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ON TO PERFECTION

 

A Sermon by Benjamin Franklin Neely

 

Hebrews 6:1–2 Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.

 

Introduction

 

The word perfect is a relative term, which is used as a modifier in many relations in human thought; and the meaning of the term is always limited by the object it is used to modify. The following is a good definition of the term: “To be perfect is to have all the qualities, excellences, or elements requisite to its nature or kind.” For illustration, take the hairbrush and the safety razor, either one of which can be perfect in its particular sphere if it measures up to the standard its designer had in mind when he produced it. But they are not interchangeable in their services. One could not dress his hair with the safety razor; neither could he shave his face with the hairbrush.

When Jesus said: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), He could only have mean that a Christian is to be perfect in his sphere as God is perfect in His sphere. That is, the perfect Christian is to have all the qualities, excellences, or elements requisite to a Christian, as God has all the qualities, excellences, or elements requisite to His eternal and august being. But there is a vast difference between a human being, although redeemed from the power and pollution of sin, and the Almighty God, who is the Builder and Upholder of the universe. The smallest insect can be as perfect in its sphere as the greatest prehistoric mammal could have been in its sphere.

 

I. Theologically, perfection is conceived of as existing on at least five levels: (1) absolute perfection, (2) angelic perfection, (3) Adamic perfection, (4) resurrectional perfection, (5) Christian perfection, which concerns us here and now. Perfection on the first four levels needs but passing mention in this discussion.

1. Absolute perfection exists only in God. In His absoluteness, He is incomprehensible by the finite mind. It is enough to conceive of Him as being absolutely perfect; and that our comprehension of Him will be one of eternal and happy progression, consequent upon the state of our being and our relationship to Him. We are informed that “we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

2. There is no doubt a standard of perfection for the angels. But such is beyond the reach of our finite minds.

(1) We know that perfect knowledge does not belong to them. For they do not know the time of the end of this age, nor the date of the second coming of the Lord.

(2) We know also that angels are holy, for Jesus said: “The Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him” (Matthew 25:31). (3) And we know that they had a probationary period after their creation. For some “angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). (4) Also, all angels have not the same rank. There are angels and archangels.

3. Nor can we be certain of a full knowledge of the perfection of Adam when he came from the hand of his Creator. We do know that God pronounced the product of His creative effort, including Adam, as “very good”—which fully justifies us in believing that Adam had all the qualities, excellences, or elements requisite to his nature and kind. (1) We know that Adam’s perfection included holiness. For that was a predestined quality in his make-up. “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without  blame before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4).

(2) Also, since both moral and physical death resulted from Adam’s fall, if he had maintained his integrity both moral and physical life would have been perpetuated. For before the fall Adam had access to the tree of life, from which he was driven consequent upon his fall. “Lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.” Hence the implication is that if Adam had withstood the temptation incidental to his probation the purity of his moral nature and the life of his physical nature would have been perpetuated by his access to the tree of life, which was the fountain of youth, till both would have reached the point of establishment beyond the reach of temptation. But since “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men,” therefore “it is appointed unto men once to die.” So Adamic perfection is beyond our reach in this life.

4. Resurrectional perfection excludes sickness, sorrow, pain, and death—all of which will afflict us as long as we live here. “For even hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Resurrectional perfection will include every “quality, excellence, or element” which characterized Adam before he fell. For nothing short of that could be called complete redemption. It was this perfection which St. Paul denied—having attained unto when he said: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, . . . Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect” (Philippians 3:10–12).

5. Christian perfection is a subject of major interest in both the Old and the New Testament scriptures. But it is a subject little understood, and seldom intelligently dealt with, either in the pulpit or press. And yet:

 

II. The route to Christian perfection in this life is a plain one, if we observe the road marks and give attention to the signs of identification.

1. To make sure of a proper start on this important road when the text exhorts us to “go on unto perfection,” interest in the trip is initiated by the Holy Spirit. “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9). “He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8). And without this divine enlightenment no one would ever have a desire for or know the necessity of seeking God’s favor. For “no man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). This is the work of the Holy Spirit known as conviction. It is “the goodness of God [that] leadeth thee to repentance,” and “the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.”

2. Repentance is the second station on the route to perfection. “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). It was the introductory message in the public ministry of Christ. “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). “Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” will bring one to the next station, which is:

3. Forgiveness of sins, or justification; and that climaxes in regeneration and adoption—all of which makes one akin to the Lord God himself, which amounts to sonship. And thus being adopted into the family of God, one comes under His dominion and tutelage, which is certain to bring one under conviction because of the carnal inclinations so plainly and grievously present when the carnal mind, “which is enmity against God,” begins to lust against the Spirit. And it is because of this filial relationship that the Heavenly Father exercises that paternal prerogative in that “he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth . . . for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.” And he goes on to say: “But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons” (Hebrews 12:5–10). From which we must conclude that genuine sonship will result in a divinely inspired urge to holiness; and that the absence of such hungering and thirsting after righteousness is good grounds for doubting one’s claim to sonship.

4. Proper co-operation with the wooings of the Holy Spirit in His efforts to bring one into the blessing of full salvation will result in a consecration that amounts to an abandonment to the will of God. “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service . . . that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:1, 2). This kind of abandonment will have the same effect on his faith that Abraham’s putting Isaac on the altar had on his faith. James said: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” (James 2:21, 22.) And perfect faith, such as Abraham had, which will invariably result from a complete abandonment to all the will of God, will bring upon one the cleansing baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Now having followed the divine directions marking the way to perfection, we come to the point of identification, which brings us to note:

 

III. Christian perfection is a heart condition. It is a pure heart filled with divine love, both of which are accomplished by the Holy Spirit.

1. When the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles and the household of Cornelius their hearts were made pure. “And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8, 9).

2. When the Holy Spirit is imparted, He not only purifies the heart, but He fills it with divine love. “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:5). Jesus said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40). Moses had said: “The Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). Then Paul said: “Ye are complete in him . . . in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:10, 11). That is, through the “circumcision . . . of the heart, in the spirit,” Christ removes the body of sin, and thereby enables one to love God with all the heart, and his neighbor as himself; which makes one complete, or perfect, in Him. For he could not be complete unless he was perfect.

Furthermore: “The end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart” (1 Timothy 1:5). The word charity in this passage is translated from agape, which is the same Greek word from which the word love is translated in the famous quotation in John 3:16, “God so loved the world.” So we have St. Paul saying that “the end of the commandment is love out of a pure heart.” That is, when the Holy Spirit purifies the heart and fills it with the love of God, the end or design of the commandment has been accomplished; and that includes the command, “Be ye also perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Therefore heart purity and Christian perfection are identical experiences. They cannot be separated, since that which has been produced cannot exist independent of that which produced it. Jesus prayed: “Sanctify them through thy truth . . . that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:17–23). Again, “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us” (Hebrews 10:14, 15). Therefore when Christian perfection exists it is because the act of sanctification has effected it. And since the fundamental principle in the Christian religion is love, the one thus perfected through sanctification is perfected in love.

 

IV. The heart, or center of man’s moral nature, is the source from which the life stream flows.

1. The quality of the life stream will indicate the qualitative condition of the heart. “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matthew 12:35). But the power to differentiate between right and wrong is not a function of the moral nature. That is exclusively a prerogative of the judgment, which operates in the field of the mental.

2. The mind, or the center of man’s intellectual life, is where judgments are formed. Therefore this central intellectual plant is the clearinghouse for individual conduct for those who plan to live “in all good conscience before God.” It classifies conduct as either good or bad; and its ability to reach proper conclusions determines its ability to make proper classifications. Therefore if errors in judgment are to be altogether avoided the judgments must result from perfect knowledge; and since that kind of knowledge is possessed only by the all-wise God, we cannot expect perfect conduct from mortal man in this life. If one should do better than he knows to do, it would be an accident; and for that he could claim no credit. Therefore Christian perfection can exist only in the moral nature, which excludes both the mental and the physical natures. That is, one cannot have a perfect mind, exempt from all mistakes; and he cannot have a perfect body as Adam had before he sinned. But he may have a perfect heart. “Know thou the God of thy father, and serve him with a perfect heart and with a willing mind: for the Lord searcheth all hearts” (1 Chronicles 28:9). If one can have a perfect heart he can have perfectly good motives; and the motives or intentions behind the conduct are that by which one is judged in the sight of his Maker, who is his final Judge. “The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). “Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile” (Psalm 32:2). “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Romans 4:8). The foregoing passages can mean but one thing; and that is that good motives spring from good hearts, made pure by redeeming grace; and that God will not condemn His children for errors of judgment when their actions spring from good motives.

To illustrate: In Nova Scotia, three men were on a deer hunt. One man fired his gun at a deer. The bullet struck a tree and ricocheted, striking another man in the abdomen and passing through his body. Investigation revealed the facts in the case. The man who fired the fatal shot was adjudged innocent because his intentions were good and the calamity resulted from the fact that the man who had shot his neighbor and friend did not have perfect judgment. If he had known what the results of such a shot would be, his good motives would have prevented the disaster. It was a wrong act, but not a sinful act. The motive was the deciding factor as to the quality of the act. A mistake is not a sin. Nor is a sin a mistake.

 

V. The doctrine of Christian perfection is supported by both precept and example.

1. The precepts: (1) In the text the Hebrews we are exhorted to “go on unto perfection,” instead of living the up-and-down life expressed in the statement: “Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God,” etc. The indications are that it was a choice between the two; and perfection was recommended as a cure for the irregularities indicated.

(2) When God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision, which was an outward sign of an inward work of purity, He said: “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Genesis 17:1). And the spiritual meaning of circumcision is revealed in Deuteronomy 30:6: “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.”

(3) Before Moses was called to his reward, he gave a recapitulation of the law, the Book of Deuteronomy, in which he said: “Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 18:13).

(4) Paul said that Epaphras was “always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye,” the Colossians, “may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12).

(5) “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

(6) “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).

(7) “Warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:28).

(8) “But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1:4). Much more could be cited under the topic of precepts, but these should be sufficient.

2. Many are the examples given of perfect Christians in the sacred record.

(1) Four things were said of Noah. He was a preacher of righteousness, he was a righteous man in the sight of God, he was a just man, and he was perfect (Genesis 6:9; 7:1; 2 Peter 2:5).

(2) “It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect” (Psalm 18:32).

(3) “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace” (Psalm 37:37).

(4) “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” (Job 1:1).

(5) “We speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought” (1 Corinthians 2:6).

(6) “When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. . . . for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry . . . till we all come in the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man” (Ephesians 4:8–13).

(7) “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2).

(8) The Saviour said: “The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master” (Luke 6:40).

3. In giving testimony to advanced experiences and Christian graces, humility and meekness are recommended (Luke 17:10). However, the Scriptures enjoin testimony. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so” (Psalm 107:2). And we have the deathbed testimony of a king to having served God with a perfect heart. “In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live. Then he turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto the Lord, saying, I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore” (2 Kings 20:1–11). God endorsed Hezekiah’s profession of perfection of heart and goodness of conduct by healing his body and increasing his life span by fifteen years.

Notwithstanding the fact that St. Paul had a physical affliction, deliverance from which he prayed for unsuccessfully three times, yet he felt constrained to register as one who had experienced perfection. It was in the same chapter and in the same connection where he denied having resurrectional perfection that he professed Christian perfection. “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection. . . . Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you” (Philippians 3:10–15).

 

Conclusion: In conclusion let us summarize:

 

1. We have found that the term perfect is a relative term, that it is always limited by the object it is used to modify.

2. We have noted that perfection is defined as: possessing “all the qualities, excellences, or elements requisite to its nature or kind.”

3. Theologically, perfection is conceived of as existing on at least five levels: absolute, angelic, Adamic, resurrectional, and Christian.

4. The plain route to Christian perfection is marked by: conviction, repentance, and faith; forgiveness, which climaxes in regeneration and adoption; divine chastening, that we might be partakers of his holiness; consecration, which culminates in perfect faith for cleansing.

5. Christian perfection is a heart condition, which excludes the physical and the mental.

6. Heart purity and Christian perfection are identical experiences.

7. Christian perfection and entire sanctification cannot be separated.

8. The heart or center of man’s moral life is the source of his motives; and conduct is either good or bad, in the sight of God, varying with the motives from which the conduct springs.

9. The mind or center of man’s intellectual nature is the clearinghouse for individual conduct. It is where judgments are formed and conduct is classified as either good or bad. But judgments cannot be more accurate than the knowledge that forms them; and since perfect knowledge belongs to God alone, perfect judgments cannot be expected of mortal man; and, therefore, perfect conduct cannot be expected of the most perfect Christian while he is hampered by an imperfect mind.

10. God does not impute sin to an individual “in whose spirit there is no guile.” A mistake is not a sin. And a sin is not a mistake.

11. The Scriptures support the doctrine of Christian perfection, by both precept and example.

12. There is on record, inspired and divinely endorsed, testimony to Christian perfection. Amen.