Christian Perfection by Grace and Works
Perfection of Paul
John was probably a teenager during Christ's ministry. When John wrote Revelation, he was an old man, perhaps in his nineties. When 1 John was written, John considered himself to be spiritually mature. Seven times he refers to his audience as "little children." (1 John 2:1, 2:12, 2:28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4, and the last verse of the letter, 5:21) John was writing from the authority of one of the twelve disciples, and as one who had matured to Christian perfection.
Paul, on the other hand, wrote as one who continued to struggle with sin during most of his ministry. Paul was considered to be an apostle. But he had not actually lived with Christ and matured under his discipleship. Also, Paul was martyred. So Paul's ministry was much shorter than John's. His ministry probably lasted about 30 years from his conversion around 34 AD until his martyrdom around 64 AD.
Paul used the metaphor of the race in reference to his journey to Christian perfection. Towards the end of his life, Paul states that he had completed the journey. It's very informative to take a survey of all the times Paul used this metaphor. The meaning of the race is often debated. Some may see the race as involving holiness. But the Reformed position does not recognize Christian perfection. Thus, they do not generally associate the race with holiness unless it's a race that is never completed until after death. For this reason, let's begin with Philippians to get a good idea of what Paul means by the race and its prize.
Philippians 3:10-16 that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death; (11) if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (12) Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect; but I press on, if it is so that I may take hold of that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus. (13) Brothers, I don't regard myself as yet having taken hold, but one thing I do. Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (15) Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, think this way. If in anything you think otherwise, God will also reveal that to you. (16) Nevertheless, to the extent that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule. Let us be of the same mind.
Paul states that he has not as yet obtained Christian perfection (verses 12, 13). But Paul is not saying that none are perfect. He says, "As many as are perfect, think this way" (verse 15). Even if you are perfect, you should continue to "press on." Some may be mistaken. It's possible that the Holy Spirit still has some work to do in you regarding a sinful habit that you are unaware. Verse 15 goes on to say, "if ... you think otherwise, God will also reveal that to you." In other words, God will reveal to us when we have been made perfect, and when we have not been made perfect. But we should usually keep it to ourselves. We should not boast. In verse 16, Paul concludes with "Let us be all of the same mind." We should all "press on" even after God has revealed to us that we have reached Christian perfection.
We should note that in these verses (above) Paul uses the metaphor of the goal and the prize. He does not explicitly refer to a race. But it's strongly implied.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul uses the metaphor of a race to portray the Christian life. He speaks of a strict training, which would be compared to the training and self-discipline required to overcome sin. If we are successful in running the race, we obtain the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 NIV Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (25) Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (26) Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. (27) No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Is this prize salvation itself? If this is true, then why does Paul fear being disqualified for this prize? Paul says he beats his body, and makes it his slave, so that he will not be disqualified for this prize. He considers the possibility that others to whom he has preached the gospel could achieve the prize but that he himself could be disqualified. Beating one’s body to make it his slave is not consistent with salvation. We don’t have to beat our bodies to get saved.
Many theologians argue that the prize is heavenly rewards for works of service in building the kingdom. Beating of one’s body, however, is not consistent with a prize of rewards for furthering the kingdom. No amount of beating one’s body will further the kingdom. However, the beating of one’s body is consistent with the overcoming of sin. Also, heavenly rewards would most likely be plural. It would be different rewards for various services in building the kingdom. Paul, however, seems to be referring to a single goal and a single prize.
Some would argue that the beating of the body is not to be considered literal. The beating of the body simply expresses motivation in furthering the kingdom. In this case, however, there is no reason that Paul would be fearful of failing to obtain the prize, when others to whom he preaches would have been successful. Would God reward only those who have accomplished a certain high level preaching? No, if there are to be rewards given in heaven for works that are done in this life, then everyone will receive rewards for their works. Nobody will be disqualified because someone else did more.
Paul says the prize is a crown. Those who overcome their sinful habits will rule the nations (Revelation 2:26-27). They will inherit the kingdom. The prize is the reward of becoming priests and kings. The prize is not salvation. We don’t go into “strict training” to earn the free gift of salvation. The prize is a reward that comes from beating our bodies to make it our slaves, and free from sin. The wise are those who beat their bodies to overcome sin. The foolish are those who allow sin to remain, thinking that sin cannot be overcome. Both are saved. But only the wise will reign with Christ. Only the wise will inherit the kingdom. Only the wise will inherit eternal life. Only the wise will no longer be under judgment, because they will have overcome all their sinful habits.
Some will argue that Paul mixes this metaphor. In some places, they argue, the race can be about holiness, and in other places the race can be about furthering the kingdom. Actually, there is some truth to this. But what if Paul does not distinguish the two? What if Paul understands that you overcome sin by doing the works of the Father? Since this is the teaching of both Jesus and John, it would make sense. When we do the works of the Father, the Holy Spirit fills us, and we overcome sin. God becomes a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). We no longer have room in our lives for sin when we are focused on doing the Father's works. So the race is for both good works and the overcoming of sinful habits. It's all part of the same journey of salvation.
Acts 20:22-24 Now, behold, I go bound by the Spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there; (23) except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions wait for me. (24) But these things don't count; nor do I hold my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to fully testify to the Good News of the grace of God.
Galatians 2:1-2 Then after a period of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus also with me. (2) I went up by revelation, and I laid before them the Good News which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately before those who were respected, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain.
Galatians 5:6-7 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision amounts to anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love. (7) You were running well! Who interfered with you that you should not obey the truth?
Hebrews 12:1-2 Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, (2) looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
In the following, Paul speaks about the end of his life, having run a good race. Paul expects to receive that crown. This is entire sanctification. This should be a challenge to the Reformed view that righteousness is never perfected in this life. Paul seems to believe that he has successfully run the race. He therefore expects to receive the prize.
2 Timothy 4:6-8 For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure has come. (7) I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith. (8) From now on, there is stored up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day; and not to me only, but also to all those who have loved his appearing.
If we are successful in running the race, we receive the prize. The prize cannot be just heavenly rewards, because Paul was fearful of being disqualified, and you don’t beat your body for heavenly prizes. The race includes doing the Father's works. But the race must also be associated with the overcoming of all sinful habits. It is, therefore, entire sanctification. Paul says the prize is a crown. Those who overcome sinful habits will rule the nations (Revelation 2:26-27). By implication, the prize is the reward of becoming priests and kings in the millennium.
Entire sanctification does not mean perfection without mistakes. You can still make mistakes. But you can overcome all your sinful habits.
1 Thess. 5:23-24 ESV Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (24) He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
Theologians all seem to agree that sanctification is the long-term process of our being changed to make us more and more like Christ. As we overcome sin, we are being sanctified. But the Reformed view is that this process cannot be completed until the time of the resurrection, or until Christ returns. That's because they believe you can't completely overcome all sinful habits.
Therefore, Reformed theologians will tend to read this verse as saying our sanctification will be completed when Christ returns. But the verse does not say we are sanctified completely at the coming of Christ. We are "kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." In other words, we can be completely sanctified so that we are ready for Christ to return. We can be "kept blameless" until Christ returns. We are not ready for Christ to return until we have overcome all our sinful habits for complete sanctification.
In many respects, this short letter of Paul covers many aspects of eschatology. The coming of Christ in the clouds to gather his people is at the end of chapter 4. Now, at the end of chapter 5, Paul seems to be concluding that we should become completely sanctified in order to be ready for Christ to come in the clouds and for us to be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.
To understand Paul better, let's go to the Old Testament and see the same thing. In other words, let's take a look at it in Paul's Bible. Daniel 9 is about a prayer that Daniel prayed. Daniel knew that Israel had been dispersed to Babylon because of sin. Daniel also knew that God had promised the dispersion would end in 70 years. Thus, Daniel prayed to ask God to forgive the sins of Israel. And Daniel prayed for the desolation of Jerusalem to come to an end, according to what God had promised.
The answer to the prayer was given in a vision. Daniel was also told in this vision that after the command to rebuild Jerusalem, Daniel's people would have seventy weeks of years to completely stop sinning before the Messiah (Christ) would come.
Daniel 9:23-24 As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed. Therefore, consider the message and understand the vision: (24) "Seventy 'sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.
This is not something that Christ (the Messiah) would do at the cross, as many have argued. This is something that "your people and your holy city" must do before the Messiah (Christ) would come.
Think about it from the perspective of Old Testament Jewish eschatology. When the Messiah comes, Israel will rule the nations with the Messiah. Righteousness will go out to all the nations as a result of that rule. But in order for righteousness to be brought out to all the nations, Israel must first become righteous. So Israel must become righteous before the Messiah can set up his kingdom.
When Christ came the first time, Israel was not ready. Israel was still sinning. So Christ will come a second time. When the last seven weeks are finished, Christ will come again. We must be completely sanctified before Christ comes. Today, the Church is not ready for Christ to return. The true Church (Bride of Christ), which is Israel, must completely stop sinning before Christ can set up the kingdom of heaven here on the earth.