John H. Gerstner



CHRISTIAN PERFECTION is an ideal for which we must all strive. Although there is a double standard of morality in Romish theology, Protestant Christianity knows no such distinction. The priesthood of all believers is a well-known Reformation principle. The perfection of all believers (as a duty) is another cardinal Protestant principle. Some professed Protestants expect their ministers to be perfect, while they think of themselves as under a less demanding ideal. Officers of the church are expected to strive for the ideal, which for the others is regarded as a mere word.

Officers cannot for a moment allow the people to get away with this double standard. Not that there is any objection to demanding perfection of ministers — God does this; but there is an objection to laymen not demanding perfection of themselves. Still, granting all this, there is peculiar propriety in officers applying themselves to the pursuit of perfection. The fact that all Christians are required by God to be perfect does not make that duty less but more binding on those who are to lead and correct the people in the things of God. After all, the snuffers in the ancient tabernacle were made of pure gold, as Matthew Henry observed.

“It appears singular to the reader of St. Paul’s Epistles,” writes W. G. T. Shedd, “that the apostle in one passage speaks of Christians as perfect, and in another as imperfect. At one time, he describes them in terms that would lead us to infer that they are holy as God is holy; and at another, he speaks of them as full of sin and corruption. In the text, he denominates them ‘the elect of God, holy and beloved,’ and yet immediately proceeds to exhort them to the possession and practice of the most common Christian graces — such as humility and forgiveness. In a preceding paragraph, he tells the Colossians that they ‘are dead to sin, and their life is hid with Christ in God,’ and then goes on to urge them to overcome some of the most gross sins in the whole catalogue — ‘mortify, therefore, your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry’ (Col. 3:3-5).”

The Bible teaches these three things concerning perfection: first, that the Christian in one sense is perfect; second, that in another sense, he needs to become perfect; and, third, what he is to do about it. These points will determine our treatment of the theme of Christian sanctification.

I. The Sense in Which the Christian Is Already Perfect

The Bible clearly states that there is a sense in which the Christian is already holy. Colossians 3:12, for example, states: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering.”

Christians are already holy and perfect in two respects: first, they are actually justified or declared righteous; second, they are sanctified (set apart as holy) in principle, or potentially righteous. This first form of holiness is that which is imputed or reckoned to us; namely, the holiness of Christ which becomes ours through faith. He who knew no sin became sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. Christ took the guilt of our sin, and we received the merit of His righteousness. We are now clothed in the white garments of the spotless lamb of God that took away the sin of the world. This is the righteousness we received when first we believed. “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed unto us, and received by faith alone.” So then in this sense, a person is holy, perfectly holy, from the moment he first becomes a Christian.

We are already holy in a second respect; that is, we are sanctified in principle. We have a new living principle within which is certainly destined to conquer our old and sinful nature. It is so certain that this new principle is dominant and shall win out over the evil principle which is mortally wounded at conversion that we Christians are spoken of at times as if we already had won the victory and were already perfectly holy. This is a common way of speaking. For example, on Friday I reached a certain stage in the preparation of a paper on which I was working. I knew that it was then as good as finished. I considered my work virtually completed. The outcome was a practical certainty. To be sure, there was a good deal more work to do, more research to complete, and so on; but fundamentally the back of the job was broken. So I was able to mow the lawn with peace of mind. As J. W. A. Stewart put it: “When the 21st of March has come we say the back of winter is broken. There will still be alternations of frost, but the progress will be towards heat. The coming of summer is sure; in germ the summer is already here.”

So the believer is holy in the sense that that which is in him is mightier than that which is in the world. The ultimate triumph of this principle of life in Christ Jesus is certain. The saint is as good as sanctified. His seed abideth (I John 3:9). This is present holiness, which every Christian now possesses and without which no man shall see the Lord.

The holiness of imputed righteousness and principial sanctification are illustrated in the following simile: “‘The steamship whose machinery is broken may be brought into port and made fast to the dock. She is safe, but not sound. Repairs may last a long time. Christ designs to make us both safe and sound. Justification gives the first — safety; sanctification gives the second — soundness.’ “ (quoted by A. H. Strong in Systematic Theology, p. 869)

II. The Sense in Which the Christian Is Now Imperfect

The saint’s imperfection is no less apparent than his perfection. It jumps right out from the Scripture. In Colossians 3:12 we are told that Christians are elect and holy; immediately after, we are exhorted to put on mercy, humility, and the other elements of a holy life. In the Lord’s Prayer we are specifically instructed to ask God for the forgiveness of our debts, or sins. Paul counted himself not to have attained; he did not consider himself already perfect. The Apostle John, one of the most saintly men of all time, the beloved of the Lord, said that if any man said he had no sin he deceived himself and the truth was not in him. A preacher, commenting on the fact that the Christian who says he has no sin deceives himself, remarked that he does not deceive anyone but himself. Luther likened the sanctification of the Christian to the healing of an open sore. The sore is healing, is potentially healed; but meanwhile it is quite painful and may be putrid.

III. What the Christian Is to Do in This Situation

In this situation the Christian is called upon to strive for the very perfection which he already potentially enjoys. That is what a great artist does when he trains to become a great artist. We know that Enrico Caruso and Fritz Kreisler had music in their souls at the beginning. Training for them meant making their potential genius actual. If it had not been there to begin with, no amount of training would have produced it. But, even though it were there, it would never have come to expression and reality without training. So the Christian has the gift of religious genius. It is given to him at his birth as a Christian (regeneration). He is then called upon to bring it out; the process is called Christian education (from educare, to lead out). In the Colossians passage, Paul says, “put on,” or “put forth.” “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering.” That is, “You are holy; therefore put forth these holy acts of mercy, humility, meekness, and long-suffering.”

“You” put on or put forth these virtues. “You” do this; not God. A certain modern movement calls upon its adherents to “let go and let God.” But Christianity does not say, “Let go”; it says, “Put forth.” The Sandemanians were an obscure little sect which taught the deadliness of all doing and the necessity for inactivity in order to let God do his work in the soul. But Christianity says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you.”

Just how God works and we work is beautifully illustrated by the great Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper:

You can represent this to yourself most vividly when you think of a ship.

At the stern of that ship is a rudder, and attached to this rudder is the tiller, and this is held by the hand of the helmsman.

Should there be no steering when at sea, this boat moves under the action of the wind and waves, then when the ship turns the rudder turns, when the rudder turns the tiller turns, and with it the hand and the arm of the man at the helm moves involuntarily back and forth.

Behold the image of a will-less man.

He is adrift upon the sea of life. As wind and waves drive, so he is driven along, under influences from without and from within — of circumstances, of his passion. And as life makes him go, now in this direction, now in that, so he goes; and so turns the rudder in his inward purpose, and so turns the tiller and the hand at the helm; i.e., his will.

The will-less one!

But it is altogether different when there is steerage in the ship. Then the man at the helm keeps the course. He knows where he wants to go. And when wind and wave would drive him out of his course, he works against them. Then his hand grasps the tiller firmly, he turns it, and therewith the rudder itself, against wind and wave. And the ship that responds to the helm, cuts through the waves, not as tide and wind would direct it, but as the helmsman wills.

Such is the man of character, the man with will-perception and will-power, who does not drift, but steers.

But there is still a third point.

On the bridge of the ship, far away from the helm, stands the captain, and he has placed a helmsman at the tiller. Now the captain on the bridge must know what course the ship must take. On the bridge he stands much higher, and therefore knows far better how the ship must point to the right or to the left. And so the helmsman has but this single duty, namely, that he listen to what the captain on the bridge commands, and that he carries out those orders.

Applied to the soul, God is this Captain on the bridge, and we are the man at the helm. And if, with the tiller of the small boat of our soul in hand, we but will what God wills, and so turn the helm to right or left as God commands, then no danger need be feared, and presently through wind and wave the little boat enters safely the desired haven.

If this goes on through the whole of life, we grow accustomed to it; we know at length by anticipation, whether the Captain on the bridge will command left or right. Thus, of ourselves we come to know God’s will more and more. And this knowledge of God brings us nearer to the haven of salvation, — to eternal life.

When God so works in upon our self that at length we will what God wills, the process is not external but internal. (To Be Near Unto God, The Macmillan Co., 1925, pp. 200-202.)

But to come back to our point. We must put on holiness. It is not enough to know how it is done. It must be done. It is not enough to know that it must be done, we must do it. Though I have all knowledge to understand all mysteries and have not love, it profits me nothing. Dr. A. H. Strong in his Systematic Theology quotes Dr. Hastings, who told of an occasion when the great French preacher Bourdaloue was probing the conscience of Louis XIV, applying to him the words of St. Paul and intending to paraphrase them: “For the good which I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do,” “I find two men in me” — the King interrupted the great preacher with the memorable exclamation: “Ah, these two men, I know them well!” Bourdaloue answered: “It is already something to know them, Sire; but it is not enough, — one of the two must perish.”

But, how do we actually put on these virtues which make for Christian perfection? How do we put them forth? How do we exhibit them so that men may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in Heaven? Two things are called for: meditation and exercise.

By meditation we practice the presence of Christ. If we would run with patience the race that is set before us, we must look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. And if we would look to Jesus we will search His Word (John 5:39). We are transformed by the renewing of our minds; by letting the mind be in us which was in Christ Jesus. We know how association with great and good persons has a profound effect upon us. Gamaliel Bradford, the celebrated biographer, said that he “lived” with Robert E. Lee for many years and it made him a better man. He “lived” with Mark Twain for years and it made him a worse man. When Saint-Gaudens was given the job of making a statue of Phillips Brooks, he studied the man carefully. The famous sculptor came to realize that in order to understand Brooks he had to understand Brooks’ Christ. So he read the Gospels, lived with Christ, and at last he gave his life to Christ. Chalmers spoke of the expulsive power of a new affection; it also has a propulsive power. “The love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (II Cor. 5:14-15). So let us practice the presence of God.

And then exercise! How do we put on virtues? “By taking every occasion to exercise them . . . Strain day after day upon a particular muscle, and it will begin to swell and rise above the flesh. You do not create the muscle by this effort, but you stimulate and strengthen it. . . . There is too much Christian character lying dormant and latent, because there is so much neglect of self-culture in the Church.” Church officers and other leaders have a big job. We never hold a retreat in our church without some officer learning, as it were, for the first time how really big his job is, and wanting to resign forthwith. If that happened, there would be literal retreats. But that is not the purpose of a “retreat”; it is, rather, merely drawing back to see the job whole so that we may advance to it. You have the gift for your respective ministries — just exercise it, and you will know you have it.

The same applies to all Christians. Develop some spiritual muscle. You who are holy, grow in holiness; you who are perfect, be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect. Philippians 3:13-14: “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” If the Apostle Paul needed spiritual exercise, do you, my dear reader, not need it?


Dr. John H. Gerstner was born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Gerstner was also professor-at-large for Ligonier Ministries for many years, and recorded numerous lectures on audio and video for that organization.

Dr. Gerstner was a stalwart champion of the cause of reformed theology and, in particular, the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. This article is taken from his book, Theology for Everyman.

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