Be Ye Perfect
When Jesus says, “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven in perfect,” does that mean we can attain perfection, and should we?
There are a couple of things we need to understand about this statement. In the first place, the word that is translated “perfect” literally means “be complete.” So often, the New Testament and the Old Testament will describe people as being upright and righteous—not in the sense that they have achieved total moral perfection, but rather that they have reached a singular level of maturity in their growth in terms of spiritual integrity. However, in this statement, it’s certainly legitimate to translate it using the English word perfect. For example, “Be ye complete as your heavenly Father is complete.” Now remember that your heavenly Father is perfectly complete! So if we are to mirror God in that way, we are to mirror him in his moral excellence as well as in other ways. In fact, the basic call to a person in this world is to be a reflection of the character of God. That’s what it means to be created in the image of God. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, God required the people of Israel to reflect his character when he said to them, “Be ye holy even as I am holy.” He set them apart to be holy ones. The New Testament word for that is saints.
Now to the question of whether we can, in fact, achieve moral perfection in this world. If Jesus says to be perfect, the assumption would be that he would not require us to do something that is impossible for us to achieve. Therefore, there are Christians, many Christians, who believe that, indeed, it is possible for a person to reach a state of moral perfection in this life. That view is called perfectionism, and people develop a theology whereby there’s a special work of the Holy Spirit that gives them victory over all sin or all intentional sin that renders them morally perfect in this world. The mainstream of Christianity, however, has resisted the doctrine of perfectionism chiefly because we see the record of the greatest saints in biblical history and in church history who to a person confessed the fact that they, to their dying day, struggled with ongoing sin in their lives. Not the least of which, of course, was the apostle Paul, who talked about his ongoing struggle with sin.
Can a person be perfect? Theoretically, the answer to that is yes. The New Testament tells us that with every temptation we meet, God gives us a way to escape that temptation. He always gives us enough grace to overcome sin. So sin in the Christian life, I would say, is inevitable because of our weakness and because of the multitude of opportunities we have to sin. But on a given occasion, it is never, ever necessary. So in that sense, we could theoretically be perfect, though none of us is.