On a recent flight to Dallas I enjoyed reading the current issue of American Way, the monthly magazine of American Airlines. In this particular issue the cover story was about golf phenom Lexi Thompson. Her remarks about why she loves the game of golf were striking: “Every day I wake up and somethings different in my game: my swing, the weather. That’s the thing about golf. It’s always a challenge every time you wake up. That’s why I gravitated to it. What keeps me going is that you can never perfect it.”
What Thompson recognizes about golf we can apply to the Christian life. Indeed, what keeps us going—striving for growth in practical holiness—is that we will never perfect the Christian life this side of heaven. There is always room for improvement.
A GOD-GIVEN DESIRE FOR PERFECTION
Human beings have an inherent desire for perfection. After all, we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and have been given a mandate to exercise dominion over the earth for its improvement (Genesis 1:28). Both who we are and what we’ve been called to do create a desire for excellence in all things. And the Christian feels this perfectionist impulse acutely given our Lord’s command in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Apostle Paul echoes this when he writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” That is, live perfectly. To seek perfection, therefore, is not an inherently bad thing. However, a drive for perfection can go awry if not tempered with biblical realism about the fall and its consequences.
One of the tragic consequences of the fall is that perfection in this life is impossible. In manifold ways we see every day how human beings “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is true for the Christian as well. We resonate with the Apostle Paul when he laments, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Paul knows that this life is marked by constant warfare against indwelling sin.
The Apostle John thinks likewise when he writes to Christians, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). John is clear: those who claim to have no sin not only deceive themselves, but make God a liar proving that the word of God is not in them. Christians live a life of vigilance against indwelling sin until that day when sin shall be no more.
The Puritan John Owen in his classic work On the Mortification of Sin in Believers describes what the Christian life requires, “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.” Owen sees mortification as our life’s work—it is to be done “all [our] days” because perfection will not be realized this side of heaven.
A NEW CREATION IN CHRIST
As I consider evangelicalism today, I do not think perfectionism is our greatest problem. More than perfectionism it can be argued that antinomianism is the greater threat (a theme I plan to take up in more detail in a future column). Even as the Bible is clear that perfection is not possible in this life God’s Word is equally clear that Christians are to grow in godliness. The theological reason for this has everything to do with what happens at regeneration: we are made new creatures in Christ. This is the astonishing truth Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
To be a new creation is the biography of every Christian. It is a promise for all those who are “in Christ”—that is, united by faith to the risen and exalted Lord. The term ‘new creation’ carries with it the idea of the sovereign, creative power of God. Paul invoked this idea earlier in the letter when he alluded to the power of God in creating light and applied it to the making of a Christian: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
What we learn is that Christianity is not moral tweaking. It is not simply “brushing off” our old selves, as if we’re merely dirty. Christianity is not ultimately about new habits or a new outlook, although it is those things. Christianity is about a complete and exhaustive overhaul. Nothing less than a new creation.
A Christian is one who has experienced the New Covenant promise of Ezekiel 36:26-27 where God proclaims what will be accomplished in Christ by the Spirit: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The Christian has been given a new heart and the very Spirit of God so that we now “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
The Apostle says that the “old has passed away.” With the cross of Christ we have the end of the old covenant as well as the end of the old life of those who are now in Christ. Our old life of godless, self-centered, fleshly living has been crucified!
And because the old has passed away we make it our aim to “put to death” everything that belonged to that old life: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:5-10).
The Christian is one who takes constant inventory of his or her life and asks, “What in my life needs to be put to death?” Once something is identified we resolve to kill it. Indeed, we mobilize every means of grace at our disposal and wage war on the sin in our life!
The Christian life, however, is not only about what has passed away. It is also about what has come. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul is saying look, see, behold something breathtaking has come! We are now, if ever so faintly, beginning to display in our lives radiant colors of Christlikeness. In the power of the Holy Spirit we begin to “put on” Christlikeness: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14).
It is true that we will not be perfect in this life. Life in a fallen world means that we will not be totally free from sin this side of heaven. But this truth does not lead us to despair. As Christians we have been untied to Christ by faith and given the Holy Spirit. Therefore we “make it our aim to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:9). And even as we stumble and falter at times, we rejoice with Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”