Sanctification Versus Perfectionism/Elitism

This post is my 2012 reflection and prayer for myself and for my local church community: West Loop UBF Church. We had prayed that 2010 may be a year of the Gospel and that 2011 may be a year of Grace, in order for us to renew the limitless grace of Jesus in our own hearts, and not suffer from CFS: Christian Fatigue Syndrome! For 2012 I thought it appropriate to pray that it may be the year of Sanctification. (This sounds really scary, especially for me!) As I began reading and reflecting on sanctification this year, I felt that perfectionism was a real enemy of sanctification.

What is sanctification? You can read in depth how Louis Berkhof (1873 – 1957), a renowned 20th century theologian, explains Sanctification. Briefly, Berkhof stresses the fact that God, and not man, is the author of sanctification and that the spiritual development of man is not a human achievement, but a work of divine grace. Thus, and I like his sentence: “Man deserves no credit whatsoever for that which he contributes to it instrumentally.” Berkhof states that this is so important because studying the Bible anthropologically (man-centeredly) and activism are such characteristic features of American Christianity that they glorify the work of man rather than the grace of God.

Probably, this is true not just of American Christianity but of Christianity through out the world, because the default mode of every man’s sin is incurvatus in se, which means to be “curved inward on oneself.” So it it “normal” to study the Bible self-centeredly, rather than God-centeredly or Christ-centeredly. It is also “natural” to think and feel and function as though my sanctification is up to me, even if I say that it is up to Christ.

How does the Apostle Paul view sanctification? For sure, Paul acknowledges that his sanctification is all because of Jesus and not him (Php 2:12-13; 1 Cor 15:10). Paul also views his sanctification as “I am not there yet.” Where does he say this? Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal…” (Php 3:12a). Again, he said, “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it” (Php 3:13a). Paul’s single goal and desire is to be like Christ. But Paul basically said, “I’m not there yet.”

When Paul said this, he was likely addressing a false teaching called “perfectionism,” which suggests that a Christian can become perfect (or close to it) in this lifetime. Perfectionism is not an uncommon sentiment among Christians today. There is an account of an older minister who preached in church that he had achieved a state of perfection as a Christian. A man asked him after the sermon, “Does your wife agree that you have achieved this state of perfection.” He answered, “She does not believe in that doctrine yet!”

Such a teaching began with John Wesley who explained from studying Php 2:12 and Php 2:15 that Christians should strive for perfection (true) and concluded that some Christians could reach some degree of perfection in this life (not true). Wesley’s motivation for saying this was good: He wanted to combat the dead formalism of the church in his day. He wanted to see real, vibrant holiness among Christians. But to say that perfection is possible or attainable for a Christian in this lifetime is not supported by the Bible.

I have also sensed an implicit idea that Christians may regard themselves as more holy, more godly, more spiritual, and more mature the older they get. It is likely true that Christians, quantitatively speaking, “sin less” as they get older. But are older Christian really less sinful? I painfully acknowledge that a major reason that I seemingly “sin less” today is because I had a lot more strength to sin more when I was younger!

Such an idea that older Christians are holier, more godly, and more spiritually mature was not what Paul communicated. Such an idea promotes subtle (or blatent) elitism and a self-righteousness, which is not healthy for any church or Christian community. Paul was not an elitist. He never viewed himself as above the rest, or above his flock. He testified freely that he is the worst of sinners not as a young Christian, but as a mature, seasoned, Christian (1 Tim 1:15). He regarded all his fellow Christians as co-servants (Php 1:1), partners (Php 1:5) and brothers (Col 1:1), and not as his subordinates or “foot soldiers.” How could Paul be so genuinely humble? He knows from his heart and core being that he is not there yet, that he is nowhere hear perfection or Christ-likeness. Though Paul pursued perfection in Christ with all his heart, he did not teach perfectionism.

Do you agree? Do churches implicitly teach or promote perfectionism? Do older Christians communicate elitism? Is sanctification as being “not there yet” a good and helpful and healthy attitude to have (especially as we age)?


  1. I totally agree that having an attitude of “I’m not there yet” is good. Not just good, great! Especially with spiritual elitism. I walked into my new church with this attitude that I was more biblically knowledgable, but boy was I surprised by the theological conversations I’ve had with the people in my group! That really put me in my place, thank God.

    • Hi Oscar, Paul’s gospel humility is genuine and real for he truly regarded himself as the worst (1 Tim 1:15), he regarded others as better (Phil 2:3), and he regarded himself with sober judgment (Rom 12:3). So he never had to be too sensitive about himself or others, since his center was not himself, but Jesus (Phil 3:7-11).

  2. thanks for this dr. B. My idea of perfectionists/elitists has changed. It’s not someone who is perfect, but  someone who cannot bear the suggestion of imperfection. When something doesn’t go their way they tick, (i do this all the time).
    Thank God, our goal is not human perfection or else we’d never be free from the fear someone would discover the true “me”. My goal is not to become a spiritually good looking trophy to be placed in God’s showcase. It’s as Jesus prayed, to be one with God as he is, this doesn’t happen by my in efforts, and it won’t happen anytime on this earth, this keeps us away from spiritual complacency which kills growth.
    About physically older and truly mature believers, they’ve said that coming closer to God actually shows them how far they are because of the huge gap caused by sin. So coming closer to God should produce a deeper sense of unworthiness and humility, the opposite effect of perfectionism/elitism.
    Let’s be on guard against an over-realized eschatology:)

  3. Hi MJ, Yeah, it’s so easy to live with an over-realized eschatology! Instead, we Christians should live daily with the conviction of “Already, But Not Yet.”

  4. forestsfailyou

    Mark Yang had bible study with me in February on this chapter. He did not claim to be a perfectionist but did that Paul was saying we are justified though Christ and sanctified by our actions. This is easily seen as a cute way of justifying the rampant implied legalism that was the subject of Paul’s letters to the Galatians.

  5. Forests, This “sanctification by our actions” is problematic to the gospel, because it means that sanctification is ultimately up to you, according to your works and performance.

    This invariably gives the leader/shepherd/missionary/Bible teacher the “upper hand” because they decide whether or not your works or performance meets their expectation of you, and the “standard” they expect you to reach.

  6. bekamartin

    I am fully comfortable with my imperfections and weaknesses and selfishness and sins, because I know Jesus is strong enough, perfect enough, sinless, selfless, and so on. He gave me a new life, not a perfect life.

    • Beka, Perhaps out of fear, this is often not articulated in ubf Bible studies and messages. Instead of proclaiming indicatives (the gospel), imperatives (commands) are pounded.

  7. Just tagging this excellent article of Ben’s that did not get much discussion. This is really a big part of what is going on at ubf.

    UBFism is a pathological system that promised to cure us of the invurvatus-in-se symptom that we all experience as human beings. Many such utopian systems have been created. They all promise a cure for this basic human problem.

    But they all fail to cure us. After several years, those hope-of-a-new-generation Bible students grow up and realize that UBFism cannot cure their basic problem of self-centeredness. So the mask comes off, the mirror we all stared into cracks and we come to realize that Jesus was there all along.

    It is only love that can begin to sanctify us, and love is at the heart of the gospel.

    • Thanks, Brian. I actually do like my “unpopular” articles … perhaps because I wrote it. Oops, there goes my “incurvates in si” rearing its ugly head again.