Perfection, as applied to believers here on earth, is a term at which many have stumbled. The world naturally looks upon any approach to this as hypocrisy, and many true believers regard the word as "dangerous." The word is used by the Spirit of God, nevertheless, to describe that which belongs to Christians, while yet on earth in mortal flesh, and we ought to dismiss prejudice and suspicion from our minds, and seek to learn what God would teach us by the frequent use of this Word.
Perfection is viewed in a variety of aspects in the Holy Scriptures. By confounding these, obscurity and error regarding this truth largely prevails.
Perfection, Not Sinlessness
In no single instance is perfection the correlative of sinlessness, as applied to men. "Sinless perfection," so far as regenerate man in this life is concerned, is a dangerous error and a delusion, as the lives of many of those who are its advocates plainly show. Regenerated, converted, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the believer yet has "the flesh" within him. It is no longer his master (Rom. 6:7) or the law of his being (Rom. 8:2), as in unregenerate days, yet it requires to be restrained and left "provisionless" (Rom. 13:14), and always treated with "no confidence" (Phil. 3:3).
Perfection, in Various Aspects
The English words "perfection" and "perfect," in our Authorised Version, represent several words in Greek, having different meanings. For example:—
1. Teleois is the word rendered "perfect" in Matthew 5:48, as to God; His will (Rom. 12:2); and His love (1 John 4:17). It signifies "accomplished," "complete." It is rendered "full age" in Hebrews 5:14....
2. Pleeroo—rendered "perfect" in Revelation 3:2; "complete" (Col. 2:10); and "full" (1 John 1:4). It means literally "filled full."
3. Katartizo—translated—"Be perfect" (2 Cor. 13:11); "perfectly joined together" (1 Cor. 1:10); "restore" (Gal. 6:1). It means "thoroughly adjusted," as in the "mending of nets" (see Mark 1:19).
The words "perfect" or "perfection" are sometimes used absolutely, as in regard to God (Job 37:16); sometimes relatively, as in regard to men (see Job 1:8, Ps. 37:37).
Perfection, when it is used in connection with GOD, is absolute. He is perfect in Himself (Matt. 5:48), in His will (Rom. 12:2), His way (2 Sam. 22:31), and His work (Deut. 32:4).
The Lord Jesus was absolutely the Perfect One. He was perfect in His Person (Heb. 2:10; 5:9), His path (Heb. 12:2) (for "Finisher," read "Perfecter," see Revised Version), His sacrifice (Heb. 10:11-14), and His priesthood (Heb. 7:28, R.V.). Absolute perfectness belongs to God and Christ alone. It would be blasphemy to speak of the creature in words which are only true of the Creator, or to apply to man attributes which belong to God and Christ alone.
The Perfect Sacrifice of Christ
The blood of the sacrifices offered upon Jewish altars could not atone for sin. They pointed onward to a "better sacrifice." Their frequent repetition, confessed their weakness.
"The law made nothing perfect" (Heb. 7:19); its imperfect sacrifices, offered year by year, could not in perpetuity make the offerer perfect. The tabernacle, the sacrifice, and the priest, were only shadows of coming good things (Heb. 10:1). But "Christ being come" changes all. Whatever He touches He perfects; hence we have in Him a "perfect tabernacle" (Heb. 9:11); a "perfect sacrifice" (Heb. 10:12); and by His "one offering He hath perfected for ever [to perpetuity] them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:14). By His perfect sacrifice, believers receive a perfectly-purged conscience (Heb. 10:2), in His person they have a perfect standing in grace before God (Rom. 5:2). This is the positional side of perfection, secured for all the saints in and by Christ Jesus: the same to the "babe" as to the "father" in Christ, shared alike by the young believer of yesterday and the "full-grown man in Christ", who has known Him for years.
Perfection of Believers
This is a sense in which Scripture speaks of perfection as applicable to believers. This is not innate; it does not belong to them as men; if they possess it at all, it must be derived. It must come to them from Another, either by imputation or impartation. The Scripture teaches that believers are "reckoned righteous" because of the work of Christ, although they are in themselves unjust and unworthy. They are accounted holy, or sanctified, because of their association with Him who is the Holy One. In Him they are reckoned to have died and risen. In like manner are they accounted perfect.
All that He was in life and in death, is reckoned to them. They stand before God, graced with all the beauty of their Redeemer. They are accepted in the Beloved (Eph. 1:6). All that God sees and knows Him to be, is counted theirs. And thus they can say, "As He is, so are we in this world" (1 John 4:17). No holy living or growth in Christian life can add to the perfect standing of the believer; he stands already accepted in all the excellency of the Son of God, "the same yesterday, and today, and for ever" (Heb. 13:8).
The words "clean every whit" (John 13:10), and "perfected for ever" (Heb. 10:14) are true of all believers—always, and in all conditions. They are so by virtue of the perfect sacrifice once offered on their behalf, under the shelter of which they stand for ever before God. They are able to lift up their heads in the presence of God without fear, because they know He looks upon them as one with Christ. "Perfect love" believed has cast out fear (1 John 4:18). "Perfect peace" possesses them, because they trust in Him (Isa. 26:3). Perfect strength is supplied to them in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). All this is their inviolable portion "in Christ Jesus."
By virtue of their union with Christ, believers are "complete in Him" (Col. 2:10). (The same word is rendered "perfect" in Revelation 3:2, and means literally "filled full.") In this positional perfectness all believers alike share, seeing all are "in Christ" (Rom. 8:1).
Perfection in Practice
Perfection in practice has only been seen on earth in Christ. He perfectly revealed the Father. He perfectly obeyed the will of God. He perfectly fulfilled all that the Father had given Him to do. He stands alone. Beside Jesus Christ, there is no equal. His faithful followers, apostles, and martyrs have no place with Him. "In all things" He must have the pre-eminence. "Fairer than the children of men"; "Chiefest among ten thousand" is He. We must zealously guard against putting angels or saints on a level with Him. In absolute perfectness He stands alone. In the coming day of glory, when His saints shall bear His image, they shall be like Him. They shall be presented holy, unblameable, and unreproveable in God's sight (Col. 1:22). Yet the believer is called to perfectness. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). This means that the Christian here on earth is to act toward his enemies as God now acts toward His. He is to manifest toward men the character of his God, acting in grace and with compassion—a lesson constantly needed by believers. Saints are also exhorted to "be perfect" (2 Cor. 13:11) in their relations toward each other. The word here means to be "perfectly joined together" (as in 1 Cor. 1:10), and is the opposite of that jangling and agreeing to differ, so common among those who bear the Christian name. They are not simply to endeavour to get on, one with another, but to be of the "same mind in the Lord." They are also called to be "perfect as full-grown men," and not always "babes" (Heb. 5:14; 1 Cor. 3:1). There is room for growth in the Christian life. By feeding on the Word (1 Pet. 2:2) and walking in the ways of the Lord, the believer goes from strength to strength. He sees much land still to possess, and he presses on, not as though he had "already attained, either were already perfect" (Phil. 3:12).
It is no question here of sinless perfection, but of growth and attainment in Christian stature. Absolute perfection, freedom from sin, is not to be attained here. Some have gone as far as to say that sin has been eradicated from them altogether, and that this is possible to the saints. This is an error and a delusion. It comes up periodically under different names, such as "purity of heart", holiness of faith, "perfect love," differing slightly in mode of expression and measure of perversion of the truth, but agreed in this, that the roots of sin may be extracted from the nature of men, or the flesh rendered inoperative, as if it were dead. This takes away all need for watchfulness, for if the flesh has been removed, or rendered incapable of acting, there is only one nature. But what saith Scripture, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).
Through grace, sin may be "bridled." Abiding in Christ, victory will be gained over it; but at no time and in no condition can it be said that the believer is "without sin," until the day of final deliverance, when he shall be set free from sin's presence, as he now is from its penalty and its power.
From Foundation Truths of the Gospel by John Ritchie. 2nd ed. Kilmarnock: Office of "The Believer's Magazine," .
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