When the word “perfect” is used in the New Testament to describe people, it has nothing to do with their being sinless. The family of Greek words generally translated as “perfect” in the Authorised Version indicates the idea of wholeness, completeness and, often, of maturity and full growth.
There are two main contexts in which we find “perfection” related to the believer: first, it has to do with his salvation and, second, it has to do with Christian maturity. Let us consider both of these ideas in a little detail.
On several occasions the writer to the Hebrews stressed the weakness of the Mosaic law and ritual: “the law made nothing perfect”, 7. 19, “sacrifices that could not make him that did the service perfect”, 9. 9, “the law … can never … make the comers thereunto perfect”, 10. 1. Over against this he boldly affirmed that the Lord Jesus “by one offering … hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified”, v.14. It is likely that the writer had in mind the use of the same Greek word for “perfect” in the Septuagint. It was used to translate the Hebrew word for “consecration” in such verses as Exod. 29. 9. 29, 33, 35; Lev. 8. 33; 16. 32. The author of the Hebrew Epistle may well have employed it, therefore, in the sense of fitting someone to draw near to God. Certainly, those who “are sanctified” are believers, Heb. 10. 10; 13. 12. All believers are made “perfect” in the sense in which Hebrews 10. 14 means it. Our salvation is eternal, 5. 9.
Whereas all are made “perfect” in salvation, the apostle Paul spoke of some Christians who were also “perfect” in a relative sense; “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded”, Phil. 3. 15. Two things should be noted, (i) Clearly not all Christians are “perfect” in the sense in which Paul meant it. (ii) Comparison with verse 12 proves that he had neither absolute perfection nor personal salvation in view. The apostle was referring to the relative spiritual maturity of some Christians, who were able to grasp the significance of what they were told and who would respond to it. Putting verses 12 and 15 together, we find that Paul wanted “perfect’ (i.e, mature) Christians to realize and remember that they were not “perfect” (i.e, had not fully attained their goal)! This idea of relative “perfection” or spiritual maturity is amplified in several other passages where progress is described in terms of growth from childhood to adulthood. See 1 Cor. 3. 1-2; 14. 20 (where “men” translates the Greek word for “perfect”); Eph. 4. 14-15; Heb. 5. 11-14 (where “of full age’ translates the same Greek word).
The Lord has provided many aids to help us in our efforts towards spiritual wholeness and maturity. Let us look briefly at five such.
James also gives us an example of self-discipline, with particular reference to the tongue, “If any man offend not (i.e, cause no-one to stumble) in word, the same is a perfect (in the sense of “whole”) man, and able also to bridle the whole body”, 3. 2. Such a man has himself fully in rein, and the essence of this self-control is the control of the tongue.
In answer to the young man who asked, “What lack I yet?”, the Lord Jesus said. “If thou wilt be perfect (i.e, whole, complete), go … sell … give … follow”, Matt. 19. 20-21. Sadly, such a life of self-denial was too much for him, v. 22.
The believer is required to show love and kindness to non-Christians also. The Lord said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”. Matt. 5. 48. His “therefore” directs us back to the preceding context for His meaning. God pours out His blessings on the evil and unjust as well as on the good and just, v. 45. In the same way, therefore, as He is “perfect” (i.e, whole, complete, unrestricted) in His goodness, so also Christ’s disciples should be “complete” in their love, encompassing even their enemies within its sweep. Compare Luke 6. 35, 36. We should imitate God in His impartial kindness to all men.