Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume V/Against Two Letters of the Pelagians/Book IV/Chapter 27
Chapter 27 [X.]—Cyprian’s Testimonies Concerning the Imperfection of Our Own Righteousness.
Let us, then, see that third point, which in these men is not less shocking to every member of Christ and to His whole body,—that they contend that there are in this life, or that there have been, righteous men having absolutely no sin. In which presumption they most manifestly contradict the Lord’s Prayer, wherein, with truthful heart and with daily words, all the members of Christ cry aloud, “Forgive us our debts.” Let us see, then, what Cyprian, most glorious in the Lord, thought of this,—what he not only said for the instruction of the Churches, not, of course, of the Manicheans, but of the catholics, but also committed to letters and to memory. In the epistle on “Works and Alms,” he says: “Let us then acknowledge, beloved brethren, the wholesome gift of the divine mercy, and let us who cannot be without some wound of conscience heal our wounds by the spiritual remedies for the cleansing and purging of our sins. Nor let any one so flatter himself with the notion of a pure and immaculate heart, as, in dependence on his own innocence, to think that the medicine needs not to be applied to his wounds; since it is written, ‘Who shall boast that he hath a clean heart, or who shall boast that he is pure from sins?’ And again, in his epistle, John lays it down and says, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ But if no one can be without sin, and whoever should say that he is without fault is either proud or foolish, how needful, how kind is the divine mercy, which, knowing that there are still found some wounds in those that have been healed, has given even after their healing wholesome remedies for the curing and healing of their wounds anew!” Again, in the same treatise he says: “And since there cannot fail daily to be sins committed in the sight of God, there failed not daily sacrifices wherewith the sins might be cleansed away.” Also, in the treatise on the Mortality, he says: “Our warfare is with avarice, with immodesty, with anger, with ambition; our trying and toilsome wrestling with carnal vices, with the enticements of the world. The mind of man besieged, and on every hand invested with the onsets of the devil, scarcely meets the repeated attacks, scarcely resists them. If avarice is prostrated, lust springs up. If lust is overcome, ambition takes its place. If ambition is despised, anger exasperates, pride puffs up, wine-bibbing entices; envy breaks concord; jealousy cuts friendship; you are constrained to curse, which the divine law forbids; you are compelled to swear, which is not lawful. So many persecutions the soul suffers daily, with so many risks is the heart wearied; and yet it delights to abide here long among the devil’s weapons, although it should rather be our craving and wish to hasten to Christ by the aid of a quicker death.” Again, in the same treatise he says: “The blessed Apostle Paul in his epistle lays it down, saying, ‘To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain;’ counting it the greatest gain no longer to be held by the snares of this world, no longer to be liable to the sins and vices of the flesh.” Moreover, on the Lord’s Prayer, explaining what it is we ask when we say, “Hallowed be thy name,” he says, among other matters: “For we have need of daily sanctification, that we, who daily fall away, may wash out our sins by continual sanctification.” Again, in the same treatise, when he would explain our saying, “Forgive us our debts,” he says: “And how necessarily, how providently and salutarily, are we admonished that we are sinners, since we are compelled to entreat for our sins; and while pardon is asked for from God, the soul recalls its own consciousness of guilt. Lest any one should flatter himself as being innocent, and by exalting himself should more deeply perish, he is instructed and taught that he sins daily, in that he is bidden to entreat daily for his sins. Thus, moreover, John also in his epistle warns us, and says: ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.’” Rightly, also, he proposed in his letter to Quirinus his own most absolute judgment on this subject, to which he subjoined the divine testimonies, “That no one is without filth and without sin.” There also he set down those testimonies by which original sin is confirmed, which these men endeavour to twist into I know not what new and evil meanings, whether what the holy Job says, “No one is pure from filth, not one even if his life be of one day upon the earth,” or what is read in the Psalm, “Behold, I was conceived in iniquity; and in sins hath my mother nourished me in the womb.” To which testimonies, on account of those also who are already holy in mature age, since even they are not without filth and sin, he added also that word of the most blessed John, which he often mentions in many other places besides, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves;” and other passages of the same sentiment, which are asserted by all catholics, by way of opposing those “who deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them.”
- This assertion of the Pelagians was condemned in an African Council in 418.
- Prov. xx. 9.
- 1 John i. 8.
- Cyprian, work cited, ch. 2; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. v. p. 476.
- Ibid., p. 480.
- Ibid. work cited, chs. 3, 4, p. 470.
- Phil. i. 21.
- Cyprian, ibid.
- Cyprian, work cited, ch. 9, p. 450.
- Cyprian, ibid. ch. 16 (xxii.), p. 453.
- Cyprian, Testimonies, iii. 54; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, v. p. 529.
- Job xiv. 4, 5.
- Ps. li. 5.
- 1 John i. 8.