trust of Christ the highest thing a man can do. Trust become habitual is our new nature, our perfection made perfect, our life and abiding in Him.

When Christ bids us be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, He does not tell us to do what the Father does. The Father makes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on just and unjust. We cannot do that. We cannot affect sun or rain. We cannot copy God. He is Almighty as we are not. . . We are not told to do what God does, but as He does. is sympathy that is wanted more than imitation. What we are to imitate is the love and grace of God. And there is only one way of imitating that, only one way of learning it. It is by trusting Him. Love is learned by faith in the case of the unseen. With our visible lovers faith may come by love. With the Lover our souls love comes by faith. Love of the unseen the girdle of perfectness which is put on over the other garments of faith and hope and all the virtues, and after them, as the last touch which keeps them all in form and place. . . . in the main, when the New Testament speaks of the perfect, it means not the compete but the spiritually adult; not the fully sanctified but the duly justified. They are not people who perfectly love, but who truly trust. They may be defective as yet in many points of character, or relations to each other. But they have entered on the right relation to Christ. They are not all ideal characters. Some are not even beautiful. But they will become so in time or eternity. They have started on that career. They have come to spiritual adultness by faith in Christ. . .

You know the difference between a youth and an adult. There is a step taken in life, a step hard to describe and various in its ways, by which the boy passes into the man, the girl into the woman. They are held fit for a share in things to which they were not admitted before. They become initiates in life where before they had been novices. . . . When St. Paul says, "We speak wisdom among the perfect," he meant that he was talking as he would to spiritual men and not to hobbledehoys. . .

It [faith] is a matter of spiritual manhood. It is a matter of maturity. . . . Faith is the condition of spiritual maturity in the sense of adultness, of entering on the real heritage of the soul. It is the soul coming to itself, coming of age, feeling its feet, entering on its native powers. Faith is perfection in this sense. It is not ceasing to grow, but entering on the real and normal region of growth. . . . Growth is then progress, not to Christ, but in Christ. . .

To believe in Christ, to be in Christ, and to abide in Christ, are three stages of the same perfection—which you may call the Petrine, the Pauline and the Johannine stages if you will. A man is perfect when he comes to belong to Christ instead of himself. . . We are perfect in Christ, and in Him continually more so. In Christ we are what we are to be—not in the sense in which a closed figure is all it can be, but in the sense in which the perfect seed has the promise and power of the perfect tree. . . . In faith we are not panting, and straining, and rending ourselves after a perfection only ideal, possible, remote, and ever receding. We are not toiling to put achievement on the head of achievement, or mortification on the back of mortification, to reach heaven. That is a war of godless giants, which ends in failure, defeat, and chagrin. But we are unfolding a perfection which we already have in fee. We are appropriating what is already ours. We are sure that it is ours before it is ours. It is in us before it is on us. We have it with Christ before we have it with men. We are complete in Him before He completes Himself in us. We are perfect, and yet we are not perfect. We are as having nothing and yet possessing all things. We are in Christ, therefore we are complete; but we are in the world too, therefore we are not complete, but only on the way to completion. . . . It is a perfection which both is and grows. True perfection is the power of perfect growth. But that does not mean unbroken growth. There are times when we lie becalmed, times when we have to tack, times when the current carries us astern, times when we are buffeted out of the straight course—when it is much if only we can keep at sea and not go to pieces on the rocks. Ignorance misleads us. Our charts fail us. Our crew mutinies, our passions take command, for a time. But, on the whole, we are on the living way. The master passion and bias of the soul is to Christ. The ruling will is the will of God, however certain impulses escape its control. We may still sin, but we are not sinners. Sin clings, soils, and may sometimes master. There are lapses, repentances, renewed forgivenesses. True perfection is not the power of unbroken growth, but of growing unto perfection, growing on the whole. . .

We do not read that we are bidden to aim at any of the absolute qualities of God. That would be the old temptation, "Ye shall be as gods." How near the devilish suggestion lies to the divine, temptation to inspiration, "Be as gods" to "Be ye perfect." Our perfection is not to be rival absolutes, but to love and trust the absolute. Be as perfect in your relative way as God is in His absolute way, which contains all relatives. . .

. . . take as . . . [an] illustration the Great Redemption itself which His obedience wrought. It was completed in His death. It was finished. Having died unto sin once, it was once for all. That death and conquest needs no repetition. . . . The whole work was in principle done, the everlasting victory was in spirit won. In the spiritual world the Cross is one long indubitable triumph of conclusive bliss. . . . What Christ did was a thing for ever complete and sufficient. Redemption is the condition of the world in God's eternal sight, and with it the perfect God is well pleased. . .

But in your sight, actually, historically, is it a redeemed world? To your faith it is; viewed from this house, from this day, from this worship, from this pulpit, it is. It is so really, but is it actually? To your sight is it a redeemed world?. . . Where is Redemption in current affairs, in the course of past history, in the record even of the Church itself? It is so hard to see, that if we look away from the Cross we may not perceive it at all. . . . Yes, Redemption is finished and unfinished, complete in heaven, incomplete on earth. Incomplete on earth, with eternal promise and power. Imperfect but no fiasco. We are complete in Him in whom His own work is always complete. .. . Our one perfection is to be in Him. He will perfect Himself in us in His time. . . . We have a perfect Redemption, however imperfectly redeemed we are at any one stage. In faith we are what we can never feel ourselves to be. We are by faith what we are not, but are ever growing by grace to be.

Practical Résumé

I would end by resuming the more practical and experimental features of perfection. . .

. . . our perfection must be a limited one. It is not possible for any Christian at any one time to fulfil all possible duties and realize all possible excellences. Your perfection lies in what is possible to you with your character and position, in what you are called to be and do, in what lies on your conscience, in what concerns the situation in which you find yourself in life. . .

The features of Christian perfection are these.

First, faith. . . . By faith I do not mean only that utterly inward transaction in which the soul forgets the world and deals with God, committing itself to Him in a high, spiritual, mystic, rapturous act. It is not the fine frenzy of religious emotion, the glow of exalted adoration and surrender. That may be in it, but that is not necessarily of it; it is not its test. There is a better test of faith than rapture. It is confidence, patience, and humility. . . . It [faith] is filial trust in God's love, redemption, and providence amidst the duties, affections, pleasures, enterprises, perils, fears, guilts, gains, losses of active life. . . . It rests on an experience of Jesus Christ and God's grace in Him. It rests in God amid much ignorance; though we do not know the future, and do not understand the past. . . . It consists more of obedience and quiet confidence than of visions. And at the last it approves itself better (as I say) in humility and patience than in ecstasies....

Humility is a frame of perfect mind not possible except to faith. It is no more depression and poverty of spirit than it is loud self-depreciation. It rests on our deep sense of God's unspeakable gift, on a deep sense of our sin as mastered by God, on a deep sense of the Cross as the power which won' that victory. . .

With humility goes patience as a supreme confession of faith.... It [patience) is a way of doing work—especially the true secret of not doing too much work. It is a way of carrying success. It is not renouncing will and becoming careless. It is an act of will. It is a piece of manhood. To part with will is to become a thing. It is not mere resignation or indifference — which often goes with despair and not faith. It is a form of energy, even when it curbs energy. .

    "I am ready not to do
    At last, at last."

Both humility and patience are only Christian in the spirit of thankfulness. Faith is for the Christian enveloped in praise. It is no gloomy humility, no sombre patience, no dull endurance, no resentful submission. It is all clothed with hope. . . . Whatever we offer to God, were it life and health itself, is offered in the name of Christ, in sequel to His Cross, as the joyful response to our redemption there. . .

The next feature of perfection is prayer — prayer as a habit, joy, and prize of life. Humility takes the form of reverence and yet communion. The heart converses with God in Christ. It offers thanks, it confesses sin, it makes its petitions, but it above all converses with God. That is the inmost energy of faith — prayer. It is faith's habit of heart. All acts of prayer become but expressions of this habit Work goes to this tune. Everything rises to God's throne. Everything the child does has a reference to the father, direct or indirect. Every form of prayer is speech with God the Father and Redeemer. . . .

A further feature of Christian perfection is duty. Humility takes shape as devotion to the will of God in the natural and social order that holds us. It is daily duty in our relations and calling. If it is a calling God cannot bless, it is not for you. If He can bless it, it is a contribution to Him. . .

And the last feature of Christian perfection is love, and especially love to man. I have spoken of love to God, that may be a passion. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, strength, and mind." But the love of man is less so. It is at least less of an emotion than a principle, and especially a principle of action. "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." But self-love is not an emotion so much as a principle, a habit of mind and action. So with the love of men. When will the public learn that that is not necessarily.a tenderness of mood or manner? . . . Love is not mere natural benevolence. It is not easy compliance. . . . Its type is rather the family love that grows up unmarked as a part of us than the passionate love of man and woman, which we fall into, and which seizes us with a mighty hand. It is a principle and habit of heart and conscience, a frame or temper of life which steadily desires the welfare of men, and especially their salvation, as if it were our own....

You cannot trust His [Christ's] love and righteousness without gaining the disposition to trust love and justice above all things everywhere. Why do so few people in Christendom really trust love as the ruling power in mankind? Because Christ is not for them a real personality, loving and loved; because they have been taught to seek Christian perfection in the completeness of some institution, or the maintenance of some law, or the fever about some conviction.

Something Christian is the object of their enthusiasm more than Christ. . . . What we need is the personal impression of Christ, the personal sense of His cross, the fresh, renewing, vitalizing, sweetening contact of His soul in its wisdom, its tenderness, its action for us—and all so freely for us, so mercifully, so persistently, so thoroughly. What we need is the touch, the communion of that kind of perfection. We need to realize how in the Cross the defeat of that sort of goodness is really its victory, its ascent to the throne of the world. The Ruler of the world must be the consummation of the world. The Judge of all the earth must be the Law of all the earth. And the law of all must be the secret of all its harmony and perfection.

You must let that come home to you, to your own peculiar case. To be perfect with God you must have Christ come home, come HOME, to you and sit by your central fire — come home to you, to YOU, as if for the moment mankind were centred in the burning point of your soul, and you touched the burning point of God's. You must court and haunt His presence till it break forth on you, and it becomes as impossible not to believe as to believe is hard now. Then we realize what we were made for, made to be redeemed; we lay hold by faith of our destiny of perfection in another; we are already in spirit what it is latent in redemption that we shall be — what some curse in our nature seemed before to forbid and thwart our being. Our dry rod blossoms. We put forth buds one after another along the line of life. We grow into a stately, seemly tree, whose boughs are for shelter and whose leaves are for healing. Our pinched hearts expand, our parched nature grows green. The fever of life is cooled. Its fret is soothed. Its powers stand to their feet. Its hopes live again. Its charities grow rich. We feel in that hour that this is what we were made for, and we are sure that we are greater than we know. We find ourselves. We lose our load. We are delivered from our plague. Our weakness is made strong. Our enemies flee before us. Our promised land is round us. Life beckons where it used to appal. And all things with us are returning, through Christ, to the perfection of God from whom they came.

1Reprinted in PT. Forsyth, God the Holy Father (London: Independent Press, 1957), pp.99-148.