Perfection can be a dangerous subject. Dwelling on the topic can itself be a discouraging and defeating work. The reason is that when we talk about perfection, our attention is almost invariably focused inward on ourselves, and that's not where the power is. The power is always outside of us. So, to deal safely with the question of perfection, it must be handled lightly, once over, and be done with it.
To begin with, we need a clear under standing of the difference between perfection and perfectionism. Here is where we need a glossary. I will hazard a definition: The person who is involved in perfectionism is the one who usually thinks of little else, the one who focuses his attention and everybody else's attention primarily on perfection. The one who believes in perfectionism is often the one who insists that the sinful nature is eradicated before Jesus comes again and that we can not only overcome but become sinless as well. I would like to disclaim any identity with perfectionism. But the doctrine of perfection is a good Bible doctrine, a solid Bible teaching, and Jesus Himself had something to say about it.
We could begin with the statement that Jesus made on more than one occasion, "Sin no more" (John 5:14; 8:11). That comes close to perfection, doesn't it? Jesus said, in Matthew 28:20, to teach them "to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." That also is pretty complete. But Jesus made three major comments in this connection. The first is Matthew 5:48, the second is Matthew 22:11, and the third is Matthew 19:21.
Matthew 5:48, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." It has been said that the word perfect in Scripture means nothing more than "mature." And it's true that the Greek word carries with it the idea of maturity. So some say that Jesus doesn't really mean "perfect"; instead He means "mature." But the word mature is actually a stronger word than perfect, because mature carries with it the idea of ultimate perfection. You can have a newborn baby, and it can be a perfect baby that gurgles and coos. You can have a perfect 2-year-old, who sits on the curb and goes "blither, blither" to his friends. And he can be a perfect 2-year-old. But if he were still doing that at age 20, you would be a bit nervous! When a person is still gurgling and cooing at age 20, we don't like it!
Jesus allowed for stages of growth in the Christian life. This is very clear in Mark 4:28: "First the blade, then the ear, after that the full com in the ear." A blade can be a perfect blade, and an ear can be a perfect ear. And the full corn in the ear can be not only perfect but mature as well. It can be perfect at every stage of development, just as we can be perfect at every stage. But maturity indicates an ultimate perfection. So, in a sense, when one tries to explain Matthew 5:48 by exchanging the word perfect for the word mature, he has made Jesus' words even stronger. It could be easier to be a perfect baby than to be a perfect adult. And I'm thankful for this teaching of Jesus that there is perfection for each stage of growth, because it just may be that some of us are still in one of these stages!
One of the questions that usually come up when we talk about the idea of perfection is "Who's achieved it?" But that is a foolish question. We never measure truth by our experience of it or by anybody else's experience of it. That is a form of existentialism. It is a very naive approach to truth—especially the truth of God—to go around saying that a thing is impossible simply because I've never done it myself or known personally of anyone who has. There are many people, in the generations of this world, who have reached God's ideal. But the nature of perfection is such that they would probably be the last ones to know it, and we probably don't know about them, either. But let's not decide it's impossible just because of this.
In Christ "dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead," and the life of Jesus is "made manifest in our mortal flesh" (Col. 2:9; 2 Cor. 4:11). Through connection with Christ, "the righteousness of the law" will "be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4). Jesus' life in us will produce the same kind of obedience that we see manifested in His life.
The religion of Christ includes more than forgiveness, as beautiful as that is. It includes setting us free from sin, not just in some future heavenly life but here and now. This doesn't mean that we will no longer be sinners. Even the apostle Paul said that he was the chief of sinners. But he didn't mean that he was sinning all the time. When Paul said in Romans 7:18, "How to perform that which is good, I find not," he wasn't talking about external works and performance, because in Philippians 3 we find recorded a pretty good track record of his success on the externals. He did not come short there. What Paul was saying was that apart from God, inherently in himself, he was still a sinner. And all of us will have to join him in that acknowledgment.
Some of the confusion on the subject of perfection comes from a misunderstanding of the purpose of perfection. Perfection is not in any way the basis of our salvation. The purpose of perfection is to bring glory and honor to God. Matthew 5:16: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." Psalm 23:3: "He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake." The last group of people, just before Jesus comes again, fear God and bring glory to Him (see Rev. 14:6). One of the dangers of studying this subject has been the tendency to get the impression that our perfection is what saves us. That's not so. Jesus and the cross is what saves us. Obedience and Christian perfection are to bring glory and honor to Him, and if it is Christ dwelling within that makes it all possible, then it is God's work through us. We're not doing any of it ourselves (see Gal. 2:20).
The Christian remains sinful by nature until Jesus comes (see 1 John 1:8). This should not be a discouragement to the Christian, because his standing in Christ rests on God's continuing justifying grace. However, the last message of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, speaks much about the overcomer. Obviously, it is the sinner who overcomes. What does he overcome? Primarily, he overcomes his practice of depending upon his own power, depending upon himself, and learns to depend upon God's power instead. This does not happen overnight, but results from the growing experience of the saved sinner as he continues his daily relationship with God. It is God's work, not ours.
If you want to understand the subject of perfection and the need for perfection, study carefully Matthew 22. You may very well find more answers in that chapter, in Jesus' parable about the wedding garment, than anywhere else. The man who came to the wedding without the wedding garment had received the invitation. He had responded to the invitation and was accepted at the feast on the basis of that response. His subsequent dismissal from the feast was because of his dishonoring the king, and the king's son, by refusing to put on the garment that had been provided for him free of charge.
We are all invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb, and all we have to do is accept the invitation. Jesus paid it all, and the friendly arms of the cross still point the way to the heavenly country. When Jesus bowed His head and died on Calvary, He purchased the right to forgive everyone ever born in this world who will accept His forgiveness. We are all invited to the wedding. There is nothing that we can add to what Jesus has already done. "For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8, 9).
But what about the wedding garment? In Revelation 19:6-8, we find the description of the marriage supper of the Lamb: "And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage supper of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints." The Revised Standard Version says, "The fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints." *
What are the righteous deeds of the saints? What is the righteousness of the saints? Jeremiah 23:6 reminds us that it is "the Lord our righteousness." So any kind of righteousness that is seen in the saints is still the Lord's work, isn't it? Therefore, it isn't our righteousness; it's His righteousness. But He offers to us both His righteousness for us, in providing the invitation, and His righteousness worked out in us, which is represented by the wedding garment. Both are of faith, and both come from Him.
Finally, in Matthew 19 we have the story of the young man who came to Jesus, wanting to know what he could do to enter into life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments. And the young man said, "All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack 1 yet? Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me" (verses 20, 21).
I had real problems with that text for a long time, because I said, "How can a person be perfect, and then come and follow Jesus?" It seemed to me that one would have to get with Jesus first or he could never hope to be perfect. But as 1 took a deeper look at that text I began to see that Jesus was telling him—telling us—how to be perfect. Jesus is talking about much more than just money. Get rid of whatever you have. You may be rich in talent. Stop depending upon your talent. You may be rich in good looks and are overcome every time you look in the mirror! Get rid of your good looks. I mean, of course, get rid of your dependence upon them. Don't depend on your brains, or your education, or your social status, or anything else. Sell all that you have, in terms of depending upon it. Get rid of all the things that you depend on in any way as a substitute for depending upon Jesus. And come to Him, having given up on yourself.
And then follow Him. What was that added for? Jesus said it in another place, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matt. 4:19). He is talking about following Him in service. No one can follow Christ in service until he comes to the place of having given up on himself and his self-dependence.
We will never become perfect by dwelling upon being perfect. Whatever perfection God has in mind for us will come only when we dwell upon Jesus and look to Him. And the one who is the most involved in trying to help someone else know Jesus is the one who will be dwelling most upon Jesus himself. As we keep our eyes upon Jesus, the work He has begun in our lives He will complete (see Phil. 1:6).
* From the Revised Standard Version of the
Bible, copyrighted 1952, 1971 by the Division of
Christian Education of the National Council of
Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.