Attaining Perfection: Love for God and Neighbor

by Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. He is a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. A twelve-time Faculty Award-winning professor, Oord teaches at institutions around the globe, and is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology. To find out more about him or view more of his works, visit his website or the Center for Open and Relational Theology.

This article was originally published in Spiritual Formation: A Wesleyan Paradigm (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2011) by Diane Leclerc and Mark A. Maddix (Publisher | Amazon)


SUMMARY

Thomas Oord elaborates on the significance of the idea of perfection in Christianity, in relation to a perfect God. 


“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

This sentence may be the most vexing in all of scripture. Yet many Christians – especially those in the Wesleyan tradition – consider Jesus’ words crucial for spiritual formation. John Wesley formed his theology of Christian perfection around them. Ever since, folks even as famous as Reinhold Niebuhr have chided Wesleyans for being fanatical about perfection.[1]

The possibility of fulfilling Jesus’ command seems unrealistic to many people. When I talk to audiences about perfection, I often ask, “Would every perfect person raise a hand?” After an awkward moment or two, a jokester typically shoots his arm upward, hoping to get a laugh from the crowd.

The command Jesus gives to be perfect parallels the Old and New Testament command to be holy. Wesley highlighted this parallel in his preaching ministry. In his New Testament writings, Peter draws from Leviticus when he talks about imitating God’s holiness. The passage reads, “I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pt. 1:16). For many people, perfection and holiness are synonymous.

Wesleyans aren’t the only Christians concerned with perfection, of course. A rich Roman Catholic tradition offers resources for thinking about the issue. And Christians in the Orthodox tradition are quite interested in what it means to be perfect. Other Christian traditions are less helpful when it comes to understanding perfection.

John Calvin’s Deceptive View of Perfection

Some in the Christian tradition believe we can call ourselves perfect when in fact we are not.  God sees us as perfect, they say, because God looks at us through the lens of Jesus. In actuality, however, we remain imperfect.

Classically trained theologians like to use the technical word “impute” to talk about this view. John Calvin's Institutes illustrate what theologians mean when they speak of imputation and perfection:

“A man is righteous not in himself, but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation…”

“We are accounted righteous only because [Christ’s] obedience is accepted for us as if it were our own…”

“[If] we may appear before the face of God to salvation, it is necessary for us to be perfumed with [Christ’s] fragrance, and to have all our deformities concealed and absorbed in his perfection.”[2]

Calvin’s claim that we must be “perfumed with Christ’s fragrance” helps us understand the problem with imputation. He rightfully thinks that as sinners, we stink!  In fact, the stench of our sin can be nauseating. 

His view of imputation doesn’t free us of our stench. Instead, Christ’s strong and sweet aroma covers over – masks – our persistent odor.  Christ’s fragrance overpowers God’s nostrils so that God fails to realize that we reek.

Instead of believing that God must be deceived, others have interpreted Jesus’ command to be perfect as merely him setting a goal. We should strive for perfection, but we also know we cannot attain it. God sets an unreachable bar to motivate us.

One advocate of this paradox put it this way: “Our goal is to think and act the same way Jesus lived (perfectly), but we will be sinners until our last breath. The standard is perfection, but we will always be profoundly flawed.”[3]

This explanation of Jesus’ call to be perfect is also unsatisfying. When I hear it, I picture greyhounds chasing the unattainable plastic rabbit around a racetrack.

This way of thinking about perfection presents Jesus as inherently unloving. What kind of person would demand something that he knows we cannot ever do – especially knowing that failing to do the impossible results in sickness, destruction and death? The God who calls us to be perfect, all the while knowing we never can, is a tyrant. This explanation of the call to be perfect portrays Jesus as cruel and conniving.

Aristotle and Perfection

A more helpful explanation of the call to be perfect comes from the great mind of Aristotle. He believed something could be perfect if it acted in accord with its purpose. A perfect object is not without some flaws. But it can be perfect if used in the manner for which it was created.

My undergraduate professor of philosophy and later colleague, Ed Crawford, prefers Aristotle when pondering perfection. Aristotle argues that perfection involves being in the process of moving from potential to actual.  The perfect acorn naturally moves toward being an oak tree, because acorns were designed to become oak trees.

Humans also move naturally from potential to actual. When they are moving in the correct direction, they become more like what they were designed to be: Christ-like. Perfection, then, entails becoming conformed to the image of Jesus (Rm. 8:29).

This way of understanding perfection is helpful. But it leaves a huge question unanswered: What does it mean to be Christ-like?

Christlikeness?

Does Christ-likeness mean speaking Aramaic? Are we becoming perfect like Jesus when we wear robes, tunics, and sandals? Is the essence of perfection having twelve disciples, eating a diet mainly of fish and bread, and lecturing religious authorities?

In our attempt to figure out what it means to be perfect, we may forget that Jesus presents God as the example of what our perfection ought to be. Jesus tells his listeners to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect.

Amazingly, a central aspect of spiritual formation is becoming like God!

Before we begin worrying about the omnipotence problems of Bruce Almighty or the omniscience problems inherent in knowing every past sin of our kids, spouses, or parents, we should look at the context of Jesus’ command to be perfect.

Jesus and Perfection

The call comes at the conclusion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Read Jesus’ words preceding it:

You have heard it said, ‘You should love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children to your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and good, and sends rains on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:43-48).

The context of Jesus’ command suggests that love – not perfect power or knowledge – is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect.  God loves everyone.  God loves even those who do not return love. We ought to imitate God in this. We ought to love our enemies, for even God loves those who declare themselves enemies of God.

Luke’s memory of the sermon Jesus preached is different from Matthew’s memory.  While Matthew remembers Jesus concluding by saying “be perfect,” Luke remember Jesus concluding with “be compassionate” (Lk. 6:36). This serves as an important clue for deciphering what it means to be perfect.

How is God Perfect?

To “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” means to be like God. Too many Christians have thought God to be an impersonal force field. Believing God is personal and living helps us imagine what we should do to fulfill Jesus’ command to be perfect.

In my opinion, the Wesleyan tradition is best for helping us make sense of what it means to be perfect. John Wesley understood perfection primarily in terms of love.[4] The Wesleyan tradition affirms the general biblical view that God is loving, relational, and living.        

Envisioning God as relational and living may seem so obvious and hardly worth mentioning.  But it makes a whale of difference for understanding how we might be perfect like God is perfect!

Unfortunately, Aristotle’s view that God is the Unmoved Mover has influenced many in the Christian tradition. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, said God was in all ways unchanging and nonrelated to creation as pure act (actus purus) without potentiality.[5] Augustine regarded God as in all ways “fixed and changeless.”[6] Thinking of God as an Unmoved Mover does not mesh with the biblical idea that God is relational and living.

The reason these theologians envisioned God as in all ways unchanging relates directly to the issue of perfection. Their logic is that a perfect being would not and, in fact, cannot change. Any change in a perfect being could only be from perfection to imperfection. Perfection requires static immutability.

One of the most important 20th century Evangelical theologians, Carl F. H. Henry, agrees with Aquinas and Augustine on this issue. “God is perfect,” he says, “and, if imperfect, can only change for the worse.”[7]A perfect God apparently cannot change in any sense, and therefore God cannot be relational or living.

Christian theologians have argued that God is in all ways unchanging despite numerous biblical passages suggesting otherwise. More than forty times in the Old Testament, for instance, biblical authors say God repent – changes his mind.[8] Many, many biblical accounts portray God as being affected by what creatures do – God responds to creatures by expressing sadness, joy, frustration, pleasure, anger, forgiveness, redemption, comfort, helpfulness, etc.

Charles Hartshorne’s Doubly Perfect God

We have a problem. We know that creatures are inherently changing beings. That fact is apparently fixed. So how can those who inevitably change imitate a God who never changes?

If being perfect means never changing (because God never changes), we cannot obey Jesus’ command to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

The best answer to this conceptual problem comes from an unlikely source: philosopher Charles Hartshorne. Unfortunately, Hartshorne’s ideas are not well known.  Those few Christians who have heard about him typically know only his notorious view of divine omnipotence.

Hartshorne is the most important thinker for helping us understand God’s perfection. And getting a good idea of God’s perfection is crucial if we are to be perfect as God is perfect.

The key to Hartshorne’s view of divine perfection is his distinction between God’s eternal nature as unchangingly perfect and God’s living experience as changingly perfect. Notice: God is doubly perfect. But one aspect of perfection is unchanging and the other changes.

Suppose God is “that individual being than which no other individual being could conceivably be greater,” says Hartshorne, “but which itself, in another ‘state,’ could become greater.”[9]

If God is a living person with moment-by-moment experiences, God’s perfect experience in one moment could be surpassed by God’s perfect experience in the next. “The numerically distinct God-tomorrow will also be perfect,” says Hartshorne, “though He will exhibit perfection in an enriched state of actuality.”[10]

We know that we cannot imitate God’s eternal unchanging nature. Perfection, in this sense, is unattainable. This is one way God transcends creatures.

But we can imitate God’s living and changing experience. As living creatures, we share with God the capacity for moment-by-moment experience. This may be part of what it means to be made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27)

In sum, God’s eternal nature is unchangingly perfect. We do not have an unchanging and eternal nature. But God’s living experience is changingly perfect. As changing beings ourselves, we might be able to imitate God in this respect.

Moment-by-Moment Perfection

We need one final conceptual element to make sense of what it means to follow Jesus command to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. That final piece comes in thinking about what it means to have a moment-by-moment, give-and-receive relationship of love.

Biblical writers repeatedly use relationship analogies to talk about God’s love for us. God is a loving Father, husband, hen, friend, parent, king, and among others. The Bible portrays God as personal, relational, and living. God loves us perfectly.

To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. God loves all of us, all the time. We can love too. But we love, because God first loves us.[11]

The God who gives and receives love in relationship is one whose experiential life persists moment by moment.  God loves us in one moment. We may or may not love in return. God receives our response and loves us in the next moment. We may or may not love in return. God receives our response again and loves us in the next moment. On it goes. This is part of what relational theology suggests constitutes an ongoing love relationship.

We can be perfect in any particular moment, if we love in that moment. If we respond appropriately to God’s empowering and inspiring call to love, we can act perfectly in that instant. We can be like God – in that moment.

We Are Perfect In Each Moment as We Love

John Wesley understood spiritual formation primarily as expressing love in each moment. “We are every moment pleasing or displeasing to God,” he wrote, “according to our works; according to the whole of our present inward tempers and outward behavior.”[12]

If we love as God calls us to love, we are perfect.  More precisely: if in any particular moment, we respond to God by loving as God asks us to love, we are perfect in that moment as God is perfect in every moment.

Of course, we cannot claim to do this on our own. In fact, God acts first to empower, inspire, and call us to love. Wesleyans call this “prevenient grace.” We are, to use the language of Friedrich Schleiermacher, “utterly dependent” upon God.[13]

This means that perfection is not something we conjure up on our own. Instead, we are perfect when we respond appropriately to God in any particular instant.  But it does mean that we can be perfect now.  We don’t have to wait until heaven.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul turns to the idea that Christians are to act like God. Paul says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ has loved us…” (Ephesians 5:1)

We can love in any moment when we respond appropriately in that moment to God’s call to love. And as we respond well repeatedly, we develop the virtuous characters. We act as saints. God uses our moment-by-moment responses of love to form us into a people – both as individuals and as a Church – who live lives of love.

For more from the author Thomas Jay Oord, see his website https://thomasjayoord.com or the Center for Open and Relational Theology https://c4ort.com

  1. See The Nature and Destiny of Man: Human Destiny, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943).

  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Allen, trans. (Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 1949), all quotes from book III, ch. 11, # 23.

  3. See http://brianmccormack.wordpress.com/2007/01/09/michael-jordan-the-pursuit-of-the-unattainable. Accessed 12/15/09

  4. For an argument that love is the core notion of holiness, see Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 2005).

  5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 3, arts. 2 & 6.

  6. Augustine, De Musica, vol. 6, xiv, 48.

  7. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority: The God who Stands and Stays, Part One, vol. 5 (Waco: Word, 1982), 304.

  8. For an analysis of the idea that God repents and suffers, see Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).

  9. Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), 20.

  10. Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection, (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1962), 66.

  11. For in-depth analysis of love and its meaning, see Thomas Jay Oord, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010) and The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2010).

  12. Methodist Conference Minutes, 1744-98 (London: John Mason, 1862), I, 95-96.

  13. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989 [2nd Ed., 1830]).