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Sinless Perfection

Can a Christian attain sinless perfection in this life? Is it inevitable that he will attain it? Is it that certain Christians attain it and some don't based upon some "experience" they've had? And how "sinless" is "sinless perfection"?

Recently I received a letter part of which as follows:

Recently in our church, we had a "lively" discussion during sunday school hour. Seems this one couple in our class,who used to worship elsewhere, believes a christian no longer sins, and if they do, then they wern't a christian to begin with. They seem to think that they no longer sin. But, they say, if one does sin, they must "go back" and do the first works all over again ( baptism,etc.).
I was asked to show what the Bible taught on this subject. However along with showing what the Bible says on the subject it seems necessary to clarify what are the actual positions Christians have taken on this issue and then we have something to compare against what the Bible says. Having formerly written on this subject to some extent at analyzing the perfectionist concepts of Wesley and Finney, I would first attempt to categorize the distinct propositions concerning this subject among those who hold perfectionist concepts and then compare them with verses such as 1John 3:9,10 which are often used to justify perfect sanctification concepts.
"No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." 1John 3:9,10

Wesley & Finney

Years ago John Wesley, one of the founders of the Holiness Movement, introduced into the Christian community the idea that Christian perfection can be achieved in this life through a second work of grace - the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Although his "Christian perfection" idea does excuse sins of ignorance. And thus many Holiness types have to maintain an ignorance of their own sinfulness in order to maintain their testimony that they have achieved such a state of perfection.
Charles Finney differs slightly on this issue in that he doesn't excuse sins of ignorance. And he furthermore has taken the stand that one loses their salvation every time they sin. Thus under Finney's theology one not only cannot claim to have achieved sinless perfection, for how would they know they've overcome the sins they are ignorant of, but also no one could ever claim that they are even saved, since how would they know whether they hadn't lost their salvation through a sin of ignorance? But I have show elsewhere that Finney has not been consistent in his theology and most Holiness types defer to Wesley. So I'll deal with Wesley.
The Wesleyan idea of Perfect Sanctification does not correlate with whether a person has been born of God or not, but rather with whether they've experienced a second act of grace, which Charismatics like to call the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Thus Wesley divides those born of God into two categories - those Baptized in the Holy Spirit and those not. But Wesley seemingly contradicts himself on this matter saying at one point, "the truly converted will surely persevere in obedience till he is fitted for heaven and actually saved", but on the other hand, "those who were made the children of God by baptism, but are now the children of the devil, may yet again receive power to become the sons of God; that they may receive again what they have lost, even the Spirit of adoption."

Thus he believes that a "truly converted person" cannot lose their salvation, since it is inevitable that they will persevere (which is the same idea as the Perseverance of the Saints under Calvinism); and yet he believes that those born of God can lose their salvation. Thus he must not believe that everyone born of God is necessarily "truly converted".

Such theologies as can be found in the Wesleyan and Charismatic communites have no Biblical justification for making such divisions among those born of God. As 1John 3:9,10 above affirm that no one born of God will continue to sin. It does not say that some do and some don't. So also 1John 5:4 "everyone born of God overcomes the world." It again does not say that some born of God do and some don't.

Thus Wesley is mistaken to make such distinction among those born of God. Rather the Bible, such as in the letter of 1st John, makes a distinction between those claiming to be born of God and those who are actually born of God. Or in Wesley's terminology the Bible affirms that everyone born of God is among the "truly converted" and thus will persevere till the end as 1John 2:19 also affirms.

Wesley also proposes that a perfectly sanctified Christian can nonetheless lose their salvation. "By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbour, ruling our tempers, words, and actions. I do not include an impossibility of falling from it, either in part or in whole." But here again Wesley, being purely dogmatic, has failed to think this through. For if a person loses salvation by sinning, one who has achieved a state of sinless perfection cannot lose their salvation, since they can no longer sin. And again we have Wesley's statement above that the "truly converted" never fall away.

Thus we find in Wesleyan theology not only contradictions to the Bible, but also logical inconsistencies.

The Church of the Nazarene is an example of a denomination which pledges allegiance to such Weslyan theology, as do also Methodist churches and the like.

While those of a Wesleyan theology, such as Nazarene types, speak of Christian perfection, they believe that such a person does continue to commit acts of what they refer to as "faults, shortcomings, mistakes, deviations from a standard of perfect conduct." They refer to them as being "involuntary and innocent." But if they are not sin then why mention them at all?  While they have been careful to avoid the term "ignorance" in this list, Wesley does incorporate in his. Yet with respect to attitude they propose that such a person will never have any attitude or response contrary to the spirit of Christ? Such a person never consciously sins in act, word or thought. "Consciously" is of course the loophole for Holiness types.

Or to quote Wesley himself from

"Perhaps the general prejudice against Christian perfection may chiefly arise from a misapprehension of the nature of it. We willingly allow, and continually declare, there is no such perfection in this life, as implies either a dispensation from doing good, and attending all the ordinances of God, or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood."

"We Secondly believe, that there is no such perfection in this life, as implies an entire deliverance, either from ignorance, or mistake, in things not essential to salvation, or from manifold temptations, or from numberless infirmities, wherewith the corruptible body more or less presses down the soul. We cannot find any ground in Scripture to suppose, that any inhabitant of a house of clay is wholly exempt either from bodily infirmities, or from ignorance of many things; or to imagine any is incapable of mistake, or falling into divers temptations."

Seems the more ignorant a person is to his own sin, the more he can nonetheless be reckoned to have attained to a state of sinless perfection.

Concerning the Term "Sinless"

There are those of a Wesleyan persuasion who are disturbed by my usage of the term "sinless". But  John Wesley himself said, "I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it."  This term had been used to described his position from the beginning, of which he was well aware, and he didn't have a problem with it.  

Dealing with Holiness Theology

It would be nice if once achieves a state of perfect and continual sinlessness immediately upon being born of God. But that apparently is not the case as Paul affirms in his own Christian experience saying, "I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." Romans 7:25 But also "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." 1John 1:8  But I would say most prominently of all is the fact that the New Testament letters don't make any mention of a second work of grace in this life which causes one to be sinlessly perfect. Rather much is written concerning living rightly and overcoming sin; written not to non-Christians, but rather to those label - the elect - the saved - those born of God. But if such people are only capable of doing right and incapable of committing any acts of sin, such exhortations would be unnecessary, don't you think? To support Holiness theology one would have to find verses which apply not to all Christians but to a particular class of Christians in which perfect sanctification is attained.

There is a second work of grace, but it doesn't occur in this life. Paul says, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me." Php 3:10-12 To attain this perfection Paul is saying that had would have to die and be raised from the dead. And he's not speaking metaphorically. In this lifetime we inhabit bodies of "flesh", a word which in Greek is "sarx". This same word the NIV often translates "sinful nature". We cannot attain perfection while in this lifetime.

And if you take a verse like 1John 3:9 mentioned above, that doesn't indicate any class distinction is so is contrary to Charismatic elitism. For what it says is true of ALL who have been born of God, and not to some hypothetical elite class of Christians.

It seems to me this elitist attitude among these holiness types is not unlike that of the religious elite of Jesus' day. If they want to boast about how sinlessly perfect they are, then let them demonstrate it by their behavior. I have yet to personally meet anyone who lives up to their own standards, let alone God's standards. Jesus dealt with such people by simply pointing out their sin. He said concerning the adulterous woman, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." John 8:7 Not even Jesus's enemies, the religious elite of his day, were so ignorant of their own sinfulness as to willing to claim sinless perfection publically. For a person to claim that they have achieved sinless perfection is a very very serious thing and must be scrutinized, even in Jesus' case. For Jesus himself encouraged people to scrutinize his own behavior saying, "Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?" John 8:46 If they are "ignorant" of their own sinfulness, then it seems out of love Christian brethren must make them aware of their sinfulness. Notice for example how Jesus dealt with such a person in Matthew 19. A rich man came to his casually using the term "good", just as holiness types casually claim themselves to be sinlessly perfect. Jesus immediately picked up on this and knew that this man didn't have the conviction of sin necessary to come to faith. He first tried to convict him of sin by pointing out the law. But apparently the man thought himself sinlessly perfect claiming to have keep all the law. But he was thinking in a limited sense in terms of the letter rather than the spirit of the law. So Jesus got to the heart of it and gave him a command which pointed out his greed. That's part of Christian ministry - to humiliate those who reckon themselves "good" people.

For example in the case of the Church of the Nazarene site I noted above, along with their claims of sinless perfection I can easily point out a sinful practice they advocate on that very web site. Namely as they put it, "The Nazarene Church does allow and ordain WOMEN PREACHERS.  In fact, the first women preachers in America began in the Holiness Movement of the later 1800's." But Paul  says in 1Timothy 2:11-14, "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner." Notice that the basis for this command was not cultural, rather it was based upon the very nature of the role relationships of men and women which God established in Genesis. And let me be so bold as to say that feminism is one of the things which has driven the Charismatic movement with its effeminate charcteristics.

A women wrote me to clarify this section as to what is characteristic of her gender, saying that women "emote" more than men. I had to look "emote" up in the dictionary and this is what it said, with an example:

The American Heritage Dictionary
To express emotion, especially in an excessive or theatrical manner: “The more she emotes, the less he listens, and the less he listens, the more strident and emotive she becomes”

Is that not characteristic of the Charismatic Movement? So also, though not characteristic of women per se, but characteristic of feminism is its usurpation of male authority. Just as Eve was deceived, being the weaker sex (1Pet 3:7), so also the effeminate spirit within Charismatism has led it being infused with the leaven of many false doctrines.

As for a non-Wesleyan view of verses like 1John 3:9,10 you can view the associated study guides at


Steve Amato

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources Feb 13,2006