SOMETHING TO CHEW ON
Many sincere Christians express dissatisfaction over the fact that they continually fall short of perfection. Many admit continual failure in the spiritual life, repeating sins again and again, giving way to habit patterns contrary to the life of Christ. When they read the command of Christ, Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), they feel both condemned and discouraged.
In almost all great revivals believers have sought in one way or another to attain to perfection of living. They have longed for it, prayed for it, and worked for it. But the testimony of all great Christians is that they have never attained to it; that the more they strove and the closer they came to Christ, the deeper was their sense of inadequacy and inherent sinfulness. While their lives bore testimony to victory over sin, at the same time they felt a deeper sense of their own need and unworthiness. Ask Peter, James, and John. Ask the noblest souls that the Christian church has ever seen, the most zealous men that mankind has ever produced. With one accord they exclaim with the Apostle Paul: “I have not yet reached perfection, but I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me. My friends, I do not reckon myself to have grasped hold of it yet. All I can say is this: forgetting what is behind me, and reaching out for that which lies ahead, I press towards the goal to win the prize which is God’s call to the life above, in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 3:12:14.
All the true believers who have come to know the saving power of God testify that the only perfection, the only sinlessness, they have ever seen or known has been that of Jesus Christ, the only perfect and sinless man: and that Jesus is the whole of their salvation, the whole of their righteousness and perfection. To be a genuine Christian means faith in Christ, fellowship with Christ, faithfulness to Christ, and fruitfulness for Christ. Man has no perfection and no righteousness of and in himself; he must trust wholly and solely in Christ.
One of the hindrances to living the Christian life successfully is failure to understand what the Bible teaches about the nature of sin and perfection. A grave misapprehension lies at the root of much of the false teaching on this subject. In applying the term “perfect” to believers, the Bible never means “sinless.” There are at least nine different Hebrew words and six Greek words translated “perfect.” Noah is said to have been perfect in his generations.” Gen. 6:9. Of Asa, the king of Judah, we read: “But the high places were not removed: nevertheless Asa’s heart was perfect with the Lord all his days.” 1 Kng. 15:14. “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.” Jam. 3:2. “We speak wisdom among them that are perfect.” 1 Cor. 2:6.
The Bible writers do not say that these men were sinless. The meaning of “perfect” in these instances is that of spiritual maturity, ripeness in spiritual understanding, completeness in response to God. A “perfect” Christian is one whose heart and mind are permanently committed to Christ. Noah, Abraham, and Job were all declared to be “perfect” men. Yet the history of their lives shows that they were far from being sinless.
If one’s view of sin is shallow enough, sinless perfection would not be an impossible achievement. It is a defective view of sin that leads to a wrong understanding of perfection. If sin simply means a deliberate, wilful doing of what is known to be wrong, then no Christian should commit this kind of sin. But if sin includes also a man’s state of mind and heart, man’s bias toward sin, (as an indwelling tendency), then perfection presents a totally different picture.
Some Christians believe that it is possible in this life to reach a point in spiritual development where the sinful nature is completely eradicated and, therefore, no longer operative. The Bible does teach that the genuine Christian life is one of uniform and sustained victory over all known sin. The normal Christian experience should be one of victory and not constant defeat. Paul says: “Likewise reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, ... and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for you are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid” Rom. 6:11-15.
There is one truth that every believer needs to learn who would fully enjoy complete salvation in Christ. It is the need to abide in Christ, to look continually to Christ, to depend wholly on Christ and his righteousness. God’s method of salvation is not eradication of a sinful nature, but the counteraction of it by Divine power through the Holy Spirit. Only by the continual counteracting presence of the Holy Spirit is it possible to be victorious over sin and the sinful nature within us.
It is fatal to believe that if only we could become totally surrendered to Christ, the sinful nature would be eradicated. The law of sin and death continues to operate within us. It is something that remains in us as long as we live. Victory over all known sin does not mean sinlessness. It does mean the glorious opportunity in Christ to strive successfully against all sin and overcome it. But this is an experience that must be maintained day by day through fellowship with and surrender to Christ. The Christian life is a lifelong battle. So long as the believer abides in Christ, real holiness and victory are possible. What we have in the everyday life is the counteracting power of God against our sinful tendencies and our sinful natures.
In this earthly life there is always a conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. Paul again says, “This I say then, walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that you cannot do the things that you would. But if you are led of the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Gal. 5:16-18.
The greatest men in the Bible never claimed sinless perfection. They were all painfully aware of the fact that they were sinners throughout their lives. So long as a man is in a state of sin with a sinful nature still present in him, he will confess himself to be a sinner. The Christian always recognizes himself to be a sinner in need of Divine grace. The Apostle John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” 1 John 1:8-10.
We find here the most solemn warning against the doctrine of sinless perfection in this life. The indisputable meaning of this passage is that the man is a self-deceiver who claims for himself what the Apostle John dared not claim. The truth is not in him. The doctrine of sinless perfection leads to the conclusion that both Christ and the Holy Spirit are unnecessary once this state of eradication of the sinful nature is reached. Wherever the professed Christian claims to have the sinful nature eradicated in his life, there is a corresponding loss of true dependence upon Christ. There is a break in the only saving relationship that man needs for victory. This allows people to sin and call evil good. It discourages those who strive to be like Christ, but fall short of this false idea of perfection.
Christ is our sole perfection, our sole righteousness. In ourselves we are never sinless. But so long as we look to Christ, sin and self cannot prevail.
The pretension to sinless perfection at any time in this earthly life is the root of spiritual pride and self-righteousness. The Christian does not deny that the new life in Christ is capable of a new righteousness, of victory over sin. But he insists that it is not his righteousness, not his victory, but Christ’s.
There will be no point in spiritual achievement in this life where one may rest with the certainty that he will sin no more, or that he does not stand before God as a sinner in need of Divine grace and power. The Christian knows that there still remains in him a fountain of evil, a depraved nature.
Salvation by grace alone means that absolute perfection and sinlessness cannot be realized here and now. Righteousness by faith means that we look continually and exclusively to Christ, that we look away from ourselves and any hope in ourselves altogether in order to live by him alone. Genuine salvation directs us at once to Christ, to the only perfect life lived here on earth, and to his redemption through the Cross. Jesus Christ is absolutely central. Man’s victory over sin is exclusively the work of God in Christ, the continual control of the life by the Holy Spirit, that through daily union with Christ we participate in his holy life. The righteousness of Christ that saves us is not the beginning of a new self-righteousness but the end of it.