From the Archives: On Christian Perfection
To offset the decline in moral and spiritual values, Pietists sought to establish new standards of conduct and Christian discipline. Often these standards appeared to be perfectionistic and Pietists were criticized for this tendency. However, as this selection from A.H. Francke shows, Pietists also recognized human imperfections and thus strove for their ideals, fully aware that frailty and ignorance are a part of man’s struggle.
Originally written in 1690, the text is translated by Peter Erb from Gustav Kramer, August Herman Francke: Ein Lebensbild, 1880, and is found in Pietists: Selected Writings, 1983. Used with permission of Paulist Press.
1. We are justified only by faith in the Lord Jesus without merit or the addition of work in that the Heavenly Father because of the perfect satisfaction and the precious merit of his Son judges us free and liberated from all our sins.
2. Through this justification, which occurs through faith, the justified person becomes completely and totally perfect: indeed, it is seen as the justification of God himself, as St. Paul writes: God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the justification of God [2 Cor. 5:21]. Just as God looks upon the Lord Christ as sin (because our sins were reckoned to him), so he sees the sinner as just and completely perfect because he gives to the sinner as the sinner’s own the innocence and righteousness of Christ.
3. He who does not have this perfection cannot become holy. Perfection is nothing other than faith in the Lord Jesus and is not in us or ours but in Christ or of Christ for whose sake we are considered perfect before God and thus his perfection is ours by ascription.
4. However, if a person is justified he can be completely certain of his blessedness. Nevertheless he immediately discovers the weakness of the flesh and inherited sinful behavior. He desires in the depth of his heart nothing other than God and eternal life and he looks upon everything which is in the world as the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life as dirt and harm. Nevertheless, he discovers that original sin stirs in his flesh and causes in him all kinds of doubts and evil thoughts, at times evil inclinations of the will. Likewise he discovers that because of the great and long habit of sinning he often hastens into this or that external activity with words or deeds.
5. Such remaining disorderly patterns and activities, however, are not reckoned to the justified man. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, namely, those who do not walk according to the flesh although the flesh attracts them but according to the spirit. Thus as soon as the newborn man recognizes his error which does not proceed out of his own intentions, he turns in true faith to the grace of Jesus Christ and is in his heart an enemy of sin.
6. If the newborn Christian acknowledges such sins of the flesh, he strives with all earnestness against the evil which arises in his flesh. And he does so not through his own power and strength, but he destroys the works of the flesh through the spirit and he depends on the power of Jesus Christ which is made sanctification for him from God and conquers the evil in him.
7. In such sinful habits and crimes the justified man remains, however, never standing in one position, but through the grace of God he sets aside ever more and more the evil, and day to day grows in faith and in love just as in one’s physical life one is first a child then a youth then finally a man.
8. In such growth however a person can never get as far as he wishes. He is never completely perfect but he can grow and increase in good works as long as he lives. One who prides himself in an understanding of perfection deceives himself and others.
9. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that in the understanding, in a certain way, a perfection is attributed to man according to the Holy Scripture, namely, I can call someone a master in an art even if he has not completely learned that art and has other masters over him. Thus the Scripture does not wish to teach that a person can be completely perfect in his life, that he can be without sin or the attraction to sin, but that a person can come to a human strength in Christianity so as to kill the old habits in himself and to conquer his flesh and blood, and that one person is always more perfect than the other. Thus the epistle to the Hebrews [5:12–14] says that for the perfect there is strong food and it describes the perfect as those who have, because of practice, a practiced sense of distinguishing good and evil, but they are not those who are no longer inclined to evil through sinful lust.
10. From this it follows that both the following statements are true in a certain sense: We are perfect, and we are not perfect. Namely, we are perfect through Christ and in Christ through our justification and according to the righteousness of Jesus Christ ascribed to us. However, we are not and will not be completely perfect in the sense that we will nevermore be able to grow, to set aside evil and to take on good toward sanctification.
11. The one who does not wish to err in this matter must distinguish well the article concerning justification and that concerning renovation or sanctification. Otherwise, he will increasingly become entangled in controversy.
12. From this it follows that a justified man has no sin, namely, after justification, and he has sin after renovation, for that which still clings to a man is not reckoned to him because of Christ’s sake.
13. If the person who is justified prays or goes to confession, he prays that for Christ’s sake God will forgive the sins which are still in him and not ascribe them to him. He knows and is assured that as one who is in Christ Jesus there is no damnation for him.
14. As a result the justified man eats the sacrament for the strengthening of his faith and for the improvement of his life.
15. In all this, however, one has to be careful that his repentance is not hypocritical, but that he works out his salvation with fear and trembling. Otherwise the consolation from the grace of Christ can easily become willful and the person who has love for the world will speak as if the love of God is in him. Such an act is a deception and makes Hell rejoice.
Copyright © 1986 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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