Catholic and Reformation Understanding of Perfection
When we study the history of some of these doctrines, it comes as a great surprise to many to learn that the doctrine of Romanism was perfectionistic and the doctrine of the Reformers was anti-perfectionistic.
Historically, Roman Catholic doctrine vigorously contends for "justification by grace." But following the lead of Augustine, they think of grace as some quality which God infuses into the human soul. Hence (and here is the astounding paradox of Romanism), the Catholic theologians put their stress on the "real, genuine" indwelling of Christ's righteousness, and following Christ's example. A man's acceptance and standing before God is made to depend on the grace of God within his own heart. Thus the focal point of Roman Catholic soteriology is man's experience.
In surprisingly "pious" terms, Catholic doctrine extols what grace is able to do in the lives of men. It says that the grace bestowed through the sacrament of baptism removes "original sin", and through a subsequent process of man cooperating with sanctifying grace he is able to do works that are fully acceptable in God's sight. In this system of thought, the Catholic thinks of becoming more and more just in the sight of God. The grace of God, it is claimed, can so purify man's sinful nature, that he may finally arrive at a state of ontological perfection—that is, a perfection of man's being, or nature, in the sense that no more sin exists in that nature.
Another very significant point to observe is that the Catholic theologians always interpreted the man of Romans 7:14-25 as being a man without sanctifying grace in his heart, i.e., as if Paul were speaking of his "pre-conversion" days.
The Reformers' doctrine of grace and sin was entirely different. In Reformation thinking, justifying grace simply meant the goodwill of God—His mercy and favor to sinful men. The Reformers utterly rejected the idea of man being righteous in God's sight by an indwelling of Christ's righteousness. They brought back Paul's doctrine of imputed righteousness. They proclaimed that man was justified in God's sight by grace (merciful favor) through faith in a righteousness that was "extrinsic," "outside," "foreign," or "alien"—i.e., Christ's own personal righteousness, His doing and dying reckoned to the sinner's account.
Whereas the Catholic Church decreed that "justification" meant "to make righteous," the Reformers said that "justification" meant "to declare, or account, as righteous." "Baptism", said the Reformers, "does not remove original sin" (the sin of man's nature). Man's nature still remains sinful, they said, although God no longer imputes it to the believer (Rom. 4:8). In Christ, the believer stands fully righteous before God, and in himself and in his own eyes, he is fully sinful (simul justus et pecator). Grace does not, cannot reform, purify or make that sinful nature better. Instead of trying to "tame the flesh," said the Reformers, the believer would no longer "live in the flesh," but in Christ and "in the Spirit" (see Rom. 8:1.43).
Spurgeon summed up the view of the Reformation doctrine when he said:
"It is a doctrine held by all the orthodox, that there dwelleth still in the regenerate, the lusts of the flesh, and that there still doth remain in the hearts of those who are converted by God's mercy, the evil of carnal nature. . . . There remains in the heart of the Christian a nature which cannot do that which is right, any more than it could before regeneration, and which is as evil as it was before the new birth. . .
" . . . although our spiritual nature has been more fully developed, and grown in grace, yet still the old nature hath lost little of its energy."The New Park Street Pulpit (sermon on "Indwelling Sin").
The Reformers were therefore unanimous that the man of Romans 7:14-25 was Paul the regenerate saint. Although believers do good works by the power of God's Spirit, said the Reformers, because of the resistance and presence of that evil nature, none of those good works are without taint of sinful corruption. They are acceptable to God only "through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5; Heb. 13:21) — i.e., because the merit of His atonement makes these works appear acceptable to God.
The Reformers utterly rejected the perfectionistic stance of Romanism. While the believer lives godly, righteously and soberly in this present world, it is only through imputed righteousness, they said, that he fulfills the law in the absolute sense. The sinful nature always remains, and he remains righteous in God's sight only in His merciful reckoning. When some of the radical sects advanced the idea of attaining a condition of human sinlessness, the Reformers did not hesitate to brand it as Romanism.
Yet the Reformers believed in "Christian perfection." Rather than this being an ontological perfection (perfection of man's being, or nature), they saw it in terms of a relational perfection. This means that the believer is perfect, not in himself, certainly not by performance, but by virtue of his union with the One who is all perfection and righteousness. This union is formed by faith and is maintained by faith, even as Paul says,
"This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, "It is through faith that a righteous person has life." Romans 1:17
It is a union of such intimacy that "the twain shall be one." Everything that Christ is, everything that Christ has in perfection, the believer has in union with his Head. Christ and the believer are so identified that the believer cannot be considered or judged as a separate entity. He appears before God only in His perfection and righteousness. This is indeed the Christian perfection of the New Testament as well as of the Reformation. It is not dealing with impossibilities (see Selected Messages, bk. 2, p. 32), but with that perfection freely available and possessed in faith by all who will yoke up with Jesus Christ and who will maintain that bond of union at any cost until life's course is run.
Now, in the very nature of the case, the Roman kind of perfection is centered in man's own experience. If a man has this ideal of perfection, his own experience must become the center of his concern. He will, therefore, fall into the pit of subjectivism and experientialism. Christ is relegated to the mere means of attainment, and the attainment itself becomes the goal. The Reformation kind of perfection is based on what Christ is to the believer. Thus, Christ Himself becomes the focal point of concern. He becomes the all and in all—the only One that matters. He who adopts this ideal of perfection makes Christ, not his experience, his end.