Striving Toward Perfection

Dr. Brian Allison

Are you dissatisfied? Are you a dissatisfied Christian? Do you wish that you were more holy, more righteous, more godly? Do you wish that you were more zealous, more active, more earnest? Do you wish that you were more committed to Christ, more faithful to Him, more sold out for Him? I trust that you are dissatisfied with your present spiritual condition and attainment.

Now, assuming that you are dissatisfied, are you also determined? Are you a determined Christian? Are you determined to be more holy, more righteous, and more godly; determined to be more zealous, more active, more earnest; determined to be more committed to Christ, more faithful to Him, more sold out for Him? This determined-dissatisfied dynamic ought to characterize the true Christian. R. M. M'Cheyne (1813-1843), a faithful minister of the Gospel, wrote, for example, in his journal on his birthday of May 21st, "This day I attained my twenty-first year. Oh, how long and how worthlessly I have lived, Thou [God] only knowest!" – dissatisfied with his spiritual condition and attainment. In another place in his journal, he wrote, "Reading H. Martyn's Memoirs. Would I could imitate him, giving up father, mother, country, house, health, life, all – for Christ. And yet, what hinders? Lord, purify me, and give me strength to dedicate myself, my all, to Thee!" – determined to advance spiritually. M'Cheyne was dissatisfied, and yet determined.

No perfection in this life

This 'dissatisfied, yet determined' dynamic should be the typical experience of the Christian. It is something that we ought to expect. That was the experience of the apostle Paul. Philippians 3:12-14 reads, "Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect [implying dissatisfaction], but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus [implying determination]. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do [stressing determination]: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." I have devoted three articles to these verses. In this first article, we will consider verses 12 and 13a – "Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect... Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet." Notice the apostle's repetitive speech. He is obviously emphatic, which underscores the importance of the truth disclosed.

Here we have the apostle's self-assessment. We have here his sober, reasoned self-evaluation concerning his spiritual condition – "I have not yet obtained it, nor have I yet become perfect." Of course, he here drew a conclusion in light of what he had already disclosed. In the previous verses, the apostle had stated, first, that everything is ultimately profitless in comparison with gaining and knowing Christ – "Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Php. 3:7). Not only did the apostle consider everything ultimately profitless in comparison with gaining and knowing Christ, but he, second, viewed everything as ultimately worthless in comparison with gaining and knowing Christ – "For whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ" (3:8a). Accordingly, for the apostle Paul, third, the only thing that ultimately matters is gaining and knowing Christ, that is, securing and having fellowship with Him – "That I may [experientially] know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead" (3:10).

Thus, having stated this tremendous aspiration, the apostle did not want his readers to misunderstand him; he did not want them to draw the wrong conclusion concerning his present spiritual condition and attainment; and so he affirmed that though he entertained the aspiration of knowing Christ in all His fullness, of securing Christ in all His beauty, of experiencing the depth of heavenly fellowship in all its magnitude, he had not yet obtained it, nor had he already become morally perfect. These would be future events. As the great apostle Paul considered where he was spiritually, now coming to the end of his life (he probably wrote this epistle in 61 AD, about 6 years before his death), he declared, "No, there is much more for me to experience: more holiness to acquire, more righteousness to secure; more spiritual fellowship to enjoy; there is so much more."

Of course, this language of dissatisfied deficiency and imperfection implies the need for progression, doesn't it? As Christians, we should be progressing toward that ultimate goal of knowing Christ in His fullness and of becoming spiritually and morally perfect. What the apostle Paul implies here is that this progression toward the goal is a lifetime endeavour. My Christian brothers and sisters, there is no perfection this side of glory, regardless of what you think or believe. Now, that is a simple truth, but I think we need to be reminded of it in order to spare ourselves much frustration and disappointment.

When I wake up in the morning, I try to immediately direct my thoughts to the Lord and offer a prayer of consecration, saying, "Lord, I am here to give myself to You again today. Lord, I consecrate myself to You again today. Lord, I want to be a living sacrifice to You again today." However, after I leave the bedroom, it sometimes only takes a short while before I am confronted with the little irritants of life; and I find myself becoming frustrated and upset; and I think, "What happened to that prayer of consecration?" Frustration! – I experience it constantly, and I need to be reminded of this truth, "Not that I have already obtained it, or have already been made perfect."

So, we ought to be dissatisfied with our present spiritual condition, but we ought not to be discouraged, nor should we feel defeated, because this dissatisfaction ought to motivate us. I trust that your dissatisfaction of missing the mark – of not being all that you spiritually want to be, and all that God spiritually wants you to be – is motivating you to be all that you can be in Christ. That is one of the primary designs of dissatisfaction. For instance, I have been studying Greek for the past 20 years. I have had the opportunity to teach this language at a Bible College. Right now I am teaching it at a Seminary; and I am still dissatisfied with my level of competency. But that dissatisfaction is motivating me. I am continually studying Greek grammar texts and word-lists in order to become more competent. That is what dissatisfaction should do; it should motivate you to press on to reach a higher goal. So it was with the apostle Paul.

Imperfection because of self and sin

What did the apostle Paul have in view with his statement, "Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect"? What was the challenge that was before him? – well, of course, self and sin. The apostle had to still deal with these two dastardly culprits; and so must we. In this life, you will continue to deal with sin and self. Accordingly, you will continue to make bad decisions; you will continue to entertain bad judgements; you will continue to speak inappropriate words; you will continue to offend and hurt people. You too will utter (as the apostle did), "For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me" (Rm. 7:19,20).

There will yet be times when you yell and scream at a family member. There will yet be times when you become irritated and annoyed with a co-worker. There will yet be times when you misunderstand and judge your Christian brothers and sisters. Charles Simeon (1759-1836), an esteemed minister of the Church of England, was noted for his holy consecration. He was minister of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, and served there for over 50 years. He was the founder of the Low Church Party of Anglicanism. Now, throughout his life, he continued to wrestle with his anger, even to the point of becoming violent. This was his 'Achilles' heel'. Similarly, J. C. Ryle (1816-1900), also of the Church of England, a notable minister and writer, also struggled with his anger. He has produced some beneficial and much appreciated educational and devotional works that are still read today. It was Ryle whom I found very instructive in the area of holiness. One summer I read his book, Holiness, which helped lay a solid foundation for me. And yet, apparently, this godly man continued to struggle with anger. He had an 'Achilles' heel'.

And you too have your 'Achilles heel' (or 'Achilles' heels!) – things that you will continue to wrestle and struggle with because you must continue to deal with sin and self. Now, don't misunderstand me. I am not condoning sinning, nor am I licensing sinning, nor am I justifying sinning; I am simply trying to explain it in order that we might have a proper understanding and approach to it. Yet, even though we will continue with sin and self, even to our dying day, we are still more than conquerors through Him who loved us. We can still be overcomers. We can still be victorious in Christ's Spirit. Christ Himself overcomes for us and in us; and we must depend upon Him, and rest in Him, and experience the infilling of His Spirit. This is the only way that we can overcome sin and self. So, we must continue to battle against sin and self; and yet we can be overcomers. We must hold these two truths in tension.

The Christian life indeed demands energy and commitment. Positive change and progress do not simply happen. There must be Christ-centred, Christ-motivated effort. Let us not become complacent, saying, for instance, "Well, God has got to do it. He has to reveal Himself. He has to give the power. So, I will just wait until He gives me the power." We are not to be complacent. Much less are we to be cynical. There are many cynical Christians who say, "You can never be holy or righteous. There is no point striving or making an effort toward any goal. It is a waste of time. You can never be different." We, as Christians, should be committed and devoted, working out our salvation with fear and trembling, with the confidence that God is working in us, both to will and to do His good pleasure.

So, we need to keep things in balance. In our realistic reflection and understanding, we are to resolve to press on. Isn't that the language of the apostle Paul? Having stated that he had not yet obtained full knowledge, nor had not as yet become morally perfect, he affirmed, "But I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus." He, in effect, declared, "I must secure Him, but my confidence is that I will reach the goal because of His first securing me." That ought to be your confidence. Again, dissatisfaction ought to translate into determination, pressing on.

Striving to be perfect

Now, there is a subtle difference between striving to be perfect, and striving towards perfection. On the one hand, there are those who are striving to be perfect, and that is the wrong goal. If you are striving to be perfect, then realize that this path typically leads to legalism, which results in spiritual bondage. What we are looking at, my brothers and sisters, is a man-made religion. A number of years ago, I used to be a Sabbatarian – someone who approached Sunday as the Sabbath in a very strict, regimented way-a way consisting of rules and regulations (e.g. no television watching). It created a very stifling and miserable atmosphere. Again, when you are striving to be perfect, you often end up with legalism, which results in bondage. And if that is the case, rather than a healthy dissatisfaction, which is motivational, you will end up with an unhealthy discontentment, which is deflating and ultimately paralyzing.

But further, if you are striving to be perfect, it suggests a subtle self-reliance and self-dependency. Christian living thus reduces to something you personally do (i.e., change and progress primarily result from self-effort). You say, for instance, "I must keep myself from that. I must accomplish this. I must do it." It has every appearance of religion; but it really is sin. For instance, someone may hear a message on prayer and be thoroughly inspired, "O, it was tremendous hearing that catalogue of saints who rise at four in the morning, praying for several hours, getting ready for the day. That is great. That is what I want. Starting tomorrow, I will pray from 4:00-8:00 a.m." Now, such intense prayer is good, if you undertake such a practice with a spirit that can support it. But I am suggesting to you that often when we are inspired and motivated, it is not of the Spirit, but of the flesh. And, as a result, it will die. How many times have you had the good intention, "This is it. I am turning the corner now. I have got it now, Lord. There is no more looking back." And thus you zealously persist for a few weeks, and then it dies. Remember, nothing of the Spirit dies; but if it is of the flesh, it will. If you are relying upon yourself (with respect to intense prayer), saying, "I am going to drag myself out of bed, even if it kills me." You know what? If you keep it up, it may kill you. You must have a spirit to support it, and that comes from God.

Further, with striving to be perfect, you have self at the centre; whereas striving towards perfection, you have the Spirit at the centre. Remember, it is the Spirit who perfects. Only He can. It is the Spirit who sanctifies. Again, only He can. Thus, we need to be dependent upon Him (and not self). We need to trust in Him (and not self). To be sure, we have a responsibility to respond to the Lord, to cry out to God, to trust in His name; but it is God who changes us, it is He who actually conforms us to the image of His Son. He works in us both to will and to do His good pleasure, but we have the responsibility to respond. Consider Galatians 3:1-3, "You foolish Galatians, [we do not find Paul using this language too often, yet he does here in addressing believers who were striving to be perfect, trusting in themselves] who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh [Was it a matter of self-effort, something you did, or was it simply a matter of receiving from God and advancing by the help of the Holy Spirit, having heard the truth]?"

That is the tragedy with some Christians. They begin the Christian life trusting in God, resting in Christ, waiting upon God to work in their lives, not depending upon themselves (their regimented behaviour, applying their rules – their do's and their don't's); they begin in the Spirit, and then, for some reason, they slip back into depending upon the flesh. Do you see the subtlety? You can be doing good things: you can be praying, you can be meditating on and reading the Bible, you can be attending the prayer meeting, etc., and yet have a bad heart, wrong motivations – "I am going to do it because sister so and so is doing it;" "I am going to do it because I want to please the pastor.;" "I am going to do it because I want people to think well of me;" etc. They begin in the Spirit, but they slip back into the flesh.

How do you know the difference between striving to be perfect (which reveals the self-life) and striving toward perfection (which is walking in the Spirit)? First, what does striving to be perfect look like? Well, there are a number of things that can be said; but certainly one thing is that you know that you are striving to be perfect, trusting in yourself, when you are more concerned about what people think about you, than what God thinks about you; when you are more concerned about your image, which says such things as, "Come on now, act right, children; what will the Church think of us?" or "We must go to that meeting because what will they think if we do not show up." You are more concerned about your image and reputation than about where you stand with God and knowing His approval.

You are striving to be perfect in the flesh when you put more emphasis on appearance and externals. And so, when you fail, you say to yourself something like this, "I am going to try harder. I'll get it right next time. I'll beat it next time. Yes, I'll just grit my teeth and bear down. Tomorrow is another day." Yes, tomorrow is another day, and you will do the exact same thing. Many professing Christians say, for instance, "I am going to get involved in the Lord's work. I have been sitting on the sidelines for far too long; and then others will know that I am serious about the work. I will now show myself committed to the work, and the pastor will be happy too." If that is your motivation, my friend, then do not bother. As much as it would be nice to see you involved in the Lord's work, if you have a bad heart, do not bother. God does not accept your sacrifice.

Striving toward perfection

Well, then, what does striving towards perfection look like? As we have already implied, there will be more of a concern about what God thinks than about what people think – "Well, if I don't come out to the 4 or 5 meetings a week, God knows my heart. He knows that I am seeking Him. He knows where I stand. He knows whether I am being faithful or not. He knows my motivations. I am only answerable to Him." As the apostle writes, "But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God" (1 Cor. 4:3-5).

The stress here is on the proper motives and desires of the heart; and, thus, when you fail, you do not say, "Next time I'll try even harder." But rather, you confess your sin to God, and you cry out to Him, "Lord, more grace. I come in my need. Father, I come trusting in You. I cast myself upon You. Lord, more grace, because unless You do it, I am lost." This approach does not mean that you need not be disciplined and committed to doing the right thing; nor does it mean that you are not responsible for your actions; but it does mean that in humble submission to God, you rely upon His help and grace to progress and persevere. That is what it means to strive toward perfection. It is essentially what God does. You simply offer yourself to Him again when you fail to measure up, casting yourself upon Him, resting in His grace. It is like the husband who gets upset with his wife and speaks very critically to her. Rather than going to his wife a few minutes later and saying, "I'll try harder, honey. Things will be different, they really will be." He steals away and falls down on his knees and prays, "Lord, I 'blew it' again. Against You, and You only, have I sinned, and have done this evil in Your sight. Lord, I come and offer myself to You again. Lord, have mercy on me. Forgive me of my sins, and grant me grace to humble myself before my wife; and not say, 'I'll try harder,' but say, 'I am sorry; I apologize; I should not have spoken that way. Please forgive me.'" You need God's grace to do that; and that is striving toward perfection.

Let me ask you: Are you striving to be perfect – is it something you are going to do, or are you striving toward perfection? – "Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect...Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet." And as a result, you should be moving ahead. Again, let your present dissatisfaction translate into forward determination. The apostle affirmed, "I press on toward the goal for the prize [God helping me]." Is that true for you? I trust that it is.