By Pastor Glenn Pease
Mozart was only 25 years old when he settled in Vienna in 1781. Ten years later he was dead, but his commitment to perfection made his mark live on and crown him as one of the princes of music. Those ten years were years of struggle for survival. He lived in poverty with little food, and often even without heat in the winter. His publisher threatened to stop giving him any payment at all if he did not write in a more popular style. Mozart replied, "Then, my good sir, I have only to resign and die of starvation. I cannot write as you demand." He refused to dedicate his gift to the trivial, and he went on writing his matchless music which made him so famous after his death. He aimed for perfection, not because it paid well, but because he do no other. The love for quality was in his blood. James is informing us that this should be the goal of every Christian, for God is perfect, and we are to be partakers of the divine nature.
Facing life's trials with joy and patience is not just to prove we can do it, but that we might be perfect and complete, and lacking in nothing. Someone will immediately take issue with James and ask, "Who can be perfect?" We said James was a very practical writer, but how can he be practical and so soon jump off the deep end, and write of being perfect?
If there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on, it is the realistic truth that nobody is perfect. Jesus Christ is the only candidate for the office of perfection, and James, of all people, should know that, and not introduce such a concept in his letter. Is it possible that James was just expressing a sense of humor, for that is usually the only realm in which we deal with perfection. The poet writing from a doctor's perspective put it this way,
The perfect patient let us praise: He's never sick on Saturdays,
In waiting rooms he does not burn. But gladly sits and waits his turn.
And even, I have heard it said, Begs other, please go on ahead.
He takes advice, he does as told; He had a heart of solid gold.
He pays his bills, without a fail, In cash, or by the same day's mail.
He has but one small fault I'd list: He doesn't (what a shame!) exist.
This seems to be the major defect in all perfect people-they are conspicuous by their absence, and just do not exist. Spurgeon wrote, "He who boasts of being perfect is perfect in folly. I never saw a perfect man. Every rose has its thorn and everyday its night." Shakespeare summed it up, "No perfection is so absolute, that some impurity doth not pollute." But what are we to do with James? Are we to write off his words as humor, and say he must have been joking, or should we just skip over such things, and not ask so many questions? This is often the approach to things we do not understand, but it is folly and sin. If you do not understand what the Bible is saying, then you need to search until you do. Bible reading is not enough. We need to study the Bible until we do understand what God is saying. So we are going to study the biblical concept of perfection so that we know what God expects of us. First let's consider-
I. THE EXPECTATION OF PERFECTION.
James is not alone in expecting Christians to be perfect. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament have many text that make it clear that believers are expected to press on to perfection. This expectation is not hidden away in some obscure corner of the Bible where scholars have to dig to find it. It is written so often, and so clearly, that he who runs may read.
James did not set up the standard of perfection. He only echo's his Lord and brother, who in the Sermon on the Mount, made the most absolute statement on perfection to be found anywhere. In Matt. 5:48 Jesus said, "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Jesus expected His followers to be perfect. That may sound impossible; especially to be perfect like God, but the point is, that is what is expected. Why should Jesus expect less than the best? The Old Testament saints attained perfection, and so why not New Testament saints? Listen to these texts:
Gen. 6:9, "Noah was a righteous man and perfect in his generation."
Job 1:8, "A perfect and an upright man..."
I Kings 11:4, "The heart of David was perfect with the Lord his God."
I Kings 15:14, "Asa's heart was perfect with the Lord all his days."
If these men of God of old could be perfect in some sense in spite of their sins and blunders, how can we expect God to expect less from us who have his best in Jesus Christ? Anything less than perfection is not only sub-Christian, it is sub-Judaism. It is below the ideal of the entire Bible. There are many other references in the Old Testament, but we must move on to look at the exalted expectation of the New Testament. Eph. 4:11-13 says, "And he gave some Apostles, and some prophets; and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."
Paul believed it could be done, for he wrote even to the sinful saints of Corinth and said in II Cor. 13:11, "Be perfect." In 7:1 he urges them to be cleansed from sin and perfected in holiness. Some did attain it, for in I Cor. 2:6 he wrote, "We speak wisdom among them that are perfect." In Heb. 5 the Christians are being rebuked for being on milk when they should be eating the meat of the Word. They are forever on the bottle of the simple Gospel, and they never go on to the profound heights to which God is calling. After this rebuke he says in 6:1, "Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to perfection...." God does not want His children in elementary school forever, anymore than we want our children to remain on that level.
One of the most wide spread heresies among Christians is the idea that all God cares about is getting people saved. The Bible, however, makes it clear that God is not satisfied until His children are perfected, and made complete and mature in Christ. We cannot begin to quote all the evidence, for the entire New Testament was written for this purpose. The whole concept of Bible study is based on this assumption that by studying the Word of God we can become Christlike in character and conduct. God is concerned about quality. He wants justified sinners, but He wants them to become sanctified saints. Calvin Coolidge refused to run for a second term as president of the United States. He said it was because there was no room for advancement. This is never the case for the Christian, for there is always room for progress.
The expectation of perfection can be burdensome. It is like the new bank president being introduced to the employees. One of the tellers said, "I have worked here for 40 years, and in all that time I have only made one mistake." "Good," said the new president, "but hereafter be more careful." He expected perfection, and that is too much to expect. Sydney Harris wrote, "Nothing is perfect is what we say when we want to justify our current state of imperfection; the statement is made not because it is true (which it is) but because it offers us a plausible defense against improvements, and this is more dangerous and misleading than a lie." We do not want anyone to expect perfection from us, but we cannot escape the fact that that is what is expected of us in Scripture. Let us look next at-
II. THE EXPLANATION OF PERFECTION.
Now that we know that it is expected, we need to know what it is that is expected. How can we be expected to be what we know that no one but Christ has ever been? Who can be perfect? Christians who try and face up to the biblical expectation without an biblical explanation often make the Scripture a stumbling block, and a basis for a nervous breakdown. A Christian perfectionist who does not understand what the Bible means often become a neurotic, guilt-ridden, self-hating Christian. If they do manage to maintain some stability, they are a plague to others with their cursed perfectionism. They become the Felix Ungers of the religious world. They are tormented in trying to be as spotless as those in heaven.
There is much written on the dangers of perfectionism by both secular and Christian counselors, but our purpose is not to try and understand what biblical perfection isn't. Our task is to try and understand what it is. If we can grasp what it is, we do not have to worry about the follies of exaggeration. Elimination of the doctrine of perfection is one extreme, and exaggeration of it is the opposite extreme. You can only stay on the narrow path of truth by finding a proper explanation of what the Bible means by perfect.
The Greek word here is the usual Greek word for perfect. It is teleios, and it means to reach a goal; to accomplish a task and complete it, and to bring it to perfection. If your goal is to raise tomatoes which weigh a pound a piece, then when they reach one pound you have completed your goal, and it is teleios-perfect. You have created the perfect tomato. Perfection is a matter of development toward a goal until that goal is reached. If my goal is to run three miles, and I run those three miles, I have had a perfect run. It may not be perfect for the one whose goal is to run five miles, but it is for me because my goal was three.
Growing Christians are constantly reaching new goals, and so they are constantly being perfected. James is especially concerned here about a perfected faith. What is a perfected faith? Faith means trust, and so a perfect faith would be a trust which is continuous, and which cannot be shaken by circumstances. It is to be able to say with Job, "Though he slay me yet will I trust him." That is perfected faith. Paul wrote in I Thess. 3:10, "Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith." A perfect faith is essential, and that is why James says be glad when your faith is tested, for an untested faith can never be perfected, and who wants a weak faith that might let you down when life gets hard?
A faith that cannot survive trials is not worth having, and if a crisis makes you lose it, you will never be what God wants you to be. Testing is essential to perfection. Everything is tested these days. If the wings on a jet cannot stand the test, the plane is no good. If the brakes on your car cannot stand the test, the car is no good. Everything has to be tested to see if it can hold up and reach the goal for which it is made. If it cannot accomplish the purpose for its existence, it is of no value to create it.
A Christian can have a perfect faith; a faith that has reached its goal, and will trust in God no matter what. A faith that only lasts until the pressure gets to a certain point is like a bridge that goes half way across a river. It is incomplete and greatly lacking, but just as a bridge can go all the way and be a perfect bridge because it accomplishes its goal of getting across the total river, so are faith can be perfect, and get us all the way through life's trials with complete trust in Jesus Christ. That is perfection, and it can be done, and has been done by millions, and will be done by millions more. Who can be perfect? Every Christian can be, and is expected to be perfect.
A bridge that gets you over the river may be imperfect in many ways. It may need paint; it may need fixing, and it may have many rough spots, but if it complete its purpose of getting you over the river, it is in that aspect perfect. In the Christian life perfection is relative and will not be absolute until we are transformed to be like Christ Himself. That is why Paul in the same context says he is not perfect, and then says that he is perfect. Paul's paradox applies to all of us. In Phil. 3:12 he says, "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect..." He goes on to say that he presses on toward the mark of perfection, but then in verse 15 he says, "Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded." Paul is saying that the perfect Christian is one who clearly recognizes that he is not perfect, and must be ever pressing on. Part of perfection is being aware of your imperfections.
What this means practically is that we must be ever growing, but that we can be perfect in our present state of growth. Everyone of us can be right now living fully up to the light that God has given us. We can be completing all that He wills for us to do, and that is to be living a perfect Christian life. Everyone can see room for improvement, and all of us can see the defects in our lives, and so we all say that no one is perfect. However, if you are constantly growing, developing, and overcoming as you grow, you are at each stage of your growth in a state of perfection, for you are living at that point in complete obedience to God as you understand His will. That is what God expects of us, and the Bible says it is possible to live on that level. Only those who believe it is possible will keep pressing on toward perfection. If you live today in full obedience to what you understand of God's will, you are living today in perfection.
This explains how the Old Testament saints, who sinned, could also have a perfect heart toward God, and walk in perfection before Him. A perfect Christian today can still fail God tomorrow, and that is why he must be constantly growing and striving to perfect every area of his life. It is because perfection is relative that it can be real. To be perfect is to be all you can be for God. To live in frustration because you cannot be something or someone you are not, is to misunderstand what God wants. A perfect piano cannot be an organ or guitar. Each has its own purpose, and each is perfected when it fulfills its purpose. So it is with the individual children of God. To get depressed and disgusted with yourself, and feel guilty because you can't be something you are not, is to be on the path of imperfection. Being the best of what you are is what it means to be perfect.
Someone might remind us, however, that Jesus said we were to be as perfect as God. That is certainly impossible! No it isn't when you understand it. God's perfection consists in always doing what He knows to be good and wise. We can do just the same as His children. We are not equal with God, for the finite can never be infinite, but the thimble can be just as full as the swimming pool, and man can be just as obedient to what he knows as God can. It is likeness to God, and not equally with God, that is expected. If we act always in a way consistent with our redeemed nature, we are perfect in the midst of our many imperfections.
If we sin, and we immediately recognize this to be an offense against God, and we confess it and seek its forgiveness, this is a part of the perfect relationship to God. Absolute perfection is still ahead, but relative perfection is to be attained now. A little girl was asked by her teacher, "Where is the dot over that i?" The little girl said, "It is still in the pencil." The final perfection when every i will be dotted, and every t will be crossed is still in the pencil as God writes the history of our lives, but God continues to write, and everyday He writes can be a day in which we live in perfection. If I say that my goal today is to read three chapters of the Bible, treat everyone I know in love, and not choose to do anything I know displeasing to God, that is teleios-perfect. I have fulfilled the purpose of God in my life for this day.
I once had to fix our vacuum cleaner, and all I had was my rusty old pliers and bent wrench. I was able to get it apart and back together with these tools, and it worked. These tools were perfect for the job. That means they helped me achieve my goal. They had many defects, but they were still able to get me to my goal, and so they were perfect. God needs people in the world to get His will done on earth as it is in heaven. We may have many defects, but if we help God reach His goal, then we are perfect. This means that every one of us can be perfect tools to touch some life for His glory. God does not expect us to be frustrated by the call to perfection, but to be encouraged because it is possible for any of us, even with all our imperfections. God does not expect us to be now what we will eventually be, but He expects us to be what we can be now, and that is tools that get the job done.
John Wesley was a great believer in Christian perfection, and he wrote a whole book about it, and he has influenced millions. Many suggested that he should call it something else other than perfection, for that leads people to be confused. He responded, "As to the word, it is scriptural, therefore, neither you nor I can in conscience object against it, unless we would send the Holy Ghost to school and teach Him to speak who made the tongue." Perfection is a valid biblical word and the only problem with it is our lack of understanding what the Bible means by it. Hopefully we have made that clear so that it need not be a problem in our minds.
Perfect has to do with purpose. God's purpose in this fallen world is to redeem the lost, bring good out of evil, and guide His children to grow in Christ likeness. The primary tool for this task is love, as it is expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, and continually through His earthly body-the church. It is the perfect tool to get the job done. Who can be perfect? We can, for we can be channels of the tool of Christ's love every day, and help fulfill the purpose of God in the lives we touch every day.