Is entire sanctification possible? Can Christians achieve sinless perfection in this life?
Many readers of the Bible have believed that a Christian can reach a point of sinless perfection in this life. This teaching is based on passages such as Matthew 5:48, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Why would Jesus command perfection if it is impossible to be perfect? Does the Bible really teach that a Christian can live without sinning?
Not necessarily. A large part of the misunderstanding centers on the meaning of the word translated "perfect" in Matthew 5:48 and similar verses. The Greek word telios can mean "perfect," "complete," or "mature." Because translators do not want to give the wrong idea about God ("Be mature, as your heavenly Father is mature"), they typically translate the word as "perfect." However, the idea of maturity or completeness is much more fitting in this context and in the overall teachings of Scripture.
For example, James 1:4 tells Christians to become "perfect and complete"; however, James 3:2 says that all believers stumble "in many ways." Obviously, James 1:4 refers to being "mature and complete," not sinless.
This interpretation is strengthened by the apostle Paul's experience. If anyone could claim to live fully for Christ and to have reached sinless perfection, it was Paul. Yet he still struggled with sin: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me" (Romans 7:15-20).
Paul, an apostle and mature believer, continued to sin ("the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing"). If sin was still a problem for Paul, why would we expect to reach a point of sinless perfection in this life? Are we greater than Paul?
On the positive side, the Bible promises a day when every believer will escape temptation and the struggle with sin. First John 3:2 says, "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is." Becoming like Christ in His presence will include being free from sin and its effects in this life. Until then, our goal must be to grow in maturity and resist temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). The work God began in us will one day be finished (Philippians 1:6).
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