Perfection in Christ Jesus
Philippians 2:12-8 August 7, 2022
Some people think being holy is being better than others. That’s not holiness. Such thinking is arrogance. Such thinking comes from pride, not holiness. Jesus tells a story about two men who came to the Temple to pray. One prays out of arrogance and pride. The other simply said, “God have mercy on me, the sinner.” The world has more than enough people who are caught up in pride and arrogance. The world needs more people who recognize their need for salvation and who take Jesus seriously. Jesus taught his disciples: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).” God sets a high standard for his people. How can we be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? How can we meet God’s standard of perfection?
The issue of perfection, holiness or sanctification runs through the Scriptures. It is a key teaching, not an obscure one. Paul writes the Christians in Ephesus that God, “. . . chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love (Ephesians 1:4).” There it is: holiness, perfection, blameless and sanctification. The Greek word translated “perfect” means being complete. For example, a perfect chair does what a chair is supposed to do. It provides a comfortable place for someone to sit. Another way to understand the word translated “perfect” is to translate it as “mature.” God wants us to become mature Christians. Perfection or maturity means becoming a person who lives as God wants them to live. And God sets a God-sized standard for his people. How easy it would be if God judged us on the curve! How easy it would be if God set a C grade as the passing grade! Let’s learn more about holiness, perfection and maturity in Christ.
Think what life would be like if in key commitments perfection were not the goal. How many husbands or wives would like their spouses to be faithful just 95% of the time? How many employers would like employees to be honest just 95% of the time? Can you imagine the chaos if the Post Office shot for a 95% accuracy rate? Last year the Post Office handled 128.9 billion pieces of mail. A 95% accuracy rate would mean they’d lose 6.5 billion pieces of mail. The country would be up in arms. Good organizations reject mediocrity and expect high standards of their people. So it is not unreasonable that God expects God-sized standards from his people.
Traditional Methodism is a Christian movement which accepts God’s standard of perfection. While we may be heading in that direction and most of us are far from perfection, we accept God’s standard. John Wesley wrote and preached holiness, perfection and sanctification. He wrote: “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, --that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.” The porch is repentance. The door is justification or new birth. Religion itself is holiness, sanctification, or perfection. Wesley and traditional Methodist preachers give a clear call to holiness of heart and life.
What is holiness? The word itself speaks to separation and being different. I grew up in a community in Northeast Ohio that had a lot of Amish people. They literally separate themselves from the world around them and live in a close knit Christian community. In their origins they wanted nothing to do with the wars of the European aristocracy so they immigrated to Canada and the United States. Their goal is to be faithful to God who calls his people to be holy. The Amish have separated themselves from the world. They live in the world but they are not worldly people. They are different people. God is holy. He is completely different from his creation. He is as one theologian wrote, “Totally other.” He is not of the world but separate from his creation. Two weeks ago I highlighted the Lord’s Prayer and we recognized and acknowledged God’s holiness: “Holy is your name.” He calls his people to be holy, separate, and different.
Most of American Protestantism never got caught up in actual physical separation from the world as the Amish and some other groups did. At our best we are clearly not of the world but live right in it. Traditional Methodist Christianity emphasized both personal and social holiness. They believe that individual salvation and holiness leads to a church committed to changing the evil structures of society. Early Methodists fought hard against slavery, child labor, alcohol abuse and other social evils. They fought for education, sobriety and for bringing the love of Christ Jesus into the darkest of institutions of British and American society. As God so loved the world that he sent his Son, Jesus, to save it, traditional Methodist Christians continue Jesus’ work of spreading Scriptural holiness in society. Early Christians never believed that their faith was separate from their work, their government or any aspect of their lives. God continues to call all people to holiness, and God is calling us today to holiness.
Holiness is paradoxical. At one level, it is a gift from God. It is not a righteousness gained by human striving. Holiness is not a human achievement. It is a gift of grace alone. It is a gift to the one who relies on Christ Jesus alone for everything in life and in death. Colin Williams, theologian, writes: “Holiness comes not by achievement, but through the door of faith in accordance with our readiness to receive the promises.” The paradox is that while holiness is a gift which we do not merit and cannot earn, we have to be receptive, to be ready to receive God’s gifts and promises.
Readiness is a concept the military takes seriously. The military spends countless hours and dollars on readiness so that when they are called to fight, they will be ready to take on the enemy and win. Much of what we do as Christians is readiness training. All the means of grace help us have what we need so that we are in a high state of readiness. Readiness means attending worship, praying regularly, studying and reading the Bible, attending Sunday school or a small Christian group, and regularly receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Being ready for the gift of holiness means we participate in all these activities on a regular basis. When we do not participate in these means of grace we are in a high state of unreadiness. We are not ready to deal with the challenges of life. We are not ready to receive the gift of holiness. We are not different from other people in the world. Only as we are committed to the Lord and involved in the means of grace will we be able to even talk about holiness let alone receive it.
Holiness is the standard. It is not a human created standard. Wesley did not make it up. The Church did not make it up. If we humans would set a standard, we’d certainly set one that is far down the line from perfection and holiness. God set the standard. Many downplay the difference between Christians and the world. One writer described the poor standard the church often accepts: “So long as you live a decent, respectable life, it is quite all right to become a church member and call yourself Christian. You don’t need to be different from other people.” Our human goal is more to please each other than pleasing God. The higher goal is to please God. The only goal worthwhile and of eternal value is pleasing the Lord. Think about it. Who would you rather please--your neighbor, your employer, other people, or the Lord God? Being holy is not easy. It is not easy to stand up for holy living in a society so caught up in unholiness and evil. God calls us to holiness of heart and life. He is calling us as his people to get on his agenda and be holy, different, and separate from the people and values of the world.
Paul calls us to be a holy and blameless people. In his letter to the church in Philippi he writes that we are to be a people who “may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world (Philippines 2:15).” The word blameless points to what may properly be offered to God in sacrifice. The ancient Hebrews sacrificed animals to God which were perfect, had no blemishes, and were blameless. An animal without blemish was the only acceptable animal to sacrifice in the Temple. Christian perfection or maturity means offering our whole life to God. Holy people offer God every aspect of their lives. Nothing, no area of life, is off-limits to God. Holy people offer their best in all areas of life to the Lord. We are to as Paul wrote, “shine like stars in the world.”
Have you ever been told to do something but the person telling you to do it did not equip you for the task? Sometimes I think the call to holiness is like God telling one to pick up a 55 gallon drum of heavy oil and walk with it. It seems impossible and is impossible by human standards and strength. I am sure that God will not give us such a task. However, God never calls us to do something without equipping us for the task. He calls us to holiness and Christian maturity and will equip us with everything we need to be a holy people. It all depends on our readiness and desire to serve God. It begins when we repent and surrender to God, are born again, and are seriously involved in all the means of grace. The road to holiness, perfection in love and sanctification begins as we answer the call of Christ to take up our cross daily and follow him. Have you answered his call? Are you becoming mature in your faith?
Veterans Memorial Chapel -- Sermon preached by CH (COL) Michael W. Malone, USA RET