There has been much ado about millennials recently. Why are they leaving the churches and not coming back? Are they in fact leaving the churches in larger numbers than their predecessors? And in any case, what can be done to keep them in our churches?
Instead of adding to the current oceans of ink on such matters, I'm going to re-examine a doctrinal matter which all committed Christians face eventually. Millennial Christians will have to face it for two reasons: they've reacted against the “lowest common denominator” Christianity of easy church membership; and like everyone else, they need sound doctrine to interpret and shape spiritual experience.
The question is whether the pursuit of holiness can result in Christians becoming sinlessly perfect in this life. The debate's been dragging on since at least the eighteenth century. The twentieth century saw a mass turning away from this question for two reasons: the quest for organizational church unity; and the belief that both sides were deadlocked.
On one side, Wesleyan holiness Christians quoted Mt 5.48 to support their position that sinless perfection in this life was biblically sound. Why, they asked, would Jesus command His followers to do something totally impossible? How could it be right to say the Holy Spirit couldn't even make Christians holy? And didn't Jesus say His yoke was easy (Mt 11.29-30)?
On the other, Calvinistic critics often started with the last point above. What, they asked, is so easy about being sinlessly perfect all the time even as a Christian? What about 1 Jn 1.8? What about Paul's self-assessment in Phil 3.8-14? Their clinching argument usually involved claiming that Rom 7.14-25 proves Christians have two natures: one sinful, and one reborn. How, they would ask, can someone with a sinful nature be sinlessly perfect?
It's easy to see why this matter looks insoluble. Both sides agreed on the supremacy of Scripture, yet both appealed reasonably for support to the words of the New Testament. Given that the very nature of Christian discipleship is at stake, how can we move this discussion forward? Let me offer two important points for now.
First of all, if the Bible doesn't contradict itself on such matters as what it means to live as a Christian, then one or the other position must be wrong; either Christians can achieve a state of sinless perfection in this life, or they can't. Although we'll need to define some words carefully, and may need to qualify our findings, we can't ultimately treat both positions as equally true.
This leads to my second point: just because one or the other position must be wrong, it doesn't follow that the remaining view has been expressed in the most Biblically faithful way possible. There may be more insight to glean from the Scriptures on how our holiness and our perfection are (or should be) connected to each other in God's sight. Even Paul only knew and prophesied “in part”!
As matters stand, one position says failure isn't an option (and yet you do fail); the other tells you that your failure is assured in this life. I suggest that both positions are a recipe for guilt, frustration, and eventually an apathetic despair among ordinary churchgoers. If I'm right, it's time to seek “a more excellent way”.
In Part 2, I will offer you some of the Biblical flaws in the positions outlined above. Later, I hope to set out “a more excellent way” for others to consider prayerfully. I hope you will enjoy reading my next instalment as much as I will enjoy writing it.