Very early in my experience as a Christian I developed a strong desire to be perfect. I read of the experience of the great Bible patriarchs and I developed a deep desire to be like them.
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)
These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. (Gen 6:9)
I remember the intensity of my desire, the strong efforts I put forth to become what I imagined these men to have been. I endeavored to always speak the right words, eat the right food, wear the right clothing and to think the right thoughts. I tried hard, really hard, but somehow I never experienced one single day when I could say, “I made it, today I have been perfect!” As the years passed I experienced a great deal of frustration and as I grew older this desire for perfection became more and more like something to be dreamed about but never to be experienced.
From where I stand today I can look back and see that my understanding was very confused but I can also see that there are millions of well-meaning Christians who are experiencing the same kind of confusion and misunderstanding which caused me so much frustration back in those days.
Fourteen years ago when the Lord opened my understanding I came to a true appreciation of what it means that Christ is my righteousness. Since that day my understanding of the Bible has gone through a revolutionary change and I have come to understand many of its teachings in a very different way. This includes the doctrine of perfection.
The meaning of “Perfect”
In the Merriem Webster dictionary, the first definition given for the word “perfect,” is, “being entirely without fault or defect : FLAWLESS.” I daresay that when we speak of perfection this is what comes to the mind of almost everybody. This was what I believed back then and it is still what I believe today, nothing has changed in my understanding of what perfect means. What has changed drastically is my understanding of how to attain to that experience of perfection!
As the years passed and I became more familiar with the Bible, I came to realize that the word, “perfect,” as used in the King James version of the Bible, does not always mean to be living in a condition where a person’s behavior is absolutely without flaw. For example, Noah, whom the Bible describes as being a perfect man, became drunk and lay naked in his tent. Job who is also described as being perfect, was rebuked by God for being self-righteous and misjudging God. In other words, these men were not perfect in an absolute sense. When the Bible says that they were perfect, it does not mean that they were absolutely without fault, what it means is that they were upright in their behavior according to the standards of the times in which they lived. When their peers looked at the way they lived, they could find no reason to fault them.
The book of Hebrews uses the word “perfect,” perhaps more often than any other book in the Bible and it was in the reading of this book that I obtained my most precious understanding of biblical perfection. As used in this book, the word perfect is not focusing on the issue of whether or not God’s people still continue to fail in their behavior, it is not saying that those who are in Christ never again make a mistake. The meaning here is different and it is not focused on the behavior of the worshipers, but rather on something that Christ did. Hebrews chapter 10 in particular, focuses on this issue of God’s people being made perfect and helps us to understand what the word really means.
For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. (Heb 10:1)
Although Paul here refers to, “sacrifices”, he is really speaking of the principle behind the entire law and he explains that the law consisted only of shadows, or vague representations of future realities – things which were to come.
Now notice that Paul says that the law could never make those who worshiped, perfect. Here, Paul uses the word to mean, “being complete,” not lacking in any area. He clearly says that the law could never provide this kind of perfection, but how does he prove his point? He proves it by stating a simple fact: if the law had achieved its purpose then there would have been no more need for sacrifices to be offered. If the worshipers had been made complete, or had been perfected, then in that instant the sacrifices and the other elements of the law would have become totally unnecessary because the law would have accomplished its purpose. So what was this purpose which the law could never accomplish? Paul explains it in the next verse:
For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. (Heb 10:2)
So what God wanted was that the worshipers should have been made clean in such a way that they would have had no more conscience, or rather, consciousness of sin. This is the perfection which Paul is speaking about, it is a state in which the worshipers no longer have any consciousness of sin. Another way of putting this is that the worshipers should no longer have a guilty conscience, they would no longer have a sense of not being acceptable, no longer have a sense of being unfit, no longer be fearful or uncomfortable in the presence of God. Sin consciousness is what gives us a sense of condemnation and makes us afraid of God. So Paul says that once the worshipers are cleansed they have been made perfect and that this perfection consists of a state in which they no longer have an awareness of any barrier between themselves and God. Their conscience is now purged from that awareness of uncleanness.
Now here is an important point: the law oriented person will say, “yes, we no longer have any guilty conscience – until we commit the next sin, until the next time we transgress the law.” But let us consider this for a moment, isn’t this exactly what was happening under the old system of the law? When they offered a sacrifice they felt forgiven and then there was relief, but this only lasted until the next time they committed another act of transgression and then they needed another sacrifice! With each transgression, sin consciousness or a guilty conscience returned. It is very important that we understand this point. The question is, does the same situation exist under the new covenant? When a person has been forgiven and given a clean conscience, if he happens to transgress the law again does he return to that state of sin consciousness? Does he return to that state of a scarred conscience? If this were the case then how could Paul say that the worshipers “once purged,” have no more conscience of sins? We would be in the same condition as the people who lived under the system of the law, purged periodically, but then returning to the state and the consciousness of sin over and over, every time we transgress.
So what does it mean? Does it mean that once we are purged we stop transgressing forever? Or does it mean that even if we transgress it is not a problem with God.? We have only these two options, either we stop transgressing completely, or if we do transgress it does not bring us back to a state of sin consciousness, does not produce in us a guilty conscience. These are the only two options, but both of these options leave some people alarmed.
Option number one concerns us because all of us who are Christians know that even after we gave our lives to Christ, we have not lived without doing things that were wrong. We cannot say that we have not transgressed, we may say that we no longer live the lives where we habitually transgress, but we cannot say that we have never transgressed since we gave our lives to Christ. So if this means that once we are purged we can never again transgress, then it puts us all in a troubling situation, it implies that we were never really purged.
The other alternative is that even if we transgress it no longer results in a guilty conscience, it no longer creates a barrier between us and God, and this alternative also causes great alarm. The logical question is this, if we teach such a thing, that Christians no longer have a guilty conscience even when they do wrong, will we not lead people to become comfortable in wrong-doing and to treat transgression lightly? Is it not going to make people libertine and careless? Is it not going to make people think that sinning does not matter anymore? But as we continue in our study we will see that there is a resolution to this seeming dilemma.
God’s Will Done
In verse three Paul says,
But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. (Heb 10:3,4)
Through the sacrifices, sin was being remembered again every year, in other words, there had to be sin consciousness. Every year as they offered those sacrifices they were being reminded that they were sinners, that sin needed to be taken care of. But now, look at what Paul says in verse 5:
Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: (Heb 10:5)
In this verse Jesus was speaking through the psalmist David. Here he tells us plainly that God did not desire sacrifices and offerings, he did not want them. They served a purpose in terms of teaching people but other than that they had no purpose, they had no benefit in themselves. God never enjoyed the smell of burning animal flesh, he never enjoyed the sight of animals being slaughtered. But what did God really want? He answers the question by saying, “a body hast thou prepared me.” This is what God really wanted. God had a plan for somebody to put an end to sin forever, and so he prepared a body for this person. In this body God’s purposes would be fulfilled through this person, and this is what God really wanted. Jesus continued by saying,
Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God. (Heb 10:7)
So here he declares plainly that he was coming to do the will of God and as we have seen, that will of God is that his people should have no more conscience of sin, no more awareness of guilt. He was going to do something to purge them so thoroughly from sin that the issue of a guilty conscience would never arise again!
Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. (Heb 10:8-9)
Paul mentions taking away “the first,” and establishing “the second,” what is he referring to? The first refers to the sacrifices and offerings along with the law which required them. This “first” method of worshiping God was taken away in order that God could establish the second way. This second way is not through the shadowy services of the law, but through Christ in the body that was prepared for him. This is the second way that was established when the first was taken away. It was through this second way that the will of God was fulfilled. And what was that will? The next verse tells us:
By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb 10:10)
This is one of the reasons why I object to those people who tell me that sanctification is something which is supposed to last for our entire lifetime. I know that there is a concept of sanctification which suggests that sanctification is a long drawn out process of continual improvement, but I prefer to get my definitions from the Bible and in the Bible, sanctification is something that takes place in a moment, it is not a long drawn out process. It is something that happens once, and once you are sanctified that is the end of the experience of sanctification. From that point on you are already sanctified and it is not a process where you are continually involved in being sanctified every day. According to the verse, by the will of God we are sanctified, or we have been sanctified and this experience is, “once for all.” It has happened, it is done, it is over. So it is in this sense that we have been perfected, we have been sanctified, we have been set apart for a holy purpose, once and for all and forever.
Now here is the important point; in the old covenant under the system of the law, you were declared acceptable to God if you were obedient, if you kept the law, Jehovah would be your God and you would be his child. This was the condition of the old covenant, you had to perform in order to be accepted (Deut 6:25). The new covenant is built on an entirely different premise, a different principle. First of all in the new covenant sin is understood to be something which is not limited to your actions, but is more related to your relationship with God. You are a sinner if you are separated from God, that is the basic, new covenant understanding of sin.
So under the new covenant, what if you happen to transgress the law, but you have not rejected Christ in your life, do you then go back to being a sinner? Absolutely not! You’re still a person who is in Christ, you’re still a child of God, you have not broken the relationship with God because you committed a single wrong action. Yes, of course you seek to correct the wrong, of course you set out to not repeat that wrong action because your aim in life and your pleasure in life is to please and to glorify God, but you do not stop being a Christian, you do not go back to being a sinner. When you have a small child, a baby who is learning to walk he will fall many times, he will make mistakes but this does not mean that he stops being your child. It means that the child has a problem that you’re going to work on together until he does not fall anymore. As the Bible says,
Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: (Phil 1:6)
He is the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus has started a good work in us and he will finish it. We do not stop being his simply because we may stumble and falter along the way.
Under the old covenant they were accepted or rejected on the basis of their performance. It was, “do good and live,” but under the new covenant our relationship to God is dependent on our faith in Jesus Christ, not on our performance. Our performance has been taken out of the way and it has nothing to do with the relationship we now have with God. God did this by giving Jesus to die for our sins. So the death of Christ on our behalf has taken care of every sin we have ever done, every sin which we do today, and every sin which we will ever do! It took care of everyone’s sin in all ages and for all time! If it is taken care of you cannot still be carrying that sin, it can no longer be a factor between you and God. So we are set apart for God and this is what Paul says. We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ, “once for all,” praise God!
And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; (Heb 10:11-12)
Let us not miss the point that Paul is making here: Jesus completed his work and sat down on the right hand of God. I don’t understand this to mean that Jesus has been sitting on one seat in heaven for the past 2000 years, but the point that Paul is making is that, as far as taking away sin is concerned, Jesus’ job is over. As far as that particular task is concerned he is done, he has sat down, he will never again have to deal with that particular issue. And that is why our sin never again becomes an issue with God, we never again need to have a guilty conscience. We never again need to come before God with the feeling that we are not accepted.
When my grandson was about three or four years old, he called me from my home one day, while I was in the USA. He started the conversation by stating quite cheerfully, “Grandpa, I messed up the place!” Normally when a child has done something wrong he is reluctant to talk about it, but the relationship between us was such that he knew that no matter what he did, it would never create a barrier between us or make me negative towards him. So he was quite cheerful and completely relaxed as he told me of the wrong that he had done. This serves as an illustration for me of the kind of relationship that I ought to have with God. Our misdemeanors, our transgressions, our failings, our shortcomings, none of these things can come between us and God anymore! We are not accepted on the basis of our behavior, we are accepted in the beloved (Eph 1:6). So God has put my salvation in a place where it is never in jeopardy, the only way I can lose it is if I reject Jesus Christ.
So he offered one sacrifice for sins forever and then he sat down on the right hand of God. His job was over, he was finished with the task of saving men. He had cleared away the barrier and reconciled his people to his father, sin would never again be an obstruction between God and human beings.
For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. (Heb 10:14)
We already saw in verse 10 that we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ we have been sanctified, or set apart for a holy purpose. Now that we have been set apart for this holy purpose, what is our condition? We have been “perfected,” forever! What this means is that our consciences are perfect, or, are perfectly clean. We no longer have any consciousness of sin, no longer have a guilty conscience. Practically this means that there no longer exists a barrier between us and God. So we’re perfect in the sense that our consciences are free and we are perfect in the sense that we are completely, absolutely qualified for salvation. There is nothing lacking, nothing missing, no performance necessary on our part. Yes we do walk in harmony with the good law, but we don’t do this because it is necessary for salvation, we do it because it is a part of the new nature which we have been given in Christ.
A few verses later on Paul refers to the new covenant mentioned in Jeremiah chapter 31:
This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. (Heb 10:16-17)
He is reinforcing the point that from way back in the days of Jeremiah when God had promised this new covenant he had stated clearly that one condition of this new covenant was that under it the sins of God’s people would be remembered no more! They would never again be an issue between God and his people.
Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. (Heb 10:18)
There is never again any need of an offering for sin. Why? It is because sin has been brought to an end in the relationship between God and his people. It is nonexistent, abolished from the picture forever through Jesus! This is how amazing God’s grace is, this is how complete salvation is through Jesus! The terrible tragedy is that in spite of this complete and perfect salvation many will still be lost, some because they are ignorant of the good news, and others because they still insist on offering God their own works as a part of the process of salvation.
In a sense, in Christ you cannot sin anymore. What do we mean by this? Sin is something offensive which creates a barrier between a person and God. Because of Jesus’ one great sacrifice this is no longer possible, sin has been removed as a factor in the relationship between us and God, so we cannot sin anymore, in Christ. Secondly, a more complete understanding of sin is that it is a state of separation from God and not just an action of transgression. In this broader understanding of what sin is, nobody who is in Christ can be a sinner, in order to fall into that category he would first of all have to reject Christ and step outside of the relationship with him. This is what Paul refers to a little later on in the same passage where he says that if a person sins willfully after having received Christ then there is no more salvation available to such a person.
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. (Heb 10:26-27)
So we see that the person who is in Christ does not sin willfully, meaning that he does not live in separation from Christ. The person who willfully chooses to do this has rejected his salvation and can no longer be saved. This one sin of willfully rejecting Christ after already having come to know him and to experience salvation, puts us in a place where we would be lost forever.
So under the new covenant the concept of what it means to be a sinner changes. Our status is related to one thing only and it is our relationship to Jesus Christ, not our performance. We who are in Christ are perfect, perfect in our salvation and perfect in our conscience. The great danger and the only danger is that we should choose to turn from Christ.
(Source: David Clayton from Restoration Ministry)