Monday, March 29, 2010

Evangelical Christian Perfection

Evangelical Christian Perfection

Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Philippians 3:15

The content of this article is mainly mine, but some of the salient points were suggested to me in a sermon upon this text by Thomas Manton. I wrote this in response to a sermon on Christian perfection by a man from the Wesleyan school of thought - a second blessing type preacher.

In this passage Paul is addressing Christians at two stages of maturity: the mature, grown believers, whom he designates perfect, and the weaker, younger believers, who are, “otherwise minded.” Paul’s advice to the perfect is to think like him regarding his assessment of superficial righteousness which starts back at verse 3 of this chapter. To the weaker believers, Paul expresses his confidence that though they may not as yet be able to accept the abrogation of the ceremonial laws, God will eventually show them the correctness of Paul’s teaching.

Based on what Paul says, there is a kind of perfection attainable in this life.

We should immediately notice that Paul must be using the word perfect in a limited sense, since in verse 12 he says of himself, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect…” Yet in verse 15 he includes himself in the group which he labels perfect. To understand Paul’s use of the word perfect in anything but a limited sense would result in an inconsistency or seeming contradiction.

In order to avoid confusion, it is necessary to unpack the word perfect. In the English language, or at least as it is commonly understood, the word perfect implies faultlessness in an absolute sense. The Greek root word behind both uses of the word perfect (verses 12 & 15) in this text, is telos. The word telos always conveys the idea of completeness, accomplishment or maturity. So right away we see a very different notion of perfection than what is commonly implied by the English word perfect. This is how Paul can refer to himself as both not perfect (i.e., not having attained the ultimate heavenly goal) and perfect (mature) at the same time.

Having said this, we must distinguish all the various ways that perfection can be understood.

A. Perfection of Reward and Perfection of Grace
B. Legal Perfection and Evangelical Perfection
C. Absolute Perfection and Comparative Perfection
D. Positional Perfection and Experimental Maturity

A. These two ‘perfections’ may be termed final, or ultimate perfection and the perfection of grace. The former will be attained in the life to come. It is the perfection of reward. This is the perfection expressed in Jude 24: Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (ESV). The second perfection is the perfection of grace which is attainable in this life and is spoken of in Col. 4:12, “That ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.” This perfection is when we lack nothing pertaining to our salvation.

B. In speaking of the perfection of grace we must make a clear distinction between what Manton calls “legal perfection” and “evangelical perfection.” Manton says, “Legal (perfection) is unsinning obedience: evangelical is sincere obedience: the one is where there is no sin: the other no guile.”

Legal perfection is conveyed in Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ “(ESV) Legal perfection is a perpetual, unswerving obedience. The slightest misstep or omission places us squarely under the full brunt of the curse of the law. Since man is already fallen and filled with mixed principles, this kind of perfection is impossible and unattainable in this lifetime. And when one substitutes it for evangelical perfection, legalism is the inevitable result (This is precisely what Paul was contending in Philippians 3.).

Evangelical perfection is, as Manton calls it, “without guile.” There is a world of difference between guilt and guile. Hezekiah was hardly guiltless, yet he prays, “I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight” 2 Kings 20:3 (KJV). That this perfection is consistent with weakness is expressed in 2 Chron. 15:17 “Nevertheless the heart of Asa was perfect all his days” (KJV). Asa did not remove the high places, clearly a flaw in his character, yet he is called perfect. Evangelical perfection is a sincere bent of the heart toward God, a desire to please him in all things. Evangelical perfection is a wholehearted commitment to God without rival. “The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” James 1:8. Manton says, ”A heart against a heart; in point of faith, between God and other confidences; in point of love, between God and the vanities of the world; and God’s interest is not chief, nor do we love him above all things; in point of obedience, between pleasing God and pleasing men, and pleasing God and our own vain fancies and appetites, honouring God and promoting our worldly ends; you set up a rival and partner with God. Now this perfection we must have or we are not in a state of salvation.”

Writing along the same lines, Thomas Watson says, “Though an adopted heir of heaven cannot obey every precept perfectly, yet he does evangelically. He approves of every command. ‘I consent to the law, that it is good’ Rom. 7:16. He delights in every command. ‘O how I love thy law!’ Psalm 119:97. His desire is to obey every command. ‘O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!’ Psalm 119:5. Wherein he comes short, he looks up to Christ’s blood to supply his defects. This is evangelical obedience; which, though it be not to satisfaction, it is to acceptation.”

C. A further distinction is necessary between absolute perfection and comparative perfection. God and God alone is absolutely perfect. As for God, his way is perfect: the word of the Lord is tried: he is a buckler to all those that trust in him. Psalm 18:30 (KJV)

Absolute perfection is not attainable by any saint while living upon this earth. This can be proven by the following considerations:
1. Whenever there are remnants of the carnal nature left, a man cannot possibly be absolutely perfect. This is precisely the state of all believers. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” Galatians 5:17 (ESV). This remains true regardless of one’s interpretation of Romans 7.
2. There are none but sometimes sin. “(F)or there is no one who does not sin” 1 Kings 8:46 (ESV). “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” Eccles. 7:20 (ESV). “For we all stumble in many ways” James 3:2 (ESV). Therefore, no man is so perfect as to be without all sin.
3. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to forgive others since we need forgiveness as well. This fact presupposes a righteousness that is not without defects. The best of God’s children have flaws, weaknesses and frailties which should be guarded against every step of the way to heaven.

Comparative perfection is seen plainly in the fact that Paul addresses the two groups in Philippians 3:15. There are some whom Paul calls perfect, and then there are some who are, as yet, otherwise minded.

D. Something should also be said of our positional status with God in contradistinction to our experimental growth in grace. When one is in Christ he is immediately “complete in Him,” regardless of his level of maturity. When Christ said, “It is finished,” He used the same word, telos, which Paul uses to describe a “perfect” Christian. The newest-born babe in Christ is perfect before God positionally, even before he has begun to work out that which God has worked in. This means that it is proper to refer to all believers as perfect when we restrict that word to a positional sense. However, a Christian is to work out his salvation and grow in grace, and this is growth in experimental perfection (which would be better termed maturity). Perhaps this may be more clearly expressed by saying that positional perfection is a perfection of parts, meaning that we have all things pertaining unto a state of salvation. While experimental perfection could be better termed perfection of degrees. The ultimate end of this perfection of degrees will come in heaven when we join the spirits of just men made perfect (Heb. 12:23). In this life we may be considered upright, but only in heaven can we be termed perfect in any absolute sense.

If we combine the positive elements of these points, we discover that Christian perfection is positional, first and foremost. Then based upon the fact that God is at work in us to will and to do His will, we are to work out our salvation, i.e., work out what God has worked in. Positional perfection is what we need for salvation, and experimental growth in grace is its natural outworking. We also discover that Christian perfection is what Manton calls, “evangelical” perfection. It is not a legal, sinless perfection; it is rather a full bent of the heart to obey God without guile. And finally, we discover that Christian perfection is not absolute perfection, which belongs properly to God alone.

Absolute, sinless perfection is not attainable in this life, but it is to be our final reward in heaven. This means that it should be our goal in this life. The fact that no one can attain to a sinless state in this life should not serve as a “cop-out” to excuse a lack of zeal for Christian growth in grace.

We have a perfect God, a perfect rule, a perfect Redeemer and a perfect reward. Although we are perfect positionally, i.e., we lack nothing pertaining to salvation, yet we are to endeavor after the perfection which will eventually be our reward in glory.

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