Forgive Us Our Trespasses
Joseph D. McPherson
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Fall 2011. Volume 29.
Date Posted Dec., 2011

The question has many times been asked: "Does having attained Christian perfection or entire sanctification eliminate the necessity of daily asking forgiveness for trespasses committed? A scripturally based answer is found within the written views of five early Methodist leaders and an early Church father. In addition to John Wesley's comments, we share those of Adam Clarke, Richard Watson, John Fletcher. W. B. Pope, and Chrysostom.

In conference with his preachers, Mr. Wesley explained to all present that

Everyone may mistake as long as he lives. A mistake in opinion may occasion a mistake in practice. Every such mistake is a transgression of the perfect law. Therefore, every such mistake, were it not for the blood of atonement, would expose to eternal damnation. It follows, that the most perfect have continual need of the merits of Christ, even for their actual transgressions, and may say for themselves, as well as their brethren, 'Forgive us our trespasses.'

The founder of Methodism assures us that

The best of men still need Christ in His priestly office to atone for their omissions, their short-comings (as some not improperly speak), their mistakes in judgment and practice, and their defects of various kinds. For these are all deviations from the perfect law, and consequently need an atonement. Yet that they are not properly sins, we apprehend may appear from the words of St. Paul, "He that loveth, hath fulfilled the law; for love is the fulfilling of the law," Rom.13:10.

He makes plain the fact that "mistakes, and whatever infirmities necessarily flow from the corrupted state of the body, are no way contrary to love; nor therefore, in the Scripture sense, sin."In his comments on what is called the "Lord's Prayer," Adam Clarke writes: "What satisfaction must it be to learn from God himself, with what words, and in what manner, he would have us pray to him, so as not to pray in vain!" While some have supposed that praying the so-called "Lord's Prayer" should be more appropriately reserved for worship in corporate assemblies, Clarke is convinced that our Lord meant it to be a pattern for private petition as well and asks, "Should we not begin our addresses to God with this prayer? and then after that manner continue our requests to a reasonable length? But whether used in the beginning, middle, or end [of our personal prayer time] let it never be forgotten."

To explain himself a little further on this head he writes: "Not only sin, properly so called (that is, a voluntary transgression of a known law), but sin, improperly so called (that is, an involuntary transgression of a Divine law, known or unknown), needs the atoning blood." He goes on to say that he believed "there is not such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality." For this reason Mr. Wesley claims to never use the phrase, "sinless perfection . . . lest I should seem to contradict myself." He assures his readers that he believed "a person filled with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions. "Such transgressions," says he, "you may call sin [in the proper sense], if you please: I do not, for the reasons above mentioned."

Mr. Wesley leaves a warning, however, to those who tend to trivialize their view of involuntary transgressions. They are never to think of themselves to be "in such a state . . . that they stand before infinite justice without a Mediator." To assume such "must argue," says he, "either the deepest ignorance, or the highest arrogance and presumption." Even among those who are made perfect in love "there is not a full conformity to the perfect law, so the most perfect do, on this very account, need the blood of atonement, and may properly for themselves, as well as for their brethren, say, 'Forgive us our trespasses.'" To those who, like some Calvinists, call all involuntary transgressions sins, he gives warning to "beware how they confound these defects with sins, properly so called."

Clarke's treatment of the initial question is different than that of Wesley's, but is nevertheless applicable. He assures us that

When a man has any doubts whether he has grieved God's Spirit, and his mind feels troubled, it is much better for him to go immediately to God, and ask forgiveness, than to spend any time in finding excuses for his conduct, or laboring to divest it of its seeming obliquity. Restraining or suppressing prayer, in order to find excuses or palliation for infirmities, indiscretions, or improprieties of any kind, which appear to trench on the sacred limits of morality and godliness, may be to a man the worst of evils: humiliation and prayer for mercy and pardon can never be out of its place to any souls of man, who, surrounded with evils, is ever liable to offend

Richard Watson, who wrote the first systematic theology for early Methodism was aware of those who "alleged, that a person delivered from all inward and outward sin has no longer need to use the petition of the Lord's prayer, - 'and forgive us our trespasses;' because he has no longer need for pardon." Watson quickly corrects such misguided logic by assuring the reader that "this petition is still relevant to the case of the entirely sanctified and the evangelically perfect, since neither the perfection of the first man nor that of angels is in question." He reminds us that although the entirely sanctified is made perfect in love, he or she is still "rendered naturally weak and imperfect [in body and soul by the Fall], and so liable to mistake and infirmity, as well as to defect in the degree of that absolute obedience and service which the law of God, never bent or lowered to human weakness, demands from all." Watson further shows that "we are not the ultimate judge of our case as to our 'trespasses,' or our exemption from them; and we are not therefore, to put ourselves into the place of God, 'who is greater than our hearts.'" He explains further by showing that "although St. Paul says, 'I know nothing by myself,' that is, I am conscious of no offense, he adds, 'yet am I not hereby justified; but he that judgeth me is the Lord:' to whom, therefore, the appeal is every moment to be made through Christ the Mediator, and who, by the renewed testimony of his Spirit, assures every true believer of his acceptance in his sight."

"Though a perfect Christian," writes Mr. Fletcher, "does not trespass voluntarily, and break the law of love, yet he daily breaks the law of Adamic perfection through the imperfection of his bodily and mental powers: and he has frequently a deeper sense of these involuntary trespasses than many weak believers have of their voluntary breeches of the moral law."

Mr. Fletcher continues by asserting that "Although a perfect Christian has a witness that his sins are now forgiven, in the court of his conscience, yet he 'knows the terror of the Lord:' he hastens to meet the awful day of God: he waits for the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the character of a righteous Judge." For these stupendous reasons "he keeps an eye to the awful tribunal, before which he must soon 'be justified or condemned by his words:' he is conscious that his final justification is not yet come; and therefore he would think himself a monster of stupidity and pride, if, with an eye to his absolution in the great day, he scrupled saying to the end of life, 'Forgive us our trespasses.'"

It is interesting to note that far from supposing this prayer for forgiveness to be designed only for penitent, unregenerate sinners, an early Church father by the name of Chrysostom declared: "This prayer for forgiveness belongs to believers. For the uninitiated could not call God Father."

With similar understanding, W. B. Pope, who is often referred to as "the prince of theologians" among early Methodists, says that "The prayer which every member of the pilgrim [or true] church utters, 'Forgive us our trespasses' . . . is not efficacious for those whose faith without works is dead; but for those whose faith worketh by love."

Although we have not included all that these men wrote concerning the question addressed, we nevertheless conclude by this limited study that the foremost leaders of early Methodist teaching were undivided in their belief and conviction that the prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses" was meant by our Master to be consistently expressed by all true believers, including those having attained Christian perfection. Nor do we find their view of this subject to be different than that of the early Church fathers as illustrated by the comment of Chrysostom. Such is the continuity of teaching we often find between the early Church fathers and early Methodism.