“Perfection” in the New Testament

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.

The Believer’s Salvation

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.

The Believer’s Growth

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.

  1. His Servants. Paul spoke of preaching Christ, “warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus”, Col. 1. 28. The apostle’s declared objective in his work for the Lord, therefore, was nothing short of the full growth of his converts. He told the Ephesians that the Ascended Christ gave gifts to His church “for the perfecting of the saints … till we ill come … unto a perfect man”, Eph. 4. 11-13. God’s purpose is that we all reach mature manhood in Christ, and so “be no more children … v. 14.
  2. Prayer. The apostle told the Colossians that Epaphras was “always labouring fervently (lit, striving, wrestling) for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect (i.e, full-grown) and complete (lit, fully assured) in all the will of God”, 4. 12. Are we concerned about each other’s spiritual progress? Are we concerned enough to pray about it?
  3. Self-discipline. Paul once wrote, “not as though I … were already perfect”, Phil. 3. 12. Although this is, of course, an admission of his limited progress, it is not an admission of defeat, for Paul went on to say, “but I follow after”. This latter expression means “to press on, to pursue” and occurs again at the beginning of verse 14. It expresses something of Paul’s determination to move on in the direction of perfection. He has a target and a goal, v.14, which is Christlikeness.
  4. 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.

  5. Suffering. There is a sense in which the Lord Jesus was “made perfect through sufferings”, Heb. 2.10. Compare 5. 9 and 7. 28 (where “made perfect” is translated “consecrated”). This has nothing to do with becoming sinless! It refers to His qualification to act on our behalf as our High Priest. His experiences here were necessary to fit Him as the Author of our salvation. In a totally different sense, the believer’s sufferings bring him to “perfection”. James said that the trial of one’s faith was meant to work patience, with the objective that one “may be perfect and entire, wanting (i.e, lacking) nothing”, 1. 4. Paul was acutely aware of his own weakness, but gloried in the fact that the Lord Jesus had said to him, “My strength is made perfect (i.e, complete) in weakness”, 2 Cor. 12. 9. As Paul’s’ strength drained away, this made more room for the Lord to fill him with His strength.
  6. Love. The apostles John and Paul both remind us of the importance of loving other Christians: “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected (brought to completion, finds its fulfilment) in us”, 1 John 4. 12 (see also vv. 17-18), and “above all these things (virtues) put on charity (love), which is the bond of perfectness”, Col. 3. 14. This latter verse tells us, in effect, that the Christian’s spiritual overcoat is love, which is the bond (or adhesive) of “perfectness”. The “perfectness” of verse 14 is the combination of all the graces of verses 12, 13. That is, love is the virtue which binds together all other virtues.

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.

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