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this, and, in various instances, shows that he is not disposed to adopt that sense of a passage which first offers itself to the mind of the reader, but thinks it proper and necessary to look into the context, to compare different parts of Scripture, and to examine all the circumstances of the case, in order to discover the exact meaning which the sacred writers had in their own minds, and which they intended to convey to others. And although liable to err in the results of his inquiries, he is certainly right in thinking, that we cannot always determine the true meaning of particular texts, by the sound or even the sense of the words, taken by themselves, and that we are often unable to come to a just and satisfactory conclusion, without a careful, patient and even protracted examination.
According to this just principle, the texts which seem, at first view, to assert or imply that believers attain to complete holiness in the present life, must be thoroughly examined, and their true meaning determined. And here it should be remembered, that the prophets and apostles wrote in a very free, unembarrassed and artless manner. Their object was not to settle the disputes which might be got up by speculating, adventurous minds, but to give important instruction to men of teachable and honest hearts. Their manner of writing is indeed such, that an advocate of Universalism, or Socinianism, or almost any other error, may find texts, which, taken alone, will appear in his favor. The advocates of the doctrine of “ Perfection,” which I believe to be an error, argue very plausibly in support of their doctrine from a variety of passages, construed in a particular way. There are even more texts than they have mentioned, which may appear to favor their cause. They argue from the passages which set forth the provisions and promises of the gos pel, and the prayers of believers. These passages, understood as they possibly may be, would seem to countenance the doctrine of perfection. But we must inquire, whether, on a fair examination, we can understand the passages in this way, consistently with other parts of the Bible, and with well known facts. The texts which Mr. Mahan quotes, and others which he might quote, if taken by themselves, and understood in the highest and most absolute sense, would prove that at least some believers attain to perfect holiness in this life. Job was a perfect and upright man.“ Some are said to have followed the Lord wholly. God planted Israel wholly a right seed. Some walked in all the commandments and ordinances of God blameless. The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin. The apostles behaved themselves holily and justly and unblamably, and exhorted others to copy their example. “A bishop must be blameless :” “Let as many as be perfect, be thus minded.” “ Ye are complete in Christ.” Paul and others followed Christ, and were crucified with Christ. Paul was free from the blood of all men. John speaks of those whose love was perfect, and whose hearts did not condemn them; and in the apocalypse, he says of the hundred and forty and four thousand, that in their mouth is found no guile, and that they are without fault before the throne of God.
Now the question is, What is the true meaning of these and other like texts ? Are they to be taken in the highest and most absolute sense, or in a qualified sense ? On the determination of this question the controversy chiefly depends.
First, then, I inquire how the sacred writers, in other cases, employ terms like those contained in these texts.
And I soon find that they often employ them in a qualified, restricted sense. Thus, it is said that Joshua took the whole land of Canaan ; though some small parts still remained in the hands of the native tribes. The meaning doubtless is, that no considerable parts remained unsubdued, and that he proceeded, without molestation, to divide the land among the Israelites. It is said, Judah was wholly carried away captive, though a small remnant continued in the land. “ Jerusalem and all Judea and the region round about Jordan went out to John and were baptized of him,” which means that there was a general or very extensive gathering of the people to him. Paul said: “ All seek their own," although there were exceptions. Jeremiah says of the people: “ They are all adulterers.” Solomon says: “ All things come alike to all.” And it is repeatedly said, that “all flesh shall be saved." I find then, that the sacred writers use expressions of this kind in a comparative sense, or in a sense that is in some other way restricted. And what is more natural than to ask, whether it may not be so with the texts which seem favorable to the doctrine of “ Perfection.” How do we know that those texts are meant to be understood in the highest and most absolute sense, when other texts, containing similar expressions, are necessarily understood in a limited sense?
But I proceed with the inquiry, and I find that some of the very texts, which seem most favorable to the doctrine of "Per
fection,” are unquestionably to be taken in a qualified sense. And here I cannot but think that Mr. Mahan will agree with
Job was a perfect man, and yet he showed plainly enough that he was not without faults. It is said of David that he followed the Lord wholly except in the matter of Uriah. But his history and his confessions leave us in no doubt, that he was chargeable with other sins, especially sins of heart. God planted Israel wholly a right seed. But it must be evident to all, that this expressed their character only in a comparative and very limited sense.
“ A bishop must be blameless.” But neither Mr. Mahan, nor any of his associates can think it essential to the character of a gospel minister, that he should be absolutely sinless. Paul said to the Colossians : “ Ye are complete in Christ.” But his epistle to them shows, that he did not think them entirely without sin.
I come then to this result: As a limited sense clearly belongs to some of the passages which seem, at first view, to favor the doctrine of “ Perfection,” it is quite possible it may belong to others, and it would be going too fast and too far, to decide at: once, that any of that class of texts must be taken in the highest and most absolute sense.
In the next step of my inquiry, I fix my thoughts directly upon several of the texts which seem, at first view, most favora able to the doctrine of “ Perfection.” The texts I have in view are of no small moment, and I desire Mr. Mahan to join with me in a serious and unprejudiced examination of them, that we may discover what is the mind of the Holy Spirit.
I would then first ask my brother, whether his doctrine implies, that all true believers are entirely sanctified, either now, or during the present life. I know what his answer is; but I think it proper to propose the question, for the purpose of bringing out distinctly the exact nature and extent of the doctrine. In his publications, Mr. Mahan does often enough, and plainly enough, and with too much justice, represent the great body of true Christians, as deplorably deficient in their piety; and he labors with commendable earnestness, to excite them to make higher attainments. Indeed he claims complete holiness as a privilege enjoyed at present by only a select few, a very small number. I would then invite him to join with me in a careful exainination of a few passages in the first Epistle of John. Let us begin with one of the texts which he quotes : Ch. 1: 6, 7. The apostle is here speaking of all true believers,
whose character it is, not to walk in darkness, but to walk in the light. Referring to all these children of light, he says: “ The blood of Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” He now cleanseth us from all sin ; for the verb is in the present tense. But my brother does not understand it to mean that all real Christians are now, in the strict sense, cleansed from all sin, that is, completely sanctified ; though he thinks the text somehow favorable to his doctrine. But it is perfectly clear, that whatever the text asserts of any Christians, it asserts of all. Let us then come fairly to the point, and inquire, what the text really means. Mr. Mahan will certainly be under the necessity of finding out some qualified sense, a sense consistent with what he regards as the real present state of all believers ; for the text certainly relates to all. He may perhaps say, the blood of Christ provides for the entire cleansing of all believers conditionally; or that it begins the work of cleansing now, and secures its complete accomplishment ultimately. In this way or some other way, he must give the text a restricted sense, a sense different from what would, at first glance, be suggested by the words themselves, taken alone. He must do the same with v. 9, in which the apostle says, that, “ if we confess our sins," as all Christians do, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Does it mean that he now absolutely cleanseth all who confess their sins, i. e. the whole body of believers, from all unrighteousness? Mr. Mahan will answer, no. What then can he do, but, in some way, limit the sense ? Again, ch. 2: 4, 5, the apostle teaches that
every true believer keeps the word of God. And then he says: " Whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected; hereby know we that we are in him.” He is evidently setting forth the character and state, not of a few, but of all, who are in Christ. Does Mr. Mahan think that the love of God is, in his sense, perfect in all true believers? No. He thinks it true of only a small number. But whatever the apostle here asserts, he asserts equally of every true Christian. Will not my brother then be compelled to find out some limitations of the sense, so as to make it apply to all true believers ? Let him do this, and we shall see whether his interpretation of this text will not help us to the right interpretation of several others of a similar kind.
Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure." 1 John 3: 3. To be pure as Christ is
66 Who am
pure is a high attainment, and is doubtless the same as is required in the command to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. I suppose that every Christian does thus purify himself; that is, pursues a course of purification which will terminate in perfect purity. The expression, in my view, denotes, not the particular degree of purification which the believer has already attained, but the gradual process of purification, and the perfect purity after which he aspires, and to which he will come in the end. As his ultimate perfection in moral purity is certain, it is spoken of as though it were already accomplished ; a manner of speaking which often occurs in Scripture. Thus, Peter, speaking of his condition in the present life, says: an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed ;”—a partaker, even now, of that future glory by certain anticipation. But how will Mr. Mahan explain the purity mentioned by the apostle John, so that he may predicate it, as the apostle does, of all Christians, and yet make it agree with the doctrine he maintains, that only a few are perfectly pure, while Christians, in general, are very far from perfect purity? If he says it means complete purity ; then he cannot predicate it of all Christians, nor of the greater part. If he says, it means that degree, or that gradual process of purification, which does belong to all true Christians, then he comes into the principle of limiting the sense. And if he gives a limited sense to this text, why not to all the other texts which appear to favor his doctrine ?
But the most striking passage which I wish Mr. Mahan to assist me in examining, is 1 John 3: 9. “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” Where, in all the Scriptures, can Mr. Mahan find another text, which seems to assert, so clearly and strongly as this, that Christians are completely sanctified,—absolutely sinless? It even declares that they are raised above the possibility of sinning. I am the more desirous of turning my brother's attention to this passage, because he seems, somehow, to have overlooked it. This oversight may be thought by some to be a matter of wonder, considering that the text, understood in the large and absolute sense, which Mr. Mahan is so fond of in other cases, would be a better proof of the complete sanctification of believers, in the present life, than any he has quoted, I had almost said, than all the texts he has quoted. The language is exceedingly plain