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23. Being Perfect Means Functioning Spiritually

– Chapter 23 –

Being Perfect Means Functioning Spiritually

Perfection is viewed by the church as irrelevant today. This error is deplorable because learning to be perfect, far from being a luxury, is essential for spiritual survival.

Functional perfection

In Scripture, perfection is not an airy-fairy ideal but something that is eminently practical, for it 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 by this.

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 that he is living the life that God has designed for us as dis­ciples of Christ. It is to be effective and productive in accomplishing what He has entrusted to us in this world. “Functional” means that the Christian life, like a good engine, is “in good working order,” able to function in the way it was designed to.

Some time back, 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. The old engine had been written off and replaced with this engine which, though second-hand at four hundred dollars, 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 new kidneys (filters). Isn’t this a parable of the Christian life?

When we are born anew, we become new people 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 of worn-out cylinders.

But the next day 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 will seriously impair 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. So 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. 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 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 work, 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 well again.

Imperfections hinder functionality

Perfection, then, has to do with the capacity to function properly, that is, as God intends us to function. You may be regenerate and in the 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 cannot lead you in the right direction. Have you ever tried turning a steering wheel on a power-steering system that is out of fluid? 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 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 figure out the problem through counseling. He is always busy because many Christ­ians are not in a good working condition. Sometimes there are pas­tors who don’t function properly themselves.

Functioning perfectly means to function as God meant us to. 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, made my clothes smell of engine oil, and was beyond repair. So it was replaced.

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 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 not a 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 ought to 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. He may be prone to losing his temper. If a car’s temperature gauge is pointing to the red zone, it may be that the radiator is overheating, or the thermo­stat is dead, or the radiator core is blocked. We have to act fast because an over­heated engine will destroy the trans­miss­ion.

In fact we should check for potential problems even before they happen, through regular servicing and maintenance. Brake failure, for example, could result in a fatal accident. For this reason we ought to 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)

Functionality and Christian witness

Perfection as 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 Christ. 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 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 bad tempers, 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!

Perfection versus anxiety

When “perfect” is used in the Bible, it is al­ways 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 the unre­generate? Perfection must be evident in conduct that far surpasses the conduct of the non-Christian.

In times of danger or pressure, you remain composed while the unbeliever panics. When a Mediterranean storm was bat­ter­ing the ship he was travel­ing on, Paul remained calm and did not panic like the others. He even 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. In the old colonial days, he once went on a voyage from England to the new world. Along the way, an 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 was a minister and a preacher, was gripped by great fear — the fear of death — for he hadn’t yet had 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.[1]

Do you worry about your job security? Or 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 function perfectly and are in tune with God, we will have peace even if the unemploy­ment situation is dismal, or the whole world is in turmoil. Being perfect is not a pie-in-the-sky ideal, but something down to earth. If a believer trusts in God, why should he be anxious? Doesn’t our anxiety prove our unbelief?

Many Christians exhibit non-Christian behavior such as fear, lack of love, and worldly conversation. Their speech is indistin­guish­able from that of non-Christians, being largely about things such as job prospects and promotions. Non-Christ­ians will see that Christians love the world as much as they do, and pursue money just as greedily, so they ask why they should become Christians. These Christians are spirit­ually non-functional, which 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’” (1Pet.1:15-16, cf. Lev.19:2; 20:7, from which the quotation is derived).

The fallacy of “positional” perfection

At this point it is urgent 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 of functional perfection, reducing it to some­thing optional.

In this view, so long as you have the positional, the functional does not matter for salvation. No matter how a positional Christian lives or behaves, he will still be saved. It is not hard to see that this 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.

In this teaching, perfection is something that 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 say that because Christ is perfect, and because you are “in” him, 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 sounds reasonable to say that, just as Christ is our right­eousness and our sanctification, he is 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 with him, not because of some “position” located within him.

Positionalism forces us to decide between 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 change of conduct because you are already perfect by being located in Christ. Positionalism has no need for functional spirit­uality because of us 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” (which is explained in the Appended Note of chapter 19). This term has a significant place in the teaching of the apostle Paul. In his teaching, however, being “in” Christ has nothing to do with a “posit­ion” as if “in” Christ has some kind of “physical” connotation or the like. Christ is a person, not a geograph­ical location.

Moreover, “in Christ” is always taken spiritually, never physic­ally, in the New Testament. How are we “in him” spiritually? In much the same way as the branches are in the Vine (John 15:1f) or, to use the picture in 1Corinthians 12, as the foot and the hand (v.15) are “in the body” (vv.18,25) in the sense of standing in the vital relationship that constitutes the Vine or the Body (the church).

Let it be affirmed that Christ is a living Person, not a place. In the New Testament, to be in Christ means to stand in a living relationship with him. When the Bible says that we “stand” in his grace (Rom.5:2; 1Pet.5:12; 2Tim.2:1), it does not mean 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 if life in Christ has to do with law rather than grace. This same legalist logic would require that the converse, “Christ in us” (e.g., Col.1:27), also be reduced to a legal position. It would mean that Christ does not actually dwell in us, and no mutual indwell­ing relationship exists. Hence the leg­alist separates us from our Lord at the level where it matters most, that of our living relationship with him.

Jesus prays to the Father, “As You are in me, and I am in You, may they (the disciples) also be in us” (Jn.17:21). Here Jesus uses the “in” terminology three times. What would he mean by that prayer request 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 is being in a living relationship (Jn.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 in the variety of trans­lations 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 of 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 relates 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 reverse true: the stem is not located inside 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.

The New Testament speaks of being “in the Spirit” and being “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 if 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 that is controlled by 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 functionally perfect. Although the doctrine does not deny that experiential or functional perfection is available to the one who pursues it, it nonetheless implies it is optional. This direct­ly contradicts Jesus’ teaching on being perfect, which 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.

An argument which positionalism often employs would be humor­ous 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”. Paul is here using the language of garments: We are in Christ, hence we put on Christ and meta­phorically wear Christ as a garment. The metaphor is then interpreted as follows: Because we have put on Christ as a garment, 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 comical. When you wore your shirt today, did you put it over your face? I hope not, or you wouldn’t be able to see where you are going. I think we know how to clothe ourselves (I feel embarrassed talking 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 by women in some countries). If clothes are not worn over the face, what can prevent anyone (much less God) from recog­nizing you when you wear clothes, even if they are new clothes? Even if we wear a veil, surely we are not so foolish as to think that it would prevent God from knowing who we are. 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. Does God provide us with garments of salvation in Christ so that He no longer knows who we really are?

Such an idea exposes a warped and fallacious concept of God, in implying that God deceives Himself. On the contrary, God knows us perfectly, and for that reason His Spirit in us works tirelessly to bring us to Christ-like perfection. He works in us so that we “may grow up in all things into him (Christ)” (Eph.4:15, NKJV). But if God sees us as being already like Christ because we are in Christ, then obviously that kind of work would be unnecessary.

Positionalism has erred in understanding the metaphor of the gar­ment, by taking it 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. (Isaiah 61:10)

God has provided us salvation in Christ, which we received at baptism. There is nothing “positional” in all this.

Paul in other passages also uses the imagery of Christ being our garment because, as their context shows, the imagery emphasizes 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. (Romans 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 (Isa.61:10) are not meant to hide us, but to beautify us, so that we may reflect Christ’s beauty and glory. 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 objectionable. It is when it says that “position” is all that matters whereas actual functional spirit­uality is optional, that we see its true face.

Let us consider 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, so He accepts you even if you refuse to forgive. Christ’s perfection then becomes a carpet under which every manner of evil can be swept, providing a license to sin. It rejects Jesus’ warning that if we don’t forgive men their sins, neither will our heavenly Father forgive us (Mt.6:15).

Positional perfection does not fit in any part of the Lord’s teach­ing, but is a gross distortion of God’s word. Instead of drawing us close to God, positional perfection makes com­munion with Him un­neces­sary. Because Jesus prays for us day and night, we don’t need to pray. We end up not just with vicarious death, but also with vicarious living. He dies for us and lives for us, so we can live as we please, remaining unrepentant and unregenerate.

In the New Testament, position and function are not separate. 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. 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).[2]

4. Two kinds of Christianity

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

Because there are two basic types of Christianity, there are two types of Christians. What type of Christian we are hinges on the kind of relationship we have with Christ. The two types of Christianity are reflected in the way Christians live their Christian lives, the way they relate to one another in their Christian commun­ities, and the way they relate to the world as a whole.

Having said that, we recognize 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 conclu­sion. They still see the importance of living in a functional relation­ship to Christ.

Conversely, there are those who have been taught the necessity of a relationship with Christ but have not actually entered into such a relation­ship. Every church has its share of dynamic and static Christ­ians. These represent two very different types of Christ­ianity. The static type is inclined towards the idea of salvation in terms of a position in Christ. The other type knows that salvation is not possible apart from a living relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit given to us.

5. Sonship is not static

The static character of positionalism is seen in how it views sonship, as expressed in the phrase: Once a son, always a son. It presumes that even if one does not live like a child of God, he or she will still inherit eternal life in the end. Position is what matters for salvation.

Many Christians embrace this teaching because they see sonship as something static and positional, and are receptive to the concept of the unconditional “assurance” of salvation, which does not depend on how they live and behave, or the sins they commit.

Some Christians justify their positionalism by accusing those who live and teach a dynamic life in Christ of practic­ing salvation by works. Apparently they don’t know the difference between the works of the law and the works of faith (Gal.5:6; Rev.2:19; the latter are seen in Hebrews 11). The works of faith are the deeds proceeding from a living and dynamic faith, and are not 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 Jesus’ teaching. If we go through the list of parables, we will see that they fall into different thematic categories. For example, seven of the parables fall into the category of being servants, in which people are portrayed as servants, slaves, stewards, and laborers. These include the parable of the talents and the parable of the unfor­giving servant. The theme of servanthood is not 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 speak of sons, and both depict two types of sons, the difference between them being their 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). These two depict sonship in functional terms, for in both parables the two sons already have the position or status of being sons. They do not differ in their being sons but in what kind of sons they prove to be.

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 later regretted what he said, and went. Then Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” This is very much like the question Jesus asked on another occasion:

“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.” (Matthew 12:48-50)

On judgment day, who will God recognize as His children, His sons and daughters? Those who do the Father’s will. Doing His will is what being functional means. Anyone who thinks he is saved by a pos­itional teaching will be in for a 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, after 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). We cannot be God’s son until we are willing to be His servant. This is a principle 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. And because he had banked everything on his position as a son, he lost all that he had. Finally “he came to his senses” (v.17), realizing his error, and 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?

How practical or down-to-earth is perfection? The Biblical answer is: practical enough to govern our everyday conduct, 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). A man is perfect if he can control his tongue, which is the focus of the whole passage. 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.”

Do we still insist that perfection is a luxury? Since 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, for the flesh has a pivotal center in the tongue, an unruly piece of flesh. To control the flesh — “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 Gamaliel said to his servant, “Since we will be having a cele­bration, go to the market and buy the best thing you can find there.” Todi 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, “Return 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. Please explain.” The wise servant said to his wise teacher, “The tongue is the best thing in the world, but 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 give to people if we live 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, be functionally perfect and become a channel of God’s life to those around us.

 

Appended Note: The Error of “Positional” Thinking

In discussing the fallacy of positional perfection, I did not comment on the “positional” syllogism. 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 a brief discussion of the log­ical error of that syllogism.

First, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with syllogisms, here is a clear and concise definition, together with an example, given in Encarta World English 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 …

Adapting Encarta’s example to our discussion, we have:

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 a false deduction or conclusion be­cause for it to be valid, there has to be a substant­ial relationship between the major and the minor premises beyond “in” in the sense of location.

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

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 money chan­gers and the merchants who sold sacrificial animals. 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. I 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” (patterned on the “in Christ” syllog­ism), we 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 a thing a bird. There could be food and parasites 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 one. It follows too that the attributes which belong to birds in a unique way cannot be applied to creatures which are not birds.

Even in the valid syllogism of the penguin, although the penguin as a bird possesses the attributes of birds, it does not possesses all of them. A penguin is unable to fly even though flying is a common characteristic of birds. Hence, even if we were related to Christ in a sense that is much closer than is des­cribed in the term “in Christ,” it would 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 gain clarity of mind and penetrating spiritual discernment.



[1] 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.

[2] 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”. Most other Bible dictionaries also do not endorse positionalism. 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.” Packer also says, “The realm of perfection is ‘in Christ’ (Col.1:28), and perfection of fellow­ship with Christ, and likeness to Christ.” New Bible Dictionary, 2nd Edition, J.D. Douglas, editor (Tyndale House, 1982).

 

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