Does Matthew 5:48 Require Sinless Perfection?

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

This is often interpreted as a call to sinless perfection, something that Christians cannot attain prior to glorification. As such it’s used as a hermeneutical key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. In this view, Jesus is not laying out the way of life for his followers. Instead, he is setting the bar so far out of their reach that they must turn to him for mercy and find acceptance in his righteousness.

I fully embrace the theological conclusions of this position: Christians cannot live sinlessly in this life and can only be accepted by God on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Jesus. However, I don’t think this text teaches that.

There are three reasons for understanding this verse as something that every Christian should and can obey.

First, the word perfect (τέλειος) often has a different meaning than we commonly have in mind when we talk about perfection in theological contexts. It means mature or complete (e.g., 1 Cor 2:6, Phil 3:15, Heb 5:14). It doesn’t necessarily mean without sin.

Second, the context makes it clear what Jesus meant by this call to perfection.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus is discussing our responsibility to love not only our neighbors, but also our enemies and those who do us harm. The reason is that God is kind to all his creatures. Loving only your neighbors or those who love us back is incomplete love. Instead, our love should be complete, just like the Father’s love is complete. Jesus’ main point here is that we are to treat others with the same kind or quality of love as God does, not that we quantitatively do so to the same degree of sinless perfection.

Finally, the parallel passage in Luke 6:26 reads, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Here’s the full context:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

This parallel passage makes the same point as Matthew’s Gospel. The concluding statement sheds light on the meaning of Matthew 5:48. What Matthew is getting at by taking about being perfect is equivalent to what Luke means when he talks of being merciful. To be like our Father, we need to be merciful and love with a mature, complete kind of love that doesn’t restrict itself to those who love us back.

Herman Ridderbos articulates this point well in When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology, 30–31 (Jordan Station, ON: Paideia, 1982):

[A]s for Matthew 5:48, Jesus does not, in any universal sense, demand of man moral equality with God. The word “perfect” as used here denotes quite a different meaning. It concerns the “perfectness,” the consistency of love. Man is bound not only to love his neighbor but also his enemies. It is in this sense that the heavenly Father, too, is perfect. “For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). There is no room in His love for half measures. Hence perfect love is also demanded from His children, not partial, not only towards friends, but enemies as well. Hence also Luke can add in the corresponding passage in his Gospel: “Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). “Even as” means “equally perfect,” “equally consistent.” Therefore, it is not possible to appeal to this to contend the positive tenor of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. It belongs to the essential quality, I might well say to the logic of the Kingdom of the Heavens, that a disciple of Jesus does not content himself with love merely towards his fellows. There is no question of straining the moral demands ad absurdum.

In The Coming of the Kingdom, ed. Raymond O. Zorn, trans. H. de Jongste, 246n86 (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962), he makes the same point more concisely:

[I]n [Matthew] 5:48 teleioi must be taken in a formal sense, viz., as perfect, consistent, not giving up when only half finished. For the subject here is love which must not be restricted to those alone who are of the same mind. This is why in Luke 6:36 this meaning can be rendered by the words, “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father is also merciful.”

See also “What Is the Righteousness Required to Enter the Kingdom?

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4 Responses to Does Matthew 5:48 Require Sinless Perfection?

  1. Wes Hedrick February 21, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Phil, you have a beautiful website! Thanks for the post. It provokes several questions.

    1. How could τέλειος be applied to God who never matured? If τέλειος means complete and is applied to God, how is his completion short of perfection?

    2. If the parallel passage in Luke sheds light on Matthew, why could not Matthew shed light on Luke? In other words, who is to say that mercy explains perfection rather than perfection explaining mercy?

    3. Could Mt. 5:48 be the conclusion not of Mt. 5:43-48 but of Mt. 5:17-48 that if obeyed completely would certainly produce perfection?

    4. I’m intrigued with this post because Mt. 5:48, interpreted as a call to perfection, lands on me powerfully. Was it zeal for exegetical accuracy that moved you or did you see a more edifying application to be made from Mt. 5:48 than the call to perfection?

    • Phil Gons February 21, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

      Wes, thanks for dropping by and asking some thoughtful clarifying questions.

      1a. I don’t see a problem with applying the sense of mature to God. He’s certainly the ultimate standard of maturity. I think you’re reading the process of maturing into it, which isn’t warranted.

      1b. I’m not suggesting that completeness for God does not entail his perfection. What I am suggestion is that it’s not the point that Jesus (or Matthew or Luke) was making when the verse is read contextually. So while completeness with God may entail his perfection (as everything does), the point of comparison does not carry that perfection over, at least not as a primary component of the analogy.

      2. I’m not suggesting that we only read the one in light of the other. I think we should read both in light of the other. However, we should read them both contextually, and the context is all about loving in a way that reflects the Father’s character; that is, loving even those who are evil and don’t reciprocate love. Matthew’s and Luke’s summary of that should be read as being in harmony, and I think the most contextually sensitive way to do that is by seeing the point as being about the completeness and mercifulness of that kind of love.

      3. That’s possible, but unlikely IMO. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s statements instruct us to do x as the Father does x. When you look at the proceeding context for what the Father does, we find the clear answer to that in the immediate context (Mt 5:45 and Lk 6:35). If you look further back, it’s hard to make a clear connection, since the Father isn’t mentioned. Both statements feel out of the blue if they aren’t read in light of the immediate context.

      4. I’d say both. First, I not a fan of the argument that puts the applicational cart before the exegetical horse. I’ve heard two Bible teachers argue that in order to solve interpretational debates, we should simply pick the interpretation that either provides better application or brings greater glory to God. I disagree. The best applications are the ones based on the right reading of a passage. And God is most glorified when his truth is rightly understood and applied.

      Part of what I’m responding to in this post and the one on Matthew 5:20 is the view that says the Sermon on the Mount has a solely negative purpose: to get us to realize our inability to be righteous enough (Mt 5:20) and perfect enough (Mt 5:48) and to seek for both in the perfection and righteousness of Jesus. Again, I agree with that theme theologically, just not exegetically (i.e., not from this passage). I think the Sermon on the Mount represents the actual way of life for the true followers of Jesus.

      The application of my proposed reading is still a powerful one. It’s just that it’s the same application as the immediately preceding context: if we’re children of the Father, we must mirror the completeness of the Father’s kindness, mercy, and love. That, to me, is not any weaker of an application. In fact, it’s stronger, because it’s more firmly rooted in the context.

  2. Mark L Ward Jr February 22, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    I have been impressed with Ridderbos in the last year; his citation is a weighty one. But I admit to using this verse in almost exactly the way you describe in both evangelism and, actually, in my sales pitch for BJU Press Bible. Two more questions for discussion to add to my good friend Wes’s:

    1. Why do you think Bible translations have consistently opted for “perfect”?

    2. Can’t the sermon represent the actual way of life for the true followers of Jesus and also be an unattainable standard? That’s the way I’ve read it. I hope I generally do all that it demands, but when I don’t achieve it’s high holiness I seek remedy in Jesus’ righteousness. (And when I do obey, I look back and recognize that it was the grace of Jesus that made me willing.)

    • Phil Gons February 22, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

      Mark, thanks for joining the discussion.

      1. That’s a good question, one I pondered even last night as I was replying to Wes. Three points in response: (1) It’s perhaps an area where translators haven’t been able to break from the tradition or simply haven’t wrestled with it sufficiently yet. I think there are numerous passages that fall into this category. (2) Even in English the word perfect is capable of the sense I’m suggesting, making it a “perfectly” fine word for translating τέλειος (e.g., MW 3b: “lacking in no essential detail : complete”). (3) Not all translations use perfect:

      BBE: Be then complete in righteousness, even as your Father in heaven is complete.

      CEB: Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

      CEV: But you must always act like your Father in heaven.

      The Message: In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

      WUEST: Therefore, as for you, you shall be those who are complete in your character, even as your Father in heaven is complete in His being.

      WNT: You however are to be complete in goodness, as your Heavenly Father is complete.

      And some even seem to follow the interpretation I take above.

      2. Possibly, I suppose; I’d need to think through that more. But I’m not convinced that’s what it’s doing. If we understand Jesus as saying we must do all the things he outlines perfectly and without fail, then certainly we’re dealing with an unattainable standard. But there are a couple problems with that view: (1) Jesus attached final salvation to obedience to the commands in the sermon (Mt 5:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 20, 21, 22, 29, 30, 46; 6:1, 4, 6, 14–15, 18, 21; 7:13–14, 17–20, 21–23, 24–27). (2) Nothing in the sermon requires that we understand Jesus as attaching the threats and rewards to perfect obedience. On the contrary, the sermon indicates that we will sin (Mt 5:4; 6:12, 14–15) and that such sinning is not mutually exclusive to being righteous in a way that surpasses the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20) and loving and being merciful in a way that reflects the Father’s character (Mt 5:48).

      Again, I completely agree with the theology you’re espousing: (1) We can’t perfectly obey God. (2) We should perfectly obey God. (3) Our own righteous obedience does not contribute one ounce of merit toward final salvation (though it is an absolutely necessary condition of it). (4) Only by the perfect imputed righteousness of Jesus can we meet the demands of the law and find perfect acceptance with the Father. (5) All of our obedience is the result of God’s gracious working in us.

      What I’m objecting to is finding some of these points in the exegesis of the sermon itself.

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