And this will we do if God permit (Hebrews 6:3).
IN the book of Hebrews the apostle encourages the Christians to whom he is writing to “go on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1). It would seem that because of human frailty and wilfulness, sinless perfection is not attainable in this life. However, we are enjoined by scripture to “be perfect” directly emulating God Himself:
Therefore be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
John Wesley was confident that what he termed Christian perfection is attainable and should be the goal of every believer. He wrote about this specifically in his work entitled A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. His ideas were controversial in the 18th century and it may be indicative of the malaise that now afflicts us that this question of perfection is no longer a burning issue in Christian circles. The above reference from Matthew’s gospel however underlines its importance. It seems that in 1738 during a time of intense seeking for God and His truth, Wesley conversed with Arvid Gradin in Germany. He asked this man for a written account, a definition of “the full assurance of faith” and his reply, translated from the Latin, is as follows:
Repose in the blood of Christ; a firm confidence in God, and persuasion of His favour; the highest tranquillity, serenity, and peace of mind; with a deliverance from every fleshly desire, and a cessation of all, even inward sins.
Wesley describes this as the first account that he ever heard from any living man of what he had before learned himself from the oracles of God. It may be that the description of the state of the soul which Arvid Gradin describes is an ideal which is to be striven for but which may not normally be perpetual. However the scripture is very powerful in enjoining us to “be perfect”. Further, God has provided everything that is needful for “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
Wesley taught that a state of sanctified perfection could be achieved by those who were justified by faith in Christ and such could be achieved instantaneously by an act of faith. I believe that John Wesley is without doubt one of the brightest stars in the spiritual firmament but there is certainly also room for an alternative view as to how perfection is to be achieved. In practice, and I think scripture supports this, acquiring the holy characteristics of Christ is more often a process.
Shortly after the reference that Peter makes to “life and godliness” in the first chapter of his second epistle, he describes a process of adding aspects of the godly character beginning with “virtue”(strength, persistence) and ending with love.
And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; to knowledge self-control, to self-control, perseverance; to perseverance godliness; to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness love (2 Peter 1:5-7).
An Old Testament Illustration
The way in which the children of Israel were to advance into the Promised Land was by degrees. In Exodus 23 a gradual process of acquiring territory is described “little by little” (Exodus 23:30) and there is a reason given, namely, that a sudden taking of the whole land would leave the country vulnerable and “the beast of the field (would) become too numerous for you” (verse 23). Immediate and complete cleansing can bring a terrible vulnerability.
In Matthew 12 (vv43-45) Jesus speaks of the counter attack made by wicked unseen forces after deliverance has been achieved and the last state of the individual being much worse than the first.
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walks through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, I will return to my house from where I came and when he is come, he finds [it] empty, swept, and in order. Then he goes, and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last [state] of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation (Matthew 12:43-45).
The Israelites crossed the Jordan, representing death to self, but then battles had to be fought over a number of years. I think that it is usual for real holiness to be achieved through a series of crises and processes. When insurmountable difficulties arise, they bring crossroads with them. The Christian either gives up, takes a lesser path or battles through into a deeper place with God. It is essential to establish our spiritual life solidly in such a way, step by step then the “beasts of the field” cannot multiply against us.
At the beginning of Hebrews chapter 6 the apostle lists six fundamentals of the Christian faith and includes “repentance from dead works” (v1). He is giving a sharp rebuke to the Hebrew Christians in chapter 5 for their immaturity. The time had come for them to be teachers of the Word of God and not mere students—a time for strong meat and not milk. He identifies the way in which maturity is achieved:
… but solid food belongs to them that are of full age that is those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
“By reason of use...”
The practical application of truth leads to maturity and spiritual strength. If in the details of life we discover and put into practice God’s will, we will grow and go from strength to strength in holiness. If we are disobedient or neglectful, we will be weakened and remain immature. Repentance from dead works is described as the “foundation”(Hebrews 6:1) and without doubt this is the basis for spiritual life and holiness. It is this aspect of perfection which I want to consider.
Charles Finney said that every Christian should repent at least once a month. It is surprising that he should have thought repenting so infrequently was sufficient! Repentance, real contrition, has the most far-reaching effect in heaven. King Ahab was profoundly wicked.
But there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in the sight of the Lord…. (1Kings 21:25).
The prophet Elijah was sent to him to pronounce God’s judgment against him which was devastatingly total but …
when Ahab heard those words that he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about mourning.
God responded –
See how Ahab humbled himself before me? Because he humbled himself before me I will not bring the evil in his days…(1 Kings 21:29).
We may feel that Ahab’s wickedness is so far removed from our own experience as Christians that it is hardly a helpful illustration. However, God is so unspeakably holy and His standard is immeasurably high. Take as another example Job who is described by God Himself as the best man on earth:
Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a blameless and upright man, one that fears God and shuns evil? (Job 1:8).
Job could be trusted with the most extreme and prolonged suffering and so it happened. I think that the death of his children must have been the worst of all things that he experienced. He was obviously concerned about their spiritual state, and made it his regular business to intercede for them, anxious that even in their hearts they might have cursed God. Was he sure of their salvation when they were suddenly swept away? It seems improbable. The anguish of soul that would have afflicted him then is hard to comprehend. He lost all his wealth, the support of his wife who proved to be entirely inadequate to the situation; but “in all this Job did not sin” (Job 1:22). In fearing God and hating wickedness, Job displayed attributes which are truly Christ like. It is said of the Lord Jesus Himself that He “loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (Hebrews 1:9).
Notwithstanding that Job was the first of all the godly on earth and is commended by heaven, when he actually saw the Lord he was abject in his repentance. At the end of his trials the quality of his experience had changed, his perceptions had changed. There are indications of his imperfections revealed during the narrative of the book. For example he hated the fact that he had ever been born (ch.3) which implied a sign of dissent against God, His will and purpose, but through trial his perception of God changed as did his perception of himself. He concludes—concerning God in His holiness: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear but now my eyes see you”; and concerning himself: “therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42: 5-6).
This came from the most saintly man on earth.
Isaiah is another who is commissioned wonderfully. He began his mighty prophetic work challenging the nation but then, after the death of King Uzziah, he had an encounter with the holiness of God and cried out with grief-stricken conscience “Woe is me I am a man of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5) How straight and how narrow is the path that leads to life and certainly it begins with “Laying the foundation of repentance from dead works” (Hebrews 6:1).
Finally, the supreme New Testament truth
It is vital that we discover God’s requirements and by faith fulfil them. We must engage more deeply with things already well known to us. For example we must forgive from the heart everyone for every offence especially those of the family of God.
When the Lord explained this to His disciples they asked Him to increase their faith. He did not minister faith to them directly at that time but He simply reminded them of the extent of their duty. This is set out by way of illustration in Luke chapter 17 when the Lord speaks of the farm worker, no doubt a bonded labourer who having worked all day on the farm and done his duty, returns to the farmhouse but is not therefore to be commended or given respite. He now must minister to his master.
Jesus enforces this and affirms that when we have done everything which we have been commanded (and who has ever done that?) we are to consider ourselves to be “unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:3-10).
This may seem hard but it is not. It is evidence of the Lord’s longing that we should be truly fulfilled and joyful. He knows that this is only possible when we are given wholly to Him and the concerns of His Kingdom. There is a supreme joy that attends God’s servants when they have spent themselves to please Him and are also fully engaged in ministering to the One who being a Holy Spirit seeks to be “worshipped in spirit and in truth”.
This is a high but attainable standard through Him whose “yoke is easy and burden is light”.
About the Author
ROGER WINTER-SMITH is the pastor of an evangelical church in London. He also works part-time as a litigation manager in a London law firm although his legal duties are now significantly diminished. He is married to Cheryl. They have three children. His email address is: email@example.com.