Every once in a while I hear a report of some group who believes they’ve attained sinless perfection. It is somewhat amusing to imagine people entertaining that idea without them being lifted up in pride, which would, of course, immediately disqualify them from being perfect. You may have heard the story about the congregation that voted to determine who was the most humble person among them. They ultimately awarded an elderly saint with a “Most Humble” badge. But when he started wearing it, they voted to strip him of it!
It has been my observation that the people who think they are the most holy are often the least holy, and those who think they are the least holy are the most holy, if for no other reason than their painful awareness of their own shortcomings. Proud people are blind to their sin, whereas humble people still see their need to regularly pray the prayer that Jesus taught His followers—“Forgive me of my sins as I forgive those who sin against me.”
Proud people, although blind to their own sin, are often quite good at finding faults in others. The pinnacle of blind pride is attained by those who condemn others for the very things of which they themselves are guilty. I’ve recently found myself corresponding with such a person. He considers himself one of America’s foremost teachers of holiness, and maintains that a Christian who lusts instantly dies spiritually and forfeits the Holy Spirit and sonship in Christ. Because I don’t agree with him, he’s certain that I’m going to hell, and he has written some articles on his website condemning me for “giving Christians a license for immorality.” Yet while reading his ministry’s 990 Returns (forms required by the I.R.S. of all non-profit organizations other than churches, and which are public records), I discovered that he has been taking a large percentage of his ministry’s annual income and investing it in mutual funds that hold stocks in companies that produce, promote and distribute pornography to millions of homes. When I confronted him about it, he called me a viper and a serpent. In fact, he called me “David Serpent”!
When I think of foremost preachers of holiness, I think of John the Baptist, a man who called multitudes to repentance. Jesus considered John to be the greatest man who had ever lived (Matt. 11:11). Yet John considered himself unworthy to baptize Jesus, telling Him, “I have need to be baptized by You” (Matt. 3:14). Note that John did not say those words based upon his knowledge that Jesus was the Messiah, because at that time he did not know Jesus was the Messiah (see John 1:31-32). John considered himself unworthy to baptize Jesus based on his knowledge of his Relative’s personal holiness. He knew that, compared to Jesus, he had a lot of room for improvement. John serves as an example to all holy men and women of God. We all have a way to go before we reach the perfection of Christ.
But is this to say that none of us have the right to call others to repentance (which is, of course an essential element of the gospel), since none have reached perfection?
Obviously not, in light of Jesus’ endorsement of John the Baptist. And you can be sure that John was not investing in the promotion of pornography on the side. Nor was he stealing what belonged to others, getting drunk on Saturday nights, or laying up treasures on earth. That is, John was a very holy man who lived by God’s standards. Yet he wasn’t perfect. You may recall, for example, that once he found himself in prison, he had doubts that Jesus was the Christ (see Matt. 11:3).
So we must be cautious that we don’t err on one side or the other. Many say that true Christians may well be indistinguishable from non-Christians in regards to personal holiness. Others maintain that all true Christians demonstrate a degree of holiness that they personally reached only after twenty years of spiritual growth. The truth, however, is that all bona fide believers are holy to a degree, and they are, generally speaking, becoming holier, because that is their aspiration, and God is working in them to that end. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
The Minimum Standard
Any true Christian who takes a look at the minimum standards of righteousness found in Scripture is bound to feel good about him or herself. There is, of course, an initial cleansing from sin that God does in the life of all true believers that is followed by ongoing cleansing. The initial cleansing can be quite dramatic in the lives of those who, prior to coming to Christ, indulged heavily in the desires of the flesh. Paul offers us a summary of what God accomplishes in that initial cleansing:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Notice what is included in Paul’s list that characterizes “the unrighteous” who “will not inherit the kingdom of God,” and notice what is not included in that list. In his list are those who are sexually immoral, thieves, idolaters, the greedy/covetous, drunkards and dishonest profiteers. Not included in his list are those who occasionally fall asleep during sermons, who sometimes lose their patience with their spouses or kids, or who don’t read their Bibles every day.
It feels good to read Paul’s list and gain assurance that you are not among the unrighteous.
A somewhat similar list is found in the Old Testament where God described a righteous person through the prophet Ezekiel. I’ve quoted it below and interjected characteristics of the righteous that Paul also listed in order to point out the similarities:
“But if a man is righteous and practices justice and righteousness, and does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel [not an idolater], or defile his neighbor’s wife [not an adulterer] or approach a woman during her menstrual period—if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge [not greedy/covetous], does not commit robbery [not a thief], but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing, if he does not lend money on interest or take increase [not greedy/covetous], if he keeps his hand from iniquity and executes true justice between man and man, if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully—he is righteous and will surely live,” declares the Lord God (Ezek. 18:5-9, emphasis added).
Any genuine Christian who reads that passage should find affirmation that he or she is righteous by God’s definition. But the professing Christian who is more excited about his hobbies than Christ, who is having an affair or viewing pornography (as Jesus equated lust with adultery), who is cheating on his income tax or in some other way stealing from other people, or who is ignoring the pressing needs of the poor, should be greatly concerned. Such a person does not possess the evidence of God’s initial cleansing.
The Upward Call of God
If you find affirmation in the above-quoted words of Paul and Ezekiel, should you rest on your laurels? No, not if God is “at work in you, both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). If God is in you, He is working, and you are thus obligated to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Only those in heaven have salvation “in the bag.” The rest of us are running a race for the finish line.
Paul was certainly running that race at one time. He was obviously living far above the sins he listed in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that mark one as being unrighteous and disqualified from inheriting God’s kingdom. But did he think he had attained sinless perfection? No, it was something he was still pursuing even after he had been a believer for at least twenty-five years. Around that time he wrote to the Philippian believers:
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: 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 (Phil. 3:12-14).
Paul continued with some words addressed to those who apparently thought that they’d already “arrived”:
Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained (Phil. 3:15-16).
The Lord has “laid hold” of us to make us holy. All true believers have heard “the upward call of God in Christ.” We must, however, continue to respond by “reaching forward” and “pressing on toward the goal for the prize.”
For What, Exactly, Shall We “Press on”?
While some seem to think that spiritual progress is measured by increasing material prosperity or the number of cryptic dreams one experiences each night, those who are truly making spiritual progress are growing in holiness, particularly in selfless love. Love is the very first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:14). Without it, we are nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Among the preeminent traits of hope, faith and love, love is the greatest (1 Cor. 13:13). Love is the key word found in the two greatest commandments (Matt. 22:36-40). The entire law is fulfilled in that single word (Gal. 5:14). “The one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16).
God wants us to “increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people” (1 Thes. 3:12), but that increase won’t happen without effort on our part. Love is something Scripture says we must pursue (1 Cor. 14:1). So it begins with a decision that says, “I am going to love more.” It is a determination, every day, to “deny yourself” and “take up your cross” (Luke 9:23), because we all still possess a selfish nature that, left unrestrained, will make us less self-denying and more self-indulging. In short, those who are greater lovers are those who are more intentional about loving, because we all have the same Spirit. Yet within all of us there is also a spoiled brat who cares only for himself. Great lovers suppress their inner brat. But as long as we give ourselves some excuse—“It’s my Irish blood, you know!”— the brat rules.
To love more means more than passing out a few more handshakes during “greeting time” at church. Jesus said that the greatest among us is the servant (Luke 22:26). So we should strive, above all else, to serve others. That is love in action.
John wrote, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Love involves sacrifice on behalf of others. And in the final analysis, there are only a few things that we have to sacrifice. It all comes down to time, talent and treasures—all gifts from God—bestowed upon us for our testing. The only ultimate difference between the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is what they did and didn’t do with those three things. Heaven is for lovers.
He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)