Holiness as Perfection
Tonight we were reading the daily scripture together from Matthew 5 and my seven-year-old son commented, "But, Dad, we can't be perfect. That doesn't make any sense." In the passage from Matthew, Jesus tells us, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Can we really be perfect? This is one of the great mysteries of Christianity. How can we be perfect, yet still be a sinner?
I know when I look inside of my heart I see some nasty things that going on, and I certainly don't think I'm an isolated case. So, I wonder with my son as well, "What does Jesus, our Lord and Savior, really mean when he asks us to be perfect?"
When Jesus tells us to do something, we should certainly expect that it's actually possible, and not only that we're remotely capable, but that we should be easily capable of fulfilling what he asks of us, or else Christianity really is just an exclusive club. It wouldn't be fair for someone to say, "Now you must solve that calculus equation or go to hell," even if the best I could ever do is two plus two.
Here's the passage we were reading. I think it's interesting that this command to perfection follows his charge for us to love our enemies, something which is really difficult especially if we know who our enemies really are and why they are our enemies.
You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Another great mystery in Christianity is what is sometimes called the doctrine of the hypostatic union which says that Jesus is both God and man. "Truly God and truly man" as it was stated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
I think these mysteries are related. How can Jesus be truly God and truly man at the same time? How can we truly be perfected in Christ while being a sinner? The sinner in me will die with Jesus, while the perfected me will be resurrected in Christ. We see this mystery take hold in an individual's life at baptism. It is at that moment of spiritual conception when the sinner is overwhelmed by Holy Spirit and our identity shifts to the nature of Christ, rather than the nature of the sinful man. And though we are perfected in Christ at the moment of baptism, the sinner still exists and will try to take the reigns until his dying day. We must continually align ourselves with Christ, rather than with sin.
Sacramental marriage (holy matrimony) helps us understand the mystery as well. The wife and husband are consecrated into a new creation, yet the man has an identity and the wife does as well. We are fully one thing and fully another simultaneously. But this mystery is not limited to just the sacraments, in fact, we see this mystery in all relationships in all of nature. At the moment when a baby is conceived a new creation occurs. What was formally separate becomes something totally new yet still in some mysterious is way a manifestation of the sources—in full. That's why we see Jesus take on the character of man fully from Mary and the character of God fully from the Holy Spirit. The comparison may not be perfect, but it helps me to understand how one thing can be fully one thing and fully another at the same time.
So it is with our perfection. In baptism Christians take on fully the character of Jesus—his perfection. Yet, the old man, as Paul describes our sinful personhood, still exists, yet in a state of death. Rather than wearing the garmets of the old man, Paul explains that we must identify with the perfection and holiness of the Holy One, Jesus Christ. Now Paul doesn't just make this comparison once. He explains this ove and over again to the churches of his day.
For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
"For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15: 21-22
Just like a baby can't be a part of his or her mom or dad forever, in Christian baptism a new creation is born and must adhere to Christ rather than to his or her former sinful person. When Jesus tells us to be perfect, we can only do this in Jesus.
Paul goes further to explain that instead of being a slave to sin, we must become a slave to righteousness. In Romans 6, Paul explains, "Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness." Some have translated the word holiness as sanctification in this passage, but those words are synonymous enough for me. Paul explains that when we act righteously, we become holy in Jesus.
How do we act righteously so we may live in Christ and be holy? Jesus explains in his Sermon on the Mount. Just prior to commanding us to be perfect, he gives us a list of ways to be righteous, ending with his command for us to love. And just after he commands us to be perfect, he explains that our righteous acts must be hidden from the eyes of others even ourselves. Because when we do righteous acts openly, the glory goes to the old dying man, with whom we then begin to re-identify, rather than to our new man who is hidden in Christ.
However, most significantly, when Jesus commands us to be holy, it's no coincidence that immediately before this charge he explains that we should love our enemies. Godly love is only possible though Jesus. When we love others, especially when it's the type of love that expects nothing in return, we do it though Christ. This is what it means when people say, "In Jesus name." When we are in his name, we are actually in him. And in him, we wear the his glorious cloak of holiness.
I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.