The desire and the demand to be perfect is in full-effect today. From photo-shopped models who reflect artificial and unattainable “beauty” in advertising, to the superficial but well-manicured lives of neighbors and friends, we are constantly presented with perfection as the ideal. As much as we, in our saner moments, speak against such superficiality we all feel the pressure. We sometimes even produce the pressure ourselves.
This is even true in the church. We want perfection, but often settle for the appearance of it. We sometimes want others to be perfect so we aren’t burdened with their trouble and needs. We often want to appear perfect ourselves because the truth of our imperfection is painful and embarrassing. And then there are those who actually believe they have arrived, or will arrive to a state of perfection on this side of the resurrection.
These are people who believe the grace of God will work enough in them that they can live without sinning. That, as John Wesley believed, we can experience a “deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin” so that we no longer sin. (For more on Wesley’s view of perfectionism, see: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-plain-account-of-christian-perfection).
This of course stands in conflict with the testimony of Scripture. The Apostle Paul loathed the sin that remained in his life (Rom. 7:7-25). The Apostle John warns that anyone claiming to be without sin is a liar (1 Jn. 1:5-10). Even as Christians we remain hindered by sin, pained and afflicted by its presence in our lives. The Scripture does hold out the hope of maturity and godliness for the believer, but even that state is one that includes ongoing repentance for ongoing sin.
So what is our hope for perfection?
The Desire for Perfection
First, let’s consider the desire to be perfect. Christians worship a perfect Triune God and long to be like him. We do not want to be him, that would be akin to the sin in the garden, but we desire to have the image of God restored in us, to become more like Jesus, to grow in godliness. This is a longing to be made perfect, and it grows out of our faith in and love for Jesus. Our corruption only intensifies this desire as the sin inside of us limits our obedience and frustrates our purpose in life. The desire to be perfect is good. And it is a desire that God promises to answer in two ways.
The Gift of Perfection
Our hope for perfection is found only and entirely in Jesus Christ. It can only be found in Jesus because he is the only one who has been perfectly righteous (Heb. 4:15). He perfectly submitted himself to the will of his father (Jn. 6:38), kept all of the law, and his righteousness is our hope of righteousness. In Jesus we see perfection, and in him we receive perfection.
The first kind of perfection we find is the gospel-perfection of justification. In Jesus Christ we are no longer condemned, but are counted as righteous (Rom 5:1; 8:1). Jesus has atoned for all of our sins, satisfied the wrath of God against our sin, and cleaned us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 4:10; 1:9). This is what it means to be forgiven. In addition to this we are made perfect in him now, by faith, through the imputed righteousness of Christ (Phil 3:9). This is not a righteousness seen, but unseen. This is the state of every Christian before the face of God. We are seen by him as perfect in his Son.
Yet there is a second kind of perfection, a future perfection all Christians long for. This is an experiential deliverance from all inward corruption, temptation, and impurity. When Jesus returns for his people, raising those who have died in faith, he will make all perfect in life as he is perfectly righteous (1 Jn. 3:2).
The Grace of Perfection
Both our present perfection and the hope of our future perfection in Jesus should produce in us humility, transparency, and confidence. The grace of perfection makes a Christian humble, for it cannot be found in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ alone. We have nothing to boast in but God’s grace. But to boast in his grace we must also admit our need. This allows us to be transparent, or real, with the people around us.
We do not have to pretend to be perfect. There is no need to wear a mask, for we, like all other believers, are rescued sinners. And because of Christ’s work on our behalf we have confidence that now in part, and in the end in full, the sin in our life will be done away with. We will find progress in godliness as we continue in faith, if not perfection in godliness. And while we wait the return of our Lord we know with certainty that in him we have already won the battle with sin.
In a world that longs for perfection in so many small ways, we know there is only One who has been perfect. And his perfection is our peace.
Joe Thorn is Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL and blogs at joethorn.net. His book, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, was released through Crossway/ReLit. You can follow him on Twitter @joethorn.