This post is based on my sermon for this day at Grace Anglican Church.
Christian perfection is an exciting topic, and sometimes controversial. John Wesley wrote a book on the subject that became quite popular. On one hand, this focus on perfect holiness as the Christian’s destiny is a healthy and helpful reminder of where we’re going in life; I spoke about this a bit last week, too. It’s a motivation to get up and get going, to grow, to work, to serve, to be obedient to our glorious King.
But on the other hand the subject of Christian perfection has been mistreated. Some of John Wesley’s followers took this to mean that a Christian can become perfect in this life. The false teaching began to creep in among certain traditions that it is theoretically possible for a person to become so holy that he or she is legitimately unable to pray a confession of sin! For this and several other reasons, the Methodist movement started by the Wesleys ultimately split off from Anglicanism, and eventually broke off into smaller groups such as the Nazarenes, the Salvation Army, and planted seeds for the American Revivalist tradition and, eventually, the Pentecostal movement.
The focus on Christian perfection that these traditions have had is a doubled-edged sword. It is, of course, a good thing to pursue a moral and righteous life, and many great saints of the past have been exemplars of this. But the challenges are also pretty hefty. The false teaching that we become righteous because of our moral efforts is rampant in American Christianity. A lot of extra rules for holiness have entrenched themselves in several traditions: banning alcohol, R-rated movies, boycotting Disney or Starbucks, forbidding dancing. The pursuit of holiness has inspired both great Saints and great weirdos.
So, rather than concluding our series on Christian growth by summarizing a handy list of rules of what you should or should not do in order to become more righteous, the Scriptures ground us in the source and definition of our holiness. The source of our holiness is pretty straight-forward: it is the work of the Holy Spirit within us. His work of making us holy is called sanctification; we are called to participate in that work, but not as the primary workers, but as co-workers under the leadership and power of God the Holy Spirit.
The definition of holiness merits some more attention. As you may know, I studied Old English in my last year in college. I don’t mean Old English in the sense of Shakespeare and the King James Bible; that’s technically early modern English. Old English is the language of Anglo-Saxon England from the 600’s until about 1100. There is a word they had which is very useful for us in understanding holiness. As a noun, that word is hæl; as an adjective the word is hælig. Two modern English words derive from it: holy, and healthy. This association is very important for understanding holiness. ‘Healthy’ describes a good state of being in body and mind. ‘Holy’ describes a good state of being in spirit or soul. Holiness is healthiness for your spiritual life. Now, this may not really change your picture of what holiness looks like, but I think it gets us back to the heart of the matter in a way that cuts out a lot of distractions.
For a picture of what this entails, our Gospel reading has two stories that beautifully depict the giving of hæl. Here in Matthew 9 a ruler’s daughter has died, and Jesus is asked to come do something about it. On the way there he is contacted by a woman with a persistent bleeding disease that has not only left her penniless and ill, but also ceremonially unclean and therefore unable to participate in the worship of God. By no fault of her own, her condition makes her an outcast and separates her from her own people. But when she reaches out to Jesus, she is healed. Her bleeding stops, she is able to be cleansed and return to fellowship with her God and her people after twelve long years. Her healing, therefore, is not just a physical restoration, but a relational restoration as well. In our growth toward Christian perfection, the healing work of the Holy Spirit also restores us in every way.
And then things get serious! Jesus continues on his way and reaches the house of this official to see his dead daughter. And he heals her all the way from death! God’s work on us is not just the curing of our sin-sick souls, not just the restoration of former spiritual and physical health, not just the restoration of a right relationship with God and one another, but a complete and total resurrection from death to life. St. Paul makes it very clear in his writings: we were dead in our sins, and we are raised to new life in Christ. This is an important image of our healing into holiness. After all, a sick person is still alive, still able to do things, and may still recover. But the condition of human sinfulness is beyond that; it is a death. There is no returning from death unless God breathes into us new life. Put another way, there is no possible salvation without the forgiveness of sins. And that brings us to another important topic.
The Collect for this Sunday is a prayer for God to absolve us from our sins so that we may be delivered from the bonds of those sins. Remember the Gospel story’s examples: Jesus both healed a woman who was merely sick and resurrected a woman who was totally dead. Similarly, Christian perfection is about both forgiveness from our sins and absolution from sin’s bonds – its after-effects on our souls. There is an important distinction here which we may not think about very often. What is the difference between ‘forgiveness’ and ‘absolution’?
Forgiveness is the granting of pardon. When we talk about our sins being forgiven, we mean they have been forgotten, ignored, the matter is closed. We can be assured of the forgiveness of sins simply by turning to him with a contrite heart. He has promised to forgive the sins of all who are penitent. You don’t need to do anything to earn that forgiveness, you don’t have to go through any channels to find it; Jesus is readily available for all to approach him. Other Christians can help you approach him if you feel you need help, but he has put no obstacle between you and his forgiveness.
Absolution is a further step along. Where forgiveness deals with our sins themselves, absolution deals with the bonds of sins, or the legacy of sins. To be absolved means to be released, set free, acquitted, brought to completion, finished, paid, discharged. There is a finality to it that ‘forgiveness’ lacks. The way some people talk about forgiveness sometimes makes it sound like God just sweeps our sins under the table and we all just forget about it. The mess is still out there, it just got moved. That’s why we also have the concept of absolution. In absolution, guilt is forever wiped away by God, a juridicial decision has been made, the infinite merits of Jesus are applied to the sinner, resulting a full restoration of hæl – holiness and health in its fullest sense.
One way to picture this is by a chemical reaction: you have a solvent, you add a solute, and the result is a solution. We are the solvent, us sinful human beings. God adds the solute – the merits of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit – and the resulting solution is hæl. We become perfectly holy, restored in relationship, our sins not just hidden but actually gone forever. That is the power of Jesus’ Cross applied to us!
Seeking Absolution & Hæl
This is why in our worship services – both the Daily Office and the Communion service – our prayers of confession are followed not by declarations of forgiveness, but of absolution. We don’t just need forgiveness, we need absolution, the whole deal! And while anyone of us can forgive sins that are committed against us, only God can absolve. If I get frustrated during a long day with the baby, and I snap at my wife when she gets home, she can forgive me for that, and the case between us is closed. But spiritually, the problem still exists – I sinned, and that gives me spiritual baggage. Beyond my wife’s gracious forgiveness, I need God’s absolution to deal with not only the sin of my anger but also the baggage that resulted from it and the hardened heart that produced it in the first place.
In the midst of this, I should point out something very important that we need to keep in mind. Once a sin is absolved, it is as if it has never happened. No guilt remains; it is off the permanent record; the devil can no longer be permitted to accuse you of it. That’s why the content of a private confession is always maintained in absolute secrecy. If God has put your sins away, then how much less do mere human beings have any right to bring them up again? Furthermore, despite the difference between forgiveness and absolution, this is true with forgiveness. If you have forgiven someone of something, you have utterly removed your legal right to hold that sin against that person ever again. Sometimes we make jokes about men and women, and how some people remember your every misdeed, keeping this on a mental list to use against you when you pile too many on. Forgiveness means deleting and erasing that mental list of wrong-doings. And furthermore, holding someone accountable to something that you have already forgiven is itself a sin. Un-forgiveness is a sin; don’t do it.
Now sure, there are extreme cases that challenge this, like with assault or murder. We can forgive someone and still take legal action against them. If you let someone rent something from you, and they destroy it, it is possible both to forgive them and still ask for your legal reparation. Forgiveness means you’ve forsaken your right to take revenge. The baggage of their sin may still need to be dealt with by other means. That’s where absolution comes in; the sin has to be paid for somehow.
Ultimately, our sins are not paid for in earth’s legal courts. If I assault someone and go to prison for it, my time in jail does not atone for that sin. Even if it did somehow earn me forgiveness, I’d still have a criminal record, and lost years of my life serving that time. I would not have hæl. Only in God’s heavenly courtroom can we find real absolution and perfect hæl. He is the Judge afterall, all-knowing, perfectly just, impartial to rich or poor, strong or weak. Now technically, this courtroom isn’t assembled until the end of this age, when Jesus returns and the dead are raised to receive that final judgment. And yet, despite that, we can, even now, hear echoes of that final judgment filtering back to us today. Even though we haven’t gotten to the end of the age ourselves, our God who is beyond time, is applying that work of absolution and hæl in his people throughout history.
This is especially true when we gather to worship, particularly around the altar for Holy Communion. You may recall I or someone else saying before that the Eucharist is sort of a moment out of time, a spiritual meeting between the Last Supper, the Cross, and the present. The same can be said for the Last Judgment. Consider the prayers: “according to the institution of your dearly beloved Son our Savior Jesus Christ, we your humble servants celebrate … the memorial which your Son commanded us to make; remembering his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension and his promise to come again: and offering our wholehearted thanks to you for the countless benefits given to us by the same.” The “same” is referring to that list of events from Christ’s death to his return. God’s benefits of absolution and hæl are given to us on account of those events, including his “coming again,” which spiritually happens in every Communion as we receive him sacramentally, and will physically happen in the future when he returns to this world. Our salvation is from the work of Christ, past, present, and future!
So if you find yourself looking at your life and you feel discouraged by a distinct lack of holiness and spiritual health, take heed to these prayers and the Gospel events that they point us to. Our salvation is not our own doing. Even our holiness is not our own doing. God doesn’t just throw us a bone and then leave it to figure out what to do with it; he is with us every step of the way, and is available to us in various and sundry forms to help: he left us the Bible so we can read about him; he left us the Sacraments so we have tangible forms in which to receive his grace; he left us the Holy Spirit so that he will always dwell in us, and we in him.
Despite our best (and worst) efforts, God promises to complete his work in each and every one of his people, his work of giving us hæl – total healing and holiness in every sense of the word. And finally, once he finishes that work of absolution and healing, then we will be ready to welcome our King and his Kingdom without holding anything back. And so, since today is the Sunday celebrating the promise of Christian perfection, next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. Let us continue to pursue his promises of absolution and healing, so we can learn more and more to celebrate and welcome our glorious King!