"Imperfect in This Life"

So far in our study of chapter 13 in the 1689 London Baptist Confession, we have seen how sanctification is properly both decisive at conversion and ongoing throughout life. Simply put, the Christian is holy, and is being made holy. In the second paragraph of the chapter, the Confession asserts that this sanctification extends to every part of the person:

This sanctification is throughout the whole man, yet imperfect in this life; there abides still some remnants of corruption in every part, wherefrom arises a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

We are sanctified, definitively and progressively, in our mind, affections, will, and body. No part of us is left untouched by God’s gracious hand. This assertion then leads to the main emphasis of this paragraph: Though sanctification in Christ affects our entire being, “yet” it is “imperfect in this life” and “there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part.”

Here we have the reality of remaining sin in the Christian. Of course, this is already implied by the whole concept of progressive sanctification. If it is progressive, it is not yet perfect. Then the Confession describes the consequence of remaining sin in the believer, “whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.”

Remaining Sin in the Believer

This paragraph opposes the fallacy of any form of Christian perfectionism. Sanctification is “imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part.” Though we as believers have died to the reign of sin, we still must constantly deal with remaining sin. There is always room, and there is always need, for further growth and development. The mortifying of sin and the cultivating and strengthening of Christ-like virtues is a never-ending process until we are glorified in the world to come.

There have been those in the history of the church who have taught that a Christian can arrive at entire sanctification in this life. There are groups who teach that Christians, or at least some Christians, either no longer commit sins, or they no longer have a sinful nature. There are also those who teach that you can receive justification and then sometime later you may receive sanctification as an entire and complete package. They say there is no such thing as progressive sanctification. You are either sanctified or you are not, and if you’ve received sanctification, you no longer sin. The Confession opposes any such teaching as contrary to the Scriptures.

The latter part of Romans 7 is the classic text addressing the reality of remaining sin. Paul addresses this when he writes: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Rom. 7:19-20).

Consider, too, the Apostle John. He is the very disciple who leaned on Jesus’ breast; the disciple whom Jesus loved; the disciple who was, in a certain sense, closest to our Lord, a man who was there when the Holy Spirit came down in power on the day of Pentecost. He was a man full of the Holy Spirit.

It was this same John who said, (and notice he uses the plural pronoun including himself in what he says), “If we say that we have no sin, [no sinful nature, no indwelling sin] we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” 1 John 1:8. In verses 9-10 he says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, [have committed no acts of sin][1] we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” John wasn’t saying this to encourage believers to sin and not be troubled about it. In the very next verse he says, ‘My little children, these things I write to you so that you may not sin.” John was not making light of sin as though it doesn’t matter. He was simply acknowledging the fact that sin is still a part of the Christian’s experience in this life. More importantly, he is arguing that if you are a true Christian you will be painfully aware of this reality. Those who say they have no sin deceive themselves, he says, and the truth is not in them.

This is the same John who, in this same epistle, also taught the doctrine of definitive sanctification. He could say in 1 John 3:9 that, in one sense, Christians do not commit sin. Specifically, in the context of the concerns of this letter, they do not apostatize from devotion to Jesus Christ as the Son of God who has come in the flesh.[2]

But he also makes it clear here in the first chapter of his epistle that he does not mean that Christians have no more remaining sin. Sin no longer reigns, but it still remains so that every Christian finds the need to still repent and confess sin the rest of his days. And every Christian, as he says also in 1 John 2:2, is still in need of an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous who is the propitiation for our sins. This is so not only for the sins we commit before we are converted, but for those sins we struggle with even after we have become Christians.

Now this teaching should guard us from two extremes: Pharisaism on the one hand, and despair on the other. When men try to advocate a doctrine of Christian perfection, they tend to accommodate their understanding of sin to fit their doctrine. Sin is defined as something less than it actually is. So, they focus on outward sins and become blinded to the sins of the heart, sins of thought and attitude, and the depth of the corruption that dwells within them. Their error blinds them even to those visible sins that are more subtle and refined. Therefore, such an understanding of sanctification tends to produce self-deception and pride—a kind of Pharisaism.

At the other extreme, Christian perfectionism tends to produce despair in the heart of the truly sincere and humble child of God. He sees so much sin still clinging to everything he does and sees himself still falling so short of what he ought to be. Therefore, he is caused to feel that he must be some kind of second-class Christian who hasn’t discovered the secret of the deeper Christian life. Or, he’s caused to doubt whether he is a Christian at all. But we must remember that our sanctification is never entire and complete in this life; it is progressive. This fact exposes the fallacy of any form of Christian perfectionism.

Conflict in the Believer

After mentioning the reality of remaining sin in the Christian, the Confession then describes the consequences of remaining sin in the believer, “whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” There is struggle and conflict in the Christian life. This is not a bad sign. This is not a sign that a person is not a Christian. This is one of the evidences that you are a Christian. John Murray said:

If there is remaining indwelling sin, there must be the conflict which Paul describes (for example) in Rom. 7:14ff. It is futile to argue that this conflict is not normal. If there is still sin in any degree in one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then there is tension, yes, contradiction in the heart of that person. Indeed, the more sanctified the person is, the more conformed to the image of his Savior, the more he must recoil against every lack of conformity to the holiness of God. The deeper his apprehension of the majesty of God, the greater the intensity of his love to God, the more persistent his yearning for the attainment of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, the more conscious will he be of the gravity of the sin which remains and the more poignant will be his detestation of it. The more closely he comes to the holiest of all, the more he apprehends the sinfulness that is his and he must cry out, ‘Oh wretched man that I am’ (Rom. 7:24).[3]

There are types of holiness teachings and deeper life teachings in evangelical churches that say otherwise. Essentially, they argue that if you are a Christian seeking to live a sanctified Christian life, and you find that you are consciously struggling, laboring, wrestling, fighting, and resisting, you have grieved and quenched the Holy Spirit. You haven’t yet learned the secret of victory in the Christian life. They say the trouble with so many Christians is they remain ignorant of this secret. Therefore, they go on fighting and struggling with remaining sin and striving to be holy. What they must do is simply, “let go and let God, and rest by faith in the arms of Jesus and let the Holy Spirit take over.” Then, all the struggle will be gone.

Evidently the Apostle Paul, and all of the other Apostles and New Testament writers, were also ignorant of this “secret,” because throughout the New Testament, the language of conflict is used to describe the nature of the Christian life. It is language of diligent exertion, struggle, and even violence at times. “Pursue holiness without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Rom. 8:13). “Therefor do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (Rom. 6:12). Put off this, put on that. 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of faith.” Hebrews 12:4, “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” The implication is that living a holy life might come to that. This is vigorous language: conflict, struggle, exertion, plucking out the right eye, cutting off the right hand. Progressive sanctification is depicted as a real battle and spiritual warfare.

Does this mean that the Christian is doomed to abject failure? Does it mean that the child of God can never make any real progress in holiness? No! As we’ve seen, every Christian has been definitively sanctified. There has been a fundamental break with his old life under the dominating power of sin and the beginning of a new life of devotion to Jesus Christ. This definitive sanctification is not perfect. The Christian is not sinless. It’s not a matter of perfection, but there has been a change of direction.

Furthermore, having been definitively sanctified, the Christian is being progressively sanctified, although not perfectly sanctified in this life. He or she will always battle with remaining sin. But, at the same time, the true Christian will not ultimately be destroyed. In the conflict he will never apostatize and he will grow and increase in Christian virtue. This is the emphasis of the third and final paragraph of this chapter of the Confession.

Editor's Note: This post has been adapted from A New Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, edited by Rob Ventura, slated for release by Mentor Books in November 2022.

Jeffery Smith has been in pastoral ministry since 1990 and since 2009 has been serving at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Coconut Creek, FL. In addition to his regular pastoral and preaching responsibilities, Jeff serves on the governing board and as a lecturer for Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is the author of: The Plain Truth About Life After Death (Evangelical Press, 2019) and Preaching for Conversions (Free Grace Press, 2019). 

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[1] Parenthesis mine.

[2] See 1 John 2:18-23; 4:1-3, 13-16; 5:4-5, 16-18.

[3] Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied, 144-45.