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17. The Three Types of Perfection

Chapter 17

The Three Types of Perfection

Preliminary Considerations: 

1. Perfection Rejected

Perfection is manifestly not a topic that is preached on or even talked about in most churches. Have you ever heard a message on perfection anywhere? It is a subject we don’t hear about and one which Christians generally seem happy to ignore. After all, isn’t it embarrassing to talk about perfection when we can barely reach the minimum level? Perfection, being so far beyond the minimum level, is considered unrealistic and imprac­ticable.

However, perfection is certainly taught in the Scriptures. So if we are concerned to know God’s mind rather than man’s opinions, then we must continue to pursue this matter until its value and importance for us becomes clear.

Referring to the Scriptures, Hebrews tells us, “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword…and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4.12). This means that when we hear or read the word of God, it searches our hearts, examining, discerning, and judging our thoughts, motives, attitudes, and intentions. God’s word, especially when it deals with perfection, has a way of making us feel uncomfortable (as we will no doubt have noticed) because it examines our very motive for being Christians.

The true reason for the Christian’s resistance to perfection is this: Most people only want salvation. We want to stretch out our hands and accept the free gift of salvation. If I can get salvation, who cares about perfection? What has perfection got to do with me? Let’s talk about salvation, not perfection. Perfection is for the fanatics who are not content with salvation, being out of touch with reality, and conceited enough to go beyond salvation into the loftier realms of the spiritual life.

2. Perfection Considered Unrealistic

Why are we Christians in the first place? Is getting salvation our primary concern, even our only concern? Having gotten what we want, we say, “Let’s close the subject. I am saved and that’s all that matters. Who has time for perfection? That is for those who have too much idle time on their hands.”

Most Christians seem content to settle for the minimum level, seldom going beyond “me, myself, and I”. I want to get saved, and that’s all that matters to me. Perfection is so far away that you can hardly see it with a pair of binoculars. It seems so remote and dis­tant that it is comparable to reaching for the stars. Why talk about space shuttle theology when we can’t even get off the ground? Riding a bicycle should be good enough. If I can get around in a car, that is more than enough for me. As for airplanes—now that is really getting into the clouds!

If I can get from A to B, that will suffice. Who cares about space shuttles? They’re for high-tech Christians who are out of touch with earthly reality. Let’s talk about bicycle theology, or motorcycle theology, or if you’re ambitious, automotive theology. But don’t bother about rocket technology and the like. You’ve got to keep your feet on the ground. It gets risky when you take off into the air!

We congratulate ourselves for being practical Christians who keep our wheels on the ground without taking off into flights of fancy. Only a few unrealistic and impractical preachers (like me!) want to preach on perfection. Come back down to earth, and take up cycling instead, it’s good for your health!

3. Perfection is Essential to Salvation

This way of thinking reveals a failure to see that perfection in the Bible is very practical, and is in fact what the Christian life is all about. This will be demonstrated as we proceed. And since this is the goal we are called to in Christ, we must press on towards it by grace, even if we may initially find that disconcerting, having to a great extent become accustomed to “subsistence level” Christianity, which is not Biblical Christianity.

Paul summed up the way he taught the disciples at Ephesus in these words, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20.27). He omitted nothing that was import­ant to them for their new life in Christ. Paul’s constant aim was to “present every man complete (or perfect) in Christ” (Col.1.28), and that’s why he says in the next verse, “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to his power, which mightily works within me”. How wonderful it would be for the church if every pastor and church leader had this as his goal too.

For this reason, too, we need to come to a clear grasp of the fact that per­fection is integral to, and therefore inseparable from, regen­eration and renewal in God’s plan of salvation for mankind.

What happens when we remove perfection from salvation? “The whole purpose of God” is thereby truncated, distorted, and deprived of direction or goal. It is no longer the full salvation proclaimed in the Scriptures. Do we dare treat the word of God in this way? Don’t we fear the consequences? If we did it out of ignorance, we can still find forgiveness. But may we never be foolish enough to do it delib­erately.

Speaking of being daring, did we notice the words “I did not shrink from”—striking words that Paul used when he spoke of “declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20.27)? “Shrink from” translates a word which means to draw back or shrink from something because of fear, or to keep silent about something out of fear [54]. The same word is used a few verses earlier (v.20): “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable”. Within so short a space in his farewell message, the apostle used the word twice. What might have caused him to shrink from declaring the whole purpose of God?

Anyone who has preached the whole message of salvation will know that his hearers will gladly receive some truths, but are less willing to accept some other truths, while yet other truths they find so utterly unpalatable as to strongly reject them. In other words, they will gladly accept that part of the truth they like, but not the whole truth. Their opposition to that part of the truth they don’t like can be so strong and violent that some preachers have been thrown out of meetings or churches for preaching the whole truth which, of course, must necessarily include those portions distasteful to the natural man.

Paul had much first-hand experience not only of being thrown out, but also of being slandered, beaten, and even in danger of being killed. I, too, have had some experience of these things. It takes divinely supplied courage to preach the whole truth, and not merely to dole out those por­tions we know will appeal to the multitudes. We must choose between daring to preach the whole gospel and daring to dismember it. Whom do we fear more, God or man?

We do well to consider the closing words of the book of Rev­elation, which by reason of the fact that Revelation is the last book of the Bible, are also the closing words of the Bible as a whole. These words give stern warning concerning any attempt at changing the contents of the word of God, whether by adding or subtracting from them. If the warning applies to one prophecy, or a group of prophecies, then a fortiori (with even stronger reason) it applies to the whole message of the Gospel whether taught by the Lord himself or his apostles. Rev.22.18-20:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

This passage of Scripture begins with the words, “I testify”. Who is the one making this solemn statement? The answer is found in the second part of the quotation: he who testifies is none other than Jesus himself. We do well to take heed, for though the warning may sound unpleasantly stern, it is given in love; just like the stern note in a father or mother’s voice warning a child for his own good not to play with fire.

Still there are many people, being ignorant of the Biblical teaching on perfection, or becoming conformed to the image of Christ, or growing into the fullness of his stature, who have decided that these have nothing to do with salvation, as if perfection and salvation are two unrelated subjects. Would God teach us anything that is irrelevant to salvation? We give the excuse that, given our human weaknesses, perfection is unattain­able. But who knows our weak­nesses better than God does? So why does He still call us to be perfect? Will He not supply the grace to accomplish that which He calls us to do, and will we not as a result experience Him in ever deeper ways?

4. The Separating of Sanctification from Justification

Even though, as far as Scripture is concerned, there is no way you can bypass perfection and still obtain salvation, a method of theological categorization has become popular which separates justi­fication from sanctification. Generally speaking, the categorizing of subjects is a useful teaching tool. But the classification of subjects needs to be accurate if it is not to result in misleading us. For example, justi­fication is said to be the subject which has to do with salvation, while perfection is neatly class­ified under the subject of sanctifica­tion.

This simplistic classification does not accurately reflect the far more profound and complex pattern found in the Scriptures. More­over, since we are led to suppose that only justification has to do with salvation, we can conveniently dispense with sanctification as a redundant theolo­gical appendage. As a result, these theological categorizations become a deadly snare, for a substantial part of Script­ure has been classified as practically irrelevant.

Nowhere in the Bible can we separate sanctification from justification so neatly, slicing between them right down the middle with a theological knife. The cost of this error to the church is unimaginably high. One such consequence, as we have seen, is that Christians by and large have ceased to be the “light of the world”. Those who don’t have light cannot give light or be light. If we don’t have light, we will remain in darkness. But darkness is the state of those who are unsaved.

Christians today are often ignorant about walking in the light, and being light (e.g. Eph.5.8, “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord”), and therefore ignorant of their obliga­tion to function as light in the world. Someone in our church once wrote an article about Christians being “the light of the world”; a reader phoned him up to challenge him, saying that it is Jesus, not Christians, who is the light of the world; and the caller demanded to know where in the Bible does it say that Christians are the light of the world. The writer of the article was astonished by that remark. Is it possible for a Christian, in this case a leader of a Christian fellowship, not to know that Jesus had said, “You are the light of the world” (Mt.5.14)? Yes, she really didn’t know that! She had to be shown the exact chapter and verse. What a sad state of affairs.

That’s what happens when you separate sanctification from justifica­tion. Justification, like the first stage of a rocket, is essential for the initial “liftoff” stage of salvation; but without the Christ-likeness (sanctification) stage of the “rocket,” the mission or pur­pose of salvation won’t be completed or fulfilled. For it must always be borne in mind that those who are saved are those who “have been called according to His purpose” (Ro.8.28). And what is that purpose? It is stated in the very next sentence, “To be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (8.29).

This whole discourse about the inseparability of sanctification and justification would scarcely have been nec­essary in the apostolic church. But today these things need to be expounded at length to achieve some degree of clarification.

Jesus says, “You therefore must be per­fect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt.5.48). This is both a call and a command, so anyone who refuses to obey it is evidently being defiant, insisting that perfection is irrelevant for salvation. But even if we don’t understand deep and complex theo­logical issues, do we really think that anyone can disobey the Lord and still be saved? The matter is as simple as that.

Also, because we have separated these two things, much of the Lord’s teaching has become incomprehensible to us. For example, he says that you cannot be his disciple unless you deny yourself, hate your life, take up your cross daily, and follow him (Lk.9.23; 14.26-27). Many Christians have reacted negatively to this teaching, saying, “Well, Jesus is speaking to disciples, not to Christians.” There we go again. We separate Christian from disciple. No such distinction exists in Scripture, yet we have decided that discipleship is not necessary for salvation. That is amazing, given the fact that the only Christians in the Bible are disciples (Acts 11.26).

Because we have separated sanctification from justification, we don’t know what to do with Jesus’ teaching. We have daringly reduced it to irrelevance for Christians generally. That is why we say, “His teaching is meant for higher level Christians called disciples, not for ordinary Christians who just want to get saved.” By promoting false distinctions and class­ifications, we imagine that we can escape Jesus’ call to deny our­selves, take up our cross daily and follow him—and still be saved!

We are not mistaken, however, if we perceive that Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow him is integrally related to his call to perfection. Perfection is seen in total denial of self-will and complete obedience to God. Perfection is part of Jesus’ most basic teaching to the multitudes (Lk.14.25-27). He began at that foundational level without being vague or ambiguous about it.

Three Types of Perfection in Philippians 3

Let us now define perfection more precisely. What does the Lord require of us when he says, “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”?

If you have at all seriously tried to live the Christian life, even for one day, you would sympathize with those who say that perfection is imprac­ticable. You would know how hard it is to be a true Christian. It is no easy thing to love God with all your heart and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself—even for one day. Who ever said salvation is easy?

The Lord himself made it clear that, “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Mt.7.14). That is precisely why salvation is by grace, but also in this sense: that without God’s empowering us by the Holy Spirit, it would be im­possible for us to live the new life to which He has called us.

As for perfection, one of the great difficulties that we face in the world is that many things go by the same name. Those who have studied philo­sophy would know that this is a problem for the philos­opher and thinker. It also poses a challenge to the Christian. The reason is that human language is somewhat limited in its vocabu­lary, so it often uses the same word to refer to a variety of disparate things or ideas. If you flip open a dictionary, you will see that in many instances the same word can mean different things, even totally different things. The same is true of “perfection”.

This is why we need to carefully distinguish between the different types of perfection if we wish to avoid dangerous confusion. Some ideas about perfection are not Biblical, while some are. Unfor­tunately, the understanding of perfection which many Christians have derives from the world, not from Scripture.

Consequently, when they hear or read about perfection in the Lord’s teaching, or in the New Testament generally, they quickly ass­ume that the word means the same thing as used in the world because that is the only definition they know. The result is confusion, and at times distress. It is of great importance, therefore, that we become well acquainted with the Biblical teaching about it.

Philippians 3 is the chapter par excellence on perfection, defining it to the fullest extent. In this chapter we find three types of perfection which we need to distinguish clearly.

First Type of Perfection: Carnal Perfection

The first type of perfection is found in verse 6, but let us read verses 4 to 6 to get the context:

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless (or “faultless,” without fault or defect, i.e. perfect).

This is the first type of perfection. In his former days of living in his old way of life, Paul was blameless and perfect—in the flesh. He is saying, “If you have anything to boast about in the flesh, I have more. In terms of the Law, I have a perfect track record”. He scrupulously fulfilled every detail of the Law. But what did this perfection “in the flesh” lead him to do? It drove him to persecute the Church, which at that time was seen as a newly emerging “sect”.

Why did Paul (at that time still called “Saul”) persecute the church so vehemently? Today the word “cult” or “sect” is bandied about freely, but the fact is that the Church too was initially re­garded as a Jewish cult or sect (Acts 24.5,14; 28.22). Paul thought it his religious duty to persecute with utmost zeal this Jewish cult whose members came to be called “Christians”—at the time an apparently insignificant movement started by a professed Messiah, the leader of a small band of disciples, some of whom were fisher­men, all of whom the learned Saul would have regarded as ignorant, unlettered, and untrained in rabbinical theology. “How arrogant can you get?” he must have thought, “These ignoramuses profess to know a new way to God!” So Saul was determined to exter­minate this obnoxious sect. Thanks to his fiery zeal, Stephen was put to death and the church in Jerusalem was scattered (Acts 8.1).

This first type of perfection is of the carnal man. Carnal, fleshly perfection is totally different from spiritual perfection. Indeed, it is the very opposite of the spiritual. It is dangerous and deadly. This type of perfection in the sphere of religion is what results in fana­ticism. It embodies human enthusiasm and the zeal to establish one’s own righteousness before God. It is man-centered and imbued with all the human notions of perfection.

It has rightly been observed that there are two kinds of zeal: a spiritual zeal for God, and a human zeal for God. Human zeal is prone to carnal jealousy. That is why “zeal” is often rendered “jea­lousy” or “envy” in the Bible. Paul says to the carnally zealous Christians in Corinth:

But I, brethren, could not speak to you as spir­itual men, but as to men of the flesh, as to babes in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy [55] and strife a­mong you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? (1Cor.3.1-4)

(1) Carnal Zeal is Motivated by the Self

The Corinthian Christians were very zealous and probably thought of themselves as being quite perfect, with zeal being an expression of perfection. Zeal burns with a concentrated, single-minded devotion to a cause or an ideology. Zeal of this kind does emanate from a perfect commitment and obedience of heart to God—but it is inspired by a wrong motive: It is of the flesh, of the self. It is exceedingly harmful to the church because it splits and divides people from each other: “I am of Paul, I am of Peter, I am of Apollos.” To this Paul would say, “Why the need to choose between Peter or Apollos or me? We serve the same God, follow the same Lord; why the zeal for the one over the other?”

This kind of zeal and perfection, often expressed in single-minded devotion to a particular theology or dogma, is very dangerous. Outwardly, it is not always easy to discern whether a person’s zeal is fleshly because both kinds of zeal, the carnal and the spiritual, are said to be “for God”. Yet what motivates these two kinds of zeal for God is totally different.

If we wish to avoid being ensnared in the wrong kind of perfection and its zeal, our hearts and motives must be thoroughly scrutinized before the Lord. Is God truly at the center of our lives, or are we still at the center? Are we still subtly running the show, or is the Holy Spirit really in control of our lives?

In trying to arrive at the right answer to these questions, if you are a zealous person, then bear this in mind: carnal zeal will blind you to spiritual things, and blunt your ability to distinguish light from darkness, true from false. This kind of zeal, this kind of perfectionism, is spiritually most dangerous because it is of human origin. It is not inspired by the Spirit of God; it is not rooted in God and in a concern for others, but derives from the old ego.

The person with this kind of zeal is a serious threat to the church. He will attack and slander fellow Christians viciously in the name of standing for the truth as he sees it. The Lord warns of such people when he says to his disciples, “A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16.2, NIV). In his early days, Paul thought he was serving God when, in his carnal zeal for God, he persecuted the church unrel­entingly and had Stephen put to death.

From Paul’s recollections of his own past, we could imagine him telling us, “I studied at the feet of Gamaliel the First, that eminent rabbi known as Gamaliel the Great. I was steeped in the theology of the rabbis. I was on fire for my religion. But being in bondage to the flesh, I did not realize that I was actually opposing God. I persecuted His church fiercely, and tried to destroy it” (Gal.1.13; 1Cor.15.9).

Are you in bondage to the flesh? If you are, please forget about per­fection because you will end up with the wrong kind of perfection. You must start with regeneration, starting at the beginning, not at the end.

We must start with regeneration because only that which is born of the Spirit is spirit, and therefore spiritual. We are made spiritual, becom­ing a whole new person in Christ, not by human effort or zealousness, but by God’s work of new creation and transformation in us. When we become spiritual, our new life will grow and develop, moving towards a definite goal: the fullness of the image and stature of Christ.

(2) Carnal Zeal and Atrocities

The first type of perfection, then, is carnal perfection. Be careful to examine what kind of perfection you are pursuing. Anyone who is not regenerate should not aim for perfection because one of these days he will persecute fellow Christians, putting them to death or calling them all kinds of names. He will call them cult members, antichrists, and so on. As in the case of Paul when he was a persecutor of the church, such a person will think he is rendering God a wonderful service. One day some of us may be killed by this type of Christian. Be prepared, for they are most dangerous. Especially in these last days, as Jesus warns us, the greatest threat to Christians is not from unbelievers but from mis­guided Christians. They will commit every form of evil against you in the name of God.

Being carnal, this kind of Christian lacks spiritual perception. Hence they easily fall away from the truth without being aware of it. And because they don’t realize they have departed from the true faith, they still think they stand in it. They are thus caught up in the fearful situation of having fallen away from the truth without knowing it. In this condition, they can sway other carnal Christians, causing schisms within the church, and violently attacking those who refuse to go their way. This situation will reach its climax in these last days, as the Lord has warned us, “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other” (Mt.24.10, NIV). Dreadful internecine strife is here foretold; there will be the betraying and hating of “one another”. How dangerous and hateful is carnal zeal.

The history of the church has many a wretched chapter in which Christians have persecuted and put fellow Christians to death. It is probably true to say that, in the course of church history, more Christians have been put to death in the hands of Christians than in the hands of non-Christians. It is hard to imagine anything more brutal and terrifying, for example, than the Inquisition, in which Christians tortured other Christians to death in God’s name.

Christians are at risk of being drawn into a carnal zeal that is not spiritually focused on God. If we strive for perfect­ion but are not careful to ensure that our hearts are centered on God, on Jesus, and on love for the neighbor, we will arrive at a carnal zeal. Flee from it as fast as your feet can carry you, because that kind of zeal and perfection will take you to hell. Some of the greatest enemies of the church operate, with their carnal zeal, within her, and some come forth from her. The Antichrist himself will come out from the church, that is, he will be (or will have been) a Christian; for according to the apostle John, “anti­christs” “went out from us”—that is, they originated from within the church (1 John 2.18-19). The final Antichrist is unlikely to be an exception. Be well prepared, for we are living in the last days.

Second Type of Perfection: Spiritual Perfection

The second type of perfection is found in verse 15 of Philippians 3:

“Let us, therefore, as many of us who are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you.”

Two verses earlier, Paul describes this perfect attitude in terms of the unrelenting pursuit after the Lord Jesus:

“One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (NIV)

When your life is focused on a goal, you are like an athlete who fixes his eyes on the gold medal. When he is running, his whole being is focused on the finish line. His thoughts are centered not on himself but on the mark ahead of him. The single-minded goal of the apostle Paul is “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil.3.8). This he reiterates and reaffirms in v.10, “I want to know him”. Paul’s life, heart, and thoughts are all centered upon Christ.

That, according to Paul, is how the perfect think. Is that the way we think? If the answer is yes, then we are perfect according to the Biblical definition of perfection.

This second type of perfection must not be confused with the first type. The first type of perfection is of the flesh, it is external. It looks at things, even heavenly and spiritual matters, from the human point of view. It is being “mere men” or merely human (1Cor.3.3,4), and nothing more than that, even if it has the outward appearance of being spiritual. It may use the Bible extensively, but it tends to interpret it by human reasoning and often with plainly carnal objectives (e.g. telling us that the Bible teaches us how to get money or anything we desire from God). It generally adheres firmly, sometimes fiercely, to human tradi­tions (also on the level of theology and dogma), leading to conflict within churches and between churches. It is motivated by human love, as distinct from spiritual love, and usually does not know the difference between the two.

Spiritual or inner perfection, on the other hand, is gov­erned and motivated not by earthly and external things but by the Lord Jesus, the One who sits at the right hand of the Father. If we have been crucified with Christ and we therefore no longer live our own self-centered lives, but Christ lives in us, we will inevitably no longer look at things from a human point of view, but with the “mind of Christ” (1Cor.2.16), seeing things from his point of view. This way of living and looking at things is what constitutes the inner perfection that derives from the indwel­ling Spirit who provides us with a heart attitude centered on God.

(1) Perfection Has To Do With the Heart

Let us try to understand the Biblical meaning of being “perfect” more precisely. How are we to establish its meaning in the New Testament? By consulting a Greek dictionary? That by itself won’t be adequate because the New Testament idea of perfection is rooted in the Old Testament, not in Hellenic (Greek) ideas. In the Old Test­ament, perfection[56] has fundamentally to do with the heart and its attitude. It speaks of a heart that is blameless, upright, or perfect.[57]

This is the type of perfection that God expects of us. He does not require absolute perfection in the sense of absolute sinlessness or moral perfection, because this would involve factors beyond the intentions of the heart. For example, we may genuinely want to be perfect, yet we did something wrong because of insufficient knowledge in spiritual matters. The intention may be good but even so, the action may be wrong because of not knowing what is the right course of action to take in a particular situation. This is especially true of new believers who haven’t yet learned to walk close to God and to know His will for their lives.

For example, they earnestly seek answers to questions like, “What is the right attitude to my career? I want to be perfect and follow God with all my heart. Does it mean I ought to abandon my profession? What should I do?”

Many Christians cannot handle such real-life decisions. Should I take this job or that one? They may arrive at a wrong decision and do the wrong thing, but only realize it later. They failed even though the intention of the heart was right in the first place. They need to learn to commune with God and be led by the Spirit.

God knows that even if the heart attitude is perfect, the action may be wrong. That is why we must distinguish internal perfection and external perfection. God does not, I repeat, require that we be perfect in every external act, because that would require a knowledge of God’s will at a level which we have not attained yet. We simply do not always know how to deal with every situation according to the Lord’s will. That is why we may need to seek help from faithful servants of God.

Although the Holy Spirit is there to guide us into all truth, we may still be limited in our capacity to commun­icate with God. The intention may be perfect but the level of communication is often still inadequate, so we do not know what is God’s will in every situation. It is essential that we learn to commune with the Lord.

This second type of perfection means living on the spiritual level. It is an inner perfection that is not always outwardly visible to others. Perfection is not for display or exhibition. Attention-seeking belongs to the first type of perfection, not the second type. Carnal perfection craves man’s approval. We want people to see us praying. Normally we might not pray very much, but when someone visits us, we may spend two hours on our knees in the hope that it will be noticed. “Wow, he’s still praying after two hours! He’s really holy!”

This kind of perfection seeks praise from man, whereas true holiness is hidden, it is of the heart. It doesn’t say how much time was spent in prayer in order to impress people. We may be impressed with two hours, but less so with 30 minutes. How do we assess someone who says he prays for 30 minutes, but for the rest of the day he aims to be in constant communion with the Lord?

Spirituality is not for show, but for God who looks into the heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “When you pray, close your door behind you so that no one will see you” (See Mt.6.5,6). People don’t need to know how long you pray. I have often wondered how people knew that Martin Luther prayed for three or four hours at a time. How did they figure that out? By looking through the keyhole?

Some­times, of course, you cannot hide it, especially if you are sharing a room with someone else. But the intention of the heart must be right. True spirituality is not concerned to let people know how religious we are, how long we pray, or how many Bible chapters we read daily.

Somebody once told me he had read through the Bible forty times. But if you talk with him, you may wonder if he has read it even once. How does it benefit you if you have read the Bible forty times, yet fail to perceive the spiritual meaning and significance of any particular chapter or verse? It is the spirit that counts.

Perfection is spirituality. When Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he is saying, “Be spiritual as your heavenly Father is spiritual.” To be perfect is to be spiritual. True spirituality means, first of all, that we are born of the Spirit, and secondly, that we walk in the Spirit. Romans 8 talks about walking in the Spirit and being led by the Spirit; do we exper­ience the Spirit’s presence and leading every day? Perfection or spirituality is eminently prac­tical. It is to live with the Lord every day.

(2) Led by the Spirit

Will anyone still insist that perfection is irrele­vant to salva­tion? Perfect­ion, put simply, means a life oriented towards God, in which we commune with Him and walk with Him. In so doing we experience the wonderful reality of being constantly led by the Spirit.

God leads us, His children, even at times when we are not fully aware of it. Often we only realize it in hindsight. Who are the children of God? They are those who are led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8.14).

Stated more fully, to be perfect means to be spiritual, holy, blameless, and in tune with the Holy Spirit’s leading. Holiness means to be separate and distinct from the world and its carnality.

The churches today, like the church at Corinth, have an abundance of carnal Christians. This kind of Christian can cause a lot of trouble in church; and Paul is con­cerned to move them out of that state as quickly as possible. He exhorts us to move on to a Christ-like attitude of heart (Phil.2.5), which is the essence of perfection.

The spiritual man is perfect by the Biblical definition of “perfect”. This doesn’t mean that he has no faults or that he is perfectly considerate in every detail. It does mean, however, that his heart is wholly centered on God. His whole life revolves around the Lord, not himself. His heart and mind are focused on Him as the goal of life. That is spirituality.

Third Type of Perfection: Absolute Perfection

The puzzling thing about Philippians 3.12-16 is that Paul here speaks in an apparently self-contradictory manner. He says that he is not perfect, yet he is perfect. He expects every Christian to be perfect (v.15), yet he says in verse 12: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect”. He uses the same Greek word for “perfect” in both verses [58], yet in the one case he is perfect, in the other case he is not.

This remarkable paradox is lost in some translations which use “per­fect” in one verse and “mature” in the other.[59] Paul con­sciously uses the same word twice, the first time to say he is not perfect, the second time to say he is perfect. There is no self-contra­diction precisely because “perfect” is used in three different senses in the same chapter.

When Paul says he has not attained to per­fection, he is talking about absolute perfection. This type of perfection involves much more than having a right attitude and having the right intentions of the heart; it includes absolute perfection in every thought and action, without any sin or even the slightest error. That kind of perfection is im­possible for us to attain at the present time. Paul does not claim to be perfect in this sense.

Our heart’s attitude may be perfect towards God, but we could still be inconsiderate, or over­look someone’s needs, or forget to say something appreciative. I confess to failing in this way many times, e.g., failing to express the appro­priate gratitude for a kindness shown to me. That failure is sin. In the last chapter we saw that a mistake is a sin according to the Biblical definition of sin. By that definition, my error, my omiss­ion, my failure, is sin. I am nowhere near the absolute perfection that we see in the Lord Jesus, who has never failed in any action whatsoever. This kind of perfection is unattainable at the present time.

Concluding Observations: The Body of Flesh Hinders Perfection

Perfection is spirituality. But our spirituality is limited by the fact that we are still in the body, and therefore circumscribed by the imperfections inherent in the flesh, especially in that it obscures our spiritual vision. Paul says, “When perfection comes, the imperfect dis­appears...Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face” (1Cor.13.10,12, NIV). But John has some good news for us: “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1Jo.3.2). Only then will we become fully Christ-like.

Our spirituality is limited because we see an imperfect reflection in a mirror. My com­munication with God is limited by my flesh. Because the body of flesh is with me, I cannot communicate with Him face-to-face. The communication has to pass through the veil of the flesh. I do see spiritual things, but not as clearly as when the veil of the body of flesh will finally be removed.

Absolute perfection is attainable only in the future, when we see Christ as he is, when this body of flesh is no more, when we put on immortality. Paul concludes the chapter by saying that Jesus Christ “who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Phil.3.21)

What is the connection of this verse with our whole discussion on perfection? The apostle is telling us, “I am not abso­lutely perfect at this time because the body of flesh is still with me, hinder­ing my communion with God, though I do have wonderful heaven­ly moments of fellowship with the Lord.” On one occasion Paul even had the experience of being transported into the third heaven, not knowing if he was in the body or out of it (2Cor.12.2). But after this brief interlude, he was back again behind the veil of flesh. The flesh obscures the vision of God at present and will continue to do so until the day we will be granted to see Christ face to face and become transformed into his perfect image and likeness.

We are waiting for the trans­formation of the body, “the redemption of our bodies” (Ro.8.23). On that day, the mortal will put on immortality, and this physical body will be changed into a spiritual one (1Cor.15.44,53). We will be absolutely perfect in everything because we will have unhindered communion with God. Paul longs for that day with such intensity that he cries out in Romans 7.24, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Even when the body is no longer governed by sin’s power, it will still, by reason of its earth-bound character, hinder communion with God. That is why the apostle would much prefer to die and be with Christ (Phil.1.21-23), because at death the body of flesh is put off and the spirit is free to go to be with Christ.

The spiritual man does not fear death. Paul is not afraid to die because he knows that the carnal and the physical stand as a bar­rier to direct communion with God and absolute perfection in Him. His fervent aspiration is that “I may attain to the resurrec­tion from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on…” (Phil.3.11,12). Here is an explicit link between absolute perfection and the resurrec­tion from the dead.

At the future resurrection, we will receive a spiritual and im­mortal body, and thus become absolutely perfect—completely free from the flesh, sin, and death. Anyone who is uninterested in becom­ing absolutely perfect would presumably not be interested in the resurrection from the dead either!

What is Our Attitude to this Physical Life?

It should now be clear that there are three types of perfection: First there is the carnal (or fleshly) type, which should have been left behind in the past when we became new persons in Christ but which, all too often, has become habitual—and habits are not easy to discard. The third type is what we look forward to in the future when we will become like the Lord, fully conformed to his perfect image. Therefore, only the second type, spiritual perfection, concerns us in the present time as people who have become new persons, a “new creation” (2Cor.5.17), in Christ.

But pursuing the path of spiritual perfection, to which we have been called, is a great and difficult challenge. We will soon discover that pursuing perfection leads us to walk on the “narrow road” (Mt.7.14) on which we are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Mt.16.24; Mk.8.34; Lk.9.23). Anyone who declines to bear his own cross will find that he will be unable to walk this road of life and, consequently, cannot be the Lord’s disciple, and cannot be a true Christian.

Why is this so? Precisely because our bodily (or physical) life together with its earthly appetites, pursuits and aspirations will oppose the call to spiritual perfection with tooth and claw because it sees its security and its interests being threatened. That is why when we become new persons in Jesus, it is absolutely necessary to settle the question of what exactly our attitude towards our earthly (or physical) life is going to be. Failing to do so is to court certain defeat right from the outset.

Whether perfection is important to us or not, can be seen in our attitude to this world and to our physical life. It can be seen especially in whether we fear suffering and death. The one who fears death will cling to the body and its well-being. But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt.10.28, NIV).

What is our attitude to this physical life? Are we alarmed when our health deteriorates? Does it bother us that our income is not as high as it could be? Do we strive for an ever bigger savings account because we hanker after a sense of security in the world? Does the way the people of the world look at us matter a lot to us?

Or are eternal things the main con­cern of our hearts? Do we look at our health, our occupa­tion and the like, through the eyes of a faithful steward who serves God as the center of his life? Many material things may pass through our hands, but we don’t cling to them, for we are like “those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away” (1Cor.7.31).

The Christian life is very practical; it comes to grips with these concrete realities of everyday life. It is within the sphere of daily life that we come to experience the fact that perfection has to do with the enduring spiritual quality of our lives. That is what salvation is about.

 


[54] “mid.—a. draw back in fear Hb 10:38 (Hab 2:4). b. shrink from, avoid because of fear; I did not shrink from proclaiming Ac 20:27. c. keep silent about someth. in fear; I have kept silent about nothing that is profitable Ac 20:20.” An abbrev­iated extract from A Gk-Eng. Lexicon of the NT, BAG, U. of Chicago Press, 1979.

[55] The Greek noun used here, zēlos, can be translated zeal or jealousy. UBS Greek-English Dictionary defines it simply as “zeal; jealousy”. (BC)

[56] The Hebrew word (תמים, tamim) is frequently used of sacrificial animals which are to be without defect, perfect, healthy, e.g. Ex.12.5. Of people whose hearts and conduct are “blameless” and “upright,” e.g. Ps.119.80; Prov.11.20. The KJV trans­lates the word as “perfect” 18 times, but other translations often use “blameless” instead. Cf. also Prov.2.21; 11.5; Ps.37.18, etc. God’s call to be “perfect” or “blameless,” Gen.17.1; Dt.18.13. To have a “perfect heart,” Ps.101.2. Of God’s work (Dt.32.4) and His ways (Ps.18.30).

[57] 1 Chronicles 29.17-19, for example, uses the term “perfect heart” (NASB). It repeatedly speaks of the heart in expressions such as the “integrity of my heart,” and “the intentions of the heart of Thy people,” and “directing their heart to Thee”. (BC)

[58] Verse 12 uses the verb teleioō, from the same root as the adjective teleios, used in verse 15.

[59] New American Standard Bible preserves the paradox by using the same word “perfect” in both verses, whereas Revised Standard Version uses two different words. (BC)

 

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