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How good is “as good as possible”?

February 16th, 2007 | 8 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

“But one ought to try to become as good as possible oneself, but not to think that only oneself can become perfectly good — for if one thinks this is one is not yet perfectly good.”

-Plotinus Ennead II.9, Chap. 10 Line 28ff

The dogma of the evangelical church in America today is something like the following: Christians are to be as good as possible, but the journey will be lifelong. We will always struggle with sin and temptation, as humans, until the day we die, when we will be relieved of the flesh, and will be with Jesus in heaven, where “every tear will be wiped away.” The process of sanctification, or becoming Christlike, and loving, under the new covenant, is one that starts on earth but does not finish on earth. We must continually strive for perfection, understanding that we will not see it in this life.

The pagan philosopher Plotinus agrees perfectly with this sentiment. He finds in the above belief, and in the consequent life of the (successful) pursuit of virtue, both solace against the vanity of a life of pleasure and vindication of his rejection of the prideful sort who claim to be godlike and special without having done any work to attain the title (in his day, this was the Gnostics. In our day, perhaps the self-help gurus and positivity psychologists). He finds that the life of bodily pleasure is futile, a running in place and never arriving anywhere, and that the life of self-contented pride is a sitting down or lying down in place, growing fat and self-deceived in passivity. The middle way, the moderate way, the way of salvation, is in running a race, a race that continues until the day of death, but makes progress and does not stagnate. It is a continually striving, and continual success, in improving one’s own moral IQ, while admitting how much more there is to learn.

Jesus said, “You are to be perfect.” Does this mean “you are to be sort of perfect?” Surely not, or he would have qualified. Does this mean, “You are to be perfect in the next life, but you are to be constantly imperfect in the present life?” Perhaps, but why did he not say this explicitly? Does this mean, “Be humanly perfect, which includes foibles and faults and the occasional ‘venial’ sin.” Perhaps, except that he added, “As your father in heaven is perfect.” This seems to eliminate all but the loftiest, most painfully distant and holy, most austere and unapproachable definitions of the word “perfect.” And this is what the divine man commanded his followers to be.

John states in his first letter, “He who is born of God does not sin.” An intelligent exegesis of this passage, in context of the rest of John’s writings, and tempered by the theological categories of Paul and the other New Testament writers is surely necessary to understand this text fully. But will any amount of research and interpretation and qualification change the most obvious sense of this concept (which runs throughout the rest of the letter), which is that those who love God no longer sin? The sons of God, adopted and grafted in to the kingdom of God by faith, according to John, will “walk as Jesus walked,” will “obey the word which was given to them, that is, to love,” and “will not sin.”

Unless the Christian confesses an ideal for earthly excellence that exceeds that of the philosophers and the pagans, how can he claim that his opinions are Christian? Rather, the Christian — be he Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical, whatever — the Christian must confess that the virtuous pagan’s opinion of earthly self-improvement is fine and well and even noble, but it is inherently limited.

For the means limit the ends. If I want to go to New York by car, I must have enough gas to get there. If I want to get to the planet Mars, I must have more than enough gas, I must have a new vehicle. Similarly, if I want to be good and whole and healthy and pure on earth, I must “try to become as good as possible myself.” But if I want to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, I am going to need more than “trying;” I am going to need a divine Spirit.

For Plotinus the ends were clear because the means were clear. He had nought but himself, and he knew (wisely) that he could achieve nought but ever-increasingly less-imperfect imperfection. As Christians, our means are clear. We have Christ himself, God and man, the word by whom all things were made. Shall not our end be likewise clear? Is the complete sanctification of a single human being more difficult and more arduous than the creation of the sun, the stars, and all the galaxies?

For Plotinus, the pride of claiming to be perfectly good was a great evil. The humility of understanding, “I am not yet perfectly good” was the only way to continually progress towards actually becoming very, very good. For a Christian, the pride of claiming to be perfectly good is also a great evil. And the humility of understanding, “my flesh wars with my spirit, who can deliver me from this body of death!?” is also the only way to continually progress towards becoming good. But there is a third form of pride which Plotinus was not even able to commit, arguably, but which Christians are able to commit, and that is being offered the free gift of sanctification and turning it away. If I claim to be perfect, is this arrogance? Yes. But if God offers me perfection, and I turn him down, is this not far more arrogant still? The arrogance of refusing the infusing power of the Holy Spirit of Christ who has come into our hearts and our lives to fill us with the life of Christ is much worse, it seems to me, than the arrogance of calling oneself perfect when one indeed continues to struggle with all the hosts of sin.

God has the power to do anything, and certainly can bring his children into a state of grace and freedom, not from temptation, for even Christ was tempted, perhaps more than we read about, but from sin, both sinful actions and a sinful self. But can he do this before death? I say, why not? Where is it in the Bible that Christians “Are to be perfect” once they are in heaven? We are to be perfect when we are reborn, surely, but are we not reborn daily? We are to be renewed in mind, but are we not to be renewed daily? We are to submit and surrender to the Father, doing nothing but what he teaches us, but are we not to do this daily? We are to endure and run the race with patience, steadfastness, and long-suffering, but does that mean that we must, on principle, continually trip and fall and stumble as we approach the finish line?

If the answer is “Yes,” on principle, I should like to hear the argument, and hear the Scriptural support for that principle. If the answer is “Yes,” on habit, then I ask you to examine your habit and see whether the tradition of men has hold of your mind more than the truth of God.

If God is able and willing to accomplish more than the mere “continual self-improvement” Plotinus sought after (and achieved, if Porphyry’s accounts are to be trusted), then where are the empirical proofs? Where are these so-called “sanctified” believers, who, by faith, received the grace of freedom from sin and utter surrender unto the will of God?

Jesus Christ is the first example. He is a human being, and he lived on earth without stain or sin. “But he was God!” Yes, and he was man. At least from this we can conclude that it is possible for human beings, totally reliant on God, to act flawlessly, and resist temptation. Let us look at other examples then. Paul said, “I am the chief of sinners,” yet did he not refer to his past life? He also said, “Not I live, but Christ lives in me.” John spoke so boldly of the one born of God, the one who kept the law by love, the one who hated not his brother but loved Christ and loved all for Christ’s sake… Are we to say that he himself walked in the darkness, and hated his fellow men, whom he constantly and affectionately called his ‘little children’? What sins still gripped that holy man of faith at the end of his earthly life? Lust? Greed? Anger? Was he given to overeating? Was he prideful, or was he rather aware that “he has not but what has been given to him”? Look at the life of Teresa of Avila. Perhaps her most beloved book after the Interior Castle is The Way of Perfection. She was not leading her readers into a pipe dream! (John of the Cross, her beloved friend, wrote a powerful and concise poem of the same title… it was only four lines!) Dante Alighieri, the poet, claimed, in his vision, to have gone through the mountain of purgatory and been washed of each of his habits of sin. Even before he continued his alleged journey into “the illuminative” stage, he was washed of sins and freed from temptations.

John Wesley undertook an arduous journey with regard to this entire subject of earthly goodness that absorbed his entire intellect and will . And the interested or challenged or offended reader would do well to pick up his book a Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Here a must more trustworthy source thoroughly retells the series of thoughts and arguments and objections and replies that lead him to his belief… I shall reproduce a short section of that work here:

“I think it was in the latter end of the year 1740, that I had a conversation with Dr. Gibson, then Bishop of London, at Whitehall. He asked me what I meant by perfection. I told him without any disguise or reserve. When I ceased speaking, he said, “Mr. Wesley, if this be all you mean, publish it to all the world. If any one then can confute what you say, lie may have free leave.” I answered, “My Lord, I will;” and accordingly wrote and published the sermon on Christian perfection. In this I endeavored to show, (1.) In what sense Christians are not, (2.) In what sense they are, perfect.

“(1.) In what sense they are not. They are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such in another kind are impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one- might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. From such infirmities as these 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.’ But 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.

“(2.) In what sense then are they perfect? Observe, we are not now speaking of babes in Christ, but adult Christians But even babes in Christ are so far perfect as not to commit sin. This St. John affirms expressly; and it cannot be disproved by the examples of the Old Testament. For what, if the holiest of the ancient Jews did sometimes commit sin? We cannot infer from hence, that `all Christians do and must commit sin as long as they live….’

There are many more objections to be overcome and questions to be answered, more than a single article can even “swing at”, and more than is possible for someone moving as slowly and limply along the narrow way as I! But a few major misconceptions can be discussed, and the possibilities available in Christ might begin to peek out. For, If there is such a thing as earthly sinlessness, then we must say first of all there is no amount of work that can accomplish it. It is the free gift of God. And yet not even Jesus could heal the sick of body until they believed he was the Son of God and was able to heal them. He cannot heal our souls (a much greater task!) unless we are willing to consider the possibility that God’s grace is sufficient, unless we are willing to seek perfection that exceeds that of the pharisees and the pagan philosophers. The stronghold of pessimism that hardly reaches to the heights of pagan thinkers is hardly good enough! The fear that (rightly) comes from self-trust must be rejected, and the love that comes from God must be accepted with gratitude.

Brothers and sisters, this writer is so far from perfection that it pains him to sit still and be aware of his sinful self, the flesh that still lives, the black tendrils of sin that infest the roots of his psyche. And yet, in the silence of prayer, the voice of God resounds in the words of God once spoken through his apostle, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ (II Corinthians 12:9) “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.. ”

My concern is not to convince you, reader, of a doctrine of earthly perfection. It is to challenge your unspoken assumptions, that the the dim sleepiness of sin may not have control of your mind, in case the voice of God is stirring you to a level of holiness greater than the pagans. Listen to that voice, and search for yourself the scriptures, and the writings of Christians of old, and the lives of Christians living and serving and being sanctified today. Find out just how good “as good as possible” can be when God sets the limits of possibility.