Patterns, Perfectionism, Grace and the Tennessee Tradition

If the life and ministry of Jesus is our pattern, then we all fall woefully short in every way.

Moral Patternism. We rarely have a difficult time hearing that we are imperfect in terms of morality since we are well aware that we fail to image the character of Jesus in so  many ways–internally and externally. We all recognize the need for divine mercy.

David Lipscomb recognized that moral imperfection is covered by the righteousness of Christ, that is, the gracious provision of God’s faithulness in Jesus. Commenting on Philippians 3, he wrote (pp. 205-206):

Even when a man’s heart is purified by faith, and his affections all reach out towards God and seek conformity to the life of God it is imperfect. His practice of the righteousness of God falls far short of the divine standard. The flesh is weak, and the law of sin reigns in our members; so that we fall short of the perfect standard of righteousness; but if we trust God implicitly and faithfully endeavor to do his will, he knows our frame, knows our weaknesses, and as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities our infirmities and weaknesses, and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. So Jesus stands as our justification and our righteousness, and our life is hid with Christ in God.

Recognizing our sinfulness and infirmity, God graciously “imputes to us the righteouenss of Christ” as “we trust God implicitly and faithfully endeavor to do his will.” The gracious love of God covers our sins and weakness as we “trust God” and “endeavor” to obey him. I think that is pretty significant. It is not that we actually do obey him in every thing or most things, but that we trust him and seek to obey him. We trust and obey but recognize that our trust is often weak and our obedience is always imperfect.

Similarily, in spite of his daily desire to be holy, James A. Harding believed that “perhaps hourly, and sometimes many times in an hour, in some of these ways I sin.” Harding had no illusions of moral perfectionism. But this did not undermine his assurance since he recognized that his weaknesses were covered by the grace of Jesus Christ. He wrote (1883, 442):

Now, under Judaism the principle which obtained was, ‘Do and live.’ As no man could do right, no man could find life. Under Christianity no man can do right anymore than he could under Judaism. The commandments of the decalogue, except the fourth, are just as binding as ever. Who, after reading the sermon on the mount, can imagine that the standard of right is in any wise lowered? But by the death of Christ a provision was made for our weaknesses and imperfections which did not exist under the law. The Christian has precisely the same sort of struggle as did the faithful Jew in trying to do the will of God….but in Christ there is no condemnation; in him all these shortcomings are overlooked; in him our sins are blotted out…The Christian remains in Christ just as long as he “wills to do his will;” as long as he strives earnestly and prayerfully against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

This language is common in Harding. Our works do not save us, but God saves us through faith in Christ.  It is a faith that “wills to do his will” even though we imperfectly do his will.  It is a faith that “strives earnestly and prayerfully” even though we often fail. When it comes to moral imperfections, God graciously and mercifully forgives our ignorance and weaknesses for the sake of Christ. If we are in Christ, “whether [we sin] in ignorance, weakness or willfulness,” God “holds nothing against us” (1903, p. 401).

Moral patternism did not entail perfectionism, according to Lipscomb and Harding. We are all far from perfect–our ignorance, our weaknesses, even our willfulness, means that God’s mercy would have to overlook our shortcomings for the sake of Christ if any of us would ever have any assurance of salvation.  And, according to Lipscomb and Harding, he does this as long as a faith that trusts God and seeks him remains even when that trusting and seeking is imperfect.

Positive Patternism. But Lipscomb and Harding sing a different tune when it comes to the positive laws that govern ecclesiology (and this is genernally true of  Churches of Christ as a whole in the first half of the 20th century). [On the distinction between moral and positive law in the Stone-Campbell hermeneutics, see an earlier post of mine.]

Here perfectionism–in some form–is expected and functions as a test of fellowship between believers. If a fellow believer is not perfect in his positive obedience to the positive laws of the New Testament, then the faithful must separate from him. For example, as it has been subsequently applied by many, if a congregation does not observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, then they rebel against the positive law of the New Testament (taught by example in Acts 20:7) and it thereby becomes apostate.

While debating the Baptist Moody in 1889 Nashville on the design of baptism, Harding introduced the distinction between moral and positive law (baptism is the latter). His characterization of the distinction and its significance is illuminating (256-257, emphasis mine):

While the positive law is not right in the nature of things (in so far as mortals can see), but it is right because it is commanded. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper under the new covenant, and the ceremonial law of the Jews under the old covenant, are illustrations of positive law…Positive law differs from moral law in that it can be obeyed perfectly. Positive law is therefore a more perfect test of faith and love, a more perfect test of allegiance to God, than moral law…For these two reasons, doubtless, God has ever been more ready to overlook the infractions of moral, than of positive law; and for the same reasons the positive is peculiarly adapted to the expression and the perfection of faith. I would not have you suppose that I think God would for a moment tolerate a willful violation of moral law. No, no; I simply mean that God, who knows so well our inherited weakness, is patient and gentle with us in our imperfect obedience to this law, and in our many backslidings from it. But positive law we can obey perfectly, and he is strict and stern in demanding that we shall do it.

The application is apparent. God is gracious toward our moral failings because he understands our weaknesses and our inability to obey moral law perfectly. He understands our sanctification will be slow and progressive due to our weaknesses. However, God is stern and unyielding in his insistence on obedience to positive law because we can obey it perfectly. Positive law has such clarity that there is no misunderstanding it. One can be immersed—the command must be obeyed as stated.

This explains why God can act with such grace and forgiveness toward the moral failings of David, but at the same time remove Saul from his kingship for positive disobedience and instantly kill Uzzah. Saul and Uzzah “violated a positive law.” God can bear with the moral failings of his people because of their weaknesses, but God will not tolerate the violation of his explicit positive laws. Old Testament examples testify to God’s sternness. The Old Testament teaches the church to respect the sanctity of positive law.

Positive patternism entails some sort of perfectionism.  Ignorance, weakness, and certainly willfulness, was no excuse and no divine mercy is promised. Positive disobedience, whether out of ignorance, weakness or willfulness, is disloyalty and rebellion. Even if a faith was present that trusted God and sought to obey him according to what was known, it was not enough. Postive disobedience meant that faith was insufficient because their obedience was not perfect enough; their faith could not save them because of their positive infractions or imperfections.

Contrasted.  While the mercy of God for Christ’s sake was sufficient to forgive moral sin through a faith that trusted God and sought to do his will however imperfectly, the mercy of God for Christ’s sake is not sufficient to forgive positive sin through a faith that trusts God and seeks to do his will because that faith did not obey the positive law perfectly. Therefore, perfect positive obedience is necessary for salvation whereas perfect moral obedience is not. The grace of God covers moral imperfections but it does not cover positive imperfections.  

This fundamentally proposes, it seems to me, a God who values sacrifice more than mercy

Why are not the positive imperfections covered by the faithfulness of Christ for those who “trust” God and seek to do his will just like the moral imperfections? Are we not are saved by grace through faith rather than by faith through perfect positive obedience to a graciously lowered standard?

May God have mercy.

P.S. For those interested in a fuller discussion of the moral/positive distinction, see my article on Harding’s use of this distinction.  For those interested in a fuller discussion of grace through faith, see my presentation at Harding University Graduate School of Religion.


David Lipscomb, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, 4, edited, with additional notes by J. W. Shepherd (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1957).

J. B. Moody and James A. Harding, Debate on Baptism and the Work of the Holy Spirit (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1955 reprint).

James A. Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 4 (26 February 1903) 401.

James A. Harding, “What I Would Not, That I Do,” Gospel Advocate 25 (11 July 1883) 442.

5 Responses to “Patterns, Perfectionism, Grace and the Tennessee Tradition”

  1.   Zach Cox Says:

    It seems that your sacrifice over mercy evaluation is spot on. Good post.

  2.   Keith Brenton Says:

    What strikes me about these two famed writers’ analyses is that – however rational and logical they might seem – they have no real antecedent in scripture; no delineation there between moral and positive law (or mortal sin and venial sin). The distinction seems to conveniently excuse what the writers wish to excuse and prosecute what they wish to prosecute.

    I shouldn’t comment when I have a migraine because my logic and love is suspect. If I’m off-base here, let me apologize in advance. But I don’t see how this Lipscomb and Harding doctrine could have stood unchallenged by “Be perfect (complete) even as your heavenly father is perfect” or “whoever is not against us is for us.”

    Thanks, John Mark, for an incisive look back.

  3.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    This is a good example of using a distinction recognized in culture (in this case, English law and Reformed theology) and applying it directly to Scripture without recognizing the distance between our own culture and that of Scripture. Not an uncommon thing, actually…even for us…but this example had tremendous implications for the development Churches of Christ in the early 20th century.

  4.   Todd Deaver Says:

    Thanks for this article. It’s helpful to see the background behind this kind of thinking.

  5.   rich Says:

    john mark,
    o.k. now
    faith trust(by doing good{rom 2}) in god.. before christ’s vindication..
    faith trust in god’s faithfullness to his word’s,
    rom3, by the faithfullness of his son.
    to give glory to god is to submit to the will of the son’Faithfull Words, of gods good will
    which brings us into the mercy of god through the redempshion of his son.
    the spirit my brother will lead all good men to a pool of water, as peter did with cornealus.
    un less they are being decieved or deciving…
    an answer of a clean god..because of gods word…he said…

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