The New Testament teaches that the believer is both perfect, and in the process of being perfected, simultanously (Phil 1:6, 3:12,15; Heb. 10:1, 11:40, 12:23, James 1:4). This is not a contradiction, it is a recognition of God’s method of operation. Isaiah 46:10 tells us God “declares the end from the beginning.” God “calls those things which are not, as though they were” (Rom. 4:17). The believer is declared by God to be perfect, holy, and sanctified, then God goes to work bringing it into actuality.
At this point, allow me to deal with the word “perfect”. The Greek word translated as “perfect” in the NASB (in the KJV it is translated “holy” or “perfect”), is teleios which conveys the concept of “having come to a full end.” This same word is also translated as “mature” or “complete.” In several instances in the NASB, I believe it would have better to translate it as “mature” rather than “perfect” (example: Phil.3:12,15). This would be less confusing to most people. Paul’s whole claim in Philippians 3:15 is that the one who is teleios (mature) does not lay claim to perfection.
It is out of a misunderstanding of this word “perfect” that a concept which has come to be known as, “Christian perfectionism” or “sinless perfection” was born. The term “entire sanctification” is sometimes used by those adhering to this position. It is the belief that a Christian can, and should, attain a level of holiness where there is a “total eradication of the sin nature.” This view is found, to varying degrees, within the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition. Some within this tradition would say “I have been sanctified,” referring not to the initial break with sin as a result of conversion, but to a subsequent experience in which they begin to know freedom from conscious sin in their lives.
Does the Bible teach this concept of “perfectionism”? Is it possible, and is it expected, that the believer live above sin to such a degree that they be “sinless”?
Those advocating this view refer to such scriptures as:
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
“Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (II Cor. 7:1).
“No one who abides in Him sins” (I John 3:6).
In responding to these verses we must examine more closely what the Bible teaches, regarding sin in the life of the believer. Is sin viewed as something that will be “totally eradicated” in the believer or something that must continually be resisted?
Jesus commanded His disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins . . .” (Matt. 6:11-12). In this model prayer Jesus implies that just as one is to pray for “daily bread,” he is also to pray for the forgiveness of his sins on a daily basis. John tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8).
Wayne Grudem, in his book, Systematic Theology states: “John’s statement that ‘No one who abides in him sins’ (I John 3:6) does not teach that some of us attain perfection, because the present tense Greek verbs are better translated as indicating continual or habitual activity: ‘No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen Him or known Him’ (I John 3:6 NIV). This is similar to John’s statement a few verses later, ‘No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God’ (I John 3:9 NIV). If these verses were taken to prove sinless perfection, they would have to prove it for all Christians, because they talk about what is true of everyone born of God, and everyone who has seen Christ and known Him.”
F. F. Bruce, in his commentary on the epistles of John, makes this observation: “The new birth involves a radical change of human nature; for those who have not experienced it, sin is natural, whereas for those who have experienced it, sin is unnatural.” It is quite clear that John is not teaching that a believer never sins, only that it is not natural for him because he has a new nature. But when he does sin, he has an advocate, Jesus Christ (I John 2:1).
Some have taken Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus,” to say that perfection is an attainable goal. Ralph P. Martin, commenting on this passage, has said: “The apostle denies any sense of final perfection as a present experience, he makes it clear that the work of sanctifying grace is progressive, and the summum bonum of Chrisian experience will be only reached at the consummation.”
I believe the Bible teaches us that the more we mature in Christ, the more we are aware of our own imperfection. Isaiah, finding himself in the presence of the Lord, cried out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell midst a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). Job, a man whose righteousness was commended, could only say in the presence of God: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).
John Murray, in Redemption Accomplished and Applied, concludes: “Indeed, the more sanctified the person is, the more conformed he is to the image of his Savior, the more he must recoil against every lack of conformity to the holiness of God. The deeper his apprehension of the majesty of God, the greater the intensity of his love to God, the more persistent his yearning for the attainment of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, the more conscious will he be of the gravity of the sin that remains and the more poignant will be his detestation of it....Was this not the effect in all the people of God as they came into closer proximity to the revelation of God’s holiness.”