Christian perfectionism and “Be perfect.”

by K.W. Leslie, 28 May

Matthew 5.48.

God doesn’t want us to sin. You knew that already. We’re meant to be good, to do the good works the Father spelled out for us, plus anything else which comes to mind.

The scriptures constantly warn people against sin. It alienated the first humans from the LORD, which is why he had to boot ’em from paradise lest they live forever in their sin. It obligated the LORD to inform Moses and the Hebrews what he expected of them. It’s why the prophets warned Israel time and again: There are consequences for all this evil. It’s why Jesus died: Sinful humans killed him, and he let ’em because he knew his innocent death could plaster over humanity’s sins and restore our relationships with God.

So we’re told by parents and pastors: Stop sinning! Start acting like God’s children, instead of devils who sin like they’re trying to piss him off. Be better. Be perfect, if possible—and it is possible, ’cause the Holy Spirit can make it so.

In preaching against sin, Christians will trot out this particular proof text:

Matthew 5.48 KJV
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Can’t get any clearer than that, can we? God wants us to not just be sin-free, but perfect. Jesus says so. Be perfect.

Christian perfection.

Christians have written volumes about Christian perfection, the idea we can live sin-free lives through the Holy Spirit’s power. (’Cause it’s gotta be done through the Holy Spirit’s power. Otherwise we’re just talking Pelagianism, and there are plenty enough Pelagians in Christendom as it is.)

Perfectionists are really fond of this proof text. To them it’s proof we can be perfect: Jesus ordered it of his followers, and what kind of depraved Christian is gonna insist Jesus didn’t really tell us to be good? In fact he said we must be perfect, so clearly perfection is within the realm of possibility. Hey, the Holy Spirit does impossible things all the time.

Naturally there are Christians who object to perfectionism. Some of their reasons are kinda valid, and some are really obvious examples of people who don’t wanna be good and are looking for any excuse to practice cheap grace. I could easily rant about libertine Christians all day long, and you’d probably agree with most of it (unless I’m hitting way too close to home), but they’re easy targets, and the ones I really oughta bring up are the people whose arguments sound… actually kinda plausible.

First is the fact this proof text isn’t interpreted in context. (What, you thought I was gonna save that point for last? Nah; let’s knock it out now.) When Jesus spoke about being τέλειός/teleiós, KJV “perfect,” he meant consistency. He was talking about treating everyone the same, just as our heavenly Father treats everyone the same.

Matthew 5.46-48 KWL
46 “When you love those who love you, why should you be rewarded?
Don’t taxmen also do so themselves?
47 When you greet only your family, what did you do that was so great?
Don’t the foreigners also do so themselves?
48 Therefore you will be egalitarian,
like your heavenly Father is egalitarian.”

If we expect the Father to be pleased with us for reciprocity, Jesus waves it away: Taxmen do that. Pagans do that. God loves everybody, including people who don’t love him back, and have no intention of doing for him. That’s grace. We gotta be gracious like God is gracious. Our love for everyone has to be without exception, i.e. perfect.

So if you were hanging your hat on verse 48, whoops!… your hat’s on the floor.

But as I like to point out to the libertines, it’s not like Jesus never taught us to be good. In fact let’s quote their least favorite Jesus-teaching, shall we?

Matthew 5.17-20 KWL
17 “Don’t assume I came to dissolve the Law or the Prophets.
I didn’t come to dissolve but complete:
18 Amen! I promise you, the heavens and earth may pass away,
but one yodh, one penstroke of the Law, will never pass away; not till everything’s done.
19 So whoever relaxes one of these commands—the smallest—and thus teaches people,
they’ll be called smallest in the heavenly kingdom.
Whoever does and teaches them,
they’ll be called great in the heavenly kingdom:
20 I tell you, unless morality abounds in you, more than in scribes and Pharisees,
you may never enter the heavenly kingdom.”

Jesus doesn’t expect us to let up on God’s commands. Grace isn’t his substitute for obedience; it’s an aid to help us be obedient, and not give up in despair whenever we slip up. (And we will slip up.) Grace is God’s favorable attitude towards his people: It means he’s not rooting for our failure, but our success. He’s not here to condemn, but help. Nor is he here to dismiss all our sins as irrelevant; they’re totally relevant, and he hates ’em. He’s here to mitigate them, restore our relationships with him and one another, and fix creation. And either we’re gonna get with his program… or we’re gonna run our own program, one which goes totally contrary to his, and pretend we’re on board like the hypocrites we are.

“But what about legalism?”

A valid concern about perfectionism is of course legalism. It’s a valid worry. When we’re trying to be good, we’re gonna make mistakes; everybody does. But grace means we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it: If we slip up, we have Jesus, who took care of our sins already. 1Jn 2.1-2

But grace doesn’t just mean we needn’t beat ourselves up about it. It means if we do beat ourselves up, we don’t really trust the Holy Spirit to help us stop sinning: We trust our own punishments. We trust behavioral psychology. We trust negative reinforcement. We trust pain and suffering. You see the problem? (If not, yikes.)

We’re gonna stumble. Some of us, a lot. We may find perfection to be very, very elusive. It’s not easy to follow God in a sin-damaged world, especially when we’re used to doing our own thing instead of living in the light. But let’s not lie to ourselves and others: True followers of Christ try. Hypocrites don’t bother, invent excuses for their rotten behavior, and bend scriptures in self-defense. (Or they pretend to try, and hide all their sins in the dark.)

True Christians recognize sin has messed us up and makes perfection a real struggle. Hypocrites claim it’s messed us up so much, not even the Holy Spirit himself can make us any better. They correctly point out everyone sins, Ro 3.23 presume it means even we Christians will inevitably keep sinning, and preemptively give up. We can’t be perfect till we’re resurrected, and in heaven.

Nope, the scriptures don’t teach this idea at all. On the contrary.

1 John 2.3-11 GNT
3 If we obey God's commands, then we are sure that we know him. 4 If we say that we know him, but do not obey his commands, we are liars and there is no truth in us. 5 But if we obey his word, we are the ones whose love for God has really been made perfect. This is how we can be sure that we are in union with God: 6 if we say that we remain in union with God, we should live just as Jesus Christ did.
7 My dear friends, this command I am writing you is not new; it is the old command, the one you have had from the very beginning. The old command is the message you have already heard. 8 However, the command I now write you is new, because its truth is seen in Christ and also in you. For the darkness is passing away, and the real light is already shining.
9 If we say that we are in the light, yet hate others, we are in the darkness to this very hour. 10 If we love others, we live in the light, and so there is nothing in us that will cause someone else to sin. 11 But if we hate others, we are in the darkness; we walk in it and do not know where we are going, because the darkness has made us blind.

I could quote more of 1 John. And Galatians 5, and Romans 6, and huge swaths of New Testament which condemn people who think grace gives us license to sin ourselves sticky. Jesus came to defeat sin. Not free us up to sin some more.

The fact so many Christians think grace empowers us to sin boldly, isn’t just an amusing little irony. It’s a symptom of someone who doesn’t know Jesus at all. Who’s going through the motions of Christianity, but has no relationship with Jesus, no fruit of the Spirit, who’s not saved. It’s not something to dismiss, but condemn: They need to wake up and realize being so unlike Christ Jesus suggests they’re not in his kingdom—and they need to come in!