A Splendid Challenge

The call to Christian perfection

Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
A Splendid Challenge
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

The clarity of the biblical text regarding overcoming sin is unquestionable: “You are to be blameless [tamim, “perfect”] before the Lord your God” (Deut. 18:13); “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect [teleios]” (Matt. 5:48).1 This divine expectation is not a biblical ideal to be reached in an undefined future, but what we are called to be now. There are at least two implicit assumptions underpinning the call to perfection. First, sin is absolutely incompatible with the holiness and moral integrity of God, and second, sin is not only inexcusable but has no function at all within God’s universe.

The clarity of the biblical passages concurrently conceals the complexity of the topic, in part because the terminology used could be rendered in different ways. The Hebrew adjective tamim could be translated as “complete, entire, blameless, without defect,” etc. The Greek adjective teleios means, for instance, “perfect, complete, and mature.” In both cases the basic idea is completion. This does not diminish the imperative nature of the divine expectation, but alerts us to carefully delve into the nature of biblical perfection. The biblical text characterizes it in different ways and associates perfection with other topics that assist us in outlining its basic contour.

Perfection and Obedience

Most people immediately associate perfection with obedience to the law. Unquestionably, perfection includes a religious ethical component that touches all aspects of life (see Ps. 15:1-5; Job 31; James 3:2-5). A few examples may suffice. In order for the people to be blameless before the Lord, they were not to consult spirits or practice divination, as the Canaanites did (Deut. 18:9-14), and were to put away idols (Joshua 24:14). A perfect person does what is right and speaks the truth (Ps. 15:2). The psalmist joyfully states, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the Law of the Lord” (Ps. 119:1; cf. verse 80). This emphasis on obedience tells us that biblical perfection is not a mystical experience but a dynamic reality in the life of the believer. But perfection is deeper than obedience to the law.

Perfection and Commitment to God

The perfect/blameless/mature person is, above everything else, one who walks with the Lord in intimate fellowship with Him (Gen. 6:9). This is mentioned often in the context of perfection. God said to Abram, “Walk before Me, and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). Being perfect consists in loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 13:3). Perfection is about having a wholehearted fellowship with God, and therefore it is at its very core a full, complete, perfect, and undivided surrender of the life and will to Christ as Savior and Lord. We do not surrender the fullness of life to an impersonal law, but to the Lawgiver. Since this is the case, it could be said that perfection is in a sense a present reality (1 Cor. 2:6; cf. Phil. 3:15). This wholehearted and exclusive devotion to God is visible in obedience to the One who redeemed us and who is now our Lord.

Full and perfect commitment to the Lord is never divorced from obedience (Deut. 13:4; Ps. 101:2). God expected Solomon “to walk before Me . . . in integrity [tom, “perfection, fullness, completeness”] of heart and honesty,” further defined as doing God’s will (1 Kings 9:4; see Ps. 101:2). Baptism in Christ, our union with Christ, is followed by walking in “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). The claim that “I have been crucified with Christ” means that “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). This profound commitment to the Lord transforms us into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 3:14-19). The understanding of perfection as a perfect commitment to God, inseparable from loving Him and others, portrays perfection as a dynamic experience that is real now and that will continue to grow.

Perfection and Atonement

Sin is not simply doing something wrong, but offending God, and therefore it is a threat to the fullness or perfection of our commitment to Him. The inexcusability of sin is well attested in the Bible (e.g., 1 John 1:6), but we also read about the universality of sin (1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 143:2; Rom. 3:9, 10). Perhaps more dramatic is the statement that when we look at the depth of the divine will and to Jesus Christ we realize the limits of our perfection, that is, our imperfection (Ps. 119:96; Isa. 6:5), implying that the creature will never reach divine perfection. John recognizes this reality when he states, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ . . . ; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:1, 2). A defective behavior does not necessarily end our relationship with God, because forgiving grace is ours through Christ (1 John 1:9).

In the Israelite cultus perfection was impossible without atonement. The God who commanded the people to be perfect is the same one who instituted a sacrificial system to grant to His holy and perfect people atonement for their sins (Lev. 4:27-31; 17:11; 15:13-15). The righteous person was not only one who practiced righteousness but also one whose sins were forgiven (Ps. 32:5, 11; 41:4, 12). The connection between perfection and atonement reveals a dimension of biblical perfection that is of transcendental importance. Perfection as the full commitment to God that expresses itself in growing in obedient service to God is always accompanied by His forgiving and restraining grace (Ps. 19:12, 13; Phil. 4:7). Scripture is clear that, despite our sinful nature, we need not succumb to the enemy’s temptations to sinful behaviors, but God always provides, through His restraining grace, a way of escape through Christ (1 Cor. 10:13). Yet biblical perfection cannot be defined as sinless perfection, i.e., a human state of impeccability. There is only one way of salvation, and there is not a moment within salvation history during which our dependence on Christ’s atoning sacrifice will pause. There is only one gospel.

Perfection and Personal Development

The dynamic character of biblical perfection indicates that it is, by nature, a matter of personal spiritual growth (Phil. 3:12). We grow in the fellowship and knowledge of Christ and in the reflection of His image in our life. We are “to attain . . . to a mature [teleios, “perfect, complete”] man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the [or “the stature of the”] fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Hebrews exhorts us to “press on to maturity [perfection]” (Heb. 6:1; cf. 2 Cor. 7:1); a lifelong task. Christian growth consists in learning to conduct ourselves “in a manner worthy of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27; cf. Gal. 5:16) or walking “in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work” (Col. 1:10). The missionary task is to “present every person complete [“perfect”] in Christ” (Col. 1:28).

Spiritual growth is to a large extent subduing selfishness through the Spirit. The opposite of selfishness is a life ruled by the self-giving love of God. We will perfectly reflect Christ once selfishness stops ruling over us. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect [teleios]” (Matt. 5:48; cf. 1 John 4:16, 17). The context is about the love of God that is always oriented toward the well-being of others—He loves the bad and the good; you and me (Matt. 5:45). To perfectly reflect the image of Jesus is to subdue selfishness through the power of His love. This is indeed a splendid calling!

We embrace the marvelous task of spiritual development in the context of a spiritual personal conflict (Gal. 5:16, 17). We are called to lay aside “the old self” and to “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:22, 24). In other words, we should not allow sin to reign again over us (Ps. 19:13; Rom. 6:12). In the midst of conflict and temptations, believers stand so firm in their wholehearted commitment to the Lord that they become unshakable in their faith. The psalmist refers to this experience, saying, “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering [ma‘ad, “staggering, faltering”]” (Ps. 26:1). Believers are firmly “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17), “standing firm . . . for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). Christian perfection includes a settling on the truth that is so firm that we “will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10; cf. Rev. 22:11). This type of fall would be a high-handed sin that believers should never commit (1 John 3:9; 5:16, 17), not because they are unable to or because they achieved sinless perfection, but because they chose, through the power of the Spirit, to be loyal to Christ at any cost. In fact, the connection between perfection and conflict indicates once more that a state of sinless perfection, which allegedly enables believers to live by themselves without sinning or without the atoning work of Christ, is an illusion.

Perfection and Eschatology

The struggle with sin will come to an end. The damage done by sin to the image of God in humans will be eliminated forever, and there will be complete harmony between humans and God, free from the threatening presence of sin. Christ came to undo the works of the evil one, and this will happen in its fullness at His second coming. The fallen human nature, described by Paul as “flesh and blood” (1 Cor. 15:50), will go through a radical change at the return of Christ, when “the dead will be raised imperishable” and “this mortal” puts on “immortality” (verses 52, 53). It is the totality of the person, not only the physical, that will be resurrected to a truly new life. Then the fullness of Christian perfection will be manifested in our life without the burden of sin (cf. 1 John 3:2). Since perfection includes growing in the image of God, then this task will continue throughout eternity, even in the absence of sin. The sacrifice of Christ, a manifestation of God’s most glorious self-sacrificing love, will continue to be the deterrent against another fall into sin. The Lamb will be sitting forever on the throne (Rev. 22:1). His sacrifice will retain its effectiveness for ages and ages to come as we continue to grow in the understanding of God’s love.

Biblical perfection consists of an unshakable, full, complete, and wholehearted commitment to God as Savior and Lord, exhibited in a constant and obedient spiritual growth in His grace, which exclusively relies on Christ’s forgiving grace and meritorious atoning sacrifice. It should be a reality now in our life, but its fullness will be manifested at the coming of Christ, when we will be finally delivered from our sinful nature.2

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible.

2 For more extended discussions of biblical perfection, see H. K. LaRondelle, Perfection and Perfectionism: A Dogmatic-Ethical Study of Biblical Perfection and Phenomenal Perfectionism, Andrews University Monographs, Volume III (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1971); K. L. Yinger, God and Human Wholeness: Perfection in Biblical and Theological Tradition (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade, 2019); George R. Knight, The Pharisee’s Guide to Perfect Holiness: A Study of Sin and Salvation (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1992); and Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, Living Without an Intercessor in the Writings of Ellen G. White, Biblical Research Institute Releases 17 (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 2020).

Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, Th.D., is retired after a career serving as pastor, professor, and theologian.