The Philadelphia Baptist Association: To the Churches of which it is composed:
DEAR BRETHREN: In selecting our theme for the Circular Letter we have followed the ancient custom of our fathers, which was (when writing Circular Letters) to address the churches on some doctrinal subject.
The theme we have selected is CHRISTIAN HOLINESS. The reason we select this is, because it is a subject much discussed at the present time, and we think improperly understood.
We shall, in discussing the subject, first inquire what is meant by Christian holiness? And we know of no better way to answer the question, than to consider from the teaching of the Word of God who are holy. The Apostle Peter, in his first epistle, second chapter and fifth verse, says, “Ye also as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” This refers to a holy priesthood, and in this all believers are included. In the ninth verse of this chapter, the apostle, referring to the same persons, says, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” This word, holy, is the same as is found in John xvii. 19, where the Saviour, in praying to the Father for his disciples, says, “Sanctify them through thy truth,” and means, separate from common condition and use. This holiness is declared of every believer. The Apostle John says, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” That is, he cannot be an habitual practiser of sin. Who is this that is born of God? The same apostle tells us when he says, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” And what is this seed that remaineth in him The Apostle Peter answers when he says, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God which liveth and abideth forever.” This still refers to all believers. But many might say, We see these believers[‘] sin. That does not affect this doctrine; for the Apostle John declares of believers, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
It may be said, Does God even ask us to perform that which we are not able? as, for instance, when he says, “Be ye perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect.” We respond, God has enjoined us to do that which we cannot while there is remaining in us any inclination to sin. As an instance, we are told to “know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge.” The law was given that God might show the exceeding sinfulness of sin. We are required to keep this law perfectly; yet we hesitate not in saying, that man never can render
perfect obedience to this law. The only reason we need a Saviour in the person of Christ is because we cannot render perfect obedience to God's requirements.
Paul to the Colossians says, “Ye are complete in him;” that is, Christ. This refers to all believers, and means having been complete. This completion is perfect, true, in every respect. In the fourth chapter of the same epistle, the apostle says, “That ye may stand perfect and complete;” meaning having been complete. Thus we see again what is spoken of one is spoken of all the saints.
It may be said, that we see a great difference among Christians. Some are zealous for Christ, others are not. All that we can say of this is, as another has said, “Those who are more earnest are better behaved children, but no more children.” There were differences even among the twelve apostles. There were three whom Christ seemed to draw near to himself; one of whom it is expressly stated Jesus loved.
The foundation of all our graces is Christ. “Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stone, wood, hay, stubble. Every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it; because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built upon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved.” We see that while some of these build stubble, others “purchase to themselves a good degree,” yet they are all saved.
We must admit there are those who exhibit more of the spirit and likeness of Christ than do others. The works of nature and grace correspond in this respect. In an orchard of apple trees we see some of the trees producing a less amount of fruit than do others, and yet all the trees have had the care of the owner, received the same quantity of rain, and the same sun has shone upon them all. And while some of the trees have produced a large amount of fruit, yet there is no tree which has not upon it some defective fruit. The same may be said of believers. They all have the same Saviour, and are blessed by the same Spirit, and all belong to one family, and yet differ in their conduct, because some resemble Christ more than do others. Hence we find Paul exhorting Timothy to “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” And Peter, writing to believers, says, “grow in grace.” These passages evidently mean that we are to grow more strongly rooted in the grace in which we have been planted.
Christian holiness, therefore, is departing from iniquity; for in proportion as we depart from iniquity will we cleave unto Christ. This is following the injunction of the Saviour when he said, “Abide in me.”
How, then, we may ask, is this work accomplished in us? It is by allowing Christ to work in us according to his good pleasure. Having received the Spirit we are to be cautious lest we grieve him ; for through him we are sealed unto the day of redemption. In the language of another; “In a way sufliciently similar to that in which the sinner becomes possessed of his sinful nature, which has been conveyed to him from the first Adam, through his parents, the saint too becomes possessed of his new nature directly from the second Adam by regeneration. And as the sinful propensities of the natural heart are developed and strengthened in the sinner by years of practice, so too the holy tendencies of the new nature are exercised and confirmed in the
believer by the discipline of a godly life. The man, therefore, whose walk is the most close with God shall always be the most holy; for the secret of holiness lies in constant communion with Jesus.”
In order, therefore, for this work to be accomplished in us, we are to yield ourselves to Christ. As Paul says, “Yield yourselves unto God as those who are alive from the dead.” A dead man is powerless, and so is a sinner who spiritually is dead in trespasses and sins. But in a live man there is power. So with the believer: in him there is power; for he is no longer dead. Regeneration has imparted to him a new life, and although it is hid with Christ in God, it has an outward manifestation. The believer manifests this by yielding himself constantly to Christ. Hence the believer is to “Work out his own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who worketh in him to will and to do of his good pleasure.” A father gives to his child a beautiful garden, handsomely laid out, with vegetation properly growing; all he asks of the child is that he will be careful to keep weeds from thriving. Thus eternal life is the present possession of the believer, yet he is required so to conduct himself that 'sin will not interfere with the growth. “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” Hence the apostle exhorts his brethren at Rome to yield themselves servants to righteousness unto holiness. It is we who are believers who are to yield ourselves to Christ.
This yielding to Christ will apply to every Christian duty. We are in possession of the Divine nature, yet this does not supersede the necessity for diligent work on our part. It is true God gives grace to the believer, yet the extent of his actual enjoyment is regulated by the. manner in which he avails himself of God's gracious gifts.
This work of holiness is also accompanied in the believer by the exercise of the gifts God has given us. This the apostle clearly taught in the twelfth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. Two farms may be near each other, and may be considered of equal value. We find one of these farms producing in harvest an abundant crop of grain; the other is covered with weeds. The cause of this difference is, the one is properly tilled, the other is not. Thus we may see two Christians enjoying the same gospel privileges: the one is barren and unfruitful in the Lord's vineyard, but the other is wonderfully useful. The cause of the difference is, not only that one has to a greater degree overcome sin, but also in God's strength more earnestly endeavored to cultivate the graces which the Spirit has imparted to him.
Yet in a special sense this work is produced by Christ working in us by his Holy Spirit. It is only by trusting in the power of the Spirit of God that we can overcome sin. It is the Spirit who takes of the things of Jesus and reveals them to us. Hence the Spirit dwelling in us causes us to be temples of the living God.
Christian holiness, however, is not perfected in this life. It should be the desire of every believer to know as much of divine things as possible. There is nothing in the Word of God which would restrict the believer in his aspirations after holiness. On the contrary, the Bible not only encourages the believer, but enjoins it upon him to aspire after holiness. “But as he which 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.” Yet there is nothing in the Bible which would lead the believer to
suppose that he could attain to a state of sinless perfection in this life. It is only the pure in heart who shall see God. Yet as purity of heart increases in the Christian, he sees more and more his own sinfulness. Even what men would call the smallest sin is to him a great source of trouble.
A Christian, as he advances in grace, may be enabled more fully to grasp the mysteries of redemption, and more clearly to realize his union with Christ, and he may feel that the great desire of his life is to be entirely consecrated to Christ. Still this is not a perfection in grace. A Christian living in this manner may make very high attainments in the divine life; but with an increase of grace he will be enabled to realize that there is yet before him the great ocean of divine knowledge and grace.
No devoted Christian can feel, under any circumstances, that he has reached a state of grace beyond which he cannot go. We venture to say, that no Christian has ever advanced so far in grace as not to feel the need to ask of God the forgiveness of sins; neither have any felt that there is for them no more conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Hence there can be no such thing as perfect holiness while in the present life.
The Scriptures plainly teach that there is no perfection to the believer in grace while he remains on earth. John says, “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Paul in Philippians says he has not already attained, and neither is he already perfect. He also says, “I see a law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Again he says, “When I would do good evil is present with me.” In Ecclesiastes we are told, “There is not a just man upon the earth, that doeth good and sinneth not.” The Apostle James, in reference to all Christians, says, “In many things we offend all.”
It is true, Paul in his prayer for the Thessalonians desires that the very God of peace should sanctify them wholly. But he connects this with the second coming of the Lord, and says, “I pray God your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter teaches that this perfection is to be attained in the hour of death; for he says, “The God of all grace, who hath called us into his eternal glory, by Jesus Christ, after that ye have suffered awhile, make you perfect.”
We conclude that the proper understanding of the doctrine we have considered is essential to true Christian happiness; for although our own shortcomings will humble us, yet we can rejoice in Christ; for he is our perfection, and the life which we now live we live by faith in the Son of God.
As good stewards of the grace of God we are to “Add to our faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.” “And if these things be in you and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren [idlers] nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
J. M. PENDLETON, Moderator.
HORATIO GATEs JONES, Clerk.
[From the Philadelphia Baptist Association Minutes, 1871, pp. 37-40; via U. of Chicago digital documents. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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