I once heard a sermon on the necessity of Christian perfection. There was no argument about the subject or the conclusion that those ready for Jesus to come will experience Christian perfection. However, no good can come from this conclusion without showing how it will be possible. Because of our own imperfections, this subject is a very unpopular topic in the Christian world today and very few Christians would have anything to say about it during their worship.
Christian perfection is biblical. Paul told the church at Colossians, “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and irreproachable in His sight” (Colossians 1:21, 22). That sounds like a description of Christian perfection, does it not? In verse 28 he adds, “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.”
There are two general theories regarding Christian perfection. The majority view is that by simply coming to Christ and confessing your sins, the righteousness of Jesus covers you and you are made perfect. However, in reality, that is just the first step in the Christian walk.
Peter understood there was more to it when he said, “… but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’ And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear” (I Peter 1:15–17). There are many Christian theologians and pastors who teach that the judgment is on the basis of your faith but Peter says that it is based on each one’s work, the way you live, which gives evidence of your faith.
Paul said, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ …” (Ephesians 4:11–15).
This text describes a process which happens over a period of time. In fact, it is the work of a person’s lifetime to become sanctified and fit to be in the presence of sinless beings.
In general, there are six points to achieving Christian perfection, or overcoming our natural sinful nature.
David said, “Your word I have hidden in my heart [memorized it], that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11). Memorizing scripture allows you to internalize the essence of a text. The Waldenses were encouraged to memorize Scripture and if they were having trouble, to memorize one word each day. In one year over 300 words would be memorized. Some young Waldensians could quote the entire book of Matthew, John and several of the Epistles.
You will never be without words of comfort and will always have an answer to be able to speak a word in season if the promises are in your head. It will bring spiritual power into your life.
Prayer and Fasting
There was a time when the disciples brought a boy that was possessed with the devil and even though they had cast out devils before, they could not cast out this one. When Jesus came down from the mount of transfiguration, He said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me” (Matthew 17:17). After Jesus had cast the devil out His disciples came to him privately and asked why they couldn’t cast him out. Jesus answered in verse 21: “… this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
There are some sins that will never be overcome without prayer and fasting. Examine your own prayer life to see if you are like Enoch, who talked with the Lord daily. The more he had to do, the more he had to talk to the Lord about.
Prayer and faith are closely related. Mark 9:22 tells the story of the man who brought his mute son to Jesus saying, “… often he [the demon that possessed him] has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Many people feel hopeless like this father in their struggle to overcome their problems. Jesus told the pleading father, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes” (verse 23).
In Matthew 13:58 it says: “Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” Again, the problem is not whether Jesus can work miracles but rather, can you believe? You may be the weakest, most sinful person around and may have been in the bondage of sin your whole life, but you can be delivered if you believe. “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my [struggle with] unbelief’ ” (Mark 9:24)!
Ellen White’s comment on that verse is very encouraging:
“You can never perish while you do this—never.” The Desire of Ages, 429.
“You have not yet resisted unto bloodshed, striving against sin” (Hebrews 12:4). James says in James 4:7, “Resist the devil. …” When temptations come, put up a fight and claim the victory.
Luke 22–23 describes Jesus’ battle in the Garden of Gethsemane where His sweat was like great clots of blood falling on the ground. Truly He fought a hard battle as He “resisted unto bloodshed.”
While in college, one of my besetments was eating donuts. The sweet smell from the college bakery spilled clear out onto the sidewalk, luring me in as I walked past. I would buy a sack of donuts and have them all eaten before I got back to my room. Finally, I determined that the wise thing to do was to avoid walking past the bakery and stay away from the temptation.
Similarly, if your problem is alcohol, do not go and visit with people in the tavern. If pornography, videos, television programs or Internet is your problem, you may need to find a mentor to keep you accountable. Jesus said to pray, “… lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13 KJV). Often you can walk into temptation by not using good judgment.
Practice Health Reform
Paul said, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things” (I Corinthians 9:24).
The word temperate means exercising self-restraint. Paul continues, “Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air, But I discipline my body …” (verses 25–27). The language he uses is stronger than anything I know how to say in English. He says, I keep my body under control. I control my eating, my drinking, my sleeping, my exercise and every area of life; I am under control.
Share your faith with those around you. Revelation 12:11 says, “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.”
When Jesus left this earth, He said to His disciples, “You are My witnesses. You are to bear testimony. You are to bear witness for Me.” You have not been called to be salesmen but witnesses of what you have seen and know.
The last part of Nehemiah 8:10 says, “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
“To praise God in fullness and sincerity of heart is as much a duty as is prayer. We are to show to the world and to all the heavenly intelligences that we appreciate the wonderful love of God for fallen humanity and that we are expecting larger and yet larger blessings from His infinite fullness. Far more than we do, we need to speak of the precious chapters in our experience. After a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit, our joy in the Lord and our efficiency in His service would be greatly increased by recounting His goodness and His wonderful works in behalf of His children.
“These exercises drive back the power of Satan. They expel the spirit of murmuring and complaint, and the tempter loses ground.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 299, 300.
Satan will lose ground in the family where praise services are held and the joy of the Lord is your strength.
There are many who have been endeavoring to put these principles into practice for many years. They are trying to practice health reform, memorizing Scripture and praying. Yet they are perplexed that they are still struggling to overcome sin. It is easy to slip off the path of truth and become like the Pharisees who tried to work out their own salvation by their good works.
“Also He [Jesus] spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself. ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’
“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9–14).
There are several points about the Pharisee who went up to pray:
- He was full of self-praise, saying, “Oh, I am so thankful that I am not like other people.” He looks it. He walks it. He even prays it.
- He draws apart from others because he is better than they are. His body language is like the person talked about in Isaiah 65:5 which says, “… Do not come near to me, for I am holier than you!” And so, it says, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself. …”
- The Pharisee felt, “Well, I’m OK, whether you are or not.” He prayed a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord that he was not an extortioner [a person who takes from others by force, duress, menaces, threats, insubordination, authority, or by any undue exercise of power] like other men—unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.”
- Instead of comparing his own character with the character of God, he judges himself against the character of other men. As a result, his mind is turned away from God to other people. He becomes self-satisfied, figuring that he is better than others. If I compare myself to you, then the worse you are, the better I look.
- He then begins to recount his good deeds. He says, “I fast twice a week …” Not only does he fast twice a week, but he gives tithes – plural. He is giving twenty or more percent of his income, to the church; so he figures that he is in good shape.
The problem is that this man’s religion does not touch his actual soul. It is not a matter of his heart. It is merely something he does, going through all the motions on the outside. He is not seeking for godliness of character. He is not seeking to have a heart that is filled with love and mercy. He is satisfied with a religion that has totally only to do with his outward life. And his outward life looks really good.
The apostle Paul could relate to that experience. He said, “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4–6).
The righteousness of this Pharisee was the fruit of his own works and judged by a human standard. Because he trusts in himself for righteousness, he does what everybody does who trusts in their own righteousness. He despises others.
As he judges himself by other men, so he judges other men by himself, and his righteousness is estimated by theirs. The worse they are, the better he looks. Then his self-righteousness leads him to begin accusing, “I am glad I am not even like this tax collector.”
The Bible identifies the accuser of the brethren as Satan. In Revelation 12:10 KJV we are told: “… for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.”
If my religion leads me to become an accuser, a fault-finder, it is a Satanic religion. We must be careful not to develop the spirit of Satan, which will make it impossible to enter into communion with God. So, Jesus said that man in the parable went down to his house the same way he came in. Those with a similar attitude today go to church and leave again in the same condition they arrived in, with no improvement whatsoever.
The Pharisee went off by himself thinking he was better than everybody else. The tax collector went off by himself because he thought he was worse than everybody else. He did not mingle with the worshipers, because he didn’t feel worthy to unite with them in their devotions. It says he stood “afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes toward heaven, but beat his breast” (Luke 18:13, literal translation). He considered himself a terrible sinner. He was in bitter anguish and abhorred himself with the knowledge that he was sinful and polluted from the evil things that he had done.
In Jesus’ day, the worst thing a woman could do was to be a prostitute or a harlot and the worst thing a man could do was be a tax collector for the Roman government. This tax collector was at the bottom. Other people would not even associate with him and he knew not to expect pity from anybody around him. He was looked upon with contempt and he knew that he had no merit in himself to present to God.
That experience is the only way a person can be saved when they come to God.
“Our only hope is perfect trust in the blood of Him who can save to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him. The death of Christ on the cross of Calvary is our only hope in this world, and it will be our theme in the world to come. Oh, we do not comprehend the value of the atonement! If we did, we would talk more about it. … It is the greatest subject that can engage the human mind. If men would contemplate the love of Christ, displayed in the cross, their faith would be strengthened to appropriate the merits of his shed blood, and they would be cleansed and saved from sin.” The Signs of the Times, December 30, 1889.
The tax collector understood one vital thing: he possessed no merit and no goodness whatsoever in himself. His only chance that anything good could happen to him was if God had mercy upon him, which was his only request. His heart’s desire was to be pardoned.
Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified … .”
What does this have to do with overcoming for those who think they cannot overcome and have tried everything? Ellen White says, “But we must have a knowledge of ourselves, a knowledge that will result in contrition, before we can find pardon and peace. The Pharisee felt no conviction of sin. The Holy Spirit could not work with him.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 158.
Why was this so? He was self-righteous. He did not need anybody else’s righteousness, because he had his own. The trouble is, “We are all an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, literal translation).
Jesus said, “They that are whole do not need a physician” (Matthew 9:12, literal translation). If you do not realize your need, the Lord will not be able to help you.
The patient that the physician cannot help is the one who thinks that everything is okay. He refuses to follow advice, take medicine or do anything because he does not think he is sick. The same applies to spiritual matters. “We must know our true condition, or we shall not feel our need of Christ’s help. We must understand our danger, or we shall not flee to the refuge. We must feel the pain of our wounds, or we shall not desire healing.” The Signs of the Times, April 9, 1902.
The spirit of Phariseeism is the spirit of the Laodicean church. (See Revelation 3:14–22.)
“We must behold Christ. It is ignorance of Him that makes men so uplifted in their own righteousness. When we contemplate His purity and excellence, we shall see our own weakness and poverty and defects as they really are. We shall see ourselves lost and hopeless … .” Christ’s Object Lessons, 159.
When you realize your hopeless condition, you are ready to recognize that you cannot save yourself. There is nothing you can do. You cannot memorize enough Scripture to save yourself, or pray enough, or witness enough, give enough, or practice health reform enough. You cannot perfectly overcome by doing everything you know; you are hopeless without the Lord working a divine miracle inside.
When you come to that realization, then you know of your need to renounce self. “But no man can empty himself of self. We can only consent for Christ to accomplish the work. Then the language of the soul will be, Lord, take my heart; for I cannot give it. It is Thy property. Keep it pure, for I cannot keep it for Thee. Save me in spite of myself, my weak, unchristlike self. Mold me, fashion me, raise me into a pure and holy atmosphere, where the rich current of Thy love can flow through my soul.” Ibid.
Ask the Lord to keep your heart pure because you cannot keep it. Give the Lord permission to do everything that needs to be done in your life. When you are lifted into the pure and holy atmosphere where the current of Christ’s love can fall on your soul, it will change everything. Renunciation of self is to be made at every advance step heavenward.
The story of the publican and the tax collector contains the secret for overcoming for those who think it is impossible having tried everything else. The secret is not something you can do for yourself. It is something that only the Lord can do for you when you recognize your need and ask for His help.
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church of Free Seventh-day Adventists in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: email@example.com, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.