The Perfect Christian
What does it mean to be a perfect Christian? What would it mean for someone to have achieved perfect maturity as a follower of Christ? Perhaps certain associations come to mind for you immediately. If we consult St. Paul on the question, we'll find that we actually receive two different answers.
THE PERFECT CHRISTIAN
In Philippians 3:12, Paul writes, "It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus." Here Paul refers to the one kind of Christian perfection, and my guess is that it is the one that the majority of people would think of in response to my original question. It is that place of perfect conduct, of unwavering discipline, where the knowledge and love of God has achieved stratospheric heights. It is that place which remains ever elusive and out of reach, an ideal we are always striving for but never quite attain. Paul admits that this is just as true for himself as anyone: "Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession."
If this were the end of the story, it could only be a discouraging, daunting task before us. But Paul goes on to speak of the second kind of perfection, saying, "Let us, then, who are 'perfectly mature' adopt this attitude." There is, then, a kind of perfection that is more important than the first - not more important, perhaps, in an objective sense, but as a necessary prerequisite to attaining the first kind of perfection. It is this attitude that Paul models when he says: "Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus."
Paul speaks about this attitude to instill in the Philippians a peaceful confidence in Christ. He says, in effect, "Your job is to keep your eyes fixed on Christ - the rest will take care of itself." So great is Paul's confidence that he adds, "And if you have a different attitude, this too God will reveal to you." Our job is to place our confidence in the Lord, to embrace an extreme readiness to be changed and transformed by Him, and then trust Him to work out the details in us.
IF YOU LOVE ME...
Think of any human relationship and complete this phrase: "If you really loved me, you would..."
...buy me that toy?...not take his/her side?...have sex with me?...not second guess me?
I have trouble thinking of any way to complete that sentence that does not result in a manipulative statement, an attempt on the part of one person to control the other through shame and guilt.
Now consider the following: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Is Jesus really dropping a manipulative shame grenade on his followers?
So what if instead we viewed this as a cause-effect relationship? "If you love me, then keeping my commandments will take care of itself. So focus on loving me, keeping your heart's affection on me and on a relationship with me, and the rest will work itself out."
EVANGELIZATION IS A HEART MATTER
In general, we have been far too concerned with controlling people's conduct and not enough focused on the condition of their hearts. The results have been a disaster. "Rules without relationship leads to rebellion" - and so many have rebelled and simply walked out the door. Those who remain often do so out of guilt or mere obligation rather than out of love.
Ministering to others out of this truth requires a great deal more patience with regard to their external flaws. It means not demanding conformity in conduct before a personal commitment to Christ has been cultivated. It is the attitude of the heart that says "My all for Jesus" that provides the fuel for personal transformation.
For such a believer, sin is more symptom than sedition. The assumption being that if your heart is open to the transforming power of Christ, sin becomes the manifestation of the interior bondage from which Christ desires to set you free. "Everyone who sins is a slave of sin" (John 8:34). We do not fault slaves for their condition, we condemn their captors.