Many people are confused by seemingly contradictory statements in the Bible that tell us humans are imperfect, yet Jesus tells us to “be perfect.” As with many things in Scripture, context matters…let’s clear up confusion.
The idea that humans are imperfect and sin continuously is communicated in many Bible verses.
“Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”
– Ecclesiastes 7:20
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
–1 John 1:8
And because we are all sinners and imperfect, incapable of resisting sin – humankind needed a Redeemer, a Savior. This is why it was necessary for Jesus Christ to come.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
– Romans 5:8
Every Christian should understand that they are imperfect – and that’s okay. It’s okay to understand that flaw. However, it’s not okay to avoid trying to improve on that fact.
“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
– Matthew 5:48 (new King James version)
The words of Jesus above are rendered slightly different by various translations and that can have some confusion.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (New International version)
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (English standard version)
The above verse naturally leads to confusion with people wondering if humans are and always will be imperfect – how can they possibly be perfect? Doesn’t the Bible tell us that we are incapable of being without sin? Doesn’t it say that we are born into original sin?
Yes, the Bible does say all these things. But Jesus was not making a contradiction in Matthew chapter 5.
The only way to change the condition of imperfection is to focus on God and The teachings of Jesus Christ. That perfection that is being referred to means working toward a Christ-like state of mind.
The biblical scholar Barnes says the word “perfect” is also commonly used to refer to being “finished, complete, pure and holy.”
Biblical scholar Ellicott points out the “Ye (or you) shall be perfect” spoken of by Jesus implies a future condition. Ellicott writes: “Literally, Ye therefore shall be perfect—the ideal future that implies an imperative.” He adds: “The idea of perfection implied in the word here is that of the attainment of the end or ideal completeness of our being. In us that attainment implies growth.”
Comments from the Cambridge Bible for schools and colleges concurs, writing: “Either (1) in reference to a future state, “if ye have this true love or charity ye shall be perfect hereafter;” or (2) the future has an imperative force, and perfect is limited by the preceding words = perfect in respect of love, i. e. “love your enemies as well as your neighbours,” because your Father being perfect in respect of love does this.”