The word "perfect," in the moral sense, is usually the translation of the Heb. תָּם and the Greek τέλειος, which both essentially mean complete. The term perfection, says Witsius, is not always used in the same sense in the Scriptures.
1. There is a perfection of sincerity, whereby a man serves God without hypocrisy (Job 1:1; Isa 38:3).
2. There is a perfection of parts, subjeciive with respect to the whole man (1Th 5:23), and objective with respect to the whole law, when all the duties prescribed by God are observed (Ps 119:128; Lu 1:6).
3. There is a comparative perfection ascribed to those who are advanced in knowledge, faith, and sanctification, in comparison of those who are still infants and untaught († Joh 2:13; 1Co 2:6; Php 3:15).
4. There is an evangelical perfection. The righteousness of Christ being imputed to the believer, it is complete in him, and accepted of God as perfect through Christ (Col 2:10; Eph 5:27; 2Co 5:21).
5. There is also a perfection of degrees, by which a person performs all the commands of God, with the full exertion of all his powers, Without the least defect. This is what the law of God requires, but what the saints cannot attain to in this life, though we willingly allow them all the other kinds above mentioned (Ro 7:24; Php 3:12; 1Jo 1:8) (Witsius, (Economic Fiderum Dei, lib. iii, cap. 12, § 124). The ancient worthies, in the simplicity of their faith, were "perfect in their generation" (Ge 6:9; Job 1:1); "they followed the Lord fully" (Nu 14:24). As the term "perfect" is frequently applied to different individuals in the Scriptures, and the possession of the character so frequently enjoined, there can be no doubt, among those who know the Scriptures and the power of God, that perfection, in the scriptural sense of the term, ought to be an object of more anxious solicitude among Christians than it usually is (Ge 17:1; Lu 6:40; Heb 6:1). We are exhorted to acquire the perfection of Christianity both in theory and practice. We are to be thoroughly instructed and experienced in divine principles; to be adults and not children in Christian knowledge (1Co 2:6; 1Co 14:20; 2Co 13:9; Eph 4:13; Php 3:15; Heb 5:14). We are to press onward to the attainment of the perfection of Christian life by submission to the reign of the Holy Spirit, which brings the entire man into complete subjection to the divine will (Ro 8:12). In this sense the faithful may be said to "stand perfect and complete in all the will of God" (Col 2:10; Col 4:12). The Savior says to his disciples, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Mt 5:48). Not that we can ever attain to an equality; but taking him as the only pattern of perfection, we can advance towards a consimilarity. Just as it is said in the parallel passage, "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful" (Lu 6:40), so we are to be holy in the same manner, though in the same degree it is utterly impossible, as we are but finite creatures, while he is the Infinite and Eternal. As creatures, we cannot reach any state that precludes the possibility of further improvement; inasmuch as we may love God supremely, yet that love may become stronger, and that delight increase forever. The perfection of a Christian, considered in relation to that of his heavenly Father, may be likened to one of those mathematical lines that may draw nearer and nearer to another for all eternity, still remaining as infinite in their mutual distance as they are endless in their mutual approach, and everlasting in their asymptotic relation to one another. Our continual advancement towards him may be illustrated by the recurring decimal fraction. Though we add figure after figure, in a continuing and never-ending series, and every additional figure brings it nearer to a certain value, yet there is no possibility of its ever reaching that value. So the happy and the holy may continue to grow more like God, without the most distant possibility of attaining his glorious perfections. Nay, he may grow more like God throughout eternity, and throughout eternity remain at an infinite distance from the absolutely perfect object which he thus increasingly resembles (Php 3:12-16). See Bates, Works, p. 557, etc.; Burgh, Dignity of Human Nature; Doddridge, Lectures, lect. 181; Channing, Works; Irving, Orations and Arguments; Engl. Rev. 2:20; Presb. Theol. Rev. Oct. 1868; Christ. Examiner (1874), p. 183; Brit. and For. Ev. Rev. July, 1876; Meth. Quar. Rev. Oct. 1874. SEE SANCTIFICATION.
That such perfection is attainable in this life is held by the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Molinists in the Church of Rome, but is denied by the Dominicans and Jansenists. In advocating the doctrine, its Roman Catholic supporters generally rest much on the distinction between mortal and venial sins. SEE SIN. "Christian Perfection" is pre-eminently a doctrine of Methodists of nearly all classes. It is not a perfection of justification, but a perfection of sanctification; which John Wesley, in a sermon on Christian perfection, from the text Heb 6:1, "Let us go on to perfection," earnestly contends for as attainable in this life by believers, by arguments founded chiefly on the commandments and promises of Scripture concerning sanctification; guarding his doctrine, however, by saying that it is neither an angelic nor an Adamic perfection, and does not exclude ignorance and error of judgment with consequent wrong affections, such as "needless fear or ill-grounded hope, unreasonable love or unreasonable aversion." He admits, also, that even in this sense it is a rare attainment, but asserts that "several persons have enjoyed this blessing, without interruption, for many years, several enjoy it at this day, and not a few have enjoyed it unto their death, as they have declared with their latest breath, calmly witnessing that God had saved them from all sin, till their spirit returned to God." Paul and John he deemed sufficient authorities for the use of an epithet which he knew, however, would be liable to the cavils of criticism. The Christian world had also largely recognized the term in the writings of Clemens Alexandrinus, Macarius, Kempis, Fenelon, Lucas, and other writers, Papal and Protestant. Besides incessant allusions to the doctrine in his general writings, Wesley has left an elaborate treatise on it. Fletcher of Madeley, an example as well as an authority of the doctrine, published an essay on it, proving it to be scriptural as well as sanctioned by the best theological writers. Wesley's theory of the doctrine is precise and intelligible, though often distorted into perplexing difficulties by both its advocates and opponents. As above observed, he taught not absolute, nor angelic, nor Adamic, but "Christian perfection." Each sphere of being has its own normal limits; God alone has absolute perfection; the angels have a perfection of their own above that of humanity, at least of the humanity of our sphere; unfallen man, represented by Adam, occupied a peculiar sphere in the divine economy, with its own relations to the divine government, its own "perfection," called by Wesley Adamic perfection; fallen, but regenerated man, has also his peculiar sphere as a subject of the mediatorial economy, and the highest practicable virtue (whatever it may be) in that sphere is its "perfection." is Christian perfection. Admitting such a theory of perfection, the most important question has respect to its practical limit. When can it be said of a Christian man that he is thus perfect? Wesley taught that perfect Christians "'are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any man to be infallible than to be omniscient... From infirmities none are perfectly freed till their spirits return to God; neither can we expect, till then, to be wholly freed from temptation; for 'the servant is not above his Master.' Neither in this sense is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, none which does not admit of a continual increase. . . The proposition which I will hold is this: 'Any person may be cleansed from all sinful tempers, and yet need the atoning blood.' For what? for 'negligences and ignorances;' for both words and actions (as well as omissions), which are, in a sense, transgressions of the perfect law. And I believe no one is clear of these till he lays down this corruptible body." Perfection, as defined by Wesley, is not then perfection according to the absolute moral law: it is perfection according to the special remedial economy introduced by the Atonement, in which the heart, being sanctified, fulfills the law by love (Ro 12:8,10), and its involuntary imperfections are provided for, by that economy, without the imputation of guilt, as in the case of infancy and all irresponsible persons. The only question, then, can be, Is it possible for good men so to love God that all their conduct, inward and outward, shall be swayed by love? that even their involuntary defects shall be swayed by it? Is there such a thing as the inspired writer calls the "perfect love" which "casteth out fear?" (1Jo 4:18). Wesley believed that there is; that it is the privilege of all saints; and that it is to be attained by faith. "I want you to be all love," he wrote. "This is the perfection I believe and teach; and this perfection is consistent with a thousand nervous disorders, which that highstrained perfection is not. Indeed, my judgment is that (in this case particularly) to overdo is to undo; and that to set perfection too high is the most effectual way of driving it out of the world." "Man," he says, "in his present state, can no more attain Adamic than angelic perfection. The perfection of which man is capable, while he dwells in a corruptible body, is the complying with that kind command, in 'My son, give me thy heart!' It is loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind." Such is his much misrepresented doctrine of Christian perfection. Wesley taught that this sanctification is usually gradual, but may be instantaneous (Stevens, Centenary of Methodism p. 133). See Wesley, Plain Account of Christian Perfection; Fletcher, Christian Perfection; Merritt, Christian's Manual; Peck, Scripture Doctrine of Christian Perfection; Foster, Christian Purity. SEE METHODISM.