(All Bible quotations, except otherwise stated, are from the New Revised Standard Version)
The Christian life is a relational walk with God, while following the footsteps of the Lord and Master Jesus Christ. From the new birth experienced at conversion till death, the Christian, through the enablement of the indwelling Holy Spirit, strives to emulate Jesus Christ in words and deeds, as he grows into the stature of a perfect man. We have a standard to measure up to, with regards to our thoughts, words, deeds and relationship with God and one another- the Lord Jesus Christ, the only perfect and sinless man to have walked upon the face of planet earth. Unfortunately, some view this growing into Christlikeness (sanctification) as sinless perfection, and thus spend the entirety of their Christian experience struggling with guilt and condemnation in their failure to reach that illusory state of sinless perfection. The frustration/struggle with sin has left many discouraged and disillusioned, and has made some to fall out of the heavenly race. What’s the biblical view of sanctification, Christian maturity and Christian perfection? What constitutes victorious Christian living from the view point of Scriptures? We shall examine the Scriptures to answer these pertinent questions.
Christian sanctification has two components. When a person believes in the finished works of Christ on Calvary as the basis of his salvation and eternal life and accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, he becomes saved. The person is immediately justified and sanctified. He is justified by the fact that God declares him no longer guilty of his sins, thus attaining peace and right standing with God. He is sanctified immediately because he becomes adopted into God’s family and becomes a new creature, old things in his life having passed away, with all things concerning him becoming brand new. Justification and sanctification are by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus.They are both imputed gifts of grace that are not earned or merited! God simply transfers the righteousness and perfection of Christ to the new believer, because Christ had already carried the believer’s sins upon himself and died vicariously for the believer on Calvary, some 2000 years ago.
1 Corinthians 1:26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
1 Corinthians 1:27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
1 Corinthians 1:28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,
1 Corinthians 1:29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
1 Corinthians 1:30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,
1 Corinthians 1:31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
2 Corinthians 5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
2 Corinthians 5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;
2 Corinthians 5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
2 Corinthians 5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—
Ephesians 2:9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Ephesians 2:10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Romans 4:1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?
Romans 4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
Romans 4:3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.
Romans 4:5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
Romans 4:6 So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
Romans 4:7 “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
Romans 4:8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”
The first part of sanctification (adoption into God’s family and separation unto God) is thus a work of grace and not merited by any acts of righteousness. Just by being in Christ, we’re clothed with his righteousness and invested with all his attributes. Whatever he is, so are we in this world, in God’s eyes. We become sons and daughters of God, and God’s heirs as well as joint heirs with Christ. This is the privilege any child enjoys by being born into a royal family. Immediately after birth, such a child becomes royalty himself, from the very minute he comes out from the womb. He didn’t do anything to merit it. Royalty was conferred on him by being born into the royal family. It’s his hereditary right! The same is conferred or imputed sanctification or righteousness. It comes through the blood of Jesus Christ and not by any works of righteousness which we have done.
Romans 8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
Romans 8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”
Romans 8:16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
Romans 8:17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
1 John 3:1 3 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
1 John 3:2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
1 John 3:3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
1 John 4:15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.
1 John 4:16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
1 John 4:17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.
1 John 4:18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
The second part of the sanctification process is the outworking of the inner grace of the Spirit in us, as we strive to match our high and holy calling with our conduct in the world. It’s akin to the grooming process of princes and princesses from infancy to maturity, to help them become what they were born to be. The Holy Spirit continually grooms the believer in the ethics and acceptable behaviour of Christianity, teaching, guiding, leading, rebuking and exhorting as the occasion demands, as he leads us in the footsteps of Christ, towards the stature of a perfect man, towards the fullness of the measure of Christ. We learn to sit, crawl, stand and walk in the Spirit, as he guides and leads us. We will stumble, fall, make false steps, but it’s all part of the learning process. Each time we fall, God helps us back on our feet, as we continue to learn to walk in righteousness.
One thing we should have at the back of our mind in our walk with God is that our acceptance with God and his approval of us do not depend on our performance. As long as we’re in Christ, we’re automatically accepted before God. Our acceptance is in Christ, not in ourselves. In walking with God we’re not trying to please him and earn his favour. We already have that unconditionally in Christ. All we’re doing is growing in grace. We don’t need to get agitated or frustrated by the growth process. We need to be calm and relaxed, and trust that God is able to help us become what he wants us to be. We should keep our eyes focused on Jesus and his love for us, and not on our mistakes, failures, disappointments, etc. Those things do not define us, however slow the progress we think we’re making. A toddler may be overwhelmed by the way an adult runs and jumps, but if only he knew how long it took the adult to get to that level, and all the fallings and stumblings that went with it! Our earthly parents never gave up on us till we got to where we are today. So, why do we think God will give up on us if stumble and fall a couple of times? As long as we remain in Christ and don’t slide back and abandon the faith, God will continue to patiently groom us to spiritual maturity.
Ephesians 4:7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
Ephesians 4:8 Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.”
Ephesians 4:9 (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?
Ephesians 4:10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
Ephesians 4:11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
Ephesians 4:12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
Ephesians 4:13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
Ephesians 4:14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.
Ephesians 4:15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
Ephesians 4:16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
1 Peter 2:2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—
1 Peter 2:3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
1 Peter 2:4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and
1 Peter 2:5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,
Ephesians 1:4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love,
Ephesians 1:5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will,
Ephesians 1:6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
Ephesians 1:7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace (NKJV).
The outworking of sanctification (matching our calling with our walk, or our position with our standing) is a lifelong process that never really comes to an end till we’re glorified. As long as we’re in these fallen bodies of clay, sinless perfection is an impossibility. The goal of the Christian walk is therefore not sinless perfection (a mirage unrealisable by fallen men in a fallen world) but a continual transformation into the image and likeness of Christ. Each day, we’re to take a step closer to the image of Christ, as we follow his footsteps, one step at a time. Sometimes we’ll slip and fall, but it’s okay. We’re not to beat ourselves and remain down. We’re to simply admit and confess our failures, accept God’s forgiveness, pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and keep moving. We should never despair or give up! Each new day, we’re to put behind the things that are past, and reach out for the mark ahead of us. The big shoes and giant footsteps of our Lord are not to overwhelm and discourage us; rather, they’re to humble us and keep us meek and free of pride and totally dependent on God and his grace. The high target set by the Lord himself is to remove far from us the arrogant assumption of having arrived spiritually, for the moment we think we’ve arrived and consider ourselves able to stand on our own without the Lord’s help, our fall is imminent! The one who has risen the highest can fall to the lowest depth in a twinkle of an eye!
1 Peter 2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
1 Peter 2:22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
1 Peter 2:23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
1 Peter 2:24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
1 Peter 2:25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Philippians 3:8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ
Philippians 3:9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
Philippians 3:10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,
Philippians 3:11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Philippians 3:13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
Philippians 3:14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.
Philippians 3:16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Our walk with God (the visible manifestation of our sanctification) is not a turbulence-free experience. The flesh or “old man” is still alive in every believer, and will not be done away with or destroyed until when we’re clothed with our immortal bodies. That will be either after our death, or when we’re glorified at the coming of the Lord. For as long as we remain in these fallen bodies of clay, the Spirit and the flesh in us will be engaged in a daily battle of supremacy and control. The Spirit and the flesh struggle for control and dominance over our lives. Whoever of the two we yield to will control and direct our lives.
The whole process of Christian maturity is learning to yield to the Spirit and resist the flesh. Sometimes we will succumb to the flesh and let it drive our actions, grieving the Spirit. However, the Spirit doesn’t abandon us as long we don’t cut ourselves off from Christ. The Holy Spirit helps us work through our weaknesses and failures, and teaches us to yield to him and resist the devil and the flesh. As we mature in our spiritual walk, we learn to resist and subdue the flesh and yield to the Spirit. At no point do we get to the stage where it’s impossible for us to sin or fall into temptations of the flesh. That’s why we’re to be on our guard at all times. That’s why we’re enjoined to watch and pray ceaselessly. That’s why we’re encouraged to deny and deprive the flesh of the base things that feed and nourish it and make it thrive and flourish.
Knowing that falling is part of the growing up process, we don’t get frustrated and give up when (not if) we fall. We don’t get discouraged by our imperfections. We’re rather realistic and accept our imperfections and the fact that God loves us just as we are, warts and all, and he’ll help us become what he wants us to be, with time. Just like children are not deterred by their childhood failings, but still go ahead to enjoy life and have fun, we should go out and have fun spiritually despite our imperfections. We should be proud of our calling and our heritage and enjoy our sonship, even though we’re still imperfect. We may not be exactly like Christ today, but we’ll be exactly like him one day. For every mistake we make and for every fall we experience, there’s ready grace and forgiveness, so we don’t have to wallow in regrets and self pity. After each fall, we should pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and receive forgiveness and move on. Knowing that no one can can condemn you except the one who has justified and sanctified you (and continues to sanctify you daily), we relax and enjoy God even in our shortcomings. We have already overcome by being in Christ and are not striving to be victorious, for we’ve already obtained the victory in Christ! It’s a win-win situation for the believer in Christ! What a blessed state!
Galatians 5:16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Galatians 5:17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.
Galatians 5:18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
Galatians 5:19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,
Galatians 5:20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,
Galatians 5:21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,
Galatians 5:23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
Galatians 5:24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Galatians 5:25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Galatians 5:26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
Colossians 3:6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.
Colossians 3:7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.
Colossians 3:8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.
Colossians 3:9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices
Colossians 3:10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
Colossians 3:11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Colossians 3:12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
James 4:1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?
Proverbs 24:15 Do not lie in wait like an outlaw against the home of the righteous;
do no violence to the place where the righteous live;
Proverbs 24:16 for though they fall seven times, they will rise again;
but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.
1 John 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;
1 John 2:2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
1 Corinthians 10:11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.
1 Corinthians 10:12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.
1 Corinthians 10:13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
Romans 8:29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.
Romans 8:30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
Romans 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
Romans 8:32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?
Romans 8:33 Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
Romans 8:34 Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.
Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
Romans 8:36 As it is written:
“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Romans 8:37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
Romans 8:38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come,
Romans 8:39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (NKJV).
In conclusion, Christian perfection or progressive sanctification is not sinless perfection, but a gradual (even if sometimes inconsistent) lifelong move towards Christlikeness. It’s a daily and steady transformation into the image of Christ, although we’ll never get to replicate the fullness of that glorious image on this side of eternity. Christian perfection doesn’t mean that the Christian can or will ever stop sinning altogether (we can never be sinless but we can and should sin less and less as we progress). As long as we remain in these sin-tainted bodies of clay, and as long as the old man remains in us (and he will remain in every Christian till we leave this earth), we will never be immune to sin. Hence, we’re called upon daily to put on the whole armour of God and to resist the devil and the flesh daily, so that we will continue to walk in the Spirit in order not to fulfill the desires of the flesh. The growth process towards maturity can be slow and sometimes frustrating, but patience is a fruit of the Spirit that’s wrought in us as we persevere in following the footsteps of the Lord day by day. However much we rise and fall and stumble and wobble in our walk towards maturity, we’re assured of one thing- our acceptance and approval with God do not depend on our performance, for we’re already accepted in the beloved, warts and all! So, let’s learn to relax and enjoy our daily walk with the Lord, knowing that through it all, we’re more than conquerors through him that loves us! We’ll keep moving from glory to glory even after several fallings and stumblings, and the Lord will always be with us, as long as we don’t forsake him.