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Steve Harper: The Aim of the Christian Life

Guest blog by Dr. Steven Harper. Steve is currently Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Formation & Wesley Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of fourteen books, and has co-authored seven others. You can see them here at his Amazon Author Page. Steve was the founding Vice President and Dean of the Florida-Dunnam campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, and has had a varied career in ministry. In addition to being a Seminary professor, he has been a youth minister, evangelist, and pastor. He retired in July 2012. His current ministry concentrates in writing, and he blogs regularly about the Christian spiritual life at Oboedire.

(Note: There is a great need to understand the word “perfection” as used in the Christian faith. A legitimate fear of its pathological expressions has caused many to abandon this rich biblical metaphor. I hope this meditation helps you to embrace the concept without falling into the pathology.)

Christian perfection is the aim of the Christian life, but because we have so caricatured the idea most people run from it. They do so because they rightly note serious psychological problems that emerge from notions of perfectionism. I believe these problems emerge from a dictionary definition of perfection, rather than a biblical one. And to be sure, bad theology on this subject has also contributed to the problem.

People think that perfection means to be “flawless” – even “sinless.” And with this view, they head down a soul-wearying path, attempting to eliminate all errors from their lives. And when this fails, they must either abandon the quest (despair) or begin to pretend (hypocrisy). Both options kill the spirit. The history of Christianity is strewn with the corpses of those who did one or the other.

But this is not what biblical perfection means. It means to be “complete.” For example, Jesus’ call in Matthew 5:48–for us to be perfect as God is perfect – clearly means (from the context) to love everyone, not just those who are lovable. In other words, “God’s love is complete (for all), let your love be the same. Don’t just love those who love you.”

“Complete” is the synonym for Christian perfection, because it is the “partial” that counterfeits and diminishes true Christianity. Incomplete Christianity produces “Sunday faith,” half-hearted devotion, selective forgiveness, love only to the lovely, churches filled with people like us, hypocrisy, etc.

Christian perfection calls us to “complete” what only exists in the “partial.” It has nothing to do with an air of superiority (“holier than thou”), because the example for it is Jesus. In fact, the church has taught for two thousand years that the mark of “perfect love” is humility–expressed in quiet service. Biblical perfection is the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).

A deep and ongoing work of grace (called “sanctifying grace”) is necessary for this kind of life to exist in us. Our sinful nature (egotism) thrives by all kinds of selectivity and partiality which keeps Christianity from being genuine, and which keeps us in charge. Partial faith (which leaves the ego in charge) settles for looking good without actually being good.

Sanctifying grace must go to the core to cleanse us from this predisposition and enable us to make a “complete” consecration. But this is what God gives–a grace straight from God’s whole heart that can make our hearts whole as well. And salvation means “wholeness.”

The biblical life of Christian perfection is “abiding in Christ” (John 15), and having “the mind of Christ” (Philip 2:5). It is “keeping watch” over our lives from now on (Acts 20:28), never ceasing to ask God to search us through and through (Psalm 139:24), and to enable us to fulfill the two great commandments. This desire often comes after we have been Christian for a while, as we come to recognize we have settled for partial (selective) devotion rather than complete (full) consecration.

But even with this new intention in place, we do not become flawless, we become “convictable.” We are done with the excuse, “Don’t blame me, I am only human” and now we are saddened whenever we realize that we have chosen selfishness over sanctity. We no longer accept faith based upon appearances; we seek healing grace for increasing actuality. Godliness (genuineness) is our heart’s desire.

So, from now on (if you have not done so already), think of Christian perfection as “completeness,” and see if your heart does not hunger for that. See if you are not tired of trying to overflow for Jesus when you’re only half full.

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