The Dilemma of Perfection

By Colin and Russell Standish

There are two words in the English language that are often used synonymously, when indeed in the spiritual sense they have significantly different meanings. These words, perfection and perfectionism, have long been a point of misunderstanding by even earnest Christians. It is certainly wrong to equate them.

Perfectionism is rightly applied only to certain groups which have arisen from time to time, who claim that they have received holy (unfallen) flesh similar to that of Adam before the fall, so that it is impossible for them to sin. In the Biblical sense, the word perfection means a sanctified life-gaining victory over the temptations of Satan through the power of the indwelling Christ. Biblical perfection in no wise implies that humans, this side of the return of Jesus, will attain to holy flesh, nor does it exclude the possibility of falling back into sin. Victory over Satan's temptations for one day does not guarantee victory for the next day; for only those who are completely surrendered to Christ each day can have renewed victory daily.

The Goal of Every Christian

Paul sets forth perfection as the goal of every Christian.

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into Him in all things, which is the head, even Christ (Ephesians 4:11-15).

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God (Hebrews 6:1).

This call to character perfection is consistent with the call of Jesus to His hearers.

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

It is important not to misunderstand this call to perfection. Some have said that it is an impossible call, because we can never have the infinite perfection of God; and a law which reflects the infinite character of God must therefore require infinite perfection. But God alone has infinite knowledge, a maturity of perfection built upon all the infinite wisdom of the universe. Some have claimed that if we do not have such infinite knowledge, and therefore an infinitely perfect response to the law of God, it is still sin. But it is obvious that if this be true, then the angels are also sinners, because they too lack the infinite wisdom of God; and it would also hold that the saints would continue in sin after their redemption. A perfect person is simply keeping the law of God, both in deed and in thought. The attainment of Christian character perfection through the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit is not a finishing point in character development. Christ in His great mercy grants us the status of perfection when we live up to all the light of His will which He has provided at any given time in our lives. As we continue to live the Christian life, Christ entrusts us with greater knowledge of His will, and empowers the willing Christian to meet the requirements of this new knowledge. Thus we advance from one level to the next, being perfect at each stage. God's Word specifically declares that when He has not entrusted us with a knowledge of His will in a certain area, He does not count that matter as a breach of His law.

Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth (John 9:41).

If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin (John 15:22).

And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).

Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17).

Temptation is not Sin

Some assume that temptation is sin; but there is a great difference between temptation on the one hand, and sins of the mind on the other hand. When temptations are harbored or cherished, then, and only then, do they become sin. But when, through the power of Jesus, temptations are repelled, there is no sin. The contemplation of evil is clearly defined as sin in Scripture.

Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15).

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matthew 5:28).

Temptation is neither sin, nor evidence that the person has retained iniquity in his heart. Christ had the most evil thought possible-to worship Satan-placed in His mind (Matthew 4:9), but He did not for a moment cherish the temptation, and thus remained "without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). We will have evil thoughts presented to our minds so long as Satan is free to tempt us. Further, our old life of sin may also be responsible for temptation. Our response to those evil thoughts determines whether or not we commit sin. When we come to Christ, we not only have an inherited sinful nature but we have been further seriously weakened by the many habits developed by sinful practice. While the mind no longer serves sin, yet these past experiences serve as further areas through which Satan tempts us. But we have been promised powerful victory over all the cultivated, as well as the inherited tendencies to evil. If under God's controlling power we resist temptation, we need not fear the consequences, nor need we doubt God's cleansing power to mortify the deeds of the body, and to implant the divine nature within us. Thus James could confidently say,

Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him (James 1:12).

What a blessed assurance this is! Our Lord does not allow His surrendered people to fall victim to Satan's temptations.

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

A False Definition of Sin

Those who hold to the view that everything is sin unless it meets the infinite will of God, hold to what is sometimes called the "high" definition of sin. If, under this definition, sin is meeting the standard of the infinite will of God, then it is logical for these people to declare that it is impossible to have victory over sin. Unfortunately they use this "high" definition as an excuse to deny the possibility of victory over sin as it is defined in the Bible.

Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4).

Once one accepts that eternity is offered to men who continue in sins of limitations, it is understandable that those with such a belief see no reason to suspect that they cannot be saved while persisting in sins that directly transgress God's law. The "high" definition of sin is used to downgrade the standard of obedience which God requires, while paradoxically the "low" standard of sin elevates the requirement of obedience demanded by God. The "high" definition is used to deny that-

He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked (1 John 2:6).

On the other hand, the "low" definition of sin, built upon 1 John 3:4, points men and women to Christ as their example of obedience. In reality, if a man believes that God does not provide power to overcome all sin, he is inclined to the conclusion that God cannot give the power to overcome any sin. Few people there are who will tell us which sins God has the power to overcome in the believer, and which ones He does not.

Some suggest a temporal factor. God can give victory over sin some of the time. Once again we are entitled to know when God can give victory and when He cannot, or when He does not. Strangely, some who teach the "high" definition of sin claim that Christ makes no provision for deliberate sin after conversion. They hasten to assure the congregations that David was in a saved relationship when he perpetrated his awful act of murder and adultery.

The punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram has sometimes been used as an example of non-forgiveness of deliberate sins. But such evidence cannot be sustained in the light of God's forgiveness of deliberate acts of sin by Adam, Abraham, Jacob, David, Peter and many others. The plain message of God is that He can and does forgive, and is desirous of giving victory over all sins all the time. It is not for man's glorification, but that God's character may be vindicated, and that the false claim of Satan, that fallen man cannot gain victory over sin, may be put to rest. We do have the promise that if we sin, there is still forgiveness.

My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1).

An Old Controversy

The issue facing evangelical Protestantism is not a new one. Controversy existed between the teachings of John Wesley, who believed in Christian perfection, and Count Von Zinzendorf, who claimed to battle this concept of perfection with fire and sword because he did not believe that we could overcome sin. Wesley's response was fascinating:

I say, why so vehement? Why are those who oppose salvation from sin, few excepted, so eager? In God's name, why are you so fond of sin? What has it ever done for you? What good is it ever likely to do for you in this world, or in the world to come? And why are you so violent against those who hope for a deliverance from it? (John Wesley, The Works of Wesley, Volume 6, page 1).

More than two hundred years later, the same battle rages in Protestantism. As we have noted earlier, the dispute really goes back to Augustine and his concept of original sin. So that many, who are afraid of the concept of perfection, fear that such a concept will lead them into looking to their own works for salvation. That is certainly a hazard that must be avoided constantly. But to those who understand the principles of perfection clearly, it is a concept that requires them to look constantly to Jesus, because "by beholding Christ we become changed." In grand language, John the apostle reports that he and others beheld the glory of Jesus.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

This beholding also was a mighty theme of John the Baptist.

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Christ Dwelling Within

The perfection of character that has not one shred of legalism in it, results when through Christ's power we behold, meditate upon, contemplate and exemplify the life of Jesus Christ. As we choose to behold Him, our characters are transformed, our life becomes one of selflessness, and His life becomes our life. This is in marked contrast to the concept of perfectionism. There have been members of groups in the past who, under that concept of perfectionism, have done enormous acts of iniquity while still claiming to be living perfect lives. The perfection that man has is not one of which he can boast, for it is all the work of Christ in him. More than that, it is not one that the true Christian dare acknowledge, for in so doing, it would be the pitfall leading him back into a life of sin. It must be left to divine evaluation. The example of Job is a faithful example to us all.

And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? (Job 1:8)

Job was perfect in God's power because he "eschewed evil" and "sinned not." Yet he did not possess the slightest inkling that he was perfect. Humility, and the knowledge that God was ever revealing new insights concerning His law, prevented any proud claim to perfection.

Job made not the slightest boast of his character perfection.

If I speak of strength, lo He is strong: and if of judgment, who shall set me a time to plead? If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse. Though I were perfect, yet would I not know my soul: I would despise my life (Job 9:19-21).

Yet Job could say,

Are Thy days as the days of man? are Thy years as man's days, that thou enquirest after mine iniquity, and searchest after my sin? Thou knowest that I am not wicked; and there is none that can deliver out of Thine hand (Job 10:5-7).

It is to this selfless, unboasting perfection that God calls us.

Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it (Psalm 34:14).

Depart from evil, and do good; and dwell for evermore (Psalm 37:27).

Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it (1 Peter 3:11).

Then like Job we will say,

Whom, though I were righteous, yet would I not answer, but I would make supplication to my judge (Job 9:15).

Some suggest that God has neither the power nor the intent to bring victory over temptation. That is to deny the power of God. Genuine character perfection is more than being made perfect in Christ, it is being made perfect by Christ. God at the end of time will have a people who have so beheld Christ that they have been transformed into His image. They will be a declaration of the saving power of Christ, to men and to angels. Any claims that such concepts of perfection are legalistic are false, for such character perfection is provided through the grace and ministry of Jesus Christ.

We make an earnest plea to our Evangelical friends. Here is a truth so central to human salvation, that to ignore it, deny it or reject it will lead untold myriads to eternal destruction. We know that is not the goal of Evangelicals, but it is the sole basis of the final agonizing rejection of those who were confidently assured of salvation, but who will be lost eternally.

Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity (Matthew 7:21-23).

These precious lost souls have not done the will of the Father and have not claimed Christ's victorious power. Let us tell the world of Christ's all-sufficient power.