Chapter 8: We<B> </B>Believe in Christian Perfection

Beliefs That Count
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 8: We<B> </B>Believe in Christian Perfection

God’s grace is manifested not only in the forgiveness of our sins but is also creatively redemptive, the power that works in us to make us perfect in love. Nothing short of perfection, Christlikeness in thought, word, and deed, can measure God’s loving purpose for us. It is our faith that the fundamental change wrought in the individual by regeneration is a dynamic process which by growth in grace moves toward "mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." We may quench the Spirit and fall from grace but our divine destiny is perfect love and holiness in this life.

Do We Believe in Christian Perfection ?

Probably not all readers will agree with what the author writes in this chapter, for the whole matter of Christian perfection is very much disputed. As will soon be evident, the writer believes that Christian perfection -- or holiness, as the doctrine is more popularly called -- stands in one sense for a very important and vital truth. Understood in another sense, it can be a false and even dangerous doctrine.

Numerous sects today -- sometimes called holiness groups and sometimes Pentecostal, although the two terms are not exactly synonymous make much of the experience called "entire sanctification." As usually understood, this idea assumes that God so completely cleanses persons of sin that they afterwards live in perfect holiness. When the term "Pentecostal" is used, it connotes an emphasis on an emotional experience of salvation akin to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, after which this state of holiness is achieved or given. Usually these groups are conservative or fundamentalist in their theology, with a rather rigid set of doctrines based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Because the New Testament speaks of Christ’s return in visible form, the same groups quite often expect this Second Coming in the near future and hence are called adventist or premillennialist. Although there is a fairly common pattern that unites these various views, we are concerned in this chapter only with the doctrine of holiness or sanctification.

Within these groups are deeply committed Christians with a missionary outreach that prompts them to carry the gospel to many lands. If we travel in the Orient today, we can find them everywhere. We cannot, therefore, cast sneering glances in their direction. But we may admire their zeal and still believe them to be more wrong in their beliefs and less sinless in their living than they think themselves to be.

The basic flaw in this understanding of holiness is that it encourages self-deception and a dangerous self-righteousness. It encourages also a sense of superiority at variance with Christian humility, for a man can hardly think himself sinless and others sinful without this attitude. And because he wants to keep himself "unspotted from the world," he sometimes places strong emphasis on such "sins" as wearing lipstick, playing cards, or engaging in other worldly pursuits. Separateness to preserve the purity of belief and practice is thus encouraged rather than co-operation with other Christians for the service of the world. Usually not much fellowship exists either in organization or in personal relations between members of these groups and those in other churches. Sometimes this spirit breaks out in open attacks.

So, if we are to believe in Christian perfection, we must do so on another basis. Let us now see whether or not this is possible.

The Goals We Seek

God’s grace is manifested not only in the forgiveness of our sins but is also creatively redemptive, the power that works in us to make us perfect in love. Nothing short of perfection, Christlikeness in thought, word, and deed, can measure God’s loving purpose for us.

What this statement affirms was said long ago by the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians who wrote, "Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ." (Ephesians 4:15.) "God’s loving purpose for us," the goal that by God’s help we keep pressing toward, is set by Christ, not by the standards of people around us or by our own ideas of what being a successful Christian entails. In short, our deepest desire must be for "Christlikeness in thought, word, and deed."

This is no small matter. It means walking in the way of the cross, being willing to suffer for others, and being true to the call of God even to the uttermost. It means being sensitive to the needs, hurts, and feelings of others and caring enough to speak the loving word and do the loving deed. It means thinking no evil in a censorious spirit of anyone, for while some acts and attitudes must be judged sinful, it was Christ’s way to love the sinner even while condemning the sin. It means absolute integrity in all our dealings. It means concern, not only for those near us but for all God’s children -- our brothers of every race and nation, of every part of the world, and of every station in life. It means concern for those of the unborn future as well as for all persons in the present. Christlikeness in thought, word, and deed means taking our Christian experience and our Christian moral standards into the church, into politics and economics, and into family and community relations. It claims the whole of life.

In short, to be Christlike means to be completely unselfish and completely faithful in our obedience to the call of God. Can anyone say, in full honesty, that he has attained it ? Most of us know persons who have attained this goal to a very high degree, and we rightly call them saints. Yet not one of these pure souls, whose true living is a radiant witness to the power of God in Christian redemption, would think of calling himself perfect. Call him a saint and he will protest, for in his Christian humility and knowledge of himself he knows very well how far short he falls of perfect Christlikeness and holiness.

Someone may say, "Perfect living is indeed impossible for any but our Lord himself. But what Christian perfection means is to be ‘perfect in love,’ that is, perfect in intention and attitude." John Wesley apparently believed in this possibility, although he never carried it to the extremes to which some of his followers have taken it.

Is such a goal really possible? It probably is possible, by the grace of God, to reach a point where we have no conscious awareness of anything but love for God and our fellowmen. If this is not mere hypocrisy or self-righteousness -- and it need not be --it indicates that we have reached the point at which Christian attitudes have become the prevailing pattern of our lives. They have become habitual in the sense that there need not be a tremendous struggle every time an issue presents itself. This is as it should be, although the higher we go in this advance toward Christlikeness the less likely we shall be to boast about it.

But note that we said, "no conscious awareness of anything but love." What of our unconsciousness? Depth psychology has shown what Christians have long known intuitively: that the impulses of sin and selfishness go much deeper than the conscious mind. They gnaw and tear at the defenses of even the best of us. Relatively few sins are committed with the conscious awareness of wrong-doing, for persons have an almost unlimited capacity for rationalizing their impulses until they feel that while something might be wrong for other persons or under other circumstances, it is right for them at that time. The smitings of conscience, if any, come afterward.

And what of our sins of omission through unconcern or self-centeredness? Do we ever do enough for God and our neighbors? Granted that we might get to the point of committing no positive sin, what of the vast range of things we ought to do but have not done? We are driven back to the words of Paul, "None is righteous, no, not one." (Romans 3:10.)

Yet this failure in attainment by no means invalidates our goals. When Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), he said "You must be," not "You shall be." There is an imperative that drives us onward, even as there is a Power that works within us toward this goal. Although we may realize -- and in the present writer’s judgment we must realize -- that we shall never be perfect either in deeds or in attitudes on earth, this fact does not nullify the really great achievements that we see in others. Nor does it exempt us from making the effort. There is still a divine imperative that beckons us forward, and the Holy Spirit goes with us to sanctify our living toward what ought to be an ever increasing holiness.

Growth in Grace

It is our faith that the fundamental change wrought in the individual by regeneration is a dynamic process which by growth in grace moves toward "mature manhood, to the measure of the structure of the fullness of Christ." We may quench the Spirit and fall from grace but our divine destiny is perfect love and holiness in this life.

This affirmation is in considerable measure a restatement of what preceded it. Yet it contains both a positive and a negative note of much importance.

The positive note is the dynamic character of Christian experience. To be a Christian is always a matter of becoming; it is not a problem of static being. After we take the first great step -- whether under the emotional surge of a great revival meeting or in a quieter mood -- we may feel that we are now "in" and wholly different. But does not disillusionment sometimes follow? There may indeed be one great decisive step which changes the orientation of one’s life and, in looking backward, we see it standing out, luminous and clear above all others. It is normal and right that there should be a time of specific decision for Christ, even among those who have been nurtured in a Christian family and church from babyhood. A second-hand experience is never enough, for we do not simply drift into a personal relationship to Christ. Yet this decisive step, which may or may not have a great emotional accompaniment and which may come with dramatic suddenness or by a succession of gradual steps, is never the end of the road. To say we have arrived indicates that we have not really started.

This idea needs to be stressed, for to many people "being saved" means simply being sure of heaven. So fixed is this idea in many minds that it is often difficult to get a discussion of salvation on any other basis. Evangelistic preaching not infrequently centers in "getting right with God" before death overtakes us. Death is a serious matter, and that salvation through Christ must have in it the vista of eternity is basic in Christian faith. But to think of it solely, or even primarily, as salvation from hell and to heaven is to distort the emphasis that Jesus gave it throughout his ministry and teaching. He assured his followers of the certainty of life beyond the grave through the Father’s love, and he had some stern and sobering words to say about divine judgment. Yet the major part of his teaching was directed to the obligations and opportunities of this life rather than the next. Not only the Sermon on the Mount but most of his parables have to do with how we ought to live in the present in responsive obedience to the Father’s will. Essentially what is required of us is God-centered living based on faith and love.

If this is true, we cannot expect all at once to acquire maturity in faith and love. Such maturity, as in all other aspects of human growth, takes time, nurture, practice, and discipline. Accordingly, we ought not to expect a new Christian to have all the maturity of one who has behind him years of Christian living and praying and serving. Paul saw this clearly and spoke of the Corinthian Christians as "babes in Christ" whom he had fed "with milk, not solid food." (1 Corinthians 3 :1, 2.) Yet he could also say in his great hymn of love written to these same Christians, "When I became a man, I gave up childish ways." (1 Corinthians 13:11.) So should it be with all of us, and for this growth God provides both the power and the pattern in Jesus Christ,

Whether or not we shall ever come to "perfect love and holiness in this life" is a question on which many Christians differ. Yet there is no question at all that we are bidden and enabled to grow toward "mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." The injunction that stands as the closing words of Second Peter is basic to the need for and the possibility of growth in Christian holiness: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen."

The possibility, like the obligation, to grow in grace is positive and good. It gives meaning and zest to the Christian life. But what of the other side? Another possibility -- and a peril that must be taken more seriously -- is stated in the words "We may quench the Spirit and fall from grace."

There have been Christians whose implicit if not avowed assumption is "once in, always in." This has even been held by some great theologians, of whom John Calvin is the most noted exponent, as the doctrine of "irresistible grace." Persons who have held this view have done so on the basis of God’s complete sovereignty in salvation. They insist that he elects persons who are to be saved and that he does not thereafter change his mind. Although such a doctrine is not very widely held any more, its effects remain.

Two things must be said unequivocally: first, that it is God who saves us and not we ourselves; and second, that God saves only those who in penitence and obedience respond to his proffered grace. If we do not so respond, we fail to meet the conditions he lays upon us and thus we cannot lay claim to salvation.

If this failure to respond to him is true in regard to the decisive step of accepting Christ as our Lord and Savior, it is equally true of every step along the way. God never ceases to love us; his Holy Spirit never ceases to seek us out. Yet our indifference and unrepentant continuance in sin may "quench the Spirit" in our lives. We can "fall from grace." We can be earnest and grateful recipients of God’s saving grace for a time -- and then backslide.

This fact need not be discouraging, but it should be very sobering. There is no assurance of salvation that permits us to "rest on our oars." But since the choice is always ours, we can trust in God’s love and press forward.

We do this best when our Christian experience is nourished in the fellowship of Christ’s Church and when we are built up thereby in worship and service. So, in the next chapter we shall examine what the Church is and what God through the Church offers and requires of us for our growth in grace.