Is sinlessness possible?
I’ve recently run across several individuals who have either claimed sinlessness, or strongly argued that sinlessness (also known as sinless perfection and entire sanctification) is achievable. Even without studying what the Bible says about the possibility of sinlessness, simple observation of people attempting to live the Christian life causes me to seriously doubt the concept. Observation of people who claim sinlessness absolutely reinforces my doubt.
The only person the Bible describes as sinless is Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22). Every other major character in the Bible is flawed. At times, the Bible seems to go out of its way to point out the sins of significant people in the Bible. One would think that if sinlessness is possible, the Bible would give us an example of someone who achieved it.
And then there are verses such as the following:
“Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
“…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
I could perhaps dismiss Ecclesiastes 7:20 since it is old covenant. Matthew 6:12, though, is Jesus instructing us how to pray. If Jesus told us to ask God for forgiveness, it would seem we will always need forgiveness. And, in 1 John 1:8, John, when he says “we” and “us,” is referring to himself and other believers. The apostle whom Jesus loved recognized that he was not sinless, and apparently did not even consider the idea that someone to whom he was writing might be sinless.
Some point to Jesus’ instructions to “go and sin no more” in John 5:14 and 8:11 as evidence for the possibility of sinlessness. But there is a difference between what is supposed to be our goal and what the reality of our existence tells us. Of course, sinlessness is supposed to be our goal. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sinless perfection is the goal we should all be striving towards.
Until we are glorified in God’s presence in heaven, though, we will still inhabit a sin-infected body. The struggle against our flesh is constant, even for the most mature Christian (Romans 7:15–24). In the Christian life, we should progressively achieve greater and greater victory over sin, but our battle against sin will not end this side of eternity.
Some want to hold on to the possibility of sinlessness for a more practical reason. They claim, “If you tell people sinlessness is impossible, they won’t strive for it.” This claim fails for two primary reasons. First, the Bible does not teach that sinlessness is possible, so it doesn’t matter if people would be discouraged at the impossibility. We can’t lie to people in order to motivate them.
Second, we strive for perfection in many aspects of life all the while knowing we will never achieve it. Every athletic team tries to win every game, but only those suffering from delusion truly believe they will always and forever win every game. They try to win every game even though they know it ultimately is not possible. The same is true in the Christian life.
The people in my life whom I would describe as the most spiritually mature would never claim sinlessness. In fact, part of true spiritual maturity is being cognizant of the subtle sins in your life. True progress in the Christian life is honestly and humbly recognizing how much further you must go.
If you think you have arrived at sinlessness, think again. Unless you have arrived in heaven at the feet of Jesus, you still have work to do.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2)
S. Michael Houdmann
Is sinlessness possible?