The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.
Calling upon your reading (particularly Grudem and Elwell) and utilizing good exegetical practice, provide your interpretation of Matthew 5:48. Here are your guiding questions: How do you understand “being perfect” in terms of the Christian life? How does sanctification contribute to perfection, per your understanding of both ideas?
By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.
The meaning of “be perfect” is a critical concept for the Christian church, causing many believers to stumble, worried they will never be perfect to any degree, let alone as the Father is perfect. Wayne Grudem identifies the “perfection” of God as one of His communicable attributes. He writes, “Some passages say that God is “perfect” or “complete.” Jesus explicitly tells us we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Grudem explains that we imitate God’s blessedness when we find delight and happiness in all that is pleasing to God—indeed, when we seek to show His blessedness, love, and grace.
The Greek word for “perfect” (teleios) is like the Hebrew word tāmîm—the latter of which refers to “soundness” regarding sacrificial animals or uprightness and a thorough commitment to the LORD. The Greek word can be interpreted as “mature” or “full-grown.” Paul puts it this way: “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature” (NRSV). He relates the same concept in Ephesians 4:13, wherein he states, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Paul uses the Greek word teleios in each instance cited above.
Nowhere in Scripture are we told to be “perfect” for the sake of perfection itself. Some variations on the term include “blameless,” but I think this is a matter of proper orientation of the heart regarding being like Christ. The writer of Hebrews said the believers should have been teaching and discipling others, yet many were still in need of someone to teach them the first principles—they were still on “milk” when they should have been digesting the “meat” of the gospel. Further, milk is for children, whereas meat is for adults (see Hebrews 5:12-14). Jesus was speaking to a crowd of believers and His disciples in Matthew 5. He spoke of the importance of meekness, peacemaking, mercy, being humble (poor in spirit), self-denying. Part of His sermon included a rundown of the Law, indicating He had not come to abolish it but to fulfill it. He also addressed the importance of forgiveness. Further to the topic at hand, Jesus was saying the Law is not about strict adherence (letter-only); rather, it is about working toward fulfilling the law of love, which is an internal orientation. The perfection He spoke of was about growing in grace to the point where love was the prevailing drive of one’s behavior.
The very example of the Father’s love is shown in Matthew 5:45: “[S]o that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” God is no respecter of persons. The LORD wanted His disciples to understand that they (indeed, all of us) are to show this “perfect” love the Father shows all of creation. We can only accomplish this by becoming “holy and mature” sons of the Father—sharers of His Spirit and partakers in His impartial and perfect love for all. This is the key to learning how we can love even those who persecute us.
Matthew Henry says, “It is the duty of Christians to desire, and aim at, and press towards perfection in grace and holiness.” We can only hope to achieve this degree of “perfection” by studying the heart (the character) of our Heavenly Father and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to perform the will of the Father. To interpret Matthew 5:48 as a literal yardstick of perfection is to miss the message of the Sermon on the Mount. Peter clearly explains this: “[B]ut as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). When we accept Jesus Christ as our LORD and Savior, we start down the path of salvation that includes election, redemption, and sanctification. Of course, sanctification involves growing in likeness to Christ. We have been justified, which is essentially a legal standing before the Father.
It is through our cooperation that we grow more like our LORD each day. This is sanctification, which is specific to our internal condition. As we grow (from milk to meat), we walk more consistently as Christ walked. We develop the spiritual “muscles” we need to resist temptation on a consistent basis (we stop “practicing” sin); we experience an “enlargement” of our hearts, allowing more room for empathy, love, compassion. We begin to show others the character of the Father and the unconditional love of the Son. This is something we will not be “perfect” at while still bound to our earthly bodies. Through sanctification, we tend to increase our ability to be perfect in Christ as we seek to follow His example with each passing day.
I received a strong response from one classmate who did not agree with my concept of what “perfection” means in Matthew 5:48, or throughout Scripture for that matter.
He wrote the following:
In response to your statement that “nowhere in Scripture are we told to be ‘perfect’ (Steven Barto 2020), I disagree. My disagreement is based on the fact that we are clearly exhorted to perfection in Matthew (5:48) in every version of the Bible that is accepted by Colorado Christian University for use in our courses. For example, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (ESV). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NIV). “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NASB). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NRSV). “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (NLT). Thus, the fact that we have been told to be ‘perfect’ in Scripture could not be clearer. I do, however, sincerely appreciate the roundabout way you circumnavigated such an absolute statement when having relatively discussed the likeness of a Greek and Hebrew term referring to ‘soundness’ wherefore the perfecting maturation process results in measuring up to the fullness of Christ (Barto 2020) among other interesting yet avoidant equivocations.
Because I do not want to accidentally appear to be cutting down anything you have said, which I believe are all worthy of undivided consideration, I must return to the original point concerning the command ‘to be perfect’ regardless of how it is sliced. It is what it is whether we like it or not. Although we can strive to be perfect in everything we do, at least whatever perfection there might be rests in the effort and thought that ultimately seems to count. For example, certain individuals may expect us to wrap Christmas presents perfectly but no matter how hard some of us might try, there are obvious flaws for which we will pay dearly. Now, I am not suggesting that we all go to hell for having missed the mark, but only an unreasonable person would fail to appreciate our best effort to have wrapped a present, perfectly.
I responded with the following commentary:
Please be assured I did not mean the command to be perfect is not in the Bible. That would be a ludicrous claim to say the least. I may have used an ambiguous statement. I meant the Bible does not instruct us to actually be perfect in the same way Christ or the Father are perfect. I am still anchoring my opinion on the Greek or Hebrew word. How can we ignore original meaning? Context? Historical ramifications in the church at the time the phrase (indeed, the word “perfect”) was used? Exegesis demands a careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text (or a specific word or phrase). This is the proper means by which we can ascertain the sense of the text, grappling with the reasons for or against understanding it. Of course, exegetes must learn to love asking questions, so ours is actually a positive discourse on the matter of perfection.
Hopefully, exegesis leads to understanding the world of or within the word or text and the world behind the same. Some exegetes try to understand the world in front of the text: the world or concept the text “creates.” That sounds a bit like a slippery slope to me. Of course, I don’t merely want to understand the historical or literary meaning, but I want to engage it spiritually and experientially. The understanding of these critical words, phrases, or texts often have a deep impact on our lives as Christians. I agree, by the way, that allegorical reading of a portion of Scripture can yield meanings that are at times labled “spiritual or figurative” rather than literal. This, too, can be tricky. We don’t want to limit our study to our own (individual) interpretation. This is quite possibly the root-cause of “relativism.” This is precisely why systematic theological study among the community of believers is critical to maintaining consistent, solid doctrine. Accordingly, I truly enjoy these types of discussions.
I must conclude with a word about “translations.” We are at a distinct disadvantage in that there are at least 50 versions of the Holy Bible, and over 150,000 variations in manuscripts. I wholly support the canon of 66 books. I do, however, believe some versions are based on “fewer” and less accurate original manuscripts. For example, The King James Version is considered unacceptable for exegetical study, as is the Living Bible, the New Living Translation, and the Authorized Version. These versions worked with fewer (and less reliable) biblical manuscripts. Many older (and better) manuscripts have been discovered post-1611. Some of the best versions for exegetical study include the New Revised Standard Version, New International Version, and the New American Standard Bible. As you know, CCU approves the NRSV and NIV. Translations like The Message are not good for exegetical study as these are personal conceptual paraphrases of Scripture. I use The Message for devotional reading only. I have a copy of the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, which are considered to be “excellent” for in-depth exegetical work.
I completely agree with your analogy regarding a perfectly wrapped Christmas gift. Indeed, I think this is what I have been trying to express: That we must strive to do everything perfect—as perfectly as we can—because our Father who is in heaven is perfect. Also, it is only through the key steps of salvation (election, regeneration, and conversion) that we are able to at least begin our march toward perfection. Paul said we won’t get it perfect. Frankly, “perfection” for the sake of perfection itself is not required, and thankfully so. That would truly reduce obtaining salvation to performing “perfectly good works.” Christ came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. He told us how to approach the great command from God, which is two-tiered. We are to love the Lord God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; and, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
I think we are probably on the same page on this issue. My concern over how the church today understands and (more importantly) experiences the concept of “perfection” is critical to holding on to believers (especially our youth as they enter the world of secular academia with all the competing ideas of “absolute truth,” “morality,” and relativism); further, it is crucial for how we interact with the fallen world who sees themselves as “okay” and not “perfect,” and who think Christians are locked in an ancient world of pleasing “some invisible god” in the heavens. I also think part of my approach to this idea of perfection is rooted in social upbringing, mental illness (now in remission), loss of friends to suicide who just couldn’t “get it perfect,” and the pressures I put on myself in recovery to get it right the first time and never, ever mess up again. That was not my recovery experience. It took decades.
I believe this is a critical topic worthy of consideration. I therefore encourage feedback from my blog readers in order to dialog on “perfection” in the Christian faith. Please leave a comment or question in the box below. Thanks for reading. God bless.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 218.
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 866.