Perhaps one of the largest hornets in the nest of disagreements between ‘higher life’, or ‘holiness’ Christians and those of more Calvinistic leanings is what the Biblical definition of sin is. Upon this keystone question rests the meeting ground, if any is to be found, between these equally sincere sectors of the Christian world. The problem goes like this: Holiness people claim that the Christian may live without sin, and may live in complete holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit. For most, this does not mean that a sanctified Christian cannot sin, nor necessarily that he will not sin, but that he need not sin, and will not if he takes hold of all the grace available to him in Christ. But all this is based on a definition of sin as ‘a conscious violation of perceived obligation.’ This definition does not include all those acts and attitudes present in the life of a Christian which, although he is unaware of them as yet, nonetheless are inconsistent with the perfect application of the law of God and the perfect image of Christ. Nor does it take into account all the tendencies toward evil, which are present in the person, tempting him to sin.
It is here the problem comes. To the Calvinist and those who follow his persuasion, sin is defined as ‘any lack of conformity to the perfect application of the law of God, and the perfect image of Christ.’ Thus, we truly never are entirely sanctified, or entirely holy. We are always partly holy and partly sinful. Hence although we should seek to be holy more and more, we are always sinning daily in thought, word, and deed. For a Christian to claim to be entirely sanctified is brash to say the least and demonstrates great ignorance of his true spiritual condition. Admittedly there is need for discussion here, to dig deeper into what we are saying. I am personally convinced that our differences are more semantical than real but because we are not tracking down these differences it is resulting in an unfortunate division in the church and, more tragically, it is harming many Christians’ walks with the Lord.
If there is a danger on the holiness side, it is to downplay the need to grow in grace and progress in sanctification. Many people get an unrealistic ‘I’ve arrived’ sort of feeling when they initially come to see the promises held out in the gospel regarding holiness. They fail to realize that God now requires them to use this new power and liberty to abound more and more in love and knowledge and doing good. Being set free from the bondage of sin is one thing but growing up in all things into Christ is a lifetime process and involves great discipline, sacrifice, and prayer.
On the other hand, the Calvinist emphasis on sin being something daily indulged in thought, word, and deed tends to discourage people from believing they may be free from conscious sin and cease deliberately disobeying God. Since I am so sinful, no matter what I do anyway, why try? Why should I believe God could help me stop deliberately disobeying him if he can’t stop me from unintentionally disobeying him? Many remain in the bondage to sin because they are told that no matter what they do, they will still be sinning in a thousand different ways and never be in state of acceptance with God in terms of their own behavior. Only through a grace, which is continually covering their gross inadequacy, are they acceptable to God.
Intentional And Unintentional Sins
These problems stem directly from imprecision in our definition of what sin is. Classically, there are two basic definitions of sin. These are ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional.’ Intentional sin is a deliberate willful act of disobedience where I perceive my obligation and voluntarily choose to go against what I know to be my duty. This takes the form either of a sin of omission, where I do not do what I perceive I should, or a sin of commission, where I do what I perceive I should not. Unintentional sin is a sin that is not directly the result of a deliberate violation of perceived obligation but is a mistake. It can be an act or attitude that in some way violates absolute moral law, but I am unaware of this discrepancy. If at some later time I come to see this action or attitude to be wrong, I would be sinning willfully if I still committed the act or indulged the attitude. This type of sin is something that is the result of not knowing all of God’s law or its appropriate application in every situation, or the result of an unconscious habitual reaction that is involuntary but nonetheless harmful in some way. Unintentional sin can also be an unconscious response to stimuli, entirely out of my control but causing me to desire what is sinful. I cannot change such responses by an immediate act of will. Only over time through right choices can such tendencies be eliminated.
It should be clear from the outset that whatever definition we give of sin, we can only personally deal with intentional sins directly. I cannot stop doing something until I perceive I am not supposed to do it. All I can possibly do is obey God insofar as I understand my obligation to him and what his expectations are. Beyond this I can only change as he gives me more light. Involuntary reactions and attitudes can only be changed over time, like the reversal of any habit. So willful sin is all that is within my power to change, by definition of the fact that I have to will to change it, and willing requires knowledge.
Can We Be Guilty For What We Cannot Help?
This in itself raises the very real question of how we can be guilty for an act of which we are unaware or a response that we cannot directly control. Guilt is always associated with responsibility and responsibility has always to do with intention or motive. Can a person be guilty of doing an act that she truly did not intend as a wrong act? True enough she did the act. But did she actually disobey? No. It was a mistake. Had she better knowledge and her intention remained the same, she would not have done the act. It was a result, not of sinful intent, but lack of knowledge. Can a person be guilty for having an involuntary response to the suggestion of temptation? Isn’t this to confuse temptation with sin? Unintentional sin is not the result of something directly under the control of the person. It is a result of how God made her, limited in her knowledge, responsive to the environment around her. It is not the result in any way of failing to want to serve God. The question is whether God can justly hold someone accountable for something she could not do or help but do, either because she lacked the necessary knowledge, or because she had an automatic response to stimuli.
Certainly we do not conform perfectly to the perfect application of God’s law. But can we? We could possibly know God’s commands perfectly after much study but no finite creature will ever know all there is to know concerning moral relations as God does. Can we know it all, instantly? Certainly not. Is this our fault? No. God created us with limited knowledge. Then can he hold us morally responsible for actions that proceed necessarily from the very limited features, which he created us to have? It is difficult to see how he can. God created our bodies and minds to experience emotional responses to stimuli. Can he hold us responsible for our automatic reactions to such input, which again stems from the way he made us? It would seem he could not. This being the case a reasonable person must reject the concept of unintentional sin. Sin is something for which the Bible indicates man is eternally damnable. But if he is damnable for something that he cannot control, for something that in fact the God who is judging him created in him, then truly God is unjust and unfair. He could not be the God of the Bible.
Can Not Or Could Not?
This response is too quick. It would be unreasonable to hold men accountable for things they could not help, things that are consequences of the way they were created. This does not mean they cannot be held responsible for things they cannot help, when this inability is a consequence of things they have done which they could have helped. Consider a person who becomes inebriated. He knows before he begins to drink that alcohol can impede his judgment. When he chooses to drink, he accepts responsibility for the results that flow from this choice. The fact he was unaware of what he was doing when he struck the pedestrian with his vehicle, the fact he was unable to prevent the occurrence, in no way stops us from justly accusing him of harming or killing another human being. We recognize his guilt is lessened because he did not consciously choose to harm the person, but he is guilty just the same. Why is this? It is because he could have prevented it if he had not become drunk. Once drunk, he could not prevent his further harmful actions. His responsibility for these actions is because they are a result of his responsible, conscious choice to allow himself to become drunk. Although a person cannot know when he will become drunk, he does know he should keep his consumption well below the level where this could happen.
Strictly speaking, the guilt of his actions committed while drunk is a part of his guilt for becoming drunk. In this sense we only consider him guilty for what he has consciously done. In a less strict sense, the other actions, which flowed from his conscious decision to drink too much, are separate actions and we determine their guilt independently. We assess them separately because we recognise his becoming drunk by itself did not inevitably produce these further actions. He might have become drunk and not harmed anyone. In this sense, the initial conscious action did not contain guilt for these other actions. It was a matter of ‘luck’ whether the further guilt would occur. So we consider him guilty for these other actions, separately. But this separation is not total. We allow the fact he was unconscious of committing these acts to mitigate his guilt. The fact he was unable to prevent his wrongdoing would completely exonerate him, were we unable to trace this inability to a conscious choice of wrong, which produced this state.
This account of unconscious sinful actions can be expanded to include other elements of our moral state. Attitudes resulting from conscious sinful actions may leave us sinful in our mindsets, though unable to immediately change them. People living in the Deep South no doubt struggle with racial thoughts of this sort. A person who has indulged some sinful activity will have developed tendencies within herself, leaving her more easily tempted by the activity. Although she does not now choose to indulge the temptation, the fact she is so easily tempted leaves her with guilt for what she ‘is.’ Our natural desires and appetites are not sinful in themselves, but through indulging them wrongly we create habitual patterns of desire to indulge them in an unlawful manner. This developed pattern of desiring is sinful, and we are guilty for having created it. It is a bad aspect of our character that can only be changed over time as we maintain our walk with God and grow to the point where our desires no longer arise and tempt us. All sin indulged in hinders our ability to completely conform to God’s law.
Ignorance of our obligations can also fail to excuse us if our ignorance results from a failure to study and obtain the knowledge we ought to have obtained. The Bible is quite plain that responsibility is conditioned on the light we have. Romans 2 says the law did not judge people who did not have the law. Paul says in Romans 7 he was without sin until the commandment came, then sin sprang to life and he died. While we cannot be strictly held accountable for light we do not yet have, each of us recognizes the obligation to think and discern what is right or wrong in our situations and lives. A failure to be continually learning and obtaining more light is a conscious voluntary failure resulting in ignorance. Such ignorance does not excuse us from failing to do what we could have done had we obtained the knowledge within our grasp. Only God can truly assess what we should have or could have perceived in our situation.
Both Right And Both Wrong
This account of intentional and unintentional sins allows us to clarify the issues between Holiness Christians, and those of a more Calvinistic persuasion. Holiness Christians recognize that all sin stems from the conscious choices we make. They claim ‘sinlessness’ in their lives because they correctly see that God can deliver us from conscious willful sinning. But based on what we have said above, freedom from conscious sinning does not make us sinless. Unconscious attitudes and actions, flowing from past sinful activities or ignorance, are sinful because they are failures to be what we could have been had we not damaged our powers through sinning. We are not held accountable to the same extent as we would if these things were now consciously chosen by us, but we are still guilty to the extent that such shortcomings were caused by our conscious choices to sin. This is why Calvinist Christians believe we sin daily in thought, word, and deed. Where such believers err is in further believing that our inability to prevent unintentional sin means we must be continually sinning willfully, that we can never prevent conscious sinning either. Here they are mistaken. The very unintentional sinfulness they point out is only considered sinful because it flowed from conscious sinful acts, which were preventable. If we were unable to prevent conscious sinning, we could not be guilty at all, even for unintentional sin. The fact we cannot prevent what we have done, and cannot directly prevent the consequences of what we have done, does not mean we had to do the initial act, or that we need to continue doing such acts. While moral character is more than just conscious action and immediate present volition, moral character is directly and indirectly only the result of conscious action. It is only at the level of conscious intentional sin we can be changed.
This is why in the government of God, motive is considered ultimate. If men’s motives can be controlled, holiness will result. Once men are brought to the point where they no longer consciously disobey God’s law, they will no longer be adding to their personal sinful development. Through time God can help them see where they have been wrong and help them begin to change internally. Sinful tendencies can be reversed the same way they were created. Since conscious sinning is interrupted, and conscious holiness is now the norm, new tendencies toward holiness will develop until the old ways no longer entice. Correction of attitudes and actions through new moral light will come.
Mixed Moral Character?
The distinction between the developed tendencies of our moral character and our present moral intention explains how to harmonize our intuitions that all men are partly holy and partly sinful, as Calvinists point out, and the Biblical claims that men are either completely holy or completely sinful. We are told a good tree cannot produce bad fruit and a bad tree cannot product good fruit. To the pure, all things are pure. To the ungodly, everything is evil. The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. How can these statements affirm that men are either completely holy or completely sinful, when all men seem to have good and bad aspects to them? The answer is in the conscious ultimate intention of their will. At any moment, a person either intends to live by the light he sees, or he is choosing to violate that light. The pure heart the Bible refers to is this ultimate focus of the person on what is good. While maintaining this focus, he cannot be consciously sinning. Within this ultimate focus is all righteousness, since all that must be added to it is moral light, and time. Everything good will flow into a person’s settled character if he perseveres in this mindset. Since his intentions are good, everything he does is good. Yes, he still will make mistakes and will have involuntary responses that are not yet transformed. He will still be sinful unintentionally, but he will not be sinning deliberately. While his character is a mixture of good and bad tendencies, his heart is good now, and everything he does carries with it the purity of this heart intention.
Although we cannot call such a person sinless, the Bible does refer to such a person as blameless. This is not sinless perfection. The voluntary state of heart where conscious sinning has ended is what the Bible calls being ‘perfect’. It is not a perfection of character, where nothing new needs to come. It is not a sinless state where there is no sin to be forgiven and covered. It is perfect love, a present state of will in complete conformity to all perceived light. If this state of heart had always been maintained in life, no sinful development would have occurred in our lives. It is a state of heart that is pure. There is no sin in the heart where this intention abides. All sin remaining in the believer is present because of past sinfulness on his part. The fountain has been made pure now.
Love Fulfils The Law
Jesus declared this when he indicated that fulfillment of the spirit of the law was the fulfillment of the law. To love God with all the heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves is to fulfill the law. In other words, to in every situation to do what we perceive is right fulfills the law. We may still unintentionally violate a perfect application of the law but God has forgiven us and covered this. God is concerned primarily that we mean to do what is right given our knowledge, and that we have availed ourselves of the knowledge within our reach. Romans 13 says that love does no harm to its neighbor therefore love fulfils the law. Paul also declares in Romans 8 when we live after the Spirit, the righteous requirements of the law are fully met in us. Of course right intention will produce conscious obedience every time. No deliberate disobedience can flow from a heart set upon God and his will. We cannot will two opposite things at the same time. Jesus said no one can serve two masters. Thus, heart purity and holiness as the New Testament describes it implies complete obedience to our entire perceived obligation. If we do this we are holy and blameless in God’s sight. Anything less than this is sin.
This view of holiness is consistent with the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. David affirms this view in Psalm 19. He asks forgiveness for his secret faults (unintentional sins), recognizing no one can know all the ways he falls short. He then affirms that if he is free from willful sinning, then he will be perfect. He says, ‘Keep your servant also from willful sins, . . . then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.’
While the Bible acknowledges responsibility that extends beyond ability, it nowhere finds guilt unassociated with conscious violations of perceived obligation. Guilt for unintentional sin is always accounted for because it is the fruit of such conscious violations. Sin is lawlessness. But the law of the Spirit of life sets us free from the law of sin and death. If we live by the Spirit we are not under law because the fruit of the Spirit is love and against such things there is no law. Blamelessness. Purity. Holiness. All these have to do with the state of the will or heart. If the intent of the heart is right, all is right. There is still a vast amount of growth in knowledge to take place, and a counter-development of wrong tendencies in our moral characters must eventually come about. But we are not guilty for being human. That is the way God made us! And he is more than pleased with us just the way we are. All he requires is that we use what we have rightly, and live up to the light we have received. If we are doing this then we are holy and blameless.
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)