Perfection and Holy Ignorance

Who is a righteous person in the Bible? It is one who manages, by the grace of God, to bring together faith, which is a right attitude toward God, and action, which is doing what is right and good before God and humanity. It is never enough to have one without the other. To bring both attitude and action together is to be righteous, and the process is called perfection.

Let’s take the Gospel of Matthew to place this in perspective. In chapters 1-4 we see Jesus working through the same paces as Israel did in Exodus-Numbers, but succeeds where Israel failed. He succeeds because He is God; we find him on the mount in chapter 5 where He opens His mouth and reveals His law to the disciples like God on Sinai spoke to Moses. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ teachings on the essence of the law and the blueprint for Christian perfection. (For thoughts on the Beatitudes scroll back to Jan. 23 through April 2, 2012.) Jesus’ teachings are not a rejection of the Old Testament Law, for He emphatically tells us that “not one jot or tittle will pass away from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). In fact, more is required of His disciples than the ancient Israelites because they are empowered through him to become what He is and what Israel failed to be. Therefore, Jesus challenges all of us to “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (5:48).

It is not an easy thing to bring attitude and action together. In fact, Jesus would have us understand that it takes a sort of “holy ignorance.” Jesus expects us to do good works on one hand, but on the other hand, because good works so easily lead to pride and self righteousness, we must not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing (6:4). We must do good works but be completely unaware of them, at least in a way that we might think that they deserved a standing before God. We see this holy ignorance in Matthew’s account of the last judgment in chapter 25:31-46. The blessed souls were surprised to inherit the kingdom, and had no recollection at all of the good works they did to attain it. Jesus had to remind them. This is perfection; the fusion of a humble attitude with action. The damned however, do not possess this holy ignorance. Being deeply aware of their own good works, they are truly surprised that they are driven from God’s presence (7:21-23). They have action, but the wrong attitude.

It is a great thing that the Reformation brought to our attention afresh the necessity of faith and right attitude. It is and always will be a temptation to our proud spirits to think that somehow we are better than the next guy. However, the battle cry sola fidei (faith only) has, I fear, degenerated into a mere slogan for many. This along with sola gracia (only by grace) has blinded many to the high ideals to which God would have us aspire. The great Puritan Richard Baxter saw this failure in his own day. He wrote these words when he thought he was dying:

“Though without Christ you can do nothing, yet under him you can do much, and must, or else it will be undone, and you yourselves undone through your neglect.” Saints Rest.

What is wrong with our culture is that we have lost all sight of high ideals; we are content to live in the gutters. For the Christian, this means losing sight of a great and wonderful goal, the goal of perfection. Once we lose sight of the goal, we fall to mediocrity. Our theology even re-enforces it. We save ourselves from “works righteousness,” vaunting faith and a right attitude, but protect ourselves from action that sets us on course to perfection. How shall we fare before God the judge (Matt. 25:31ff, Rom. 2:6-10)? May God grant us “Holy Ignorance” that binds together attitude and action!

Having worked our way through these preliminaries, we now set our sights on just what Christian perfection is and what it is not in the following posts.

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