Monday, June 22, 2020

Anonymous Asks (98)

“Are Christians supposed to be perfect?”

We all know Christians sin. This is the reality we live with. I was just making another pass through the apostle John’s first letter, where we find these familiar words: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Whatever might be the expectation of us, and whoever might be expecting it, the fact is that we fail, and fail with some regularity. The longer we walk with Christ and the better we know his word and his character, the more clearly we will see our own spiritual inadequacy. So any Christian who claims sinlessness is lying, not just to the world, but more importantly to himself.

That is what is actually happening in our lives, but what is supposed to be happening?

There are a couple of ways we might read today’s question, depending on what its writer intended by the word “supposed”. I will attempt to address both.

The So-Called “Christian Standard”

The first possible intended meaning of our question might be best stated this way: “Is it the expectation of other Christians that I behave perfectly now that I have made a profession of faith in Christ?” In other words, is there some agreed-upon standard of perfection by which I will be judged by my fellow believers and found wanting if I fail to perform up to it? Knowing that standard will then determine my own expectations of myself, and my satisfaction in the Christian life may end up depending on my ability to perform up to the expectations of others.

However, when we look to other Christians to see what it means to be perfect, we run into a couple of serious problems. The first is that our fellow believers seem utterly incapable of providing us with a consistent standard.

“Whatever do you mean?” you say. “Our standard is the word of God.” And so it is. But the word of God must be interpreted, and all manner of “Christian” interpretations exist. For example, all Christians agree love is a vitally important feature of a believer’s character, but some Christians define love differently than others. One Christian will tell you love requires you to speak out against sexual misdeeds, while another will tell you love demands accepting everyone as they are, no matter what lifestyle they embrace and promote. Despite the fact that the word of God is our standard, how we read it and what we take from it varies from believer to believer.

The second difficulty is that when other Christians evaluate our performance, they can at very best only see 2/3 of it. They can observe (some of) my actions and words, but they can never see my heart. When they praise my progress, I sometimes think Whatever are you looking at? When they criticize something I have written, I sometimes think How could you not realize how that was intended? The fact is that they don’t know the inner man, and cannot be expected to.

It is likely for this reason that the apostle Paul tells the Corinthian believers, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.” Achieving perfection by the shifting and imprecise standards of my fellow believers will not satisfy me even in the highly improbable event I am ever able to achieve it.

What Did God Have in Mind?

A second possible intended meaning of our original question is something like this: “When God saved me, did he do it with the intention that I might eventually become perfect?” When Paul finishes telling his readers about the uselessness of human standards of judgment, he adds this: “It is the Lord who judges me.” This is the question that really matters: What does my God expect of me?

The New Testament answers this question for us several times in slightly different ways, although you will probably notice that modern translations use the word “perfect” much less frequently than the older ones. This is because the Greek word teleios is better translated “mature” than “perfect”. When Paul speaks of presenting everyone “perfect in Christ” in the KJV, this is what he means: he is looking for maturity in his fellow believers. Likewise, when he says, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded,” he means that mature Christians ought to think the way he does.

You will also notice that in the New Testament, “perfect” is usually an adjective and not a noun. Its writers talk about perfection in particular areas as opposed to some sort of overall perfection. For example, Jesus said, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But in context, he meant “perfectly impartial”, not showing preference to one person over another. He was not suggesting that any Christian is up to the standard of God’s perfection, or that aspiring to it in this life is any more than the faintest of hopes. Jesus also prayed that his followers might be “perfectly one”. He was talking about perfect unity. James writes, “Let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” He was talking about living consistently, without the erratic and unpredictable behaviors of the unsaved. Paul tells Titus to “show perfect courtesy to all people.” He was talking about complete grace in testimony.

Perfect? Here and Now?

If we are using God’s perfection as our standard, Christians will never be perfect in this life. It is not expected. What we ought to be is increasingly mature in our faith, always moving toward the goal of Christ-likeness. There will be stumbles along the way, but what our Father expects of us is not the sinless spotlessness he saw in his Son from one end of his life on earth to the other, but rather continual progress toward it.

And perfection is not a hopeless quest. John says, “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” Sounds perfect to me. The day is coming.

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