Let’s Go to Theology Class: “Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect.”

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 218.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 866.

A Study in Romans Chapter 8

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, he explains that we are saved by grace, and not by obeying the Law of Moses. In Romans 6, he dealt with the old objection that if we are under grace, then why should we bother to change our ways. If all our sins are forgiven, why worry about sin? We read in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound?  God forbid!” Grace is no excuse to sin. We died to sin when we were crucified with Christ.

In Chapter 7, Paul clarifies the relationship between the law and sin. He begins with the example that the law has authority over someone only so long as he lives. When we died to sin, we also died to the Law of Moses. In the eyes of the law, we are dead. We’ve been given a new life in Christ. Abundant and free. We are supposed to avoid sin, but sin is no longer defined by the law of Moses. Rather, it is defined by the character of Christ.

In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul makes a declaration of freedom; spiritual freedom through the Holy Spirit. He also speaks of four freedoms we who are believers are to enjoy right now. Remember in our last lesson that Paul told us we are saved by grace.  We are not saved by obeying the written law. This, we discussed, does not of course give us permission to sin. Rather, we should serve God by being slaves to righteousness rather than being slaves to our flesh.

Chapters 6, 7 and 8 of Romans deal with sanctification. In Chapter 6, Paul shows us that we must not continue in sin, but live in holiness. The main theme of Chapter 6 is surrender. Just because we are under grace as born-again Christians, we cannot continue to sin so that grace may abound. Romans 6:1-2 says, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid! Grace is no excuse to sin. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” Remember, we died to sin when we were crucified with Christ. What had to be done was done. We are to walk in a new, resurrected life with Christ and not serve our flesh.

We are fleshly creatures, for sure. We have a body. We have a mind, will and a soul. We talked in the previous lesson about the struggle within us to live the Christian life. In Romans 7:24-25, Paul writes, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 8:1 speaks of the ultimate freedom. It says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”  Paul goes on to say in verse 2 that the Law of the Spirit in Christ Jesus has made us free from the Law of Sin and Death.”

The condemnation spoken about in verse one refers to “guilt.”  It refers us back to Romans 6:3-5 concerning how we were baptized in to Jesus Christ. We were baptized into His death, and  we were buried with Him. Likewise, we were raised up in new life with Him by the glory of the Father. We walk in a newness of life. For if we were planted (that is, grafted in) together with Christ in the likeness of His death, we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection. Our old man is crucified with Christ. The body of sin was destroyed that we might no longer have to serve sin.

The second verse of Chapter 8 deals with two competing laws. The Law of the Spirit of Christ Jesus and the Law of Sin and Death. These are the two most powerful Laws in the Universe; the Law of the Spirit of Christ Jesus alone is stronger than the Law of Sin and Death. This means that if the believer attempts to live for God by any manner other than Faith in Christ and the Cross, he is doomed to fail. In reviewing our prior lesson on Chapter 7, we recall talking about how it’s a struggle to live the Christian life. Romans 7:24 says, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Who will set me free?” Romans 7:25 says, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

We again see the answer in Romans 8:2, which says, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” There are fifteen things which the law of Moses could not do that are worth mentioning here:  the law could not justify us; it could not free us from sin and death; it could not free us from condemnation; it could not redeem us; it could not give us an inheritance; it could not bring righteousness; it could not impart the Holy Spirit; it could not perform miracles; it could not free us from the curse; it could not impart faith; it could not impart grace; it could not make us perfect; it could not control sin in man; it could not keep man from sin; and it could not enable a man to obey.

Let’s look at those freedoms we mentioned earlier. First, there is freedom from judgment. Romans 8:1-4, in the Amplified Bible, tells us, “Therefore [there is] now no condemnation (no adjudging guilty of wrong) for those who are in Christ Jesus, who live [and] walk not after the dictates of the flesh, but after the dictates of the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life [which is] in Christ Jesus [the law of our new being] has freed me from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the Law could not do, [its power] being weakened by the flesh [the entire nature of man without the Holy Spirit].  Sending His own Son in the guise of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh [subdued, overcame, deprived it of its power over all who accept that sacrifice]. So that the righteous and just requirement of the Law might be fully met in us who live and move not in the ways of the flesh but in the ways of the Spirit [our lives governed not by the standards and in according to the dictates of the flesh, but controlled by the Holy Spirit.]

Second, there is freedom from defeat. Romans 8:5-17 talks about how those that are after the flesh mind (i.e., pay attention to) the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit, they mind the things of the Spirit. The phrase “after the flesh” literally means that which you set your affections on. Those who set their affections on the things of the flesh will naturally fulfill them.  Of course, verse 6 tells us that to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is peace and life. Minding the things of the flesh is against God in every way. Such a mind will not obey the law of God, nor can it do so because it submits itself to sin. As long as the sinful mind lives in rebellion it cannot please God. So verse 8 tells us they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

The good news: If Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwells in you. Quicken here means to make alive. You might remember Romans 7 being filled with words like “I,” “my,” and “me.” Romans 8 is characterized by the word “Spirit” 17 times. Through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we have power to live a Christian life.

That kind of power is available to you when the Holy Spirit controls your mind. For the Apostle Paul, there are only two different mind sets, only two different thought patterns.  They are at odds with one another. Your mind is either controlled by the sinful nature or by the Spirit of Christ. There is no half-measure. In fact, Paul makes it very clear in verse 8 that if you have not the Spirit of Christ you are none of his. He means you’re not quite a Christian yet. When you trust Christ as your Lord and Savior, you are marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing your inheritance. (See Ephesians 1:13). The seal of the Holy Spirit is a metaphor for how God has given each believer the power of the Holy Spirit living inside enabling us to live differently than we did before.  We know the sinful nature is hostile to God. So if we have the Spirit of Christ in us, yet choose our fleshly behaviors, we grieve the Holy Spirit.

We get freedom from discouragement when we have the Spirit of Christ in us. Just as we get defeated when we feel like a failure, God knows we get discouraged when we don’t have Hope: when we don’t see purpose or meaning in our lives. What often opens the door to discouragement is pain and suffering. Paul says “look, I know you all are going to have pain and tough times, it’s part of life; part of living life as a believer in a hostile world. But it’s going to be worth it all when we see Jesus. Verse 12 tells us we are debtors not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. We owe the flesh nothing. It has no more control of our lives. We must not live in the sins of the flesh or we shall die. But if we will put to death the practices of the flesh by the Spirit, we shall live. Let’s look at Galatians 5:16-18.  My study Bible has the subheading of “victory.” The verses say, “This I say then, walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other so that you cannot do the things that you would. But if you be led of the Spirit, you are not under the law.” We are going to get into this more in depth in a few weeks when we shift our focus from Romans to Galatians and study the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit.

Despite our trials, our weakness and our sins, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” God does not cause all things, but he allows them and works with them for his purpose. He has a plan for us, and we can be confident that he will complete his work in us. God planned in advance that we should become like his Son, Jesus Christ. So he called us through the Gospel, justified us through faith in his Son, and united us with him in his glory: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” (See Romans 8:29-30)

The meaning of foreknowledge and predestination is vigorously debated, and this verse does not resolve the debate, for Paul is not focusing on these words here (nor does he elsewhere). Paul is not commenting, for example, on whether God allows people to reject the glory he has planned for them. Paul’s purpose here, as he nears the climax of his presentation of the Gospel, is to assure readers that they do not need to worry about their salvation. If they want it, they’ll get it. And for rhetorical effect, Paul speaks even of being glorified in the past tense. It is as good as done. Even though we have struggles in this life, we can count on glory in the next life.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all — how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? (verses 31-32). If God went so far as to give us his Son even when we were sinners, we can be sure that He will give us everything else that we need to make it. We can be sure that He is not going to get angry at us and take away His offer.

“Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies” (v. 33). On the day of judgment, no one can accuse us, for God has declared us not guilty. No one can condemn us, for Christ our Savior is interceding for us: “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (v. 34). We have not just a sacrifice for our sins, but also a living Savior who continues to help us in our journey toward glory. Paul’s rhetorical skill shines in the stirring climax of the chapter: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’” (verses 35-37, quoting Psalm 44:22) Can our troubles separate us from God? Even if we are killed for the faith, have we lost the battle?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37) I like the fact that the Apostle Paul did not say that we will become conquerors if we work at it; rather, he said we are more than conquerors right now. This simply means that the work has been done by Christ. The enemy is defeated. We died to sin when Christ died, and we are raised up in life with Him. If we start acting like it, seeing ourselves as more than conquerors, we will live a prosperous and victorious life. Start looking through the eyes of faith. See yourself prospering, and keep that image in your heart and mind.