A Functional Imperfect Perfectionism

There is a functional perfectionism that can subtly creep into the minds and hearts of even those who adamantly reject any idea of instantaneous sanctification in a believer's life. On one hand, it is altogether possible for us to convince ourselves that we have out-sinned the grace of God or that God is no longer at work in our lives, based on misunderstandings about the progressive nature of sanctification. We love the extraordinary observable expressions of growth in grace, but are plagued by the less spectacular and less observable works of God. On the other hand, we can convince ourselves that we are not that sinful because we avoid particular sins that we deem vile, while allowing myriads of "respectable sins" to go unchecked. 

In his Studies in Perfectionism, B.B. Warfield observed that a gravitation toward various forms of perfectionism rests on the insatiable desire for the immediate:

"Men are unable to understand why time should be consumed in divine works...Men demand immediate, tangible results...They ask to be themselves made glorified saints in the twinkling of an eye. God's ways are not their ways, and it is a great trial to them that God will not walk in their ways. They love the storm and the earthquake and the fire. They cannot see the divine in 'a sound of gentle stillness,' and adjust themselves with difficulty to the lengthening perspective of God's gracious working. For the world they look every day for the cataclysm in which alone they can recognize God's salvation; and when it ever delays its coming they push it reluctantly forward but a little bit at a time. For themselves they cut the knot and boldly declare complete salvation to be within their reach at their option, or already grasped and enjoyed. It is true, observation scarcely justifies the assertion. But this difficulty is easily removed by adjusting the nature of complete salvation to fit their present attainments. These impatient souls tolerate more readily the idea of an imperfect perfection than the admission of lagging perfecting. They must at all costs have all that is coming to them at once."1

When we are heavy-handed with other believers when they stumble, it reveals strains of self-righteousness in our own hearts. When we speak ill of other believers because they struggle with some particular sins with which we are not beset, we reveal that we believe that we have attained "an imperfect perfection." Martyn Lloyd-Jones exposed the way in which a standard of "imperfect perfection"  functions when he wrote: 

"We insist on judging ourselves and one another by particular sins, good works, talk, etc. These are our categories. We speak of people as being respectable or not respectable, or we speak of them in terms of certain particular sins and their precise way of committing them, thereby confusing the whole issue and forming only a superficial judgment.

Geerhardus Vos explained the phenomenon of the dilemma of the functional perfectionist, when he wrote:

"The perfectionists...will acknowledge that they frequently perceive the same thing in themselves--things about ourselves with which we are displeased and are humbled before God--but for them that cannot become a source for self-accusation, since their conscience does not cause them to recognize it as sin. From this it is clear, then, how it is not a matter of perfectionism but of a great imperfection in tenderness of conscience...Precisely this belongs to ongoing sanctification as a prominent part--namely, that our conscience becomes more and more sensitive about the least lack of conformity to the law of God, thus that the object of our self-criticism gradually shifts from the outside to the inside.

Whatever the manifestation of functional perfectionism, it causes us to lose sight of the biblical teaching on the progressing nature of God's work of bringing us our lives into conformity to the image of His Son. 

The idea that "men demand immediate, tangible results" is also observable in our day by a consideration of the many efforts to rid society of particular injustices. Where there are noble calls to end gun violence, abuse, political corruption, sexual deviancy, racial inequality, abortion, etc., men can unconsciously convince themselves that a complete purgation of cultural injustices is attainable in this life. In these demands, there is--no less than in the demand for our own consummate sanctification--a quest for immediate and tangible results. Ironically, those who strive after perfectionism in cultural sanctification often reject any notion of the possibility of perfectionism in personal sanctification. Many of those who reject the notion of individual perfectionism will "tolerate more readily the idea of an imperfect perfection than the admission of lagging perfecting" in the social realm.

There are pertinent lessons for us to learn from the lives of the disciples. We should never get over the fact that Jesus committed the work of the Kingdom to men who sinfully argued about which of them was greatest (Luke 9:46; 22:44), acted with selfish ambition (Mark 10:35-37), feared men (John 18:17-18), acted impulsively (Matt. 26:35), were easily angered (Luke 9:54), fell asleep at the most pressing of occasions (Matt. 26:40-45), forsook Jesus in his moment of suffering (Mark 14:50) and denied Jesus while he suffered (Luke 22:54-62). They were men with natures like ours (James 5:17). Even after the three years of being personally taught by Christ--and after the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost--Peter twice denied the Gospel (Acts 10:9-16; Gal. 2:11-21) and the Apostle John twice succumbed to the idolatrous worship of an angel (Rev. 19:10; 22:9).

On this point, Lloyd-Jones noted the comfort we glean from the failures of the disciples, when he wrote:

"I never cease to be grateful to the disciples. I am grateful for the record of every mistake they ever made, and for every blunder they ever committed, because I see myself in them. How grateful we should be to God that we have these Scriptures, how grateful to Him that He has not merely given us the Gospel and left it at that. How wonderful it is that we can read accounts like this and see ourselves depicted in them, and how grateful we should be to God that it is a divinely inspired Word which speaks the truth, and shows and pictures every human frailty."2

This, of course, is not to say that we should embrace failure, revel in disobedience or wallow in complacency. The Lord has redeemed a people for Himself who will be diligent in pursuing godliness (2 Peter 1:10; 3:14), in putting sin to death (Rom. 8:13) and in walking in paths of righteousness (Titus 2:11-14). However, it is to say that in this life we will be far from what we long to be and that which Christ will ultimately and instantaneously make us in glory. In the here and now, the believer must learn to say with John Newton, "I am not what I ought to be, not what I might be, not what I wish or hope to be, and not what I once was, [but] I think I can truly say with the apostle, 'By the grace of God I am what I am.'"3

1. Warfield, B. B. (2008). The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Perfectionism, Part Two (Vol. 8, p. 561). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

2. An excerpt from Lloyd-Jones' sermon on Luke 8:22-25.

3. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2016), 206.

3. Josiah Bull John Newton: An Autobiography and Narrative (London: The Religious Tract Society) p. 334