Perfectionism and the Second Blessing

by Mike Ratliff

50 Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 1 Corinthians 15:50 (NASB) 

It is a very dangerous thing to interpret things extra-biblically that occur in our spiritual growth. For instance, in my own walk I was in a very stagnant spiritual state for over a decade from around 1990 until 2004. I had some growth spurts during that time, but they were always followed by years of mediocrity. Then in 2004 God took me through about 8 months of spiritual boot camp. I emerged a changed man. I really thought that I had come across some sort of ‘second blessing’ in which I had entered into a new level of spirituality that was easily accomplished simply following some sort of plan or formula.

Thank God that He brought me to reality a few months later as I found myself reacting to some things in a not so mature fashion. This got my attention. What had really happened to me? I went from spiritual mediocrity to God-focused continual pursuit of Him. I went from spiritual apathy to not being able to get enough of God. However, I was still having to confess and repent of sins. There was no perfection. I caught myself sinning willfully at times. This was heartbreaking and devastating. Also, it seemed that the more I grew spiritually, the more sin in my heart that I kept uncovering. It seemed that my heart was the busiest idol factory on the planet.

No, I did not have a “second blessing” nor did I enter into an era of perfection. Sadly, there are some who do hold to these ‘doctrines.”

The doctrine of perfectionism holds that holiness or perfect love, brought about by the grace of God, is attainable by every Christian in this life and sets believers free from willful sin. The doctrine grew out of the teaching of John Wesley and continued through the early Pentecostal movement. This attainment of perfection is seen as a second work of grace that is wrought instantaneously in the heart of the believer.

A more modified view is that after this second blessing the believer is more and more victorious over “willful sin.” Whatever sin remains in such a person is either accidental sin or sin committed in ignorance. The difficulty with this view is that it stems from two primary errors. First, it diminishes the rigorous demands of God’s law. Any real understanding of the breadth and depth of God’s law would preclude the perfectionist position. Second, it has an inflated view of one’s own spiritual achievement. To hold such a view one must necessarily overestimate one’s righteousness.1

Luther taught that regenerate human beings are at the same time justified and sinners, Simul Justus et Peccator. Believers are deemed just in God’s eyes by virtue of the Atonement and the imputed righteousness of Christ. If believers were left in the state of their new birth in Christ, they would remain sinful and spiritually immature. However, God is good to His children and through the process of sanctification believers become less of a sinner. This process is not complete until death, which is fulfilled in their glorification.

Perfection should be our goal in this life. However, the fact that we will fail to achieve it is no excuse for sin. Paul used himself as our example.

7 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:7-14 (NASB) 

So how do we do this? What help do we have in this pursuit?

15 Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of your time, because the days are evil. 17 So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; 20 always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; 21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. Ephesians 5:15-21 (NASB) 

Paul fought this battle before us. He knew that it was a battle and that the way to do so was to deny the flesh, press on toward the goal in wisdom and being filled with the Spirit. How does one become filled with the Spirit? It is by being conformed to God’s ways instead of our ways, which entails submitting to others in the joy of the Lord out of reverence for Him. If we will live our lives as acts of worship as Paul describes in Ephesians 5:15-21 then watch out! God will do a good work in our hearts by filling us with His Spirit. This is a description of the Holy Spirit filling our spiritual sails in directing us into God’s will.

This is not a “second blessing” nor is it perfectionism. We will never be free, in this life, from the sin which so easily ensnares us. That is why we must keep our eyes on Christ instead of getting them on us and our circumstances.

1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2 (NASB) 

This is how we press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. This laying aside every encumbrance, and sin which clings so closely is the process of mortifying our sin.

11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. Romans 8:11-13 (NASB) 

All in Christ are alive in Him and they are commanded here, by the Spirit, to put to death the deeds of the flesh. This is what we are called to do until the death of these physical bodies. Perfectionism is not for this life.

There is no “second blessing” so what is it that I experienced in 2004? I believe God circumcised my heart as He gave me the spiritual ability to do this work. Therefore, I must not squander it. I must press on in shining God’s light of truth into the darkness so His children can find their way. This also includes telling the truth in the face of extreme resistance from those who love to corrupt the Gospel thereby leading many astray. This also means that, to keep me from being proud and thereby becoming useless in the Kingdom, He gives me thorns in the flesh. Some are physical. Some are spiritual. Some are people who are tools of the enemy. Each of these are designed to humble me and I definitely need that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

1 R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, (Carol Stream, IL, 1992) 259.