“As He Is In the Light” — Answering Continual Cleansing
A Desperate Alternative
Fundamental to Christianity is the holy march towards ever deeper spiritual purity (I John 3:1-3). Frequently, the Bible sets the standard at nothing short of perfection (I John 3:4-10; Matthew 5:48; I Peter 1:14-16). Yet, Christians often struggle with difficult, habitual sins, and always looming is the fear of what a Christian might not know. Cracks in one’s faith can be driven with questions, like: “Do you — or any of us — have perfect knowledge? Therefore, how do you know you are not sinning in ignorance? Do you — or any of us — have perfect control? Therefore, how do you know you will not be struck down in a moment of weakness, immediately after losing control?” Furthermore, hypothetical situations, like the following, may be presented to draw sympathy towards the proposed unreasonableness of God condemning a man for a single sin:
Imagine a godly man, the most spiritual man, who has preached for over 50 years and raised godly children. Even his devout grandchildren are a testament to his devotion! However, after living such a godly life, one day while walking to church to preach, a car drives by him and splashes mud all over his Sunday suit. Out of character, and without thinking, he curses. What if immediately a second car struck the man and killed him, before he had a chance to repent? Would God condemn such a man to hell for one little slip, after a lifetime of holiness? I think not!
Such reasoning and hypothetical examples highlight the discrepancy between what God commands and what we think is reasonable. To remedy the obvious fear and misery that many Christians might endure, the following alternative standard is offered:
I affirm that (a) continuous cleansing is an absolute necessity for the faithful Christian because he does sin and even may be unaware of some of his sins; (b) continuous cleansing for the faithful Christian is a genuine reality because God has promised that, through the blood of Jesus, we have full forgiveness as we walk in the light; (c) continuous cleansing for the faithful Christian is without any satisfactory alternative because if such is not so, then there is no hope at all for any of us. If the blood of Christ does not keep us cleansed (while we walk not after the flesh but unless we die with a prayer upon our lips we may indeed die lost, and every hour of every day and night would be a day and an hour of misery and fear. (Leslie Diestelkamp, Patton-Diestelkamp on Continuous Cleansing, p. 7)
Please notice that this doctrine, here called “continual cleansing” and “walking in the light” (taken from I John 1:7), is a doctrine of apparent necessity. It was invented to fill the gap and bridge the discrepancy between God’s commands and our general experience. Although the exact terms are unclear, continual cleansing offers immediate forgiveness of all sins committed in ignorance, weakness, presumption, etc., which are uncharacteristic with a man’s general walk, provided he is generally seeking purity, praying for forgiveness, and forgiving others. This doctrine has been advocated, because we are deemed “without any satisfactory alternative”, not because the unique attributes of this doctrine are necessarily advocated by Scripture. Therefore, if this proposed stop-gap solution is found inconsistent with Scripture, or if another alternative can be found — especially if the alternative is consistent with Scripture — then the doctrine of continual cleansing will have no reason or justification to continue as a possible theory.
A Flawed Proposal
The above proposed explanation, which is designed to comfort Christians struggling with sins of weakness and ignorance, exhibits the following flaws and inconsistencies with Scripture:
- Inconsistent with Context — In the context of I John 1:7, “walking in the light” is immediately defined and limited walking “as He is in the light”. Furthermore, in this context He is attributed with the identity, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” Therefore, every doctrine is fundamentally flawed that defines “walking in the light as He is in the light” differently from God’s abiding in light. Moreover, in the same context John identifies a people, who claim to fellowship God while practicing sin (I John 1:6) and another group, who claim that sin does not adhere to them (I John 1:8), all of which are condemned as self-deceived, liars, and those divorced from truth (I John 1:6-8). There is a bitter irony that a passage written to condemn automatic forgiveness and fellowship beyond confession and repentance is used by some as a proof-text that forgiveness may be obtained apart from repentance and confession!
- Unrealistic — The fear and paranoia produced by the above hypothetical situation ignores the fundamental characters of both God and a spiritual man. A mature, godly man will not behave as described in the above hypothetical. Such behavior is fundamentally inconsistent with his character. Will a truly, godly man, mature in all his ways curse God, when something unexpected occurs? Or, is he more likely to turn to God and seek His help, as did Stephen (Acts 7:57-60)? Furthermore, the above hypothetical assumes that God is either cruel and capricious or uninvolved. Are either true of the God we serve (II Peter 3:9)?
- Avoids Responsibility — If we do not yet have the knowledge or discipline required of Christians, then whose fault is it? Does God demand what is impossible of us? We are responsible and may be condemned for what we do not know of God’s Word, because it can be understood (II Peter 3:16; Ephesians 3:3-5; 5:17). When we make special allowances beyond God’s Word for sins of ignorance or weakness, we are ultimately abdicating responsibility for these transgressions, making them God’s fault. If God will not hold us responsible for these sins, then who is responsible?
- Kicking the Can — This proposal does not address the fundamental issue it proposes to resolve. How many sins must a person commit, before he is considered no longer “walking in the light”? If the limit is not 1 sin, is it 2, 3, 4 — how many? If it is not based on number, is it based on some measure of severity? If so, which ones are severe and not severe in God’s judgment? Maybe we have committed one of the severe ones and do not know it? Where is the list? Fundamentally, this proposal fails because it only pushes the line so as to make some folks some more comfortable. It ultimately must turn to faith, resting on God to be the ultimate judge. If such an approach cannot eliminate the need for faith that God will discipline and judge appropriately, then how does it answer the fear and misery that may come from not knowing?
- Self-Inconsistent — Beside being unable to answer the number or type of sins that are required to condemn a person and therefore provide some measure of insight and confidence, the doctrine of continual cleansing is not even self-consistent, which consistency is a requisite hallmark of truth (Titus 1:2). The doctrine seeks to save those who sin out of character with their previous choices, but what does it offer those who at the last repent near death, out of character with their past choices? Will it deny them salvation? If a man is measured by his general walk and uncharacteristic behavior is disregarded, then what comfort can be extended to those who seek forgiveness late in life? How can it offer them a self-consistent hope?
- Unique Hopelessness — Do Christians have a responsibility to evangelize, to perform benevolence, to edify? Have any of us managed to evangelize the whole world, aid all the needy, instruct all those in doubt, or encourage all the discouraged? Why is it that such grand tasks do not evoke the same sense of hopelessness, despair, and resignation that God’s lofty goal to be as holy as Him evokes? Will we eventually, similarly diminish the need for these tasks, since it appears impossible?
- Double Forgiveness — How should one react to learning of sins that he previously, unknowingly committed? Must he seek forgiveness for what has already been forgiven? Will God forgive the same sins twice? In the record, ancient saints had to seek forgiveness for “unintentional sins” and sins committed even in “integrity of heart” (Numbers 15:22-31; Genesis 20:1-7)? If it was already forgiven and forgotten, then what forgiveness is there to seek? What atonement is to be sought?
“Peace That Surpasses All Understanding”
Ultimately, any position that seeks to enumerate what God might do in every possible case is fundamentally flawed, because only God has that capability and authority:
Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? (James 4:11-12)
Just as no Christian has the rights to move the boundaries to condemn another, neither does any Christian have the right to move the boundaries to justify someone. Only God has such right “to save and to destroy” (Romans 14:4, 7-8; James 4:11-12)! The continual cleansing theory — as does all grace-fellowship based approaches — ultimately fail, because they seek to work backwards from what they think God will do on Judgment Day and thereby diminish what God clearly demands of us now.
Let us ever keep moving forward, pressing on to higher ground, “judging nothing before the time” (Philippians 3:12-14; I Corinthians 4:3-5), and while keeping in mind these Scriptural facts about the God we joyfully serve:
- Patient, Forgiving God — God does not want anyone to be lost (II Peter 3:9). He is not a cruel or capricious God, looking to zap someone the moment they sin, trying to send as many people to hell as possible. In fact, quite the opposite is true. “Do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”, (Romans 2:4). If time will indeed solve our problem, God has promised us that (II Peter 3:9). Let us be grateful that we have a patient, forgiving God.
- Involved God — More than once in history, God has providentially acted in people’s lives to bring them to salvation (Acts 8:26-29; 10:1-6; 16:8-10). Even once we have record of God somehow preventing an innocent man from engaging in sin to his own destruction, since he would have done so unknowingly and in integrity (Genesis 20:1-7). Do we doubt God’s ability or desire to do likewise today? Is the God of the Bible so far removed from men and their lives?
- Instructive God — Just as God wants us to be saved, He also wants us to know His will. We are taught to pray for wisdom from the One, “who gives to all liberally and without reproach” (James 1:2-8). His grace not only saves, but it also “teaches us” (Titus 2:11-14). He wants us to learn, grow, and overcome, so we would not be easily deceived (Ephesians 4:11-16; 6:10-18). He has promised to help us in the things we have yet to understand (Psalm 138:8; Philippians 3:15). Even if this refers to the revelation of the already revealed Word, is it not sufficient for its task (II Timothy 3:16-17; II Peter 3:16-19)? If He has already given His Son to save us, why would He deny us the knowledge necessary for us to act (Romans 8:32)?
- Pacifying God — God wants us to cast our cares upon Him (I Peter 5:7). There may be many things that we do not understand about God, His judgment, the future, and ourselves, but if we trust in Him — if we walk by faith — then through prayer, grace, hope, and faith, we can enjoy that “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:5-7). Sooner or later, we must all give up whittling on God’s end of the stick. We might as well stop where God’s revelation stopped and enjoy peace and comfort where God defined it, instead of where it suits us (Deuteronomy 29:29; I Peter 4:11)
Finally, only God knows what He will do in every case. Only perfection itself would be qualified to even guess what God may do beyond what He has revealed. Therefore, if we are struggling with sins of weakness, let us not take comfort that God will overlook these sins, rather, let us redouble our zeal and not quit until we have overcome habitual sins. If we are fearful that we may be condemned by what we do not know, then let us delve into God’s faithful Word, which can be understood as God promised. Let us gather confidence from the tests that God provides for confidence in our personal salvation, and not invent theories to work around any failing of those tests. With faith in God, in His love, in His mercy, and in His patience, let us resolve to let God be our ultimate judge, always pressing on, never excusing any sin, and always “walking in the light as He is in the light”.
Job and his friends spent a great deal discussing Job’s tentative righteousness and integrity. However, notice God’s reaction to Job’s friends:
And so it was, after the LORD had spoken these words to Job, that the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has. Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.” (Job 42:7-8)
Although Job and his friends thought they were talking about Job, they were truly reflecting upon God Himself, which He did not take lightly.
Many false doctrines and theories ultimately reduce to statements about God, which if they are false, then they likewise impugn and blaspheme Him, as did the false statements of Job’s friends.
Most false doctrines only blaspheme God in one way or another. Continual cleansing manages to blaspheme God in at least three ways at once, indicating a fundamental misunderstanding of God! If God fellowships those who continue in sin — even if the sins are unknown or difficult for the sinner — then His righteousness and holiness is blasphemed (I John 1:5-6). If God willfully permits a “good” man (as we see it) to be tragically killed and eternally condemned, when he would have repented in time, then God’s “goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering” are maligned (Romans 2:4; II Peter 3:9). If God inadvertently or unknowingly allows such a man to be condemned, then either His omniscience or omnipotence is called into question (Psalm 139). If God’s only recourse for our weakness and ignorance is to overlook it, then He fails to train, discipline, and perfect us, as He has promised making Him a liar and no kind of Father at all (Hebrews 12:5-14; I Thessalonians 5:23-24; I Peter 5:10; Matthew 7:7-11). Dear friends, our faith may waiver at times, and we may have questions, as did Job and his friends, but let us not transfer our weakness to God and speak of Him what is not right, as did Job’s friends. Let us trust in God, His promises, His love, and His power. Let us trust and obey Him!
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