Few doctrines cause more ire and disdain within the ranks of Seventh-day Adventists than God’s call to Christian character perfection.
Christian character perfection is best defined by referring to its synonyms—
- The character of Christ in the life (Philippians 2:5)
- Sanctification (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
- Holiness (1 Peter 1:15)
- Surrender of the will to Christ (Romans 6:13, 16, 19)
- Love to Christ which leads to obeying His commandments (John 14:15)
- Victory over sin (1 John 5:4)
- Complete trust in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:4)
- A character filled with the Holy Spirit (John 20:22; Acts 1:8; 4:8, 31)
- Overcoming the world (1 John 5:4)
- Walking in God’s way (1 Kings 8:58)
- The inclination of the heart of God (1 Kings 8:58)
God’s promise of Christian character perfection is one of the great promises of Scripture. The purpose of the gifts of the Spirit is to bring character perfection to those who desire salvation. “And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11–13.
We notice that the perfection of God’s saints gives them an effective ministry; it edifies Christ’s church; it results in unity of the brethren and increases our knowledge of God and His goodness. Those who allow this transformation to take place in their lives are promised that they will be raised to the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Why Some Despise Christian Perfection
With such immeasurable results of Christian character perfection, well may we pose the question, Who among Christians would despise such an offer and call those who seek the fulfillment of the promise, in their own lives, deceived? Who indeed? But thousands upon thousands of Christians, including not a few Seventh-day Adventist administrators, pastors and lay-people, scorn the concept of Christian character perfection. Why? Surely there can only be one significant reason—sin and worldliness remain dear to their hearts. Yet never has sin brought a single blessing to any one of us.
Sin separates us from God. “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear.”
Isaiah 59:2. No prayer to God is heard while our hearts willfully harbor sin unconfessed and unforsaken unless we kneel to confess our sins and to request the power to forsake them. This is a dire state for any Christian; yet Isaiah and King David declare this fact. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” Psalms 66:18.
We must never forget the power of God. “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither His ear heavy, that it cannot hear:” Isaiah 59:1. He has called mankind to perfection in all ages. Abraham was thus called. “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before Me, and be thou perfect.” Genesis 17:1. The Lord also called Israel to character perfection. “Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God.” Deuteronomy 18:13. And His call to Seventh-day Adventists is “Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.” 2 Corinthians 13:11.
The Spirit of Prophecy, in words so plain that none need doubt, states: “God requires perfection of His children. His law is a transcript of His own character, and it is the standard of all character. This infinite standard is presented to all that there may be no mistake in regard to the kind of people whom God will have to compose His kingdom. The life of Christ on earth was a perfect expression of God’s law, and when those who claim to be children of God become Christlike in character, they will be obedient to God’s commandments. Then the Lord can trust them to be of the number who shall compose the family of heaven.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 315.
The Spirit of Prophecy refers to Christian character perfection numerous times. On each occasion we are exhorted to seek God for the bestowal of just such a character. Without it our salvation is unsecured.
Then, again, we ask, Why do such large numbers of church leaders, pastors and lay-people abhor that which God requires and which it is their privilege to receive? Again the answer is sin. There is no abhorrence of sin and no love of righteousness.
Today, numerous pastors are destroying the faith of their congregations by preaching that we will not have victory over sin until the Second Coming. As they preach this message, they are servants of Satan, for it is he and not Christ who declares this diabolical falsehood. Listen to the inspired word. “The holy life of Abel testified against Satan’s claim that it is impossible for man to keep God’s law.” Patriarchs and Prophets, 77.[Emphasis supplied.]
(If Abel had not kept God’s law his life could not possibly have testified against the arch-deceivers claim.)
“Satan had claimed that it was impossible for man to obey God’s commandments; and in our own strength it is true that we cannot obey them. But Christ came in the form of humanity, and by His perfect obedience He proved that humanity and divinity combined can obey every one of God’s precepts.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 314.
It is a fearful matter for ministers, ordained to preach the precious truths of God, to promote the soul-destructive fabrications of Satan. Yet, today numerous pastors do so without the least concern that they will receive retribution in the day of judgement. How dare they delude the flock on a matter so plain in the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy! How dare they! But dare they do. It is the duty of every layperson, not merely to ignore such sophistries of the devil, but to stand up in the might and power given to Elijah and to earnestly warn their fellow believers sitting in the pews. Such pastors should be excused from setting messages before the congregation. They are unfaithful servants and thus have forfeited their right to stand in the pulpit.
Christian Perfection Is Not Perfectionism
While Sister White always promoted Christian character perfection, she soundly condemns perfectionism on the sole occasion she refers to it. “God will not entrust the care of His precious flock to men whose mind and judgment have been weakened by former errors that they have cherished, such as so-called perfectionism.” Early Writings, 101. (Unfortunately, some translations of this passage translate the word “perfectionism” as “perfection.” One example is the Dutch translation.) On page 301 of the same book, the editors explain that perfectionism refers to the holy flesh movement which arose at the turn of the twentieth century in the state of Indiana. These people held that they had reached a state of moral perfection beyond which there was no further progress to be made and, secondly, that they could never fall from this elevated state of perfection. No wonder the servant of the Lord rejected such spiritual arrogance and error. Yet, those subscribing to the Biblical concept of Christian character perfection are frequently charged with believing perfectionism. How shallow and misleading are the words of those who deny Scripture! It is time for such confusion between Christian character perfection and the ruinous doctrine of perfectionism to be dispelled.
Seventh-day Adventists have never promoted a fanatical view of Christian character perfection. A man possesses a perfect character when he lives up to all the light God has presented to him. Jesus, Himself, stated: “Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, ‘We see;’ therefore your sin remaineth.” John 9:41.
It is only when we possess light and disobey it that sin is recorded against us. When we are “blind” to a truth because God has not yet seen us to be ready for it, despite our seeking for further truth, He does not condemn us. He takes us step by step along the Christian pathway. That is why Paul declared to the Athenians, “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent.” Acts 17:30.
We must never forget that sin is an act of the will. It is the making of a decision to flaunt God’s expressed commandments. Knowledge of God’s will is required before sin is recorded against the soul. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” James 4:17.
In the early days of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, the Sabbath was observed from 6:00pm Friday until 6:00 pm Saturday. After some time, Sister White received a vision which revealed the correct timing of the Sabbath. She was shocked, for the company of Sabbath-keepers had been greatly blessed as they had kept the Sabbath, while breaking the “edges” of that holy day. In reply to Sister White’s concern, the angel replied, “ ‘If light comes, and that light is set aside, or rejected, then comes condemnation and the frown of God; but before the light comes there is no sin, for there is no light for them to reject.’” Testimonies, vol. 1, 116.
Thus, some people who are oblivious of God’s law will be found in God’s kingdom. “Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required.” The Desire of Ages, 638.
More Than the Crucifixion
Since Christian character perfection is developed through obedience to every word of admonition which God has revealed to us at any given point in our Christian experience, is this a genuine possibility for us today? The glorious news is that Christ demonstrated that this is so.
If the single purpose of Christ’s incarnation was to die on Calvary and be raised from the dead, that was accomplished in three days. If, in addition, He needed to train His disciples, this He completed in 3 ½ years. Yet, Christ spent over 33 years upon the earth. Why? So that He could give us an example that as a child, teenager and adult, a man, filled with the Holy Spirit, could overcome sin. “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth.” 1 Peter 2:21, 22.
“The world’s Redeemer passed over the ground where Adam fell because of his disobeying the expressed law of Jehovah; and the only begotten Son of God came to our world as a man, to reveal to the world that men could keep the law of God.
Satan, the fallen angel, had declared that no man could keep the law of God after the disobedience of Adam.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 5, 112.
Bible Examples of Perfection
Has any man reached God’s standard of Christian character perfection? The Scriptures answer emphatically in the positive. “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not, for God took him.” Genesis 5:24.
Does “walking with God” equate with obedience to every commandment? Certainly it does. “Blessed are they that keep His testimonies, and that seek Him with the whole heart. They also do no iniquity: they walk in His ways.” Psalms 119:2, 3. “And hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in Him. But whoso keepeth His word, in Him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in Him.” 1 John 2:3–6.
In these passages we note that walking as Christ walked and in His ways demonstrate the fact that we keep His testimonies, we seek Him whole-heartedly, we do no iniquity, we keep His commandments, the love of God is perfected in us and we abide in Him.
Noah was selected for his holy work because he was such a man. “These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.” Genesis 6:9. So, too, was Job. “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.…And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered My servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?” Job 1:1, 8.
Job eschewed evil and sinned not. God, Himself, proclaimed these facts. Even Satan, the father of liars, could not dispute God’s evaluation of His servant. Satan was compelled to fall back to his claim that Job only possessed a perfect character because God had so abundantly blessed him. Satan claimed that in adversity Job’s perfect character would be seen to be only a fair-weather feature. But despite the worst the devil could bring, “Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.” Job 1:22. Job demonstrated, through the power of God, that perfection of character could be maintained even during severe adversity.
I have often been asked in a churlish manner, “Are you perfect?” Am I? The answer to this question is provided by Job. He was perfect. God declared so on three occasions. But did he boast of his character? Did he even have the slightest inkling of God’s evaluation of his character? He said, “If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse. Though I were perfect, yet would I not know my soul: I would despise my life.” Job 9:20, 21.
All who possess Christian character perfection will only see the sinfulness of their lives as they view the totally sinless life of their Redeemer. They will ever place their total trust in Him, recognizing their human frailties. No boast, no sense of superiority will mar their characters, for they will have fixed their eyes totally upon Jesus.
The 144,000 and Perfection
But one matter is certain, those who will compose the 144,000 will possess Christian character perfection. Review 1 Peter 2:21, 22, quoted earlier. Here we discern that Christ’s character consisted of two characteristics:
- He did not sin.
- No guile was found in His mouth.
Now let us compare the character of the 144,000. Revelation 14:5 says of this number, “And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God.”
It will be seen that these have developed the character of Christ—they have no guile in their mouths and they are faultless before the throne of God. No individual with sin unconfessed and unforsaken in his heart can ever stand faultless before the throne of God. “The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” Zephaniah 3:13.
Christian character perfection is the condition God has prescribed for salvation. The basis for our salvation will ever be the grace (mercy) of our God. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Ephesians 2:8, 9.
I am burdened for God’s precious flock as I am for my dearest loved ones and myself. It is time that daily, moment by moment, we seek the character of Christ. “God’s ideal for His children is higher than the highest human thought can reach. ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ This command is a promise. The plan of redemption contemplates our complete recovery from the power of Satan.” The Desire of Ages, 311.
“From Genesis to Revelation the conditions upon which eternal life is promised, are made plain. God requires that those who shall enter heaven shall be without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. Keep My commandments and live, is the requirement of God.” Review and Herald, September 3, 1901.
Russell Standish is a Seventh-day Adventist minister and physician who has offered long service to the Lord’s work. He currently travels extensively from his home in Australia to speak and evangelize around the world.