Photo from BBCGoodGood.com.
For breakfast this morning, my wife made some wonderful blueberry pancakes from scratch–the kind that use real, plump blueberries. Wow, so delicious. But our 4-year-old granddaughter turned her nose up at the first few we offered her, apparently noting some defect in coloration. “I’ll wait for a perfect one,” she said. I gently challenged that sentiment with a smile and a little joke: “Well, don’t you know that nothing in life is really perfect. Except grandfathers, grandmothers, and Mommy and Daddy.” She promptly burst into tears. I was so surprised and asked her what was wrong. “It was something from you,” she said, sobbing. What? Then she blurted out the offense: “Nobody is perfect except Heavenly Father and Jesus!” Ouch.
That would be the first of two major theological blunders that got me in hot water this morning. The other came when it was time for the blessing on the food, and I errantly suggested that we have a “blueberry prayer” since we were blessing blueberry pancakes. That, of course, signaled a potentially apostate approach to prayer that she would later discuss with Mom. But she still loves her grandpa, in spite of his occasional departures from orthodoxy.
My tender granddaughter’s crying over a perceived error on the topic of perfection was endearing, unlike the related whining about “perfection” that I have faced from some critics. One critic, a minister, recently chided me for the alleged Mormon belief that we can progress and one day become perfect, acting as if that were prima facie evidence for our non-Christian status. The whining is based on misunderstanding similar to that of my granddaughter.
Yes, only God the Father and Jesus Christ are truly perfect, sinless, complete, and independent. They are perfect in every sense of the word. But the word “perfect” in the scriptures can have a range of meanings and perhaps most commonly refers to being complete and whole in some sense, but not necessarily absolutely perfect in all ways like God is. Job was said to be a “perfect” man in Job 1:1 (KJV). Ditto for Noah (Gen. 6:9). Both had obvious shortcomings. Paul said that “we speak wisdom among them that are perfect” (1 Cor. 2:6)–referring not to God but to a mortal audience of imperfect Christians. Paul also urged us to “go on unto perfection” (Heb. 6:1). That language echoes God’s words to Abraham: “walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Gen. 17:1).
Christ also had a few words on this topic. In fact, as God had commanded Abraham, so He directly commanded us to “be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Further, when Christ told the rich young man that he still lacked something in spite of having kept the basic Ten Commandments, His plea for that man to sell all that he had and to come follow Jesus was prefaced with the conditional phrase: “if thou wilt be perfect” (Matthew 19:21). Had the young man accepted the loving request of Jesus, we need not suppose that he would have become instantly infallible, but certainly more complete in his faith and closer to God. This was not the last of Jesus’s utterances setting perfection as our goal. In the great Intercessory Prayer in John 17, He prayed that Christians would have the same kind of unity that He and the Father shared, and then stated: “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:21-23).
In addition to our belittled concept of “perfection,” the LDS idea of progression to grow in faith, virtue, and godliness is often painted by our critics as a heretical, non-Christian invention of Joseph Smith. That appalling concept of progression is also often condemned at the same time with our demonic belief that we must endure to the end to have our salvation made sure, rather than being automatically and irrevocably saved once we accept Christ. Once again, these scandalous Mormon heresies are not actually innovations of Joseph Smith, but teachings of Christ and his apostles. Consider the words of Peter, the leading apostle of the original Twelve, in 2 Peter 1:
1 Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ:
2 Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord,
3 According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:
4 Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9 But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.
10 Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall….
Peter is speaking of steady progression toward the goal of receiving the rich promises that God offers us through the grace of Christ–promises that can help us put on “the divine nature” and share in all things pertaining to life and godliness. This begins with faith in Christ, but we are asked to grow in that faith unto the end, being fruitful, so that our calling and election will be made sure. Otherwise there is indeed a risk that we as Christians can fall. It’s a great summary of LDS teachings in this area–but not so much an innovation as a restoration, in my opinion.
The need to grow and progress in our faith is why we need a Church of Jesus Christ. We need the fellowship and support that the Church provides and the inspired leadership of apostles, prophets, and others for “the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12, see also 4:11-14). This work of perfecting is only possible through the Atonement of Christ, whereby He will take us fallen mortals and turn us into glorious sons and daughters who will be “like Him” as the scriptures boldly declare (1 John 3:2) and who will then be joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8).
C.S. Lewis offered a healthy perspective on God’s command for us to be perfect. This passage comes from Mere Christianity:
The command “Be ye perfect” [Matt. 5:48] is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good his words. If we let Him–for we can prevent Him, if we choose –He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to Him perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said.
So yes, “perfection” can have different meanings in the scriptures, but ultimately, God’s goal is to bring about the eternal life and exaltation of man (Moses 1:39), cleansing us of all sin and corruption through the power of His Son’s Atonement, giving us glorious and perfected bodies fully in His glorious image, and helping us to partake of all things that pertain to godliness as we put on His divine nature. This is the ancient Christian concept of theosis, in my view, for which we are also widely condemned as being non-Christian heretics. Disagree if you will, but recognize that it is at least possible for sincere modern Christians to find a reasonable, biblical, and early Christian basis for such views. It’s nothing to whine about.