Perfection, As Used in Scripture

 •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 10
It is a common custom with one-sided special pleaders to attach arbitrary meanings to certain words, and then press them as the only correct definitions. No terms have suffered more in this respect than the words “perfect” and “perfection,” as found in our English version of the Scriptures. From the first publication of the revered John Wesley’s “Plain Account of Christian Perfection” to the present time, it seems to have been taken for granted that by perfection we are to understand sinlessness. Yet Mr. Wesley himself did not exactly so define it, and he seemed to fear a radical use of the doctrine that would be hurtful to souls, against which he carefully sought to guard by distinguishing angelic, Adamic, and Christian perfection. Today the average work on holiness pictures the perfect Christian as a man restored, to all intents and purposes, to the Adamic condition, save that the usages of society and the condition of men still in the natural and carnal state demand the continuance of “coats of skin!”
It will be well for us, therefore, to turn at once to Scripture and mark the use of the expressions and their connection as we have already done in regard to the word “sanctification.” It is not by getting dictionary definitions or theological explanations that we learn the exact force of English words when used to translate Hebrew and Greek originals, but by observing the manner in which they are used in the Bible. For instance, in any ordinary sermon on “Perfection” the attention is generally first directed to Noah and Abraham. Of the former we read, “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:99These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)). The margin gives “upright” in place of perfect, though either word would properly express the original. Noah was an upright man, perfect in his ways. That is, he was one against whose behavior no charge could be brought — until, alas, this perfect life was marred by the drunkenness so shamefully exposed by heartless Ham. Who but a biased partisan could dream of Noah’s perfection implying freedom from inbred sin! Yet many have been the sermons preached and exhortations based on this statement of the ancient record, in which he has been held up as an antediluvian example of entire sanctification.
Even in ordinary conversation the word perfect is used as here. A teacher says of a pupil who has successfully passed an examination, with no errors to his charge, “He is perfect.” Does he mean, “sinless?”
To Abram, Jehovah said, “I am the Almighty God; walk before Me, and be thou perfect” (Gen. 17:11And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. (Genesis 17:1)). Again a glance at the margin would help to avoid a wrong conclusion. “Upright,” or “sincere,” are given as alternative readings. Yet the zealous advocate of a second work will overlook or ignore this altogether, and argue that God would not tell justified Abram to be perfect if He did not mean there was for him a deeper work which He was ready to perform in him, whereby all carnality would be destroyed and the patriarch would become perfect as to his inward state. But there is no such thought in the passage. Abram was called to walk before God in sincerity of heart and singleness of purpose. This was, to be “perfect.”
The next proof-text generally referred to comes after the lapse of many centuries, and is part of our Lord’s sermon on the mount: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:4848Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)). These are serious words indeed, and we do well not to pass them lightly by.
At the outset we may observe that if to be perfect here means to be absolutely like God, then no Christian has ever yet attained to the state prescribed. Only one mentally unbalanced could pretend to such perfection as this. But a careful consideration of the preceding instruction will make clear at once what is meant. The Lord had been proclaiming the law of the kingdom, the compelling power of grace. He bids His disciples love their enemies and do good to their accusers and persecutors, that in this they may manifestly be children of their Father in heaven, whose loving favor is shown to just and unjust alike. He does not withhold the blessings of sunshine and rain from the evil-living or hateful, but shows mercy to all. We are called to be morally like Him. To love only our friends and well-wishers is to be on a level with any wicked man. To be kind to brethren only is to be clannish like the publicans. But to show grace and act in love toward all is to be perfect, or balanced, like the Creator Himself. Surely all Christians strive for this perfection — but who dare aver that he has fully attained to it, so that he is never unjust or partial in his dealings with others?
Perfection in its ultimate sense we all come short of. “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect,” writes the Apostle Paul, “but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-1412Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. 13Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, 14I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12‑14)). Could disclaimer of perfection, as to experience and attainment in grace, be stronger or more distinct than this? Whatever others may fancy they have reached to, Paul at least was not one of the perfectionists.
Yet in the very next verse he uses another word which is rendered “perfect” in our English version; and he says, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded.” Is there contradiction, or inconsistency, here? No. The error is in the mind of him who would so think. “Perfect” in verse 15 has the sense of “full grown,” and refers to those who have passed out of the period of spiritual childhood. They are such as have become intelligent in divine things; and one way in which they manifest that intelligence is by confessing with Paul that they are not yet perfect as regards experience.
Christ Jesus has apprehended, or laid hold of, us with a view to our entire conformity to His own blessed image. We are predestinated to this, as Romans 8:2929For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:29) tells us. With this before us, we press on, forgetting the things of the past, and reaching forth to this glorious consummation. Then, and then only, we shall have come to Christian perfection. “We know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:22The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. (John 3:2)).
In Hebrews 6:11Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, (Hebrews 6:1) we read again of perfection; and in this instance one can readily understand how a person uninstructed as to the true scope and character of that epistle might easily misapply the exhortation, “Let us go on unto perfection.” The contention of the holiness teacher as to this is generally as follows: These words are clearly addressed to believers. The Hebrews who are contemplated had already been turned to God in conversion.
They were undoubtedly justified. [One might add, “and sanctified too” (!); but this is lost sight of; and little wonder, for it would not agree with the theory.] Therefore if such persons are urged to “go on unto perfection,” perfection must be a second work of grace, to which the Lord is leading all the “merely justified.”
Now none could successfully deny the premise thus stated; but granting it to be sound and unassailable, the conclusion drawn by no means necessarily follows.
That the Hebrew Christians were exhorted to press on to something they had not yet reached is clear. But that this was identical with the so-called “second blessing” is not at all clear.
The truth is that the Greek word “perfection” in this instance is only another form of the word translated “perfect” in Philippians 3:1515Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. (Philippians 3:15), which we have already examined and seen to be synonymous with full-grown. “Let us go on to full growth” would be a true and just rendering, and is not at all ambiguous. It implies a proper spiritual development, such as should be before all young believers, but which it was needful to press upon these Hebrews, as they were dwarfed or stunted Christians, because of not having cut loose from Judaism with its withering, blighting influence.
Paul had already reproved them for this in the previous chapter. Note his words: “Ye are dull of hearing. For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age [or those who are perfect], even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:11-1411Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. 12For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. 13For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. 14But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:11‑14)).
We learn from Acts 21 the reason why these Hebrew believers had become stunted in spirituality and knowledge. James, himself an apostle, together with all the elders of the church in Jerusalem, met together to receive Paul and his companions upon their returning thither; and after hearing of what God had wrought among the Gentiles, we are told “they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law” (Acts 21:2020And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: (Acts 21:20)), and upon this they base an appeal for Paul to fall in with certain Jewish rites, in order that he may not be an object of suspicion. Anxious to propitiate his own nation, the great Apostle agrees, and is only prevented by divine Providence from an act which would have been clearly contrary to the 9th and 10th chapters of the Hebrew epistle. Think what it would have meant for him who wrote, “Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin,” if he had himself assisted in offering the sacrifices prescribed in the case of a Nazarite who had fulfilled his vow! (Read Num. 6:13-2113And this is the law of the Nazarite, when the days of his separation are fulfilled: he shall be brought unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: 14And he shall offer his offering unto the Lord, one he lamb of the first year without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish for a sin offering, and one ram without blemish for peace offerings, 15And a basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour mingled with oil, and wafers of unleavened bread anointed with oil, and their meat offering, and their drink offerings. 16And the priest shall bring them before the Lord, and shall offer his sin offering, and his burnt offering: 17And he shall offer the ram for a sacrifice of peace offerings unto the Lord, with the basket of unleavened bread: the priest shall offer also his meat offering, and his drink offering. 18And the Nazarite shall shave the head of his separation at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and shall take the hair of the head of his separation, and put it in the fire which is under the sacrifice of the peace offerings. 19And the priest shall take the sodden shoulder of the ram, and one unleavened cake out of the basket, and one unleavened wafer, and shall put them upon the hands of the Nazarite, after the hair of his separation is shaven: 20And the priest shall wave them for a wave offering before the Lord: this is holy for the priest, with the wave breast and heave shoulder: and after that the Nazarite may drink wine. 21This is the law of the Nazarite who hath vowed, and of his offering unto the Lord for his separation, beside that that his hand shall get: according to the vow which he vowed, so he must do after the law of his separation. (Numbers 6:13‑21), and compare with the whole account in Acts 21:23-2623Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; 24Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. 25As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. 26Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them. (Acts 21:23‑26).) This failure God mercifully prevented, though at the cost of His dear servant’s liberty. Afterward the venerable Apostle, by divine inspiration, wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, to deliver those Jewish Christians from the bondage of the law and their subjection to the ordinances of the first covenant.
“Therefore,” he says, in chapter 6, “leaving the word of the beginning of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms (or washings), and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit” (Heb. 6:1-31Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, 2Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. 3And this will we do, if God permit. (Hebrews 6:1‑3)).
This the Apostle does in the balance of the epistle, as he unfolds the varied lines of truth connected with Christ’s priesthood, the new covenant, the one sacrifice, the walk of faith, and the Lord’s discipline. This vast circle of the truth of Christianity is the perfection to which they, and we, are called to go on to. He who comprehends and enjoys in his soul the teaching of Hebrews — chapters 7 to 13 — is a perfect Christian, in the Apostle’s sense. He is now full-grown, and able to partake of strong meat, in place of being only fit to feed upon milk. Into that glorious outline of the faith of God’s elect I dare not attempt to go here, for to do so would but divert attention from the subject in hand. Others have done this in detail. Mr. S. Ridout’s Lectures on Hebrews, and W. Kelly’s Exposition of Hebrews, are invaluable.
It is only by reverent and continued reading of the Scriptures that any can thus become perfect. The exhortation to Timothy is of all importance: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). In the same letter Paul writes: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This is no mystical, inward perfection, but that well rounded knowledge of the mind of God which His Word alone can give. He who does not neglect the appointed means will be enabled to enjoy the answer to the prayer with which Hebrews closes: “Now the God of peace  ...  make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20-2120Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, 21Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20‑21)).
One other passage we must examine before dismissing our brief study of perfection. It is James 3:1-21My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. 2For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. (James 3:1‑2): “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.” With what we have already gone over, this verse needs little explanation. James, clearly, did not possess, nor did he know of anyone who did possess, the second blessing of sinless perfection. He speaks by the Spirit of God, and tells us that we all offend in many things. If a man can be found who never offends in word — who never utters an unkind, an untruthful, or an idle word — he is in very deed a perfect man; but has he all sin rooted out of him? Far from it! He is able to control his carnal nature in place of being controlled by it; he is “able also to bridle the whole body.” What need of bridling the body if all tendency to sin is gone — if inbred evil is eradicated? Is it not plain, on the face of it, that the perfect man is not a sinless man, but a man who holds himself in check, and is not under the power of sin that still dwells in him? Read the entire chapter thoughtfully and prayerfully, and ask yourself what holiness professor has ever fully met the requirements of this standard of perfection. Who among all the people of God never has to confess failure in word? If any do not, it will be because they deceive themselves, and the truth is not controlling the heart and conscience.
Briefly, then, I recapitulate what has been before us.
All believers are called to walk before God, as Noah and Abram, in uprightness and sincerity of heart. This is to be perfect as to the inward life.
In so doing we are called to manifest love and grace toward all, let their treatment of us be as it may; that thus we may be perfect in impartiality as is our Father — God.
All believers are called to pass from the primary classes, in the great school of divine revelation, on to perfection; that is, lay hold of the fulness of what God has graciously been pleased to make known in Christianity.
But none are perfect in the absolute sense; though he who can control his tongue is perfect as to ability to bridle every passion; for no evil thing that works in man is more wilful than the tongue.
When we behold Him who is perfect in wisdom, grace, and beauty, we shall be like Him where He is and be forever perfected, beyond all reach of sin and failure.
“Let us therefore, as many as be full-grown, be thus minded: and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing” (Phil. 3:15-1615Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. 16Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing. (Philippians 3:15‑16)).