Perfect Balance

Dr. Suzanne Nicholson, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

Chair, Department of Bible, Theology, and Ministry

Malone University (Canton, Ohio)

Article XII (Articles of Religion)— Of Sin After Justification

Not every sin willingly committed after justification is the sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after justification. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and, by the grace of God, rise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned who say they can no more sin as long as they live here; or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

I always like watching figure skating during the winter Olympics. It is amazing to see the precision with which the best skaters move around the ice. If they under-rotate their spins, failing to put forth enough power, they will come crashing down on the ice. But it is equally possible to get too excited, too energized when attempting that triple Salchow or double Axel; too much confidence may lead to over-rotation, resulting in yet another hard fall.

Skating one

The life of the believer also calls for precision and balance. Having experienced the new birth, a follower of Christ is now empowered to live a life of holiness in service to God and neighbor. But temptations to under-rotate or over-rotate the deft maneuvers of the Christian walk abound. “Under-rotation” occurs when believers think it is impossible to overcome sin in this life. This is a pervasive belief today, and is based in the common experience of committing sin even after coming to know Christ. This pessimism is underscored by certain interpretations of Romans 7 (“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it…”) which suggest that the believer will continually struggle—unsuccessfully—to overcome the power of sin. The believer then becomes resigned to the reality of sin and expects no escape from its power. And how can anyone hope to defeat sin in this life if they believe the battle is already lost?

But John Wesley would have none of that. He understood Romans 7 as an example of Paul portraying the persona of someone who was under the Law, struggling to achieve God’s will prior to knowing the redemption of Christ.[1] Once in Christ, however, the believer is set free from the guilt and the power of sin, and it becomes a real possibility to love both God and neighbor with one’s whole heart. Through the empowering of the Holy Spirit the believer is able to offer every thought, word, and deed to God. The fruit of the Spirit abounds, and the believer lives every moment to the glory of God.

Skating 2For those who embrace Wesley’s optimism that the power of the Spirit can indeed entirely transform us in this life,[2] the danger of “over-rotation” lurks. For the spiritually zealous who rightly rejoice in God’s work in their lives, Wesley warned not to succumb to spiritual pride. This kind of pride occurs when we credit any achievements to our own doing rather than to the power of God, or when we think we have more knowledge than we do, or when we believe we are so spiritually mature that we cannot learn from others.[3] Too much confidence in oneself leads to a hard fall just as surely as a lack of confidence in the power of God.

Article XII of the Articles of Religion addresses both potential errors. First, believers who recognize the importance of holy living often feel the weight of sin and experience a strong sense of guilt if they struggle with continued sin after coming to know Christ. Some may wonder if they truly are saved, or if Christ can again forgive their betrayal of his grace. But for those who truly repent, who desire to follow Christ again with their whole heart, grace is always available. The “sin against the Holy Ghost,” the unpardonable sin mentioned in Article XII, as Wesley saw it, was the sin of claiming that Christ had performed his miracles by the power of the devil (Mark 3:29-30), and thus is not a sin that a believer commits.[4] Regarding other sins, committed after the new birth, God is gracious toward those who repent:

And, sooner or later, he surely lifts up the light of his countenance upon them; he strengthens the hands that hang down, and confirms the feeble knees; he teaches them again to say, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoiceth in God my Saviour.” Innumerable are the instances of this kind, of those who had fallen, but now stand upright. Indeed, it is so far from being an uncommon thing for a believer to fall and be restored, that it is rather uncommon to find any believers who are not conscious of having been backsliders from God, in a higher or lower degree, and perhaps more than once, before they were established in faith.[5]

Believers who struggle with sin and guilt need only to return to God with a spirit of repentance and a genuine desire to follow Christ anew. God’s grace is vast.

Second, Article XII chastises those who might look down upon believers who are struggling to embody holiness. We’ve probably all met a few of those churchgoers who scrunch up their noses at the “wrong sort” of people coming into church, whispering that “they don’t belong here.” But Article XII reminds us of the hypocrisy of assuming our own perfection while denying grace to others, because it is only through that same grace that we can hope to draw near to God.

Skating 3

Ultimately, true balance is found in the Wesleyan optimism that God is already transforming us here and now through the work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. When we stumble, whether through doubting God’s ability to conquer sin in our lives or through an over-confidence in our own abilities, we need not fall. God’s grace is waiting to catch us.

Skating 4

For further reading:

John Wesley, Sermon 8, “The First Fruits of the Spirit”

John Wesley, Sermon 13, “Sin in Believers”

John Wesley, Sermon 14, “The Repentance in Believers”

John Wesley, Sermon 40, “On Christian Perfection”

John Wesley, Sermon 76, “On Perfection”

John Wesley, Sermon 86, “A Call to Backsliders”

John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”

[1] See John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, which can be found online at: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesleys-notes-on-the-bible

[2] Wesley offered a nuanced version of Christian perfection. He believed freedom from voluntary sin could be achieved in this lifetime, but he allowed that involuntary sin (e.g., mistakes and infirmities) remained. For a helpful discussion, see Mark K. Olson, “John Wesley’s Doctrine of Sin Revisited,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 47 (2012): 53-71.

[3] See Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, which can be found online at: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-plain-account-of-christian-perfection

[4] See Wesley’s sermon, “A Call to Backsliders,” which can be found online at: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-86-a-call-to-backsliders

[5] Ibid.

1 thought on “Perfect Balance

  1. Pingback: ‘Rise again’ we Methodists say | John Meunier

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