Perfection is possible.
What do you think about that claim? True or False?
We humans use the word, “perfect” quite a lot in our conversations. We make plans for a visit with friends, and we say, “That sounds perfect!” But we don’t actually mean that the plan is absolute perfection. Instead, we mean, “That plan is really good! I’m excited!”
We also talk a lot about perfectionism, usually in a negative way.
So is it possible that a human could actually become perfect in this life? It is possible that a person could reach a state in life where they no longer sin? Some Christians believe this is possible! In fact, the denomination which I am part of is one that believes in Christian perfection, which is otherwise known as entire sanctification.
Is my denomination crazy? Or is there a real biblical case to be made for believing in Christian perfection? As we continue studying Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24-2:5, we come to a verse in which he mentions perfection.
We have seen in part one and two of this five-part series is that Paul wants the true message of Jesus to be heard. What is that true message? If he is so concerned about making sure they know the true message about Jesus, you’d think he share it with them, at least as a reminder, right? Well, he does share it with them.
In fact, in verses 26-27 Paul summarizes the content of the true message, which he calls a “mystery, Christ in you, the hope of glory.” What does that mean? We’re going to pause on that until next week. As I said at the beginning of this five-part blog series on Colossians 1:24-2:5, this section of Scripture has enough important material that we need two weeks to cover it. Two themes, one per week. Next week’s theme, The Mystery! For now, let’s continue following Paul’s train of thought.
After summarizing the content of his preaching, in verse 28 Paul says the purpose of his preaching is to “present everyone perfect in Christ.” There’s the word “perfect” I mentioned above.
If you visit my denomination’s seminary in Myerstown, PA, you can walk over to the library building where long ago they installed a large concrete carving of the seminary seal in front of the building. This verse is carved on that seal. It’s the seminary verse, and it was picked as the seminary verse because it has a long historical connection to the Christian movement our church is a part of. How so?
Colossians 1:28, and specifically Paul’s mention of “perfection” in that verse, has a relationship to a movement in our country called the Second Great Awakening, which occurred between the years 1790 and 1840. In those years revival swept the nation. The Methodist church, started in England by John and Charles Wesley, made its way to the USA and was a big player in the revival. In fact the predecessor denomination to the EC Church, the Evangelical Association, was started by Jacob Albright, a man who came to faith during the revival and was discipled and licensed by the Methodist Church. Christian Perfection is an important doctrine in the preaching of John Wesley. This is the idea that we Christians are to pursue perfection in Jesus. Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What is Christian Perfection? Were Jesus and Paul actually teaching that Christians can achieve perfection?
Wesley thought it was possible. In fact, our denomination not only includes a statement about Christian Perfection in our 25 Articles of Faith, but we also include a lengthy passage from Wesley himself. In this post, I’ll talk about what our Article of Faith teaches, and in the next post I’ll talk about the passage from Wesley.
Our Article # 11 is about sanctification. Sanctification is the process of becoming more and more like Jesus. We believe all Christians are in that process of growth in Christ. But Christian Perfection takes it a step further. Actually Christian Perfection is sometimes called Entire Sanctification. Here’s how our Article #11 describes it: “a state of righteousness and true holiness that every regenerate believer may attain. It consists in being cleansed from all sin; loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength; and loving our neighbor as ourselves. This gracious state of perfect love is attainable in this life by faith, both gradually and instantaneously, and should be earnestly sought by every child of God; but it does not deliver us from the infirmities, ignorance and mistakes that are common to man.”
Notice that phrase in bold. If we want to have a better understanding of Christian Perfection, I think it will be helpful if we take apart that phrase piece by piece.
The first part of the phrase describes what we are talking about: “a gracious state of perfect love.” Awesome, right? Imagine if more and more people lived in a gracious state of perfect love. Wow. Think about what that would do in relationships, in families and throughout communities across the globe! But is perfect love actually possible? 1 John 4, we read that “perfect love casts out fear.” Is that what Jesus and Paul meant when they talked about perfection? Hold that thought. At this point, I’m not saying “Yes” or “No.” I’m simply saying that is what the EC Church states, based on Wesley’s teaching, and based on verses like Colossians 1:28. And I think we can all agree that if a gracious state of perfect love is possible, that is a very good thing.
The second part of phrase says that perfection is “attainable in this life by faith.” Again, is this possible? Maybe, maybe not. The EC Church believes it is possible, but note the words “by faith.” That’s key because of the next part of the phrase.
In the third part of the phrase, we read that a person can be perfected “both gradually and instantaneously”? When we connect the concept of faith mentioned in the previous part of phrase to what we read about perfection potentially being gradual or instantaneous, this Article is saying that we cannot just get zapped with perfect love, as if the Spirit of God randomly chooses, for no reason at all, out-of-the-blue to bless people with perfect love, whether they want it or not. Perfection, the EC Church believes, is by faith, meaning that perfection can be experienced by the person who seriously desires it. It is a choice of faith, of free will. Furthermore, it can occur gradually or it can come upon a person in an instant. The gradual kind…I get that. In fact, becoming more and more like Jesus normally seems very gradual. But the instantaneous kind…that seems like a miracle, if not impossible. Even if it is possible, it must be super rare, that by faith a person would instantly become perfect. In the absence of Scriptural teaching that says instant perfection is impossible, perhaps it is a viable option. Inwardly, though, I admit that I am hesitant about this, thinking, “Really? Is it really possible that person could achieve perfection, let alone instantaneous perfection?” Stay with me, as I will try to answer that question.
Now let’s examine the fourth part of the phrase: “should be earnestly sought by every child of God.” To this I say, “Yes!” No matter what a person believes about whether perfection is attainable, and no matter if it is gradual or instantaneous, this phrase seems like a good one to agree on. What I mean is this: we should make it our goal to pursue God’s ideal, even if we will never achieve that ideal until after we die and we are resurrected with a new spiritual body freed from the sin nature. Simply put, we should pursue holiness. We should want to be like Jesus. That’s what disciples do: they follow their master seeking to be like him.
That is how the EC Church describes Wesley’s teaching about Christian Perfection in our Article of Faith #11. But as I mentioned, there are definitely some iffy parts. In fact, beyond the question of whether or not it is possible, I think the ultimate question is this: Is the attainment of perfect love in this life, before death, what Jesus and Paul even meant? Or were they referring to something else? Check back in to the next post, as we’ll continue studying this.