“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” —Philippians 3:1
Perfectionism is a peculiar heresy. It is also a perpetual heresy. Part of its peculiarity is its perpetuity. How does this thing live on? A number of variations have afflicted the church throughout the years. All mutations of this virus are strains of Pelagianism.
Pelagius was that British monk who balked at Augustine’s prayer from his Confessions, “My entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy. Grant what you command and command what you will” Augustine confessed that man was bankrupt and dependent entirely on grace. Pelagius said man has what it takes in himself. There is grace to help, but it is not necessary.
Charles Finney, who is lauded by many evangelicals as a hero of the Second Great Awakening, was a rank heretic whose perfectionism had a strong Pelagian flavor. He denied original sin and total depravity. In contrast and yet developing from Finney, the most infectious forms of perfectionism today are semi-pelagian. They are an attempt to make pelagianism palatable, but pelagianism dressed in garb of grace is still the whore of works underneath.
Full blown pelagianism is the greater evil, but let’s give it this much, at least in pelagianism man may fully take responsibility for his delusion of perfection. Whereas in much perfectionism, man essentially “blames” God for the delusion.
Perfection may be redefined as not “knowingly sinning” as Wesley did. Since Wesley, most perfectionist theology has a strong experiential flavor as in the Keswick, Higher Life, Holiness, and second-blessing theologies. Through some “crisis experience” one comes to “entire sanctification.” Faith is often stressed in this, in contrast to Pelagius’ works.
But the most dangerous form of perfectionism for many is incipient perfectionism, perfectionism in the bud. You must realize that perfectionism finds prepped soil in the heart of every depraved sinner. In unearthing the origins of Finney’s perfectionism, B.B. Warfield, tracing it to New Haven, meaning Yale, and the professor N.W. Taylor, writes, “Pelagianism, unfortunately does not wait to be imported from New Haven, and does not require inculcating—it is the instinctive thought of the natural man.” Pelagianism is the instinctive thought of natural man.
Now if you don’t realize how subtle the danger can be and if you’re unable to identify this heresy as a sapling, consider this: you haven’t arrived even when you realize the flesh profits nothing and you count all as loss for Christ. You haven’t arrived when you realize you won’t arrive in this life.
The paradoxical position of the children of God is that in this life they are to press on towards that which they acknowledge they will never arrive at until the next. While it is premature to think one may attain perfection in this life, it is immature not to press towards taking hold of that for which you were taken hold of. The late R.C. Sproul once warned, “Sanctification is a process. It is a gradual process. Run for your life from those who promise you instant sanctification.” As Douglas Wilson says, the poison is so often found in the -ism. So you must run from perfectionism, and yet you must run towards perfection.
You must in this life run towards what you will only have in the next. If you’re not running, and using God’s grace as an excuse, then while denying perfection, you’re acting as though you already are.