One of the most theologically divisive passages in scripture is from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Interpretations of this passage run to every extreme, from claiming that moral perfection is something that Christians can live for an indefinite period (see John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) to claiming that Christians can’t be expected to do any good at all, and that this impossible standard is set up simply to drive us into desperation and, finally, into grace (see Martin Lloyd-Jones,Studies in the Sermon on the Mount).
It’s very interesting seeing the casuistic gymnastics theologians will go through in order to fit this statement into their framework, but it’s particularly amusing when the meaning of the passage is so clear. The most important word is not actually ‘perfect,’ it is ‘therefore.’ In interpreting the Bible (any literature, really) words like ‘therefore’ are incredibly significant, because they show the authors train of thought.
So what do we see right before this passage?
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (src
It’s so clear.
The perfect that Jesus demands of us is the perfection of God’s love. To be perfect, total, undiscriminating in our love, as God is. This isn’t moral perfectionism, and this isn’t something we have to build toward over years of gradual sanctification. There is no reason to think we couldn’t begin doing it today. We only have to realize that it is the way of Jesus, to make no difference between friend and enemy, neighbor or foreigner, reliable or untrustworthy, victim or persecutor.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. It’s easy. You just do it.
There are some debates that come up in a constant, self-feeding cycle, and I can’t stand them. See: gun control, Calvinism-Arminianism, Sean Connery or Roger Moore.
But there are debates that by their nature Christians should be constantly revisiting. They aren’t just examples of intractable gridlock, but signs that we are doing the business of taking scripture and its meaning for our lives seriously.
Theodicy – if God is good why is there evil and suffering – is one of these. If we’re paying attention to the world as we should, we will wrestle with this until the end. James Muilenberg wrote, “Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.”
Another, I believe, is the issue of women in ministry. I have written before why I believe the New Testament calls women to all roles within the church and equips women to both pastor to and teach all members of the church. But I understand – of course I do – that this is not immediately obvious, and that a straightforward reading of many passages seems to obviously go against this belief.
Yet those who would hold to such a “straightforward” reading will be struck by a different dilemma. For many of us have met women who are certainly Christians manifesting all the fruit of the Spirit, and who are absolutely certain that God has called them to ministry, and who seem to manifest the gifts of such a calling. Now, such experiences don’t dictate what Christians believe over scripture, but they should and must drive us back to scripture to improve our understanding.
Hence these debates are – and ought to be – ongoing.
What do you think? What other discussions in the Christian community are we committed to perpetuate? Which discussions should be closed books?
This is a difficult book to review, and the brevity and paucity of my comments ought to be significant in themselves. The Reformation by Patrick Collinson is an informative and enjoyable read. It is like sitting next to a brilliant professor talking about his subject at a dinner party: you may not get the full context but you’ll get a lot of great anecdotes, a highlight reel of the course, but nothing that would be useful on an exam.
Collinson is clearly an academic, clearly a scholar and clearly at home in the material. But the resultant book isn’t academic or scholarly, and doesn’t leave the reader with the impression of having been at home in the era. It is a glance, nothing more, at the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It is enough to say, “That must have been a very interesting time. Someone could write a very interesting book about that.”