Nobody's perfect. That truth, which ought to make us tremble before a God who is holy, holy, holy, is usually invoked to excuse sinful behavior. How often do we hear people brush aside their own wrongdoing with the casual words, “Well, after all, nobody's perfect”? There is accuracy in the statement, but it should be a timid confession, not a flippant means of justifying sin.
Despite God’s transforming work in salvation, and the new nature we enjoy as His children in Christ, we still fall short of His righteous standard. Scripture recognizes our lingering imperfection. Even the apostle Paul wrote,
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. (Philippians 3:12‑14, emphasis added)
We all fall short of perfection. Paul teaches us that our own imperfection should only spur us on toward the goal of complete Christlikeness. When we begin to use our human frailty as an excuse from guilt, we are walking on dangerous ground. We must continue to press on toward the goal: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). It is folly to think that being imperfect somehow provides us with a legitimate excuse to exempt us from God’s perfect standard.
Futile Striving and Spiritual Distractions
Ironic as it may seem, however, it is equally dangerous—and possibly more so—to think spiritual perfection is something attainable by Christians in this lifetime. Church history is littered with examples of sects and factions who taught various versions of Christian perfectionism. These groups have either made utter shipwreck of the faith or been forced to modify their perfectionism to accommodate human imperfection.
Every perfectionist inevitably comes face‑to‑face with clear and abundant empirical evidence that the residue of sin remains in the flesh and troubles even the most spiritual Christians throughout their earthly lives. In order to hang onto perfectionist doctrine, they must redefine sin or diminish the standard of holiness. Too often they do this at the expense of their own consciences.
The Bible clearly teaches that Christians can never attain sinless perfection in this life. “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9). “For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (James 3:2). “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Galatians 5:17). “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
All perfectionism is essentially a disastrous misunderstanding of how God works in sanctification. Sanctification is a process by which God—working in believers through the Holy Spirit—gradually moves them toward Christlikeness (2 Corinthians 3:18). That the transformation is gradual—not instantaneous, and never complete in this lifetime—is confirmed by many passages of Scripture.
As we noted earlier, Paul wrote near the end of his ministry that he was not yet perfect (Philippians 3:12). He told the Romans, “Be [constantly being] transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). And to the Galatians he wrote that he labored with them “until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Sanctification will not end “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). He urged them to stop being children, susceptible to error and trends. How were they to do that? By seeking a sudden experience? No, he wrote, “Grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:14‑15, emphasis added).
Likewise Peter instructed believers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). He wrote, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).
How Does Sanctification Work?
Sanctification is not doctrine for advanced Christians only. Nothing in the Christian life is more practical than a right understanding of how the Holy Spirit works to conform us to Christ’s image. Conversely, it is hard to imagine anything that undermines spiritually healthy Christian living more disastrously than a misunderstanding of sanctification.
The word sanctify in Scripture comes from Hebrew and Greek words that mean “set apart.” To be sanctified is to be set apart from sin. At conversion, all believers are disengaged from sin’s bondage, released from sin’s captivity—set apart unto God, or sanctified. Yet the process of separation from sin is only begun at that moment. As we grow in Christ, we become more separated from sin and more consecrated to God. Thus the sanctification that occurs at conversion only initiates a lifelong process whereby we are set apart more and more from sin and brought more and more into conformity with Christ—separated from sin, and separated unto God.
Maturing Christians should never become self‑justifying, smug, or satisfied with our progress, because the more we become like Christ, the more sensitive we are to the remaining corruptions of the flesh. As we mature in godliness our sins become more painful and more obvious to ourselves. The more we put away sin, the more we notice sinful tendencies that still need to be put away. This is the paradox of sanctification: The holier we become, the more frustrated we are by the stubborn remnants of our sin. The apostle Paul vividly described his own anguish over this reality in Romans 7:21‑24:
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
The Wrong Response
Not all believers respond to the growing realization of their sinfulness in a biblical way. Though some are driven to despair over their inability to discipline and will themselves to holiness, there is a growing tendency to depreciate the seriousness of sin. They embrace their imperfections and are cavalier about their sin.
Next time we’ll consider how that attitude abuses God’s grace.
(Adapted from The Vanishing Conscience.)