Perfection in the Christian Life [Commentary on Browne: Article XIV]

The doctrine of supererogation is bound up with the Roman system of indulgences, so a few words should be said about the latter first. According to the apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina, issued by Pope Paul VI, “An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned.” This remission is accomplished by the Church, which “authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints.” Crucially, the saints can add their own meritorious works to the treasury of satisfaction:

This treasury also includes the truly immense, unfathomable and ever pristine value before God of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, who following in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have sanctified their lives and fulfilled the mission entrusted to them by the Father. Thus while attaining their own salvation, they have also cooperated in the salvation of their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.[1]

The practice of dispensing indulgences is therefore rooted in the doctrine of supererogation, which Browne summarizes as follows: “A man may not only keep the law of God, so as to do all that is actually enjoined on him, but may be so full of the grace of God as even to do more than God’s law enjoins, and thereby deserve even more than his own salvation.” Article XIV rejects the possibility of supererogatory works, maintaining that they “cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety.” On this topic the Homily titled “A Sermon of Good Works Annexed Unto Faith” is particularly scathing:

Sects and feigned religions were neither the fortieth part so many among the Jews, nor more superstitiously and ungodly abused than of late days they have been among us. Which sects and religions had so many hypocritical works in their state of religion (as they arrogantly named it) that their lamps, as they said, ran always over, able to satisfy, not only for their own sins but also for all other their benefactors, brothers and sisters of their religion, as most ungodly and craftily they had persuaded the multitude of ignorant people; keeping in divers places as it were marts or markets of merits, being full of their holy relics, images, shrines and works of supererogation ready to be sold.[2]

The doctrine of supererogation rests upon two premises: first, that the good works of Christians are meritorious and contribute to salvation, and second, that it is possible to “do more than God’s law enjoins.” The first premise is rejected by Article XII, as seen previously: “The Church denies the merit of good works,” Browne writes. He reiterates this principle in his commentary on Article XIV: “Nothing in man can merit from God,” and “if we look for merit, it must be to Christ.” The second premise, that we can do more than God requires of us, depends on “a distinction between precepts, which are binding on all men, and counsels, which it is desirable to follow, but which are not obligatory on the conscience.” The premier example of a counsel in Scripture “is drawn from the passages in which our Lord and St. Paul, whilst highly honouring marriage, yet give the preference to a life of celibacy.” According to the Roman Church, the very existence of counsels as a category suggests that it is possible to earn supererogatory merit.

Without rehearsing the entirety of Browne’s response, it is important to note that he accepts the distinction between precepts and counsels even as he denies that the performance of counsels can earn supererogatory merit. On this account, “Advice, when coming from our Lord or His Apostles, may be a counsel tending indeed to spiritual good, but yet, if followed, not enabling to do more than is commanded, but only putting in the road to obtain more grace and strength from above.”[3] Additionally, to suppose that works of supererogation are possible is to have an unbiblically low estimate of what God requires of us, which is nothing less than perfection:

The precepts of the Gospel are so full and comprehensive that everything, even the highest degree of perfection, is contained in them. Under the Law, indeed, if the letter only was observed, the statutes contained but a certain express catalogue of duties: but the spiritual sense of the Law, as enforced by our Saviour, enjoins such an entire surrender of all the faculties of the body, soul, and spirit to the service of Christ, that nothing conceivable can exceed or overpass it.

If we take to heart Christ’s words, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), then we will appreciate the utter impossibility of supererogation. This is a commonplace of Protestant thought, as Browne observes: “It is scarcely necessary to add, that all the reformed Churches and sects, of whatever class or denomination, have rejected the doctrine of the Romanists concerning works of supererogation.” In this vein, Martin Luther writes that “no saint has adequately fulfilled God’s commandments in this life. Consequently, the saints have done absolutely nothing which is superabundant.”[4]

Now it has been argued that we are not in fact obligated to be perfect. For example, Gregory Mellema claims that here and in other relevant passages—e.g., “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (1 Peter 1:15)—the call to perfection is actually a counsel rather than a precept. Mellema reads such passages this way in large part because he accepts the Kantian principle that “ought implies can,” that is, “an agent ought to perform an act only if the agent can perform the act. If it is not in the agent’s power to perform the act, then the agent cannot be under any moral obligation or duty to perform it.”[5] He says this principle “enjoys almost universal acceptance among moralists” and has “a great deal of intuitive appeal,” so “there is perhaps a slight presumption in favor of rejecting views entailing its denial. Other things being equal, therefore, it seems preferable to interpret God’s requirements in such a way that the principle is not violated.”[6]

Whether or not the principle “ought implies can” is intuitive, it is squarely opposed by the Articles. As we have seen, Article X tells us that apart from God’s preventing grace “we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God.” Thus the unregenerate are unable to do what is good. Yet we are not told that, in view of their inability to do what is good, the unregenerate are not held accountable to God’s moral obligations. Quite the contrary—Article IX declares that all born into this world “deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.” Hence it does not follow that we are able to do something simply because we are morally obligated to do it. Even Christians, who are able to do good by the power of the Spirit, cannot in this life attain the perfection to which they are called.[7] This is a focal point in Articles XV and XVI“All we the rest, although baptized and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things” (Article XV), and “they are to be condemned which say they can no more sin as long as they live here” (Article XVI)—but Browne also discusses it briefly in his treatments of Article IX and Article XII: “There is still left in [baptized and regenerate Christians] a liability to sin” (Article IX), and “even under grace, obedience is never perfect” (Article XII).

Nevertheless Christ’s commandment remains in force: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37‒39). Contra Mellema’s suggestion that any scriptural calls for perfection can be understood as counsels, here Christ expressly commands us to live in perfect love. We should not, then, lower God’s requirements and invent a higher class of righteousness in the form of supererogation, but instead trust in the grace and mercy of God to remit all our failures to attain in this life that perfection to which He has called us.


  1. Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, 1 January 1967, Papal Archive, The Holy See, Compare Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2012), par. 1471, 1476‒77,
  2. Gerald Bray, ed., The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co., 2015), 49.
  3. Compare Philip Melanchthon, Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine: Loci Communes 1555, ed. and trans. Clyde L. Manschreck (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 130‒31, and Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 28‒29.
  4. Martin Luther, “Explanations of the Ninety-five Theses,” trans. Carl W. Folkemer, in Luther’s Works, vol. 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 213. See also Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works, trans. Scott H. Hendrix (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 17, and Turretin, Institutes, 29.
  5. Gregory Mellema, Beyond the Call of Duty: Supererogation, Obligation, and Offence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 62.
  6. Mellema, Beyond the Call of Duty, 62, 67.
  7. Some Christians maintain that it is possible to reach perfection in this life. For example, the Roman Catechism instructs its readers that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Catholic Church, Catechism, par. 2013, In like manner, the Methodist Articles of Religion teach that Christians “are enabled, through grace, to love God with all our hearts and to walk in his holy commandments blameless” (United Methodist Church, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church [Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2016], 72, On close inspection, however, the perfection spoken of in such cases is typically attenuated. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, Christian perfection “may be called relative perfection, compatible with the absence of beatitude, and the presence of human miseries, rebellious passions, and even venial sins” (Arthur Devine, “Christian and Religious Perfection,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 11 [New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911], Similarly, John Wesley writes that sin “properly so called” consists only in “a voluntary transgression of a known law,” whereas sin “improperly so called” is “an involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown” (John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection [New York: Eaton & Mains, 1900], 66). By this definition, one could attain Christian perfection even if one were guilty of numerous transgressions, so long as these were all involuntary.


James Clark

James Clark is the author of The Witness of Beauty and Other Essays, and the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

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