The "more perfect you" mentioned in the title of this book is a reference to the Actual perfection Christians diligently seek through the Holy Spirit. In other words, the (conditionally) perfect ones are seeking more perfection (Actual perfection) by living according to the influence (fruit) of the Holy Spirit. In this way the perfect (saved) seek perfection (spiritual maturity).
The key passage that this book is based on comes at a point near the end of the epistle of Paul to the Galatians (Galatians 5:13-25). In this letter Paul was refuting false teachers who were attacking the principle that Christians were considered perfect in God's eyes by faith. Their teaching proposed that Conditional perfection could be kept only if the Galatians adhered to certain rules about food, certain laws based in the Jewish Old Testament, and the keeping of certain rituals, the most important of which was circumcision. What they proposed, in reality, was the pursuing of Conditional perfection by the keeping of the Law. Paul responded by denouncing these teachers and their doctrine, and reassuring the Galatians that their perfect standing with God (salvation) was securely anchored in their faith in Jesus Christ.
As for the practice of their lives, he encourages them not to pursue "Law-keeping" but rather "walking by the Spirit" as the defining mark of their Conditional perfection. The point here is that God is the only One who sees Conditional perfection. Man can only see Actual perfection which serves as the witness that what is unseen (Conditional perfection) actually exists.
The Look of Imperfection — Galatians 5:16-18
Our study has discussed the idea of perfection and its various forms. In order to contrast these, Paul will begin to describe what the imperfect looks like using the terms "flesh" and "fleshly."
16But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.
This is a summary reference to what he has talked about so far concerning the false teachers, what they were trying to teach, and what this was leading to: division, pride, strife, etc. The desire of the flesh, therefore, is imperfection. He says that if one desired the things of the Spirit (e.g. Actual perfection), even if it was not achieved perfectly, the thing desired was perfect nevertheless.
Paul tells them that the act of desiring the things of the Spirit will eliminate the imperfect things being created and promoted within themselves. James refers to this same idea in James 3:13-18 when he talks about the wisdom from above versus the wisdom from below and what each produced in one's life. It is a decision every Christian must make because even though we are perfect in Christ, a condition we have received by choosing to believe and obey Jesus, we can still reject the Lord by choosing to pursue imperfection (the flesh) instead of perfection (the Spirit). Paul's point, as well as mine here, is that we choose to believe in order to be saved. We must then continue to choose walking in the Spirit in order to remain saved.
This is where many theologians disagree. Some believe that once you have Conditional perfection there is nothing you can do or no choice you can make that can change this. In response to this idea, I submit that what Paul says here in Galatians speaks directly to this issue. He is speaking to Christians, who are obviously saved, and thus have Conditional perfection. He then warns them to walk by the Spirit and not the flesh in order to avoid suffering negative consequences. The logical conclusion to Paul's teaching here is that once we have salvation, we can (by our choices) still reject this and lose what was freely given.
This is why this passage is so important. It is not simply a suggestion or a helpful hint, it is the continuation of our response to God's offer of salvation. At first we choose to believe in Christ and receive Conditional perfection for doing so. Next, we choose to walk in the Spirit in order to witness and maintain that Conditional perfection. Now, some could argue that this was simply another form of law-keeping similar to what the false teachers were proposing to the Galatians. They taught that you had to follow rituals, rules and laws to obtain and maintain salvation. Was Paul not simply replacing these with the striving after character traits and moral habits in order to maintain salvation as well? This could be a valid argument except for the following three reasons:
1. The Things Pursued Were Perfect
The false teachers offered ideas of men, imperfect ways to achieve spiritual perfection. Paul tells them that what they are called upon to pursue is perfect, spiritual, from above and, therefore, worthy of their effort.
2. The Things Pursued Were From God
The idea that law-keeping was the way to attain perfection or to maintain it was a human idea and thus an imperfect method that would not work. The teaching that Conditional perfection was bestowed as a gift from God and received by faith was from God. The teaching that Conditional perfection was maintained by pursuing Actual perfection (walking in the Spirit) was also from God and therefore could achieve its desired results.
If God said that salvation was by faith and was maintained by "walking in the Spirit," then that is how it worked. Paul, therefore, was not proposing another form of law-keeping but, in fact, was revealing the very will of God concerning one's salvation.
3. Walking by the Spirit (Actual Perfection) is Not a Form of Law-Keeping
Law-keeping says that if you abide by these rules, you receive the prize. Walking by the Spirit, however, is not law-keeping because it is the Spirit that does the work in you, not you yourself. The part that you contribute to gaining Actual perfection is the same part you contribute to receive Conditional perfection. Receiving Conditional perfection meant that you believed, you submitted and you expressed your faith, but it was Christ who earned and bestowed that perfection on you, you didn't earn it through law-keeping efforts.
In the case of Actual perfection: you believe, you submit to the Holy Spirit, you continue to express your faith (worship, service, fellowship, learning, sharing your faith) but it is the Holy Spirit who creates in you the character of Christ. If walking in the Spirit were a form of law-keeping, then you yourself, through self-will, practice, self-denial and human effort would be producing the spiritual characteristics Paul describes later on.
To be sure, in the world there are many methods, systems and experts who promise a form of these things. This is the imperfect, fleshly, law-keeping method to self-improvement. But walking by the Spirit is not about you, it is about the Spirit creating in His own time and way, in your believing and submitted heart, the person and character of Christ as a witness to yourself and others that you are indeed one of the perfect ones. How else and what else could explain the change and character you end up having in Christ?
Knowing these things helps us understand the following two verses where Paul talks about the dynamics of the imperfect and perfect at work in the same person.
17For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.
The possession and knowledge of our Conditional perfection moves us to draw nearer to God and to godly things. I am perfect, therefore I want to live and breathe the perfect air that my salvation brings. The Holy Spirit rebuilds the imperfect man into the image of Christ as a response to this desire triggered by the knowledge and possession of salvation. But men still continue, while trapped in an imperfect flesh, to reside in an imperfect world. The willingness is there as is the Spiritual agent to do the work but the imperfection of the flesh is also there resisting perfection. This is why I call what is being accomplished "Actual perfection" because it is the degree of perfection you actually attain in the flesh, not the completed perfection already given and seen by God in heaven. These two will merge into one at resurrection where the flesh as well as its sin and resistance will melt away never to interfere with perfection again.
Paul explains that the Spirit's work is limited by the material He is working with: the human flesh and man's fallen nature. Imperfection does not reign supreme but neither is "perfection" perfected in the flesh, this will happen later. The result, therefore, is that those who walk by the Spirit (choose to pursue Actual perfection) are no longer judged by a system of Law nor is their pursuit a form of Law-keeping.
Why is this important? If walking by the Spirit were another form of law-keeping, the measure for success would be perfection. This would mean that in order to succeed (walk by the Spirit in an acceptable way) one would have to walk by the Spirit perfectly, without error, without ever falling back, always completely enlightened and devoted. Since we are imperfect to begin with, this would be impossible.
But those who are led by the Spirit are not under Law and have two advantages because of this:
- They are not judged at all, because through faith in Christ they have already been judged according to the Law and have been found perfect since they have Conditional perfection.
- They are no longer pursuing earthly, fleshly things which can be measured, judged and condemned. They are now pursuing heavenly things, spiritual things, perfect things, and led by God's Spirit in the process.
Those who are Conditionally perfect through Christ and pursuing Actual perfection through the Holy Spirit are no longer subject to the Law and are beyond judgment because these have been put in place to judge and condemn the imperfect, not the perfect.
- The desire and product of the flesh is imperfection.
- Those who desire imperfection are evident by their imperfect works which Paul describes in Galatians 5:19.
- Law-keeping does not and cannot produce perfection. As a matter of fact, when one pursues perfection through Law-keeping the results are pride of life, envy, division and strife.
- The Law was given to reveal, judge and condemn imperfection.
- God's gift through Christ is perfection received by faith. God helps us, though the Holy Spirit, to experience a taste of that perfection through our efforts at faithful living, or what the Bible refers to as "walking by the Spirit," or what I describe as the pursuit of "Actual perfection."