Progress Now, Perfection Later

Philippians 3:12-16 - Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

Have you ever done anything in your life with absolute perfection? Of course not! If you're a good student, for example, you must admit that you've never completed an assignment which had no room for further improvement. Even if you got the highest grade on your paper or test, it was hardly a measure of absolute perfection! If you are an outstanding athlete, you are the first to acknowledge that you've never played the perfect game or run the perfect race or participated in any sports event with flawless performance. Even if you were able to far outclass any and all competition and standards in your area of work or expertise, you certainly realize that you're not perfect. In fact, it is always the true artists and experts in any field who readily admit that they fall far short of perfection. True experts become more aware of their mistakes and shortcomings as they advance toward perfection! It is only the pseudo or would-be perfectionists that have the audacity to claim flawlessness.

The same is true in the moral realm. Those Christians who have come to know and appreciate the perfect righteousness and infinite holiness of God are the first to admit that they fall far short of sinless perfection. It is only those Christians who have either a lower view of God's standards of perfection or a distorted view of God's definition of sin who dare to believe that they can reach a state of sinless perfection in this life. Some of these Christians may actually profess that they have already attained the goal of moral perfection, but does the Bible teach that we can reach a state of sinlessness in this life? No way! A good way to summarize the Bible's teaching on this subject would be "progress now and perfection later."

In Philippians 3:12­16, the apostle Paul states in no uncertain terms that he had not become perfect in this life (v12). Would we dare to claim that we are living a holier life than the apostle Paul, an outstanding, committed Christian? Who can measure up to such a model? And yet Paul readily admitted that he was far from perfection. He even referred to himself as the "chief of sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15). Notice, however, that Paul didn't give up when he realized that he couldn't attain perfection in this life! In verses 12 and 13 he tells us that he was continuing to press forward and that he was expecting to make progress. He was looking forward to the time when he would become perfect, but that time would come in the future when he would be with the Lord. In fact, finally reaching the state of perfection and being fully conformed to the image of Christ was to be part of the prize upon reaching heaven (v14). The teaching of this Scripture is quite clear: there can be and should be moral progress in this life now, but moral perfection will not come until later.

The fact that Philippians 3 teaches that sinless perfection is not possible in this life does not contradict other Scriptures which, at first glance, appear to teach differently. For example, it does not contradict the exhortation in 1 Peter 1:16 to "be holy, for I am holy." Even though perfect holiness is the standard to which God calls us, 1 Peter 1:16 does not teach that we can actually become holy in this life or that God expects us to become sinless in this life. Notice that the verse is not "be holy as I am holy," but "be holy for (or because) I am holy." It is a matter of God's standard. God's holiness, and nothing less, is the standard to which we are called. It is the standard by which we measure moral progress--even though we cannot attain moral perfection in this life. We certainly wouldn't expect a holy God to command his creatures, even though imperfect, to be less than holy! Good parents know that their children aren't perfect, but that doesn't mean they tell their kids to sin only a little bit! No, they say not to sin at all--even though they know this is not possible.

Another Scripture that might seem to contradict the teaching of our text is 1 John 3:9, which states that "whoever is born of God does not commit sin." At face value this verse seems to imply that sinless perfection is not only possible for a Christian, but actual for every Christian. If this is the interpretation, then every Christian had better start worrying whether he has salvation or not! But how could the apostle John write this when he had just written, "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8), and also, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us" (1 John 1:10)? The answer is found in the verb tense which is used in both 1 John 3:9 and 1 John 5:18. It is the Greek present tense and is better translated "practice sin" or "continue to sin." That is, a true Christian will not habitually sin or lead a life of sin. The profession of anyone claiming to be born of God and yet continuing to live in sin should be suspect. Moral progess is the expected norm of the true Christian, not moral perfection.

Christians are "new creatures" or "new creations" according to 2 Corinthians 5:17. Does this fact contradict the teaching that sinless perfection is not possible in this life? No! As a new creature in Christ, a believer has new spiritual life--life which is from God Himself. Although it is true that this new life is characterized by a divinenature (2 Peter 1:4) which does not sin and is morally perfect, a believer is still capable of sinning. Why? Because of what the New Testament calls "the flesh." While we Christians are new persons in our essential nature (so much so that the Scripture uses "born again" or "born from above" to describe the radical change), there is the possibility that we will sin because "the flesh" is still with us. "The flesh" as used in Scripture may be defined as those natural, selfish tendencies which we all have as part of the fallen human race. The flesh will be with us until we die or the Lord returns. Praise God, it will not be a part of our new resurrected bodies!

While selfish desires will never be eliminated in this life, they can be controlled by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus we are told in Galatians 5:16 to "walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh." We are also promised in Romans 6:14 that "sin shall not be master over you." So it is true that as believers, with new life in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we don't have to sin. We can never say we were "forced to sin" or "had to sin." However, because of "the flesh" we must also admit that we do sin. Remember, there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission, and it is impossible to attain a state of sinless perfection in this life. Where is the Christian business person who is fully committed in the area of stewardship-time, talent and money? Where is the Christian husband who loves his wife "as Christ loved the church" (Ephesians 5:25)? Where is the Christian student who always has the perfect balance between studies, social life and Christian service. Let's admit it. We can make progress now, but perfection is beyond our reach. Perfection will come later.

Because we can't attain moral perfection in this life, should we throw in the towel and give up any attempt at progress? Of course not! That's like telling the athlete or student or craftsperson to give up because he or she will never be flawless. The mature attitude, of course, is for each of us to do our best, and to encourage other believers to do their best. And that's exactly what we are exhorted to do in Philippians 3:15. "All of us who are mature (the word `perfect' here in the KJV and NAS means `mature'), should take such a view of things." What view of things? What attitude should we take? Progress now, perfection later! We cannot attain moral perfection in this life but we can make progress. According to verse 16, our attitude is wrong if we stop trying to make progress or if we say, "Moral progress doesn't matter since Christ has taken care of all our sins." While we cannot attain moral perfection, we should move ahead by "living up to what we have already attained." Are we living up to what we have already attained? Are you making incremental progress? Am I? Are our prayers as self-centered today as they were five years ago, or are they more concerned about God's plans for others? Is our patience and forbearance with fellow-believers improving (even with the "social misfits" and people who rub us the wrong way)? What about our tastes in reading materials and TV and videos (not just how we regulate these areas, but our tastes)? Have they changed? Have we progressed even a little bit in the right direction? And how are we doing in the areas we don't often think about, like telling the "unvarnished" truth, or paying back small debts, or returning borrowed items? We need to make moral progress in every area of our lives!

Suppose we disagree with the teaching and the example of the apostle Paul in Philippians 3, for one reason or another? Suppose we feel that moral perfection is possible in this life? Or suppose we lean toward the opposite extreme--that even moral progress is not possible in this life? What does God's Word advise us to do? According to the last part of verse 15, we should be willing to let God give us further insight concerning this teaching. There is a promise given to us here that "if on some point we think differently, that too God will make clear to us." Let's take God at His Word! Let's meditate (with minds that are open to the Holy Spirit's guidance) on this portion of the Bible, as well as the related Scriptures that we have looked at, and see if God does not indeed show us that the teaching of Philippians 3:12-16 is "progress now and perfection later."
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