I personally believe that when Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” that He actually meant it both now in this present life and in our whole inner being not just partially. For example, when a person is born again I really believe they go from being a sinner to a saint (note in the epistles how Paul continually called Christians, “saints/holy ones,” ex. Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, etc.). I even believe that when a person becomes a new creation that they are actually a new creation without blemish or sinful stains from their old self.
Respectively, I have heard two major ways that people try to diminish the power of Jesus’ clear statement in Matthew 5:48 regarding the disciple’s perfection. First, some try to make perfection something you never actually have until the resurrection so they read Jesus’ words as, “Be in the pursuit of being perfect because your heavenly Father is perfect.” Second, there are some who want to interpret the meaning of perfect (teleios) to really mean, “mature/complete.” So they read it as, “Be mature/complete, just as your heavenly Father is mature/complete.” However, I believe that both of these interpretations fail to truly express the full meaning of Jesus’ words.
BE HOLY & PERFECT
First, to make perfection the object of a “pursuit” is not in the text itself. Jesus commanded the disciple to be perfect now just as He commanded them to pray now, give to the poor now, not worry now, etc. Also, Peter quoting from the Old Testament in 1 Peter 1:16 stated, “for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” I don’t have space here to show that both perfection and holiness are related but I would like to simply point out that neither Peter nor Jesus presented their expectation of the believer’s perfection/holiness to be something they pursue and never obtain in this life. They both presented them as something the believer is commanded to literally “be” now in the present, hence the term, “be,” and not the word “become.” The word “be” speaks of the present time whereas the word “become” refers to a future state of being.
Second, to lessen the power of the word perfection by translating it to be something like “mature/goal/complete” is not the most accurate or consistent translation of “teleios.” For example, the ESV translates “teleios” to mean “mature” in Philippians 3:15, “All of us, then, who are mature [teleios] should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” However, in Philippians 3:12 they translate the same word to be “perfect.” Note, “12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect [teleioo], but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Therefore, they are not consistent. The NIV translates the word “goal” in verse 12 and “mature” in verse 15 so just like the ESV they are inaccurate and inconsistent in the use of “teleios.” Therefore, I believe the NET is far more accurate and consistent in translating it as “perfect” in both places. Why? Because perfection is the only one term that would work best in both verses according to the context.
Now, consider what Paul wrote concerning “perfection” in context with the NET translation, “12 Not that I have already attained this- that is, I have not already been perfected– but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me… 15 Therefore let those of us who are perfect embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways. 16 Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained.”
Therefore, if we don’t see a perfection of salvation (in verse 15) as different from a perfection of the body (in verse 12) we cause Paul to contradict himself. So in what sense is Paul not perfected and already perfect? He is not perfected in the body because he is still waiting for the resurrection according to verse 12. However, he, along with all believers, has obtained perfection from God in his inner man according to verse 15.
MADE PERFECT FOREVER & BEING MADE HOLY
Even the writer of Hebrews made this distinction of inner perfection being completed by Christ at the cross. Consider, Hebrews 10:14, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Notice how it was by the “sacrifice” (the cross) Jesus made perfect (past tense in regards to the inner man) those who are being made holy (present/future tense in regards to their lives in the body). So according to the author of Hebrews when were believers perfected? At the new birth because of Jesus and the cross. How are believers currently being made holy? By living up to what they obtained in their inner man in their bodies. Also, for further evidence note at the beginning of Hebrews 10:1 the author writes, “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Notice again that by Jesus’ sacrifice sinners “have been made holy” (past tense and completed at salvation) and this holiness is “once for all.” Therefore, the kind of holiness that is mentioned in verse 14 that is continual in the believer’s life (“being made holy”) must represent something other than the completed holiness that is “once for all” found in verse 14.
As a result, there is a once for all inner holiness/perfection given from the cross at the new birth and an on going holiness/perfection of the body for sin in the believer’s life until the resurrection. That is why Paul said, “not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect” (referring to the perfection of the body at the resurrection) and just a few verses later stated, “let those who are perfect embrace this point of view…. let us live up to the standard that we have attained,” (referring to the inner perfection that was given at the cross).
In conclusion, how do I pursue holiness? By not pursing it but believing I already received it when I was born again. For when I came to Christ I was, “washed, sanctified, justified,” and made presently “the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 6:11 & 2 Corinthians 5:21). Also, in regards to last section in Hebrews 10:14 the NET translates it in the past tense… “For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy.” Thus, whether the last part indicates an on going work of holiness or one that it’s completed, the fact remains that the “inner perfection” is complete and holiness only needs to be restored if the believer sins.
But how do I explain my present temptation and sin? Like Paul said in Philippians 3:16 I don’t always live up to what to what I have obtained and I sometimes give into the cravings of my body instead of counting it as already crucified with Christ. So is there an ongoing work of holiness and sanctification in my life? Yes, just as Hebrews stated, however, it is not for inner perfection because that was already given at salvation. Rather it is for cleansing when I have sinned and defiled that which God has perfected in me.
Take for example the priests and items that served in the temple. They were made perfect and holy for service when they were anointed with oil, Exodus 40:9-15. However, when they became defiled, they would not be anointed with the oil again (inner perfection), but instead they were cleansed with the blood again (on going sanctification), Leviticus 4:3.
Lastly, take for example dirty water being cleansed and placed in a new water bottle- this is sanctification happening at salvation. The soul (water) is cleansed as the spirit is made new (water bottle). However, now imagine if dirt and impurities come into the water, it simply needs to be cleansed again to return to its prior state of purity- the is the continuing work of sanctification. The bottle does not need to be changed (“saved again”). Rather, the soul (water) needs to be purified.
Remember, the continuing work of sanctification is not “progressing” the believer towards perfection, for that was done at salvation, it is simply “returning” and “renewing” the believer to that default state of purity, holiness, and being blameless.
Therefore, I want to encourage you to live holy in the following four ways:
- Believe that you have been made perfect, holy, and the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus when you were born again and made a new creation by the Holy Spirit.
- When you don’t live up to what you have obtained repent and be cleansed by the blood of Jesus.
- Remain accountable to holy disciples in your life so you can be encouraged to live up to all that you have been given by God.
- By God’s grace love and embrace His encouragement, correction, rebuke, and training in righteousness from the daily reading of the Word, prayer, and Christian fellowship.
Simply stated, “I was made perfect and holy once in my soul & spirit by the power of cross when I was born again. And I am continually being made holy in my body when I repent of sin while I wait for the resurrection when Jesus makes my sinful body perfect.”