The Heresy of Perfectionism
An ancient heresy of the distinction between two types of Christians, carnal and Spirit-filled, is the heresy of perfectionism. Perfectionism teaches that there is a class of Christians who achieve moral perfection in this life. To be sure, credit is given to the Holy Spirit as the agent who brings total victory over sin to the Christian. But there is a kind of elitism in perfectionism, a feeling that those who have achieved perfection are somehow greater than other Christians. The “perfect” ones do not officially—take credit for their state, but smugness and pride have a way of creeping in.
The peril of perfectionism is that it seriously distorts the human mind. Imagine the contortions through which we must put ourselves to delude us into thinking that we have in fact achieved a state of sinlessness.
Inevitably the error of perfectionism breeds one, or usually two, deadly delusions. To convince ourselves that we have achieved sinlessness, we must either suffer from a radical overestimation of our moral performance or we must seriously underestimate the requirements of God’s law. The irony of perfectionism is this: Though it seeks to distance itself from antinomianism, it relentlessly and inevitably comes full circle to the same error.
To believe that we are sinless we must annul the standards of God’s Law. We must reduce the level of divine righteousness to the level of our own performance. We must lie to ourselves both about the Law of God and about our own obedience. To do that requires that we quench the Spirit when He seeks to convict us of sin. Persons who do that are not so much Spirit-filled as they are Spirit-quenchers.
One of the true marks of our ongoing sanctification is the growing awareness of how far short we fall of reaching perfection. Perfectionism is really antiperfectionism in disguise. If we think we are becoming perfect, then we are far from becoming perfect.
I once encountered a young man who had been a Christian for about a year. He boldly declared to me that he had received the “second blessing” and was now enjoying a life of victory, a life of sinless perfection. I immediately turned his attention to Paul’s teaching on Romans 7. Romans 7 is the biblical death blow to every doctrine of perfectionism. My young friend quickly replied with the classic agreement of the perfectionist heresy, namely, that in Romans 7 Paul is describing his former unconverted state.
I explained to the young man that it is exegetically impossible to dismiss Romans 7 as the expression of Paul’s former life. We examined the passage closely and the man finally agreed that indeed Paul was writing in the present tense. His next response was, “Well, maybe Paul was speaking of his present experience, but he just hadn’t received the second blessing yet.”
I had a difficult time concealing my astonishment at this spiritual arrogance. I asked him pointedly, “You mean that You, at 19, after one year of Christian faith, have achieved a higher level of obedience to God than the apostle Paul enjoyed when he was writing the Epistle to the Romans?”
To my everlasting shock the young man replied without flinching, “Yes!” Such is the extent to which persons will delude themselves into thinking that they have achieved sinlessness.
I spoke once with a woman who claimed the same “second blessing” of perfectionism who qualified her claim a bit. She said that she was fully sanctified into holiness so that she never committed any willful sins. But she acknowledged that occasionally she still committed sins, though never willfully. Her present sins were unwillful.
What in the world is an unwillful sin? All sin involves the exercise of the will. If an action happens apart from the will it is not a moral action. The involuntary beating of my heart is not a moral action. All sin is willful. Indeed, the corrupt inclination of the will is of the very essence of sin. There is no sin without the willing of sin. The woman was excusing her own sin by denying that she had willed to commit the sin. The sin just sort of “happened.” It was the oldest self-justification known to man: “I didn’t mean to do it!”
In one strand of the Wesleyan tradition there is another type of qualified perfectionism. Here the achievement of perfection is limited to a perfected love. We may continue to struggle with certain moral weaknesses, but at least we can receive the blessing of a perfected love. But think on this a moment. If we received the blessing of a love that was absolutely perfect, how then would we ever commit any kind of sin? If I ever loved God perfectly, I would will only obedience to Him. How could a creature who loved God perfectly ever sin against Him at all?
Someone might answer: “We could still sin against Him in ignorance.” But the perfect love with which we are called to love God is a perfect love of our minds as well as our hearts. If we perfectly loved God with all of our minds, from whence could this ignorance flow? One who loves God perfectly with the mind is perfectly diligent in studying and mastering the Word of God. The perfectly loving mind perceives correctly the light into our paths. A perfectly loving mind doesn’t make errors in understanding Scripture.
But could we not still make mistakes because our minds are less than perfect? I ask why our minds are less than perfect. It is not because we lack brains or the faculty of thinking. Our thinking is clouded because our hearts are clouded. Take away the cloud from our hearts and our minds are illumined by the clear light of God.
A perfect love would yield perfect obedience. The only perfected love this world has ever seen was the love of Christ, who exhibited perfect obedience. Jesus loved the Father perfectly. He sinned not at all, either willfully or in ignorance.