“The biblical idea of perfection is of a state of ideal wholeness or completion, in which any disabilities, shortcomings or defects that may have existed have been eliminated or left behind” (J.I. Packer in The New Bible Dictionary). When applied to God, it speaks of God being complete in Himself, lacking nothing, and without flaw. Thus, God becomes the basis or standard by which all other perfection is measured (cf. Matt 5.48). God is absolute perfection.
When Paul speaks of perfection (Gk from teleioo) in Philippians 3.12, 15, he is obviously not saying that he is absolutely perfect as God is absolutely perfect. The reference to the “resurrection of the dead” in v.11 hints at the fact that Paul looks forward to absolute perfection in the future, though now, in the flesh, he is not “already perfect.” In this single verse, Muller (122-123) says Paul is dismissing three erroneous concepts of perfection:
1) Self-righteous perfectionism—the claim that one has arrived and is already perfect.
2) Self-sufficient semi-perfectionism—though not yet entirely perfect, one has attained much already and is perfect to an extent.
3) Indolent imperfectionism—conscious of the “not yet” but gives in to the sinful desires of flesh with no pursuit of holiness.
However, just a few verses later, he speaks of “those of us who are perfect (Gk teleioi).” Once again, Muller says Paul is speaking “not of ethical perfection, but of perfection in principle” (125). It is similar to how Paul to describes the Corinthian brethren (1 Cor 1.2) as “sanctified” and “saints” despite their being engrossed in several sinful practices. Though their ethical practice needed correction, in principle they were holy (set apart) unto God. Another way of understanding Paul’s use of teleioi is to connect it with what he says in 1 Corinthains 14.20: “in your thinking be mature (Gk teleioi).” Therefore, this has to do with spiritual maturity and readiness to apprehend things divine. Some believe there may have been a self-righteous group which saw themselves as superior to their brethren, as perfect. Paul “is opposing a relative and progressive ‘perfection’ which he expects of every Christian to the impossible claim of final perfection which must ever be future while we are still on earth” (Martin 152).
Paul speaks of “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law” which stands juxtaposed with “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” and is the righteousness “which comes through faith in Christ” (3.9). The former speaks to man seeking right relationship and standing with God through conformity to the demands and obligations of the will of God. The latter is God achieving right relationship between God and man through Jesus Christ. Man attains to that right standing in his obedience to the gospel, namely, denial of self, belief in Christ, and the obedience of faith in immersion where we are put into Christ (Rom 6.3) and we put on Christ (Gal 3.27).
Righteousness is also “holy and upright living, in accordance with God’s standard” (New Illustrated Bible Dictionary 1089). Indeed, John says, “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as He is righteous” (1 John 3.7). So there are acts of righteousness which Christians are to pursue and put into practice. However, these righteous deeds must never be viewed as a means to gain right standing with God. Christ Jesus, by His perfect obedience, brings us that right relationship and we live accordingly.
We are declared righteous by obedient faith in Jesus and His completed work of atonement.
In light of right relationship with God based upon Christ’s finished work, we live upright and holy according to the Word.
Paul makes it clear that Christ’s righteousness cannot be acquired by human effort in commandment keeping or inherent virtue. Thus, the righteousness from God is a gift from God to the Christian in Christ Jesus. The medium or vehicle by which this righteousness is accepted by man is obedient faith. This new and true relationship between the believer and God involves a new moral standing and a new moral standard to be upheld and championed in the life of the Christian. Further, from this new union with God in Christ comes the impetus and motivation for holy living. God has dealt with not only sin but the consequences of sin I Christ on the cross freeing the Christian to pursue upright and godly living. God makes us righteous through Christ; we, having been declared righteous, will do what is righteous.