Be Ye Perfect

In Luke 14 Jesus stated that a tower builder, or a king heading toward a battle, must calculate their chance for success. Yet few who embark on the journey to God’s kingdom ever pay heed to Jesus’ demand for perfection as a prerequisite.

Not one iota will pass

In Matthew 5:18, Jesus spoke in no uncertain term that “… Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (NIV)” And then he followed suit with a law that should strike fear in the heart of all those who aim to enter the kingdom of God:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 - KJV)

Yet many Christians seem oblivious to its implication. Countless books and sermons were written and preached in the hope of moving the believers to a higher level of spirituality while ignoring its obvious futility. Most Bible commentaries are no exceptions.

The idea of man’s self bootstrap toward godhood is the main feature of all the world’s religions. Repeated incarnations and various forms of self-denials are proposed as a means for breaking free from the cycle of birth and death by overcoming the sinful flesh. For the Christians, it’s some good things they must do or some bad things they must avoid to improve their relationship with God and to have better assurance of their salvation. Most believe their life is a work in progress. They call it the process of sanctification.

In this respect, those who believe in reincarnations fare better as they believe one day they will reach their goal of perfection albeit through an infinite number of trials. But what about the Christians? They have only one chance to get to perfection before they meet God as it is written in 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, …”

The young ruler

In Matthew 19, we read of a rich young ruler who came to meet Jesus asking him what good things he must do to inherit the kingdom of God, and he got the following answer from the Author of the Law:

If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me . (Matthew 19:21)

This young man boasted that he was able to keep all the commandments Jesus asked. But this one thing that wasn’t clearly spelled out in the written law took him by surprise: “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Jesus knew how to humble a man, especially one who is religious. No matter how a man tries to cover himself with the fig leaves of his righteous acts, the Bible clearly describes his true condition:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)

Like many modern Christians, the young ruler thought he could achieve perfection through good deeds, but Jesus knew better, for he himself inspired the prophet Isaiah to declare since ancient time that all man’s “righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6)” which can never restore fallen man to their lost glory.

Therefore, though Jesus said people must become perfect before they can enter the kingdom of God, his true intention was to inform humanity that perfection belongs to God alone and he will never share his glory with flesh and blood.

An honest assessment

If you are among those who follow the path of progressive sanctification, what is your self-assessment of where you stand along the perfection scale? Have you made much progress since the day you called Jesus your Savior and Lord? How many years do you think it will be before you meet the Lord? At the current rate of progress, where do you think you will be? What if you are to meet him tonight? Will you be perfect enough to enter his heaven?

If you are a teacher who is teaching others this progressive sanctification, what is your rate of success? And even more importantly, what is your very own self-assessment? A pastor likens the effort to rid one’s self of his sin nature to the attempt to jump to the moon. Using this analogy, we might ask: how can a man who has never succeeded in his effort to jump to the moon presume to teach others how to achieve such feat?

Trying your best will not be good enough, and neither will the discounting of Jesus’ insistence in his demand for perfection. Jesus absolutely meant it when he said not a stroke of a pen will be removed from the law. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that they must be completely flawless on or before the day of reckoning:

“… holiness, without which no man shall see God.” (Hebrews 12:14)

A quick detour: sanctification

The theological definition of sanctification is to set apart something for particular use as intended by the designer. However, in practice, the word usually takes on a much different meaning. It’s usually used to include purity, holiness, morality, virtue, etc. Most Bible teachers promote a concept called progressive sanctification, a process in which a Christian must strive to become more and more sanctified until he or she reaches perfection.

While we’re on this topic, let us take an honest look at our own progress and ask ourselves: Am I becoming more like my Savior as each day goes by? More love? More patience? Slower to anger? A student needs only take an exam to learn with a fair degree of accuracy his current standing as well as progress since the last test. It’s not clear how we can do this with our spiritual life.

Many years ago, I and my wife spent a couple of hours on one Saturday by signing up for some classes to learn some skills. My wife took baking while I took a voice lesson. After listening to the instructor for about two hours, I left the hotel conference room without any idea how to improve my singing voice.

Learning how to sing is as nothing compared to trying to imitate Christ. Yet the chances I’ll be singing like Pavarotti are slim to none in this lifetime. Hence even slimmer, by comparison, must be the chances for becoming like my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A man may be able to acquire the skills that make angels envious, but for him to become like God? Not only that it’s an impossible pursuit, but he is also repeating the original sin of trying to become like God.

The idea of progressive sanctification is such a deception that robs believers of the joy of salvation, and along with it the true Sabbath rest that is rightfully theirs that no one should take away. Besides, what part of you needs to be sanctified? Spirit? No, the Spirit came from God, the same One that was breathed into Adam to give him life, and the same One that is once again breathed into those who came into a trust relationship with God through Christ. Can you really improve the Holy Spirit? The third Person of the Godhead? Absolutely not. What about Body, or Soul, or Flesh, the non-spirit part of a person? Where does the Bible say the mortal flesh will ever enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50)? Nowhere, except in 1 Corinthians 15:52 where Paul tells us a mystery, that in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, when we will be clothed with immortality. This change to immortality, to perfection, is not progressive, but instantaneous, and it will only happen when Christ comes again. Additionally, the progressive sanctification idea smacks of trying to patch up an old piece of garment, our present flesh, with the new cloth of the gospel. At the end of this writing, we will take a quick tour through Galatians 3 to view through biblical lenses the true meaning of perfection and sanctification.

God’s will for your life

Most people think God’s will is his desires or expectations for them. Perhaps he wants them to overcome some sins or character flaws, or to call them into some ministries or certain other things among countless things a believer must do in order to bring themselves closer to where they think their God wants them to be.

Such a view of God’s will is a recipe for a miserable Christian life as there will be no rest for the soul who has to constantly make guesses and chase after their perceived will of God. A question that might be raised is will they ever arrive at a state of resolution before they meet their Maker?

I believe the true will of God is the description of the indescribable inheritance that is sealed by the blood of the Lamb of God for you in the heavenly places. And if he does have a desire for you while you’re still here on earth, it must be this:

… make every effort to enter that rest (Hebrews 4:11)

Do you see the significance of this verse? God gave us many foreshadows of rest only to point to the ultimate rest from the work of restoring man’s fellowship with God. The Sabbath gave the Israelite physical rest, but it points to our spiritual rest. Jesus spoke often of the rest of those who were heavily burdened, but not at all of the physical burden that must be borne by all of earth dwellers. He talked of the spiritual burden that is borne of a life trying to get right with God.

At the final moment on the cross, Jesus spoke: “It’s finished.” The work of restoring the perfect status of man before God was finished. It was done, some two thousand years ago. Anyone who accepts his finished work and rest in it, will enter into his peace. But unfortunately, most Christians refuse to enter this rest, much like the Israelite of old who refused to enter the promised land upon their first arrival and ended up going in circles for the next 40 years. This rest is so important that the author of Hebrews calls their refusal to enter the promised land the rebellion.

So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ” (Hebrews 3:7-11)

The rebellion was the refusal to enter the promised land, the place that the Lord called his REST, the place where the work of redeeming man was finished. God’s “ways” is the way of trusting in what Christ had done, not the way of the works of the flesh, or the reliance on obedience to the law to earn righteousness. So God unloaded his wrath against those who rejected his free gift of salvation and declined to enter his rest.

This theme of God’s anger against those who refuse to walk by grace is further amplified in the Galatians letter that we will delve into a bit later. Here, let us be reminded once again that God’s utmost desire for us is we fully enter that place of rest, or rather to fully understand God’s grace.

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18)

Galatians 3 — Faith or Works of the Law?

Four years have passed since I first wrote a study on Galatians 3 around the middle of 2015. I have grown much in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18) since then. This second writing is used to provide further context to help discover Jesus’ true intention in his almost parabolic command: “Be Ye Perfect.”

Now let us delve into Galatians 3.

Galatians 3:1-4

1You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law,or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?

Whatever the Galatians were doing, they acted as if Jesus wasn’t crucified. Because if they believed that he was, they would have lived out their Christian life differently.

Paul began by asking the Galatians how they became Christians, whether through believing the gospel message they heard or through obedience to the rules spelled out in the law. Paul contrasted the two means they might have employed toward salvation, and it was clear he expected them to give the right answer that faith, or believing, was the only means acceptable to God. Then he followed up with a rebuke of the way they chose to live out the rest of their Christian life. They relied on human efforts, on the strength of their flesh.

Note the word “finish” Paul used in the rebuke. Some other translations use the words “made perfect” or “made complete.” Paul knew the Galatians didn’t trust in the finished work of Christ, so in their mind, they were not yet perfect even though Christ had died for them once for all. This is the same error that is still being committed to this present day. All you need to do is search the internet for “progressive sanctification” to find the same idea being propagated.

Galatians 3:5-6

5So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? 6So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Paul reiterated what he wrote in verses 1-4 that righteousness is through faith alone, and all that Abraham needed was faith in God.

Galatians 3:7-9

7Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

As you read these verses, keep in mind that Paul was emphasizing faith as opposed to the works of the law, and he keeps repeating it ad nauseam to impress upon us its importance. The true children of Abraham are those who rely on faith and are also those not necessarily related to him by blood, namely the Gentiles.

Galatians 3:10-14

10For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

There is really no need to explain the meaning of these verses. They speak for themselves. But let’s go through the main points for more clarity. What does it mean to “rely on the law?” Religious people rely on the law, or the keeping of the law’s requirements, to get right with God. But as we read from verse 11, the works of the law will NOT get anyone “justified before God.”

Verse 12 says “The law is not based on faith.” It is so because it requires works for justification, and that can’t happen as it is so stated in verse 11. Faith is based on an object external to one’s self, namely Jesus Christ and all that he’s done, on the contrary, the law is based on the performance of the flesh. One puts the focus on Christ while the other back on self.

Therefore, the law is truly a curse to those who rely on it. It’s a curse because there is no rest for those who must “continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” They must continue because the works of the law will not get them to their destination. These works are much like the repeated offering of sacrifices of the old covenant that could not take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4).

Verse 12: “The person who does these things will live by them.” These things are the works of the law, therefore, those who rely on the law will have to meet the exact requirements of the law.

Verse 13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Christians have often been taught that obedience to the law is essential for spiritual growth, but verse 13 refers to the law as a curse and that Christ has redeemed us from it. The Bible clearly gives us permission to live apart from the law.

Lastly, verse 14: “by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” To receive the Spirit is to be given eternal life. This verse places great significance on how the Spirit is received: by faith, not by the works of the law.

In short, if none of the good deeds can get one into heaven, how can there be any action that makes one more acceptable to God as proposed by the progressive sanctification proponents?

Galatians 3:23-26

23Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 26So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Verse 23: “Before the coming of this faith.” This faith is the faith that says “Believe in the One God has sent and you shall be saved (John 6:29),” and not the faith that places confidence in human effort. We were under the law only until the arrival of the faith that saves. The law was our “guardian” only temporarily until Christ comes. And Paul repeated it again: we became children of God “through faith.”

Be Ye Perfect

To receive the Holy Spirit means to receive everlasting life, to once again receive the Life that was infused into Adam when God created the world. However, in order for God to indwell your heart, one condition must have been met: you’re perfect. But are you? No, you’re not, for “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23),” and “None is righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10),” and “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).” So, how have you become so pure and sanctified that God could take residence in your heart? Because we all are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24).”

We are perfect because we have been justified, and it is by grace through faith, and not by even the best of our righteous acts.

The truth shall set you free

The truth about our justification sets us free so we may truly know God. There is no more fear of condemnation that keeps us in hiding, while God’s complete acceptance allows us to boldly walk into the light of his presence so we can fellowship with him. There is no more need to measure up, to scale the impossible wall of perfection, but there is “rest beyond the river” as the song goes.

The perpetual quest of man to reach perfection through their own flesh effort proves but one thing: their pride, because where there is work, there is pride and boasting.

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. (Romans 3:27)

Here, then lies the cure for the incurable perfectionist: Christ has already made you perfect through his redemption on the cross. Christ has set you free so you may know him.

If the Be-Ye-Perfect command, or any among the Ten Commandments, or any command that has dwelled in man’s conscience since they acquired the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden, must be fulfilled by candidates for the kingdom of God, no one will enter it. Don’t even try, and don’t teach others to do what you can’t do. Jesus gave the command “Be Ye Perfect”, and many others like it in the Old Covenant context, only to show man’s utter helplessness and their need for God’s grace and mercies. He wanted to nudge them toward a New Covenant relationship with him.

24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25—NIV)

Perfection is God’s domain. Do not trespass.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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