Early on in life we are told we should have a growth mindset, be lifelong learners, and better ourselves in mind, body, and spirit. All of these are good aspirations, but is Jesus calling us to something different? Does he call us to grow until we have no faults? Does he demand that we get everything right? And when Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” what exactly does he mean? (Matthew 5:48).
It is often hard to discern the difference between striving for sanctification and living under the weight of trying to be perfect. In the Bible, we see this tension exemplified in the life of Saul and who he was after Christ saved him and transformed him into Paul.
Saul had a desire to obey the law of Moses and to prove his righteousness. He was a man who was, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:5).
Saul was also a man who persecuted the church of Christ because he believed the law demanded this obedience. It wasn’t until Jesus met him on the road to Damascus that Saul began to see not only his sin in opposing God, but also the perfection that dwelt in Jesus alone.
In stark contrast, Post-conversion Paul obeys out of love for his Savior and the security that he has already been made righteous. Paul sings quite a different tune about his days of chasing after perfection by the law: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8)
Completely Saved by Faith, Consistently Called to Holiness
We are completely saved by faith, not works. Yet we are consistently called to ever-increasing holiness. Paul knew this, and we must learn it as well. We rest in the forgiveness available through grace, and we seek holiness. 1 Peter 1:15-16 says “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” Though we are saved through faith, our works show our devotion to God. Jen Wilkin says in her book In His Image, “Holiness permeates the entire Christian calling. It lies at the very center of the Gospel. We are not merely saved from depravity; we are saved to holiness. Conversion entails consecration.”
The following are three suggestions to help make a distinction between that which God has called us to as those who are made to be holy and the shifting barometers we as humans ascribe to perfection. For allowing the living God to do his sanctifying work in us is surely different than the Sisyphean task of perfectionism.
1. Sanctification is about surrender, and perfection is about making our own way.
The problem with people striving for perfection is most often found in the fact that they are running after their own standards which can shift from day to day. The moral perfection of God, however, reassures and promises that God acts in ways that are always consistent with his character.
Humanity is too often tempted to exchange the truth of God for a lie. People who have been saved by Christ and given an identity by God are made righteous, but they don’t always act that way. While the identity given by God will not change, the child of God must continue to grow towards being like their savior. This is what sanctification means; simply put—become like Jesus.
“Jesus will be the only perfect one to walk the earth…”
Those who are seeking sanctification recognize the truth in the words of John the Baptist, “He [Jesus] must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). Yes, Jesus is humanity perfected, but he also came as the sacrificial lamb because he knew we could not close the gap between God’s holiness and our lack thereof. Jesus will be the only perfect one to walk the earth till his return and the vanquishing of all evil. He is holy, and humanity is not, which is why the codes of conduct developed by humans will always be faulty. But the Word of God can be our guide.
We count what was once our own attempts at betterment and lay them aside to become like Jesus who prayed for those who believe in him that God would, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Those seeking to be sanctified lay aside the ways they thought best and judge everything by the truth in the Bible.
2. Sanctification brings about wholeness, and perfection sets the world at war.
Sanctification is about God’s glory, not the filthy rags we wave around when we attempt to declare glory for ourselves. Look on any social media feed, and you will see a fool’s parade of those who have created their own definition of perfection and are affronted by those not living up to their standard. Those on the left or right declare the sins of the opposing side. Mothers bringing up the next generation declare other mothers unfit for the way they feed, diaper, protect, and spend time with their children.
People attack those who do things differently than their own prescribed law dictates and wallow in offense. We see this warning in James 4:1 when he asks rhetorical questions of those he is teaching: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” When the world is made up of people who strive for their own brand of perfection, the world is set up for wars, both big and small.
“Perfectionism pits us against one another.”
Sanctification encourages us to run alongside each other, to cheer each other on, and to uplift our brothers and sisters. There is no disunity, competition, or misalignment within the Trinity, and we should hope for this unity to be present in our own lives. Hebrews 12:14 encourages us to, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
Perfectionism pits us against one another. Not only does it make life feel like a competition instead of something we are all in together, but it can cause us to live in ways counter to how Jesus has instructed us to interact. In the book Wild and Free by Jess Connolly and Hayley Morgan, the authors point out:
“When we live by grace, we are grateful and gracious with others. When we’re tempted to live by the law, we measure ourselves against others’ value. When we are constantly measuring ourselves, we can’t help but measure and critique others as well.”
3. Sanctification is for God’s glory, and perfection is for our own.
The desire to find perfection on our own is an attempt at declaring our own glory, but when we allow the sweet slowness of sanctification to do its work, we glorify God. We take all of our perceived inadequacies, failings, and weaknesses to the throne of God with pleas that he would use us to glorify his name anyway, let his will be done anyway, and make us more like Jesus anyway. We desperately and eagerly desire his power to be made perfect in our weakness.
Paul knew this desire intimately as he wrestled with the thorn in his flesh that God chose not to deliver him from. We see this in 2 Corinthians 12:9 when he says, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
“Jesus’s power in our lives presents the evidence of his presence…”
Sometimes God allows our imperfections to linger so that his grace can strengthen us in our tender places, but we still work towards sanctification. There is so much in life that we have no control over – so much that can weaken us. Jesus’s power in our lives presents the evidence of his presence to those who still are without his forgiveness and living under the suffocating weight of condemnation – those who are striving for perfection but will never reach it if they stay separated from Christ.
“…the difference is freedom or captivity.”
It’s a thin line between running after holiness and sanctification and striving for perfection, but the wise Christian must decipher the difference because the difference is freedom or captivity. Believers are set apart by God and declared holy. We pursue holiness in our individual lives and don’t give up because great is the faithfulness of God to finish the good work he begins in us.
Please support us to reach others by sharing this article