R.C. Sproul and Warfield’s Perfectionism

On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss a book peddler, the “second gift,” and two people who claimed they never sinned.


STEPHEN NICHOLS: Dr. Sproul, we’re back in your library again. It’s nice to see you. I noticed you have quite a few books from B.B. Warfield. It might be tempting to assume that we’re going talk about The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, that being Warfield’s classic contribution to Protestantism, but I pulled a different book off your shelf: Warfield’s critique on the doctrine of perfectionism. Now, before we get into the book, when I opened it up, I noticed a piece of paper. It’s not archival, but it’s not current either. Up at the top it reads, “Saint Andrew’s Men’s Ministry,” and it sketches out the intentions for the church that you founded and copastor, for a men’s ministry at Saint Andrew’s Chapel. In case you lost it, we found it for you.

R.C. SPROUL: We wrote that up almost twenty years ago.

NICHOLS: Twenty years? Well, it was longer than twenty years ago when Warfield wrote this book. So, here it is, Warfield’s Perfectionism.

SPROUL: There are many different editions of Warfield’s works, and this volume was in the first edition that I had. When I was a student in college, I was a salesman for the Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company.

NICHOLS: You were peddling books as a college student?

SPROUL: I was peddling books, and because I was a salesman, I received this set. The publisher was Craig Press, at the time, before it became the Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company.

NICHOLS: Right. It was named after the founder of P&R?

SPROUL: Yes. I got free samples of the whole line that I was selling.

NICHOLS: That’s an excellent reason to sell books right there. That’s all you need.

SPROUL: I received book by G.C. Berkouwer, Cornelius Van Til, Loraine Boettner, J. Marcellus Kik, and I also received this five-volume set of B.B. Warfield, which was wonderful.

NICHOLS: That’s great.

SPROUL: I read all of them, of course. The book on perfectionism was interesting to me because perfectionism was a much greater issue at the turn of the century than it is today. It was, in a sense, the issue relating to the charismatic movement earlier on, because when neo-Pentecostal theology hit the world, the basic emphasis was on the second work of grace, where you could be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Such a baptism was not simply to be empowered for miraculous works, but it was basically to be cured from the effects of sin.

NICHOLS: You were on a higher level.

SPROUL: It was believed that people could be morally perfect. I can remember some of my close friends, when I was in college as a young Christian, earnestly seeking the second gift, the issue of perfectionism. I sought it myself and was a living testimony of its being a fool’s errand because I never made it. In the course of my own experience, I’ve personally met only two individuals who have claimed to me that they were morally perfect through the power of the Holy Spirit. One was a woman whom I met here in the United States, and she told me that she never sinned. I was astonished at that. I met the other one when I was studying in Amsterdam. I played baseball in Holland, and I ran a baseball clinic for young people, high school kids and a little older. I had fifty or sixty young men in this clinic. I had one young man who was seventeen years old. He was an American exchange student living in Holland who wanted to participate in this baseball clinic, so I got to know him. He was from a church that taught perfectionism. I had a conversation with him, and he told me that he had received the gift and that he never sinned anymore. I went right away with him to discuss Paul and Romans 7, where he says, “That which I would not, I do.” Of course, he immediately responded that what Paul was talking about there was his prior, preconversion life. Then, I stuck with the text with him, and I think I was able to convince him that the text was referring to Paul’s present life and not his previous life. I said, “So, do you have a problem with that?” And he said, “Well, no, I guess maybe you’re right.” Then I said, “Let me ask you this: Do you think that you, right now, as a seventeen-year-old boy, are more sanctified than the Apostle Paul was when he wrote Romans?” He didn’t flinch. He looked me in the eye, and he said, “Yes.” Of course, one of the things I tried to urge him to do was to read Warfield’s Perfectionism because it’s the most comprehensive study of that theological issue that I’ve ever found anywhere. For anyone who’s studying that particular doctrine, it is a fabulous work.

NICHOLS: Like you said, the surge of Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century was a significant cultural moment that was spreading like wildfire in American Christianity, so what Warfield does here is help us think well about sanctification. Warfield was also engaged with what would become known as “carnal” Christianity, popularized by Lewis Sperry Chafer’s work He That Is Spiritual. Warfield’s Perfectionism goes after quite a few different perspectives on sanctification.

SPROUL: That’s exactly right.

NICHOLS: He tries to help us think well, think biblically. So, you recommended it to the seventeen-year-old.

SPROUL: Yes, I did.

NICHOLS: Would you still recommend this?

SPROUL: Yes, I would.

NICHOLS: All right. You got this copy free?

SPROUL: I did.

NICHOLS: You know, looking at it, I can see that it is a well-worn copy, so I can tell you appreciated it very much.


NICHOLS: Well, thank you, Dr. Sproul.

SPROUL: You’re welcome.