Sunday, May 11, 2008

Perfection - Part 1 of 2 - The bad news

During my Christian life I've often heard the term "God's Standard." Usually the term is used in the context of how well Christians are living the Christian life (i.e. "Are we living up to God's standard?").

My question is... What is God's standard? And... how do we know if we're living up to it? It seems to me that when many people say "God's standard," they mean things such as "God's laws" or "the rules of the Bible" or "the commands of Jesus." To some, "God's standard" seems to be more of a matter of "right vs. wrong" or "good vs. evil."

And so we (Christians) measure ourselves according to what we believe God's standard to be. But again, how do we know if we're living up to "God's standard?" Is it a matter of our "good" outweighing our "bad?" Is it a matter of "doing our best" to keep the Law or to keep the commandments of Jesus or to keep up with the standards of the Sermon on the Mount or to live by the New Testament principles given by Paul, Peter, John, etc?

What if God's standard was not a matter of any amount of human achievement - but rather was a matter of God's very own PERFECTION?

Jesus, speaking of love and hate in Matthew 5:43-48 (part of the Sermon on the Mount), said "if you love those who love you, what reward have you?" "And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?" "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Years later, Jesus' little brother James would point out that "whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all." All in all, this sounds like quite a lofty standard!

Whatever is the extent of our heavenly Father's perfection... that is to be the extent of our perfection. Our heavenly Father's love is PERFECT, as is His righteousness. And in whatever way - even if it's the tiniest way - that we stumble in living up to this standard of perfection, we can only conclude that we are guilty of all. Have you ever stopped to think about the seriousness of Jesus' words about perfection and James' words about being guilty of all?

In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus had quite a lot to say about righteousness, perfection, etc. "If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." "I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." "Anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you shall by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

And that's just a tiny selection of verses from the Sermon on the Mount. Again... isn't this serious stuff? Even with this tiny selection, I think it's pretty obvious that the bar is so much higher than we'd like to think! Jesus doesn't just say, "here are some things to aim for in your daily walk with God." He says, "You must hit the bullseye." He says, "be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect." I think we find through Jesus' words that perfect law-keeping, perfect righteousness, perfect love, etc, is not simply a matter of "trying" or "doing our best" to observe 10 commandments. As if that wasn't already a hard enough performance to live up to. But it really goes much deeper than that.

In Romans 7 Paul proclaims the truth that "the Law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good." I'd also like to be so bold as to assert that Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount are holy and just and good. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Law and there is absolutely nothing wrong with Jesus' words on the mountain. I think they are a representation of God's standard(s). In fact, what I see Jesus doing in the Sermon on the Mount is putting the holiness, justness and goodness of the Law under a microscope, exposing it at a much deeper level.

Look at your arm. What do you see? Skin, hair, etc. Imagine taking a sample of your skin and putting it under a microscope. You'll find that there's a lot more to your skin than the naked eye can see! Well, to many naked eyes it seemed as if the Law were a pretty simple concept. Just do these things "and you will live." But Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, took "The Standard" (the Law) and put it under a microscope and exposed the depths of it in such a way that I would hope would help people to see that it wasn't quite that simple!

The Law, although holy and just and good, had a problem. As perfect and holy as it was, it could never do one thing to make a human being holy and just and good. As Hebrews 10:1 says, the law could never make anyone perfect. And as Galatians 3:21 says, the law could never make a person righteous and it could never give a person Life. And if the law itself could not do any of these things, neither could following any of Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount. But yet over and over in the Sermon, Jesus proclaimed "do this" and "don't do that." He laid out many conditional promises of blessings and many conditional warnings of judgment and curses. Why? Is this what our life in Him is really about??? Are we to take the Sermon on the Mount as God's word to followers of Christ?

Let's back up by taking a look at what the New Testament reveals about the Law. Paul calls it "the ministry of death" and "the ministry of condemnation" (2 Cor 3:7,9). Hebrews 7:19 says "the law made nothing perfect." Gal 3:12 says, "The law is not of faith, but 'the man who does them shall live by them.'" The law's job... the law's purpose... was to impute sin to man (charge sin to man's account) and to condemn man and to sentence man to death. Romans 3:20 says, "Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin." "The law was our tutor to lead us to Christ" (see Gal 3:24-25). But in order to actually come to Christ, we had to die to the law (see Gal 2:19 and Romans 7). In summary, the holy, just, good Law showed us our sin, charged us with sin and condemned us to death. It pointed us to Christ, but we had to get out from under it (we had to die to it) in order to be "married" to Christ.

The law is not the gospel! The law is holy and just and good, but the law is not good news! Now take a look again at Matthew 5-7 and tell me if what you see more closely resembles the bad news of the Law or the good news of the gospel. I'll just come right out and say it. The Sermon on the Mount is not good news! The Sermon on the Mount is not the gospel, nor is it part of it.

The law demanded perfection. ("One strike and you're out," to paraphrase James). Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount demanded perfection. Again, don't just skim by those words of His! It's serious stuff! And it's not good news if you've not been able to uphold this standard!

But this is Part 1 of 2. We'll get to the good news. You betcha!

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