Holiness is impossible and required

In Matthew 5.48, Jesus said, “You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Perfection. That’s a tall order. Thanks, Jesus, for setting the bar so impossibly high.

Typical responses to this command are either to:

1. re-explain what Jesus “really meant,” where we make Jesus say whatever we choose, instead of what he said. (This may involve elaborate use of Greek.)

2. come up with some crazy theology where “perfect” means another stage after salvation, some blessing we receive, where we no longer sin, and even the things we do that look like sin are not really.

3. strive really hard to actually be perfect. While 1 and 2 are only playing mental gymnastics, this approach requires real work. And perhaps a good dash of legalism and often a pinch (or more) of condescension.

The first step in moving beyond these tired approaches is to realize the paradox contained in Jesus’ command. He really is demanding perfection, sinlessness, holiness, however you want to call it. Jesus was both smart enough and articulate enough to have said what he meant and meant what he said. At the same time, we cannot possibly keep this command. All our striving cannot attain perfection. This is not something Jesus was unaware of; being himself fully human (as well as fully God) he knew very well how imperfect we are.

And yet he issues this command. He orders us to do what he knows we cannot do. Is he just being mean or taunting us?

I don’t think so. I think Jesus is emphasizing that we must rely on the Spirit, the only One with the power to perfect us. 

All of our personal striving for perfection (and the mental games we play) are us fighting against the Spirit. Instead, we can submit, obey, and cooperate. If we can hear that command for what it is – an impossible order – and trust that when he calls us to do the impossible, Jesus must be planning to provide the means. The good news is, he already has, ever since the Day of Pentecost.

Holiness is both impossible and required and those together are a large part of the point.

faith beyond mental assent

Someone messaged me the other day that we have to believe that Jesus died and rose again in order to be saved (I think they were worried about my salvation.) I completely agree with that. Mentally. I nodded as I read it. When a speaker in church talks about the death and resurrection of Jesus, I nod and say “amen.” I believe it. Mentally. But to what extent do I believe it beyond mentally? I can sit here at my desk and tell you that I believe a parachute will bring you safely to the ground. But that’s not the same as strapping one on and┬ájumping out of a plane is it?

I think it’s closer to the truth for me to say what a dad said when Jesus’ disciples were unable to heal his boy. He said it better and more succinctly than I ever could: “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” There is a faith and also a brutal self-honesty there that I want to have in my life. I think this is an ongoing struggle (I mean that in a good way) for all who claim Jesus as savior. Becoming his disciple means learning to lead a cruciform life. That is to say, we actually believe in his death and resurrection to the extent that we are able and willing to take up our own crosses and set our faces towards our Jerusalems just as Jesus did. We need to believe in resurrection the way Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. This doesn’t happen overnight, and the Lord is wonderfully patient with us, but the process can only truly begin, when we say with the father of that kid, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”