I cannot do justice to the beauty, for lack of a better word, of the writing style that commonly existed among the authors of these earlier times, such as Thomas Boston. As my electives in college, I took courses in Early and Middle English literature, rather than P.E. and basket weaving. Though I was no literary scholar, I enjoyed studying the works of prose and poetry from what is considered an archaic era. However, for Boston, these would have been very influential periods. Because we now have video to stimulate the visual part of our brains, we do not appreciate how vocabulary can cause us to see with our imaginations. Truly, writing was an art form in days gone by.
I say all this because, in the opening lines of Boston’s answer to the fourth “Miscellaneous Question,” he paints a picture with words to create a vivid description of man’s fall from the state of innocence. Boston states, “It was man’s glory that he was created in the image of God. It was God’s will that he was created mutably so. Of his mutability there can be no controversy. Sad experience teacheth us that man is not now perfect; but on the contrary, a mass of sin, and a lump of hell, the noble kind being affected with diabolic contagion, which he voluntarily received.”
Boston’s fourth question, at least for me, lacks the dilemma of his previous three. However, for the Church of three hundred years ago, and today, there has been a segment that has held to error when answering his question, “Where hath sin its lodging place in the regenerate?” In other words, what part of you, as a believer, does your remaining sin originate from? Is it from your mind and soul, or is it from the physical body?
Some within the faith believe that baptism literally cleanses sin from your spiritual being. Here is not the place to get into the efficacies of baptism, but if you hold to a similar position, then you may want to at least consider the history and origin of such doctrines. From the totality of scripture, not specific verses, is where Boston defends the positon that sin is still present in your mind and soul.
Church History is a very necessary study for the Christian. We tend to think that somehow the Church is unique today. However, many of the same beliefs today have always been resonant among Christian doctrinal discussion. The “Holiness” movement in America began in the mid 19th century, primarily in the rural South and Midwest. Originally an offshoot of Methodism or Wesleyanism, the faith morphed into a system of theology all its own. Holiness church doctrine teaches “perfectionism.” Perfectionism is a belief that, by the work of spiritual baptism, the soul of the regenerate is somehow made actually righteous and free from sinful inclinations. Therefore, any remaining sin must only be present in the physical body. Acts of righteousness originate, therefore, from the sinless mind and soul. For example the Holiness believer would say that a lustful desire or even action is caused by the functions of the corrupted body, the old man. They could simply justify a sin by saying that “my body made me do it.”
Even in Boston’s day, the idea of spiritual perfectionism was not a new phenomenon. In fact, the apostles dealt with a similar issue in the early Church. In his letters, John warns about some of the false teaching that was prevalent due to influences of Gnosticism. The primary issue this heresy fueled was the idea of Christian liberty. Rather than freedom from the bondage of sin, this notion of liberty taught that Christians were free to sin because the spirit was righteous, without sin. Therefore all sin was outside of the requirements of the law because sins of the flesh were not judged. Ideas within the church have always been evident, even among fairly sound Christian denominations, that are quick to point out the abolition of many old testament legal requirements and cry Christian liberty. This leaning tends to flow from a fear of legalism. The opposite effect is a swing towards antinomianism, or no law. This tends to give Christians the license to sin because their sins are forgiven.
The American Holiness movement, which is the origin of today’s perfectionism belief system, began when some fell prey to teaching that interpreted Old testament prophecies, such as Joel, giving women authority to preach and miraculous gifts from a secondary blessing experience. Holiness was not always associated with Pentecostalism, but always promoted a separation from worldly values and adherence to practical godliness. These values are not within themselves wrong. God does require them, but not with the intention that they be motivated by a notion of the attainment of sinless perfection.
Some of the primary scriptural evidence that the Holiness movement relies on is from Paul. Romans 7 is Paul’s testimony about his struggles with sin. We are probably most familiar with the “I do” verse. “I do not understand what I do. For what I do I do not want to do, but what I hate I do.”(Rom. 7:15)
This portion of scripture also deals with the benefits of the law for the believer. Paul points out how the law sheds light on sin, so that the believer may know his transgressions and correct his shortcomings. Paul is not relieving himself of responsibility for sin simply because he can’t seem to do what he should do. Holiness interpretation of the entire section (v. 14-25), would say that Paul intends that he cannot stop sinning in the body because of the remaining corruption of it. But that his “good” intentions of his spirit are the result of its perfection. As some would say, as an excuse for their sin, “the devil made me do it,” this perception could lead to the excuse “my body made me do it.” Once again when we take scripture out of the context for which it is intended, we create dangerous interpretations.
In religion, hermeneutics, the practice of interpreting scripture, can be done in two primary ways. Eisegesis and exegesis are good terms to be familiar with. In layman’s terms, eisegesis is when we try to prove a point from scripture by finding verses that support our hypothesis. Exegesis is when we interpret the meaning of scripture as it is intended by the author. We must be careful when we try to use scripture, particularly small segments, to prove a belief that we have. More often than not this is how false teaching begins.
The entirety of scripture teaches that when man fell, his entire being became corrupt. Even spiritual regeneration does not completely transform the spiritual sin nature. If anyone can say that his tendency to sin, in fact most of his sin in general, does not originate and occur in and from his heart, he is in a serious state of delusion. As Paul indicates, the spiritual desire to obey God is a result of his new found life. But the battle with the old life still rages within him. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it.”(Jerimiah 17:9) So the next time you say, “I know in my heart,” you might want to stop and think, this is where sin still dwells, do I really want to trust its opinion?