Is perfection possible? It’s the question I’ve been asking and exploring starting here. Why perfection? It seems like an easy question to answer when we look around the world today, and at ourselves. Perfection seems impossible, and even potentially damaging as a goal, because of the often destructive nature of perfectionism. I’ve been asking the question, though, because in the passage from the Bible that I’m discussing this week, Colossians 1:24-2:5, the writer of the letter, the Apostle Paul, says that he wants to present everyone “perfect.” Furthermore my denomination is part of a Christian heritage, following John Wesley of Methodist fame, who holds to something called Christian Perfection. Check out the two previous posts here and here to learn more about Wesley and what he taught. So now it is time to bring this to a conclusion and try to answer the question: Is perfection possible?
As I mentioned in the previous posts, because a man of John Wesley’s stature believed in Christian Perfection, because there is a biblical case to be made for it, and because many Christians not only agree with the doctrine but have said they experienced it in their lives, I do not believe it is right to claim that perfection is impossible. I say that cautiously. Here’s why.
The word Paul and Jesus use is not always translated by our English word “perfect.” It is a rather flexible word that could mean any of the following: “perfect (in the moral sense), perfect (in the physical sense), mature, adult, genuine, complete, or initiated.” Initiated? That refers to one who has gained entrance into a group or a club, because they have attained to a level worthy of entrance. You can see the connection to maturity and perfection.
So of all these choices, which one did Paul and Jesus mean?
It is hard to know. Jesus compared this concept to God. Be what God is, he said in Matthew 5:48. Well, clearly God is perfection, right? So if we’re going to be what God is, then we are shooting for perfection. Or maybe Jesus was simply saying that perfection is the goal, not necessarily that we’ll actually attain the goal. And what about Paul? Paul might have been talking about maturity in Christ. We don’t know for sure. My conclusion is that Christian Perfection is possible, but likely exceedingly rare, and not required for the Christian.
Furthermore, I think there is a better way to talk about what Paul means here.
Sidenote: In my nearly 20 years in the EC Church, I have never heard Christian Perfection discussed at any session of our National Conference or at any gathering of our denomination. It was barely mentioned in seminary, and even that was primarily in church history class. I have only rarely heard it mentioned in conversation with my EC pastoral colleagues. I suspect that, in the EC Church at least, though it remains in our Discipline, it is for all intents and purposes, a doctrine of the past.
Frankly, I’m not so sure that is a good thing.
There was an era in the history of my denomination, and many others, when the gracious loving pursuit of holiness in Christ was preached on a regular basis. So while I remain iffy about the possibility of Christian Perfection, what I do hope you hear me talk about is the absolute necessity of growing in maturity in Christ. This is why I talk about the Fruit of the Spirit so often. We need to be people who are being transformed inwardly, so that love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness and self-control are flowing freely from our lives. That kind of message, which was also right in line with what Jesus and Paul taught, is more helpful that arguing for perfection.
It’s why this past week I participated in a retreat in daily life with Anam Cara Ministries. There were 50 or so of us, all on Zoom. It started with a two-hour opening session on a Sunday afternoon. Then each day Monday through Friday, we were provided with guides for prayerfully reading Scripture, spending time in prayer, and then we met with a spiritual director (again on Zoom) for 30 minutes. While the stated goal was not perfection, it was to hear God through Scripture and prayer, including the kind of holy listening that occurs between oneself and a person trained in spiritual direction, all so that we might move on in maturity in Christ. I needed it. I suspect you do as well.
It was sometimes awkward or a struggle to talk about my spirituality with a stranger, and yet it was deep and meaningful. The one phrase that kept coming into our conversations was “cease striving.” I needed to hear that, to dwell on that, specifically for this moment in my life, which is rather full and stressful. That was a reminder for me that growth in maturity, that moving on to perfection, does not mean I alone am responsible, but that God wants me to rest in his presence and cast my cares on him. I reveal that to you as a slice of the journey I am on in this moment in time, so that you can have glimpse of how Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24-2:5 relate to at least one person, me. I hope that is an encouragement to you, as you consider what it might mean for you to pursue maturity in Christ.
 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 243.