At Issue Index
by Arnold Valentin Wallenkampf
17. Christian Perfection
In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), the Master gave the same commendation to the two-talent servant, who presented four talents, as He did to the five-talent servant, who brought Him 10. Both had done equally well; they had doubled their initial capital. Both had been faithful in their stewardship.
As is evident from this parable, we may be equally acceptable in Gods sight and receive the same commendation, even though we are not all alike. As a matter of fact, God does not expect all His children to be alike; He expects the members of His church to be different. "The church is His garden, adorned with a variety of trees, plants, and flowers. He does not expect the hyssop to assume the proportions of the cedar, nor the olive to reach the height of the stately palm."1 Nor does He expect all His servants to be equally productive. Their fruit bearing will vary, as did the number of talents the two faithful servants presented to their master.
At our home in New England we had many different flowers. But they served no utilitarian purpose. They could not be eaten like the carrots, the beets, or the cucumbers we raised in our garden. Their sole purpose was to impart joy to onlookers. Undoubtedly there are members in Gods church who seem to contribute hardly anything to the collective good of the church. The duty of some of them may be just to gladden the heart of some weary traveler along lifes road, as did our flowers.
In our living and service for God, our attitude of faithfulness or loyalty in willing stewardship is more important than the amount of work we do. Luther correctly observed that "when we deal with piety and impiety, we are dealing, not with behaviour but with attitudes, that is, with the source of the behaviour."2 Our salvation depends on our attitude; it pivots on a 100-percent commitment to God and His will, irrespective of how much we may accomplish for Him. It depends on the quality of devotion to God rather than on quantity of works. Ellen G. White agrees with Luther in saying that God is more interested in the attitude with which we work than in how much we accomplish.
Attitude is the way we think and feel about things. To say that our salvation depends on our attitude to God means that it depends on how we think and feel about God and His will. And our attitude in turn determines both our relationship to God and our actions.
The reason salvation or damnation rests on a persons attitude rather than on his deeds, is that each persons attitude depends on his own free choice. Attitude resides within the sanctuary of each person s inmost self. This is true even when everything else has been taken away. This may not always be true of ones actions. Other people can deprive us of everything tangible in life. They may even make our hands and feet—our bodies—do what we do not want or choose to do. But no one can commandeer our thoughts and feelings, our attitude.
This was forcibly impressed upon me some years ago when I read Mans Search for Meaning by the Viennese psychiatrist Dr. Viktor E. Frankl.4 In his book he referred to his experience in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II. Food was too scarce for adequate maintenance of ones normal body needs; bedcovers were too scanty to keep the inmates warm while sleeping on wooden bunks; clothing was inadequate; some of the inmates lacked shoes, even though the weather was below freezing. Under these adverse conditions many inmates relinquished hope and despaired of survival. These soon died, even before they were pushed into the gas chambers. But even in this concentration camp, where most inmates anticipated being liquidated, there were some who retained a positive attitude, and with it they also retained passable health under extremely adverse conditions.
Attitude divided the inmates in the concentration camp into two classes. The survivors, such as Dr. Frankl, were positive in their attitude. This saved them from succumbing. No one and nothing—no persecution, no lack of food, no cold, no harsh treatment—could rob Frankl and his like-minded friends of their positive attitude. Nothing could commandeer their thoughts and feelings. Over this they themselves had control, despite the unfavorable environment. They chose not to react to other mens doings, but rather decided to be masters of their own thoughts and feelings—not victims but victors over circumstances.
My wife, Mae, knows that I am not the best husband in every respect. There are other men who are more handsome; others are more intelligent; others have more knowledge or money; still others are more efficient handymen around the home, and so on. But her awareness of my shortcomings does not impair her faithfulness and loyalty to me. Her loyalty to me does not depend on any knowledge on her part that I am the best husband in every respect. She knows better; her loyalty to me compensates for her knowledge of my imperfection as a husband. Her attitude toward me is right.
Loyalty and love are closely akin to decision and action, rather than to passing emotion and feeling. Both loyalty and love stem from decisions to think, feel, and behave in a certain way at all times and under all circumstances. God is interested in our doing, but He is even more concerned that our actions spring from a right disposition of pure motives. Thus He says, "Do it heartily, as to the Lord" (Col. 3:23, KJV). Legalism may also produce correct actions, but these spring from wrong motives. God wants the right motives or attitude; the right actions will usually follow in conformity with Gods will in humility and obedience.
A believers acceptance by God and his continuous justification by faith do not depend on his flawless behavior. It is possible for a Christian to be and remain in a right relationship to God—to be justified by faith—and still fall short of Gods ideal for him, because of ignorance or spiritual immaturity.
With a faithful inner commitment to God there is no need for specific prohibitions against every specific sin or vice. In the first place, there is no possibility of building enough fences or multiplying enough rules to protect everyone against every exigency and every specific temptation. No precautionary fences will protect a philandering husband from straying. Only the principle of faithfulness and loyalty vested in love will keep a married person true to his spouse. The same is true of our relationship to God.
A single girl may consider and accept a date with any respectable bachelor. But a faithful wife does not even consider another man s suggestion of a date. The thought of dating another man does not even occur to her. Even in thought she is loyal to her husband at all times. In the same way, as followers of Jesus we will choose even in thought to be loyal to God at all times and under all circumstances. Not even for a moment will we consider Satans insidious suggestions. In the experience of a genuine Christian, "unswerving allegiance to God"5will always prevail. Therefore, Jesus gives His disciples but one commandment; namely, to love Him. Then He says: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15).
We might almost say that love, faithfulness, and loyalty are identical. At least they will manifest themselves in the same way toward ones spouse and to God. In our love for God and our loyalty to Him, we are fully accepted by God although our motives at times may fail to meet with commensurate achievement. "For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not" (2 Cor. 8:12), or as the Phillips translation phrases it: "The important thing is to be willing to give as much as we can—that is what God accepts, and no one is asked to give what he has not got." Having been put right with God through justification by faith and being constantly motivated by the Holy Spirit, we are loyal to God and remain perfect in His sight.
Jesus was ever obedient to His Fathers will; His obedience sprang from His love, faithfulness, and loyalty to His Father. "Christ did not possess the same sinful, corrupt, fallen disloyalty we possess."6 It was His oneness of mind, purpose, and plan with His Father that precluded "variance from Gods expressed will in the least particular."7 There was no rift between Him and His Father—not even in thought. Thus He was perfect.
Even though we as followers of God shall be always "in the making," growing in spiritual maturity and attainments, until Jesus returns, we may always be loyal. But love and loyalty to God do not spring from our own carnal natures; they come only from a willingness born of the Holy Spirit within us.
Loyalty to God means abiding by His will to the extent of ones knowledge. Such loyalty eliminates the sin of rebellion spoken of in 1 John 3:4. Outwardly the Pharisees and the rich young ruler kept Gods commandments, but they were not loyal to God. Their attitude was wrong. Loyalty also rules out sins of willful omission, spoken of in James 4:17, which says: "Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." Loyalty also precludes the sin spoken of in Romans 14:23: "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." A loyal and faithful person trusts God and abides by His will. Through this attitude of loyalty and trust, we perceive that the basic requirement for salvation is not keeping a code of law, but a right attitude of love and loyalty to God, which in turn expresses itself in willing obedience to Gods entire will as expressed in His law.
During my years of teaching at Loma Linda University, I discovered a very admirable trait in physicians and dentists, namely, their constant readiness, yes eagerness, always to learn better methods of practicing their professions. On one occasion the associate dean of the Medical School told the students that unless they continued to study after graduation, in 10 years they would become menaces to humanity. He was trying to impress upon them the dire necessity of keeping pace with growing knowledge and new techniques in their profession.
Good physicians and dentists will constantly read professional journals, regularly attend conventions, and take refresher courses in their respective fields. They do not reject the better methods of serving their patients that have been discovered and developed after they received their degrees. Their attitudes are right.
I have often thought of this eagerness on the part of health professionals constantly to learn more in order to serve their patients better. Then I have asked myself if we as individual Christians are just as eager to learn more and more of Gods truth, so that we may live more completely in accordance with His revealed will for us.
When it comes to Gods will, there often seems to be a strange reluctance, even on the part of professed Christians, to learn more of His will in order to practice it. We may be eager to learn Christian theory but loath to practice what we learn. But as true, faithful, and loyal sons and daughters of God, looking forward to living with Him in His soon-coming kingdom, it will be our constant aim to learn as much as we can in order to practice His will and thus please Him, rather than see how little we can do and still be counted as His children. This is the attitude of love and loyalty.
Faithfulness and loyalty to God are foundational. They embrace acts, words, thoughts, and feelings, and accept with joyous readiness any added disclosures of Gods will. As knowledge is progressive, so Christian perfection is the process of gladly accepting constantly expanding knowledge and putting that knowledge to practical use.
A faithful follower of God does not insist on a plan differing from Gods plan. Rather, he gladly chooses and supports Gods plan. "But one says, Can I not have my own way, and act myself?—No, you cannot have your own way, and enter the kingdom of heaven. No my way will be there. No human ways will find place in the kingdom of heaven. Our ways must be lost in Gods ways.8As friends of Jesus and glad-hearted servants of God, we choose not to follow in the steps of Adam and go against Gods will. Rather, we choose to do what God tells us.
Jesus is not merely the converted persons Saviour; He is also his King and Ruler. "If we accept Christ as a Redeemer, we must accept Him as a Ruler. We cannot have the assurance and perfect confiding trust in Christ as our Saviour until we acknowledge Him as our King and are obedient to His commandments. Thus we evidence our allegiance to God."9
The apostle Paul is a striking example of a loyal follower of God. Prior to his Damascus road experience, he went far in trying to destroy the followers of Jesus. But by meeting Jesus a change was wrought in his life that made him a devoted follower (see Acts 9:5, 6; Rom. 1:1; Phil. 3:7, 8). In the introduction to many of his epistles, Paul introduces himself as a servant. Several modern language versions of the Bible translate the Greek doulos as slave rather than servant. The Greek word doulos literally means "one bound," hence a "bondservant" or a "slave."
In designating himself as a slave to Jesus, Paul is trying to tell us that he had gladly chosen to subordinate all his plans, wishes, and desires to the will of God. This became Pauls daily, and deliberate choice after his conversion. The judaic rebel Saul became the apostle Paul—a faithful, loyal, devoted slave to King Jesus.
Perfect loyalty is not impaired by lack of information or knowledge. Gods true followers throughout the world will never possess the same amount of knowledge, because all do not possess the same opportunities and degree of intelligence. If moral perfection and salvation rested on knowledge, then Christianity would revert to Gnostic elitism, according to which only some, by virtue of their psychological endowment, are capable of the knowledge of spiritual truth that is essential to salvation. But that is not Gods plan; His offer of salvation is extended to all. He says: "Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely" (Rev. 22:17, KJV).
On the other hand, disloyalty springs from the seedbed of an attitude of distrust. The German theologian, Helmut Thielike, in his sermon on the parable of the prodigal son aptly observes: "Have we really understood once and for all that doubts do not have their roots in the intellect, in rational difficulties at all, but in something altogether different? Do we understand that these doubts ... keep rising like a toxic fog from a heart that is not in tune with the Fathers, a heart that is no longer always with the Father, even though it lives every day in the atmosphere of Christianity?" 10 Being perfect before God means that our attitude toward Him and His doings is one of complete confidence and trust. For such people God is looking, and those who fully trust Him will be with Him in His eternal kingdom.
Being perfect in character does not imply physical perfection or perfection in nature. Such is impossible for human beings. Our natures are fallen and our bodies are tinged with sinful promptings. "While we cannot claim perfection of the flesh, we may have Christian perfection of the soul."11 In spite of the weakness of the flesh, or of our sinful nature, it is possible for us to be morally perfect. In choosing to be animated and led by the Spirit through the Word, as was Jesus, our thoughts and feelings may be pleasing to God. And our thoughts and feelings combined make up our moral character or attitude.12 In this way "Moral and spiritual perfection, through the grace and power of Christ, is promised to all."13
A word used in the Greek New Testament for "perfect" is teleios. It comes from the noun telos, meaning "end" or "purpose." A perfect person is therefore one who is fulfilling Gods purpose for him. In this sense, Lucifer was perfect as long as he was fulfilling Gods purpose for him. Ceasing to abide by Gods purpose and plan for him, and devising his own contrary plan, he was no longer perfect but became a sinner, and Satan (Eze. 28:15).
Lucifer displayed distrust in Gods government. He questioned Gods wisdom and His administration. His attitude was wrong. He was disloyal to God; and disloyalty to God is sin.
Teleios also means "mature." A child or a teenager is not mature. When it comes to the choice of a profession a teenager may change his mind just about every day. One day he says he wants to be a commercial pilot. The next day he says he wants to be a physician. Later he says he wants to be a lawyer. Then he wants to be an auto mechanic. This can go on indefinitely. This constant change with reference to life ambition is a sign of immaturity. Such a person has not settled in his mind what he actually wants to do with his life.
In the same way the teenagers inclination toward members of the opposite sex flits around. For a few days he likes Mary. Then his fancy focuses on Kay. After a little while he is through with Kay and now he is attracted to Anne. There is no steadiness or constancy in his inclination toward girls. This, too, is a sign of immaturity.
Some years later he definitely makes up his mind that he is going to be a building engineer. Now he is constantly working to prepare for that particular profession. Gradually he also settles in his mind that Mae is the particular girl whom he wants as his partner for life.
Settling the mind on one particular line of lifework and on one particular girl as wife are signs of maturity. The young man s thoughts are no longer flitting around from one notion to another, but his thinking and determination are stabilized. He has become constant both in his choice of lifework and in the choice of his life companion. Now he is mature.
Part of Gods perfection is His unchangeableness. He is constant in His attitude of love and faithfulness toward all His creatures. Our very existence depends on this. He says: "For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, 0 sons of Jacob, are not consumed" (Mal. 3:6). Indeed, with Him "there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17). "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (Heb. 13:8). As God is changeless, so His law—the reflection of His character—is also changeless. When we, His followers, become settled and constant in our love, faithfulness, and loyalty to God and His law, and do not shift our loyalties and change our plans away from His will as expressed in His law, then we too are mature or perfect in His sight.
By exalting His law and committing ourselves to the doing of His will, we are also sanctified, or holy in the biblical sense. Jesus voices such a hope for His followers when He says: "Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth" (John 17:17).
Being committed to biblical truth results in spiritual growth with commensurate ethical change; there will be growth.—Jesus says, "First the blade, then the ear, then the full grain of the ear" (Mark 4:28). In this way, "At every stage of development our life may be perfect; yet if Gods purpose for us is fulfilled, there will be continual advancement."14 Perfect but not full-grown.
Being loyal to God at all times, "We may be perfect in our sphere, even as God is perfect in His."15This attitude of loyalty will make us like Jesus, who in every respect and at all times was loyal to His Fathers will—"obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8). Jesus chose to die rather than depart from His Fathers will. When His followers reach this place, then "the character of Christ shall [have been] perfectly reproduced in His people."16
The genuine Christians motto will therefore always be the same as that of the
United States Marine Corps: semper fidelis—"ever faithful," ever loyal.
While disloyalty to God is sin, loyalty to our Master is Christian perfection, for
"the essence of all righteousness is loyalty to our Redeemer."17
1 White, Evangelism, pp. 98, 99. [back]
2 Luthers Works, vol. 14, p. 289. [back]
3 On page 207 in Mind, Character, and Personality (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1977) Ellen G. White writes: "God regards more with how much love one worketh than the amount he doeth. [back]
4 Viktor E. Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1967). [back]
5 White, in Signs of the Times, May 12, 1890. [back]
6 _________, Selected Messages, book 3, p. 131. [back]
7 _________, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 51. [back]
8 _________, in Review and Herald, Feb. 23, 1892. [back]
9 _________, in Review and Herald, Feb. 24, 1977. [back]
10 Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), p. 39. [back]
11 White, Selected Messages, book 2, p. 32. [back]
12 _________, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 310. [back]
13 _________, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 478 [back]
14 _________, Christs Object Lessons, p. 65. [back]
15 _________, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 77. [back]
16 _________, Christs Object Lessons, p. 69. [back]
17 Ibid., pp. 97, 98. [back]
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