Be Perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48

The following is a quote from a John Stott Bible Study I receive through email. This is an excerpt from today's reading in Matthew 5; specifically addressing verse 5:48.

Some holiness teachers have built upon this verse great dreams of the possibility of reaching in this life a state of sinless perfection. But the words of Jesus cannot be pressed into meaning this without causing discord in the Sermon. For he has already indicated in the beatitudes that a hunger and thirst after righteousness is a perpetual characteristic of his disciples, (Matt.5:6), and in the next chapter he will teach us to pray constantly, ‘Forgive us our debts.’(6:12) Both the hunger for righteousness and the prayer for forgiveness, being continuous, are clear indications that Jesus did not expect his followers to become morally perfect in this life. The context shows that the ‘perfection’ he means relates to love, that perfect love of God which is shown even to those who do not return it. Indeed, scholars tell us that the Aramaic word which Jesus may well have used meant ‘all-embracing’. The parallel verse in Luke’s account of the Sermon confirms this: ‘Be merciful even as your Father is merciful.’ (Lk.6:63), We are called to be perfect in love, that is, to love even our enemies with the merciful, the inclusive love of God.

Christ’s call to us is new not only because it is a command to be ‘perfect’ rather than ‘holy’, but also because of his description of the God we are to imitate. In the Old Testament it was always ‘I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.’ But now in the New Testament days it is not the unique Redeemer of Israel whom we are to follow and obey; it is our *Father who is in heaven* (45), our *heavenly Father*(48). And our obedience will come from our hearts as the manifestation of our new nature. For we are the sons of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, and we can demonstrate whose sons we are only when we exhibit the family likeness, only when we become peacemakers as he is (9), only when we love with an all-embracing love like his (45,48).

I have really been thinking about writing on this blog lately. But where to begin? I have been contemplating beginning with my testimony. But my testimony is a book, not a day's blog entry. Then today's Bible Study arrived and I knew where I would begin, as this frames an appropriate beginning to my personal testimony.

I grew up in a church that taught the doctrine of perfection. From a small child, I understood that I did not have eternal life based on the cross of Christ. I would have eternal life only through attaining the same standard of sinless perfection that Jesus Christ lived as my example. The cross represented my entry point, forgiveness of past sins and the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit (as a subsequent experience to salvation); my beginning to strive for this perfected status. If I died short of reaching this perfection, I would have a resurrection at the end of the thousand years. The bride would already be ruling and reigning with Jesus (those who reached perfection before their natural deaths were the only ones who did not have to sleep for a thousand years and whose souls left their bodies to enter heaven and wait there for the return of Christ).

If I reached perfection, after my resurrection, I would live eternally on the new earth. If not, I would die again and remain in the grave forever. We were taught there was no literal hell or devil. Satan was our carnal mind. (Although we did believe that there were evil spirits under God's control.)

As a result of this teaching, I can remember several things at a very young age. I never believed I'd be in heaven with God because I never believed I could be perfect. I also never feared hell for myself or anyone else, because I didn't believe it existed. And I was never concerned with spiritual warfare or any kind of demonic activity in the earth, because it wasn't real to me. I viewed scriptural passages that spoke of such things as symbolic. I believed that everything supernatural was from God and the Holy Spirit. I'm not saying that everyone else under this teaching came to these same conclusions. These were the conclusions I drew from what was taught. I remember, around the sixth grade, asking God why I had to be born in the "true church" and know these "truths." I so envied other Christians who at least had the joy of believing they would go to heaven when they died (even if they were deceived). I know it was about sixth grade or younger because I remember where I lived and where I was when I first had these thoughts and felt this hopelessness. I also remember wondering so many times -- what was the good news about finding out you had to be perfect to be accepted in heaven?

We were expressly taught that if a person was newly saved and had put their faith in Christ, but then walked out of the church and were hit by a bus, they did not go to heaven. They would sleep for a thousand years, resurrect to find the true church in operation and then have the same opportunity to know this "truth" and reach perfection, only then obtaining eternal life on the new earth. There were questions I never thought to ask, such as what was meant then by Hebrews 9:27 ("Just as man is destined to die once, and after that face judgment,").

It is this platform from which I went on to receive the gospel and experience salvation through faith in Christ alone, after viewing myself as a Christian my entire life. I had to unload so much spiritual baggage to believe the simplicity of the gospel and what Christ has already accomplished for me. I spent 43 years being taught a different gospel. But make no mistake about it, my gratitude for the cross of Christ is as great or greater than the person who heard about Jesus after a life in the gutter. The cross means more to me now than it ever did at any time in my life. I can't even begin to put into words what a song like "In Christ Alone" means to me now, after my previous concept of what it meant to be in Christ.

Ironically, I once collaborated on a song of praise with a friend. I include her name (Debbie Bresee) to give her the proper copyright acknowledgment. The second verse of this song says:

Knowing all that he would suffer,
All the shame that he would face,
Willingly he came and took my place.
Oh, how much he must have loved me
To leave heaven and die in such disgrace.
Then raised from the grave,
this promise he gave,
Everlasting life!

I knew Jesus loved me. I knew he died for me. I remember weeping as I sang this song, thinking about the agony Jesus suffered to give me a chance at eternal life. But even as I worshipped him and sang these words, I did not understand that I was supposed to KNOW and BELIEVE I already had eternal life through faith in Christ alone. I believed the promise of eternal life was only to those who fully overcame all sin in this life just as he did. Putting my faith in Christ was my initial salvation, not my complete salvation. But even though I never imagined myself as one who would accomplish this goal, I wanted to serve him in gratitude for his loving me. I knew that I deserved nothing good in this life and that any blessing I did receive was from him. And no matter what the requirement was for me, the penalty he had paid on the cross was still gruesome and agonizing for him. I didn't comprehend that a God of justice could not punish His Son for my sin and then also punish me after I was covered by the blood of Jesus. Does this mean that I think it doesn't matter how I live? Oh, no. Never have I had a deeper longing to live a life that glorifes my Savior as since I have understood it isn't about me and my performance. It is about my Lord.

I need to find a place to conclude this entry because it's already so lengthy. Now that I've started, I'm sure I will continue my testimony in subsequent entries. Every aspect of my life in Christ today has a correlation to my past because it demonstrates God's amazing deliverance. I want to say, in conclusion, how grateful I am for the deliverance God has brought to my life. I am so unworthy of His goodness and mercy and faithfulness. He has been faithful not because of my faithfulness, but because He is faithful.