"Be ye therefore perfect," the Saviour said, "even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). But our problem is that we do not know how. We are told, "Try harder; let go and let God; let Jesus come into your heart and live in you." So we try—and fail. We try—and fail again, until we fail even to try, crying out in despair, "It's hopeless! I can never be perfect!" Yet even in our despair the words continue to ring in our ears, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Does God require an unattainable perfection? Is there a solution to this paradox? God's Word, rightly under stood, presents an attainable perfection as the divine requirement for His people.
When we turn to the Scriptures we find that the inspired writers used the original Greek or Hebrew words that are translated "perfect" in the common version almost eight hundred times throughout the Bible. Yet only 120 times are these words translated as "perfect" in the King James Version. Such translations as "complete," "finished," "whole," or "mature" account for the majority of occurrences. These words, then, may be considered as synonyms of the word "perfect."
As we examine the sixty-eight texts of the Old Testament in which the word "perfect" does appear, we discover that in more than half of these texts the synonyms "whole" or "complete" can be substituted with no substantial change of meaning. For example, the restoration of the temple was "perfected" (completed) by the workmen under the direction of King Joash and the High Priest Jehoiada (see 2 Chron. 24:13, 14). David hated "with perfect [complete] hatred" those who rebelled against God and exhorted his son Solomon to serve God "with a perfect [complete or whole] heart and with a willing mind" (see Ps. 139:22; 1 Chron. 28:9). Hezekiah pleaded for God's mercy, after the prophet told him he had a fatal illness, because "I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect [complete or whole] heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight" (Isa. 38:3).
When we turn to the New Testament, we discover that we can likewise substitute "whole" or "complete" in most of the fifty-nine texts where "perfect" appears in the King James Version, with no substantial change of meaning. Jesus told the young man who felt something missing in his life how he could be "per fect," or complete (see Matt. 19:20, 21). The apostle Paul contrasts the partial and the "perfect" (whole or complete) in his great treatise on love (see 1 Cor. 13:10).
Such an understanding of how the Biblical writers used the words translated "perfect" helps us answer the question How can I become a perfect Christian? How can I become complete or whole?
We recognize that we are incomplete, because we so miserably fall short of God's ideal for us. The problem is not to recognize that we need to be perfect; the problem is to know how to attain that perfection we so desperately need. We know that the divine law admits of only one standard—total obedience without a single failing or imperfection (see James 2:10; Gal. 3:10, 12). In the light of such a standard, not only do we recognize that we have failed to fulfill God's ideal but we see that of ourselves we are utterly incapable of reaching the absolute perfection demanded by the standard (see Rom. 7:14-25; Jer. 13:23).
The very first step, then, is to stop striving for perfection in our own strength and to admit that of ourselves we are helpless to bring about any change in our life. Thus we are freed to look for perfection from some source other than our own efforts. That Source, the Scriptures plainly declare, is Jesus Christ our Saviour. "This man [Jesus], after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; . . . for by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:12-14). The word "perfected" used here is the verb form of the very same word translated "perfect" in Matthew 5:48. The Bible teaches an attainable perfection, not in the sense that we may reach it by striving, but that God bestows upon each one who accepts His Son as Saviour the perfect life and death and character of Jesus.
"If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). "He [God] hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5:21). "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:1). "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (chap. 5:1). "By him all that believe are justified from all things" (Acts 13:39). "Ye are complete in him [Jesus]" (Col. 2:10).
The apostle Paul recognizes the believer's completeness in Christ when he addresses the justified believers at Corinth as "them that are perfect" (1 Cor. 2:6). Writing to the Philippian Christians, he admonishes "as many as be perfect" not to count themselves as having arrived at the goal, but forgetting the past they are to press on (see Phil. 3:13-15).
Thus we see that perfection comes to us who believe as a gift by which we receive the complete and sinless life of Christ. Our perfection is the perfection of Him "who did no sin" (1 Peter 2:22). We are then able to bring to the judgment bar of God the complete or perfect works required by divine justice, and the works we bring are the works done by Christ as man's substitute and surety. We bring these works in faith, believing God's promise to accept us because of them. Throughout our lives as Christians we must continue to bring Christ's works as our only complete satisfaction of the claims of the law, because our own best works are ever stained and soiled (see Isa. 64:6). Our lack of complete knowledge and the sinfulness of our human nature make perfection of action unattainable to us apart from Christ. We can never become perfect or complete on the basis of our own works because our works are never complete. Therefore, we are complete or perfect only in Christ.
Yet as we study the scriptures dealing with perfection we often see a contrast drawn between actions and intentions or purposes. King Amaziah did what was "right in the sight of the Lord," but, unlike David, he did not serve God "with a perfect heart" (see 2 Kings 14:3; 2 Chron. 25:2). Other statements of Scripture also highlight this contrast. Noah was called perfect, though he later sinned and brought shame on himself (see Gen. 6:9; 9:20-24). David's heart is called perfect, though his actions were not perfect (see 1 Kings 15:3, 5; 1 Sam. 13:14). Solomon called the hearts of the people of Israel perfect "at this day" when the Temple was dedicated (see 1 Kings 8:61). Yet in a short span of time Solomon would lead these same people into idolatry and immorality.
The Scriptures thus indicate that a man's intentions and purposes may be in harmony with God's will for his life, while his actions are imperfect. Intentions can be complete at every stage of a person's development in knowledge and action. This completeness of purpose is our response to God's declaration that we are complete in Christ. The Scriptures often call it "holiness," or wholeheartedness toward God. Such an attitude is the complete commitment of the will to serve God; it is loving God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (see Matt. 22:37) be cause of the revelation of His love for you. This, by God's grace, is attainable perfection. No matter where we may be in knowledge or understanding, we can will to serve God with our whole hearts.
Such a wholeness of purpose or commitment will inevitably be revealed in willing obedience to what we know to be the will of God, even though our obedience, of itself, will never be able to satisfy the standards of divine justice. Our actions can be considered only as outward indications of the inward attitude of commitment to the revealed will of God. Actions are the fruit on the tree of holiness.
The wholly committed believer will not knowingly choose to sin. Indeed, a willful choice to sin would be a rejection of the perfection provided by the living and dying of Jesus. We would then have no perfection either of action or purpose; we would be incomplete again. In order for us to regain our former experience it would be necessary for us to recognize our need, confess our incompleteness, and then by faith reclaim the completeness found only in Christ.
In every period.of history God's people have had perfection. By faith they have claimed the perfection of action found only in the life of Christ. In response to the wholeness He provides, they have committed themselves wholly to serve God with willing minds. Those who have died in such a faith relation ship are beyond the power of Satan. With their lives finished and their relationship to God secure to the very end, there is no possibility of change. Their commitment has been sealed for eternity.
The good news is that we do not have to wait until some future time for that perfection. We can have it today—both perfection of action and perfection of purpose. But we can have it only in relationship to Christ; we are complete only in Him. His life and death, credited to us, is our only hope of ever being able to meet the requirements of the divine law, today or in the future.
One point of uncertainty remains: Will we continue in that completeness? Will we choose to remain willing servants of God no matter what the circumstances may be?
By God's grace we may. "For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day" (2 Tim. 1:12)
"God sets before His servants no rule of this kind, 'Be as good as you can,' but this, 'Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.' Hath any man ever attained to it? Truly we have not, but for all that,
every Christian man aims at it. I would far rather my child had a perfect copy to write by, though he might never
write equal to it, than that he should have an imperfect copy set before him, because then he would never make a
good writer at all. Our heavenly Father has given us the perfect image of Christ to be an example, His perfect law to be our rule, and it is for us to aim at this perfection in the power of the Holy Spirit, and, like Abram, to fall upon our faces in shame and confusion of face, when we recollect how far we have come short of it. Perfection is what we wish for, pant after, and shall at the last obtain. We do not want to have the law toned down to our weakness. Blessed be God, we delight in the perfection of that law . . . Brethren, here is the model of the consecrated life. Do you not long to attain to it? ... For oh, how far short we have come of this! . . .
Great holiness must spring from great faith. Faith is the root, obedience the branch; and if the root decays, the
branch cannot flourish. Ask to know that Christ is yours and that you are His; for here you will find a fountain to water your consecration and make it yield fruit to Christ's service. . . .
"Beloved believer, sinner as thou art, backslider as thou art, still believe in Jesus, let not a sense of sin weaken
thy faith in Him. . . . Cling to that cross still: the more furious the storm the more need of the life-buoy. Never leave it, but make your hold the firmer. Confide alone in the virtue of that precious blood, for thus only will you slay
your sins and advance in holiness." —Charles H. Spurgeon.