The Perfection of Paul the Apostle

Perfection has not been well understood in the course of the history of dogmatic theology. Usually it is associated with sinlessness, thus Jesus who was sinless is regarded as perfect. This, however, though true, is somewhat misleading. James 1:4, for example, gives us a better indication of what perfection means, that is, completeness or maturity which is something that is acquired not stamped on us automatically. Even Jesus was perfected (e.g. Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28, cf. 2 Tim. 1:10) but only after a stint under the law followed by a titanic struggle with the world, the flesh and the devil. And the same is certainly true with regard to Paul whose very call was to suffering (Acts 9:16).


With this in mind we can begin to understand the career of Paul. First, it is vital for us to realize that he did not believe in original sin and so did not see himself as born sinful. This idea was foisted on him by Augustine of Hippo who misinterpreted (on the basis of a false translation it must be conceded) Romans 5:12. In other words, Paul saw himself as beginning his life not (originally) sinful ‘in Adam’ or, as it is often put, ‘dead in sin’ by (birth) nature, but in total ignorance and therefore innocent like all babies (cf. Dt. 1:39). Rather the pattern of his life followed (recapitulated) that of his first parents Adam and Eve who initially knew neither good nor evil (cf. Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22). In light of this it should occasion no surprise when Paul tells us in Romans 7:9 that he was once alive and did not die until he broke the commandment which promised (eternal) life (Rom. 7:10). There was only one time when he was alive apart from the law and that was when he was in his infancy (cf. Dt.1:39). Once he had outgrown it and was capable of understanding the commandment, he broke it and discovered like Adam and Eve long before that the wages of sin was death (Gen. 3:1-7,19; Rom. 6:23).

Clearly Paul recognized the truth of Genesis 8:21 that he was evil not as a totally ignorant baby but as a child who in the process of his development had gained some understanding. After all, he himself later plainly taught that where there is no law (knowledge, understanding) there is no transgression (Rom. 4:14; 7:8, cf. John 9:41; 15:22,24). (1* At this point many would object and assert that even babies die. They do indeed but the inference we must draw from this is that their death is natural like that of innocent animals (Rom. 8:20f.). Wages, which are earned by law-breaking, are not involved.)

It is as a comprehending child that Paul learnt the transgenerational (negative) parental commandment as Adam and Eve had done in the Garden. However, it is important to note as Romans 7:11 clearly implies he had first, like Eve, been deceived into sin before rebelliously breaking the commandment like Adam, a point that he later draws our attention to in 1 Timothy 2:14.

Nature Under Noah

Though a Jew, Paul was born a citizen of Tarsus (Acts 21:39; 22:3) and a Roman citizen to boot (Acts 22:25-28). In light of this it is little wonder that he later claims that he was indebted to both the Greeks and the barbarians, to the wise and to the foolish (Rom. 1:14). Here the assumption is that like Moses before him (Acts 7:22) and even Jesus (cf. Mt. 2:15; Luke 2:40) Paul increased in knowledge from a variety of sources like all normal children as they begin their pilgrimage and gain maturity under the covenant with Noah. And this of course includes the heathen (cf. Dt. 4:19).

Law Under Moses

As a Jew, Paul obviously conformed to the pattern of all male Jews and at age 13 became a son of the commandment. He further tells us that as a Pharisee he was brought up among his own people and in Jerusalem (Acts 26:4) where he sat at the feet of Gamaliel, a widely respected Pharisee and teacher (Acts 5:34) who educated him according to the strict manner of his fathers’ law (Acts 22:3). In Romans 7, however, he first sketches the sinful, even fatal condition of those who have lived in bondage to the law and then have experienced release to serve in the new life of the Spirit (Rom. 7:1-6). Next, after touching on his inability to deal with the tenth commandment, he goes on to give his readers in apparent reminiscence an autobiographical glimpse of his career before becoming a Christian. In brief he explains that the good law, while promising life as it had in Adam and Eve’s case (see vv. 9-12), in the event brought death. Though elsewhere (i.e. in Phil. 3:4-6) he can claim to have lived successfully as a Jew, his later reflection in Romans 7:13-24 revealed inner turmoil and conflict. But what is of prime importance is that he eventually recognised that despite all his herculean efforts and deep desire to do what is right, he had proved an abject failure. At bottom he needed a Saviour and he found one in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).

Grace Under Christ and the Spirit

It was while he was still mesmerised by the law that in his zeal for God he persecuted people of the Way to death (Acts 22:3f.; 26:9-11). Such was his fanatical commitment to Moses that Paul was obviously on his way to becoming the complete or perfect persecutor. But God was patient with him as he had been long before with the Amorites (Gen.15:16) and would be again with all those whom he wished to come to repentance (2 Pet.3:9). So Paul who later said he was forgiven because he had acted ignorantly in unbelief (1 Tim. 1:13) was stopped in his tracks on a persecuting foray to Damascus. This he describes three times and it obviously had a profound effect on him. Indeed, it changed his life and by the grace of God that of many others too. After receiving healing and general help from a Christian disciple called Ananias and others (Acts 9:17-19) he began to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God (Acts 9:20) and to prove that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9:22). Of course, this almost immediately provoked an angry and potentially violent reaction from his former companions with the result that Paul himself, now the butt of persecution, had to escape through the wall of Damascus being lowered to the ground in a basket.

What apparently followed was a period of profound mental and spiritual orientation in Arabia (Gal. 1:17) where instead of going to Jerusalem to consult the original apostles, under the direction of the Spirit he presumably began to sort matters out and think through his faith. It was perhaps during this time that Paul realised that it is impossible for anyone no matter how dedicated (cf. Rom. 7:21-24) to be perfected by the flesh and the law (cf. Gal. 3:1-5 and Heb. 7:18f.) Nothing less than the Spirit of God and the new birth could bring a man to the degree of maturity that would satisfy even Paul himself. After meeting briefly with Cephas and James he went to Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:18-21). And it was not until fourteen years had passed that he went to Jerusalem to consult with the rest of the apostles and to confirm that the gospel he was proclaiming matched theirs.

Having received the approbation of James, Cephas and John, Paul then having been entrusted with preaching the gospel to the Gentiles apparently went off to Antioch to be followed some time later by Peter. It was there that Paul showed his remarkable maturity and theological acumen, for he boldly opposed Peter to his face over the latter’s weakness and inconsistency when dealing with the Judaizers. It was not so much a question of doctrine but of practice (Gal. 2:11ff.).

Thus Paul was launched on his mainly Gentile mission which, despite his much affliction, persecution and suffering, involved opening the eyes of many from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:18). His apostolic labours did not finish until he was finally executed in Rome. As he himself expressed it, he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision (Acts 26:19) and was convinced that at the end there was laid up for him a crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8). Alternatively expressed, having been a slave, then a servant, he had finally achieved perfection as a son (Rom. 8:12-17, cf. Gal. 4:1-7).


This assertion, however, begs questions. After all, he complained in his letter to the Philippians that he was not already perfect, though that was clearly his aim as it had been that of Jesus (Mt. 5:48; 19:21). In other words, while still in mid-career Paul saw that he had more to do and was under obligation to be faithful till death. So, forgetting what lay behind, he had pressed toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12-14). For Paul perfection, which was the goal of man from the start (cf. Gen. 2:17; 17:1; Lev. 11:44f.;18:5; 19:2, etc.), was achieved as he was led by the Spirit in union with Christ (Rom. 8:1-17) who had finished his pioneering work (John 17:4; 19:30; Heb. 6:19f.) and sat down triumphant at the right hand of God (Heb. 1:3; 1 Pet. 3:22). Just as the OT saints had reached perfection through faith in God (Heb. 11:39f.), so all who put their trust directly in Jesus did too (Heb. 5:9). Since he had conquered, so would they (John 14:3; Heb. 2:10). In fact, they would be more than conquerors (Rom. 8:31-39), and, needless to say, Paul himself, having fought the good fight and finished the race would be prominent among them (2 Tim. 4:7).


See further my:

Covenant Theology in Brief


Man’s Fourfold State

The Human Pilgrimage from Ground to Glory

The Human Path to Perfection

Jesus The Perfected Man – The Epitome of Creation and Evolution

Jesus the Epitome of Evolution