Larger Catechism, #78

The Larger Catechism

Question 78

78.       Q. Whence ariseth the imperfection of sanctification in believers?

A. The imperfection of sanctification in believers ariseth from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit; whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins,[339] are hindered in all their spiritual services,[340] and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.[341]

Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[339] Romans 7:18, 23. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not…. But I see another 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. Mark 14:66. And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest. Galatians 2:11-12. But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. [340] Hebrews 12:1. Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. [341] Isaiah 64:6. But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. Exodus 28:38. And it shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things, which the children of Israel shall hallow in all their holy gifts; and it shall be always upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD.

 

Introduction

Whereas justification is immediate, sanctification is a process. Sanctification remains imperfect until we are glorified. This question answers why sanctification remains imperfect.

The Remnants of Sin

The LC answers, “The imperfection of sanctification in believers ariseth from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit…” This answer makes three important points:

1. Our imperfections arise from the remnants of sin.

2. The remnants of sin abide in “every part” of us.

3. The remnants of sin perpetually lusts against the spirit.

 

1. Our imperfections arise from the remnants of sin.

Though regenerated and completely justified, each believer still has indwelling sin (“sin that dwells within me” Rom. 8:17) or the remnants of sin dwelling in him. Paul states that believers “mortify” or put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body”). This statement assumes the existence of the remnants of sin in believers. In Romans 7:18, 23, Paul describes personally (and universally descriptive of all believers) the presence of this indwelling sin, these remnants of sin. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not…. But I see another 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.

We cannot enter into debate over how Rom. 7 ought to be interpreted (is Paul talking about a Christian’s experience, an unbeliever’s, a Jew from a ‘salvation history’ perspective, etc.?). We take the traditional interpretation and agree with John Murray who says that Rom. 7:14-25 “is the delineation of Paul’s experience in the state of grace.”[1] Paul is saying that nothing good dwells in his remaining flesh (his sinful nature). Verse 17 says, “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwell within me.” Paul is not excusing or disavowing his responsibility. He is explaining how this indwelling has been foiling him.

 

2. The remnants of sin abide in “every part” of us.

The phrase “the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them” does not mean that believers are totally depraved. Rather every part of the regenerate believer is still affected by the remnants of sin. Total depravity means the pervasive effects of Original Sin; there is no part in fallen man not tainted by sin. The believer, once regenerated, still has the effects of the fallen nature dwelling in him. As an unbeliever, no part is regenerated and set free from sin; no part of our fallen condition truly improves and nothing renews itself. On the other hand, as a believer, each part is being renewed day by day though not perfectly.

An illustration may help here. A drug addict is completely under the power of his narcotics. This addict represents the unbeliever. On the other hand, a recovering drug addict is free from drugs but the residual effects and habits still molest him. The former is under its power (representing total depravity) while the latter is free from it but not absolutely — his entire existence after coming free reminds him of his addiction (“remnants of sin abiding in every part of them”).

Paul says in Romans 7:23, “but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Here, Paul suggests that the “law of sin” is always present. In v. 21, Paul says “evil lies close at hand” teaching us that the remnant of sin never departs. We cannot believe that some “safe zone” dwells in us from which the remnants of sin cannot assault us. Our spiritual thinking, affections, emotions, appetites, may be new and genuine but they are not immaculate.

 

3. The remnants of sin perpetually lusts against the spirit.

Gal. 5:17-18 teaches that the flesh and the spirit oppose each “to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Similarly, in Rom. 7:23 (cited above), Paul says a continual war is waged against us. Murray helpfully explain Rom. 7:23:

The “members” in which the law of sin is said to reside will have to be taken in the sense of the same term in 6:13, 19. If the thought is focused on our physical members, as appeared necessary in the earlier instances, we are not to suppose that “the law of sin” springs from or has its seat in the physical. It would merely indicate, as has been maintained already, that the apostle brings to the forefront the concrete and overt ways in which the law of sin expresses itself and that our physical members cannot be divorced from the operation of the law of sin. Our captivity to the law of sin is evidenced by the fact that our physical members are the agents and instruments of the power which sin wields over us. But again we are reminded, as in 6:13, that, however significant may be our physical members, the captivity resulting is not that merely of our members but that of our persons—“bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members”.[2]

We find our bodies, our members, our flesh, etc. continually opposing us. It never stops; the struggle is ongoing and unrelenting.

 

The Effects of the Indwelling Sin

The effects of this indwelling sin are many — “whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.” The text used to support the answer appears strange at first. Yet, once again, the use demonstrates the divines’ perception and accuracy. In partial proof of some of the statements in the answer, they cite Mark 14:66 & Gal. 2:11-12. Mark 14:66 reads, “And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest.” Galatians reads, “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.

Peter’s fear of man emerged when he denied Christ to a “servant girl” and once again in Antioch as recorded in Galatians. In both cases, Peter was foiled by temptations, “often foiled with temptations.” The supposed “Rock” of the Roman Catholic group served as the perfect specimen of what the effects of indwelling sin looked like. These weighty sins occurred not once but twice. Also, the regenerate King David fell into may sins (adultery, murder, lies, etc.). In both cases, genuine believers continue to fall here and there.

On account of the remnants of sin, we cannot perform the spiritual services in the way we like (“are hindered in all their spiritual services”). As a result our best works are always imperfect and defiled in God’s sight. Ridgley says that the believer

finds his heart disposed to wander from God, and his thoughts taken up with vanity. On this account it may be truly said, that his best works are not only imperfect, but defiled in the sight of God, who searcheth the heart, and observes the various steps by which it treacherously departs from him. Nor can the believer find any way to recover himself till God is pleased to revive his work, take away the guilt which he has contracted, recover him out of the snare into which he has fallen, and so cause the work on grace again to flourish in the soul as it once did.[3]

If the remnants of sin gain too much ground, the effects can be extensive and extremely humbling.

 

Why we are allowed to be Imperfect

We should not be surprised by the prevalence and power of the remnants of sin in us. Though God could have gotten rid of all our sins in an instant, He chose not to. Therefore, He has reasons for allowing these imperfections to exist in us. Ridgley gives three possible reasons but I’ve added a few more and changed one of his.

1. This helps us to be sensible of our past sins, to repent of them, and also to presently humble and compel us to depend more on our God on a daily and moment by moment basis.

2. By the continuous struggles with our sins and then through eventual victories (by God’s grace), we can, Ridgley says, “be qualified to administer suitable advice and warning to those who are in a state of unregeneracy, that they may be persuaded to see the evil of sin, which at present they do not.”

Perhaps even better, with these imperfections and failures, we are enabled more to help our brethren who also might be going through similar struggles, temptations, and sins.

3. God allows it to help us to hate it, to mortify it, etc. There was a time when we did not care about sin and righteousness but now we do and it greatly bothers us.

4. God allows it so that we will yearn for absolute holiness, heaven, and glory. Were we comfortable with our sins (a believer ultimately cannot), then we would not see the benefit of glory!

5. God allows it so that we might see how wonderful Christ is and the glories of our justification.

 

Some Practical Inferences

Using a few writers to help us here, let us draw some helpful inferences.

1. Let us not be too harsh or censorious at the imperfections of others.

Since sinless perfection is not attainable in this life, we should take occasion to give a check to our censorious thoughts concerning persons or things, so as not to determine persons to be in an unconverted state, because they are chargeable with many sinful infirmities, which are not inconsistent with the truth of grace. Some abatements are to be made for their being sanctified but in part, and having the remnants of sin in them. Indeed, the greatest degree of grace which can be attained here, comes far short of that which the saints have arrived at in heaven. (Ridgley, 162)

2. Let us be sensible of our own imperfections so as to remain humble.

3. Let us give God the glory for any victories we might have.

From the opposition which corrupt nature makes in believers to the work of grace, we may infer that the standing of the best of men, or their not being chargeable with the greatest sins, is owing not so much to themselves as to the grace of God, by which we are what we are; that therefore the glory of our being preserved from such sins belongs entirely to him; that we have reason, when we are praying against our spiritual enemies, to beg that God would deliver us from the greatest of them, namely, ourselves; and that he who has a sovereignty over the hearts of all men, and can govern and sanctify their natural tempers and dispositions, would keep us from being drawn away by these; and that we ought to walk watchfully, and be always on our guard, depending on the grace of God for help, that indwelling sin may not so far prevail as to turn aside and alienate our affections from him. (Ridgley, 163)

4. Let us recognize that being unsettled by our sins bodes well for us.

James Fraser made a very helpful observation. He argued that the holier the person, the “more his heart is sanctified, it is reasonable to suppose he shall have the more quick sense and painful feeling of what sin may remain in him…” Furthermore, a wicked person would remain untouched by his small sins – he is hardened to them and “his sins give him little or no uneasiness, not even the unholiness of his outward practice; much less the unholiness of his heart.” Fraser then observes:

A person unholy, and impenitent, fixes his attention on any good thing he can observe with himself, whereby he can in any degree support a favourable opinion of his own state, and be somewhat easy in an evil course. On the other hand, a person truly sanctified is ready to overlook his own good attainments, to forget the things that are behind in this respect, and rather consider how far he is behind, and defective in holiness; and to fix his attention with much painful feeling, on his remaining sinfulness, for matter of godly sorrow, or serious regret to him. With a just view of the majesty and holiness of God, he is ready to say with Job, chap. 42:6. I abhor myself.[4]

5. Let us not secretly give up ourselves to sin simply because the remnants of sin dwells in us and often can and do foil us.

Again, we might infer from the consequences of the prevalence of corruption, as we are liable hereby to be discouraged from duty or hindered in the performance of it, that we ought, if we find it thus with us, to take occasion to inquire whether some secret sin be not indulged and entertained by us, which gives occasion to the prevalence of corrupt nature, and for which we ought to be humbled. Or if we have lived in the omission of those duties which are incumbent on us, or have provoked God to leave us to ourselves, and so have had a hand in our present evils, we have occasion for great humiliation. And we ought to be very importunate with God for restoring grace, not only that our faith may not fail, but that we may be recovered out of the snare in which we are entangled, and may be brought off victorious over all our spiritual enemies. (Ridgley, 163)



[1] John Murray, Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959-1965), 1:259. William Young argued that a misunderstanding of this passage will cultivate “a superficial religion.” See Joel R. Beeke and Ray B. Lanning, eds., Reformed Thought: Selected Writings of William Young (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 255-258. This position has been maintained by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Beza, Charles Hodge, John Brown of Wamphray, James Fraser of Alness, Chalmers, Haldane, Shedd, etc.

[2] John Murray, Epistle to the Romans, 1:267-8.

[3] Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity, Volume 2 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 161.

[4] James Fraser, The Treatise on Sanctification (London: Bliss, Sands & Co., 1897), 266-7.

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