In my late teens I tried to convince other people of the possibility, and need, to live a perfect, sinless life. Since Jesus calls us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48), the case seemed obvious to me. Scripture describes holiness as a prerequisite to see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). The church’s unwillingness to strive for sinless perfection therefore seemed to delay and thwart the materialization of Jesus’ return.
Asked whether I myself was perfect, I countered that my personal weaknesses and imperfections were no argument against the possibility and need to achieve sinless perfection. Little did I know, however, the futility of that discussion. I further failed to grasp the gravity of sin and the profundity of perfection. Like me, many people have experienced, and still do experience, struggles over the proper relationship between law and gospel.
Such struggles have marked the history of our church from the 1840s to the present day. Navigating past the extremes of perfectionism and lawless grace is not an easy task, yet reflections about living with Jesus in the endtime will certainly prove fruitful.
Without pondering more deeply about the depth of both sin and perfection, we often tend to view sin merely as wrong actions and perfection as right actions. Overcoming sin and reaching sinless perfection therefore seems to be a simple goal. Except that such thinking fails to grasp the depth and true nature of both sin and perfection.
When I was younger, the word “perfect” in Matthew 5:48 immediately seemed to indicate “sinlessness.” It took me years to comprehend the context of Jesus’ statement. His call to be “perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect,” comes at the conclusion of His discourse about love for one’s enemies, something that the Father continually exemplifies (verses 43-48). Luke renders that injunction at the end of the discourse on love for one’s enemies as follows, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36). Jesus therefore defines perfection as unselfish, other-centered love.
We lack any proper sense of the scope of divine love.
Sadly, we focus too often on the prohibitory side of the Ten Commandments. We lack any proper sense of the scope of divine love, of its implications for the care and well-being of our fellow humanity (parents, spouse, children, employees, strangers, etc.), of animals, and, indeed, of all the flora and fauna around us that God, in love, gave us from the beginning for our own good. Keeping God’s commandments properly involves us expansively and profoundly with life, time, honor, family relationships, property, reputation, and mental sanity (see Ex. 20:2-17; Deut. 5:6-21). God delivers us so we can be instruments of His redeeming grace to others.
The apostle John defines sin as the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4), and I used to understand that statement as a definition of sin as a mere action. Once again, it took me years to grasp the context of that statement—the entire letter discusses unselfish love versus hate for others. True love is not self-centered. God is love (1 John 4:8), and as God’s children, we should love too.
This insight has led me to a shocking realization. My keeping of God’s law and striving to overcome sin is sinful if I am concerned primarily with my right and wrongdoing. A self-centered keeping of the commandments, driven by selfish motives and a failure to care about the well-being of other people, is a sinful enterprise that misrepresents the character of God.
A behavior-oriented Christianity suggests that the fight against sin is the primary battle of a Christian. Ellen White noted, nevertheless, that “the greatest battle” we have to fight is to surrender our will to God.1 In fact, we cannot even give our will and heart to Him. We can only ask God to take our heart and to work in us.2 When we accept Christ and consent for the Holy Spirit to work in us, He produces new life in our hearts (Rom. 6:4, 11-14; 8:9-11; Gal. 2:20, 21; Eph. 2:5, 6; Col. 1:27; 3:1-10).
This continuing “new life in the soul” shows that the Christian experience supersedes a mere intellectual faith in Jesus and a simple cognitive consent to the beliefs of the church. A claim to divine grace, without yearning for the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in one’s mind and life, ignores Christ’s call for repentance (metanoia = change of mind) in Matthew 4:17. The ethics of the new life of Jesus’ followers, described in Matthew 5-7, have their root in a change of mind, something that only the Holy Spirit can produce.
Another vital part of our Christian experience is assurance of salvation. Yet at this very beginning and fundamental point, our spiritual grasp is sometimes pathetically feeble. We fail to understand the very ground of our assurance. Striving for perfection and overcoming of sin can never be a safe foundation for our assurance of salvation because “the closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes.”3 We will realize more our own helplessness and need of Him.
True assurance therefore cannot come from placing our trust in the growth of our character. Justification by the merits of Christ is the only essential and objective ground for our assurance, something that we accept through faith (Eph. 2:4-10; Rom. 3:23, 24; 4:16; 5:1; 6:23; 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; Gal. 2:16, 21; John 1:29; 1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:10; Titus 2:11). When we repent of our sins and confess them to Jesus, we can take Him at His word and cling to Him, trusting that He has forgiven us and is changing us (1 John 1:9).
At the 1883 General Conference session Ellen White passionately attacked Adventist legalism and those who were “talking fears and doubts” as to whether or not they were saved. She noted, “Brethren, you have expressed many doubts; but have you followed your Guide? You must dispense with Him before you can lose your way; for the Lord has hedged you in on every side.”4 Referring to Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus that recalled the incident of the brazen serpent lifted up in the wilderness, she stressed that “all who looked upon that serpent, the means that God had provided, were healed; so in our sinfulness, in our great need, we must ‘look and live.’” And she offered a compelling summary: “Look away from self to the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.”5
Observing the proliferation of sin around us and realizing our own insufficiency will drive us closer to Jesus. The lives of those who cling to Jesus and trust in His power to work in them will be characterized by a growing perfection in other-centered love. Trying to determine how far we have progressed in perfection is an effort doomed to futility.
First, we will never have an objective perspective of ourselves before Christ returns. Trying to focus on ourselves will only produce spiritual and emotional despair. Second, only God can produce true perfection in us by shedding His divine love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). By focusing on Jesus, we turn our eyes away from self and allow Him to work in and through us.
The Bible links the end of God’s salvation program to at least two events: the gospel proclamation in the whole world (Matt. 24:14), and the need for a judgment over the wicked (Acts 17:31). Ellen White saw the worldwide gospel proclamation and the proliferation of evil as two parallel developments. She said Christ will come “when the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people.”6 The statement concludes a chapter7 that portrays Christ as helping those in need and sharing the gospel with everyone, activities she viewed as manifestations of Christ’s character of unselfish love. Thus, understanding that oft-quoted statement as a reference to mere sinless perfection hardly does justice to the true breadth of its implications.
The story of redemption has only one hero—Jesus. Being perfect in Him means that the Spirit produces His fruit in us, revealing through us heaven’s love and care for the well-being and salvation of other people. This active expectancy seen in perfect love is the most attractive tool of evangelism. This love draws people to Jesus and accelerates the gospel proclamation. As Jesus finds us in such active expectancy, we are ready for His coming.
Denis Kaiser teaches church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Andrews University.