Paul's Teaching on Perfection

By Mike Mazzalongo Posted: Sun. Jul 29th 2018
Mike examines the words and ideas that Paul lays before us in Galatians 5 as he describes the actual perfection Christians can achieve through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So far in our study I have explained the ideas of conditional and actual perfection and how these relate to each other. Very briefly then:

  • Conditional perfection is that state of being righteous or justified before God that we receive through faith in Christ (expressed in repentance and baptism). We are considered perfect, considered as perfect as Christ is, and at judgment it is this conditional perfection that God will see in order to let us share eternity and joy with Him.
  • Actual perfection is the ideal of Christ we pursue in every day life through the help of the Holy Spirit. We do this, not to accomplish conditional perfection, but as a way of glorifying God and providing a witness to others about the Lord Jesus Christ. What others see is the degree of actual perfection created in us through the work of the Spirit (this is what Paul describes in Galatians 5). What God sees in us is the conditional perfection which is complete and satisfying to Him.

When we describe Christ, we are really describing what God sees in us when He looks at us in judgment. Conditional perfection, therefore, uses words like righteous, glorious, powerful, transcendent, eternal, heavenly, victorious, spiritual and godly. These are the type of adjectives that explain our conditional perfection in Christ. They are words that describe something that is other-worldly without being bizarre or frightening.

In Galatians 5:13-25 however, Paul uses the words that describe the state of actual perfection, a measure of which we seek to attain while in our natural bodies. These words describe a state that can be attained, experienced and observed while one is in a physical and sinful body. Love, joy, peace, etc., these things do not earn me heaven, but they do provide comfort until then, and witness to others that even though I am still in a sinful physical body, there is something definitely heavenly or Christ-like about my person.

And so, with these thoughts in mind let us examine the words and ideas that Paul lays before us in Galatians 5 as he describes the actual perfection Christians can achieve through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Galatians Background

The letter to the Galatians was a letter written by Paul to a group of churches that he had established in Asia Minor during his missionary journeys. It seems that certain individuals had begun to instruct these brethren that they were not truly saved (conditional perfection) without adherence to certain teachings that included compulsory circumcision. In addition to this, these teachers were attacking Paul's credibility as an Apostle and leader. Apparently, some in the church were shaken by these new doctrines and were considering a change in their belief and practice.

In response to these events Paul writes this letter where he establishes seven important points:

1. Those Who Pervert the Gospel will be Condemned

6I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!
- Galatians 1:6-8

This, of course, was a judgment against the false teachers who were, in essence, saying that in order to receive conditional perfection (salvation) you had to adhere to their combination of teachings and laws. Chief among these was the command that the Galatians be circumcised and follow certain rules about foods and other religious practices. This was a form of salvation by works (earning your conditional perfection rather than receiving it by faith) which was contrary to what the gospel taught. Paul warns that those who brought another form of the gospel should be and would be cursed (condemned).

2. Paul was a Legitimate Apostle

11For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
- Galatians 1:11-12

Paul's doctrine was not man-made, as was that of the false teachers, but received from God through a revelation of Christ. Only the gospel has God's ordained way to be saved (conditional perfection) and Paul was the messenger of that good news.

3. Paul was Ready to Defend this Gospel to Anyone

11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, "If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

15"We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 16nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
- Galatians 2:11-16

The maintaining of the purity of the teaching of the gospel (how one becomes conditionally perfect) was so important that Paul had challenged both Peter (who had great influence in the church) and Barnabas (his former teacher and mentor) in defending the truth. No position or relationship was more important than maintaining the integrity of the gospel.

4. Paul Reviewed Once Again the Manner in Which a Person Received Conditional Perfection

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

Paul uses another image or analogy to describe conditional perfection. He refers to it as, "putting on Christ." We put on the perfect nature and essence of Christ when we believe in Him. Paul even reminds them of the moment that this transformation from imperfect, weak and condemned to perfect, powerful and pure took place: in the waters of baptism.

Paul has said in the verses leading up to this one that conditional perfection is not attained through a system of rules, laws, restrictions and rituals overseen by men. Salvation (conditional perfection) is freely bestowed on those people who believe in Jesus Christ and who respond to Him in faithful obedience (repentance and baptism).

One might ask, "But these are still things people do in their response of faith. Is this not a kind of work?" (This is the most common argument used when denying the necessity of baptism in the process of salvation.) The answer is yes, these are actual concrete things that people do when they come to Christ (e.g. they listen to the gospel, decide to believe it, repent of their sins, confess their faith in Christ, are baptized and choose to remain faithful). These are all things we do, but they are not works of Law. Here is why:

  1. These are all things we can actually do, but we cannot keep the Law perfectly no matter how hard we try.
  2. These things are given to us by God as a response of faith to Him. Keeping the Law, obeying rules, performing man-made rituals, these things were not given by God as the response of faith in Christ.
  3. These things are effective. Faith expressed in these ways do grant us conditional perfection and lead us to actual perfection. Law-keeping leads to pride, discouragement and division (what was happening in the Galatian church because of these false teachings).

And so, Paul aggressively defends the gospel and its teaching that conditional perfection is received through faith expressed in obedience to God's Word, and in no other way.

5. Paul Points Out What is at Stake Here

3So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. 4But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
- Galatians 4:3-7

In chapter 4 Paul looks at the matter from the perspective of the teachers and what their motivation might be, and he reveals the true reasons for teaching what they do: power. By introducing this new teaching and discrediting him as an Apostle, these men were trying to control the churches. Paul responds boldly that the gospel has the power to free them from slavery to uninspired ideas about the world and their place in it; free them from their own sinfulness and the condemnation caused by their imperfection.

The revelation of God (the gospel) accomplished by Jesus (the cross) is what leads them to conditional perfection and frees them from all of this. They know about themselves and who God is. They have dealt with their sinfulness through the cross of Christ. Now that they have conditional perfection they no longer fear death and condemnation.

As a matter of fact, Paul says that their conditional perfection (here he calls it sonship) enables them to call on God as their "Daddy," an intimate term reserved for only the closest of relationships between father and child. Following the way of the false teachers will not only imprison them but will cost them this special bond with God.

6. Paul Warns the Christians

2Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
- Galatians 5:2-4

Before, Paul warned and condemned the false teachers and their motives: "Teach false doctrine and you will not only fail to achieve your goals, you will also be condemned." In this chapter he warns the Christians who are being seduced by this teaching: "Receive and follow false teaching and you will not achieve your goal (actual perfection) and you will be condemned as well."

One question that may arise is this, "What was it that was so alluring about the false teachers and teachings in the first place?"

Answer: Adherence to a set of laws, rules and rituals is appealing for three reasons:

It is Easier

It is easier to walk by sight than by faith. You cannot see conditional perfection, you have to accept God's promise that He sees you this way. All you actually see is imperfection, failure, two steps forward and one back. It is easier to base our confidence in things done, rituals performed, marks on our bodies, severe language, good works or self-denial. These are things we can see, count, measure, compare and consequently grow in our confidence. It is much harder to accept by faith that you are perfect while all you see around you is imperfection.

It Appeals to Our Pride

Each person struggles with a measure of pride, and a system that saves you while leaving your pride intact is very desirable. If faith requires the death of self, then a promise of salvation that allows self to live, to thrive, becomes seductive. In a "works" salvation you can compare your status with others. Comparison breeds pride (this is what competition is all about), pride breeds blindness and blindness breeds excess. Salvation (conditional perfection) based on faith leaves no room for self (Christ earns the perfection on the cross for us) and leaves no room for comparison (everyone is equally perfect in Christ). Salvation (conditional perfection) by faith in Christ humbles the heart and opens the eyes.

It Offers Power Over Others

A human system requires humans to oversee it, and religious power is every bit as enjoyable to wield as worldly power. Salvation by faith, on the other hand, recognizes that power is in God's hands, and that He empowers people for service and witness, not for spiritual dictatorship over others. There is power in Christianity, but it resides in the Word of God and is exercised to build others up, not control them.

Paul warns the Galatians not to be seduced by the powerful temptation to try to achieve and maintain a state of conditional perfection through a system of Law and works. This method was doomed to failure and they would suffer the loss of their standing before God as perfect through faith in Christ.

7. He Encourages Them to Pursue Actual Perfection

13For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 15But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
16But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.
- Galatians 5:13-16

These brethren were facing the dilemma that I have tried to explain in the last three chapters of this book:

If I am perfect in God's sight through faith in Christ, what do I do with the imperfection of my present life, the evidence of which is painfully before me every day? The false teachers had their answer: maintain that conditional perfection by keeping a series of rules, laws and rituals, chief of which was circumcision. Let us be your leaders and teachers (not the Apostle Paul). This, of course, had led to division and discouragement.

Paul's response was to encourage them to, "walk in the Spirit" (pursue actual perfection). This was not law-keeping, but a way of life that continually reinforced their belief that they were perfected through faith in Christ. Walking in the Spirit (pursuing actual perfection) would transform them in such a way that their lives would become a witness to others of the truth that perfection by faith was the only way to go.

We read that Paul, in the last part of his epistle, will describe the nature of the change that takes place in one whose heart is fully convinced that he is, through faith, perfect in Christ and pursues actual perfection through the Holy Spirit to confirm this fact.

Summary

Let us summarize what we have covered in this chapter.

Paul is responding to Christians who are being seduced into thinking that they can maintain their conditional perfection before God in some other way than by continued faith in Christ. The teachers he opposes are promoting the idea that obeying laws, rules and customs will guarantee their perfect status before God. Paul refutes and condemns these teachers and their teachings.

He reminds the Galatians of the manner in which they were saved (Christ's death for their sins), the message that revealed this to them (the gospel), the messenger who brought the news (he, Paul the Apostle), the status they are in (conditionally perfect), the way they access and remain in this condition (faith in Christ), and finally, the lifestyle that confirms this faith (walking by the Spirit).

The next step in Paul's teaching will be to examine this Spirit filled life (walking by the Spirit), an experience he will describe as the "fruit of the Spirit."

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Dr. Stafford North
Professor of Bible
Oklahoma Christian University