Perfection is a process of constant growth in Christ.
Félix H. Cortez
Early in his 20s, Benjamin Franklin, famous founding father of the United States of America, launched a personal project to attain moral perfection. The project was remarkable for its simplicity and practicality. Benjamin Franklin identified 13 virtues that, in his view, comprised moral perfection and then defined them in simple, practical terms. He also devised a method to achieve his plan. He created a little notebook with seven red columns—one for each day of the week—and 13 lines—one for each virtue—in which he would mark with a dark spot each infraction of the virtues in his daily life.
Franklin’s original list identified 12 virtues that constituted moral perfection:
“1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation.
“2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
“3. Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
“4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
“5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; (i.e., waste nothing).
“6. Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
“7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
“8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
“9. Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
“10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.
“11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.
“12. Chastity. Rarely use venery [sexual indulgence] but for health or offspring—never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
When a Quaker friend saw the list, he “kindly” informed Franklin that he had left off pride, which was probably the most important since Franklin could be “overbearing and rather insolent.” Thus, Franklin added a 13th virtue, “Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”1
After a few weeks of starting his project, Franklin had to replace the notebook. The pages became full of holes as Franklin erased the marks in order to reuse the pages for new weeks. As a result, he transferred his charts to ivory tablets that could be easily wiped clean and reused. Fifty years later, he would pull out his ivory plates and show off his virtues as he flirted with the ladies in France. He wryly referred to his project as “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”2
The Last Generation Theology Project
The aims of the Last Generation Theology are similar to Franklin’s moral perfection project, but loftier and more significant. Last Generation Theology suggests that believers should seek to become morally perfect before Jesus comes.3 The reason for this is the belief that Christ cannot come until His people achieve moral perfection. Last Generation Theology proponents often quote Ellen G. White in this regard: “Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own.”4 Thus, they conclude, the reason Jesus has not come is that the church has not attained the moral perfection God expects. Last Generation Theology, like other perfectionistic movements throughout history, arose from a sincere desire to fulfill the biblical instruction to walk perfectly before God (Gen. 17:9; Ps. 119:1; Matt. 5:48). It was a reaction to a perception of religious and moral indolence, even apostasy, among the people of God. Thus, it should be acknowledged in several respects as the result of a legitimate dissatisfaction with the state of affairs among Seventh-day Adventist believers.
The clearest and most influential expression of Last Generation Theology was made by M. L. Andreasen in the 1940s.5 He suggested that the last generation of God’s people plays a crucial role in the cosmic controversy between Satan and God. Satan has accused God that His law is unfair and impossible to fulfill. His argument is that God’s unfair law, being the foundation of God’s government and a transcription of His own character, is the evidence that God is unfit to rule the universe. Thus, Satan has challenged God’s rule and has argued that he himself can lead a better government of the universe. The last generation of believers, however, will demonstrate that it is possible to fulfill God’s law. Their obedience through the time of trouble, the most difficult time in the history of the world, will vindicate God before the universe and provide the final, decisive defeat of Satan that will settle the conflict forever: “It is in the last generation of men living on the earth that God’s power unto sanctification will stand fully revealed. The demonstration of that power is God’s vindication. It clears Him of any and all charges which Satan has placed against Him. In the last generation God is vindicated and Satan defeated.”6
Last Generation Theology, however, is both exhilarating and perplexing. It is exhilarating because it gives believers a heroic, transcendental role. The vindication of God’s character and the future of His government depend on them. They are God’s special forces. They win the decisive battle of the cosmic war.
Last Generation Theology is heady. It is perplexing, however, for two reasons. First, because it would imply that God has a double standard, one for the last generation of believers, and another for the other generations of believers throughout history. Second, it is difficult to conceive that God has left Himself at the mercy of the last generation of believers. According to this view, it is the last generation that saves God’s reputation before the universe through their faithfulness. E. J. Waggoner, whose ideas would provide the foundation for Last Generation theology, expressed it clearly “God has left the vindication of His character to His children. He has, as it were, risked His character with men.”7 Yet, can fallible human beings really carry this responsibility? Furthermore, what could that responsibility and prominence do to the psyche of last-generation believers?
The Bible says that the church is only one of the means God uses to make His wisdom “known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10, NRSV). However, it is not their righteousness that God uses, but the inclusion of the Gentiles and the Jews as fellow heirs in Christ through the gospel (vs. 6). God has also made His name known from ancient times through His judgments against the nations (Ex. 7:5; 1 Sam. 17:46; Eze. 25:4–7), His judgments against Israel (Isa. 52:6; Jer. 16:21; Eze. 6:7–14), His grace toward the nations (Ex. 8:10; 9:29; Isa. 45:3), and His grace toward Israel (Ex. 6:2–8; Deut. 4:32–40; Joshua 4:24; 1 Sam. 17:47; Isa. 60:16; Eze. 16:59–63). The greatest revelation of God’s name, or character, to the universe, however, was made through Jesus Christ, who came to reveal the Father (John 1:18), glorify Him (17:4), show His righteousness (Rom. 3:23–26), grace and truth (John 1:14–18), and to defeat Satan (Col. 2:13–15).
The remainder of this article will not address the biblical and theological foundations for the role of the last generation in the great controversy between God and Satan nor the impact that that prominent and decisive role may have in the psyche of last generation believers. It will focus, instead, on the central question: Does God require perfection from believers? If so, what does He mean by this?
The Perfection Conundrum
The Bible says that God requires perfection of believers (2 Chron. 16:9; Ps. 15:2; 119:30; Prov. 28:9, 13, 18). Jesus said, “‘Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’” (Matt. 5:48).8
The apostle John further explained: “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. . . . The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:6–9, italics supplied).
These simple, straight assertions have a complication, however. The apostle John also said a couple of chapters earlier that “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (1:8–10, italics supplied).
These assertions by John seem to contradict each other: Believers cannot sin because they have been born of God; yet, if believers say that they do not have sin, they make God a liar. How does one square that circle?
Curiously, the same apparent contradiction appears in the writings of Ellen G. White. On the one hand you find passages like these:
“We should seek to become perfect in Christ. . . . He [Jesus] had kept His Father’s commandments, and there was no sin in Him that Satan could use to his advantage. This is the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time of trouble.”9
“God requires now what He required of Adam, perfect obedience, righteousness without a flaw, without shortcoming in His sight.”10
On the other hand, you also find passages like these:
“We cannot say, ‘I am sinless’ till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body.”11
“There are many, especially among those who profess holiness, who compare themselves to Christ, as though they were equal with him in perfection of character. This is blasphemy. Could they obtain a view of Christ's righteousness, they would have a sense of their own sinfulness and imperfection.”12
Scholars have long debated the issue of sinlessness in 1 John and perfection in Ellen G. White. The problem with the debate on sin and perfection is that both terms have more than one meaning. The Greek word teleios, which Matthew 5:48 translates as “perfect,” can mean either something that does not have a flaw (that is, it attains the highest standard), or something that is mature, full-grown (for example, an adult person). Thus, Paul exhorts his readers in Romans 12:2 to “discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect [teleion]” (NRSV). Here perfect means what attains the highest standard, what does not have a flaw. But in 1 Corinthians 14:20, Paul referred to his Corinthian readers, who had obvious flaws, as “mature” persons [teleioi] and exhorted them to behave and think like adults. In 1 Corinthians 14:20, perfect means “adult, fully grown.” Similarly, in Matthew 5:48, Jesus was not talking about sinless perfection. He was saying that we should be mature, adult Christians, who pray for those who persecute us and love our enemies, just as God does. Therefore, Luke reported Jesus’ words more clearly in that way: “‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’” (Luke 6:36, NIV).
Like Paul, Ellen G. White used the word perfect in two different senses. She clearly said that there are two standards of perfection: “As God himself is perfect in his exalted sphere, so should his children be perfect in the humble sphere they occupy.”13 Thus, she used the concept of perfection in the sense of the highest standard when she wrote that it is blasphemy to say that we have attained a perfection of character equal with Christ and when a person says he or she is sinless before the transformation of our bodies at Jesus’s second coming.14 She used the word perfect in a different sense when she referred to the church reproducing the character of Jesus and to the moral development we can attain now, while Jesus ministers as our High Priest.15 This perfection before the time of trouble and Jesus’ second coming is not flawless moral development because she suggests that when that time of trouble comes, the saints will be faithful and victorious, but not flawless. She said that it is the time of trouble that will consume “their [believers’] earthliness”16 and “uproot him [Satan] entirely from their affections.”17
John also used the word sin in two different senses. In 1 John 1:8, the expression “to ‘have sin’ is the equivalent of possessing a sinful character or disposition.”18 Thus, 1 John 1:8 says that nobody can say that he or she does not have a sinful human nature; otherwise, they deceive themselves and make God a liar. In 1 John 3:6–10, the term sin has a different sense. It is equivalent to lawlessness as it was defined in verse 4 (“Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness”). Lawlessness refers to the sin of rebellion against the law of God, the sin of the antichrist, the one who opposes Christ (1 John 2:18). Paul described elsewhere the “man of lawlessness” as one “who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God” (2 Thess. 2:3, 4, ESV). Therefore, John affirmed that a person who abides in Jesus does not commit this sin of lawlessness because he cannot commit the sin of opposing Christ, which is the sin of the antichrist. In fact, it is impossible for the person who abides in Christ to commit this sin (1 John 3:6, 9).
Now, what kind of perfection do we need to be saved? Paul said that Jesus is working to sanctify and cleanse the church in order that “He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:26, 27, ESV). Similarly, as mentioned above, Ellen G. White said that “God requires now what He required of Adam, perfect obedience, righteousness without a flaw, without shortcoming in His sight.”19 It seems that God is not referring simply to maturity, but to perfection in its highest standard.
God is not unfair or fastidious when He demands “perfect obedience” of His children. He demands “righteousness without a flaw” because this is the only condition that guarantees the well-being and happiness of His creation. Many years ago, the youngest of our sons had cancer. The treatment he received included chemotherapy, which suppressed his immune system to the point that he was extremely vulnerable to any infection. Once, when we took him to the hospital, I had a cold sore. When the doctor saw me, he rebuked me for coming close to the baby. He said that my cold sore could cause him a very painful death because he had no defenses. He also said that if I loved my baby, I needed to be thorough in preventing any source of infection to come into contact with the baby after his chemotherapy treatments. This experience helped me understand why God requires total perfection—“righteousness without a flaw”—of His children. Any amount of sin that is tolerated endangers the well-being of God’s creation. Therein lies the conundrum. God’s love for us and His concern for our well-being demands perfect obedience from every creature, but human beings, the object of God’s love, cannot provide it.
What Is Sin?
We cannot understand appropriately the nature of the human quandary unless we have a proper understanding of sin. Since the purpose of salvation is to solve the problem of our sin, we can only understand salvation once we understand what sin is. The first step to find the solution to a problem is to understand the problem.
Sin has different aspects. One aspect is action. Every action that departs from the divine standard is a sin (Ps. 119:11). Sin includes involuntary mistakes (Heb. 9:7). It includes also rebellion, sacrilege, malice, and deceit, which are more serious sins that involve the use of our will. Another aspect of sin is motive. Paul wrote that “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). This means that an apparently good action that proceeds from lack of faith is sin. Another aspect of sin is omission. James wrote that “to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). This involves the failure to do the right thing to the extent of our capability. Thus, the right thing done half well is also a sin. Ellen G. White wrote that God holds believers accountable for “their failure to accomplish all the good which they could have done, through His grace strengthening them.”20
These three aspects of sin raise the standard very high for human beings: in fact, beyond our reach. Who can reach the state in which everything one does is God’s will, and does it in perfect faith to the full extent of his or her capability? Beyond Jesus, no one in the present or in the past has achieved this. Elijah became depressed, Job said things of which he later repented, Moses failed right before entering the promised land. Paul rebuked Peter for not standing for the Gentiles, but several years later, he himself gave in to the pressure of those who were “‘zealous for the law’” (Acts 21:20). Some could suggest that Enoch and Daniel were perfect, but only because we know little about them. To be honest, some of us often fail in the first step, trying to discern what God’s will is in every aspect of our lives. (Alas, how often do we do wrong with the best of intentions!)
There is a fourth aspect of sin, however, that makes it impossible for human beings to reach God’s standard: their fallen nature. Human beings are born in a state of sin. David said: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5, NIV); “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (58:3, NIV). He also said that “no one living is righteous before you [God]” (143:2, NIV), and that “if You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (130:3, ESV). Paul agreed: “we . . . were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).
Sometimes this aspect is described as human beings having a tendency or propensity to sin, but this designation is misleading. It suggests that human beings have the potentiality, even proclivity, to sin, but they not always do and could refrain from it. What the Bible says is that human beings are sinful, not that they are potentially sinful, which means that everything they do is tainted with sin. Jesus explained that the human heart—which is at the core of our nature—is like a polluted fountain. Everything the human heart produces is tainted with sin (Matt. 15:18–20; Mark 7:20–23). This means that even our good actions are tainted with sin and are not acceptable to God. Job recognized this when he said: “‘Who can make the clean out of the unclean?’” (Job 14:4). This is why Isaiah said that “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isa. 64:6).
The sanctuary sacrificial system illustrated this truth. God instructed Israel to offer a continual burnt offering every morning and every evening so that it remained burning on the altar 24 hours a day, seven days a week (Num. 28:3–8; Lev. 6:12, 13). According to Leviticus 1:4, the purpose of the burnt offering was to make atonement (reconciliation) in order that the offerer—in this case the entire people—might be accepted before the Lord. This offering was not for any specific sin. If the issue were a specific sin, they would have to offer a sin offering (Leviticus 4). The burnt offering was to atone for sinfulness. In other words, since they were sinful and everything they did was tainted with sin, they needed continuous atonement from God. Note, for example, that a burnt offering was also required when a person fulfilled a vow for God (Lev. 22:18), after the priests were consecrated (8:18), when a person completed a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:14), even when the Day of Atonement was completed (Lev. 16:24). Why? Because even our good acts, the acts of praise and gratitude, of consecration, and of repentance are not acceptable to God except by the blood of our burnt offering, Jesus the Lamb of God. Ángel Manuel Rodríguez writes: “The burnt offering operated under the assumption that humans are not holy by nature [i.e., they are sinful] and, consequently, when they approach the Lord, even to express gratitude, joy, and thanksgiving, they are in need of forgiveness.”21
Ellen G. White was even more concrete: “The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary, but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the Intercessor, who is at God's right hand, presents and purifies all by His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God. All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ's propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable.”22
In other words, the conundrum human beings face is that God requires total perfection of them, “righteousness without a flaw,” because such perfection is what a perfect, happy world demands, but it is impossible for them to produce that kind of perfection. Every human attempt at perfection is flawed from the beginning because human nature contaminates even their good actions with sin. They are like polluted fountains that cannot produce pure water. This is why salvation is by grace alone (Rom. 3:23, 24). What is important to recognize is that, because of our sinful state, the very effort to attain perfection can become a trap.
The Perfection Trap
Soon after beginning his moral perfection project, Benjamin Franklin found out that the issue was far more complex than he had anticipated. It was “a task of more difficulty than I had imagined,” he recalled. The problem was that while he was focused “in guarding against one fault, [he] was often surprised by another.” Furthermore, “I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I imagined.”23 Humility was a problem. He disguised it, struggled with it, beat it down, stifled it, and mortified it; yet, “every now and then [pride would] peep out and show itself.”24 The most he managed to produce was the appearance of humility. The same with the virtue of industriousness. He gained the appearance of it by carting his own paper through the streets of Pennsylvania. The most difficult was the virtue of order. He was a sloppy man and was not able to produce even the appearance of it. So, he rationalized that he was so busy and had such a good memory that he did not need to be too orderly. Furthermore, if he attained such perfection, people would envy and hate him!25 So, he decided that it was not necessary to be neat, after all.
Christians react in similar ways when faced with the need to attain perfection. Little by little, sometimes in imperceptible ways, they begin to focus not on virtue but on the appearance of it. What matters is what they eat, their health habits, Sabbath observance, or clothing, etc. They also tend to focus on one virtue, or on a set of virtues, and as they do that other aspects of their character go sour. When one virtue becomes especially exasperating, some believers begin to lower their standard of perfection. They begin to compare themselves to fellow believers and point out that they are better than others. The more they criticize others, the better they feel about themselves, but they still feel anxious about their own salvation. Others, after trying and failing several times, give up and conclude that it does not matter what they do but what they believe—we are saved by grace after all. Others, sadly, abandon their faith altogether.
Thus, for Christians, when perfection is not properly understood, the search for perfection often becomes a trap. A misguided focus on Christian perfection has adverse consequences. It stifles the fruits of the Spirit. Anxiety does not allow love, peace, joy, and the other fruits of the Spirit to grow (Gal. 5:22, 23). The worse consequence is that it tends to concentrate our attention on ourselves. How good am I? Have I advanced enough? Will I make it? This concentration on ourselves is self-defeating. The more I focus on myself, the more I deviate my attention from Christ. The more I deviate my attention from Christ, the weaker I become. Ellen G. White warns us: “Do not be misled by his devices. Many who are really conscientious, and who desire to live for God, he too often leads to dwell upon their own faults and weaknesses, and thus by separating them from Christ he hopes to gain the victory. We should not make self the center and indulge anxiety and fear as to whether we shall be saved. All this turns the soul away from the Source of our strength.”26
Last Generation theology intensifies the dangers of a focus on perfection because it raises the stakes. It suggests that not only our personal salvation is at stake, but also God’s own reputation, and His kingdom depends on us reaching a perfection like Christ’s. As the stakes go higher, believers sense that they need to intensify the focus of their attention. The more intense the focus, the greater the danger of losing sight of Jesus.
Perfect in Christ
God provides a solution that addresses every aspect of the problem of sin. There are three aspects of the problem of sin. The first is human sinful nature. We are like a polluted fountain that contaminates everything it produces. The second is the actions themselves that we produce in our fallen state. The third is the legal problem we have incurred because of sin. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).
The Bible says that God provides the solution in the reverse order. First, Christ died on the cross to deliver us from the penalty of sin (Col. 2:13, 14). At that moment, because Jesus stands as our Substitute, we are considered perfect before God. The legal problem we have because of our sins has been solved. We are at peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Theologians often refer to this aspect of the process as “justification.” Second, God provides two elements to address the problem of our works. He gives us His Holy Spirit to empower us to live a life of love toward God and toward our neighbor that is expressed in benevolent works (Gal. 5:22). This attitude and behavior is not perfect or immaculate. We still have a sinful nature that contaminates our benevolent actions. Therefore, God also gives us Christ as our intercessor who adds the merits of His sacrifice to our attitudes and behavior in order that they are acceptable before God (Rom. 8:26–34). Theologians often refer to this second aspect of the process as “sanctification.” Third, God will transform our nature at His second coming so that we will have a body like “his [Jesus’] glorious body” (Phil. 3:21, NIV). At that moment, the last aspect of sin will be overcome, and we will have a perfect nature. Theologians often refer to this aspect of the process as “glorification.”
As can be seen, we are perfect in Christ through the whole process. We are perfect when we first come to Christ because He becomes our substitute (justification). We are perfect in Christ as we grow in our Christian walk because Jesus adds His merits to the attitudes and behavior the Holy Spirit produces in us (sanctification). Finally, when we will be transformed at Jesus’ second coming, we will have a sinless, perfect human nature (glorification).
Note how the following biblical passages refer to this process:
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ [justification], through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God [glorification]. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us [sanctification]” (Rom. 5:1–5).
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death [justification]. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit [sanctification]. . . . The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him [glorification]” (8:1–4, 16, 17).
“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith [justification], that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead [glorification]. Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus [sanctification]. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil. 3:8–15).
This understanding of the process of salvation in which we are perfect in Christ at every step of the process helps us understand a curious line of reasoning in the argument Paul made in Philippians 3:8 to 15. Paul says explicitly in verse 12 that he is not perfect, that there is much more room for him to grow. Yet, he is not desperate because he is in Christ and has a firm hope that he will form part of the resurrection (vs. 11). Fascinatingly, however, a few verses later, Paul includes himself among those who are perfect (vs. 15). Similarly, David said that he needed God’s forgiveness for his sin and rejoiced as one who was “righteous, . . . upright in heart” (Ps. 32:11). How is this possible? It is possible because the biblical understanding of perfection is dynamic.
Who is a perfect person then? According to David, the perfect, blameless person is the one whom God keeps back from “presumptuous sins” (Ps. 19:13, ESV) and declares us “innocent from hidden faults” (vs. 12, ESV)—those faults that the person does not know he or she has. According to Jesus, the perfect person is the one who loves both enemies and friends and expresses this love in benevolent actions. The Bible defines perfection in terms of relationship to God and to fellow human beings. Old Testament authors referred to the perfect (salem), blameless (tamim) person. The perfect or blameless person, however, is not one who does not commit mistakes, but one who gives himself or herself 100 percent to the Lord, who does not withhold “any segment of his heart, will or life from service to Yahweh, his Lord.”27 Paul referred to this way of life as the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5), as presenting our members to God “as instruments for righteousness” (6:13), as walking according to the Spirit (8:4).
Perfection, then, refers to “the persistent walk of life in dependence on Yahweh’s forgiving and restraining grace.”28 Perfect persons in the biblical sense love God and their neighbors with all their hearts and act benevolently toward them, but their lives are not mistake-free. Sometimes we do wrong with good intentions. Therefore, perfect people in the biblical sense are still dependent on God’s forgiveness.
Perfection is, then, a process of constant growth in Christ. Those who are growing in Christ are perfect at every step of the process. Ellen G. White wrote regarding this: “The germination of the seed represents the beginning of spiritual life, and the development of the plant is a beautiful figure of Christian growth. As in nature, so in grace; there can be no life without growth. The plant must either grow or die. As its growth is silent and imperceptible, but continuous, so is the development of the Christian life. At every stage of development our life may be perfect; yet if God's purpose for us is fulfilled, there will be continual advancement. Sanctification is the work of a lifetime.”29
Once we understand how God works for our salvation, there are at least three things that happen in the believer when he is in Christ. First, there is love. The believer responds with love to the love of his Savior (1 John 4:19). Second, there is peace because he has been justified. There is no more condemnation. Third, there is growth because God has given the believer the Holy Spirit. This kind of obedience is what Paul calls the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5; Eph. 2:10).
Ellen G. White wrote: “A life in Christ is a life of restfulness. There may be no ecstasy of feeling, but there should be an abiding, peaceful trust. Your hope is not in yourself; it is in Christ. Your weakness is united to His strength, your ignorance to His wisdom, your frailty to His enduring might. So you are not to look to yourself, not to let the mind dwell upon self, but look to Christ. Let the mind dwell upon His love, upon the beauty, the perfection, of His character. Christ in His self-denial, Christ in His humiliation, Christ in His purity and holiness, Christ in His matchless love—this is the subject for the soul's contemplation. It is by loving Him, copying Him, depending wholly upon Him, that you are to be transformed into His likeness.”30
Probably the best illustration of how salvation works is Jesus’ parable of the vine in John 15. The night Jesus died, as He was walking to the Garden of Gethsemane with His disciples, He said to them: “‘I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. . . . I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing’” (John 15:1–5).
The disciples of Jesus immediately understood the meaning of this parable. God considered Israel His own vine through which He was going to bless the world. Thus, God brought His vine from Egypt and planted it in a fertile land (Ps. 80:8–14). Israel, however, corrupted itself and produced bad fruit and was destined for destruction (Jer. 2:21). Then Jesus announced that He was the true vine of God, through whom God would bless the world. Therefore, the disciples needed to be removed from the old vine destined to destruction and to be grafted into Jesus so that they might have life and produce the fruits God desires. Once they were grafted into Christ, they would have life because the trunk sustains and shares His life, the sap, with the branches. This sap represents the Holy Spirit that God gives to those who are in Christ. The Holy Spirit gives them life. When this occurs, the branches are in Christ; they are God’s possession.
Note, however, a very surprising element. Jesus told the disciples that His Father, the divine Vinedresser, still needed to prune the branches. Why would the Father prune the branches if they are in Christ, have the Holy Spirit, and are producing fruits of righteousness through the power of Christ? There is a very simple reason. The branches still carry elements of their original, sinful nature. They have life in Christ but still produce growth that is not appropriate.
“Christ has given His Spirit as a divine power to overcome all hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil, and to impress His own character upon His church.”31 Some branches, perhaps, use the sap to produce too much bark, or to grow very large, or to produce a lot of foliage, but their fruit is not as big and full of flavor as the Father wants. Thus, the heavenly Vinedresser prunes them so that the fruit is bigger and better. And He will continue to do that until Jesus’s second coming. Those branches, regardless their constant need of pruning, are in Christ, have the life of the Spirit, and belong to God. He will come to save them.
Félix H. Cortez, PhD, is Professor of New Testament Literature at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES