The Sub-Doctrine of Perfection
Let us start with a little review from our last chapter. Two ways of being acceptable/justified before God:
- Man's way – primitive sacrificial system, law keeping, philosophy, magic.
- God's way – time: now (I Corinthians 6:2), method: imputation (Romans 3:19-24).
The doctrine of justification says that we are justified when we become acceptable to God according to His standard. We become acceptable when God confers/imputes "acceptability" upon us based on our faith in Jesus Christ. God confers this acceptability upon us when we express our faith in Christ at baptism.
26For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
- Galatians 3:26-27
We are justified by faith; we express faith through repentance and baptism.
God's plan was that Jesus would live up to God's standard and thus earn an acceptable standing before God so that He could share this status with those who believed in Him. Justification describes God's plan from a legal perspective, how we relate to God through the Law.
In this chapter we will look at God's plan from a heavenly perspective and see what God's plan has done to change God's view of us. In other words, because of Jesus, God now sees us in a different light and the doctrine of perfection explains this new way God sees us.
The doctrine of perfection describes the quality of the condition of those who are in Christ. For example, a hospital patient has a condition: hospitalized; the quality of his condition: critical, stable, etc.
The dictionary describes perfection as something that is entirely without flaw or defect; something that satisfies all the requirements.
The biblical concept, however, is different. The Old Testament used the term "perfect" to denote healthiness, completeness, wholeheartedness; but not sinless perfection. For example, fruit is perfect when it is ripe and fully developed, not if it is without blemishes.
Let your heart therefore be wholly devoted to the Lord our God, to walk in His statutes and to keep His commandments, as at this day.
- I Kings 8:61
Here the writer says that one must not waiver in faith; he does not mean that a person will never sin.
The New Testament follows the same pattern. The word perfect and the idea of perfection suggest wholeness, ripeness, full-grown, maturity.
27to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.
- Colossians 1:27-28
Spiritual perfection/completeness/maturity can be pursued in many ways, but we can only reach wholeness and spiritual ripeness through Christ.
A major deviation in this teaching came through John Wesley (Methodist Church) who taught that "perfection" in the New Testament meant sinless perfection now in this lifetime. His doctrine was largely due to the influence of a book he was reading at the time called, "A Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection" by William Law. Wesley argued that after regeneration/rebirth a man had the ability to actually overcome any sin.
Although it is true that with the new birth comes the ability to overcome sin in our lives, the danger in overemphasizing this fact is that we may lose sight of God's plan whereby Christ has successfully dealt with all of our sins on the cross once and for all as far as our salvation is concerned. If we see the doctrine of perfection as a teaching that says, "in order to be perfect we must overcome every sin in our lives," then we have misunderstood. If this is what we understand by the doctrine of perfection, then we will be locked back into a works oriented salvation leading to frustration and discouragement.
No one is able to become perfect by sinless law keeping (Romans 3:20). Not that we would not like to be, we just cannot. Therefore, we have to find another way to be perfect, and the doctrine of perfection explains how.
The question is, "How do we become perfect, ripe, whole, mature when we continue to experience the failure of sin in our lives?" The doctrine of perfection explains how God's plan has achieved this status for us in Christ. Paul explains it in detail in Philippians 3:4-16.
Paul's Explanation of Perfection
4although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: 5circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.
Here the Apostle reviews everything that in every culture and generation represents the perfect man: right culture, spiritually superior and advanced, religious zealot, clear conscience (acceptable before God through law keeping).
7But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ,
Paul explains that whatever things he had which could be measured to achieve perfection before no longer count now that he has come to know Christ. He thought he was perfect before but now that he has faith in Christ and knows Christ, he realizes that he did not even know what perfect meant. The way he is perfect (spiritually ripened, mature) through faith in Christ is far superior to the perfection he thought he had through his culture, zeal and previous law keeping.
9and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,
God establishing a way to have a union with Christ through faith is the thing that makes one perfect/mature in His eyes, not law keeping. This is the core of the doctrine of perfection.
10that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
The result of this perfection based on faith in Christ is that we will be resurrected from the dead as He was. I may lose the status of perfection based on worldly criteria, I may even die for this faith, but it is worth it because it is this faith in Christ that signals my perfect spiritual state in God's eyes.
Someone may ask, "Why struggle against sin if faith in Christ is what makes you perfect in God's eyes?" The answer is that slavery to sin is a denial of one's faith in Christ, and one's struggle against sin is a continuing expression of that faith.
The greater the struggle, the greater the love and faith. Peter says, "…he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin" (I Peter 4:1). This does not mean that the person never sins, rather that the person no longer loves sin, lives for sin; now he lives for Christ, loves righteousness, etc.
Paul Looks Ahead
12Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.
Paul explains that he has not obtained the fruit or the results that comes from being in this mature/perfect state. It may be confusing here because he refers to the results or final effects of perfection by lumping them in with the status of perfection itself. He is referring to the things that come as a result of being in the perfect or mature state in Christ, things that only "spiritually perfect" people can hope for.
Paul mentions two things that his perfect status before God permits him to strive for:
- Resurrection: this will only happen after he dies.
- Glorification: this will only happen when Christ returns and he is transformed into the actual likeness of Christ.
These are the dual goals that God originally called Paul (and us) for through the gospel. Paul presses forward to the goals set before him by God and made possible by the perfection he enjoys in Christ.
- One day he will die and resurrect in order to put on a glorified body suitable for existence in the spiritual world.
- That body will be perfectly matched with the character of Christ interposed upon his own.
Paul consciously pursues these goals and encourages his readers to do the same because only "perfect" people can try for these. (i.e. Only Olympic athletes can go for Olympic medals.)
13Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The method to reach these begins by forgetting the past. Put aside both failures (which are covered by the blood of Christ), and successes (which cannot achieve the perfection he needs to enable him to obtain his goals). Paul strives forward to be in Christ through faithful obedience, like Christ through submission, and with Christ through resurrection.
15Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; 16however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.
Here Paul addresses those Christians who understand that their perfection is accomplished/made possible through continued faith in Christ, not self-achievement or rule keeping. He says to these people that they should follow his example, and his example is that he presses on! He does not look back at past failures, past mistakes, past sins. He does not excuse, condemn or congratulate himself. He looks ahead at the goal God has set for him and all those like him. Paul tells his readers that if this is what they are doing, then they are doing the right thing, striving for the right goals.
He also realizes that not everyone may be on the same spiritual level; some are only beginning in Christ, others are eager to move forward and still others are unsure of their status.
Paul tells them not to worry if they have different ideas on these matters or unanswered questions and doubts. God will eventually lead them into maturity and into the confidence that perfection brings. In the meantime, they are to maintain this teaching as the standard for the understanding of what "perfect" is and is not.
Perfection is attained through faith and not through law keeping. He tells his readers to be patient until this doctrine is learned. This is a fundamental concept of the gospel and if one does not know or understand this, it can hinder all other spiritual growth and peace of mind.
The doctrine of perfection explains that in this life we reach the ultimate state of spiritual completeness when we are united to Christ by faith.
We do not and cannot achieve perfection by overcoming every sin in our lives. Sinless perfection is granted us when we are fitted with a glorified body after resurrection. Until then we enjoy that status based on our faith in Christ and we demonstrate that faith in our daily struggle against sin, not our perfect victory over sin. Christ has already won that victory for us with His life, His death on the cross and His glorious resurrection.
Here is a summary of the main biblical doctrines and eight sub-doctrines under reconciliation in 10 words or less: God always knew that Jesus' sacrifice would perfect His children.
- Explain the sub-doctrine of justification.
- What is the general definition of the doctrine of perfection?
- How does scripture use the term "perfect"?
- Explain the following statement in light of Romans 3:23 and I John 1:1-10.
- How does Paul explain the concept of perfection in Philippians 3:4-16?
- Why would one continue to strive to attain perfection knowing we cannot attain it, or if having been given it by God, worry about continuing in it?
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?