you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48,
is a biblical topic seldom, if ever, preached in modern Christian churches.
Never-the-less, it is a topic that deserves some consideration especially since
Jesus commanded perfection as evidenced by
The biblical concept of perfection is largely misunderstood and it has been grossly misrepresented. For most people the word perfect conjures up the idea of being without fault, a super-human that can make no mistakes. The biblical terms translated perfect in the Bible have more to do with the moral orientation of a person’s life and his relationship to God.
There are Christians that teach a doctrine of sinless perfection and erroneously attribute this doctrine to John Wesley. Wesley wrote, “I believe that there is no such perfection in this life as excludes involuntary transgressions which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality. Therefore sinless perfection is a phrase I never use.” Instead of sinless perfection, Wesley preferred the term Christian perfection, which is a more accurate and biblical concept. “by perfection I meant the humble, gentle, patient love of God, and our neighbor, ruling our tempers, words, and actions.”
The insistence on sinless perfection as some would teach, although based on Wesley’s teaching of entire sanctification, was popularized by the holiness movement of the late Nineteenth Century and the holiness churches that were born of that movement. This doctrine holds forth that a holy person can do nothing that God would consider wrong for any reason. In other words, a holy Christian is incapable of ever sinning. This doctrine had the tendency to evolve into strict legalism that eventually became identified with holiness. Certain things were identified as sinful, such as drinking, dancing, wearing jewelry, going to movies, and so forth, and as long as a church member did not do those things, he was considered to be sinless. There are two traps to this kind of thinking. The first is that it can lead to hypocrisy; that is, following the rules but allowing behavior that is sinful in other ways. The second is that it promotes division among Christians. When people don’t agree on the rules they tend to divide into groups that have similar rules and then excommunicate the groups that don’t follow their set of rules.
to living without committing sin, Wesley did teach: “In conformity, therefore,
both to the doctrine of
Let us now consider some things about this pesky word perfection. Several Greek words are translated by the English word perfect, but the most common word is tel-i-os, which means complete. Let us consider the term as it is used in the New Testament.
you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48,
First of all, if perfection is not possible, Jesus’ statement makes absolutely no sense. In fact, the statement is so absurd we would have to question the divinity of Christ. Notice that Jesus holds up the Father as the standard of perfection. He did not use the rules of some manmade denomination or confession and He did not use a standard that unbelievers might try to force on Christians. If the word tel-i-os means complete, which it does, we can read Jesus’ statement as “you are to be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete.” God is complete in Himself and He needs nothing else; He is the source of all moral “rightness” and can do nothing to make Himself, or right, any more right. In this statement, Jesus teaches us that God the Father is the source of the moral rightness of His children and we, therefore, stand morally complete in Him. The statement is qualitative, not quantitative. As Christians we enjoy the perfection of God in us and have the ability to let that perfection be seen in our behavior, but we are still subject to human frailty and weaknesses. In spite of our humanity, we can be as complete, perfect, as God intends for us to be.
disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his
master. (Luke 6:40,
word perfect in this verse is the Greek word kat-ar-tid-zo,
meaning to complete thoroughly or to repair. The
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2)
The Christian life is a life that is not conformed to the standards of the world but to the standards of the will of God. The perfect will of God is the tel-i-os (complete) will of God; all of it and nothing left out. Some people are content to be ignorant of the complete will of God feeling that ignorance excuses disobedience because how can they be accountable for things they don’t know. It doesn’t work like that in the Christian life. God makes His will known and we can know it and for that reason we are obligated to obey His will. Since His will can be know, if we choose not to know His will, we are guilty of willful disobedience of everything we could have known.
Now, it is a truth that a person may not know the entire will of God at any one time, but a person can know all the will of God he knows up to the point in his life where he is. God requires that you live up to all the will of God you know and anything short of this is a lack of perfection. Anything short of complete obedience to all that you know of God’s will is to be conformed to the world—after all, the world has no regard for the will of God.
we speak wisdom among them that are perfect (tel-i-os):
yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the prices of this world, that come to
nought. (1 Corinthians 2:6,
Apostle Paul acknowledged that in his time there are perfect people. Has the
Christian faith so eroded over time that it is not possible to be perfect any
more? Notice that Paul contrasts perfection with the wisdom of this world. What
he is saying is that Christians are perfect, or complete, in the wisdom of God
as opposed to the wisdom of the world. The
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let is cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 7:1)
In this passage we are told to perfect holiness. Perfect here is a different word, mainly because it is a verb form. The Greek word is ep-ee-tel-eh-o, meaning to fulfill completely. The passage speaks of being aware of our behavior, both in the things we do and in the reasons why we do what we do. Remember that we have previous stated that holiness is ethical, it is the moral values of God expressed through our behavior. Paul says for us to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit. That means that as we learn the will of God, we allow the Holy Spirit to show us the bad things to drop from our behavior and the good things He wants us to add to our behavior. In so doing we will fulfill completely God’s holiness, His will, in our lives.
Here are a couple of comparative texts on perfection from the New Testament:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)
The word perfect in the above text is another Greek word, ar-tee-os, meaning fresh, and by implication, complete. God gave the scriptures to make people complete by hearing, reading, and studying them. It is through the word of God we can learn the will of God and by obeying all that we know of the will of God we can be made complete (perfect) and suited to do any work God wants of us.
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection. (Hebrews 6:1)
The word perfection in this verse is the Greek word tel-i-o-tace, meaning a completer. It is one thing to start with Christ but without perfection, starting has no value. The meaning is to start with Christ and stay with Him through the end; start with Him and complete the course with Him. That is the essence of perfection. Perfection is not a word Christians should shun.
As we have seen, there are several words translated perfect in both the King James Version and the New King James Version, but in every instance they have the sense of complete or completeness in the word and will of God. Let us consider just one last text.
Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. (Colossians 4:12)
Here the words perfect and complete are used in the same sentence. Do they mean the same thing? Perfect is the word tel-i-os, of which we are now quite familiar and we know means complete but is often translated perfect. The word translated complete in this verse is the Greek word play-ro-ō, meaning to make replete, to level up a hollow. Obviously, the words are close in meaning.
Paul uses hyperbole to emphasize the point. Epaphras, who was one of the ministers from Colossi, wanted the saints from that city to be sure to live out absolutely everything they knew to be the will of God. It admits the fact that they knew as much of the will of God as they knew, but it also implies that they should continue seeking to know more of the will of God so that they will learn things they do not already know.
Perfection is an important aspect of holiness. We are to be complete in everything God has for us in His will. Perfection requires constant reading, hearing, and studying the word of God to learn more of the will of God. If we are actively doing everything we know to be the will of God, we will not voluntarily transgress the known law of God, as Wesley put it.
Perfection is not a bad word for Christians. Sinless perfection may not be the best term to describe biblical perfection; how about complete obedience?