Ask Steve: Perfectionism



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The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness

by John MacArthur

Category: Christian Living

1998, 2009 repr, Crossway




Question: Steve, what is perfectionism and why is it unbiblical?

Answer: Perfectionism is the teaching that Christians can attain to sinless perfection in this life through self-effort and/or the aid of the Holy Spirit. In other words, perfectionism claims that Christians can reach the point in which they no longer sin, that they have successfully mastered the flesh in every single way. However desirable and good pefectionism might sound, it is an unbiblical teaching that has dangerous consequences. It is appropriate to look into Scripture to see if perfectionism is true, and if it is not, why we must have a right view concerning a believer’s moral abilities pre-glorification.

Perfectionism is an idea that is popular amongst certain groups of Weslyans and Charismatics. They believe that believers can, and should, reach a second stage of sanctification in which they can be filled with the Spirit in a manner that frees them from all sinful inclinations. Those who advocate this false teaching are either in delusion, or have lowered the standard of God’s Law so that they can fulfill them with relative ease.

Perfectionism begins with an informed understanding of God’s Law and humanity’s moral condition. Advocates of perfectionism claim that spiritual perfection is possible because the Bible commands us to be perfect and holy (Matt 5:48; 1 Pet 1:16). However, we must look at this verse in context. It is part of the Sermon on the Mount – a message in which Jesus expounds on the true meaning and depth of God’s moral law. Jesus was not teaching that people need to be perfectly holy in order to be saved or even that perfection was possible in this life. Rather, the Sermon on the Mount was meant to demonstrate the impeccably high order of God’s Law in order to reveal the absolute moral deficiency of every human being on earth, whether they are Jew or Gentile. These perfect kingdom ethics demonstrate that every man is depraved and needs to be justified, if not sanctified, by God’s grace. It is only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ that any man can be made righteous and saved.

Because the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the righteousness of God, it is a standard that Christians are called to emulate – not for salvation, but for sanctification to God’s glory. We are called to live holy and righteously because such a commitment of lifestyle gives glory to God, is a brilliant testimony to others, and is in conjunction with our new identity as children of heaven. 1 Peter 1:13-16 teaches us the importance of Christian holiness when it says, “Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Romans 12:1-2 also teaches the importance of living out a renewed mind when it states, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Christians are not called to be complacent about their moral lives, but to strive for excellence, knowing that they are in a race for the top prize when God brings all Christians to account for their life’s work (1 Cor 9:24; 2 Tim 4:7).

This begs the question: Does the Spirit of God grace us in such a manner that we can live out a perfect life? Although the Bible exhorts us to strive for perfection, it also tells us in multiple passages that perfection will not be possible in this life. Some Christians will do much better than others, but that does not mean that he can reach sinlessness in this life. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” In fact, the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12 anticipates that repentance will be a habitual part of the Christian life: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” If Christians can reach perfection, then there is no need to ask for such a divine provision, which goes against what this passage teaches.

Paul appropriately expresses the lifelong struggle between spirit and flesh using his own life example. Romans 7:18-20 states, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, even struggled with sin throughout his life and recognized himself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim 1:15). If even an apostle recognized this, then it is undoubtedly a reality amongst all believers, regardless of time, race, or culture.

Regeneration of a believer by the Holy Spirit allows the believer to respond to the gospel in saving faith and to grow in Christlikeness, but it does not do completely away with the flesh before the time of glorification. The old nature has been crucified and buried, and the new nature of a man allows the believer to live a God-glorifying life. But the important thing to realize is that the believer is still in the flesh. He wears the sinful, fallen garments of his flesh, which at times hinders the Christian’s goal of moral perfection. However, when the Christian is glorified at the rapture of the church, the old body is shed away, and the new body will thereafter work in perfect conformity to the desires of the regenerated spirit (1 Cor 15:50-58). That is what all Christians long for, and are working towards in this life despite their imperfections.

Why is the doctrine of perfectionism dangerous? First, it causes Christians to believe that they can obey God’s Law perfectly in this life. Like I said, this is a noble pursuit, but one that can cause believers to puff up in pride and no longer depend on the Holy Spirit for guidance and strength. Second, perfectionism lowers the standard of God’s Law so its advocates can live under a false standard and rely on that as their means of boast before the Lord and before others. Third, it takes away from the anticipation and meaning of glorification. Glorification is that time when Christians receive the same resurrected, glorified body that Jesus had at His resurrection. It is a body unsoiled by sin and its effects, which include physical weakness, ailments, and death. It is a body in which Christians can live out moral perfection on the same level as that of God. To tell Christians that they can achieve perfection in this life is to downplay the need for a glorified body, which underestimates the effect of sin on the human body. In summation, perfectionism is an attack on God’s grace and an undue elevation of man’s ability. This is why the gospel is necessary in a believer’s life, and God uses the gospel in stages to first deliver the sinner from the penalty of sin (salvation), then from the power of sin (sanctification), and finally from the presence of sin (glorification).