Perfection. It is a word that perhaps should not be in the human vocabulary. After all, nothing in this world is perfect. Perfection—it refers to flawlessness in its most used form--is something alien to fallible humans. Or is it? Is it no wonder Christians quibble over this term and its implications for soteriology? What is possible for us? The aged Abram was approaching the centennial mark when God called him to be perfect: "When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless’" (Gen. 17:1).
Suppose that one day God spoke to you and told you to be blameless. How would you feel? Pressured? Would you think that God was pulling a joke on you? Certainly the God who was present when Eve bit into that fruit would know what an impossibility it is to be righteous, much less perfect.
Almost a couple thousand years later Jesus would demand the same of those who claimed to be descendants of Abraham; "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).
So why all the fuss about perfection? Well, many Christians believe working towards perfection is antithetical to the gospel of salvation by grace. Since Martin Luther and the reformers preached "sola fide" in opposition to the works theology taught by the Catholic Church, a general vehemence exists in Protestant Christianity against those who preached it was possible to be perfect. In fact this caused John Wesley, the great Methodist leader, to wonder:
Why should any man of reason and religion be either afraid of, or averse to, salvation from all sin? Is not sin the greatest evil on this side of hell? And if so, does it not naturally follow that an entire deliverance from it is one of the greatest blessings on this side of heaven? How earnestly then should all the children of God pray it for! By sin I mean a voluntary transgression of a known law. Are you averse to being delivered from this? Are you afraid of such deliverance? Do you then love sin that you are so unwilling to part with it? (Wesley p. 176)
Also, the debate on whether perfection is possible has various implications in the debate on the role of the law versus grace in salvation. (After all, perfection is often perceived by many as perfect adherence to the law.) It is therefore easy to see the common objections and reasons why many abhor utilizing the word perfection when discussing theology. The only time perfection is used without any hesitancy is when people refer to Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God who never committed a sin.
Many have quite an aversion to avoiding sin. One blogger remarks, "One question I often am asked perfectly illustrates this: ‘Is (insert questionable action here) a sin?’ Here’s my question — does it matter? Who really cares? Allow me to clarify. What difference is made in your life by knowing if a particular action is or isn’t a sin? How does that further your walk with Christ" (McDonald)?
Nothing could be more false. This assertion is not a principle found in the Scriptures. Consistently the Bible exhorts us to "sin not.” The words of Christ Himself contained the phrase "go and sin no more,” although in comparison to His other sayings this one is perhaps the least quoted, if at all, among those who revile perfection theology. You cannot "sin not" without knowing what sin is. However, to be fair, I need to note that our blogger continues with this quotation: “Love, and do what you will,” Saint Augustine (Ibid.). This is one of my favorite quotations of all time. He is saying that if we love first and foremost, and then everything comes afterward and out of that love, we can’t go wrong. Think about it — if you love your children, your spouse or your friends, why would you bring any harm to them?
No surprise there as Augustinian theology seems to be the impetus behind many an antinomian sentiment in the Christian church today. Augustine's statement is not outright wrong, but it is often quoted without other Biblical considerations. For example, what is "love"? Forget Augustine; scripture clearly outlines how true love works, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
You can't have true love without law, for love is the fulfillment of the law. Imagine the husband who sleeps around with other women arguing that it is okay because he loves his wife the most of all. This is the same logic people use when arguing that love abrogates the law. This flawed logic is not found in the scriptures and is actually antithetical to the concept of salvation. How? Because salvation is freedom not just from the consequences of sin, but freedom from sin itself. Therefore, identifying sin is crucial. Fortunately, the task is simple. Anything short of the standard God sets is sin. Sin is a choice. Yes, I realize Augustine and the Reformers like Luther and Calvin held firmly to their belief in in-born sin (original sin). But if we carried this thinking to its logical conclusion, it would hold God responsible for our sin and not us.
Once we give sin a definition other than the transgression of the law, we will quickly find excuses to break that law. "Ancestral sin" is one of those excuses. "I was born sinning; ergo I cannot stop sinning.” This argument is opposite of anything taught in scripture and has its base in fallible human reasoning and appeals to emotional experiences. We are to be sober minded individuals, not emotional, senseless beings.
Choice is behind sin. Paul wrote, “for whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). To apply faith is a choice. James states, "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). Again, a choice is involved. In the end, we can only conclude that sin is our fault, not God's. Our sin is our fault, not Adam's. Now given that sin is a choice, there are still elements that we inherit by birth. The sinful nature is passed down from generation to generation and that is something we will battle everyday until glorification at the Second Advent. But having this nature is not sin per se because Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh and never sinned (Romans 8:3, 4).
Now back to perfection. All too often the definition of perfection is convoluted not only by opponents but also by proponents. Perfection should not be seen as some goalpost that once achieved leaves no more room for improvement. The unfallen beings and angels that God created are not as absolutely perfect as is God. Perfection is an ever-upward climb to be like our Redeemer. This climb is what Paul meant when referring to something he had not yet attained yet he was constantly in pursuit of it (Philippians 3:12). Even when one is keeping the law in its entirety (i.e. He is not sinning as per our established definition of sin.) he should still be in pursuit of perfection. The rich young ruler walked away from eternal life because he refused to go above and beyond to attain perfection. Christ knew He didn’t keep the commandments fully. One can keep the law outwardly and yet violate its principles entirely. Christ asked, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Matthew 19:21). Getting theology right is not the only step to reflecting Christ; a more encompassing element is to apply Christ Himself in our lives and actions. Once we have accepted Christ’s definition of perfection, we can see the basis in scripture on how it can be attained.
Perfection is an attainable attribute and is asked of all those who profess Christ. But then, if it is attainable, how is it attained? Most certainly not by works, but by faith, as the Apostle Paul frequently points out. Paul's striving for perfection was not one aided only by his feeble strength. This made the apostle write: "And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness’" (2 Corinthians 12:9). For Paul, the key to the strength that overcomes sin is our weakness. That's right, the key to our perfection is imperfection. Doesn't sound too logical, right? It will make perfect Biblical sense in a minute.
In Bible terms "grace" is not only pardon from sin but also power to keep from sinning. This principle can be most simply demonstrated by Christ’s forgiving the woman caught in adultery and asking her to sin "no more” (John 8:11). Therefore in order for grace to abound one must be willing to admit their weaknesses and confess their sins. This results in a thorough cleansing (Wesley p. 176). Admitting we are imperfect allows us to put on the gift of the perfect Righteousness of Christ which allows us to "walk as He walked” (1 John 2:5, 6). The substitute and example of Christ are both given proper emphasis with this view. In the simplest way we can put it, God requires of us perfect obedience to His law, but what God has required He has also provided in the life and death of His Son, Jesus Christ. This provision allows “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4).
This wonderful biblical truth is what prompted Elliot J. Waggoner and Alonzo T. Jones, two young Adventist ministers, to forward the concept we know today as "Righteousness by Faith" during the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference. The Righteousness of Christ imputed (the Greek "logizomai") to us allows us to keep His law perfectly (Gane pp. 6-9). To us the Righteousness of Christ is not only a proxy legal declaration but is also the transformation of our lives. This is why John could write: "Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9). In the Gospel of John Nicodemus is told, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). To be born again is to have the gift of the indwelling Christ, His Righteousness upon us at all times.
Yes, we falter. We fail. But once we realize this and cling to our Savior, He will pardon us with open arms and give us strength in time of need (See Romans 5:20, 6:1-2 and 1 John 1:9). Our reliance upon Christ is not defined by a one-time gesture during conversion; it is resting upon His strength daily. Perfect love is revealed when we surrender our will and rest in the One who is love. Perfect love fulfills the perfect law. Christ is substitute and example combined, law and grace exemplified. In response to the assertion that those who think they are saved from sin say they have no need of the merits of Christ, John Wesley answered, "They say just the contrary. Their language is, 'Every moment, Lord, I want the merit of thy death’”(Wesley, pg 169)!
May this be our continual plea.
1. Wesley, John. The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A. M. pg. 176. 2. McDonald, Stuart. "Why Understanding What Sin Is Does Not Matter" 3. See Romans 5:20, 6:1-2 and 1 John 1:9. 4. Gane, Erwin R. "An Examination of the Book: Right With God, Right Now by Dr. Desmond Ford" ppg. 6-9. 5. "For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted" Hebrews 2:18 KJV. 6. Wesley, John. Christian Perfection pg. 169.