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Did the church fathers believe in sinless perfection?
September 17, 2019

This is the Christian History for Everyman newsletter from

Around the year 150, a converted philosopher named Justin wrote:

"But there is no other [way] than this: to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins; and for the rest, to live sinless lives" (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 44).

By being washed in the fountain, Justin meant baptism. That is not surprising, but did Justin really expect Christians to live sinless lives?

Clement of Alexandria, who was teaching new converts in Alexandria about 40 years after Justin wrote those words, gives us the answer:

"As far, however, as we can, let us try to sin as little as possible. For nothing is so urgent in the first place as deliverance from passions and disorders, and then the checking of our liability to fall into sins that have become habitual. It is best, therefore, not to sin at all in any way, which we assert to be the prerogative of God alone; next to keep clear of voluntary transgressions, which is characteristic of the wise man; thirdly, not to fall into many involuntary offenses, which is peculiar to those who have been excellently trained. Not to continue long in sins, let that be ranked last. But this also is salutary to those who are called back to repentance, to renew the contest" (The Instructor, Bk. II, ch. 1).

Only God can be without sin, but we must not forgot that "nothing is so urgent in the first place as deliverance from passions [lusts] and disorders."

Is that a biblical statement? Titus 2:13-14 says that Jesus died to produce a people zealous for good works, and Paul told the Corinthians to "awake to righteousness and stop sinning" (1 Cor. 15:34). It is certainly important to turn away from sin because the apostle John warns us that those who habitually sin are of the devil! (1 Jn. 3:8).

Sinless perfection is not realistic, however. James wrote that we all stumble in many ways (James 3:2). John said that if we say we have not sinned or that we are without sin, then we are deceiving ourselves and making God a liar (1 Jn. 1:8, 10).

Do not forget, though, that we do not avoid sin by directly resisting it. The way to overcome sin is to turn our minds to spiritual things and away from the things that tempt us (Rom. 8:2-8; 12:1-2).

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