Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Idealism and Realism

A couple of blog posts and a recent sermon have me thinking again about the idea of perfection in the Christian life.

Sinless perfectionism is a minor heresy in the Christian community — not minor in the sense that it is an unimportant error, but minor in the sense that far too many of us can see the inherent impossibility of such a pursuit to be deceived into believing Christ-like impeccability can be attained in this life. Accordingly, the doctrine’s ardent proselytizers are few.

If you go around asking “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” long enough, somebody is bound to step up.

Brought to its End

The Greek word most frequently translated “perfect” in our New Testaments is teleios, literally “brought to its end”, meaning complete or mature. Some modern translations replace the KJV’s “perfect” or “perfection” with one or another of these where it seems more appropriate. So the ESV has Paul writing, “Among the mature [teleios] we do impart wisdom” and again, in Hebrews, “Solid food is for the mature [teleios], for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” In both cases, “mature” is likely the best possible English choice to translate the Greek.

But that idea works better in some contexts than others. For example, when the Lord Jesus says to his followers, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, we find ourselves with interpretation issues to confront. To be like the Father in any respect represents a major challenge for fallen human beings, even those indwelt by the Spirit of God. To be like him in every respect at every moment constitutes an utter impossibility.

Fortunately, I don’t think that’s quite what the Lord Jesus was implying he requires of us. In the context, the Lord is specifically dealing with the issue of showing love indiscriminately as the Father does, sending rain not only for the benefit of the just but for the unjust as well. It is therefore highly likely Jesus was not asking the impossible, but requiring that his followers cultivate consistent impartiality, just as the Father is impartial.

Mature and Complete

Be that as it may, even if we limit the necessary perfection to the issue of indiscriminate goodness, it should be evident that substituting the word “mature” for “perfect” simply will not do when we are discussing the imitation of the Father. “Your heavenly Father is teleios”, said the Lord Jesus. Maturity implies prior immaturity, a growth from lower to higher and from less to more. In human beings, this is a necessary part of the process, but as David de Bruyn pointed out in a recent instalment of his excellent series on the implications of “I am”, “God cannot learn, for learning suggests the assimilation of new thoughts, hitherto unknown ideas. The unknown belongs to finitude. God knows all that is knowable.” Indeed.

So then, the word “complete” makes a better choice here. To say that something is “complete” need not imply development, growth or prior lack. It is simply a statement of a present status of absolute sufficiency. The Christian is to have no deficiency with respect to impartiality, just as the Father is consistently impartial in his providential dealings with humanity. In this way, we show that we are “sons of our Father in heaven”, by acting as he does.

Spiritual Ambition

But whether we aspire to perfection or completeness, we are pursuing an ideal, one that it is evident we are unlikely to fully attain in this life. Idealism is somewhat frowned upon these days. Where the Lord Jesus can say, “You therefore must be perfect”, the psychologist will tell us “Don’t be so hard on yourself” and “You’re only human.” Such statements are called “just being realistic”. Where scripture raises the bar, we would prefer to lower it.

Doug Wilson touches on this subject in a recent post about ambition, of which there are two kinds described in scripture. “Selfish ambition” causes disorder and evil, but not all ambition is like that. There is a kind of ambition that is wholesome and desirable. As Doug puts it:

“Let us return to our example of a young and ambitious man who is answering questions from interested older folks during the fellowship hour after church. ‘What are you planning to pursue after graduation?’ Suppose he were to reply that he was wanting to pursue ‘glory, honor and immortality.’ You can almost feel the brows furrowing.”

Of course, Doug goes on to quote Romans 2:6-7. The young fellow is on the right track.

Eyes on the Prize

As a doctrine of the possible, sinless perfectionism is sheer arrogance. It cannot explain our ongoing need for a Savior who is our advocate and intercessor. But the pursuit of sinless conduct is not intrinsically wrong. You may not hit a target every time you shoot at it, but your chances of hitting it at all are next to zero if you will not fix your gaze on that red dot in the middle. You cannot conquer a mountain you will not climb or finish a race you will not enter.

That may be idealistic, but it’s not unrealistic.

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