John Wesley, one of great 19th century revivalists, taught that a Christian could attain “entire sanctification” or sinless perfection here on this earth. His understanding of 2 Timothy 3:17 led him to believe that by “perfect”, Paul meant to imply that a person can reach a point where the sin desire is eradicated. Unfortunately, many still struggled with sin and turned to despair because they could not reach this perfection Wesley preached, but were instead pockmarked with failure and missteps.
Bearing the Cross
What Wesley’s teachings failed to emphasize was our responsibility to daily take up our cross. His Calvinism was showing here; Wesley would say that any genuine Christian is called by God and therefore could and should attain perfection. He might also take us to 1 John 3:9 in defense of sinless perfection. But this verse doesn’t teach sinless perfection. This is a call to holiness; this is a call to live out the purity and holiness afforded us with our new nature. Just one chapter earlier, in 2 Timothy 2:21, God makes it clear that the reponsibility for being usable vessels falls into our hands. In fact, one letter earlier, in 1 Timothy 4:7, Paul explains to Timothy that godliness is something that can be reached, in part, by excercising.
The first time I stood on a soccer field to play, I was terrible. I was playing, but it was a pathetic showing. After years and years of excercising and practicing, I became far more capable that I had been the first time I set foot on that field. So even though I was on the team and still considered a player, I did not play as well when I first began than I do now.
Living the Position
So it is with holiness. We have no strength to be holy, save through the power of the Spirit and the redemption of Christ. But this strength infuses our newborn bodies and it takes excercise before we can walk with steady legs. The Bible makes it clear that we can still refuse to avail ourselves of that holy power; only when we claim our God-given role and let that positional reality start effecting our practical reality will we see holiness.
Bob Wilkin said it best in is treatise “Do Born Again People Sin?”, “1 John 1:8,10 [says] that believers cannot attain to sinless perfection in their experience. However, we can allow our new natures to dominate our experience so that we live consistently godly lives. May we live like who we are: children of the Holy One who has saved us by His amazing, free grace.”
Considering the Battle
Throughout the Scriptures, sin is often addressed with severe, military-like action. Ephesians 6 draws the parallel between our spiritual tools and the weapons of war. Satan is called our adversary and he is described as a lion who is seeking for people to devour.
Let’s spend a moment in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;” “Casting down” and “bringing into captivity” are not playtime phrases. Casting down was what was done to idols in the Old Testament. And read “bringing into captivity” as “taking prisoners”. You don’t take prisoners in a baseball game. You don’t take prisoners in Scrabble. You take prisoners when you are at war.
Our battle to live holy lives is a war that exists between who we are in Christ and the propensity to sin within our flesh. Genuine saving faith is demonstrated by giving aid and comfort to the Spirit of the Living God while denying reinforcements to the forces of the flesh.
CORRECTION: Wesley was not a Calvinist; in fact, he was a pioneer of the Arminianism we know today. I drew my conclusions from a misreading of the chapter on Holiness in George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture.