The great commandment “in the law” is, in summary, “Love God and everyone else.” However, the great culmination of Christ’s penultimate sermon (The Sermon on the Mount) is a powerful commandment outside the law – a commandment that cannot be fulfilled simply by obedience to the law. This foundational command is contained in Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which art in Heaven is perfect.”
Ancient Judaism and much of historical Christianity has addressed this commandment in one of two ways:
1) by applying a legalistic meaning (“never make a mistake/commit a sin”) and, based on the impossibility of that definition alone, adding layers of insulation in laws and rules to regulate action;
2) turning it into a suggestion – something one cannot hope to achieve but a nice platitude regardless. (“Try not to make mistakes/sin, but realize it doesn’t really matter in the long run.”)
While this sounds fine – and even laudable – to most people, it totally destroys the power and beauty of the command itself. It is my conviction that someone simply cannot understand the atonement (and the full grace that makes “atonement” possible) if they accept and internalize this apostate definition of perfection.
The footnotes to Matthew 5:48 make a critical definition distinction – one that changes the entire meaning and empowers the command in an amazing way. Footnote (b), which is attached to the word “perfect”, defines it from the Greek thus: “complete, finished, fully developed.” This means that the verse can be read as follows:
“Be ye therefore complete, finished, fully developed, even as your Father which art in heaven is complete, finished, fully developed.” What an amazing difference!
This definition changes fundamentally how our quest for perfection should be understood and approached – and, at the most basic level, lies at the heart of nearly every aspect of the atonement (grace, repentance, faith, works/fruits and, perhaps most importantly for many – especially women – guilt, shame and spiritual/emotional freedom). It makes repentance (change) a process of taking the naturally incomplete, unfinished, partially developed “fallen” (wo)man and becoming complete, finished, fully developed – NOT an effort to never make mistakes.
If you take nothing from this post but one message, take the fact that you do NOT need to feel ashamed and guilty and overwhelmed by your “incomplete, unfinished, partially developed” state. It simply is the result of the Fall – the result of Adam’s transgression, if you will, for which we are told we will not be punished. The world teaches that such a state is irreconcilable with God – that it creates a great chasm too wide to allow us ever to access God in His glory and “be perfect, even as He is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 says otherwise – that it can be done – and the practical way to do so is provided, as well. That practical process will be the main focus of a series I am calling “Foundations of Becoming”.
What implications does this definition of perfection have – both for Mormons and other Christians (and those of other religions)?