Perfection: The Absolute Standard
There is something wrong with the title of this series, can you spot it? Here it is: You cannot have a ‘more’ perfect something or someone. You are perfect or you are not. Once something is perfect (without blemish or error) you cannot improve on it.
This title, by the way, comes from the book “God’s Way to a More Perfect You: Living by the Fruit of the Spirit” by Leroy Lawson. The point that Lawson makes at the beginning of his book is that the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is what each strives to attain in regards to perfection.
For example, since atheists and humanists claim that there is no such thing as “perfection,” they have few options when it comes to self-improvement or self-fulfillment. Two of the more popular approaches they use to this end could be summarized in the following way:
- “Be the best that you can be.” Maximize your potential using your best skills. You can never be perfect; maybe you will not even be the best; but if you are the best that you can be, you have reached the only goal available to you in this regard.
- “I’m ok, you’re ok.” I am good enough the way I am, you are good enough the way you are. There is no striving to be the best or better; no competition with others or self. The goal is accepting yourself as you are and accepting others in the same way.
There are also different ideas about perfection among the major non-Christian religious groups in the world. For example, the desire for perfection for those who follow Eastern religions is different than those who do not believe in God or any spiritual life beyond the material world. The quest for improvement by these people comes at the cost of denying themselves any imprint of their existence in this world. The religions of the East lead their followers through various levels of training and self-denial to reach a point where they are no longer affected by the world around them in any significant way. When this happens, they say that the goal of their religious practice, referred to as either wholeness, nirvana, moksha or enlightenment (depending on the religion), begins to take place.
In the Jewish and Muslim religions, perfection is more a corporate than a personal experience. Their perfection is tied to the success of their theocratic aspirations. The geopolitical and religious destinies of these people are intertwined so that the achieving of political goals is believed to be a fulfillment (perfection) of their religious goals as well.
And then there are those who worship idols or various forces in nature. They share the common belief with atheists that perfection does not exist. The goal for these people is to stay alive and not anger the gods. Self-development is measured by how well one exploits nature without disturbing (or manipulating through magic) the unseen spirits that control the physical world.
Christianity and Perfection
Christians, on the other hand, are people who not only believe that perfection exists, but are called upon by God to strive for it in their personal lives as well. Unlike the atheist, humanist, follower of Eastern religion or worshipper of nature gods, the Christian has been given a model for perfection in Jesus Christ. Christians (and I include myself in this group), therefore, can know what a perfect life looks like because Jesus’ life, works and words have been recorded and preserved in the Bible by credible eyewitnesses.
When, however, we begin to compare ourselves to Christ in this effort to be perfect, two things become painfully clear:
- We realize how far from the perfection of Christ we really are.
- We learn that no amount of human effort can make us perfect as Christ is perfect.
The dilemma for us as Christians, therefore, becomes the following, “How do we obtain the perfection we are commanded to strive for while inhabiting a body incapable of achieving this perfection?”
I will try to answer this question in the following pages of this book.
Perfection is the Absolute Standard of the Christian Life
Atheists deny it and various religions change its meaning to acquire it on their own terms, but Christians actually strive for and embrace perfection in its purest form because they are called to it by Christ.
Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
– Matthew 5:48
For those of us who believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, perfection is the standard by which we judge our lives despite the knowledge that we are, at present, imperfect and unable to attain this state by human means. We continue, nevertheless, to strive for this perfection because in doing so we demonstrate our sincere faith in Jesus. Because of this faith, therefore, God considers us perfect in His eyes now, while we await our final transformation at Jesus’ coming. At that time, we will actually possess the perfection that the Lord currently imputes to us by faith (I Corinthians 1:30; I Corinthians 15:50-58; II Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:8).
Perfection is a Choice
Choosing to strive for perfection is not something that one simply decides to do one day. It is the new way of living given to those who are freed from sin through the blood of Christ. People who live without Christ either take the, “I’m ok, you’re ok” route or follow the “personal best” way of life, but they rarely choose to seek after perfection because they believe that it is either unattainable or nonexistant. However, when a person comes to know Jesus Christ, that person comes into contact with godly perfection in human form. This experience has several effects on believers:
- It confirms the reality of their own imperfection. No matter what they may have thought about themselves before, they now know for certain that they fall terribly short of perfection.
- It also gives them a vision of what actual perfection looks and sounds like in human form, something they could not know before having faith in Christ.
- It provides an accurate measure of progress in the process of improving oneself. For example, if I can see what human perfection is like and compare it to my actual condition, I can then determine the progress I am making in my efforts to improve myself to this end.
- It offers a choice. Seeing perfection and imperfection side by side helps a person make a choice to either reinforce the behavior that leads to perfection or continue with the decisions and actions that lead to eventual destruction.
The verse of Scripture upon which this book is based, Galatians 5:13-25, outlines this choice and the consequences that follow. In this passage Paul explains that those who choose the path of continued imperfection (expressed in immoral acts and a life of disbelief) will perish, and the people who strive after perfection will ultimately achieve it. It is interesting to note that the Apostle does not describe Christian perfection by using absolute terms like “the most, the greatest, the purest, or without any mistake or blemish.” Instead of using words that describe perfection as a type of measurement reference, he says that perfection is expressed in virtues such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This, of course, is not an exhaustive list, but a sampling of what perfection is supposed to “look like” in a Christian.
The Apostle Peter, in II Peter 1:5-7, also describes this process of seeking after perfection but he names other virtues that reveal Christian perfection in the believer. His list includes words like faith, moral excellence, knowledge, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, etc. I suppose if we had to, we could go through the New Testament and create a list of character virtues and actions that would fully describe the perfect person, but it is easier to summarize all of these virtues and qualities in the single word, “Christlikeness.”
At the start of this chapter I said that after being saved from sin, condemnation and death, we have a choice to make, a choice that Paul explains in Galatians 5:13-25. We can choose to maintain a state of imperfection which characterized our old life and thinking, or we can choose to strive after the perfection seen in Christ and described in the Bible by the Apostles and others. If we choose to pursue perfection, we will need to understand some of the ground rules in order to avoid confusion and discouragement. The first of these is that there are two kinds of “Perfection.”
Conditional perfection is the state we find ourselves in when we are saved. When we are baptized, all of our sins are washed away and, in God’s eyes, we are considered His perfect sons and daughters (Galatians 3:26-27). Our “perfect” condition is bestowed upon us as a gift from God based on our faith in Jesus (expressed in repentance and baptism). Every Christian, therefore, has conditional perfection conferred upon them through God’s grace at baptism. This is what gives each Christian the confidence to come before God in prayer, confidence to try and serve God, and confidence to face death without fear. The awareness of our imperfection would undermine us in each of these situations if it were not for the state of conditional perfection that God bestows upon us through faith in Christ.
Actual perfection is the concrete and visible progress we make in our lives as we pursue “Christlikeness.” It is the measurable improvement we make as we are transformed through our submission to God’s Word, and the working of the Holy Spirit within us (Acts 2:38) into the new image of Christ (Christlikeness) in our lives. Actual perfection is visible. For example, when we overcome bad habits, when we grow in biblical knowledge, when we learn to truly forgive, when we develop our ministry skills and bear spiritual fruit that glorifies God; the actual perfection being produced in us is seen and experienced by ourselves and witnessed by others.
The confusion occurs when people try to achieve conditional perfection by striving for actual perfection. We are saved because God considers us perfect in Christ based on our faith, not because we have achieved actual perfection. This confusion often leads to an attempt at salvation by works which cannot succeed (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The natural question arises, “If I am considered perfect in Christ, why bother seeking actual perfection?” If we went straight to heaven at the moment of our baptism there would be no need to strive for actual perfection, but the majority of us have a certain amount of time to spend on this earth within this imperfect body of flesh before we meet Christ to be with Him in the air forever (I Thessalonians 4:14-17). This brings us back to our original passage in Galatians 5:13-25 where Paul asks his readers how they plan to spend the rest of their lives: repeating acts of imperfection leading to destruction, or pursuing perfection in Christ (Christlikeness) which will lead to actual perfection!
If we choose to seek perfection we will also accomplish the following:
- We will be expressing our faith in the perfect One, Jesus Christ.
- We will provide a witness for the truth and a light leading to Christ for those who inhabit a dark world.
- We will experience, to a degree, the perfect life of Christ and the joy that comes from this.
- We will create the tone and texture of the communal life in the church here that will exist in perfection when the church is brought to heaven.
- We will guard our souls from the continual pull of this imperfect world.
- We will be doing the most perfect thing that we can do, and in doing so answer the question, “What should I do with my life?”
- We will attain the greatest tangible rewards available here on earth as well as those awaiting us in the world to come.