1 Thess. 5:23-24:—"And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it."
There is no feature of Christianity more strongly emphasized by those to whom its establishment in the world was committed, than the breadth and depth of its ethical demands. The "salvation" which was promised in the "Gospel" or "Glad Tidings" which constituted its proclamation, was just salvation from sin and unto holiness. In other words, it was a moral revolution of the most thoroughgoing and radical kind. "Sanctification" is the Biblical word for this moral revolution, and in "sanctification" the very essence of salvation is made to consist. "This is the will of God" for you, says the Apostle to his readers in this very epistle, "even your sanctification." A great part of the epistle is given, accordingly, to commending the new converts for the progress they had already made in this sanctification, and to urging them onward in the same pathway.
No moral attainment is too great to be pressed on them as their duty, no moral duty is too minute to be demanded of them as essential to their Christian walk. The standard the Apostle nas before him, and consistently applies to his readers, falls in nothing short of absolute perfection, a perfection which embraces in its all-inclusive sweep the infinitely little and the infinitely great alike. In the verses immediately preceding our text the Apostle had been engaged, as is his wont in all his epistles, in enumerating a number of details of conduct which he wished, especially, to emphasize to his readers. They are not chosen at haphazard, but are just the items of conduct which the particular readers with whom he is at the moment engaged required most to have urged upon their attention. But the Apostle would not have his readers suppose that their whole duty was summed up in the items he enumerates. As he draws to the close of his exhortations he therefore breaks off in the enumeration and adjoins one great comprehensive prayer for their entire perfection: "But may the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly: and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved perfect without failure, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He that calleth you who also will do it."
Here we have obviously a classical passage— possibly the classical passage—for "entire sanctification"; and it may repay us in the perennial interest which attends the discussion of the theme of "entire sanctification" to look at it somewhat closely, as such.
First of all, let us settle it clearly in mind that it is of "entire sanctification" that the passage treats. There can certainly be no doubt of it, if we will only give the language of the passage a fair hearing. It is so emphasized, indeed, and with such an accumulation of phraseology that it becomes almost embarrassing. The entirety, the completeness, the perfection of the sanctification, of which it speaks is, in fact, the great burden of the passage. In contrast with the details with which the Apostle had just been dealing, and which—just because they were details—could touch the periphery only of a perfect life, and that only at this or that point of the circumference, he here adverts to the complete sanctification that not merely touches but fills not the periphery only but the entire circle of the Christian—nay, of the human—life. It is a sanctification that is absolutely complete and that embraces the perfection of every member of the human constitution, that the Apostle here deals with.
Observe the emphatic repetition of the idea of completeness. May the "God of Peace"—and this very designation of God, doubtless, has its reference to the completeness of the sanctification, peace being the opposite of all division, distraction, hesitation and dubitation,—may the "God of Peace," the Apostle prays, "sanctify you completely "—so as that ye may be perfect and wanting nothing that enters into the perfection of your correspondence to the ends for which you were created. And not content with this, he adds explanatorily, "And may your spirit and your soul and your body be preserved entire, perfect," and not that merely, but "blamelessly entire, perfect "; "blamelessly "—that is, in a manner which is incapable of being accused of not coming up to its idea.
Observe further the distribution of the personality which is to be perfected into its component parts, of each of which, in turn, perfection is desiderated. Not only are we to be sanctified wholly, but every part of us—our spirit, our soul, our body itself—is to be kept blamelessly perfect. The Apostle is not content, in other words, with the general, but descends into the specific elements of our being. And for each of these elements in turn he seeks a "blameless perfection," that the sum of them all—the "we" at large— may be, indeed, complete and entire, wanting nothing.
Now, no doubt, this enumeration of parts is in a sense rhetorical and not scientific. The Apostle is accumulating terms to convey the great idea of completeness more pungently to us—something as our Lord did when He told us we must love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. But even so he makes a certain distinction between the three elements he enumerates, by the accumulation of which he expresses completeness most emphatically. His meaning is that there is no department of our being into which he would not have this perfection penetrate, where he would not have it reign, and through which he would not have it operate to the perfecting of the whole.
By this double mode of accumulation, we perceive, the Apostle throws an astonishing emphasis on the perfection which he desires for his readers. Here we may say is "Perfectionism" raised to its highest power, a blameless perfection, a perfection admitting of no failure to attain its end, in every department of our being alike, uniting to form a perfection of the whole, a complete attainment of our idea in the whole man. There is certainly no doctrine of "entire sanctification" that has been invented in these later days which can compare with Paul's doctrine in height or depth or length or breadth. His "perfectionism" is assuredly the very apotheosis of perfectionism. The perfection proposed is a real perfection (which is not always true of recent teachings on this subject) and the man who attains it is a perfect man —every part of his being receiving its appropriate perfection (and this is seldom or never true of recent teachings). A perfect perfection for a perfect man—an entire sanctification for the entire man—surely here is a perfection worth longing for.
let us observe next that Paul does not speak of this perfecting of the entire man as if it were a mere ideal, unattainable, and to be looked up to only as the for ever beckoning standard hanging hopelessly above us. He treats it as distinctly attainable. He seriously prays God to grant it to his readers; and that as the end of his exhortation to them to study moral perfection as the aim of their endeavours.
He does not, indeed, represent it as attainable by and through human effort alone, as if man in his own strength could reach and touch this his true ultimate goal of endeavour. Rather he emphatically represents it as the gift of God alone. After exhorting men to their best endeavours, he turns suddenly from man to God and besieges Him with prayer. Strive, he says, strive always, do this thing and do that—and so work out this, your ethical salvation. "But may God Himself— the God of peace Himself"—the stress is on the "Himself." It is in God, in God alone, the God of peace alone, that hope can be placed for such high attainments.
But cannot hope be placed in God for this attainment? The whole gist of Paul's prayer— nay, the whole drift of his discourse—would be stultified, were it not so. Paul's prayer, and the way in which he introduces his prayer, all combine to make it certain that he is not mocking us here with an illusory hope but is placing soberly before us an attainable goal. This perfect per
fection is then, necessarily, according to Paul, attainable for man. God can and will give it to His children.
Even more must be said. Paul not only prays seriously for it for his readers, and this implies that it may, nay, will be given them; he definitely promises it to them, and bases this, his definite promise, on no less firm a foundation than the faithfulness of God. May God sanctify you wholly, he says, and the rest of it. But he does not stop there. He follows the prayer with the promise: "Faithful is He that calleth you," and he adds, "who also will do it." Thus Paul pledges the faithfulness of God to the completion of his readers' perfection. And we must not lose the force and pointedness with which he does this by failing to pay attention to the sharp, proverbial character of this pledging clause. It has all the quality of a maxim; and the gist of the maxim is that God, this God of whom Paul was praying our perfection, is not a caller only, but also a performer. He has called us into the Christian life. This Christian life into which He has called us is in principle a life of moral perfection. And this God that calls is not a God that calls merely—He is a God that also accomplishes. His very calling of ns into this life of new morality is a pledge, then, that He will perfect the good work in us which He has begun. "Faithful is He that calleth you: who also is one that shall do."
The accomplishment of this our perfection then does not hang on our weak endeavours. It does not hang even on Paul's strong prayer. It hangs only on God's almighty and unfailing faithfulness. If God is faithful, He who not only calls but does— then, we cannot fail of perfection. Here you see is not only perfection carried to its highest power, but the certainty of attaining this perfection carried also to its highest power. Not only may a Christian man be perfect—absolutely perfect in all departments of his being—but he certainly and unfailingly shall be perfect. So certain as it is that God has called him "not for uncleanness but in sanctification" as the very sphere in which his life as a Christian must be passed, so certain is it that the God who is not merely a caller but a doer will perfect him in this sanctification. Such is the teaching of the text. And assuredly it goes in this, far, far beyond all modern teaching as to entire sanctification that ever has been heard of among men.
And now, let us observe, thirdly, the period to which the Apostle assigns the accomplishment of this great hope. It is at once evident that he is not dealing with this perfection as a thing already in the possession of his readers. It is not a matter of congratulation to them—as some Christian graces were, for the presence of which in their hearts he thanks God,—but a matter of prayer to God for them. It is a thing not yet in possession but in petition. It is yet to come to them. He does not permit us to suppose, then, that the Thessalonians had already attained—or should already have attained—it. He thanks God, indeed, for their rescue from the state in which they were by nature. He thanks God for their great attainments in Christian living. But he does not suggest they had already reached the goal. On the contrary, a great part of the letter is taken up with exhortation to Christian duties not yet overtaken, graces of Christian living still to be cultivated. His readers are treated distinctly and emphatically as viatores, not yet as comprehensores. Not in and of them, but in and of God, is the perfection which he prays for. What we see is not hoped for, what we pray for is not already attained. Moreover the very pledge he gives of the attainment of this perfection bears in it an implication that it is yet a matter of hope, not of possession. He pledges the faithfulness of God, the Caller. Accordingly, the perfection longed for and promised is not given in the call itself; it is not the invariable possession of the Christian soul. He that is called looks yet for it; it is sought still; and at the hands of the Caller whose faithfulness assures the performance. The performance, therefore, still lags.
It is clear, therefore, that Paul, though promising this perfection as the certain heritage of every Christian man, presents it as a matter of hope, not yet seen; not as a matter of experience, already enjoyed. That it belongs to us as Christians we can be assured only by the faithfulness of God, the Performer as well as the Caller. Can we learn from Paul when we can hope for it? Assuredly, he has not left us in ignorance here. He openly declares, indeed, the term of our imperfection—the point of entrance into our perfection. "May the God of peace," he prays, "sanctify you wholly and may there be preserved blamelessly perfect your spirit and soul and body, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" You see it is on the second advent of Christ—and that is the end of the world, and the judgment day—that the Apostle has his eyes set. There is the point of time to which he refers the completeness of our perfecting.
And if you will stop and consider a moment, you will perceive that it must be so, for the entire perfecting, at least, of which the Apostle speaks. For you will bear in mind that the perfecting includes the perfecting of the body also. It is the perfecting of the whole man that he prays for, and this expressly includes the body as well as the soul and spirit. Now the perfected body is given to man only at the resurrection, at the last day, which is the day of the second coming of Christ. Until then the body is mouldering in the grave. Whether spiritual perfection may be attained before then, he does not in this passage say. But the analogy of the body will apparently go so far as this, at all events—it raises a suspicion that the perfecting of the soul and spirit also will be gradual, the result of a process, and will be completed only in a crisis, a cataclysmic moment, when the Spirit of God produces in them the fitness to live with God. This suspicion is entirely borne out by Paul's deab'ng with the whole matter of sanctification in this context, and in this whole epistle: as a matter of effort, long-continued and strenuous, building up slowly the structure to the end. There is no promise of its completion in this life; there is no hint that it may be completed in this life. There is only everywhere strong exhortations to ceaseless effort; and strong encouragements by promises of its completion in the end—against "that day." "That day" of judgment, that is, when God shall take account of all men and of all that is in man.
What is thus fairly implied here is openly taught elsewhere. Men here are not comprehensores but viatores; we are fighting the good fight; we are running the race. The prize is yonder. And not until the body of this death is laid aside shall the soul be fitted to enter naked into the presence of its Lord, there expecting until the body shall be restored to it—no longer a body of death but of glory. Meanwhile the gradual process of sanctification goes on in soul and body —until the crisis comes when the "Spiritus Creator" shall powerfully intervene with the final acts of renewal.
Certainly the gradualness of this process ought not to disturb us. It may be inexplicable to us that the Almighty God acts by way of process. But that is revealed to us as His chosen mode of operation in every sphere of His work, and should not surprise us here. He could, no doubt, make the soul perfect in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye; just as He could give us each a perfect body at the very instant of our believing. He does not. The removal of the stains and effects of sin—in an evil heart and in a sick and dying body—is accomplished in a slow process. We all grow sick and die—though Jesus has taken on His broad shoulders (among the other penalties of sin) all our sicknesses and death itself. And we still struggle with the remainders of indwelling sin; though Jesus has bought for us the sanctifying operations of the Spirit. To us it is a weary process. But it is God's way. And He does all things well. And the weariness of the struggle is illuminated by hope. After a while!—we may say; after a while! Or as Paul puts it: Faithful is He that calls us—who also will do it. He will do it! And so, after a while, our spirit, and soul and body shall be made blamelessly perfect, all to be so presented before our Lord, at that Day. Let us praise the Lord for the glorious prospect!