“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Perfection. It is something we all wish to obtain yet understand we will never get there. Sure, you can throw in a few people in there that truly think they’re perfect; however, the vast majority of humans know this lamentable truth: we are not perfect.
In Matthew‘s gospel, Jesus is preaching his famous Sermon on the Mount. Near the end of chapter 5, where he declares that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, he ends the chapter with a theological atomic bomb:
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
What does Jesus mean here? Is He speaking figuratively or, what scares us all, is He speaking literally? That is the question I seek to answer in this post.
But before I do, I want to bring to light two unbiblical responses to that question. The two ways in which people answer incorrectly are legalism and moralism.
Legalism is an ugly, ugly thing. Jesus was vociferous in communicating His disdain for the Pharisees, those who were the face of legalism in His day. Jesus didn’t mince words when speaking about or to the Pharisees. In Scripture, we see Jesus calling them hypocrites, children of hell, blind guides, fools, white-washed tombs, etc. (Matthew 23:15-17, 27).
Hence to say Jesus doesn’t speak fondly of people who resort to legalism. But what is legalism? It is the attempt to earn God’s favor by performing good deeds. Legalists believe they can keep God’s law. Most of the time, they add in other rules that are foreign to Scripture.
But what’s the big problem with legalism? There are at least two.
Legalists forget that grace is unearned. Grace, by definition, is unmerited favor. You can’t earn it; you can’t buy it (no indulgences, Rome!); you certainly can’t cheapen it. Legalists throw grace away and rely solely on their own supposed “righteousness.” But, as Isaiah says, our “righteousness are as filthy rags” (64:6, KJV). It ain’t good enough, dude!
Legalists devalue God’s law by thinking they can keep it. The unbiblical mindset that thinks one can actually keep the law of the perfect, holy God is dreadfully mistaken. Like the Pharisees, it equates God’s law with merely external acts, not realizing that every unspoken thought and every evil intention of the heart will be judged. It goes deeper, folks.
The second unbiblical response is moralism. This is when a person lowers God’s law to earthly, human standards and tells themselves they are keeping His law by comparing themselves to others. It makes them feel better; they don’t want to feel bad. Moralism is rampant within the Bible Belt. Have you ever heard of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Read about it here. It’s awful.
Our comparison is God, and there is no other. If we do not meet His righteous standard, we will not be saved.
Moralistic people are usually the ones who says, “Well, nobody’s perfect,” when asked about their noticeable sins. Are they correct? Yes, nobody is perfect. But that is not an excuse to act as if your sin isn’t a big deal in the eyes of God. There may be a soul out there who means this genuinely, but most of the time, it’s a cop-out to being questioned about their sin.
A Foreign Perfection
This leads us to the positive part of the post. If those two responses are unbiblical–and there are more as well–then what is the biblical response? Let me take you to 2 Corinthians 5:21, which declares:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This verse gives us the biblical response. The question remains, How are we to be perfect then? What hope do we have? Your hope for salvation–for perfection–is in this verse, my friends! The Father laid upon Christ His full, unadulterated righteous wrath. Christ bore it. He satisfied it!
Why did Christ bear the Father’s wrath? Why did He take on the full cup of it? Because God imputed our sin to Jesus! Jesus absorbed God’s wrath because He was bearing all our sin. This is the breathtaking reality that is double imputation.
When a sinner repents and believes, God credits the righteous life of Christ to him/her and also puts all of his/her sin–past, present, future–on Christ! So when God looks at you, a redeemed sinner, He sees perfection. Not inherent perfection, but Christ’s imputed perfection! It’s all of grace. It’s a foreign perfection.
What then, is the proper response to this reality? Our sins have been forgiven; we have–we are!–the righteousness of Christ. What shall we do? Should we go about our lives living like we did before, giving ourselves false assurance because we have His righteousness? No! If that’s your attitude, you can be assured you don’t have His righteousness and you didn’t truly repent and believe.
The sinner will strive to be obedient. He will love the things he once hated–God—and hate the things he once loved–sin. A person will not want to “live in sin” anymore. A redeemed sinner’s life should be marked by joy-filled obedience to God because of salvation, not for it.
This, my friends, is the gospel. It’s all of grace; it’s all of God; in the words of Jonathon Edwards, and I paraphrase, the only thing you bring to the table is your sin. So rejoice! Your sins have been forgiven. You have the righteousness of Christ! Take heart. Stop working for salvation and start working because of it.
Soli Deo Gloria