Monthly Archives: September 2012

Christian Perfection vs. Perfectionism

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, ESV).

This is one Bible verse that has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years. It is not a problem with Scripture itself; God and His Word are perfect. Instead, it was my problem. Having a compulsive sort of personality, I am prone to perfectionism. Unfortunately, I am not perfect. So, I would read this passage, and then emotionally beat myself up when I did not live up to it. This would only drag me further from the sort of perfection to which Jesus called His disciples. All those books by nineteenth-century evangelist/theologian Charles G. Finney did not help matters.

It is important to understand what Jesus meant. The perfection ideal He presented is not the sort of 100% flawlessness a perfectionist like me is prone to pursue. Even the holiest people I know stumble sometimes. We all make poor decisions at times, driven by stress, imperfect wisdom, or habit. So, what is perfection? Perhaps, we can look at a few related Bible passages and the context of this verse.

This verse concludes a teaching in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about “love for enemies” (Matthew 5:41-48):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

In this passage, Jesus calls us to a kind of love that is not natural. Human nature compels us to hate our enemies, to insult and gossip about those who persecute us, and to seek revenge (or at least the upper hand). Christian perfection is a perfection of love, going beyond the imperfect love of sin-stained humanity to imitate the sacrificial love of Christ.

In a related sermon (which some Bible scholars call, “The Sermon on the Plain”), Jesus concluded a similar section by saying, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” This brings the point even further: “mercy” is not just a good feeling. “Mercy” involves action: Choosing to forgive  a sinner; reaching out to help someone in need.

When Jesus tells us to “be perfect,” He is not demanding that we never fail. He is not planning to withdraw His forgiveness when we sin. He is, on one hand, giving us a high calling. We will not become flawless in this life, but that kind of perfection is our ideal; as long as we have shortcomings, we have new heights to reach and our spiritual journey is not complete. However, even when we fall into sin, we should not hide behind a facade of false holiness; we should confess our sins, accept His forgiveness, and seek His cleansing (1 John 1:8-10).

On the more practical level, Jesus is calling us to love our enemies, to offer His mercy to a world that deserves judgment. He is calling us to be Christians in every area of our lives (particularly, those areas where it is hardest).

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Set Free

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31-32, ESV).

Jesus never promised the sort of freedom that modern Americans demand. We demand the right to do whatever we want. We demand the right to have sex without commitment, to place personal convenience over obligation or the needs of others. But, this is not the freedom Jesus offered; in fact, Jesus would have considered it a form of slavery.

Jesus did not promise freedom from political oppression. His original disciples worshiped Him and evangelized within the Roman Empire. Today, millions of Christians serve Him in countries where their faith is illegal.

The freedom Jesus offered was freedom from sin. In John 8:34-36, He said, ““Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Unfortunately, many people (even Christians) do not receive this freedom. Jesus was speaking to “Jews who had believed him” (verse 31). They were on the  brink of following Him, but they missed out because they could not accept the need for freedom. Their response to Jesus’ offer of freedom was, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (John 8:33).

Had they read their Bibles? Did they not realize that the “offspring of Abraham” had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years; that they had spent 70 years in exile in Babylon; that periods of slavery and oppression dominated much of their history? Did they not even realize that they were now under the dominion of a foreign empire? It was not unusual for Jews to consider themselves slaves to the Roman Empire.

Jesus’ hearers suffered from the malady of denial. When confronted with the fact that we are in spiritual bondage, we lie to ourselves, God, and other people. “We are not really sinning; we love each other and nobody is getting hurt.” “I can stop doing this any time I want.” “It’s not my fault; my spouse/children/boss/others drive me to drink. They need to change, not me.”

Jesus’ listeners rejected His offer of forgiveness. They assumed it was not for them. They convinced themselves that they had no need to be set free. When pressed on the matter, they decided Jesus had a problem, but they were OK. Unfortunately, many of us repeat that pattern.

To experience true freedom, we need to first admit that we are in bondage. We have to acknowledge that sin has gained control over our lives. Once we admit that we are bound by the chains of sin, we will be ready for release. When confronted by our sins, we do not need to make excuses; we need only make confession and ask Jesus to forgive and cleanse us.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

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Light of the World

Light of the World

Light of the World (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12, ESV).

The Gospel according to John highlights seven “I am” statements by Jesus, where He made bold declarations about His divine identity. He spoke several of these, including the one cited above, when debating His opponents (usually leaders of the religious establishment).

There are several interesting things about this statement. First, it is interesting that light was the first thing God created. In Genesis 1:3, God initiated His creation process by saying, “Let there be light.” Light is so important that God created it before anything else. Life on earth is impossible without light.

Light is important for guidance and direction. Psalms 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” I really do not think people from urban or suburban communities, like myself, can truly appreciate how much we need light just to find our way around. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I can easily find my way around the apartment, even while all the lights are off. There is always minimal light creeping in (perhaps through the street lights outside, or from my alarm clock), so I can see at least an outline of my surroundings.

However, when I have gone camping in “the middle of nowhere,” the darkness was completely thick. If I tried to walk anywhere without a flashlight, I would very quickly see absolutely nothing: Not even a dim outline. The flashlight became essential to find my way.

God’s Word is a lamp to guide our feet along the paths of life. It shows us the obstacles that seek to make us stumble, and the distractions that try to lure us off of God’s path.

Jesus especially is our Light. “[I]n these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:2-3). If we want to know what God is like, we need to look at Jesus. He is God Incarnate, God in human flesh. We do not need to imagine God as an abstract concept or an amorphous “higher power.” We can look to Jesus, as revealed in Scripture, and by coming to know Him we can know what God is like and how He wants us to live.

This is not just an academic lesson for us. God calls us to imitate Christ, to live like Him. Christians, as “the body of Christ” should “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27), much as we put on our clothes. When they see us, they should see a reflection of Christ: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

May each of our lives radiate the love of Jesus to those around us, and may we always find our direction by looking to Him.

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Repentance: More than a Feeling

 

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Hebrews 12:14-17, ESV).

Probably most Christians have this problem: We think we have gained victory in an area of our lives and, before we know it, we fall right back into the old sin. Maybe we have avoided it for a few days, weeks, or months. Sometimes, we overcame it for a few hours, only to falter after the fourth or fifth temptation.
We thought our deliverance was complete. Could God have failed us? Never: God is perfect, and He is more eager to see our lives transformed than we are. Scripture continually reminds us that God’s will is for our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:2; Philippians 1:6). He does not enjoy our sin; He wants us free from its chains; and He is willing to do His part by giving us His Holy Spirit. God did not fail us.
So, let us admit that, when we sin, we are the ones who failed. Often, though, we were so sincere about making a fresh start and beginning anew. Why do we fail?
One biblical term that comes to mind is repentance. The path to freedom from sin begins at confession (admitting that we have sinned) and journeys through repentance.
Many of us have a false notion of repentance. We think we have “repented” because we feel guilty or ashamed about our sins. Perhaps we feel bad because we were caught in the act. We have had a genuine, strong feeling, but feelings are fleeting. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Repentance runs deeper than sorrow. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia,” which most accurately translates as “a change of mind.” It’s not just being sorry about sin, or regretting the consequences. In involves changing your entire perspective on sin. Many of us stop committing certain sins from a mindset that says: “I’m a Christian and Christians don’t do that; but those were the good old days when I used to get away with it!” While we may try to stop acting like we did in the past, we regret that we can no longer enjoy those antics. It seems like God is just trying to spoil our fun.
Repentance says, “God is right about this: It never was good for me, no matter how much I thought I enjoyed it.” Repentance realizes that God always has your best interests in mind, and that there is a real reward in following His ways.

 

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