Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NRSV)
About the same time as Mary Poppins entered the scene, Mac Davis introduced us to his version:
O Lord, it’s hard to be humble,
When you’re perfect in every way
I just can’t wait to look in the mirror,
‘Cause I get better looking each day
Now, those were fun things, Mary Poppins and an arrogant cowboy…priceless! But Jesus laid out a tougher plan; He said we should “be perfect”. What’s a believer to do with that?
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, believed it was possible for followers of Jesus to achieve spiritual perfection – to the point of not sinning. Indeed, he held that God expected it. Wesley believed the pursuit of Christian perfection should shape our lives here on earth.
It would seem that to become “perfect,” one would have to get rid of a whole shopping-list of bad things. The problem is that we love those things because we have a base nature that tends to get worse, not better.
Reality says that if you are not 100% perfectly-clean you are still dirty. In a spiritual sense, you are not clean, simply by quitting one or two bad habits and going to church. That is reformation.
If you get rid of all the bad habits, go to church all the time, go on visitation, sing in the choir and give all your money, well, that is incredible reformation. And it still isn't perfection!
In fact, that's not even what God requires, or what He wants! God doesn’t really want your reformation; God requires a transformation! And only the grace of God can do that!
Now, there are a lot of different ideas of exactly what Jesus meant by telling us to “be perfect” or morally healthy. It takes a lot of thought to get our minds around this one. We know ourselves, and we know how hard it is just to stay on a diet, or quit smoking or cussing. But to do it all; to actually be perfect before God….that is a monumental concept. John Wesley’s sermon on Christian Perfection is over 20 pages (be thankful this one is only 4!).
So, where do you start? How is it possible to be perfect? How do you do that? How do you change? The answer is, YOU don't! Christ does it in you!
In John’s first epistle the Apostle gives us the starting place for Christian perfection: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. The word “purify” (or “cleanse”) is much different than the washcloth plan I tried to pass off as having cleaned Russell. Beloved, when Jesus cleans you, not even your mother can find a dirty spot!
Now, if this is the starting point, where is the finish line? How can we (as Wesley asked Methodists two centuries ago)…how can we “go on to perfection?” I believe with all my heart that the answer to that question is two-fold:
Number one is that you cannot do it. Only God can create in you the kind of moral character that “perfection” suggests. Everywhere in Scripture we are told to follow after Jesus and his righteousness (see Matthew 6:33). But it is not following-after to catch righteousness that we are urged to do; rather it is in the following-after we will find ourselves transformed by the righteousness of Jesus Christ!
This is where the “number two” comes in…the longer you give yourself to Christ’s will, without reservation, totally abandoned to His leading, the more you will become like Him, and less like your old self.
It has been said that the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. It was never truer of something than this one issue. Elizabeth and I got married on February 12, 1967….a lot of changes have taken place. Hanging out with her for the past 45-plus years has changed the little boy who tricked mama with a “little-dab’l-do-ya” washcloth. Now there are no socks dropped on the floor, crumbs left on the table, or messy garage. And, do you know what? I now like it that way!
It is the same way with hanging out with Christ – there will be changes…you will be going-on to perfection as you learn to submit to His leadership.
That’s what the Apostle Paul found out. He first met Jesus on the road to Damascus. After following Jesus for 30 or more years he was still learning, but he’d learned the most important thing about Christian perfection – when you hang out with Jesus you learn to love what Jesus loves, and, keeping your eyes on Jesus, the rest somehow fades away…
…and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.
So…you want Christian perfection? Say it with Paul:
I want to know Christ…this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:10a, 13b-14 (NRSV)