The most perfect man — by his own admission—I’ve ever known was a member of a church I pastored some years ago. He told me several times that he had moved beyond sin: he lived a perfect, sin-free life.
The state of his character came up because he wanted to be the head elder of our congregation. I wasn’t comfortable with that. A couple of years before, he’d left his wife and five children, married another woman and had two more children. His ex told me that he refused to support the original five. This was confirmed by a call from a court officer who asked me if it were true that our church is so stern about tithes and offerings, as this man had claimed, that he couldn’t direct some of his income toward child support without losing his salvation.
When I mentioned this to the perfect man, he blew up. “Why can’t you people understand that I’ve put that life behind me? I have a new wife and children now, who walk with me in the truth.” I reminded him that his ex-wife and those first five products of his loins still inconveniently insisted on existing; they still walked the earth and breathed air and presumably, when they could afford to, ate food.
Then the perfect man hung up on me.
For me, the problem with sinless perfection isn’t the competing proof texts: I’ve heard it argued both ways, from the Bible and Ellen White, each with enough reason to be convincing to someone. The problem with sinless perfection is that despite all the claims that are made about it in certain quarters, I have yet to meet a perfect person. Few of the proponents I’ve talked to have claimed (like the man above did) that they are the sinless ones I’m looking for. (Sinless people, I suspect, wouldn’t know it, or at least wouldn’t mention it. Writes Alden Thompson, “Waking up some bright morning with the suspicion that I am perfect would be the clearest evidence that I am not.” ) Still, they insist that it is possible for human beings to become sinless, as unlikely as it seems that it has happened to anyone except the Son of God.
This is certainly not to make excuses for willful wrongdoing: we can and must work to overcome sin by prayer, right decisions and willpower. I have seen improvement in myself over the years, though I really would like to be much closer to being sinless than I am. (I’d wish all of you were sinless, too: it would presumably make us nicer to one another on this forum! ) But how can one maintain a belief in sinless perfection when there’s no evidence from real life?
- Define sin narrowly. A molecule of meat may never knowingly pass your lips. By exercising great diligence for 24 hours, you could keep the Sabbath well, perhaps even flawlessly. You can spurn colorful cosmetics and jewelry, and there’s little danger that you’ll inadvertently stumble into wearing nail polish like you might into, say, pride or anger. Perhaps sinless perfection is possible if kept on easy terms.
- Define sin as commission, not omission. I love the Book of Common Prayer confession that says, “Almighty God, we confess that we have sinned against You in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” The adjective “sinless” implies not doing bad things, rather than leaving undone good ones. By that reasoning, I reach a state of perfection every night when I go to bed, and maintain it until I get up in the morning.
- Define sin as actions only. I am certain that I have never murdered another human being. But Jesus said that the kind of anger that can lead to murder is the real sin, even if murder never actually happens (Matthew 5:22). Though a man may never have sex with a woman not his wife, it is unlikely he can say honestly that the thought never crosses his mind. That, said Jesus, is where the sin lies (Matthew 5:27-28), and while this passage doesn’t excuse our making an effort to control our thoughts, it also shows that sinless perfection is beyond the reach of anyone who’s not in a coma.
- Redefine character flaws as virtues. A friend’s father claimed to have achieved entire sanctification. His children pointed out that his constant anger toward them seemed hardly sinless. “That’s righteous anger,” he told them, “like Jesus to the temple moneychangers.” Why do angry, critical people so often excuse their bad behavior by invoking Jesus with the moneychangers, as though that’s the most characteristic thing He ever did? You can’t use Jesus to justify your being a jerk unless you also can claim to be as helpful, compassionate, patient, and loving to enemies as He was, too.
The stakes in this matter are, to some, very high: they claim that Jesus will return only when his people have finally achieved sinless perfection (COL p. 69). So if this really is the last generation, shouldn’t we be seeing some of it? If sinless perfection had occurred in even 2% of our people, it would have sent ripples through the whole denomination. Even a few reaching perfection would create pockets of peace and happiness that would transform the church. We’d see marked changes in Adventist families. Congregational conflict would diminish, and the church politics that divides us would decline. We would see an upsurge of generosity, and sinless Adventists would be serving the world’s needs more sacrificially than ever before.
We Adventists are generally good, decent people, but I’ve not seen unusual levels of peace and goodness swirling through the denomination, much less a concentration of it around the self-proclaimed-righteous. To the contrary. It’s been my observation that a critical spirit almost always accompanies those who announce that they’re on the path to perfection — and quite logically, for if the church must become perfect, and you’re not making the same progress I am, I’ll need to point that out to you. Among the perfectionists I’ve seen some troublesome psychological tendencies, too: high control, low flexibility families, a masking of deeper problems by obsessions with diet, appearance and eschatological details, and a denial of sin that shades into hypocrisy.
All of which leads me to conclude that this is group denial by people who, for psychological reasons of their own, need to convince themselves that the problems Scripture says all human flesh is heir to really aren’t problems for them.
But the human propensity to sin is real. That’s why from Jesus onward the Scriptures are saturated with the absolute necessity of grace. God’s grace isn’t just a crutch for the weak. It is for everyone — even the strongest and most self-disciplined, if Jesus’ rebukes to the Pharisees mean anything. All of us have sinned—are sinning—and even those who aren’t committing big intentional sins are habitually falling short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), which is by definition beyond our ability to ever attain.
Perhaps because it offers a sense of control for which they feel a desperate need, the sinless perfectionists seem to place their faith in what they will do rather than in what God has already done. And so they diminish the significance of the most perfect gift that God ever gave to us: Jesus Christ, who came because he knew we can never become sinless in this setting.
I’ve made some progress against sin in my life, and want to see more. But I’m not expecting Jesus to return because I’m perfect. If the apostle Paul had to describe himself as chief among sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), then surely I’ll be in heaven only if I’m clothed in Christ’s perfection, not my own.
When He shall come with trumpet sound
Oh, may I then in Him be found.
Clad in his righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.
—”The Solid Rock” by Edward Mote
- Alden Thompson, “The Perfect Church,” in Elder’s Digest, Vol. 16 No. 2