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Divine and human perfection

by Jacob Ninan

"Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt.5:48). This is scary unless we understand it in the right way. God is so totally and completely perfect in everything that He is and does! If we happen to have a temperament that tends to be perfectionistic, this verse is guaranteed to give us a permanent sense of guilt and a recognition that we always fail! Others with a more casual outlook towards life cannot also escape the clarity of this commandment from Jesus even if they tend to just brush this aside as being idealistic.

But, as in the case of many other subjects in the Bible, it is other parts of Scripture that help to make things clearer. Due to the limitation of putting spiritual things into human words, we find that many verses in the Bible need to be clarified or balanced by other verses. "Let us press on to maturity" (Heb.6:1 NASB). The KJV uses the word 'perfection' instead of 'maturity'. Actually, the Greek word used is the same in the verses above from Matthew and Hebrews. So, we are to press on towards perfection of the same type as God's. At the same time, we find that one man who pressed on with all his might never reached the end of his pursuit (Php.3:12)! If we look at Paul as an example of a man who sincerely and wholeheartedly sought after God, we have to concede that even though we are to pursue after perfection, yet we are not going to be able to actually become perfect as God. We move towards that goal, and seek to reach as closely as possible to it, but we ought to keep in mind that while we are on earth we will still be imperfect. This also agrees with the practical experience of godly people through time. We can only say that a few who actually claim that they have become perfect or have stopped sinning are only deluding themselves, usually by redefining their standards of perfection without realising it is not the same as the perfection of God.

If we understand and agree with the above, we can go on to try to understand the practical limits of our perfection. The last part of Romans 7 is the secret, which many people wrongly put aside as an unbeliever's experience and claim that they are living 'free' under Romans 8. Such people are living in a doctrinal bubble that is not ratified by practical life. No. We should be able to recognise how all of us are always coming short of God's perfection, in deed, word, thought, intention or motive whatever we do. There is nothing perfect in us if we look at the human part of our life (Ro.7:18), even though God has started a work in us by putting His Holy Spirit in us who is perfect in every way! Now we have the opportunity to be led by this Spirit even though we are tempted by the desires in our flesh. To be led by the Spirit is not automatic for believers just because He is in us. We need to 'put off' the old self and walk according to the new self He has created in us (Eph.4:22-24).

The presence of the baggage from our old life and the corruption of our flesh with its sinful desires will ensure that whatever we do will be a tainted by sin. Even when we keep our heart and mind to intend the very best for God, if we look at ourselves and see the result we can see that what comes out of our life will be imperfect in some way or another. This is not to discourage us or to make us feel guilty, because God recognises that this is the way things are going to be until He gives us a glorified body. Paul realised this and therefore wrote Romans 7. Look at what he says, "On the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin" (Rom.7:25). And, he thanked God for accepting him as this and putting no condemnation on him because of this. Read it like this, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom.7:25-8:1).

This means that Paul was able to serve God properly only with his mind, and at the same time, his actions (deeds, thoughts, motives, intentions) and his feelings that came out his body were always coloured in a lesser or greater degree with the presence of sin. For example, let us imagine that we do something particular to serve God, seeking only His glory. But we see that we are at the same time self-conscious and aware of what people think about us. We will also come to the place where we cry out, "O wretched man that I am!" But when we realise that God does not condemn us because even with this limitation we are still 'in Christ' (Ro.8:1) it comforts and encourages us to press on. That doesn't mean we just accept the way things are, but we press on towards perfection!

So, what does pressing on to perfection mean? To serve God with our mind "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt.22:37) and to seek to give no place to our flesh. We need to keep the flesh on the cross (Gal.5:24), and every time we are tempted to follow the desires of the flesh make sure that we put down that desire by the power of the Holy Spirit and give no opportunity for our body to act according to the flesh (Rom.8:13). And when we discover that we have ignorantly or knowingly (because of our weakness) yielded in some way to the flesh, we can confess that and receive forgiveness (1Jn.1:9). The more we become aware of the weaknesses of our flesh, we can press on for more help from the Holy Spirit to overcome such temptations in the future. In this way we can keep ourselves pressing on the direction of perfection.

Let's not allow the recognition of our imperfection keep us back from pressing onwards, and let us make ourselves believe with false doctrine that we are already perfect.

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