Sanctification: Can Christians Achieve Sinless Perfection Now?

Some major denominations have taught this. What do the Scriptures say?

Some verses in the Scriptures seem to speak of sinless perfection in the believer in the here and now: “Be ye perfect therefore as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). “We may present everyone perfect in Christ” (Col. 1:28). “Through one sacrifice he has made perfect for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). “Strive for perfection” (2 Cor. 13:11). “No one who abides in him sins” (1 John 3:6).

However, there are three reasons to challenge the assumption that we can reach sinless perfection in this life.

First, much of biblical testimony says we are on a journey with failures and sins. 1 John 1:9 says that if we sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins. And this is clear: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:10).

The verses in 1 John about those who do not sin comes in the context of wild teachers—proto-Gnostics—who said that the human body is nothing so it is okay to sin. John replied that anyone who sins—deliberately and care-freely sins—is not of God, but of the devil (3:8). In other words, the teaching is devilish, so don’t fall for it.

Next, in those verses the verb tense is present continuous, so when they tell us things like the he who is born of God does not sin could be translated: “he does not continuously and habitually sin.” Sinning flagrantly and with abandonment and flouting God’s law as the proto-Gnostics wanted them to believe is clearly wrong and immoral.

Further, Paul denies sinless perfection here in his earthly body, but he is progressively towards a goal. Phil. 3:12-14: “Not that I have already taken hold or have already been perfected, but I pursue so I may take hold of that which I have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained, but one thing: forgetting what is behind, I reach towards the things in front of me; I pursue the goal, the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Then it goes on to say that if you are mature, you will thing in this way. The verb “perfected” and the adverb “mature” come from the same Greek stem tel– (see below).

The Scriptures affirm certain people relatively blameless or righteous. Noah was a righteous and blameless man (Gen. 6:9). Daniel, Noah, and Job are named as persons of righteousness (Ezek. 14:14, 20). In the New Testament Zechariah and Elizabeth are called righteous and blameless (Luke 1:6). Paul says deacons and elders are blameless (1 Tim. 3:10 and Tit. 1:5-6). He also says that we are to be preserved blameless in spirt, soul, or body.

These figures are righteous and holy, relative to others around them. They were mature. Paul writes in Eph. 4:13-14 that believers are called to attain unity of the faith and the knowledge of Christ, to mature manhood (“mature” has the Greek stem tel– in it, more on that below). Satan and people around them did not have grounds to accuse them of social misconduct. Let’s use the example of your neighbor. Your visible acts of social misconduct before your neighbor should be so minimal—or nonexistent—that he says you are blameless and a good neighbor to him. He cannot claim that you have achieved sinless, moral perfection in your soul, but your outward behavior is exemplary. So this is relative or comparative righteousness or perfection or blamelessness.

Second, the Bible affirms that at the death of the believer or at the return of Christ the believer will be entirely sanctified. 1 John 3:2 says that when Christ appears we shall be like him. 1 Thess. 3:12-13 teaches Jesus would establish our hearts blameless in holiness before God and Father at the coming of the Lord Jesus. So we will achieve sinless moral perfection only in heaven and the Messianic Age.

Third, we must distinguish between the goal and the fulfillment of perfection. We allow God to work in our lives through the perfection of Christ, not ours. The thrust of Scripture is that sanctification is progressive. Gal. 5:16-26 says that we struggle against the flesh or the sin nature. Rom. 7:14-25 also teaches the struggle. Finally, Peter teaches us that we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18).

Let’s move on to other points.

As for the verses in the Introduction to this post, with the word “perfection” in them, it comes from the Greek stem tel– which means moving or reaching towards a goal or end (as in end-zone in football). An acorn naturally grows towards being an oak tree, the goal; a baby dolphin grows naturally to be an adult, the end result. Humans also grow towards adulthood, whether they are in Christ or not. This is not to say that a human naturally progresses towards perfection, because the sin nature can drag him down. But in Christ and through the Spirit, the person does grow spiritually and morally towards the end-goal, to be like Christ or like the Father, which is spiritual adulthood or maturity.

Bottom line: the tel– stem has been translated in older versions as “perfect” or “perfection.” However, they should be translated as “full maturity” or “maturity,” and the modern versions reflect the better understanding in most cases.

However, in Matt. 5:48, which says Jesus’s disciples should be perfect as their Father is perfect, it would not make sense to say to be “fully mature” as the Father is “fully mature.” In its context this verse is talking loving your enemies and going beyond loving those whom you already love. What reward would you get for that? Even tax collectors do that. In the parallel verse, Luke says that we should be merciful as our Father is merciful (6:36). In fact, the Greek more accurately can be translated as “become merciful.” So perhaps we should say the Father is completely merciful and loves everyone. So should we, but only by his grace. Yet, one is allowed to say that we grow towards this perfectly or completely merciful and loving attitude. There is progress in the process, and then we will be perfectly complete when we die and receive our new bodies and more fully divine nature.

So what about being sinlessly perfect?

It would create pride to believe you cannot sin in this life, after salvation and regeneration (reborn). You might strut around and claim you are perfect, through sanctification. Or it may lead you to hypocrisy because inevitably you will fail and sin, and then your words and deeds won’t match up. Or it could lead to striving and anxiety to walk on a tightrope that God never laid out for you. You may give up your faith. Or it could lead you to fear the final judgment because you don’t know whether you have done enough good deeds or been good enough in your humanity to secure your salvation.

All of those options will eventually lead to self-destruction.

One option is to believe, as some Word of Faith teachers claim, that your spirit—the deepest part of you—is perfect, but your soul and body are not. The reply to this belief is that this does not make sense because the Scriptures teach progressive transformation and sanctification (beginning to the end *********. You grow as you go. Another reason this belief in a perfect human spirit does not make sense is that when you face judgment, God will not treat you like a three-flavored ice cream cone—spirit (vanilla), soul (strawberry), and body (chocolate). And then he won’t say to you at judgment: “Since your spirit is perfect, I don’t need to judge it, so I’ll lay it aside. Instead, I’ll judge only your imperfect soul and body.” No, God sees you as a whole person, and sin infects all of you, spirit, soul, and body, and sanctification is for every part of you. We are a “package deal.”

So how does this post help me grow in Christ and holiness and sanctification?

As noted in the other posts:

Sanctification literally means the process or act (-ion) of making (fic-) holy (sanct-). It could be called by the made-up and awkward term “holy-fication.” So once God consecrates you at your salvation-conversion, it becomes a process; don’t feel bad if you stumble once in a while. Just get up and realize that your walk in holiness is a long, long process of growing in Christ.

In the New Testament, it is used in the past tense, (believers have been sanctified), present tense (believers are being sanctified), and future tense (believers will be sanctified).

1 Cor. 1:30 says Christ has become our sanctification. This biblical truth works out like this:

Positional or declarative: Christ has become your sanctification or holiness (or perfection).

Experiential: Christ works out in you his sanctification or his holiness (or his perfection) daily.

The positional and experiential happen at the same time. If you have any perfection in you, it is Christ himself alone living in you through the Spirit, not you. And he is leading you to become more like him throughout your entire life.

Compare holiness with wisdom that is also in 1 Cor. 1:30. Christ has become your wisdom; that’s your declared position in him, though you are not perfectly wise in practice.

The next time someone asks you if any part of you is perfect, tell him no. Then tell him that the only thing perfect in you is Christ through his Spirit. And his dwelling in you has nothing to do with your self-made righteousness. He lives in you, even though you are flawed and despite your sins. That’s his grace. Tell him that Christ is now leading you to be more like him, throughout your entire life.

If someone asks you whether you will ever achieve sinless, moral perfection towards the end of your life, tell him no because the presence of sin permeates your human nature, body, soul and spirit. However, the more you grow in Christ and walk in the Spirit, the more clearly and fully you become like him and the more the power of sin (distinct from its presence which will never evaporate in our current bodies) falls away (Rom. 6:12-23).

In other words,

Initial sanctification ≠ Sinless, moral perfection

There’s progress in the process, until you die or the Lord returns. Only then will you be morally, sinlessly perfect.

Justification is different from sanctification in these ways:

Justification Sanctification
Legal standing Internal condition
Once and for all time Continuous throughout life
Entirely God’s work We cooperate with God
Perfect in this life Imperfect in this life
The same in all Christians Greater in some than in others
Source: Grudem, p. 746

As noted in the other posts, the only slight disagreement is that God declares us holy only because he transfers us from darkness to light, from the profane to the sacred; we are consecrated to him, no longer to the world. But now we work it out. Justification and sanctification are linked, but distinct. The order is really logical, not sequential in time, according to NT theology. That is, logically, legal declaration by God comes before we humans practice holiness and righteousness. Logically, we receive righteousness as a free gift before we can have it infused in us by the work of the Spirit. (If we believed that our holiness logically came before God’s gift of righteousness, Paul would say his theology was turned upside down and out of order.) Logically, your personal sanctification never launches God’s declaration of your right legal standing and your being born again (regeneration), or else Christianity would resemble other religions, particularly certain strands of Saul’s / Paul’s old Judaism. Just the opposite is the case. Your repentance (by grace) and your saving faith (by grace), and your new birth (by the Spirit) and God’s declared righteousness–all of this at the same time–launches your sanctification process.

Written by James Malcolm

RELATED

Bible Basics on Sanctification and Holiness

What Is Sanctification?

How Is Sanctification Done?

Sanctification of the Whole Person: Spirit, Soul, and Body

Sanctification: Can Christians Achieve Sinless Perfection Now?

Sanctification: Past, Present, Future

SOURCES

Works Cited at Renewal Theology

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