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SERMON LX X.
PERFECT HOLINESS IN THIS LIFE THE DUTY OF
And this also we wish, even your perfection.
2 CORINTHIANS, xiii. 9
The church in Corinth was a very large and respectable church, while the apostle Paul resided among them; but after he left them, they fell into various disputes, animosities and contentions, through the influence of Judaizing teachers, who led many of them into both theoretical and practical errors. The apostle being informed of their irregularities and errors, wrote to them, in order to reclaim them. And his first epistle had a salutary effect, and produced a partial reformation. Still there were some things that needed to be reformed. He accordingly wrote to them his second epistle, in which he tenderly and affectionately reminds them of their past declension, but intimates that he rejoiced in the prospect of their becoming so completely reformed, that if he should come among them again, he should find nothing to censure.
He says, "Now I pray God, that ye do no evil; not that we should appear approved, but that ye should do that which is honest, though we be as reprobates. For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak, and ye are strong; and this also we wish, even your perfection.” This was as much as to say,“ Though we have power to reprove and censure you for doing wrong, yet we do not desire an opportunity of exercising this power. We pray to God, that ye do no evil, that ye may be strong, and that we may be weak. For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. If you do no evil, and act agreeably to your christian profession, you will disarm us of our power of reproving and censuring you. And we shall be glad when we are weak, and ye are strong, in this respect. For this is the very thing we wish, even your perfection.” And if the apostle was right in his wish, then we may justly conclude,
That it is the duty of christians to be perfectly holy in this life. I shall show,
I. What is meant by their being perfectly holy; and,
This is a point concerning which there is a diversity of opinions. Even those who agree in the nature of holiness, do not agree in respect to the perfection of it. But if we can only determine in what the moral imperfection of saints consists, we may easily determine in what their moral perfection consists. For if their moral imperfection consists in the weakness of their holy affections, then their moral perfection must consist in the strength of their holy affections. Or if their moral imperfection consists in the inconstancy of their holy affections, then their moral perfection must consist in the constancy of their holy exercises. Now it is easy to see that their imperfection in holiness cannot consist in the weakness of their holy affections. For their affections never can be perfectly strong, that is, as strong as the divine affections. In this respect, they never can be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect. Nor can they be perfect as the angels in heaven are perfect. For they are beings of far greater strength and of more enlarged intellectual powers than men, and capable of exercising much stronger affections than they. So that if perfection in holiness consists in the strength of the affections, it is impossible that saints should ever be perfectly holy, either in this world, or in the world to come. Besides, their affections always are as strong as they can be. When they do love God, they love him as much as they can, in their present circumstances, and with their present views. And when they love any other holy object, they love it as much as they can love it, for the time being. Men always love, or hate, with all their heart, and with all their mind, and with all their strength, or to the utmost of their capacities. Saints being perfectly holy, therefore, does not mean that their holy affections are equal in strength, vigor, or fervency, to the affections of God, or of angels, or of the spirits of just men made perfect. And from this it follows, that their perfection in holiness must consist in the constancy of their holy affections. If they should constantly and uninterruptedly exercise holy affections, they would be absolutely perfect in holiness, and entirely free from sin. If they should constantly, without any interruption, keep themselves in the love of God, and never indulge one selfish or unholy affection, they would be perfectly holy, in the sense of the text, and in the sense of this discourse. I now proceed to show,
II. That it is their duty to be perfectly holy in this life. And this will appear if we consider,
1. That there is a constant reason for their being holy, and therefore they ought to be constantly holy. The constant reason for their being holy arises from their natural capacity. They are endued with rational and moral powers, which render them capable of holy exercises. They know the difference between holy and unholy exercises, and are capable of feeling their moral obligation to exercise pure, holy, benevolent affections towards all the beings with whom they are concerned, and towards all the objects by which they are surrounded. This knowledge of their duty lays them under constant obligation to do it. It is as right that they should be constantly holy, as that they should ever be holy. Their obligation never ceases; and therefore they are constantly bound to fulfil it. They always have reason to be holy, but never a reason to be unholy.
So long, then, as they retain their natural and moral powers, they are under indispensable obligations to be holy in all manner of conversation and godliness.
2. The divine law requires christians to be constantly and perfectly holy. The law saith to every one, “ Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.” This law, which is founded in the nature of things, never has been and never can be abrogated. It binds christians at all times, and requires them to be constantly holy, or to exercise holy, and none but holy affections. It carries their duty as high as it can be carried; and as high as the duty of angels, or the saints in light. They can do no more than love God with all their heart, and their fellow creatures as themselves. And this the divine law requires of christians at all times, and under all circumstances. If it be the duty of christians to obey the first and fundamental law of God's kingdom, then it is their constant and indispensable duty to be perfectly holy in this life.
3. The gospel, as well as the law, requires of christians, in this life, constant holiness, or sinless perfection. This appears by a multitude of precepts and prohibitions contained in the New Testament. It is difficult and needless to mention them all. But I will cite a number, which are plainly and directly to the purpose. 1. Those precepts which require saints to do every thing
from love to God, require them to be constantly holy and free from sin. Paul, speaking to the saints at Corinth, says, “ Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” Again, he says to them, “ Let all your things be done with charity;" that is, with pure, holy love. And to the Colossians he says, “Above all these things, put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God, and the Father by him." And again he says, “ Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord, and not unto men.” These divine precepts are universal and unlimited. They require christians to do every thing in love and obedience to God. But to do every thing in such a manner, is to be constantly and perfectly holy. As these precepts admit of no qualification, or exception, they bind christians to maintain constant holiness, or sinless perfection, through the whole course of their lives.
2. Those precepts which enjoin constant obedience upon christians, require them to be perfectly holy and sinless. We find many such injunctions. Christians are required to rejoice in the Lord alway; to rejoice evermore; to pray without ceasing; and to be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. Constancy in holy affections, and holy obedience, amounts to perfect holiness and freedom from sin. If christians always lived in such a joyful, prayerful, and dutiful frame, they would live perfectly holy and sinless.
3. All those precepts which enjoin universal obedience upon christians, require them to be perfectly holy and conformed to the will of God. Paul, after wishing the perfection of christians, immediately exhorts them to maintain that perfection which he wished them to have. “Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.” To his christian brethren in
. Galatia, he says, “ If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” He enjoins it on the Philippians to do "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, and whatsoever things are of good report.” Peter, also, in his first epistle to christians in general, says, “ Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind; be sober and hope to the end, for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance. But as he who hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation. Because it is written, be ye holy, for I am holy." These precepts are exceeding broad, and extend to every branch of a christian's duty;, and require him to be perfectly holy in heart and life.
4. All those precepts which require christians to resist all opposition and surmount all difficulties in the path of duty, require them to be perfectly holy and constantly obedient. Christians are required to resist the devil and all his evil suggestions. James says, “ Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Peter says, "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour; whom resist steadfast in the faith.” “ Wherefore," saith the apostle Paul, “ take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand. Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, whereby ye may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.” Christians are required to resist and overcome the world, in every form in which it obstructs their holy and devout life. John says to them, “ Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Paul tells them, “ Be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds.” And again he says, "Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Christians are warned against the men of the world, as well as the things of the world. Our Lord bids his followers, “ Beware of men,” “ beware of false prophets,” and “ take heed and beware of the Scribes and Pharisees." And the apostles warn christians to beware of false spirits, false teachers, and all who lie in wait to deceive. Christians are urged also to feel and conduct with benevolence and propriety towards their enemies. Christ commands them, “ Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you." The apostle gives a similar exhortation. “Bless, and curse not.”
6 Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” Temporal evils and afflictions are great trials; but christians are required to feel and conduct perfectly right under them. They are exhorted to be patient in tribulation; not to despise chastenings, nor to faint under divine rebukes; nor to think it strange that they are called to fiery trials, but to rejoice under them. In a word, christians are required to feel and act perfectly right, notwithstanding all the assaults of Satan, all the allurements of the world, all the opposition of sinners, and all the trials and troubles which fall to their lot. They are required to feel and conduct according to the law of love, at all times, in all places, and in all circumstances. And this certainly amounts to their