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EXAMINATION OF THE DOCTRINE OF PERFECTION, AS HELD BY REV.
A. MAHAN AND OTHERS.
By Rev. Leonard Woods, D. D., Prof. of Theol. in the Theol. Bem., Andover, Mass.
[Concluded from page 189.] In the last number of the Biblical Repository, I endeavored to show that, in various instances, Mr. Mahan and others agreeing with him claim as a part of their system, what belongs to the common system as really as to theirs; and that, in this way, though it may be unintentional, they are likely to make a wrong impression upon incautious readers, and, for a time, to gain an unjust advantage to their cause. I also examined several of the arguments by which they labor to establish their doctrine ; particularly thorovisions of the gospel, the attainableness of complete caiuufication, the promises of God, and the prayers of his people. If I mistake not, it was made evident that these arguments, taken separately or together, fail of proving that any believers ever have attained, or ever will attain to perfect sanctification in the present life.
Before proceeding to other points, I request Mr. Mahan and every reader to observe, that, so far as any of the above mentioned arguments prove that complete holiness is attained by any believers in the present life, they prove that it is attained by all believers. There is not the least intimation in the Scriptures, that the rich provisions of the gospel are made for a part of God's people, more than for all of them; or that perfection is more attainable to some than to others; or that the divine promises or the prayers of believers respecting sanctification
far as they have already been considered, will unavoidably thrust them from their present position. They cannot, by any of these arguments, show that a select few are completely sanctified, without proving, at the same time, that this is the case with all Christians. But I shall have occasion to advert to this point more particularly in the course of the following discussion.
THE MAIN QUESTION AT ISSUE. It is somewhat remarkable that men of sense, who are engaged in a controversy, should not be agreed as to the real question in debate. What! Do not disputants themselves know what they are disputing about? Mr. Mahan charges Mr. Folsom with having misapprehended and misstated the question at issue between the advocates and the opposers of the doctrine of “ Perfection.” And in the following passage (Bib. Repos. p. 409), he undertakes to state it clearly and definitely. The question is, he says, " Whether we may now, during the progress of the present life, attain to entire perfection in holiness, and whether it is proper for us to indulge the anticipation of making such attainments. One part of the church affirm, that the perfect obedience which God requires of us, we may render to him. The other affirm that it is criminal for us to expect to render that obedience. One part affirm, that we ought to aim at entire perfection in holiness, with the expectation of attaining to that state. The other part affirm, that we ought to aim at the same perfection, with the certain expectation of not attaining to it. On the one hand, it is affirmed that we ought to pray that the very God of peace will sanctify us wholly, and preserve our whole spirit, and soul, and body blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the expectation that God will answer our prayers by the bestowment of that very blessing. On the other hand, it is affirmed that we ought to put up that identical prayer, with the certain expectation of not receiving the blessing we desire. On the one hand, it is affirmed that grace is provided in the gospel to render the Christian, even in this life, perfect in every good work to do the will of God. On the other hand, it is affirmed that no such grace is provided.”
Mr. Mahan calls the question above stated a “simple question;" whereas it is very complex, being made up of different points, some of which are still compounds, consisting partly of matters in dispute, and partly of matters not in dispute. This will be evident if we analyze the passage. He first states the question thus: “Whether we may now, during the progress of the present life, attain to entire perfection in holiness, and whether it is proper for us to indulge the anticipation of making such attainments.” Here are two distinct questions, one of which, as I have explained it, we answer in the affirmative, the other in the negative. There is a sense, and an important sense, in which Christians might attain to perfection in this life; that is, they might attain to it, if they would do what they ought,-if they would rightly use all their powers and faculties of mind, and all their means and privileges ;-so that their not attaining it is their own fault. We are accustomed to say that any object is attainable, if it may be attained on these conditions ; although it never is attained; and so we answer the first question in the affirmative. The next question is, “Whether it is proper for us to indulge the anticipation of making such attainments ?" i. e. in the present life. This we answer in the negative. For unless there is evidence that good men have attained or will attain to perfection in the present life, no one can properly indulge the expectation. These two questions Mr. Mahan puts together, and speaks of it as a simple question, and the question in debate; whereas it is not simple, and only a part of it is in debate. This mode of proceeding, instead of conducing to the end of free inquiry, certainly tends to throw confusion into the whole discussion.
The same is true of the other parts of the passage above quoted. After the general statement just noticed, Mr. Mahan goes on to exhibit it in various particulars, and most if not all of these, like the general statement above mentioned, are made up of two points, to one of which we assent, to the other we do not. He says: “One part”—those who agree with him,“affirm, that the perfect obedience which God requires, we may render to him.” But in the sense above given, we hold to this as much as they. “The other part affirm that it is criminal for us to expect to render that obedience." I wonder he should think proper to dress up our opinion in such startling language language which we never use, and which it is wrong for him to use. Why did he not say: the other part affirm that it is not proper for us to expect to render that obedience. As to this, we do differ from him. He proceeds to state the point in another form. “One part affirm that we ought to aim at perfection in holi
ness, with the expectation of attaining to it. The other part affirm that we ought to aim at it with the certain expectation of not attaining to it.” Here again are two points. As to the first, that " we ought to aim at perfection in holiness,” we agree with him. As to the other point, the expectation of attaining to it, we differ, if, as he intends, the expectation looks to the present life merely. Justice requires that it should be kept in mind, that, according to the common doctrine, all believers do expect ultimately to attain to perfect holiness. Again, he says: “On the one hand, it is affirmed that we ought to pray that the God of peace will sanctify us wholly, etc., with the expectation that he will answer our prayers by the bestowment of that very blessing ; on the other hand,” that we ought to pray for perfect sanctification,“ with the certain expectation of not receiving” it. This statement, like the others, fails of presenting fairly the point in debate. We affirm that we ought to pray God to sanctify us wholly, and to do it with the expectation that he will, at no distant period, bestow the very blessing we ask. But as to expecting the blessing to be fully granted in the present life, we differ from the advocates of perfection. Once more, he says: “On the one hand, it is affirmed that grace is provided,” to render Christians, “even in this life, perfect in every good work.” “On the other hand it is affirmed that no such grace is provided.” This is certainly a groundless charge; we all hold, as much as Mr. Mahan, that the grace provided and revealed in the gospel is all-sufficient and boundless, and that the present imperfection of believers is owing altogether to their own fault.
Mr. Mahan says, a little after: "The question is entirely distinct from the question, What attainments do Christians actually make?” I hardly know why he should say this, when, on the same page, he makes it one of the three questions connected with the nature and extent of the promises, whether" any
have attained or will attain to entire sanctificationin this life, and when it is so manifest, in many places, that the other points he discusses are meant to bear directly upon this, and to end in it. He shows, very clearly, what is the main point as it lies in his own mind, when he says (Disc. p. 97): “On the supposition,” that perfect holiness is not actually attained in this life,“ how can
tion in debate is entirely distinct from the question respecting the actual attainments of Christians ? Did he think this last point attended with some special disadvantages, and did he, on that account, prefer, as a matter of reasoning, to keep it rather out of sight, and to give prominence to those points, which could be made more plausible? However this may be, intelligent readers will see, that the chief point at issue really is, whether Christians do in fact attain to perfect sanctification during the present life. And how can Mr. Mahan refuse to recognize this as the main point at issue, if we choose to make it so, and agree with him as to the other leading points ? Surely he would not compel us to dispute with him about the extent of the provisions and promises of the gospel, or the attainableness of complete holiness, or the duty of praying for it, when we profess to have as large views on these points as he has. If the advocates for the doctrine of perfection can fairly and conclusively prove, that any Christians actually attain to sinless perfection during the present life, the common doctrine is overthrown, and the controversy is determined in their favor. But if they fail of showing this, all they can prove respecting other points, will avail nothing. And Mr. Mahan himself shows, in many ways, that he does, after all, regard it in this light, and that he values most of his other arguments on account of their supposed relation to this.
The question whether Christians are to expect perfect sanctification in this life, of which Mr. Mahan so often speaks, evidently depends on the question, whether there is evidence that any have attained or will attain to it. And we have seen that no such evidence can be derived from any of the topics of argument already examined. We are now to inquire, whether there is other evidence of this.
DO ANY BELIEVERS ATTAIN TO COMPLETE HOLINESS IN THE PRESENT
Mr. Mahan says:
“ There is positive evidence that some did attain to a state of entire sanctification.” (Disc. p. 38.) The texts he produces are Gal. 2: 20; 1 Thess. 2: 10; 1 Cor. 4: 4; Acts 20: 26 ; Phil. 4: 9, 3: 7; 1 Cor. 11: 1; 1 John 3: 20, 4: 17, 18; Rev. 14: 4,5; Is. 6: 5-8. He might have added 1 John 1: 7, 9, 2: 5, 3:3, 9; and many others.
Now the Bible is a very precious book, and is worthy of being studied with the utmost care. Mr. Mahan is sensible of