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23. Being Perfect Means Functioning Spiritually

Chapter 23

Being Perfect Means Functioning Spiritually

Perfection is almost totally ignored and regarded as irrelevant today. This error is most deplorable because learning to be perfect, far from being a luxury, is essential for spiritual survival.

1. Functional Perfection

Perfection is not, in Scripture, an airy-fairy ideal, but something that is eminently practical. For perfection has to do with the Christ­ian’s capacity to function, that is, to live as a disciple of Jesus. Let me explain what I mean.

If a car is in perfect mechanical condition, it will function prop­erly. By “perfect” we do not mean that the engine could not be improved in its design, or that it could not be made more powerful or more fuel efficient. It simply means that the engine is running properly, and is able to fulfill its purpose. The engine, in this case, is said to be in perfect working condition even if its design could benefit from improvements. To be perfect, therefore, means to be functional.

In the case of the Christian, to be “functional” or “functionally perfect” means living the life God has designed for us as true dis­ciples of Christ. It is to live the life He has given us to live, and thus to be effective and productive, and to accomplish what He has entrusted to us to accomplish in this world. “Functional” there­fore means a Christian life that, like a good engine, is “in good working order,” able to perform or function in the way it was designed to do.

Some time ago, when I was driving to Ottawa with my family to attend a meeting, we were saying to ourselves, “This old car has been regenerated!” Outwardly the car’s body looks the same, but inside it is brand new. There is, for instance, a replacement engine which cost four hundred dollars. The old engine had been written off and replaced with this engine which, though second-hand, is in good working condition. The steering is also new, as is the radiator. Almost everything except the outer shell is new. It is a reborn, reg­enerated car. It has a new heart (engine), a new circulation system (radiator system), and a new kidney (filters). Isn’t this a parable of the Christian life?

When we are born anew, we become new persons inside. Outwardly we look the same, and we may be wearing the same clothes as before our baptism. Everyone still recognizes our faces, but inside we are brand new. That is what regeneration is all about. When a “regenerated” car is running smoothly, there’s a nice feeling about it. It purrs along the highway, and no longer makes the noise produced by worn-out cylinders.

The next day, however, my wife Helen started the car but could not turn the steering wheel even though the steering system was new. Equally strange, the day after that, after starting the engine I stepped on the accelerator (with the gear in neutral) and the engine would not slow down! It kept racing at high speed. What has happened to the car? Yes, it has been regenerated and renewed, but no, it is not perfect! And if these imperfections are not corrected, we are going to burn out the engine or have a terrible accident. Any imperfection in the condition of a car (or anything else) seriously impairs its functionality.

I lifted the hood, and discovered that the steering fluid was leaking. I took the car to a garage, and as it turned out, some of the hoses in the steering system had not been tightened properly. As a result the fluid was forced out at the joints by the pressure in the system. One particular joint had come apart altogether, and this accounted for the problem with the steering wheel. This was fixed simply by tightening the clips that held the hoses. Yes, even minor imperfections can render the whole system non-functional.

The mechanic discovered that the engine problem was caused by a defective throttle return spring. When you step on the accelerator and then release it, there is a spring that closes the throttle. But because this spring was too weak, the throttle remained open and the engine kept on racing. That little spring costs only 50 cents, but because the mechanic did not have a proper one in stock, he had to re-tool another type of spring to the proper size. This took twenty minutes of labor, so I ended up paying fifteen dollars to have the 50-cent spring adjusted and the hoses tightened! A seemingly trivial imperfection can turn out to be expensive. After that the car was running very well again.

2. Imperfections Hinder Functionality

Perfection, then, has to do with the capacity to function properly, that is, as God intended us to function. You may be regenerate and in process of being renewed, but like so many Christians, you may not be functioning perfectly. Because the steering fluid is leaking in your life, you cannot turn in the direction you need to go. You cannot be maneuvered, so God has difficulty leading you in the right direction. Have you ever tried turning a steering wheel on a power-steering system that is out of fluid? Unless you are Hercules, you have to put your whole weight on the wheel just to turn it.

God cannot direct our lives if we are un­responsive to Him. He wants us to do some­thing, but we don’t budge. He tells us to go fast, but we go slow; He tells us to go slow, but we go fast. If the throttle doesn’t close properly, and the engine is racing away, it will overheat and burn out in a short time.

Imperfections hinder functionality. What good is a brand-new engine if a 50-cent spring is defective? In the same way, many Christians are not func­tional. After baptism, you feel great to be a new person. But the next day you wake up to discover that the steering wheel doesn’t turn. The engine is stalling, or is roaring away even at the stop sign. The car is taken to the church mechanic, usually the pastor, who has to roll up his sleeves and, through counseling, figure out the problem. He is always busy because many Christians are not in good condition. Sometimes, alas, there are pas­tors who are unable to function properly themselves.

Functioning perfectly means to function as God wants us to function. An engine is said to be in perfect working condition if it is functioning according to its engineered design, and is not polluting the air with black smoke. My old engine spewed out black fumes and made my clothes smell of engine oil. It was beyond repair and had to be replaced.

Likewise, you cannot take a non-Christian and make him into a Christian by making repairs to the old life. The old life is beyond repair, and God has to replace it altogether. When you die at bap­tism, your old life is finished. God gives you a new life, but it has to be maintained in working order. If we mishandle it, or fail to maintain it, it won’t work properly.

Do we still insist that perfection is a luxury? Is it a luxury for a car to be in perfect working condition? Every mechanic knows that perfection is no luxury. Rather, it is imperfection that is a luxury because it leads to engine blowouts and all kinds of costly repairs.

If an engine is racing when it should be idling, it is behaving improperly. If a Christian is not behaving as he ought to, there must be something wrong with his spiritual life. If he loses his temper, and the temperature gauge is pointing to the red zone, you would say in the case of a car that the radiator is overheating! Perhaps the thermostat is dead, or the radiator core is blocked. We have to act fast, because an over­heated engine could destroy the transmiss­ion. When an imperfection crops up, you must correct it quickly before disaster strikes.

In fact we should check for potential problems even before they occur through regular servicing and maintenance. Brake failure, for example, could result in a tragic accident in which cars are wrecked and people killed. For this reason we should make the Psalmist’s prayer our own:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139.23,24)

3. Functionality and Christian Witness

Perfection in terms of functionality has mainly to do with relationships, not just a living relationship with God but also a harmonious relation­ship with the brothers and sisters in the Lord. Good inter­personal relation­ships with God and with man are rooted in a functional spiritual life.

Far from being pie-in-the-sky, the Christian life is very practical. As for the one who easily gets hot under the collar or speaks rudely, his Christian life is not what God intends it to be. “Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God” (Psalm 87.3). How can people see God’s glory in His people, His “city,” if they see a bad temper, nasty words, or a lack of self-control? The witness of the whole church depends on each Christian’s functional quality. People see Christ, or reject Christ, by what they see in you and me. Imper­fect, non-funct­ional Christians will cause them to turn away from the Lord. How great is our responsibility!

4. Perfection Versus Anxiety

When “perfect” is used in the Bible, it is al­ways used in a prac­tical context. The statement, “You must be perfect as your hea­venly Father is perfect” (Mt.5.48), is found in the context of Christ­ian con­duct. The preceding verses describe, among other things, how the Christian ought to relate to the non-Christian. If you greet only those who greet you, how are you better than those who are unre­generate? Perfection must be seen in conduct that far exceeds the conduct of the non-Christian. In times of danger or pressure, for example, you are able to remain composed while the unbeliever panics.

When a fierce Mediterranean storm was bat­ter­ing the ship he was traveling on, Paul remained perfectly calm and did not panic like the rest of the people. In fact he found strength to reassure them, “Keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27.25).

It was this kind of faith that impressed John Wesley. During the old colonial days, he took a voyage from England to the new world. Along the way, a fierce Atlantic storm battered the ship. Everyone was panicking except a group of German Christians who were calmly singing hymns and worship­ping the Lord. But Wesley, though he himself was a minister and preacher, was gripped by great fear—the fear of death—for he did not yet have a living relationship with God. He was astonished by the peace that these believers had in the midst of a raging storm that threatened to send the ship into the depths of the ocean. He saw, for the first time, humble and unlearned disciples of Jesus who functioned perfectly as Christians ought to. It was a turning point in Wesley’s life.[73]

Do you worry about your job security and the unemployment rate? Or worry that you didn’t earn enough this year to have any savings? If a Christian starts worrying about these things as a non-Christian does, where is perfection to be seen in his life? But when we are functioning perfectly, our lives being fully in tune with God, we will have peace even if the unemployment situation is dismal, or when the whole world is in turmoil. Here again being perfect is not some pie-in-the-sky ideal, but something thoroughly down to earth. If a believer truly trusts in God, why should he be anxious? Doesn’t our anxiety prove our unbelief?

Many Christians exhibit non-Christian behavior such as fearful­ness, lack of love, and worldly conversation. Their speech is indistin­guish­able from that of non-Christians, being largely about things such as salaries, job prospects and promotions. Non-Christ­ians won’t fail to see that since these Christians love the world as much as they do, and pursue money just as greedily, why should they become Christians? They see Christians who don’t shine and are spirit­ually non-functional. Those who are functional shine; God’s light is seen in their lives. To be non-functional is to be unholy: “Just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1.15-16, NIV). Holiness is seen in functional perfection. [74]

5. The Fallacy of “Positional” Perfection

At this point it is necessary to sound a warning about a serious error that has gained popularity in certain Christian circles. It is the notion that perfection is primarily a “positional” rather than an experiential matter. It denies the necessity for functional perfection, reducing it to something optional.

According to this view, so long as you have the “positional,” the functional does not matter for salvation. This means that no matter how a “positional” Christian lives or behaves, he will still be saved. It is not difficult to see how this kind of teaching will create Christians who behave like non-Christians.

In the light of Scripture this teaching is patently false, and must be refuted vigorously to avoid falling into dangerous error.

According to this teaching, perfection is something we have because of what is called our “position in Christ”. For convenience, we will call it positionalism. This doctrine is dan­gerous because it misleads by means of a specious and subtle argu­ment. It begins with something true, namely, that when we are saved, we are “in Christ”. But it goes on to declare that because Christ is perfect, and because you are “in” him, therefore you are positionally perfect. This sounds reasonable, but is it true? Not everything that sounds reasonable is true. (See the Note at the end of this chapter.)

It also sounds reasonable to suggest that, just as Christ is our right­eousness and our sanctification, he is therefore our per­fection. But all this has to do with a living relationship with him, not some kind of “position in” him. We derive our perfection from him because of our relationship to him, not because of some sort of “position” located inside of him.

Positionalism confronts us with two radically different pictures of the Christian life. One is the New Testament picture of a dynamic, functional Christian faith based on our relationship with Christ. The other, positionalism, is static and non-functional: you are perfect without any corresponding conduct or change of lifestyle because you are already perfect by supposedly being located in Christ. Positionalism has no need for functional spirit­uality because of already being positionally perfect in Christ.

(1) The Meaning of “In Christ”

The positional error is based on a mistaken understanding of the term “in Christ”[75]. This term has a significant place in the teaching of the apostle Paul. However, in his teaching, being “in” Christ has nothing to do with a “position” as though “in” Christ has some kind of physical connotation. Christ is a person, not a geograph­ical location.

Moreover, “in Christ” is always meant spiritually, never physic­ally, in the New Testament. How can we be in him spiritually? In much the same way as the branches are in the Vine (Jo.15.1ff.) or, to use picture in 1Corinthians 12, as the foot and the hand (v.15) are “in the body” (vv.18,25), that is, they stand within the vital rela­tionship that constitutes the Vine or the Body (the church).

Let it be affirmed again that Christ is a living Person, not a place. In the New Testament, to be “in Christ” means to stand in a living relationship to him. When it says that we “stand” in his grace (Ro.5.2; 1Pt.5.12; 2Tim.2.1), it is not thereby implied that grace is a place on which we plant our feet. To stand in his grace is to stand in a relationship to him whereby we are recipients of his grace. Grace is not a place or a locus, and neither is Christ.

Nor can being “in Christ” be reduced to a legal position, as though life in Christ has to do with law rather than grace. Moreover, the same legalist logic would require that the converse phrase, “Christ in us” (e.g. Col.1.27), also be reduced to refer to a legal position. That would mean that Christ (or the Spirit of Christ, Ro.8.9) does not actually dwell in us; no mutual indwelling relationship exists. Thus the legalist separates us from our Lord at the level where it matters most, namely, on the level of our living relationship with him. It is hard to conceive of anything worse than that.

Jesus prays to the Father, “As You are in me, and I am in You, may they (the disciples) also be in us” (John 17.21). Here Jesus uses the “in” terminology three times. What does he mean by that other than that one person is “in” another person through unity and mutual love? This is confirmed in verse 23: “I in them, and You in me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that You sent me, and have loved them as You have loved me”.

Here we see what Jesus means by being “in” another person: it describes being in a living relationship (Jo.15.1ff) of perfect oneness or unity with the other person—a union so close that the Lord speaks of it as being “perfected in (or, into) one” (teteleiōmenoi eis hen, τετελειωμένοι εἰς ἕν). The difficulty of bring­ing out the meaning of these words is seen by the variety of trans­lations given in the major versions: “made perfect in one” (KJV, NKJ); “brought to complete unity” (NIV); “perfected in unity” (NASB); “become perfectly one” (RSV, ESV).

Paul evidently derives his “in Christ” theology from Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.5).

“Abiding” describes how the branch is related to the vine. The branch is not located within the stem of the vine, but is connected to it as an extension of it; neither is the stem itself located within the branch. “In” therefore means that they stand in a vital relationship with each other.

When Paul speaks of being “in Adam” (1Cor.15.22), he is hardly suggesting that we are located inside the person of Adam. Adam is not a place. To be in Adam or in Christ is to stand in a definite relationship to Adam or to Christ.

Many times the New Testament speaks of being “in the Spirit” or “in the flesh” (e.g. Romans 8.9). “In the Spirit” does not mean that we are located in the Spirit in some quasi-physical sense, as though the Spirit were a place, but that we stand in a relation­ship to the Spirit in which God is Lord in our lives. Similarly, “in the flesh” describes a state of being within the control of the flesh.

(2) Clothed in Christ

The doctrine of positional perfection is dangerously misleading. It implies that because Christ is perfect, and because we are in him, we are absolved from being functional or being functionally perfect. Although it doesn’t deny that experiential or functional perfection is available to anyone wishes to pursue it, it nonetheless implies it is non-essential. This directly contradicts Jesus’ teaching about being perfect. The Lord’s state­ment is now changed to: Because I am perfect, you don’t actually have to be perfect. Do you see the glaring error of this doctrine? It perverts the very heart of the Lord’s teaching.

One argument which positionalism uses would be funny if it were not so tragically erroneous. It is based on Galatians 3.27: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ”. Here Paul is using the language of garments: we are in Christ, therefore we can be said to have put on Christ, and meta­phorically wear Christ as a garment. The metaphor is taken literally and interpreted as follows: Because we have put on Christ as we do a garment, therefore when God looks at us, He sees Christ, not us. The garment conceals us, as it were, serving as a disguise. Since God sees Christ, not us, He sees Christ’s perfect­ion, not our imperfect­ions.

This is really comical. When you wore your shirt and trousers today, did you put them over your face? I hope not, or you wouldn’t have been able to see where you are going! I suppose we know how to clothe ourselves. (I feel embarrassed talking about such nonsense.) Surely no one wears his clothes over his face! I know of no garment in the Bible that is worn over the face. We are speaking of garments, not veils (which are used in some countries, and only by women). If clothes are not worn over the face, what would prevent anyone (much less God) from recog­nizing you when you wear clothes, even if they are new clothes? And even if we did also wear a veil (or two!), surely we are not foolish enough to believe that that would prevent God from knowing who we are? Then why would God be unable to recognize us (and our imperfect­ions) when we “put on” Christ?

When God clothed Adam and Eve with garments of skin (Gen.3.21), presumably He did not wrap the skins over their faces, and then supposed that they were two sheep rather than two people! Did God provide us with the garments of salvation in Christ so that He would no longer know who we really are? This is surely ludicrous.

Such an idea, moreover, reveals a seriously warped and utterly fallacious concept of God, implying, as it does, that God is willing to deceive Himself! On the contrary, the fact is that God knows us perfectly, and for that reason His Spirit in us works tirelessly to bring us to Christ-like perfection; He so works in us that we “may grow up in all things into him (Christ)” (Eph.4.15, NKJ). But if He sees us as being already like Christ because we are “in Christ,” then obviously that would not be necessary.

Positionalism has blundered in failing to understand the metaphor of the garment, and also by taking the metaphor literally. Galatians 3.27 reflects the language of Isaiah 61.10:

I will rejoice greatly in the Lord. My soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness. (Isa.61.10)

God has provided salvation in Christ for us, which we gratefully received and appropriated through baptism. There is nothing “positional” in all this.

The apostle Paul, in other passages, also uses the imagery of Christ being our garment because, as their context shows, the imagery is used to emphasize the decisive “laying aside” of the old life like an old threadbare garment, and the “putting on,” or entering into, the new life in Christ. The use of the garment metaphor is particularly suited to bringing out the change from the old to the new life. For example,

Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light… Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh in regard to its lusts. (Ro.13.12,14).

In reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit… and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holi­ness of the truth. Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth. (Eph.4.22, 24,25; also Col.3.8,9,10,12).

The garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness are not meant to hide us, but to beautify us, in order that we may reflect the beauty and glory of Christ. We retain our identity, and people still recog­nize us. God Himself recognizes us as His “beloved children” (Eph.5.1).

(3) Positionalism Exempts Us from Right Conduct

If all that “positionalism” wanted to maintain is that we have some kind of position in Christ, it would not be highly objectionable. It is when it stresses that position is all that matters, while actual, experiential, functional spirituality does not really matter, that we see its true nature.

Let us look at some of the practical implications of positional theology. It implies, for example, that because Jesus is forgiving, you don’t have to be forgiving because you are in Christ. God sees Jesus’ forgiving spirit, not your unforgiving spirit, and therefore He accepts you even if you refuse to forgive. In this way Christ’s perfection is turned into a carpet under which every manner of evil can be swept, providing a license to sin.

Furthermore, it brazenly rejects the Lord’s warning that if we don’t forgive men their sins, neither will our heavenly Father forgive us (Mt.6.15).

It is evident that positional perfection does not fit into any part of the Lord’s teaching, but is a gross distortion of God’s word.

Positional perfection, instead of drawing us close to God, makes communion with Him unneces­sary. Because Jesus is praying for us day and night, we ourselves don’t need to pray. Ironically, we end up not just with vicarious death, but also with vicarious living. He dies for us, and he lives for us, so we can live as we please, remaining unrepentant and even unregenerate.

In the New Testament, position and function are not two separate, unrelated matters. What we are and what we do cannot be separated in Christ. I behave like a child of God because I am a child of God. If I am truly a child of God, I would behave as a child of God. By God’s grace, we do have a position in Christ, but it is inseparable from spiritual functioning. In fact, our position in Christ—our relationship to Christ—obliges us to function spirit­ually, for to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12.48).[76]

(4) Two Kinds of Christianity

From all this we see that there are two fundamentally different types of Christianity: One is New Testament Christianity for which “in Christ” is a relational, functional and dynamic new life. The other sees “in Christ” as a static, fixed, positional concept. Which one is yours?

Because there are basically two kinds of Christianity, there are consequently two kinds of Christian. What kind of Christian we are hinges on the kind of relationship (if any) we have with Christ. The two types of Christianity are inevitably reflected in the way Christians live their Christian lives, in the way they relate to each other in their Christian communities, and in the way they relate to the world as a whole.

Having said that, we need to remember that Christians do not necessarily live according to their stated doctrinal positions, nor do they always strictly abide by doctrines they were taught. A person brought up in a positionalist church may nevertheless, by God’s grace, have a living relationship with Christ. There are undoubtedly positionalists who have not taken that teaching to its logical conclusions. They still see the importance of living in a functional relationship to Christ.

On the other hand, a person who has been taught the necessity of a relationship with Christ may not actually have entered into such a relationship. Every church has its share of dynamic and static Christians.

Even so, the dynamic and the static represent two very different kinds of Christ­ianity. The static kind is attracted by the idea of salvation in terms of a “position” in Christ. The other knows that salvation is not possible apart from a living relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit given to us by God. Through this relationship we receive God’s life, eternal life. The new life in Christ flows with God’s love, grace and righteousness.

(5) Sonship is Not Static

The static nature of positionalism is seen also in what it presumes about sonship as expressed, for example, in the phrase: Once a son, always a son. The presumption is that even if they do not live like children of God they will still inherit eternal life at the end irrespective of their conduct. In other words, position is all that matters, while a life commensurate with, or corresponding to, that position does not matter for salvation.

Many Christians embrace this teaching because they see sonship as something static and positional, not to mention the great attract­ion of having an unconditional “assurance” that salvation is theirs no matter how they live and behave or what sins they commit, with­out need for repentance (if repentance were required, then an important condition is imposed, and unconditional assurance van­ishes).

Even worse, some static Christians try to justify their position by accusing those who live and teach a vigorous and dynamic life in Christ of practicing “salvation by works”. Apparently, due to ignor­ance of Biblical teaching, they do not know the difference between the works of the law and the works of faith (Gal.5.6; Rev.2.19; the works which result from faith are described in detail in Hebrews chapter 11). The works of faith are the deeds born of a living and dynamic faith, and have nothing whatever to do with the works of keeping the law.

The Bible portrays sonship in functional terms, not as something static. Let me explain.

There are some thirty parables in the Lord’s teaching. If we look through the list of parables, we will see that the parables fall into different thematic categories. For example, seven of the parables fall into the category of being “servants”. In these, people are portrayed as servants, slaves, stewards and laborers. Examples include the parable of the talents and the parable of the unfor­giving servant. The topic of serving is not, of course, limited to these seven parables, but we can say that only these seven deal explicitly and specifically with the theme of being servants of God.

Only two of the thirty parables portray sons, and both depict two kinds of son, the difference between them being their totally different responses to their father. These are the Parable of the Two Sons and the Parable of the Lost Son (Mt.21.28-32; Lk.15.11-32). We cannot fail to notice that these two parables describe sonship in functional terms, for in both cases both sons have the “position” of being sons. They do not differ in their being sons but in what kind of sons they prove to be.

This is the important point in both parables about sons. In the first parable (Mt.21.28-32), there is a father and two sons. The father told one son to work in the vineyard. The son said, “I will go” but did not. The father gave the same command to the other son. The son said, “I will not go,” but he later regretted it, and went. Then Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” This is very much like the question which Jesus asked:

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Behold my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mt.12.48-50)

On the Day of Judgment, what kind of people will God recognize as His children, His sons and daughters? Those who do the Father’s will. Doing God’s will is what being functional means. Anyone who thinks he is saved by a positional teaching has not understood the Bible and will be in for a big shock on that Day, for “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt.7.21).

In the other parable, that of the lost son (Lk.15.11-32), there are again two sons, both of whom are non-functional. In fact this parable could also be called the parable of two lost sons. One son was lost by staying home; the other was lost by leaving home. The one who stayed home fulfilled his father’s requirements externally and legal­istically, but not from his heart.

The son who left home was also non-funct­ional. Like so many Christians, he wanted to go out and do his own thing. Finally, real­izing that he was lost, he repented and returned to his father, saying, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants” (v.19, NKJV). We cannot be a son until we are willing to be a servant. This is a principle that we also find elsewhere in Scripture.

The son had learned his lesson by now. He used to think in posit­ional terms, namely, that he, as a son, was entitled to his inherit­ance. But because he banked everything on his position as son, he lost all that he had. Finally “he came to his senses” (v.17) and, realizing his error, returned to his father, begging him to accept him as an ordinary servant. It was from that point on that he became functional, having become willing to serve, and thus truly became a son.

Finally, How Practical is Perfection?

Speaking of being functional, let us ask, “How practical or down-to-earth is perfection?” The Biblical answer is: Practical enough to govern our everyday conduct, and even our speech. James says, “If anyone makes no mistakes in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also” (James 3.2, RSV). A man is “perfect” if he can control his tongue. The whole passage is about the tongue. Verse 6 says, “And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.”

Can we still insist that perfection is a luxury? Seeing that we interact with people daily, a controlled tongue is surely no luxury.

When James says that no one can tame the tongue (v.8), Paul’s picture of a man controlled by the flesh comes to mind, be­cause the flesh has a pivotal center in the tongue, an unruly piece of flesh. To control the flesh, which is “the whole body” (3.2), we must tame the tongue (1.26).

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov.18.21). The tongue has the power of life and death! Great power has been granted to us in that tiny member inside our mouths, which can do much good or much evil. A wise man once said that the tongue has the tendency to slip because it lives in a wet place! How easily it causes other people to slip and stumble too.

Rabbi Gamaliel, a great Jewish teacher, had a servant named Todi. One day he said to his servant, “Since we will be having a celebration, go to the market and buy the best thing you can find there.” The servant went to the market and came back with an ox’s tongue. Gamaliel asked, “Why did you buy this?” Todi answered, “A tongue is the best thing.”

The rabbi then said to Todi, “Go again to the market tomorrow, and buy the worst thing you can find there.” And what does Todi come back with? A tongue! Rabbi said to him, “Yesterday you brought back a tongue, and today you bring back another tongue. Could you explain this to me?” The wise servant said to the wise teacher, “The tongue is the best thing in the world, and also the worst thing in the world.”

The tongue has the power of life and death. The tongue of the wise brings health, but rash words pierce like a sword (Prov.12.18). A gracious tongue is a tree of life, but the perverse tongue breaks the spirit of people (15.4).

The power of the tongue is at our command, and we can use it for good or for evil. The perfect man controls his tongue, and with his controlled tongue, he strengthens, encourages and builds up people. What blessing, what encouragement, what joy we can give to people if we live exactly as God intends us to live. Every day we can bring spiritual blessings to people through this powerful instrument, the tongue, which the Lord has entrusted to us.

May we, by God’s grace, learn to be functionally perfect, and thus become a channel of God’s life to those around us.


An Appended Note

The Error of “Positional” Thinking

Some readers may have noticed that, in the section under the heading “The Fallacy of Positional Perfection,” I did not comment on the “positional” syllogism mentioned there.

Since I see my responsibility in this book as being that of an exegete and expositor of God’s word rather than that of a logician, in this note I shall confine myself to dealing only briefly with the log­ical error of that syllogism. A few remarks are in order here, in case anyone is deceived by the syllogism.

But first, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with syllogisms, here is a clear and concise definition, together with an example, given in Encarta Dictionary under Syllogism: Argument involving three propositions: a formal deductive argument made up of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. An example is...”[77]

The “positional” syllogism takes the form:

‘Christ is perfect, I am in Christ, therefore I am perfect’.

This is no more valid than the following:

‘The Temple is holy, I am in the Temple, therefore I am holy’.

These two syllogisms arrive at false deductions or conclusions because, for the deduction to be valid, there has to be some substant­ial relationship between the major and the minor premises other than “in” in the sense of location.

Penguins are birds (the minor premise in the Encarta Syllogism), and “all birds have feathers” (major premise), so the conclusion has to be that “penguins have feathers”. But no such relationship exists between the major and minor premises in the positional syllogism and the Temple syllogism. Being in the Temple courts, or even in its sanctuary, does not make me a part of the Temple; and it is the Temple itself that is holy, or wholly consecrated to God.

Therefore, being in the Temple of God does not make one holy, not even if one lives in it. The Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes all spent a lot of time in the Temple, not to mention the merchants who sold sacrificial animals, and the money changers. Did their being in the Temple make them holy? The answer is certainly ‘No’.

Likewise, being “in Christ” does not make me a part of the very person of Christ himself. I therefore cannot claim his attributes as though they were my own. To help us see this as clear­ly as possible, let us return to the picture of the penguin.

A penguin is not just like a bird or related to a bird, it is a bird; hence the attributes of a bird apply to it. But if the original syllogism is restated as: ‘all birds have feathers, penguins are in birds, there­fore penguins have feathers’ (on the model of the “in Christ” syllog­ism), we can see at once that the insertion of “in” causes the syllogism to disintegrate and become invalid.

Being in a bird in any sense (physical, legal, etc.) does not make anything a bird. There could be food, parasites, etc. in a bird. Even if a bird had an egg in it, the egg is still not yet a bird, and may never hatch to become a bird. It follows, too, that the attributes which belong to birds in a unique way cannot be applied to creatures which are not birds.

Notice, too, that even in the valid syllogism of the penguin, though as a bird it possesses the attributes of birds, even so, it does not possesses all of them. For example, a penguin is unable to fly, which is one of the most common characteristics of a bird. Therefore, even if we were related to Christ in a sense much closer than can be des­cribed in terms of being “in” him, it would even not necessarily or logically prove that we share all his attributes.

This should help us to see why the positional argument is false. It should also alert us to the fact that there are plausible sounding arg­uments which, upon closer inspection, prove to be utterly spur­ious.

May the Lord grant to us that purity of heart through which we may have clarity of mind and penetrating spiritual discernment.


[73] Wesley records this event in his Journal for Sunday, 25th January, 1736. The following is an extract: “In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our wo­men and children are not afraid to die.’” The Heart of Wesley’s Journal, Keats Publishing, Inc., 1979.

[74] A consideration of the context of these verses in 1 Peter, as well as the Old Testament passages from which the quotation is derived (Lev.19.2; 20.7), con­firms this.

[75] See also the Appended Note at the end of Chapter 18.

[76] New Bible Dictionary, to its credit, does not endorse positionalism. When J.I. Packer writes about perfection in New Bible Dictionary, he never brings up the doctrine of positionalism, and in fact never uses the word “position” at all. Most other Bible dictionaries also do not endorse positionalism.

Bentley Chan adds: J.I. Packer, in his article “Perfection,” says that perfection in saints is marked by “loyal, sincere, wholehearted obedience to the known will of their gracious God.” Perfection “is faith at work, maintaining a right relationship with God by reverent worship and service.” Significantly, Packer says, “The realm of perfection is ‘in Christ’ (Col.1:28), and perfection of fellowship with Christ, and likeness to Christ.” New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, J.D. Douglas, organizing editor (Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1982).

[77]Encarta® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


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