What does the Bible say about perfection? This is a fundamental and constantly recurring question in all kinds of talks and discussions. In this article the words ‘perfect’, ‘blameless’, and ‘innocent’ will be discussed.
Perfect, blameless, and innocent: the connection between these words is that nothing is missing, and nothing is wrong. We can use them to speak of God and his deeds but which reformed Christian can say of himself that he is innocent? Before God, nobody is blameless; for man, perfection is out of reach, it is a demand which is too heavy to bear. Nevertheless, these words have not been driven out of the language of the Christian faith.
According to the regulations for sacrifice in the Old Testament, sacrificial animals had to be without defect or blemish. Leviticus 22:17-25 describes what was to be understood by this. A sacrificial animal had to be without defects, such as blindness, broken limbs, wounds, mutilations or skin diseases. A less well formed animal, with, for example, its legs too short, could only be offered as a voluntary sacrifice, not as the fulfillment of a vow previously made.
If somebody sacrificed an animal which did not come up to the requirements, neither the sacrifice nor the giver of it, were accepted with favor, both were rejected. This sort of sacrifice revealed lack of respect for God; it was a sign of contempt (see Mal. 1:6-8, 12-14).
Faithfulness to God and man
Psalm 15 asks the question: who may come into the immediate presence of God? There, the LORD only tolerates him whose walk is blameless (v. 2). The rest of the Psalm indicates that this involves doing what is righteous, speaking the truth, keeping your word and doing no damage to others with a slanderous tongue, defamation, not asking usury when lending money, not accepting a bribe or the like. In dealings with people, you let yourself be guided by God’s judgment, by respect for him.
In other texts, other characteristics of the blameless life are mentioned: you make no bad plans, do no violence, are not proud or dishonest, do not get involved with soothsayers, but you keep God’s commands and trust in him (cp. Deut. 18:9-14; Ps. 18:22-24; 84:12f; 101:2-8; 119:1-3; Ezek. 28:15-18). According to the Old Testament, there were various people who lived up to this. Noah was the first of whom something like this is said (Gen. 6:9). The Book of Kings uses a similar sort of wording to refer to King David. He served the Lord with a “fully devoted heart” and did not fail to keep any of God’s commandments, except for when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and let Uriah be murdered (see e.g. 1 Kings 3:14; 11:4, 33f, 38; 15:5).
Job was, as the LORD himself said to Satan: ‘blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil’ (Job 1:8; 2:3). For this reason, Job could expect that God would bless and protect Him (cp. e.g. Deut. 7:9; 1 Kings. 2:2-4; Ps. 1; 128:1 4; Prov. 2:7-8; Is. 33:15f). Instead, God allowed Satan to take Job’s children, possessions and health. Job’s friends suggested, in increasingly stronger terms, that his sinful behavior was the cause of the calamities. Job maintained before God and men, that he was innocent (Job 9:20f; 27:5; 31; 34:6). That he was not completely free from sin, came to light when he had to withdraw his accusation that God had acted unrighteously (39:34-40:9; 42:1-6). Nevertheless, God put Job’s friends in the wrong (see esp. 42:7). It was right what Job had said about his innocence – the calamity which overtook him was not because of his own sin. The suggestion his friends made, was contrary to God’s own positive testimony about Job in Job 1 and 2.
Like Job, various other pious Old Testament characters declare their innocence before God in the Psalms. In this, they are not suggesting that they had never done anything wrong. This is evident on the basis of Psalm 41. Speaking about one’s own innocence (v.12) here, goes together with a recognition of one’s own sin (v. 4). The man praying in these and other psalms (e.g. Ps. 7 and 26) is innocent, because, in contrast to many of his fellow people, he honors exclusively the LORD as God, trusts in him and, in his daily life, lets himself be guided by his commandments. If such a person falls short nevertheless, he shows his faithfulness to God by confessing his sins (Ps. 32:1-6). He who lives like this, could expect that the LORD would be faithful to his promise that he would not bring his follower a sudden death, as though he was a godless man (cp. Ps. 26:9-11).
Loving as God loves
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Does he demand the impossible requirement of man, to be just as perfect as God? Indeed, Jesus wants his disciples’ behavior to reflect that of God. Moreover, in the Sermon on the Mount he intensifies God’s commandments to such an extent that it is almost impossible for man to live up to them (see e.g. Matt. 5:28-30; 39-41). In Matthew 5:48, ‘perfect’ has a specific meaning. According to verses 43-47, this is about Jesus’ disciples loving just as radically as God does. God lets the sun shine on the good as well as on the evil and makes no distinction in this. In this way, Jesus’ followers too, must not restrict their demonstration of love to people whom they like. They must also love their enemies. Then, they are behaving as true children of their heavenly Father, and they are perfect as he is perfect.
In 1 John 4:12, John writes, that the love of God must be made perfect in the members of Christ’s church. God showed his love by offering his only Son to take away the sin of people who did not love him. Because believers can only live through his love, they must also love one another (1 John 4:7-12; cp. also 2:3-11). Then they live just as Jesus Christ and then they are no longer afraid of his return as judge (4:17f). If there is love for one another in the congregation, the love of God has reached her goal. If not, it is not yet complete.
According to Paul’s regulations, people in the church who hold an office as overseer, deacon or widow must be blameless (1 Tim. 3:10; 5:7; Tit. 1:6f). In Titus 1:6-9, he goes on to say of overseers or elders, that they must not have more than one wife, and must have believing children. They must not cause people to talk by being overbearing or quick tempered, prone to drunkenness, violent nor pursuers of dishonest gain. They must be hospitable, loving what is good, self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. They must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught (cp. also 1 Tim. 3:2-12; 5:5-10). It is clear that not everybody confirms to all these standards. Nevertheless, Paul is not looking for ideal people, who do not actually exist, because nobody is perfect. By ‘blameless’, Paul means as much as ‘irreproachable’. He wants to avoid the situation, that he who fulfils a task in the church, be brought into discredit by criticism of his behavior, through which he cannot function (cp. ‘as God’s steward’ in Tit. 1:7 RSV).
In 1 Corinthians 1:8, Paul uses ‘blameless’ to characterize the whole congregation on the day of Christ’s return. When he returns as judge, Christ will have nothing to say about the members of the church and accuse them of nothing. They owe this to God, through whose faithfulness they will be able to stand firm, and to Jesus Christ, to whom God has bound them. That Jesus Christ ensures himself that the church can appear in this way before Him, can also be seen in Philippians 1:9-11. Paul prays that on the day of Christ, the congregation will be filled with ‘the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ’. This text also shows that this is not something apart from life here and now. The church shall be pure and blameless then, if her love, insight and sensitivity now abounds more and more. But this too, is something for which Paul prays, and is, thus, a gift of God.
Gift of God
If the Bible speaks of ‘blameless’, ‘innocent’ or ‘perfect’, it rarely means absolute perfection. The import of these words varies according to times and places. When it refers to man, it usually means a radical choice for God. You respect His commandments and you follow Him by loving your neighbor, even if he is your enemy. Even more so than the Old Testament, the New Testament shows that you do not need to try and realize this in your own strength. It is a gift from God, which you receive in unity with Jesus Christ. Church with charisma.