"Our Saviour understood all about human nature, and He says to every human being,
'Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.' As God is
perfect in His sphere, so man is to be perfect in his sphere."—Medical Ministry, 112, 113.
In evaluating the foregoing statement by Ellen G. White, with its call to perfection, it is highly important to grasp the thought that perfection "in human nature" represents a perfection in a "human sphere." "Our Saviour understood all about human nature." He calls for a perfection as far as perfection is possible in the human sphere. This is not to minimize the heights of character development to which humanity is to attain, but to be realistic in understanding what is meant by such heights. In Selected Messages, book 1, page 337, appears a most illuminating reference:
With our limited powers we are to be as holy in our sphere as God is holy in His sphere. To the extent of our ability, we are to make manifest the truth and love and excellence of the divine character. As wax takes the impression of the seal, so the soul is to take the impression of the Spirit of God and retain the image of Christ.
We are to grow daily in spiritual loveliness.
This reference makes plain that human beings possess "limited powers" that make it possible, under God, for them to be holy, but "holy in our sphere." Continuing, Ellen White wrote, "To the extent of our ability, we are to make manifest the truth," et cetera. Humanity has its limitations in walking the fields of holiness as much as in intellectual and physical development.
God is holy in His sphere. Man is holy in his sphere. The angels have their sphere too. There is an angelic perfection. This angelic perfection failed in heaven (The SDA Bible Commentary, on John 3:14-17, p. 1132). And there is human perfection. This failed in Eden (ibid). The perfection that the angels had before Lucifer fell, was a relative perfection. It was not an absolute perfection. The perfection that Adam had before he fell was a human perfection, a relative perfection. It was not an ultimate, consummate perfection in the absolute sense. That type of perfection is possessed by God and will ever be possessed only by God.
When the Saviour said, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," He meant perfect in the relative sense. God is absolutely perfect in every way—in character, in power, in wisdom. God's power, God's wisdom, is absolute. God's perfection of character does not improve. It has always been perfect—absolutely perfect. It will always be so. This is His sphere, the divine sphere, the perfect sphere. Man's perfection of character has always been and will always be in relation to God's—the creature's to the Creator's. And this regardless of the Advent and the final extirpation of sin from the universe.
The expression, "As God is perfect in His sphere, so man is to be perfect in his sphere," is the key to the understanding of the doctrine of Christian perfection. The word "sphere," as it is used in the foregoing Ellen G. White statements, refers to the place or scene of man's habitation; that is, to man living in this present evil world. Through faith in Christ and obedience to God, man is to become perfect in his humanity and in this present evil world. God's grace works perfection in him. But his perfection is of a relative character in relation to God, who is perfect in His divinity and who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Man's perfection is limited. But man can grow. Man's perfection grows because it is relative. He is capable of improvement. He can do better. But we do not say in any case, "God could have done better--characterwise or in any other sense at all.
The word "sphere" also means "order of society, social position, or class," as Webster defines the word. And in this sense man in his human nature, or in his sphere, advances from one phase, or rank, or grade, or class, or stage of perfection, to another. Wrote Ellen G. White:
As in nature, so in grace; there can be no life without growth. The plant must either grow or die. As its growth is silent and imperceptible, but continuous, so is the development of the Christian life. At every stage of development our life may be perfect; yet if God's purpose for us is fulfilled, there will be continual advancement. Sanctification is the work of a lifetime. As our opportunities multiply, our experience will enlarge, and our knowledge increase. We shall become strong to bear responsibility, and our maturity will be in proportion to our privileges.—Christ's Object Lessons, pp. 65, 66.
In discussing perfection in the human sphere it is hard to find a perfect illustration or parallel. But illustrations, faulty as they may be, may have meaning. In the statement just quoted, the messenger of the Lord stated that "there will be continual advancement." And again, "At every stage of development our life may be perfect." In the officer staff of the army of any nation there is, or should be, on the part of the officers "continual advancement." An officer may rise from the humblest commission to a full general or marshal. In between, depending on the army, are lieutenants, captains, majors, colonels, et cetera. Each of the men occupying a rank in this ascending scale is an officer in the army, but with progressive service and experience each climbs to a different status as an officer.
The Christian grows from one stage of perfection to another in an ascending scale, like the army officer who rises, let us say, from the humble lieutenant to the position of general. At each point he is an "officer"; that is, to follow the illustration, he is perfect. But at each state his perfection corresponds with his growth and maturity. Jesus explained growth in perfection when He said, "First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear" (Mark 4:28).
All Christians who have parted company with a life of disobedience to God and have become believers in Christ and partakers of His righteousness by faith have obtained a standing with God and a moral status, a rank. The status made possible by the imputation of divine righteousness means perfection. The experience of sanctification begins at this moment, and this continues throughout our lifetime. From conversion on, there is a growth from one state of perfection to another. The "officer" goes on, up the ascending scale of the Christian society, climbing from one rank of holiness to another. But at each stage he is an officer; that is, he is perfect.
Ellen G. White states that "sanctification is the work of a lifetime." But we must not overlook this important truth that the work is still the work of the Holy Spirit within us and not our mere efforts to measure up to the divine standard. Christian growth, which is sanctification, is possible only by the continual surrender of our wills to God.
The faith that is unto salvation is not a casual faith, it is not the mere consent of the intellect, it is belief rooted in the heart, that embraces Christ as a personal Saviour, assured that He can save unto the uttermost all that come unto God by Him. To believe that He will save others, but will not save you is not genuine faith; but when the soul lays hold upon Christ as the only hope of salvation, then genuine faith is manifested. This faith leads its possessor to place all the affections of the soul upon Christ; his understanding is under the control of the Holy Spirit, and his character is molded after the divine likeness. His faith is not a dead faith, but a faith that works by love, and leads him to behold the beauty of Christ, and to become assimilated to the divine character . . . [Dent. 30;11-14 quoted]. "And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live" (Deut. 30:6).
It is God that circumcises the heart. The whole work is the Lord's from the beginning to the end—Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 391, 392.
Concerning Christian maturity Ellen G. White wrote:
"As our opportunities multiply, our experience will enlarge, and our knowledge increase. We shall become strong to bear responsibility, and our maturity will be in proportion to our privileges."—Christ's Object Lessons, pp. 65, 66.
God's servant uses the expression "maturity" in the sense of perfection. A general is more mature than a captain, or should be. So a Christian who has grown consistently through the years and has attained maturity and stature as a well-balanced, thinking, obedient disciple of the Lord is on a higher level, representing more spiritual development than the captain or the younger officer. Yet both are officers. Following the parallel closely, we are perfect at every stage of development, but there is a difference in the perfection of a mature Christian and the young Christian, even as there is a difference in the perfection of the full corn in the ear and the blade that represents the early growth of the cornstalk. Each is perfect at each level of development.
An eight- or ten-pound baby boy, with a squirmy little body and a healthy cry, with pink cheeks and toes and fingers, is perfect in the physical sense. There is perfection at each of the three points I have alluded to. There is also a difference in maturity, in growth, in spiritual status, in the Christian life. But when we use the word "status" or "rank" we do not suggest superiority of person. Indeed, since the righteousness by which we are justified, sanctified, and glorified is all Christ's righteousness, we must all take the same humble position of dependence and recognize the equality of our great need as human beings. "Thine be the glory!"
Perfection, then, is not ultimate at any time in Christian experience, but it is there. And that is the important thing. It will remain relative as long as we are human, and that will be through eternity. Ultimate perfection, completeness of perfection, absolute perfection, is God's alone. This is true of God's physical creation with which we are surrounded in our world touched by sin, as well as His moral perfection in our human nature. The things in nature do their best to represent God's perfection (Child Guidance, p. 54), says the messenger of the Lord, but the blight of sin makes it difficult for natural things to reveal perfectly the perfection of God.
It is impossible to gain a perfect knowledge of God from nature alone; for nature itself is imperfect. In its imperfection it cannot represent God, it cannot reveal the character of God in its moral perfection. But Christ came as a personal Saviour. . . . He ascended on high, and He will come again as He ascended to heaven—a personal Saviour. He is the express image of the Father's person. "In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily."—The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Rom. 1:20-25, p. 1068.
But may I add that nature succeeds better than moral man (or immoral man) to reveal God.
When we compare our perfection to God's perfection we remember that we have our moral perfection as fallen beings. God has His moral perfection as the unfallen God. We have our human moral perfection in a body with a brain with serious limitations and habits of thought hampered by long years of wrong thinking. God has His moral perfection as a spiritual personality, with intellectual equipment and faculties that clef) human language to describe. Unger's Bible Dictionary states:
Absolute perfection is an attribute of God alone. In the highest sense He alone is complete or wanting nothing. His perfection is eternal and admits of no possibility of defect. It is the ground and standard of all other perfection. (See Job 36:4; 37:16; Matthew 5:48.) A relative perfection is also ascribed to God's works. It is also either ascribed to men or required of them. By this is meant complete conformity to those requirements as to character and conduct which God has appointed. But this, it is constantly to be borne in mind, has reference to the gracious government of God which takes account of man's present debilitated condition. (See Gen, 6:9-17; Job l :1-8; 2:3; Matthew 5:48: Phil. 3:15; James 3:2; 1 Peter 5:10, et al.) The term perfection as applied to man's present moral life has been a subject of much contention. The propriety of using the word as in any sense of actual description has even been denied. But fidelity to the Scriptures require us to believe that in some important sense Christians may be perfect even in this life though they still must wait for perfection in a larger sense in the life which is to come. This important sense in which the Bible presents man's present perfection relates to the believer's position in union with Christ by the Spirit's baptizing work (kora. 6:3, 4; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:10-12; 1 Cor. 12:13). Being placed "in Christ" the Christian acquires a perfect position because the Father sees him in the Son's perfection. But as far as his actual experience is concerned, however, the Christian realizes his perfect position only in proportion as he believes in (reckons upon) what he is in Christ. [See article. "Perfection.")
There is not a soul living who does not either increase or diminish the sum total of human happiness.
The Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy urge the believers to go on from glory to glory, from perfection to perfection. The Christian is to attain to the highest reaches of spiritual growth possible in his mortal state. This growth goes on throughout one's mortal life in this world. The greatest manifestation of the power of God's kingdom on earth "is seen in human nature brought to the perfection of the character of Christ."—Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 143. But to obtain the divine character on earth requires a personal faith in the righteousness which Christ developed while He was on earth. This is the hope of God's people. At any time in sanctification it is possible for the Christian to lie down upon his pillow at night and rest in the hope of Christ's righteousness. He may be complete or perfect in Christ and in His perfect righteousness, and at any time in sanctification be accepted by God. With this God is satisfied. Believers have their prayers presented to the Father by Christ Himself with the incense of His own righteousness. But God expects from His people Christ's righteousness; it becomes in a peculiar sense their very own. Faith works by love and purifies the soul.
The thought of Christian perfection is frightening to some Christians. How can we reach the goal? is the question asked by many a sincere soul. Look away, fellow Christian, to Christ and to His righteousness. This is your hope.
Your hope is not in yourself; it is in Christ. Your weakness is united to His strength, your ignorance to His wisdom, your frailty to His enduring might. So you are not to look to yourself, not to let the mind dwell upon self, but look to Christ. Let the mind dwell upon His love, upon the beauty. the perfection, of His character. Christ in His self-denial, Christ in His humiliation, Christ in His purity and holiness, Christ in His matchless love,—this is the subject for the soul's contemplation. It is by loving Him, copying Him, depending wholly upon Him, that you are to be transformed into His likeness."—Steps to Christ, pp. 70, 71.
The servant of the Lord continues to state:
When the mind dwells upon self, it is turned away from Christ, the source of strength and life. Hence it is Satan's constant effort to keep the attention diverted from the Saviour, and thus prevent the union and communion of the soul with Christ. The pleasures of the world, life's cares and perplexities and sorrows, the faults of others, or your own faults and imperfections,—to any or all of these he will seek to divert the mind. Do not be misled by his devices. Many who are really conscientious, and who desire to live for God, he too often leads to dwell upon their own faults and weaknesses, and thus by separating them from Christ, he hopes to gain the victory. We should not make self the center, and indulge anxiety and fear as to whether we shall be saved. All this turns the soul away from the Source of our Strength. Commit the keeping of your soul to God, and trust in Him. Talk and think of Jesus.—Ibid., pp. 71, 72.
Ellen G. White says:
While it is our duty to seek for perfection in outward things, it should ever be kept in mind that this aim is not to be made supreme. It must be held subordinate to higher interests. Above the seen and transitory, God values the unseen and eternal. The former is of worth only as it expresses the latter. The choicest productions of art possess no beauty that can compare with the beauty of character which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit's working in the soul,—Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 143.
He who has a correct view of the character of God and understands His love and requirements knows that the Lord does not demand unjust, unreasonable, or impossible responses from His earthly children. "He knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust" (Ps. 103:14).
Many of God's saints are plagued with fear lest they have committed some little trangression or oversight, or failed to make some confession here or there along life's way. Away with these fears. While it is true that we are to search our hearts and carefully discover and confess our sins, we are also to trust in God's love, knowing that He is just, and that we are saved in the position of being something with God and not doing something for Him. The doing means nothing without the being.
The Lord's messenger wrote concerning perfection of soul, but made clear that perfection of the flesh is impossible (Selected Messages, book 2, p. 32). We will never have perfect flesh in this world. Once I visited with an elderly physician, well over ninety years of age. For years he had served this cause as a sanitarium medical superintendent. He reminded me of Philippians 3:21 and Paul's assurance that when Christ comes He shall change our vile bodies and make them like unto His glorious body. "Notice," the old doctor said to me, with trembling voice, "we have vile flesh even up to the moment when we are translated to heaven, when we are changed from corruptible to incorruptible. We feel within ourselves the promptings of the flesh. This is what Paul means. Not until translation time will we have a different body." That is true. Not until this vile flesh is changed to incorruptible flesh will we have holy flesh.
Paul, who recognized that he and certain fellow Christians were already perfect (1 Cor. 2:6; Phil. 3:15), states almost in the same breath that they had not attained to perfection but should go on (Phil. 3:12). Thus a perfect man may become perfect. He may aspire to a better perfection.
The truest charity is the effort to correct the cause for the need of charity.
Ellen G. White urged the Adventist people forward with many hopeful promises that would ensure preparation for translation to heaven. She made plain that no one need fail of attaining perfection of character; that is, maturity of character (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 531). God's people are to attain to nothing short of this. In order to reach perfection we are to be faithful in little things (Messages to Young People, pp. 144, 145). Thought and action are essential to perfection of character (Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 568).
The messenger of the Lord warned of certain practices that would hinder the Spirit's work of perfection (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 57; Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 492). Attainment of Christian perfection is impossible while giving rein to appetite (Counsels on Health, p. 114). A vacillating person would not succeed in attaining it (Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 408, 409). Neglect of God's Word in study and prayer would prevent growth in perfection (Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 17). Since the greatest manifestation of the power of God's kingdom on earth "is seen in human nature brought to the perfection of the character of Christ" (Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 143), it follows that un.-Christlikertess of character is the worst denial of Jesus Christ.
Anything harsh, sour, critical, domineering, is not of Christ, but proceeds from Satan. . . . There will be no frowns, no scolding, no expressions of contempt, on the part of any man who is cultivating the graces of Christianity.—Testimonies to Ministers, p. 156.
Occasionally sincere souls, grieved over the sins to be found in the church, become critical of their brethren. Wrote Ellen G. White:
You have just reason to be grieved with the pride and lack of simplicity in those who profess better things. But you have watched others, and talked of their errors and wrongs, and neglected your own soul. You are not accountable for any of the sins of your brethren, unless your example has caused them to stumble, caused their feet to be diverted from the narrow path. You have a great and solemn work before you to control and subdue yourself, to become meek and lowly of heart, to educate yourself to be tenderhearted, pitiful in your family, and to possess that nobleness of spirit and true generosity of soul which despises everything niggardly.—Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 256.
Jesus is our example. He was perfect in character, perfect as a workman, perfect as a preacher, teacher, Saviour (The Desire of Ages, p. 72). So should we be—in our sphere. The seal of God will never be placed upon the forehead of imperfect men and women who are ambitious, impure, world loving, dishonest, unkind, fearful, unbelieving, the victims of appetite or evil passions. Overcomers will receive God's seal. We are nearing the close of probation, and the finishing of the work is hastening on.
We are to be perfect "in Jesus Christ." There is no other way to perfection. But even then our perfection will be relative, in the human sphere, and the sanctifying process will go on until the time of translation when we are taken to heaven. Surely there is a deeper, fuller work of grace that needs to be done on all our hearts. To give ourselves to this preparation should be first in importance with every Seventh-day Adventist.