For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
– Matthew 5:46-48 (NAS)
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;
– 1 John 1:8-2:1 (NAS)
The clear struggle for most of us is this concept of perfectionism vs. maturity. The two passages above illustrate the confusion that we face in reading the Scriptures. On the one hand we are called by God to be perfect (lit. complete or mature; something that has reached its end) and on the other we are reminded that if we say we have no sin that we are deceiving ourselves and we make God a liar. So the question is how should I think about this in my own life?
If you look at the larger context of Matthew you see that Jesus is confronting misguided philosophy among the Jews of His time. Notice in Matthew 5:43 it says this: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:43-44 NAS). So clearly Jesus is dealing with a partial truth which has been added to and twisted to say something that is not correct. A modern translation would say, ”love your friends, hate those who antagonize you”.
If we do what Jesus tells these people: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – the issue has nothing to do with being sinless or perfect in the sense that there is no ill-will between me and another person. What Jesus reminds these people is that when you choose to love others in a way that best reflects and imitates the character of God, our Father, then we should be loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute you. When we do these two particular things (at least from this passage) then we are truly behaving as true sons of God (v. 45) and are behaving “just like Him” (or in a way that most perfectly reflects how God has acted towards us). We act perfect, mature or complete.
However, 1 John 1:8-10 reminds us that while we may not be sinless that we should be gaining ground on turning away from sin even though we are not perfect (or in this case sinless). John actually says as much in chapter 2 – “I am writing these things to you that you may not sin”. A person who claims to know God and walks in the light of His presence (has fellowship with Him (v. 3-6) may still sin on occasion (2:1). But a true believe is not to keep on indulging sinful activity. Certainly it can be a struggle to detach ourselves from old habits and behaviors but the warning is clear. The one who keeps on intentionally pursuing sinful activity and indulging it has either not truly trusted Christ or something is seriously broken in that relationship. That person has not truly embraced the reality of God’s grace to help the change the direction of their life to match God’s grace and righteousness.
The danger is that we live in a “fake-perfectionistic” world where all we tend to see is what people want us to see. We often do not see the reality behind it. Body image, performance and success, the perfect family; financial wealth all become pictures that mess up our image of being a Christian. We use outward measurements from the world rather than embrace godly character which is God’s focus.
But even when we have a biblical picture in mind we can still distort what God is asking us. Having fellowship with God clearly does not mean sinless according to 1 John 1:5-10 but it clearly says if I sin, godliness means I am the first one to confess my sin and forsake it so that I can pursue righteousness with fresh energy. When some people sin they allow Satan and the Flesh to convince them that they are worthless and they can’t possible matter to God and will never do anything that matters to God’s kingdom work – all of which are bad deceptions that may be very real as to how we feel but these “feelings” are not the way God wants us to deal with sin. God want us to keep on growing up into maturity and learn how to deal with sin in godly ways. He knows we cannot be sinless.