Article 15 — Of Christ alone without Sin
Posted by Ben Thompson, 16 Mar 2017
Ben Thompson takes a look at what the 39 Articles say about the possibility of being perfect.
XV — OF CHRIST ALONE WITHOUT SIN
Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
The Apostle John wrote that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). We can’t be confident that we will deceive anyone else. While they may not tell us to our face, most people who spend time with us would easily list some of the particular sins which we struggle with (or perhaps, more tellingly, don’t struggle with). But we can deceive ourselves, and that is the pastoral brilliance of this Article’s inclusion in our formularies.
Some might think Article 15 is superfluous: the perfection of Christ has been implied, at least, in Article 2 and Article 9 has told us that original sin continues to infect the regenerate believer. And yet, as the apostle John tells us, we find it all too easy to deceive ourselves about our ongoing fallen nature. Sin, in its very nature, is blinding, so we don’t detect its presence. Pride whispers to us, and misdirects us, so we don’t notice its residence in our hearts. We see part of Cranmer’s theological and pastoral genius, therefore, in his determination in this Article to banish ‘perfectionism’ from the pews of Christ’s Church.
Historically, perfectionism, which teaches that the Christian can achieve a level of sinless maturity in this life, has kept raising its ugly head. John’s first letter implies it was present in the early church; at the time of the Reformation, it is likely that Cranmer was responding to a perception that certain Anabaptists were claiming sinless perfection (though this was, perhaps, a misunderstanding of their right call for disciples to strive for sinlessness). John Wesley, in the eighteenth century, famously spoke of entire sanctification, though he never claimed it for himself. More recently, certain movements have taught a second-blessing experience or an act of dedication which would achieve sinlessness.
These false teachings do have some elements which are to be commended: they often begin by taking seriously the call of Jesus to ‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48). They frequently grasp some aspects of the ‘inaugurated eschatology’ of the gospel, whereby Jesus, through his death and resurrection has dragged into the present some of the realities of the future age (or rather he has taken us, in union with him, into that future age). Thus, Christians are now saints, truly sanctified to God (1 Corinthians 6:11).
However, these teachings stumble because, while the believer is truly indwelt by the Spirit, they are simultaneously indwelt by sin (Romans 7:20). It is perhaps no surprise that ‘Perfectionism Movements’ tend to be short-lived. Their Achilles’ heel is that while they may succeed in deceiving themselves for a time, most often by downgrading or limiting their definition of sin, the reality of ongoing sin is painfully plain to see.
A full-orbed theological perfectionism is perhaps not a current danger for the Church. However, it may be that we are living in an age with a functional, or assumed, perfectionism. What would be the signs of such a deception? If we find ourselves shocked to discover sin in the lives of a fellow believer; if we bear a grudge easily; or simply permit past failings to damage our relationships with brothers and sisters: then, perhaps we would do well to take the teaching of Article 15 to heart.
Furthermore, the heart that struggles to forgive another Christian is a heart that is unaware of its own need for forgiveness from God (Matthew 18:21-35), or, in other words, a heart which believes the lie of perfectionism. Equally, the heart that will not accept loving rebuke from a fellow Christian has, most likely, swallowed the bait of perfectionist teaching. This last symptom seems to be endemic in our churches.
Each of us has what has been described as our own ‘internal, personal defence lawyer’, who instinctively leaps to defend us whenever we feel the mildest criticism. This may manifest itself in excuse-making, or bristling, or deflection, or even self-pity. But the heart that has truly absorbed the life-giving truth of Article 15 will silence the defence lawyer and humbly welcome the loving challenge of a Christian brother or sister. The wise believer will know they need this kind of fellowship, even, if possible, on a daily basis (Hebrews 3:12-14).
One further evidence of an assumed perfectionism would be a lack of any discussion of sin, as part of a larger pastoral or theological position. In all the recent Church debates about human sexuality, one of the most troubling elements was the notable absence of any consideration of the Fall, of indwelling sin, or of total depravity (whereby sin corrupts every aspect of us, including our desires and our minds). This omission severely compromised the conclusions that were drawn.
The antidote to this assumed perfectionism would be a healthy confessional life. It is odd that this liturgical element has disappeared from some of our churches. As well as making corporate confession, we would do well regularly to confess our sins privately before God in concrete, meaningful ways, which are personal to me. We would do well to confess our sins to each other: to invite others to speak into our lives; to ask them to pray for us; to make our prayer requests not (just) about my difficult children, but about my short temper; not (just) about my tight finances but about my instinctive envy and self-pity; not (just) about my difficult boss but also about my proud, argumentative spirit.
However, the greatest problem with perfectionist teaching is that it diminishes the Lord Jesus Christ. Article 15 captures the profound difference between his sinless perfection and our sinful state. There is a vast chasm separating him from us. Perfectionism reduces this Grand Canyon to a small ditch; it leads the believer to make light of Jesus’ sinlessness: “it’s not such a big deal, for in the end, I can be sinless too.” Whereas, the believer who has drunk deeply from the waters of Article 15 recognises the pervasive, putrid pull of sin and so is overwhelmed by the powerful purity of the Saviour.
There can be a temptation to assume that Jesus’ perfection was easy for him, but Scripture will not permit that (Hebrews 5:8). The Garden of Gethsemane reveals to us the terrible cost of sinlessness (Mark 14:36). The person who gives up on a marathon after half a mile cannot claim to know the true pain of long distance running. In the same way, none of us truly know the pain of resisting sin. Jesus alone has endured to the end and come out victorious. Article 15 leads us to marvel at the beauty of Jesus’ character, and increasingly so, for as we grow in the faith, so the Spirit reveals to us more of the gulf between his perfection and our sinfulness.
Finally, perfectionism, does not simply diminish the moral beauty of the Lord Jesus. It also diminishes the horror of the cross and the astonishing love of God revealed there. God made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us. (2 Corinthians 5:21). If a bride should stop on the way into the church, take her pristine white wedding dress, and use it to wipe the vomit from the face of a homeless drug addict, we would be repulsed — unless we happen to be the addict. What Christ has done for us is infinitely greater. In his moral perfection he has taken onto us all the filth of our sin, so that we might be sanctified, and, one day in glory, be perfect, like him.
‘Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him, purifies himself, as he is pure’ (1 John 3:2-3).
Ben Thompson is Pioneer Minister for Moreton-in-Marsh and a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast.
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