Should a Christian Be Perfect? Part 1

By Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: Did you know that bumble bees have also been called “humble bees”? It was once thought that the name “bumble” was meant to describe the awkward, clumsy movements of adult bees in flight. With their small wings and hairy, fat bodies, it was also thought that it was aerodynamically impossible for them to fly. However, scientific studies have since revealed that God created these tiny creatures for perfect flight.

One night in a hotel room, I tossed and turned while trying to get a good night’s sleep on a lumpy, high-mileage hotel bed. I awoke from my troubled sleep the next morning to discover that, in the process of thrashing around all night, I had managed to expose the mattress corner and revealed the bed’s brand name: “Perfect Sleeper.”

Laughing within, I thought, I wouldn’t call that a perfect night’s sleep!

Most people agree that the word “perfect” is open to interpretation. So what exactly did Jesus mean when He said, “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”? (Matthew 5:48). After all, even we Christians say that “nobody’s perfect,” let alone as perfect as our Father in heaven! And doesn’t the Bible say:

“There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10);

“Do not enter into judgment with Your servant,
for in Your sight no one living is righteous” (Psalm 143:2);

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,
and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8)?

Most Christians understand that when we turn to Christ, we receive perfect justification and are declared sinless because of Christ’s sacrifice. But what I want to discuss in this article is sanctification and whether God expects Christians to perfectly obey Him after we receive justification.

Matthew 5:48 has been an ongoing source of both irritation and inspiration for various Christian camps and a catalyst for much debate. What exactly is Jesus saying when He commands us to be perfect?

The phrase “perfect Christian” can conjure up images of people who have become some kind of sterile, stainless-steel, sanctified robots that have a direct cable to heaven from which they receive their automated signals.

But perhaps a closer look at several words would provide a more complete picture. In the King James New Testament, the word “perfect” appears 42 times and is usually translated from the Greek word teleios, meaning “complete in labor, growth, mental and moral character, etc., of full age.” Here are a few other examples where teleios is used:

“I in them, and thou in me,
that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:23 KJV).

 “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect,
be thus minded” (Philippians 3:15 KJV).

“If any man offend not in word,
the same is a perfect man” (James 3:2 KJV).

The word “perfect” is found in the King James Old Testament more than 50 times, and it is usually translated from the Hebrew word tamiym, meaning “entire, integrity, truth, without blemish, complete, full, perfect, sincerely, sound, without spot, undefiled, upright, whole.”

“Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations,
and Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 KJV).

“The LORD appeared to Abram,
and said unto him, I am the Almighty God;
walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Genesis 17:1 KJV).

“Thou shalt be perfect
with the LORD thy God” (Deuteronomy 18:13 KJV).

The Taboo Topic

The subject of Christian perfection is such a volatile issue among Christians that most preachers don’t venture anywhere near it—it’s a theological quagmire. If a minister is reckless enough to admit that he believes that God wants us to stop sinning, then he becomes an instant target for the question, “Have you stopped sinning?”

Well, here I go: I believe that God wants us to stop sinning!

So now is your chance to ask, “Pastor Doug, have you stopped sinning?”

No, I haven’t. But I’m also in good company. 

1. The Bible says that Noah was perfect and walked with God. Yet it also says that he drank wine and stumbled around drunk (Genesis 6:9; Genesis 9:20, 21).

2. Zacharias and Elizabeth are said to have been “both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6). But in the same chapter, it tells us Zacharias did not have faith in the promise of the angel and was struck speechless for his unbelief.

3. Elijah was so connected with God that when he prayed, fire and then rain poured down from the heavens. But a few verses later, we see him running away—fearful, discouraged, and praying for death (1 Kings 19:4).

4. Daniel is a man described as beloved of heaven and filled with the Holy Spirit, yet in Daniel 9:20, we see him confessing his sins.

5. Paul said that he did not consider himself perfect: “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12–14). 

Maybe this is the key for us when it comes to understanding Christian perfection—looking at the examples of God’s people throughout the Bible. They certainly made their fair share of mistakes, but after they fell and repented, they would forget the things that were behind them and then press on to be Christlike. Like Daniel, they would confess their sins and then press on toward perfection. 

This is why, at the end of his life, Paul could tell Timothy with confidence, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day" (2 Timothy 4:7, 8). 

We need to guard against the popular mindset among Christians that we are saved with our sins and not ultimately from our sins. 

Countless times, I have heard people say they believe that most politicians lie on a regular basis as though it were part of the job description. So that means when it comes time to vote, we are essentially just choosing the most likable liar. In the same way, because there are so many counterfeit Christians in the world, most people have come to believe that the concept of a consistent Christian is as remote as finding an honest politician.

The Lord has made it clear that this consistent obedience is rare, but it is also possible.

“The LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant Job,
that there is none like him on the earth,
a blameless and upright man,
one who fears God and shuns evil?’” (Job 2:3).

“Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life,
and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Because there is so much failure and imperfection in the world and in the church, many have concluded that God “grades on the curve” and is content for the saints to wear crooked halos until Jesus comes. But I believe that, although we are not called to be robots, we are commanded to be perfectly surrendered. 

I like the way Dr. A.J. Gordon puts it: "We gravely fear that many Christians make the Apostle’s word, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” the unconscious justification for a low standard of Christian living. It were almost better for one to overstate the possibilities of sanctification in his eager grasp after holiness than to understate them in his complacent satisfaction with a traditional unholiness. … If we regard the doctrine of sinless perfection as a heresy, we regard contentment with sinful imperfection as a greater heresy."

Does God Want Perfection?

Of course He does!

How could a perfect, holy God be content with an imperfect standard? Or how could a perfect Creator, who originally made a perfect creation, be satisfied with an imperfect one?

Here’s the next question: Does God tolerate imperfection? Once again, of course! Otherwise, He would vaporize you and me on the spot. In fact, the whole world would be instantly destroyed if God did not at least temporarily tolerate imperfection.

Although it is clear that Jesus did not come to condemn sinners, neither did He come to condone sin. Remember the story about the woman caught in the act of adultery? She was about to be stoned according to the law. Many believe that this woman was Mary Magdalene and that this was her first encounter with Jesus.

As Mary stood trembling before Jesus awaiting her sentencing, Jesus began to write in the dust. Then, one by one, her accusers left. When Jesus stood up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10).

I believe Mary could see the genuine love and compassion in Jesus’ face. She believed in His grace, and she received it when He said, “Neither do I condemn you.” But lest we misunderstand the deadly nature of sin, He added, “Go and sin no more” (v. 11).

Is Jesus asking us to be sinless? Absolutely. Jesus could never ask for anything less. Why? Sin was the disease destroying Mary! What would you have Jesus say instead? “Go and sin a little less”? Or, “Go and cut back on your life of sin”? Again, Jesus did not come to save us with our sin but from our sin (Matthew 1:21)—that means from the penalty and from the power and ultimately the presence of sin in our lives.

Real Repentance

Some have suggested that when Jesus told Mary that He was not condemning her and that she was to go and sin no more, it proved that the law had been set aside.

In fact, the opposite is true! “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4 KJV). Jesus was actually telling Mary, “I will take your penalty because I love you. Sin hurts you, and sin hurts Me. I will be a sacrifice in your place—now, go and break the law no more.”

In Scripture, real repentance calls for a sorrow for and a turning away from our sin as a condition for mercy.

“He who covers his sins will not prosper,
but whoever confesses and forsakes
them will have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).

“If we confess our sins,
He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins
and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

A woman named Sarah was a wonderful Christian who had a rare and deep relationship with the Lord. But her brother George was the proverbial black sheep of the family, and his selfish life was the antithesis of his sister’s kind and generous conduct.

George also had a severe alcohol problem. After years of abuse, his body began to rebel from his constant drinking—his kidneys were failing fast. The doctors told Sarah that George would need constant dialysis or would surely die soon without a kidney transplant, but it was doubtful that he would even qualify to be placed on the waiting list for a kidney because of his history of drinking.

Sarah asked if she could give one of her kidneys to her ailing brother. The doctors responded, “If your blood types match, you could, but this is an expensive operation, so we question the wisdom of putting your health at risk for a person with such a self-destructive habit.”

Well, it turned out that their blood types did match, but George had no insurance, so Sarah mortgaged her home and promised that she would pay the bill. With some persistent urging, she finally persuaded the hospital to perform the surgery.

The transplant surgery went fine for George, but there were some tragic complications for Sarah. She had a severe allergic reaction to the anesthetic and was paralyzed from the waist down. Still, Sarah was able to bravely bear the tragic news a little better when she was told that George was doing well. She said, “If I am able to buy my brother a few more years of life to find the Savior, then it was worth it even if I can never walk again.”

Here is the point of the story: How do you think Sarah felt when her brother never stopped by her hospital room to thank her for her costly sacrifice? And how do you think Sarah felt when she learned that the first thing her brother did after leaving the hospital was to go celebrate at a nearby bar?

Most of the world eagerly takes the blessings of God and then selfishly squanders them like the prodigal son. But how do you think Jesus feels when a professed Christian walks away from Calvary, where they have just seen Him hanging, beaten and bloodied, on a cross for their sin? Through His mercy, He purchased eternal life for them. But then they take the gift and turn back to the very thing that cost Him such suffering. You would think that when we truly see and understand something of how much our sins have cost Jesus, we would no longer want to embrace the monster that ravaged our Lord.

Jesus did not come and die in order to purchase us a license to sin. He came to save us from our self-destructive sins. That love is the power that enables us to turn from sin. “Do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).

“Should Christians Be Perfect? Part 2”
will be available in the next Inside Report later this year.


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