“To God’s Glory” : A Practical Study of a Doctrine of the Westminster Standards.
by Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn
THE SUBJECT : Comfort in Our Lack of Perfection.
THE BIBLE VERSES TO READ : I Kings 8:46; Prov. 20:9; I John 1:8; James 3:2; Isa. 12:1; John 16:33.
REFERENCE TO THE STANDARDS : Confession : IX; Larger Catechism : Q. 149; Shorter Catechism : Q. 82.
The Shorter Catechism, in Question 82, asks : “Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?” The answer, at first reading, could lead a soul into despair. For the answer states, “No mere man, since the fall, is able, in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God; but doth daily break them, in thought, word and deed.”
I say, “at first reading,” because the answer sets for us a standard so high that it would seem there is very little hope for those of us who have been saved by His grace.
The doctrine of Perfectionism has never had much attraction for me. In the providence of God I learned early in life as a believer about the doctrine. I can remember the definition taught to me: “The doctrine that it is possible for a Christian, in this life, to reach a state where he no longer commits sin.”
No one had to persuade me that I did not reach perfection. It was obvious to me and probably far more obvious to others. The knowledge of my falling far short of perfection was a constant source of anxiety to me. Every time I sinned against the Holy God I knew once again the despair of grieving the Holy God.
I remember well, early in my Christian life, struggling with this problem. I finally went to an older Christian with my problem. He reminded me of two things that have been helpful to me for these many years. Both of them are comforts to my soul.
First, I was reminded that I must not make God a liar. He says in His Word, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). Here is comfort offered to His children by the Sovereign God. He is a faithful and a just God and will forgive when the confession is one characterized by repentance. How could we go on without such comfort?
Second, I was reminded that I am not living under the Covenant of Works but rather the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Grace teaches me that God will indeed accept my striving with sin, my daily combat with it, even though I sometimes will fall. Thus, I was able to find real comfort from the Sovereign God in the midst of all of my sin.
However, there is a danger lurking here for believers. In the midst of the comfort the believer might make two mistakes :
(1) Fall into the age-old, false doctrine of sinning that grace may abound, and thus rationalizing himself into excusing himself. Paul answers this very plainly in Romans 6.
(2) Forgetting that though perfection is impossible, perfection means 100 percent and any fraction below that is not perfection! Most of us have a long way to go to reach that 99 percent!
The very Bible that tells us that perfection is impossible also tells us that we must strive daily, fight the good fight of faith, resist the devil, be overcomers. All of these mean that we must stay in the battle against sin with all that is within us, depending on the grace of God for help.
God, in His Word, does not give us any cause to relax in the warfare simply because He has told us we can’t be perfect. God is pleased with us not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done in the finished work of the cross. Yet, at the same time, He calls us to be holy, even as He is holy.
As believers in Jesus Christ we do have comfort in the midst of our failings. He has promised to forgive us if we come to Him in repentance, confessing our sins. But in the framework of that comfort is the teaching from the Word of God that as believers we will strive to the highest standard possible within us. We know we are not able to reach perfection, but sometimes we limit our standard by our lack of “working out” our salvation “in fear and trembling.” Our Lord is looking for us to press forward toward the mark of the high calling in Christ Jesus. When He sees us doing this, He will be willing to forgive us for the sins we are prone to commit. We dare not separate the comfort from the striving.