The Spirit of the Lord Comes Upon David in Power (1 Samuel 16)
David’s story begins with the Lord sending Samuel to a small village, Bethlehem, to visit an insignificant family, Jesse’s, to anoint a new King of Israel.
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.” The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.” (1 Samuel 16:1-3, RSV)
This passage immediately creates tension within the Christian reader. For, to all intents and purposes, the Lord is here directing Samuel to engage in deception to obscure his actual mission. The theological issues associated with this and numerous other instances of, apparently, God-approved dishonesty are subjects of hot debate.
What I will here address is the intersection between this issue and the concept of “Christian perfectionism,” which is currently defined in Wikipedia as:
Christian perfection is the name given to various teachings within Christianity that describe the process of achieving spiritual maturity or perfection. The ultimate goal of this process is union with God characterized by pure love of God and other people as well as personal holiness or sanctification. Various terms have been used to describe the concept, such as “Christian holiness”, “entire sanctification”, “perfect love”, the “baptism with the Holy Spirit“, and the “second blessing“.
Certain traditions and denominations teach the possibility of Christian perfection, including the Catholic Church, where it is closely associated with consecrated life. It is also taught in Methodist churches and the holiness movement, in which it is sometimes termed Wesleyan perfectionism. Other denominations, such as the Lutheran and Reformed churches, reject teachings associated with Christian perfection as contrary to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.
As an orthodox Reformed Christian I reject this theological concept. However, my personal decision in no way diminishes the powerful hold of perfectionistic thinking within Christian communities, most definitely including those that are theoretically based on Reformed theology.
My experience with this concept requires a more specific discussion. That is, many Christians, regardless of their theological background, have an insatiable need for some clear “mark” of their saved status. Thus, they are inexorably drawn towards ideas that promise to deliver such a distinctive mark to their lives. In the circles within which I generally travel, these marks are sought and obtained through secular politics. In other circles these marks may be dominated by personal prosperity or ecstatic experience (e.g., “speaking in tongues”).
In all cases though, since each and every living human is bound under the curse of sin, these marks of Christian perfection must allow their bearers to discount reality. This result is generally obtained through use of one or a combination of the following strategies.
- Narrow down the scope of morality to such a small a sliver of life that it becomes manageable to presume perfection.
- Identify a source of presumed “moral perfection” and then slavishly adhere to that source’s guidance.
- Massively overestimate your own inherent wisdom and goodness, to the point that anyone who criticizes or even disagrees with you can only be motivated by stupidity and/or evil.
This need arises from two primary sources. The first is a profound distrust of God. That is, distrust that God’s promise of salvation by grace alone can be counted upon. The second is human pride. That is, the determination to take responsibility for, or at least contribute substantively to, your salvation. Thus, Christian perfectionism is a salvation by works theology that simultaneously pulls down God and raises humans.
In all cases this error distorts and destroys Christian life. One key means by which this destruction occurs is through moral competition. That is, Christians seek to measure their progress towards (or actual achievement of) perfection by comparing themselves to others. One description of this destructive dynamic is found in a recent post criticizing “The Benedict Option.”
That leads me to my critique. Many of the families who come together to form these communities believe they are being obedient to God or purer in faith. But what begins as a good desire turns into a measuring rod. Families begin comparing themselves to one another and to those outside the community. Who can be more rigorous, and hence more faithful?
R.C. Sproul well describes the disastrous consequences of this concept through two human encounters. In the first, a nineteen year old who has been a professing Christian for one year claimed that his sanctification (to perfection) exceeded that of the Apostle Paul’s. In the second, a woman has deluded herself to believe that, due to her state of Christian perfection, any sin that she might commit could be only “unwillful.”
Returning to the Story
What, you may well ask, does any of this have to do with the Biblical passage concerning Samuel? Well, this. The Lord God communicated a specific mission to Samuel that, while part of His eternal decree, would yet be accomplished within the constraints of this fallen world. That is, the Lord would not miraculously intervene to protect Samuel from King Saul. Thus Samuel, in order to remain alive to accomplish his mission, was directed to use deception to obscure his true purpose from the king. Samuel could have argued that God’s own Ninth Commandment prohibited him from this action, and thereby avoid the obligation to pursue God’s chosen end.
That is, Samuel could have placed his own need for moral perfection above God’s direction to accomplish a mission. Although Samuel may have felt self-justified, in reality he would have been disobedient. Samuel rather chose to pursue God’s purpose within the constraints of this fallen world and without presuming to school the Lord on morality.
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? (Job 38:1,2, NIV)
These situations are anathema to Christian perfectionists. For, if you have raised your own morality as an idol to which is tied your salvation, you simply cannot violate that belief without destroying the ground upon which you imagine your salvation to stand. This logical contradiction can immobilize Christians, with disastrous results.
As we move through David’s story this tension between acting in pursuit of God’s will and maintaining the illusion of personal moral perfection will be seen many times. Thus, there will be additional occasions to meditate upon this crucial issue.