Sunday, September 07, 2014

Can a Christian live perfectly?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Matthew 5:48

During the past couple of hundred years, there has been lots of disagreement over this doctrine of perfection. I want you to know that I assumed when I first became a Christian, that because I now knew righteousness, and that in God, that I would be able to thereafter choose righteousness. Never was I more wrong, and I quickly found out, that even with all my best intentions, my efforts at being perfect were so far off so as to be termed absurd. There is no way that I can, even for a moment be righteous in my own power, and I do remember experiencing great frustration at my inability to “make” this new Christian thing work.

I was so enthusiastic about the God who was in me, who I now knew, and was known of Him, that I was sure by trying harder I would be able to show others His righteousness. Of course, it was all rather a muddle, as I had much doctrine to absorb, but the one thing I did quickly learn: my efforts were doomed to failure. Having declared the side that I am on, I do want to make clear that there is a sense in which we are all called to live holy and blamelessly, a sense, though, that was completely in opposition to my efforts. It is this doctrine that I believe John Wesley tried so poorly to get at, and yet, was so richly ensampled in his lifestyle. I have read quotes at one time and another attributed to both George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon, that remark on John Wesley’s place in heaven being so much closer to Christ than you and I that we might see him just as a distant speck. He truly lived a remarkable Christian life, and one that ought to be a model for us who desire a close walk with Christ.

John Wesley is rightly conceived of as the one who introduced the doctrine of personal perfection. Yet, he did not go as far as some accuse him, and held to the idea that the Christian was to be pressing toward perfection all of his life, by living and walking in the very power of God. “He did not contend for "sinless perfection"; rather, he contended that a Christian could be made "perfect in love". . . . This love would mean, first of all, that a believer's motives, rather than being self-centred, would be guided by the deep desire to please God. One would be able to keep from committing what Wesley called, "sin rightly so-called." By this he meant a conscious or intentional breach of God's will or laws. A person could still be able to sin, but intentional or wilful sin could be avoided.”1

I do not wish to be dragged into an explanation of Wesley’s belief; rather I do want to talk about this idea of perfection. That it seems to be an oft repeated command in scripture is fairly obvious, and I shall repeat a few of the passages here. The most famous is the one quoted at the top of the page, but it does not stand alone. Peter admonishes us, “Be ye holy in all that you do” (1 Peter 1:16 NIV). And again, Peter says, “Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him” (2 Peter 3:14 NIV). Paul tells us that we should “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky” (Phil. 2:14, 15 NIV). There are countless more passages, and the idea of holiness and living a blameless life is presented again and again.

John the apostle actually presents us with what I call the other side of the coin. He does say, “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6). Thus he urges us to walk circumspectly, “ But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1:7). But then John states, “ If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). So we are to walk in righteousness, to be blameless and holy but we are never to suggest that we do not sin. Fortunately, John also gives us the prescription for forgiveness. He says, “ If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). Confession is thus revealed to be the path to holy living. But not all of the path.

And this is where error might creep in. Wesley, when asked if he was that perfect man of whom he presented in his sermons, vehemently denied that he ever considered himself perfect. When asked if he could provide an example of a perfect man, Wesley, by his own account, could not provide even one name. Whatever he believed then, seems more as an ideal than an actual fact. But those in history who came after him went much further than Wesley in developing an errant doctrine of holiness. “Another folly may be identified in the rationalistic notion that the Adamic nature may be eradicated through some so-called second work of grace.”2 There is no evidence of a second work of grace—the first work of grace is, and should be, forever sufficient for every saint of God.

Perhaps it is best to remember the writing of Paul in Romans. In the seventh chapter, he exclaims, oh wretched man that I am who will deliver me from this body of death. For, he tells us, that which he would do, he cannot, and that which he would not do, the very same thing he finds himself doing. In another passage, he famously tells us that he is the chief of sinners. Romans seven is written to tell us of the absolute uselessness of living lives in our power. We cannot be as we ought.

But thank God for the next chapter, Romans eight! In Romans eight, through the power of the spirit we are told of victory upon victory in living and becoming Christlike. So then, living toward perfection is a Biblical doctrine, but we must never forget that we are sinful, capable of errant wandering even when we think that we are right. Confession and humility must mark our walk with God, and being filled with his Spirit ought to be our daily compulsion. It is altogether good and right that we should expect to see older and practiced saints doing a better job of being Christlike, for they have had a whole lifetime of practice. But the holy walk that we are called to begins the day that we have been called to follow Christ; the Christian is assumed to be walking and becoming more Christlike all of his life.

1. John Wesley. (n.d.). Retrieved September 7, 2014, from
2. Chafer, L. (1993). The Transmitted Sin Nature. In Systematic theology, vols 1 & 2 (Vol. 2, p. P. 284). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

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