Summary: Can a Christian be perfect in Christ yet still be being perfected?
There is much confusion within the Church on this subject. Most Christians seem to agree with the world and say that “nobody is perfect” meaning every Christian is still “imperfect”. We can safely assume they would exempt Christ from these statements. Also in most Christian circles you often hear opposition voiced to something called “Christian Perfectionism” whatever that may mean, since it’s not usually made clear. Let’s see what God has to say on the subject, starting with the following bold statement made by Jesus:
Matt 5:48 (Jesus) Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. NRSV
Jesus says you and I are to be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect. How can this possibly be, with all our weaknesses and the inherent tendency of our human nature to sin? To help get a handle on this let’s consider from God’s perspective the desired spiritual growth of every Christian after they have been born again. For just about every Christian the new birth is followed by a period of time where they live in the flesh, that is, their wills continue to be dominated by their fallen human nature just as it was before the new birth. In this state we are “carnal” or “self ruled” Christians. However, if God has His way and spiritual growth is allowed to occur, some of these Christians will mature, through submission to the Holy Spirit and heart belief of more of God’s revealed words, to the point of beginning to abide or live “in Christ”. What does it mean to live “in Christ”?
Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the (Holy) Spirit.
Let’s assume that to mature spiritually to the point of beginning to live “in Christ”, with our will now directed by the Holy Spirit and not by our human nature, is equivalent to a 6 year old in terms of natural physical growth. Recognizing that 6 years of spiritual growth may actually take anywhere from 6 months to 60 years of chronological time and for many Christians may never be attained (for, to be “in Christ” is to have ceased from all our own works and entered God’s rest – Heb 4:10). This example is reflected in the graph below:
Some may consider that the “in
Christ” maturity level equates
Spiritual My Salvation to a 3 year old in terms of
Growth line natural growth, others to a 15
year old – no problem. The
Living point is let’s now think about
“In Christ” the implications of what living
“in Christ” means from the
standpoint of being perfected.
6 years - of spiritual growth
(which could take anywhere from 6 months to 60 years of natural time – or never)
Spiritual Time in years of equivalent natural growth
The assumption we are making is that a Christian has matured spiritually to the point of starting to live “in Christ”. While he is there his will is in complete submission to God and on a moment by moment basis he is being led by the Spirit of God. Is this possible? Everywhere in New Testament the scriptures speak of abiding “in Christ” and being led by God’s Spirit. In the first 7 verses of John chapter 15 Jesus uses the expression “abide in me” 5 times. The answer therefore is yes. Now, is Christ perfect? Is He without sin? What does that make the Christian who is living “in Him” and currently “one with Him”?
1 John 3:5-6 And you know that He (Jesus) was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin…
Such a Christian may yield at any time to the temptation to sin from the flesh, the world or the devil, and cease to be “in Christ”. But while he is actually “in Christ”, the perfect one, is that Christian perfect? Of course he is, to downgrade him means downgrading Christ. To say nobody’s perfect is to say nobody is “in Christ”. Now we see why the Apostle Paul writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could refer to himself and others as “perfect”:
Phil 3:15 (Paul) Let us therefore, as many as be perfect… KJV
However, in our example the Christian who is perfect “in Christ” was not yet fully mature and only the equivalent of a 6 year old in the natural (or 3 or 15) and therefore not fully grown spiritually, how could he be “perfect”? The answer is that just as in the natural a child may be a “perfect” 6 year old but not yet an adult so too with the spiritual 6 year old. This is why the Apostle Paul a few verses prior to saying that he was perfect (in Christ) also said that he was still being perfected, as in continuing to be made more like Christ: