Howard A. Barnes, Bromborough, Merseyside
There are often serious misunderstandings about the doctrine of perfection. It is often confused with the idea of complete sinlessness, especially as the latter has been seen as a condition to be realised in this life. However, far from being a description of not being something (i.e. sinful), it is an expression of the great spiritual ideal of what we are and should be.
The Old Testament Hebrew word usually translated as 'perfect' has the underlying idea of completeness; being whole and finished. From this spring other ideas, such as sound, healthful, wholesome, unimpaired, innocent, 'having integrity, what is complete and entirely in accord with truth and fact' (Strong,). Then, further, the idea of 'being at an end', etc. when used in the sense of 'complete', we find that inanimate things can be perfect, hence we read of a perfect weight and measure, Deut. 25. 15; perfect gold, 2 Chron. 4. 21, and a perfect lot, 1 Sam. 14. 41. Of natural things we find it in Isaiah 18. 5 'before the harvest, when the bud is perfect', that is to say, when the bud is mature and fully developed. In terms of human experience we also read of perfect hatred, Psa. 139. 22; perfect peace, Isa. 26. 3; a perfect heart, Isa. 38. 3; perfect beauty, Ezek. 27. 3 and 28. 12.
Similarly, the 'perfection' family of words in the New Testament have the ideas of 'end', 'finish' or 'goal'; 'the point to which something is going'; to set out for a definite point of goal and, having got there, the process is complete and fulfilled. Thus 'to perfect' is to 'bring to the end proposed', and then the process is finished. Applied to everyday human life, it describes being 'fully grown', 'adult', 'of full age', and 'mature'; of a pregnant woman coming to her full term. With regard to human activities it means to carry through completely, to accomplish, finish, bring to an end, to complete. In farming it meant to bring fruits to maturity, and of animals bringing their young to maturity.
Bearing these things in mind we see that perfection when used in the Bible as a spiritual idea describes a position of spiritual maturity and completeness to which the believer moves, in order to become fully developed and full grown in the faith. We will see that it might be meant in a relative or in an absolute way. In comparative terms, as among believers, some are more mature than others, while in absolute terms, none have reached the desired goal of 'the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ'
Old Testament Perfection
The Old Testament teaches that everything to do with God is perfect:-His work, Deut. 32. 4; His way, 2 Sam. 22. 31; and His word, Psa. 19. 7. He required His people to be perfect, as for instance when 'the Lord ... said to Abram be thou perfect', Gen. 17. 1; and when the commandment was, 'Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God', Deut. 18. 13. The kind of perfection God wanted was quite possible; for instance in Genesis 6. 9 we are told, 'Noah was just a man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God'; and in Job 1. 1 (see also 1. 8), 'Job . . . perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and shunned evil'. However, in no sense was either of these men completely sinless. A good definition of perfection is God's further description of Job, 1. 8, 'And the Lord said to Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none other like him on earth, a perfect . . . man, one that feareth God, and turneth away from evil?'
The Psalms have a number of things to say about this state of perfection. We might cite Psalm 37. 37 as showing the obvious advantage of perfection, 'Mark the perfect man . . . for the end of that man is peace'; while Psalm 101. 2 gives the aspiration of the spiritual man, '1 will behave myself wisely in a perfect way . . . I will walk within my house with a perfect heart'.
New Testament Perfection
Just as perfection was required in the Old Testament, so, too, in the New Testament. For instance, the Lord Jesus commanded, 'be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect', Matthew 5. 48. Spiritual maturity can make the greatest demands of a disciple, even as the Lord taught. Jesus said to him, 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me', Matt. 19. 21. On the other hand, the things that hold one back from full growth can also be seen, 'And that which fell among the thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection', Luke 8. 14. But let us look at various aspects of perfection in more detail.
The Lord Jesus and perfection
The Lord Jesus said, 'I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished (perfected) the work which thou gavest me to do', John 17. 4. He had perfected the work as only the true Perfector could, a fact that we particularly remember in relation to His work on the cross, 'When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said , It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost', John 19. 30. As a result it was possible for it to be said of Him, 'And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him', Hebrews 5. 9.
At the cross, they said of the Lord Jesus, 'He trusted God', how true! Even so He can be spoken of as, 'Jesus the author and the finisher (Perfector) of . . . faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God', 12. 2. His suffering and death on the tree brought His sacrificial work to perfection.
The Believer and 'positional' perfection
The subject of 'positional' perfection is an important topic in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The first observation is, 'If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood . . . what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron?', 7. 11; and, 'the law made nothing perfect', 7. 19, when 'were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience', 9. 9; and could 'never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect', 10. 1. But now the Lord Jesus Christ has 'by one offering ... perfected for ever them that are sanctified', 10. 14. Complete and everlasting 'positional' perfection for the believer is thus assured!
The Believer and 'practical' perfection
In the absolute sense the apostle had to say that he had not yet reached 'practical', spiritual maturity: 'Not as though I . . . were already perfect', Phil. 3. 12. However, perfection can be relative, and even those who decry having reached absolute maturity, can nevertheless claim relative maturity, as compared with others; 'Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you', Phil. 3. 15; and, 'Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect', 1 Cor. 2. 6. A degree of spiritual maturity was expected, even from the disappointing Corinthians, for the apostle told them:, 'Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men (mature)', 1 Cor. 14. 20.
An ultimate aspiration, nevertheless, is stated clearly, for we do have a clear goal, 'Till we all come . . . unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ', Eph. 4. 13. Here is the great model of practical Christian maturity, Christ Himself. On the other hand, an opposing goal is exposed, 'This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil (bring to perfection) the lust of the flesh', Gal. 5. 16.
Prayer and the word of God are two obvious means to attain to Christian maturity: as for instance the efforts of 'Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God', Col. 4. 12. Hence Paul's great aim in life was not just to make converts, for he could say, 'whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus', Col. 1. 28: his ultimate ambition for them was 'perfection'. When a be-liever has a good grasp of the word of God, it can be said of him, or her, 'strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age (mature)', Heb. 5. 14. Of course, we understand that when the apostle says, 'when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away', 1Cor. 13. 10 he is speaking about the complete canon of scripture. All the word of God will greatly help us in our quest for perfection.
James, for example, points out the power of patience, for when it has its perfect work it is 'perfect and entire, wanting nothing', Jas. 1. 4. Equally, a perfect man's faith is made perfect by works, 2. 22, and he does not offend anyone by his words, 3. 2, and thus demonstrates his spiritual maturity. John, also in his first epistle links perfection with God's love and some very practical issues, too. First he tells us that 'whoso heareth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected', 1 John 2. 5; then, 'if we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us', 1 John 4. 12; and lastly, 'he that feareth is not made perfect in love', 1 John 4. 18. These things bring Christian maturity before us as an attainable object. Obeying God's word, loving His people and having confidence in Him, these are the true means of perfection relative to His love.
Last of all we recall that 'He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness', 2 Cor. 12. 9. God's strength is brought to perfection in human weakness; what a joy!