A Victorious Faith
Last year, the PCA approved a report on human sexuality that rightly spoke to the hope and victory of believers over sexual sins (AIC, 7 AND 10). However, when overtures were written to extend this to ordained officers of the church (along with calls for holiness in several other areas of life like finance, alcohol, etc) charges of “Wesleyan Perfectionism” rang loudly from certain quarters of the church.
We’ve been here before. Several years ago we struggled with the antinomian preaching of Tullian Tchividjian. I thought we had survived his aberrant teachings on the relationship between justification and sanctification, but I see it is sprouting up again within the PCA. It appears we may have an allergy to biblical commands to pursue holiness.
Is it wrong for Reformed believers to trust that the Spirit’s work will be effective? 1 John 5:4-5 indicates that we should indeed expect Spirit-wrought victory in our lives,
“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
The Greek word for “overcome,” used three times in these two verses, is the verbal form of the noun “victory” used in verse 4. It is associated with athletes winning a contest or an army winning a great battle. Within the larger context of this passage, John has taught that those who believe Jesus is the Christ have been born of God (v. 1). Further, if we love God, we will obey his commandments (2-3). The one who professes faith in Jesus Christ has victory over the world.
The “world” in 1 John is a collective word that encompasses all desires, ambitions, dangers, and temptations contrary to God’s revealed will. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, “Perhaps the best way of defining what the New Testament means by ‘the world’ is that it is everything that is opposed to God and His Spirit” (Life in Christ, 588). It is not simply avoiding things that are worldly, like the old fundamentalist aversions to movie theaters and dance halls. “For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). John’s message couldn’t be clearer: Christians can have victory over the world (i.e. sin) through faith in Jesus Christ.
Commenting on 1 John 5:4-5, John Calvin wrote,
“Having such a force to contend with, we have an immense war to carry on, and we should have been already conquered before coming to the contest, and we should be conquered a hundred times daily, had not God promised to us the victory. But God encourages us to fight by promising us the victory.”
Calvin goes on to say that it is only by faith that we can comprehend the victory Christ won for us and apply his power to our current fight. Calvin certainly believed that Christians are called to spiritual warfare over their sins by putting to death what remains and believing that the ultimate victory is ours in Christ. We should take heart that it is God who encourages us to fight. After all, he has won the war already.
The Westminster Divines follow this interpretation of 1 John 5:4-5. They used those verses as proof texts for WCF 13.3 and 14.3, which are given below:
WCF 13.3 - "In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome [1 Jn 5:4]; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God."
WCF 14.3 - "This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory [1 Jn 5:4]; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith."
When it comes to overcoming sin in this life, the language of the Confession could be called “hopefully aggressive.” The Divines’ reference to the dreaded “P” word (“perfecting”) might irritate some in the modern Reformed world, as may their characterization of sanctification as “a continual and irreconcilable war” within the Christian (WCF 13.2). Some wars are short, but by far most are long affairs alternating between successes and setbacks. The Confession speaks to this as well. Yet even when sins do not go down quickly or quietly, there is still hope, for “the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified” (WCF 13.1).
The real question then is “how do Christians have victory over remaining sin?” A helpful guide may be found in Puritan Richard Alleine’s book The World Conquered by the Faithful Christian. Alleine presents a triumphant faith in Christ’s work on the cross, and shows how this empowers the Christian’s call to battle remaining sin:
“A true Christian, then, is a conqueror, more heroic, more noble, more exalted than the greatest of all earthly conquerors, for he has conquered that which has conquered them — the world” (1).
Alleine saw faith as the key to victory over remaining sin:
“Faith is said to be our victory, for it brings us to Christ and so renders us victorious over the world which endeavors to keep us from Him; also, because it is the weapon of our warfare through which we obtain the victory. The world is the Christian’s enemy which a combat is to be maintained and over which a conquest is to be won” (1-2).
The Westminster Divines, the Reformers, the Puritans, and Scripture call for active combat against remaining sins, not merely a passive acceptance that such sins will eventually go away. Paul knew this well, and instructed the church at Ephesus to equip themselves with “the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11, 13). “A true Christian,” said Alleine, “is a soldier as soon as he is a saint, and he is a conqueror as soon as he is a soldier. His very taking up arms ensures his victory” (2).
If you are uncomfortable with the warfare imagery in Scripture, remember that the path to victory over sin is faith in Christ. His victory is our greatest weapon against remaining sins, but it will require faith and action. We have been transferred from darkness to life, from peace with our sins to war with them.
This cannot be simply dismissed as “Wesleyan” holiness. It is in fact the holiness we are all called to by God’s Word and empowered for by God’s Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. Let us then encourage one another to persist in this faith, and thereby pursue victory.
Philip Ryan is the Assistant Pastor of Discipleship at the Kirk Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA.
"The Violent, Tenacious, Active Fight for Holiness" by Jacob Tanner
"Nisbet on Motivations for Holiness" by Danny Hyde
"The Oft-Unopened Gift of Shame" by Derrick Brite
Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution by Carl Trueman
Knowing Sin: Seeing a Neglected Doctrine Through the Eyes of the Puritans by Mark Jones