Perfection vs Progress
How abiding in Christ as my perfect righteousness empowers disciples to abandon perfection and pursue progress
As I reflect on the past five weeks of sabbatical between my last Sunday as a local church pastor (May 30) and my first Monday as a full-time seminary professor (July 5), I find myself grateful… and anxious.
I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to pastor for all these years and am looking forward to leading the DMin program at Metro Atlanta Seminary and teaching a number of MDiv courses to boot. So excited!
But low-grade anxiety lurks under the surface. Why? I think it is a residual fear of failure that has plagued me all my life.
If I understand my personality/temperament “wiring” correctly, one of my besetting fears is lacking competency in that which I want to excel. I don’t care much about being known as a fisherman, carpenter, musician (as much as I admire those folks) or anything else—just fill in the blank.
I’ve wanted to be a good leader, preacher, and pastor.
Criticize my hack guitar skills. No biggie. Point out a flaw in a sermon and I’m likely to beat myself up mentally for the homiletical defect, obsessing over the exposure of imperfection until I prove myself competent and worthy of praise in the next sermon. Of course, this makes preaching more about me than Jesus. My glory, not his. Ugh.
The truth is my leadership, preaching, and pastoring have been criticized at different times to varying degrees. And rightly so. I am tragically imperfect—in every way. Not just as a pastor or professor but as a human.
So, what makes me think I will not be as imperfect in my new context with the seminary? Thankfully, Metro Atlanta Seminary is strong on grace and, while encouraging faculty and staff to make progress, they do not demand nor expect perfection. There is a big difference.
Progress versus perfection.
What an important distinction for the disciple of Jesus. Yes, the law of God demands moral perfection. That is the bad news. The good news is Jesus, with perfect obedience to the law, achieved moral perfection for us, which now is credited to those who believe upon Jesus as Justifier, whereby a sinner is forgiven of all failure and receive Jesus’ moral record as their own before heaven. In the gospel, we do not achieve perfection. We receive it.
Now, without the pressure of perfection to attain, we may pursue progress. Theologically, we call this progressive sanctification. A moving forward as we follow Jesus. Sometimes very slowly. Sometimes, two steps forward and a step back. Yeah, sometimes three steps back. Or more.
Nevertheless, over time we make progress as we learn greater dependency on God’s grace not only to save us but to sustain us and change us. As someone said, “I’m not where I was ten years ago and not where I’ll be in ten years.” If Jesus was committed enough to work for me, he will be faithful to work in me, too.
This is why abiding in him as my perfect righteousness is critical as I step into my new role. This cannot be overstated: abiding is the most important part of every believer’s experience, regardless of our distinctive vocational callings. After all, Jesus said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Indeed, for the believer, all is grace.
As I rest in the justifying merits of Christ, new desires bubble to the surface of my heart. I begin to desire progress, not out of guilt or fear but in response to love. If the declaration of justification can be understood as definitive sanctification (where we stand in grace positionally), our forward movement is called progressive sanctification (where we walk in grace experientially). As we walk by grace, abiding in Jesus’ perfect gift righteousness, the indwelling Holy Spirit empowers a disciple’s life from the inside out, rewiring our motives and granting new abilities.
And wonder of wonders, we begin to see progress! He enables us to love like Jesus, to experience peace, to manifest kindness, to repent and forgive… and to write helpful doctoral curriculum, effectively lead seminars, mentor students, teach, etc. Or whatever it is he has called you to do.
So, what about you? What is it that you feel the pressure to perfect? Being a perfect parent? Closing every sale? Making straight As? Making every shot? Winning every game? Preaching a perfect sermon?
In Jesus, we have been set free. One benefit of this glorious freedom is that you and I may confidently abandon self-righteous dreams of perfection and freely pursue progress. I wonder how believing that would affect my internal struggles with my anxious fear of incompetency, failure, and imperfection? Probably a lot—and for the better.
Now we are making progress.