Doing theology is hard.
Interpreting the Bible is hard.
It is hard for several reasons, including confirmation bias. We tend to seek out and selectively retain information that confirms what we already believe. Confirmation bias can, therefore, distort your reading of the Bible. It happens to all of us. It is best to be aware of it, so you can better account for it.
For example, J. A. Wood was a Holiness preacher and revivalist. His book, Perfect Love, was a bestseller in its day. I’ve been reading through Holiness writers to understand their arguments. After doing several regional conferences on James and Romans, I am struck by the NT witness that Christians are meant to be experientially holy. I wondered if any other traditions were making the same claims. So I’ve been reading Holiness authors.
Wood wrote Perfect Love in a catechetical style. He presented a question followed by an answer. Here’s his fourth question. As you read it, ask yourself if Wood’s prooftexts and quotes support his argument?
- Can a state of justification be retained while sin is committed?
It cannot. “He that committeth sin is of the devil.” The commission of sin negatives the justified state, and any professing Christian who lives in the commission of sin, is a sinner and not a saint. “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar.”—“We know that whatsoever is born of God sinneth not.”
The lowest type of Christian sinneth not, and is not condemned. The minimum of salvation is salvation from sinning. The maximum is salvation from pollution—the inclination to sin.
Mr. Wesley says: “But even babes in Christ are so far perfect as not to commit sin…We all agree and earnestly maintain, ‘He that committeth sin is of the devil.’ We agree, ‘Whatsoever is born of God doth not commit sin’.” —Sermon on “Sin in Believers.”
“The continuance of the justified state,” says Bishop Peck, “implies obedience in intention to all the requirements of the gospel, the law of progress (‘grow in grace’), and the law of purity (‘be ye holy’), included.”—Central Idea, p. 59.
Rev. Albert Barnes says: “No man can be a Christian who voluntarily indulges in sin, or in what he knows to be wrong.”—Notes on II Corinthians, chap. 7.
The conditions of receiving justification and of retaining it are the same. Christ is received by penitential submission and faith. “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him.” Justification cannot be retained with less consecration and faith than that by which it was received” (Perfect Love, 9-10).
Wood wants to prove that justification cannot be retained while sin is committed. He wants to show that you can become unjustified. But do any of his prooftexts say that? No. He does not supply a single Scripture to support the idea that someone who has been reckoned righteous by faith, apart from works, can become unjustified.
Instead, he quotes from 1 John 3:8; 2:4; 5:18. The problem is, none of those verses are about justification. Certainly, none say that you can become unjustified. That was the claim Wood had to prove. So why would Wood quote those verses? It is hard to know what his reasoning was, because he does not explain the verses.
A Free Grace person could quote those verses, too, and probably have a completely different interpretation from Wood. The FG person would understand John as teaching that when you sin, that sin is sourced in the devil; that if someone claims to be spiritually mature and intimate sins, he’s a liar; and the born-again part of you never sins.
But none of those verses show that a justified person can become unjustified. None say it takes works to keep your justification.
Actually, it seems that Wood was deeply confused about justification. Re-read that last paragraph. Notice how he defines the conditions for justification? “The conditions of receiving justification and of retaining it are the same. Christ is received by penitential submission and faith.”
Justification is by penitential submission and faith? Really? Is that what Paul taught was the condition of justification? (See Gal 2:16).
Not even close.
Wood’s claims about justification are unjustified.