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JOHN FLETCHER'S NOTE
ON THE FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN.


REV. JOHN FLETCHER, a presbyter in the Church of England, was the great doctrinal defender of John Wesley's Arminianism and especially of his evangel of Christian perfection. Dr. Dolinger says, "The writings of John Fletcher are the most important theological productions which issued from Protestantism in the latter part of the 18th century." It is not an auspicious omen of the future doctrinal stamina of Methodism that both her laymen and her preachers of the present time are becoming more and more ignorant of the writings of this saintly and almost seraphic champion of their creed, who, of all believers since the days of the apostles, is justly deemed the nearest reproduction of the beloved disciple who reclined on the bosom of his Master and Lord. There are two reasons for the neglect into which Fletcher's writings have fallen: (1) Because of the general disrelish of theological controversy in the era through which the church is now passing; and (2) the decline and decay of Calvinism in America, especially in New England, its former citadel, against which iron system of unconditional predestination Fletcher's "Checks to Antinomianism " arrayed its irresistible polemic. The system of John Calvin is a dead issue, so far as its five points are concerned, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, bound will, and the final perseverance of the saints. But there is a tenet not embraced in these five doctrines, but stated in the Westminster Catechism, which is still alive and vigorous, namely, the necessary continuance of sin till it is destroyed by physical death. Fletcher taught the possibility and obligation of holiness in this life. His doctrine was assailed by Sir Richard Hill (brother to the eccentric and celebrated Rev. Rowland Hill), who alleged that entire sanctification as taught by Fletcher is contrary to the ninth and fifteenth articles by the Anglican Church, to which both the contestants had subscribed. One of these articles teaches that "original or birth sin," as an "infection of nature, doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated;" and the other article has this heading, "Of Christ alone without Sin." Fletcher's following reply, which extends to the end of this note, so far as it relates to John's First Epistle, is so appropriate to the theme of this volume that the author cannot forbear its quotation:


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SUPPLEMENTARY NOTE ON THE FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN.


BY REV. JOHN FLETCHER.


I proceed to vindicate the holiness of St. John, who is the last apostle that Mr. Hill calls to the help of indwelling sin, Christian imperfection, and a death purgatory

Before I show how the loving apostle is pressed into a service which is so contrary to his experience, and to his doctrine of perfect love, I shall make a preliminary remark. To take a passage of Scripture out from the context, and to make it speak a language contrary to the obvious design of the sacred writer, is the way to butcher the body of Scriptural divinity. This conduct injures truth, as much as the Galatians would have injured themselves, if they had literally "pulled their eyes out, and given them to St. Paul;" an edifying passage, thus displaced, may become as loathsome to a moral mind as a good eye, torn out of its bleeding orb in a good face, is odious to a tender heart.

Among the passages which have been thus treated, none has suffered more violence than this: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us," 1 John i. 8. "That's enough for me," says a hasty imperfectionist: "St. John clearly pleads for the indwelling of sin in us during the term of life; and he is so set against those who profess deliverance from sin, and Christian perfection in this life, that he does not scruple to represent them as liars and self-deceivers."

Our opponents suppose that this argument is unanswerable. But to convince them that they are mistaken, we need only prove that the sense which they so confidently give to the words of St. John is contrary, (1.) To his design. (2.) To the context. And, (3.) To the pure and strict doctrine which he enforces in the rest of the Epistle.

I. With respect to St. John's design, it evidently was to confirm believers who were in danger of being deceived by Antinomian and antichristian seducers. When he wrote this Epistle, the church began to be corrupted by men, who, under pretence of knowing the mysteries of the Gospel better than the apostles, imposed upon the simple Jewish fables, heathenish dream, or vain, philosophic speculations; insinuating that their doctrinal peculiarities were the very marrow of the Gospel. Many such arose at the time of the reformation, who introduced stoical dreams into Protestantism, and whom Bishop Latimer and others steadily opposed under the name of "Gospellers."

The doctrines of all these Gospellers centred in making Christ, indirectly at least, the minister of sin; and in representing the preachers of practical, self-denying Christianity, as persons unacquainted with Christian liberty. It does not indeed appear that the Gnostics, or knowing ones (for so the ancient Gospellers were called), carried matters so far as openly to say that believers might be God's dear children in the very commission of adultery and murder, or while they worshipped Milcom and Ashtaroth; but it is certain that they could already reconcile the verbal denial of Christ, fornication and idolatrous feasting, with true faith; directly or indirectly "teaching and seducing Christ's servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols," Rev. ii. 20. At these Antinomians, St. Peter, St. James, and St. Jude levelled their epistles. St. Paul strongly cautioned Timothy, Titus and the Ephesians against them: see Eph. iv. 14, v. 6. And St. John wrote his First Epistle to warn the believers who had not yet been seduced into their error: a dreadful, though pleasing error this, which, by degrees, led some to deny Christ's law, and then His very name; hence the triumph of the spirit of antichrist. Now, as these men insinuated that believers might be righteous without doing righteousness; and as they supposed that Christ's righteousness, or our own knowledge and faith, would supply the want of internal sanctification and external obedience; St. John maintains against them the necessity of that practical godliness which consists in not committing sin," and in "walking as Christ walked:" nay, he asserts that Christ's blood, through the faith which is our victory, purifies "from all sin, and cleanses from all unrighteousness." To make him, therefore, plead for the necessary continuance of indwelling sin, till we go into a death purgatory, is evidently to make him defeat his own design.

II. To be more convinced of it, we need only read the controverted text in connection with the CONTEXT; illustrating both by some notes in brackets. St. John opens his commission thus, First Epistle i. 5, 6, 7: — "This is the message which we have received of him [Christ] and declare unto you, that God is light, [bright, transcendent purity,] and in him is no darkness [no impurity] at all. If we [believers] say that we have fellowship with him, [that we are united to him by an actually living faith,] and walk in darkness, [in impurity or sin,] we lie, and do not the truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, [if we live up to our Christian light and do righteousness,] we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. For let no man deceive you: he that does righteousness is righteous, even as he, Christ, is righteous; and in him is no sin," 1 John iii. 5, 7. So far we see no plea, either for sin, or for the Calvinian purgatory.

Should Mr. Hill reply, that "when St. John says, 'The blood of Christ cleanseth us from all sin,' the apostle does not mean all indwelling sin; because this is a sin from which death alone can cleanse us:" we demand a proof, and in the mean time we answer, that St. John, in the above-quoted passages, says, that "he who does righteousness," in the full sense of the word, "is righteous, as Christ is righteous;" observing that "in him [Christ] is no sin." So certain, then, as there in no indwelling sin in Christ, there is no indwelling sin in a believer who does righteousness in the full sense of the word; for he is made "perfect in love," and is "cleansed from all sin." Nor was St. John himself ashamed to profess this glorious liberty; for he said, "Our love is made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he [Christ] is [perfect in love, and of consequence without sin,] so are we in this world," 1 John iv. 17. And the whole context shows that the beloved apostle spake these great words of alikeness to Christ with respect to the perfect love which "fulfils the law, abolishes tormenting fear, and enables the believer to stand with boldness in the day of judgment," as being forgiven, and "conformed to the image of God's Son."

If Mr. Hill urge that "the blood of Christ, powerfully applied by the Spirit, cleanses us indeed from the guilt, but not from the filthiness of sin; blood having a reference to justification and pardon, but not to sanctification and holiness:" we reply, that this argument is not only contrary to the preceding answer, but to the text, the context, and other plain scriptures. (1.) To the text, where our being cleansed from all sin is evidently suspended on our humble and faithful walk: "If we walk in the light as he is in the light, the blood of Christ cleanses us," etc. Now every novice in Gospel grace knows that true Protestants do not suspend a sinner's justification on his "walking in the light as God is in the light." (2.) It is contrary to the context; for in the next verse but one, where St. John evidently distinguishes forgiveness and holiness, he peculiarly applies the word cleansing to the latter of these blessings: "He is faithful to forgive us our sin," by taking away our guilt; "and to cleanse us from an unrighteousness," by taking away all the filth of indwelling sin. And, (3.) It is contrary to other places of Scripture, where Christ's blood is represented as having a reference to purification, as well as to forgiveness. God himself says, "Wash ye; make you clean; put away the evil of your doings; cease to do evil; learn to do well." The washing and cleansing here spoken of have undoubtedly a reference to the removal of the filth, as well as the guilt of sin. Accordingly we read that all those who "stand before the throne, have both washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb;" that is, they are justified by, and sanctified with his blood.1 Hence our Church prays "that we may so eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed [i. e., made clean also] through his most precious blood." To rob Christ's blood of its sanctifying power, and to confine its efficacy to the atonement, is therefore an Antinomian mistake, by which our opponents greatly injure the Saviour, whom they pretend to exalt.

Should Mr. Hill assert, that "when St. John says, If we walk in the light, etc., the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin, the loving apostle's meaning is not that the blood of Christ radically cleanses us, but only that it begets and carries on a cleansing from all sin, which cleansing will be completed in a death purgatory:" we answer: (1.) This assertion leaves Mr. Hill's doctrine open to all the above-mentioned difficulties. (2.) It overthrows the doctrine of the Protestants, who have always maintained that nothing is absolutely necessary to eternal salvation, and, of consequence, to our perfect cleansing, but an obedient, steadfast faith, apprehending the full virtue of Christ's purifying blood, according to Acts xv. 9, "God giving them the Holy Ghost, put no difference between them and us, purifying their hearts by faith," — not by death. (3.) It is contrary to matter of fact: Enoch and Elijah having been translated to heaven, and therefore having been perfectly purified even in body, without going into the Calvinian purgatory. But, (4.) What displeases us most in the evasive argument which I answer, is, that it puts the greatest contempt on Christ's blood, and puts the greatest cheat on weak believers, who sincerely wait to be now "made perfect in love," that they may now worthily magnify God's holy name.

An illustration will prove it. I suppose that Christ is now in England, doing as many wonderful cures as he formerly did in Judea. My benevolent opponent runs to the Salop infirmary, and tells all the patients there that the great Physician, the Son of God, has once more visited the earth; and he again "heals all manner of sickness and diseases among the people, and cleanses" from the most inveterate leprosy by a touch or a word. All the patients believe Mr. Hill; some hop to this wonderful Saviour, and others are carried to his footstool. They touch and retouch him; he strokes them round again and again: but not one of them is cured. The wounds of some, indeed, are skinned over for a time; but it soon appears that they still fester at the bottom, and that a painful core remains unextracted in every sore. The poor creatures complain to Mr. Hill, "Did you not, sir, assure us upon your honor, as a Christian gentleman, that Christ heals all manner of diseases, and cleanses from all kinds of leprosies?" "True," says Mr. Hill ; "but you must know that these words do not mean that he radically cures any disease, or cleanses from any leprosy: they only signify that he begins to cure every disease, and continues to cleanse from all leprosies; but notwithstanding all his cures, begun and continued, nobody is cured before death. So, my friends, you must bear your festering sores as well as you can, till death comes radically to cleanse and cure you from them all." Instead of crying, "Sweet grace! Rich grace!" and of clapping Mr. Hill for his evangelical message, the disappointed patients desire him to take them back to the infirmary, saying, "We have there a chance for a cure before death; but your great Physician pronounces us incurable, unless death comes to the help of his art: and we think that any surgeon could do as much, if he did not do more."

If God hath appointed death to make an end of heart pollution, and to be our complete savior from sin, our opponents might screen their doctrine of a death purgatory behind God's appointment; it being certain that God, who can command iron to swim, and fire to cool, could also command the filthy hands of death to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts. But we do not read in our Bible either that God ever gave to indwelling sin a lease of any believer's heart for life; or that he ever appointed the king of terrors to deliver us from the deadly seeds of iniquity. And although the Old Testament contains an account of many carnal ordinances adapted to the carnal disposition of the Jews, we do not remember to have read there, "DEATH shall circumcise thy heart, that thou mayest love the Lord thy God with all thy heart. Death shall sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness death will cleanse you. Death will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and (when you are dead) ye shall keep my judgments and do them." And if death was never so far honored under the Mosaic dispensation, we ask where he has been invested with higher privileges under the Gospel of Christ? Is it where St. Paul says that "Christ hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel?" It appears to us that it is a high degree of rashness in the Calvinists, and in the Romanists, to appoint the pangs of death, and the sorrows of hell, to do the most difficult, and, of consequence, the most glorious work of Christ's Spirit, which is powerfully to "redeem us from all iniquity, and to purify unto himself a peculiar people, [not full of all inbred unrighteousness, but 'dead to sin, free from sin, pure in heart,' and] zealous of good works." And we shall think ourselves far more guilty of impertinence, if we nominate either death or hell to do the office of the final purifier of our hearts, than if we ordered a sexton to do the office of the prime minister, or an executioner to act as the king's physician. With respect to salvation from the root, as well as from the branches of sin, we will therefore "know nothing," as absolutely necessary, "but Jesus Christ and him crucified," risen again, ascended on high, that he might send the Holy Ghost to perfect us in love, through "a faith that purifies the heart, and through a hope which, if any man hath, he will purify himself, even as God is pure."

If Mr. Hill say that I beat the air, and that the text which he quotes in his "Creed for Perfectionists," to show that it is impossible to be cleansed from all sin before death, is not 1 John i. 7, but the next verse; I reply, that if St. John assert in the seventh verse that "Christ's blood," powerfully applied by the Spirit of faith, "cleanses us from all sin," that inspired writer cannot be so exceedingly inconsistent as to contradict himself in the very next verse.

Should the reader ask, "What then can be St. John's meaning in that verse, where he declares that 'if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us?' How can these words possibly agree with the doctrine of a perfect cleansing from all sin? "

We answer, that St. John having given his first stroke to the Antinomian believers of his day, strikes, by the by, a blow at Pharisaic professors. There were in St. John's time, as there are in our own, numbers of men who had never been properly convinced of sin, and who boasted, as Paul once did, that touching the righteousness of the law, they were blameless; they served God; they did their duty; they gave alms; they never did anybody any harm; they thanked God that they were not as other men; but especially that they were not like those mourners in Sion, who were no doubt very wicked, since they made so much ado about God's mercy, and a powerful application of the Redeemer's all-cleansing blood. How proper then was it for St. John to inform his readers that these whole-hearted Christians, these perfect Pharisees, were no better than liars and self-deceivers; and that true Christian righteousness is always attended by a genuine conviction of our native depravity, and by an humble acknowledgment of our actual transgressions.

This being premised, it appears that the text so dear to us, and so mistaken by our opponents, has this fair, Scriptural meaning: —"If we [followers of Him who came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance] say, We have no sin [no native depravity from our first parents, and no actual sin, at least no such sin as deserves God's wrath; fancying we need not secure a particular application of Christ's atoning and purifying blood] we deceive ourselves, and the truth [of repentance and faith] is not in us."

That the words are levelled at the monstrous error of self-conceited, and self-perfected Pharisees, and not at "the glorious liberty of the children of God," appears to us undubitable from the following reasons: (1.) The immediately preceding verse strongly asserts this liberty. (2.) The verse immediately following secures it also, and cuts down the doctrine of our opponents; the apostle's meaning being evidently this: — "Though I write to you, that 'if we say' we are originally free from sin, and never did any harm, we deceive ourselves;' yet, mistake me not: I do not mean to continue under the guilt, or in the moral infection of any sin, original or actual. For if we penitently and believingly confess both, 'he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,' whether it be native or self-contracted, internal or external. Therefore, if we have attained the glorious liberty of God's children, we need not, through voluntary humility, say that we do nothing but sin. It will be sufficient, when we are 'cleansed from all unrighteousness,' still to be deeply humbled for our present infirmities, and for our past sins; confessing both with godly sorrow and filial shame. For if we should say, 'We have not sinned, [note: St. John does not write, If we should say, WE DO NOT SIN,] we make him a liar, and the truth is not in us;' common sense dictating that if 'we have not sinned,' we speak an untruth when we profess that Christ has forgiven our sins." This appears to us the true meaning of 1 John i. 8, when it is fairly considered in the light of the context.

III. We humbly hope that Mr. Hill himself will be of our sentiment if he compare the verse in debate with the pure and strict doctrine which St. John enforces throughout his Epistle. In the second chapter he says, "We know that we know him, if we keep his commandments, etc. Whoso KEEPETH HIS WORD, in him verily is the love of God PERFECTED. He that abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked, etc. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light [where the blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin] and there is none occasion of stumbling in him."

The same doctrine runs also through the next chapter: "Every one that hath this hope in him, PURIFIETH HIMSELF AS HE (Christ) is PURE. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law, etc., and ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins, [i. e., to destroy them root and branch;] and in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth, does not [properly] see him, neither know him; he that does righteousness is righteous, even as he [Christ] is righteous. He that committeth sin, [i. e., as appears by the context, he that transgresseth the law] is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning: for this purpose was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God [whosoever is made partaker of God's holiness, according to the perfection of the Christian dispensation] doth not commit sin, [i. e., does not transgress the law;] for his seed," the ingrafted word, made quick and powerful by the indwelling Spirit, "remaineth in him, and [morally speaking] he cannot sin because he is [thus] born of God. For if ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doth righteousness is born of him;" and that he that doth not righteousness, — he "that committeth sin," or transgresseth the law, — is, so far, of the devil, for "the devil " transgresseth the law, i. e., "sinneth from the beginning. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil.2 Whosoever does not righteousness, [i. e., whosoever sinneth, taking the word in its evangelical meaning,] is not of God," 1 John iii. 3-11; ii. 29.

If Mr. Hill cry out, "Shockingl Who are those men that do not sin?" I reply, All those whom St. John speaks of, a few verses below: "Beloved, if our heart condemn us; [and it will condemn us if we sin — but God much more, for] God is greater than our hearts, etc. Beloved, if our hearts condemn us not, we have confidence toward God, etc., because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight," 1 John iii. 20, etc. Now, we apprehend, all the sophistry in the world will never prove that, evangelically speaking, "keeping God's commandments," and "doing what pleases him," is sinning. Therefore, when St. John professed to keep God's commandments, and to do what is pleasing in his sight, he professed what our opponents call sinless perfection, and what we call Christian perfection.

Mr. Hill is so very unhappy in his choice of St. John, to close the number of his apostolic witnesses for Christian imperfection, that, were it not for a few clauses of his First Epistle, the anti-Solifidian severity of that apostle might drive all imperfect Christians to despair. And what is most remarkable, those few encouraging clauses are all conditional: "If any man sin," for there is no necessity that he should; or rather, (according to the most literal sense of the word ἁμάρτῃ which being in the aorist has generally the force of a past tense,) "If any man HAVE SINNED: if he have not sinned unto death: if we confess our sins: if that which ye have heard shall remain in you: if ye walk in the light:" then do we evangelically enjoy the benefit of our Advocate's intercession. Add to this, that the first of those clauses is prefaced by these words, "my little children, these things I write unto you, THAT YE SIN NOT;" and all together are guarded by these dreadful declarations: — "He that says, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. If any man say, I love God, and loveth not his brother, [note: he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law,] he is a liar. There is a sin unto death, I do not say that he shall pray for it. Let no man deceive you; he that does righteousness is righteous. He that committeth sin [or transgresseth the law] is of the devil." To represent St. John, therefore, as an enemy to the doctrine of Christian perfection, does not appear to us less absurd than to represent Satan as a friend to complete holiness.

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1. Hengstenberg's Exegesis.

2. This doctrine of St. John to perfectly agreeable to that of our Lord, who said that "Judas had a devil," because he gave place to the love of money; and who called Peter himself "Satan," when he "savored the things of men," in opposition to "the things of God."