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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Perfection (Human)

PERFECTION (Human).—Perfection is one of those ‘terms which, however they may have been perverted to the purposes of fanaticism, are not only scriptural, but of too frequent occurrence in Scripture to be overlooked or passed by in silence’ (Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, xli. c.). In the Sermon on the Mount the second grand division of the thought culminates in the command, ‘Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). The verb in this sentence is a future indicative, but practically all scholars agree that it has the force of an imperative (Meyer, Holtzmann, Dods, Weiss, Votaw, etc.). As a command of our Lord, this saying clearly sets before His disciples the possibility and the necessity of their perfection in conduct and character; and it becomes of supreme importance to know what the adjective τέλειος, ‘perfect,’ here means. It cannot stand for absolute perfection, which is defined as ‘entire freedom from defect, blemish, weakness, or liability to err or fail’ (Century Dictionary). Such perfection is clearly incompatible with finite being. Every man must confess that he falls far short of this glory; it belongs to God alone. The NT has little to say about this absolute perfection of God. It is everywhere assumed, but the word ‘perfection’ does not occur in any direct statement of it anywhere. When we are told here that the Father is perfect, we know that His absolute perfection is not in view, since the Master says that men may and must attain unto a like perfection. The context must determine the meaning of the word in this command.

The first portion of the Sermon on the Mount sets forth the character of the citizens in the new Kingdom which Jesus preached (Matthew 5:3-16). The Beatitudes are pronounced upon those who meet the conditions for seeing God and becoming the sons of God. Since those who see God become like Him (1 John 3:2), and the sons of God are to be like the Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:45), the character pictured in the Beatitudes is one of God-likeness (Matthew 5:3-12). The influence of such character is next presented under the figures of the salt which preserves and the lamp which illuminates. The preserving and enlightening work of the Heavenly Father is to be manifest in the lives of His sons. Their works are to parallel His. They are to reproduce and represent Him. He is glorified in the good works of His children, because their works are like His own (Matthew 5:13-16). Like Him in character and conduct, what will be the law of their life? That question is answered in the second great division of the Sermon. It will not be any code of external regulations. The Father is governed by nothing of that sort. He is a law unto Himself. His conduct is the spontaneous outcome of His own being. Even so the life of His children will not be measured by the standard of any written code, but by the unwritten law of a heart in perfect sympathy with the will of God (Matthew 5:17-48). This law of the highest and purest possible motive will preclude not only the external act of murder, but the cherishing of anger against a brother (Matthew 5:21-26). It will render impossible not only adulterous acts but impure ‘meditations (Matthew 5:27-32). It will render oaths unnecessary (Matthew 5:33-37). It will counsel the surrender of rights in the maintenance of peace (Matthew 5:38-42). It will demand the constant exercise of love towards enemies as well as friends, towards Gentiles as well as Jews, towards the just and the unjust alike (Matthew 5:43-48). This law of the inner life in harmony with the Father’s will is in no danger of coming into conflict with any righteous system of legal regulations, and least of all with the Law of God as revealed in the OT. It will not destroy this Law, but fulfil it in a righteousness far exceeding that which any mere legalists can maintain (Matthew 5:17-20). It will lift the life above the plane of morality into the realm of genuine religion, in which the thoughts and the affections will be as pure as the outward conduct is righteous. As all the Father’s acts are the proof that His thoughts towards us are of good and of good alone, so all His children’s deeds will evidence their desire for the universal good; and they will be blessed as the Father is blessed, and active for the good of all as the Father is active for the good of all, and their motives will be as single and pure as the motives of the Father Himself. In such case, said the Master, ‘ye shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ The statement is a culminating summary of all that the Master has said up to this point. The citizens of the Kingdom are to be the sons of God. The sons of God are to be like God. The children are to be like then Father in their character and their conduct and the law of their life. In love to all and in doing good to all they give the clearest and the most indubitable proof of their likeness to Him. In this their perfection consists. In this the end of their being is reached.

The root idea in the adjective τέλειος, ‘perfect,’ is that of τέλος, the ‘end.’ The perfect man is the man who has reached the end designed in his creation, the man who represents the ideal set before his own being. The Father may be said to be perfect, as completely and constantly realizing the end of His own being. God is love (1 John 4:8). His providence is the continuously perfect manifestation of His love (Matthew 5:45). Jesus commands His disciples to be perfect in the continuous maintenance and manifestation of the spirit of love. They must love the Lord their God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind; and they must love their neighbour as themselves. On these two commandments hung the whole Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40). He who kept these two commandments was perfectly obedient. He met the whole requirement of loyal service. He realized the end for which he was created.

To many persons ‘counsels of perfection’ are synonymous with ‘demands of the impossible.’ A large part of the difficulty in such minds is relieved, however, when the Master’s limitation to perfection in love and loving service is made. This is seen at once to be compatible with imperfections of other sorts. The child may love his father perfectly, though he be weak in body and immature in mind. Absolute perfection belongs to God, and is demanded of no one of His creatures. Perfection in love God shares with man. He asks man to love Him with undivided loyalty and affection, and to prove his love to God in the service of his fellow-man.

Literature.—Channing, The Perfect Life; Ritschl, Chr. Doct. of Justification, 646; D. Steele, Love Enthroned; J. Mudge, Growth in Holiness toward Perfection; P. T. Forsyth, Chr. Perfection; H. C. G. Moule, Thoughts on Chr. Sanctity; Alvah Hovey, The Higher Chr. Life; O. A. Curtis, The Chr. Faith (1905), 371; F. W. Robertson, Serm. 3rd ser. 143; J. R. Illingworth, Univ. and Cath. Serm. 1; N. Smyth, Chr. Ethics, 108; G. Matheson, Landmarks of NT Morality, 250; J. Iverach, The Other Side of Greatness, 186; Expos. 4th ser. ix. (1894) 319, 5th ser. v. (1897) 30, 134, 211, 6th ser. iii. (1901) 73.

D. A. Hayes.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Perfection (Human)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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