Is Sanctification the Pursuit of Perfection?
Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! On this final day of 2021, we end our ninth year of podcasting, and we end it talking about holiness and the pursuit of perfection. Here is the email: “Hello, Pastor John. My name is Christopher, and I live in Louisville, Kentucky. I’ve been listening to this podcast for a little over a year now. First, thank you so much for the incredible wealth of knowledge you’ve given to me and all your listeners through this podcast.
“I’ve heard you on many occasions mention the danger of perfectionism as a Christian. I am guilty of this. After thinking a great deal about sanctification and listening to episode 1663 about pursuing holiness, it only gets worse. I recognize that we are not justified by works, but also that the pursuit to live holy lives is the evidence that we are saved. I feel like this makes it very hard for me to come to terms with my own failure.
“Instead of running back to Christ when I sin, I spiral down into thoughts like, ‘Maybe I was never truly saved.’ It’s almost as though I condemn myself into depression, even though Christ brings no condemnation, and it often takes days to work through it. How do I find the balance between pursuing holiness and moving past my failure to be holy? Is pursuing holiness the same as pursuing perfection?”
Those last couple of sentences really are two questions. He says, “How do I find the balance between pursuing holiness and moving past my failure to be holy?” That’s one question. Then the second one is, “Is pursuing holiness the same as pursuing perfection?” Let me answer both of those as best I can, starting with the second one first.
So is pursuing holiness the same as pursuing perfection? It’s an ambiguous question because it switches categories on me, moving from a quality of holiness to a quantity of holiness — perfect holiness.
You can see the ambiguity if you rephrase the question like this: is pursuing partial holiness the same as pursuing complete holiness? And the answer is that there is a difference between partial and complete. So when it comes to holiness, the question becomes, Which are you pursuing — partial holiness or complete holiness?
What makes that question psychologically complicated is that the New Testament teaches that in this life Christians will not attain sinless perfection, and yet we are commanded to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Not perfect just by human standards, but perfect by divine standards, which are God’s standards.
So when Jesus says in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” I think it’s just another way of saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37), which is the great commandment.
Matthew 5:48 is also another way of saying what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:1 — “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” — or what James says in James 1:4 — “Let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
And yet, in spite of these repeated commands to pursue perfection, we are taught in the Bible that our victory over the power of sin will be incomplete until we’re in the presence of Christ. For example, James 3:2 says, “We all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” — including the tongue. But then James goes on to say, “No human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:8).
“Our victory over the power of sin will be incomplete until we’re in the presence of Christ.”
There’s also Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained [the resurrection] or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul never claimed to be perfect. He explicitly said, “I haven’t attained perfection yet.”
Or consider the Lord’s Prayer. Right after we’re told to pray every day for our daily bread, we’re to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:11–12). Now that’s not something we should pray once at the beginning of our Christian life. “Forgive us our debts” is the same kind of prayer as “Give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus is talking to disciples. This is a command to avail ourselves of regular, repeated forgiveness.
Holy as Can Be
So on the one hand, we have the command to be perfect repeated, and on the other hand, we have the teaching that we will not in this life be perfect. Now back to our question. What should we pursue? Is it even meaningful to say that we are pursuing perfection? It would be like an athlete saying, “I am pursuing a high-jump record of twenty feet, or a long-jump record of one hundred feet, or a one-mile running time of one minute. That’s my goal.” None of those is ever going to happen while human beings are the kind of human beings they are now.
But as long as God is God, his standard cannot be less than perfection, and when he calls us to perfection, he is not naïve. He knows that in this life we will fall short, but he also knows that he intends to give us success in the pursuit of perfection when we see him face to face. The quest is not in vain. We will attain perfection.
And the pursuit of holiness now is essential to attain the final perfecting work of God, so it’s never wrong to say we are pursuing perfection in that sense. As we pursue holiness here, we are pursuing the perfection that God will grant us through the pursuit of holiness someday.
But in the pursuit of perfection — which we will only attain in the presence of God — there is this brief period of time on earth when our pursuit is so embattled, indwelling sin is so strong, satanic opposition is so great, that even though we are counted righteous in Christ by faith, we are not yet completely righteous in our conduct and will not be completely righteous in our conduct until we see Christ face to face.
So perhaps we should say it like this: in our pursuit of perfect holiness that we will one day have in the presence of Christ, let us seek now to be as holy as a justified sinner can be. We don’t know what the limits are on this imperfect holiness, and there are always more victories to be attained.
Patterns of Light
Now back to Christopher’s other question: “How do I find the balance between pursuing holiness and moving past my failure to be holy?” We all fall short not only of what we ought to be, but also of what we could be. So to ask his question another way, how do we not let our failures to be as holy as we ought to and could be depress and so discourage us that we are paralyzed with hopelessness in the pursuit of holiness?
This is difficult, especially when we realize that our lives must bear witness that we truly are born again, have saving faith, and are justified. We know that we’re not justified by works, but we also know that our works confirm our justification. So how do we enjoy the assurance of our salvation when our holiness remains imperfect?
Let me just point to one passage of Scripture that is so important, and I pray that we will all linger over it long enough to let it have its assurance-giving effect. Here’s 1 John 1:6: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” In other words, how we walk testifies to whether we really have a relationship with God.
“The imperfect Christian does not claim perfection, but he does claim to walk in the light.”
He goes on to say, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). So he is saying that walking in the light is essential to show that we are being cleansed from our sins by the blood of Jesus.
Now 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So he says, “Walking in the light cannot mean sinlessness” — let that sink in. Walking in the light cannot mean sinlessness because he just said, “You have to walk in the light,” and he just said, “If you say you’re sinless, you’re dead wrong.” Well, what then does walking in the light mean?
So he goes on in one more verse, 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So here is John’s description of the imperfect Christian. The imperfect Christian does not claim perfection, but he does claim to walk in the light — because if you don’t walk in the light, you don’t have fellowship with God, and the blood of Jesus doesn’t cleanse or cover you from sin.
What then does “walk in the light” mean if it doesn’t mean sinlessness (1 John 1:7)? His answer is that it means a pattern of obedience that involves regular, sincere confession of sin. The person who walks in the light has enough light to see sin for what it is, to hate it, to confess it, to receive forgiveness for it with thankfulness and humility, and to press on with fresh resolve to love God and people better. I think that’s the apostle’s answer to Christopher’s question, and now we need to pray that God would work the miracle of this biblical pattern into our lives.