Perfection: Being vs. Doing

When Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect” (Matthew 5:48), the word perfect is translated from the Greek τέλειοι meaning mature (like a tree bearing fruit), full grown, having reached its end, complete, etc. This is a much different idea than our Greek/Western conception of perfect, which has more to do with giving a flawless performance (like a musician on stage not making a single mistake).

Perfection, as Jesus is speaking about it here, is a state of being. A fully developed tree will bear fruit as a natural consequence of what it is. Conversely, if a tree has not reached a condition of maturity, it will not be able to do the things a mature tree can do. A young sapling cannot produce fruit, no matter how hard it tries.

Jesus’s injunction was to be perfect, not to do perfect. There is a major difference.

The fruits of a perfect person will naturally follow as a consequence of who they are. On the other hand, if a person has not first developed a perfect heart it does not matter how hard they try to be good; they will fail. They are wrestling with the fallen nature of their own flesh and will inevitably give way to it.

“For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water; wherefore, a man being a servant of the devil cannot follow Christ; and if he follow Christ he cannot be a servant of the devil” (Moroni 7:11)

The natural man is carnal, sensual, and devilish. It is a bitter fountain, and cannot bring forth good water. Any attempt to do so will be in vain because it goes contrary to its own nature.

If a bitter fountain wants to bring forth good water, no amount of grit and willpower will make it so. It must first become a good fountain, and then good water will flow naturally. Because we are always subject to our nature, it is our nature that must change. When our nature is fallen and corrupt, sin will naturally follow; when our nature is godly, godliness will naturally follow.

Doing Perfect

The way we’ve come to talk about perfection culturally misses the being aspect. Perhaps this a consequence of reading the scriptures with Greek eyes; the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.

Growing up in the south, I encountered Southern Baptist pamphlets and handouts from time to time. The narrative usually went something like this: “Have you ever wondered where you’ll go when you die? Here’s a quick way to figure it out: Have you ever sinned? Even one time? God’s standard is absolute perfection, and if you’ve sinned even once, you’ve already disqualified yourself from heaven when you die. If you’ve sinned, you’re a sinner, and sinners go to hell—it doesn’t matter how many other good things you try to do. As a matter of fact, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). We deserve nothing less than hell. BUT! There’s good news. God sent His Son Jesus as a perfect sacrifice for our sins so we can be forgiven, and live with Him again. And because He was perfect, all we have to do is believe in Him, and His perfect life will cover us. So if you want to be saved, confess your belief in Jesus in this prayer…”

This is what I call, “Straw-man Salvation.”

Do you hear the doing perfect language embedded into this story? “If you make one mistake, if there’s one error on your spiritual report card, you’re through.” “If you don’t walk up on stage and give an absolutely flawless performance, then God will reject you when you come to Him.”

So this is “the problem” as Christianity puts it. The “solution” is that we need to turn in a perfect report card, and Christ will let us turn in His.

The restored gospel tells a fundamentally different story, but because we’re surrounded by a culture that still toils under the darkness of apostasy, we’ve unconsciously inherited many of its traditions and assumptions. Consequently, not seeking to understand the fulness of the gospel on its own terms results in our being pulled back into the current of mainstream Christianity. Very frequently we teach restored doctrine with a protestant twist, or protestant doctrine with a Mormon twist.

For example, many of us still hold onto the notion that “getting into heaven” is a matter of giving a flawless performance, and that if we’ve made a single mistake we’ve disqualified ourselves and therefore need a Savior. But instead of saying “heaven” we say “the Celestial Kingdom.”

Because we tend to accept these premises, approaching the how of salvation is a bit awkward. What do we have to do to make sure we have it good in the next life? We know ordinances by correct authority fit somewhere in the mix, and also “enduring to the end.” The commandments seem important, but most of us believe that we can’t keep them all which is why we needed a Savior in the first place. The temple fits somewhere in the mix… but at the end of the day we don’t really find out how well we did on everything until judgment day… right? On the other side of all this, people usually come out with a few different conclusions.

One position that’s become popular in the last 30 years is that once we’ve made the covenant to follow Christ through baptism, we’re “in” the kingdom, and will be “in” the kingdom unless we decide to leave. This idea posits that once we’ve made the covenant, and just have the desire to follow Christ, He makes up for all of our imperfections and can let us into heaven. It’s compared to a child who wants to buy a bicycle, who then works and saves every penny for a few weeks only to find out she has nowhere near what it will actually cost. Her father then tells her that if she’ll give him everything she’s saved with a hug and a kiss, he’ll take care of the rest. This is virtually the same as the protestant position, but just swaps “confession of belief” for “ordinances.” Its contingent concern is still in the doing.

There are other variations of this that are a bit more nebulous and conditional. Some people will say you have to do your best before Christ’s mercy kicks in. If you only give half the effort you could have, for example, you won’t have done enough on your part to inherit Celestial glory. Others will say “if you’re worthy of a temple recommend, you’re worthy of the Celestial Kingdom.” Or, “you just need to be heading in the right direction when you die,” or “stay in the mainstream of the Church and die in full fellowship.”

These all miss the point, and leave people feeling a little uncertain. Many are unsure about their standing with God, and question whether or not they’re doing enough to be saved. They question whether all of their sacrifices, time, and effort are enough to meet God’s demands.

A comment made frequently in Sunday school is: “The Lord doesn’t ask us to be perfect, He just wants us to try our best.” This is generally met with an enthusiastic nod of agreement from everyone in the room, because everyone who has tried beating their flesh into submission knows it doesn’t work. They conclude, “we can’t be perfect, and the Lord doesn’t expect us to do anything out of our control… and besides, isn’t that what a Savior is for? If we could be perfect, we wouldn’t need a Savior. We just need to do our best, and He’ll make up the difference.”

There’s a major problem with this line of thinking though, and that is that “do your best” is not a principle of the gospel. This is to fundamentally miss this point of what this life and the atonement are all about.

To go back to our fountain analogy, it’s as though most people are saying: Did the fountain ever produce any bad water? If it did, it can’t go to heaven. However, if it accepts Jesus (either by confession or ordinance) then it can be forgiven for producing bad water and can be a fountain in heaven. Or, if it accepts Jesus and then tries its best to produce good water, He’ll make up for the bad water it produces so that it can be a fountain in heaven.

When people view salvation this way, their main concern is forgiveness of past sins. However, what the fountain needs is not merely to be forgiven (although that’s an important first step), but to be fundamentally changed. If a bad fountain is forgiven but not changed, it will continue to produce bad water. Put another way, sin is just a symptom of a deeper issue. If the deeper issue is never treated, bandaids won’t fix it.

Consider this for a moment: do you believe people will continue to sin in heaven?

If the answer is yes, then what do you think will make heaven any different than the world we currently live in, or the church you currently attend?

If the answer is no, then in order to dwell in God’s presence you will need to be sinless; not just forgiven of past sins, but you must never commit any kind of sin again. That prospect on its own might create a lot of anxiety and discouragement; will we just be anxiously trying to stay in line, fearing the slightest misstep will result in our being kicked out? That sounds like a perfectionist’s hell.

Some people are under the impression that our desires will be magically changed once we’re resurrected. Alma tells us that this not the case; in the resurrection, we will in fact be restored back to exactly what we were in the life:

“Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration [resurrection], that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness. And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.

“And now behold, is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature? O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful. (Alma 41:10-13).

We really have to consider the implications of this scripture. If we will be restored to exactly what we are here, desires, nature, and all—then even if salvation was all about forgiveness, it wouldn’t be too long after being admitted back into God’s presence that we would sin again. And then, like Adam and Eve, we would be cut off from His presence all over again. By its nature, a bad fountain will produce bad water.

So what is the solution? Is there any hope at all if our nature and disposition is to sin?

Now we’re getting to the heart of the problem. It’s not about bad marks on our report card—it’s about who we are.

Being Perfect

Instead of thinking about sin as a mistake, misstep, or hitting a wrong note, think of sin as a symptom. It’s a symptom that something in your heart is not right. It’s bent out of place, or facing the wrong way, or not arranged right.

What we need is not to be saved in our sins, but from our sins.

As Helaman told his sons: “And remember also the words which Amulek spake unto Zeezrom, in the city of Ammonihah; for he said unto him that the Lord surely should come to redeem his people, but that he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins” (Helaman 5:10; emphasis added).

It’s important to really think about this. Do you believe Christ came to save us in our sins, or from our sins? Is His atonement for the purpose of saving us despite the fact that we sin, or is it about pulling us out of that lifestyle entirely? Do you believe “he will justify in committing a little sin” (2 Nephi 28:8)? Or that in the resurrection, we will be restored “from sin to happiness” (Alma 41:10)?

Consider what the Lord told Alma, “Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; and thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 27:25-26).

The purpose of the gospel is not just about being forgiven, or “making up the difference,” but being fundamentally changed. The Savior is the Master Physician, come to heal us (3 Nephi 9:13). He intends to change our nature from being bitter fountains to pure ones. If our hearts are not changed, we will have a hard time producing good fruit. When our hearts are changed, good fruit will naturally follow.

As He spoke through Ezekiel: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:26-28; cf. Jeremiah 31:33-34).

We see what this looks like with the people of King Benjamin: “the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent… has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). Or as Alma taught, “Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceedingly great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God” (Alma 13:12).

Consider how different your life would be if the very desire to sin was rooted out of your heart. Consider how different things would be if instead of trying to wrestle with the flesh, God’s will became your will; if His heart was your heart.

C.S. Lewis wisely observed Christ’s intention: “Give me all of you! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want you! All of you! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to kill it! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them all over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self—in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart.”

When His will becomes our will, and His heart becomes our heart, Satan will have no power over us, and sinlessness will be the natural fruit that follows. Consider how this will be the condition of all living in the millennial day: “And Satan shall be bound, that he shall have no place in the hearts of the children of men… And the earth shall be given unto them for an inheritance; and they shall multiply and wax strong, and their children shall grow up without sin unto salvation” (D&C 45:55, 58).

So many of us long for a life in the millennium—that perfect day of peace when Christ will reign personally upon the earth—but what do you suppose will make it so? Why will Satan be bound? Nephi gives the answer: “because of the righteousness of his people, Satan has no power; wherefore, he cannot be loosed for the space of many years; for he hath no power over the hearts of the people, for they dwell in righteousness, and the Holy One of Israel reigneth” (1 Nephi 22:26; emphasis added).

Satan’s being bound is not an arbitrary decision made by God to suddenly remove our opposition. He will be bound because those on earth will have overcome; they will be sufficiently sanctified that they have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. Satan will have no power over their hearts because His temptations will no longer appeal to them. This is the only way something like Zion gets established; our hearts must all be purified.

The law of Zion is the law of the Celestial kingdom (D&C 105:5). Only those who abide the law of the Celestial kingdom (Zion) can abide in a Celestial glory (D&C 88:22). As the prophet taught, “any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a celestial law, and the whole law too” (TPJS p. 331).

Because the resurrection is only a restoration of what we already are, the only ones who will be resurrected to a celestial glory are those who have already become celestial here. Those who have allowed the Lord to transform them into celestial, Zion-like individuals in this life.

“For notwithstanding they die, they also shall rise again, a spiritual body. They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened. Ye who are quickened by a portion of the celestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness” (D&C 88:27-29).

These are the kinds of people who establish Zion on earth, or at least live a Zion-lifestyle when no such society is present: “These are they who are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly place, the holiest of all. These are they who have come to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of Enoch, and of the Firstborn… These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (see D&C 76:54-69).

Enoch’s city didn’t just happen to have more willpower than everyone else; they were fundamentally transformed by the grace of Christ. When we think of those living in the millennial day, or Celestial kingdom, who have no disposition to sin, and over whom Satan has no power—that is what we must become here and now, through the atonement of Christ.

If this is truly something we can (indeed must) become in this life, what is the process? How do we become the kinds of people who can live a Celestial law? Who bind Satan because of their righteousness? Who have no disposition to do evil, and who cannot look upon sin save it be with abhorrence?

More on this in the following post…

5 thoughts on “Perfection: Being vs. Doing”

  1. Thanks Cameron. Your writing is so crisp. It was like biting into a young apple after only knowing apple sauce. It helped me contextualize justification and sanctification in a new way (“doer” of perfection rather than a “be-er” of perfection). Now I’ve written “beer” and have taken this on a whole new trajectory! Something I would love you to write more about and develop is the portion about the law of restoration that Alma taught and the implications of Alma’s teachings on our understanding of the resurrection. Thank you for your wonderful words. I appreciate it. Tim

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      1. When I was little, I heard statements by the Brethren that led me to believe the resurrection would change us. But I have come to see that the Law of Restoration taught by Alma says the opposite. In the late 90s, I remember Elder Samuelson (I think it was) at a BYU stake conference (this was before he was President) tell us that in the resurrection God would fix things — fix us — so not to worry about our problems and just stay faithful (who knows what he was talking about, but this was a few years after the Family Proclamation came out and I viewed it as a veiled reference to those who are gay).

        Does the resurrection change us physically? It seems so. So why can it not change our spiritual natures, too? If it can cure baldness, why not badness? But I sense that Alma is correct, and that we aren’t magically transformed just because we’re resurrected into a better person. Maybe these thoughts are a reflection of my lack of comprehension of the resurrection itself. The mechanism for a body that has been eaten by sharks to return into the world — by what instrumentality? If the resurrection is an ordinance, how is it performed upon those who do not have bodies? It will be hard to lay hands. Or is resurrection more organic, in that it is a rebirth where we are born anew into a different kingdom? But that does not make sense because the saints appeared after Christ’s resurrection weren’t babes.

        Nowadays I read the following quote by Brigham Young and scratch my head:

        “I think it has been taught by some that as we lay our bodies down, they will so rise again in the resurrection with all the impediments and imperfections that they had here; and that if a wife does not love her husband in this state she cannot love him in the next. This is not so. Those who attain to the blessing of the first or celestial resurrection will be pure and holy, and perfect in body. Every man and woman that reaches to this unspeakable attainment will be as beautiful as the angels that surround the throne of God. If you can, by faithfulness in this life, obtain the right to come up in the morning of the resurrection, you need entertain no fears that the wife will be dissatisfied with her husband, or the husband with the wife; for those of the first resurrection will be free from sin and from the consequences and power of sin.” Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, pp. 24-25.

        Keep up the good work, spreading light and truth and the word of God! Tim

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  2. Thanks for this post. Very useful.
    I recently read a book by Marcus Borg. He points out that in Luke’s version of the sermon on the mount Jesus says “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.” (CEB) Borg believes that the perfection of the Father lies in his compassion and that Jesus main message is trying to get his hearers to be likewise compassionate. This fits well with your essay and agrees with Mormon’s statement that if we have charity it will be well with us.

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  3. Very nice explanation. It gives Alma 34:32, a new meaning. “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.”

    I suspect the great god Jehovah will have boundless mercy for his people. However, it also goes against the nature of God to just bump us up to the next step to make it easier. We are all saved by the same principles and the same levels of relative effort.

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