It took me years to realize I wasn't good at baseball. I kept thinking I was having a bad day. Just a little tweaking of my batter's stance, just the right tip on how to angle my elbow, and I would crawl out of this slump to my true batting average of .400.
I am over baseball now but the theory dies hard. One man at bedtime repents of his sins, asks for forgiveness, hops into bed, and sleeps like a baby. Another man is despondent, undone, the holy grail of a perfect faith once more eluding his grasp. Oh where is the quality of faith (which he is certain exists) that will once and for all cure his wayward heart and catapult him to a higher plane? Someday soon he'll get it right. Victory, he is sure, is just around the corner.
What's interesting about the study of history is that you find your own embarrassing pet neuroses and crackpot worldviews writ large across its pages and given capital-lettered names. Over the years I have been, by turns or simultaneously, a Monarchian, a Monophysite, a Nestorian, a Pelagian-and now, behold, a Perfectionist.
Lest anyone out there thinks a Perfectionist is someone who fusses overmuch with the fluted edges of her pie crust, I have in mind a dogma as old as Christianity that, for all its mutations and incarnation, goes essentially like this: True sinlessness (substantial, if not total) can be realized in this lifetime through communion with Christ.
I am very sympathetic with that view, I have to tell you. Oughtn't the presence of the Holy Spirit in me make more difference than it does? Have I not been shortchanging myself-and insulting God-to settle for so little and accept it as normal Christian life? Shouldn't there be a bit more punch to definitive sanctification? Did not Christ's death, when he "disarmed the powers and authorities"(Colossians 2:15), win more than this meager shuffling and scraping?
Charles Finney thought so at least-that circuit preacher of the early 1800s who was chagrined to learn how glorious revivals are apt to be followed by less glorious seasons of backsliding. Having been saved through faith, the people had reverted to an obedience wrought of their own strength, he diagnosed, which had led to this defeat and melancholia. What you folks need is a second application of the Holy Spirit, judged Finney.
But now melancholia, far from abating, kicks into fourth gear. For who can harness that sovereign Spirit who "bloweth where it pleaseth"? Just as I trusted God for my justification, I am now asked to trust him for my sanctification, and it's no good if I drum up the trust. Not only do I have to trust in Christ, I am supposed to trust Christ to do the trusting for me, and to stop trying to trust Christ in my own strength! (This gets more bizarre the more you think about it.)
The poor beleaguered Christian, having once escaped the hell of looking to himself for his salvation, now finds himself-irony of ironies-more focused on himself than ever, and on the dismal quality of his faith. Desiring to be a true Calvinist, he ends a pre-Reformation man.
Or suppose he does get that second blessing-and subsequently falls! What shall we say then? What remedy remains? A third blessing perhaps? Then a fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh? What is left of the original idea of instant transport to perfection? At this point, tempered on the rock of reality, is there really a dime's worth of difference between the multiple rekindlings of the Spirit in Perfectionism, and the daily experience of failure and repentance in classical Christianity's sanctification model of a yoyo climbing the stairs?
So let's say three cheers for what Perfectionism gets right (that sanctification is by grace), and let's admit what it gets wrong (that sanctification is instantaneous in the same way as justification). "Be ye perfect," saith the Lord-something to aim for now, by faith. Something to be when He returns.
I got wind of a sensational new book on how to tame the tongue (my besetting sin problem). I bought it and read with care, looking for that blockbuster verse, that magic word of gnosis, that would bypass all my struggle and put me on a fast track to glory. But afterwards there was the old familiar letdown-the less sensational prospect of application in the sweaty battleground of life, fighting for one inch of terrain at a time.
Relying on Him for my obedience, what a conundrum. His power and my active participation, what a paradox. Let smarter men ponder the precise nexus of the Holy Spirit's work and mine; my work is to trust and obey. And here is the only gnosis worth sharing: Obedience is not scary because we obey as children, safe in Abraham's bosom. So be still, my soul, and do not despise the struggle, nor the simple tools He gives-of daily prayer and daily fellowship and daily confession. For the struggle is noble…. And you can sleep well tonight.