Already Perfect? – By Dr Roland Chia (Dated 6 June 2021)
Chief among their many teachings about the Christian life that the new antinomians got spectacularly wrong is their doctrine of sanctification. Once an individual becomes a Christian by putting his faith in Jesus Christ, they claim, his sanctification is complete and he is made perfect.
They insist that this is what the Bible teaches, and often appeal to Colossians 2:9-10 for support. The King James Version of that passage reads: ‘For in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in him …’
The antinomians maintain that the expression ‘you are complete in him’ (v 10) refers to perfection. They conclude that once a person becomes a Christian, he is immediately made complete, that is, he is fully sanctified and made perfect.
Joseph Prince could therefore write: ‘Colossians 2 tells us we are already made perfect in Christ. We don’t work towards perfection. Christ has made us perfect from the Cross. The minute you believe you are made perfect in Christ you work from your perfection not to it.’
Consequently, the new antinomians are of the view that the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers have failed to understand this important truth. According to them, the Reformers’ theology of grace was not radical enough.
This prompted the antinomians to initiate a new ‘Grace Reformation’ to correct the mistakes of the magisterial reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. Clark Whitten puts this across forcefully when he writes: ‘The old religious approach of “I am justified. I am being sanctified and I will be glorified” is a lie.’
The antinomians therefore teach that sanctification is not a process but an instantaneous and complete work of grace. Just as the believer is justified when he puts his faith in Christ, so he is already sanctified and glorified.
Whitten explains why the antinomians think that this is important:
Listen! I believe that if you aren’t made perfect now, you cannot be in union with God, and you won’t go to Heaven! No unsanctified person or thing can live in God’s presence. God will not do anything to me in Heaven that he hasn’t already done here.
Why is this teaching unbiblical and erroneous?
The Bible and Sanctification
The Bible speaks of sanctification in two senses.
To be sanctified is to be separated – set apart – to God. This is the first way in which the Bible uses the word ‘sanctification’.
Peter, in his letter to the Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor, describes believers as ‘chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 1:2). Christians are chosen, destined and set apart by God.
Theologians have termed this as positional sanctification. Christians are thus set apart at the moment of their conversion.
Using the evocative language of the Old Testament, Peter describes Christians as ‘God’s special possession’ who have been ‘called out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Peter 2:9). Thus, Christians no longer belong to the world. They now belong to God.
The Westminster Confession of 1646 summarises this important teaching of Scripture this way: ‘They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection.’
Sanctification takes place at the beginning of the Christian life, along with justification and regeneration. All believers are set apart – sanctified, made holy – by God. That is why the New Testament describes Christians as saints, which means ‘holy ones’ (Romans 8:27; Hebrews 6:10; Colossians 1:11-13; Ephesians 2:18-20).
In addition to positional sanctification, the Bible also presents sanctification as the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer whom God has set apart. This is the deep work of the Spirit of God in the Christian, renovating his mind, heart and soul, making him holy, and transfiguring him more and more into the image of Christ.
Sanctification, in this second sense, is a process. It will only be completed in the eschaton, when Christ returns to transform this sin-marred world into the new heaven and the new earth, and when believers are resurrected in God’s fully consummated kingdom.
All the injunctions in the Bible demonstrate that sanctification, understood in this way, is a process and that before the kingdom of God is fully consummated the Christian is not yet perfect. He is still a work in progress.
Writing to his fellow Jews who have put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord, the writer of Hebrews exhorts them to ‘Make every effort … to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14).
In the same way, the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, urges them to ‘offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God’, which is their true worship (Romans 12:1).
The apostle exhorts the Christians in Colossae to ‘put to death … what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry’ (Colossians 3:5).
The New Testament is awash with passages such as these. Remember that these exhortations are addressed to Christians. Paul and the writer of Hebrews know that Christians must be encouraged to yield to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in their lives because sanctification is a process and Christians have not yet achieved perfection.
Even the apostle Paul himself is straining towards perfection. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul declares: ‘Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me’ (Philippians 3:12).
What about Colossians 2?
This brings me back to the passage in Colossians 2 which the new antinomians use to support their teaching that Christians are instantaneously made perfect at conversion. In particular, we have to inquire what did Paul mean when he said that Christians are ‘complete in Christ’ (Colossians 2:10)?
In order to answer this question, we must ask another: What was the context of this passage?
This approach to exegesis and hermeneutics is extremely important if we are to fully understand this passage of Scripture (or any passage, for that matter). Once a passage is taken out of its original context, it will not be properly understood. It can also be twisted to say something that it does not in fact say.
In Colossians 2:8, Paul warns the Christians in Colossae not to be mesmerised by the false teachers, who give the impression that besides putting his faith in Christ, the believer must also embrace strange philosophies and observe esoteric rituals in order to be saved.
The sophistry of these false teachers, Paul says, is nothing but ‘empty deceit’, inspired not just by human imaginings (‘human tradition’) but also by the forces of darkness (‘elemental spirits’). They are antithetical to the Gospel of Christ and the reality that that Gospel reveals.
Against the teachings of these false teachers, Paul says that Christ alone is sufficient for human salvation. This is because the Christ who saves those who put their faith in him is the incarnate God himself.
The apostle writes: ‘For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is head over every power and authority’ (Colossians 2:9).
Thus when Paul says that Christians are complete in Christ, he means that everything the Christian needs to be saved is found in Christ. Put differently, Paul is saying that if you have put your faith in Christ, you are saved. There is nothing else (nothing more) that you would need to secure your salvation.
The great Reformer, John Calvin, explains this passage as follows: ‘“Ye are full” does not mean that the perfection of Christ is transfused into us, but that there are in him resources from which we may be filled, that nothing be wanting in us.’
But it is perhaps the New Testament scholar, Curtis Vaugh, who has provided one of the clearest explications of the meaning of this expression in his commentary on Colossians:
Thus, in union with Christ our every spiritual need is fully met. Possessing him, we possess all. There is no need, therefore, for the Colossians to turn to the ‘philosophy’ of the errorists, the ritual of the Maniac law, or the spirit-beings worshipped by the pagan world. All they needed was in Jesus Christ.
Let’s return to a statement by Joseph Prince I quoted earlier: ‘The minute you believe you are made perfect in Christ you work from your perfection not to it.’
Think about this assertion for a moment. What is Prince actually saying here? What are the implications of his statement? Let me spell it out for you.
Prince is saying that if you are a Christian, you are already perfect. This means that all Christians would:
• love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37) perfectly;
• love their neighbour as themselves (Mark 12:31) perfectly;
• display the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – in their lives (Galatians 5:22-23) perfectly;
• honour and glorify God perfectly;
• obey God perfectly;
The list can be expanded.
On the flip side of the coin, because Christians are already perfect, they would never ever manifest these works of the flesh: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies … (Galatians 5:19-21).
But have you met such a Christian? Is there a New Testament church that is perfect in this way?
In his salutations to the church in Corinth, Paul describes the Corinthian Christians as ‘sanctified in Christ and called to be his holy people’ (1 Corinthians 1:2). Yet, on page after page after page of this letter we find Paul rebuking the Corinthians for ungodly behaviour.
Paul considers the Corinthians to be sanctified saints (1 Corinthians 1:2). But if they are sanctified, why is it that they are not also perfect?
The antinomians’ erroneous doctrine of sanctification is an example of what some theologians have described as an ‘over-realised eschatology’. They mistakenly think that the promised future is already here in all its fullness.
They fail to understand what it means for Christians to live between the two advents of Christ – between his first coming at the first Christmas, and his return at the close of the age.
D.A. Carson explains this well:
The New Testament shows how Christians are squeezed between the ‘already’ of what has arrived and the ‘not yet’ of what is still to come. Let me give you some examples: we already have the forgiveness of our sins, but we do not yet have the consummation which Christ’s death and resurrection have secured. We already grow in sanctification, but we have not yet been glorified. We are squeezed between the already and the not yet; already it is the last hour of this age which is decaying and will pass away. But it has not yet passed away, and the new heavens and the new earth have not yet dawned.
In his letter to the Christians at Philippi, the apostle Paul wrote these solemn words:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
Paul knew that the Christians in Philippi are still a ‘work in progress’. By the power of God’s sanctifying Spirit they are working towards perfection not from perfection, as Joseph Prince suggests.
So Paul urges them to persevere. He urges them to follow his example, not to think that they have already arrived, but to ‘press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus’ has obtained for them on Calvary’s cross (Philippians 3:12).
Dr Roland Chia
Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine
Trinity Theological College
Theological and Research Advisor
Ethos Institute for Public Christianity