“God doesn’t expect you to be perfect.”
Many Christians say this, but is it true? Their intentions are good. We want to encourage fellow saints who are waging war with sin. We want to acknowledge sin’s reality rather than hiding behind a carefully curated façade. We also want to defuse tension as we talk to unbelievers about our faith, nuancing our approach to avoid a legalistic message.
But when we lower God’s expectations for his people, and de-emphasize the seriousness of his command for holiness, we actually cheapen his grace and lose sight of his spectacular promise.
In his first letter, Peter writes to believers suffering persecution for following Jesus. He addresses them as “elect exiles of the dispersion,” emphasizing how their temporary world, along with all its trials, will give way to an “to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4).
He details the magnificence of God’s mercy in regenerating them (v. 3), and the protection of God’s power to guard them (v. 5). His words overflow with the reality of divine grace.
But then, rather than assuring us that this gracious God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, Peter challenges us:
As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (vv. 15–16)
This is serious. Peter allows no wiggle-room here. We can’t interpret the verse in a halfhearted way. Holiness defines God’s essence, and since God calls his people to be like him, holiness isn’t optional for us. The Holy One commands his chosen ones to be holy. No exceptions.
And if we have any doubts about the seriousness of Peter’s command, we should read Jesus’s equally serious words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Surely “perfect” means “Just try your best,” right? Not according to Paul: “For it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal. 3:10).
God actually does demand perfection. There is no room in these commands for snapping at your kids during the Monday-morning rush. There is no exception for grumbling about the weather. There is no loophole for a moment’s lustful glance. There is no leeway for failing to worship. We can’t get around God’s requirement; the command is serious.
Yet within the command itself is a spectacular promise: “You shall be holy.” God is saying, You will grow in holiness. You will be conformed into my image. I will see to it. The holy Lord who ransoms a people who were once slaves to sin now calls us “obedient children” (1 Pet. 1:14) and empowers us to be holy as we traverse the earth as exiles. He will do it, and his promise is as true as the blood of Jesus is precious (v. 19).
God commands holiness, and so he gave us Jesus.
Does this promise lessen the seriousness of the command? No, the promise upholds it. The seriousness of God’s command means it’s impossible for us to fulfill—but his promise means the impossible is now possible because of Jesus. In the words of Augustine, God gives us what he commands of us. What does he give, exactly? For believers in Christ, his spectacular promise is three-fold:
- You are holy. You are covered in Christ’s righteousness and declared righteous—justified—in God’s sight, now identified as holy and beloved children.
- You are being made holy. You are becoming more like Christ—sanctified—as his Spirit powerfully works obedience within you.
- You will be made holy. When you exit this earth and enter heaven, beholding Jesus’s glory, you will be made like him, fully and perfectly holy as he is—glorified.
God commands holiness, and so he gave us Jesus. He made good on his spectacular promise to send a Redeemer, to save his people from their sins (Isa. 53:11). He makes good on his promise to give his people new hearts and put his Spirit within them (Ezek. 36:26). And he will make good on his promise to complete the good work he began in us on the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6).
As we wait for that day, we wait as justified children of God. We wait with the sanctifying Spirit at work within us. We wait with a new power to obey.
Before God put new hearts within us, our desires were not for him but for ourselves. We loved our sin and were mastered by it. We didn’t want fellowship with our Creator or the holiness that brings him glory.
In our eyes, God’s commands revealed him as an uptight dictator holding out on us, just as Eve thought God was holding out on her. Even when we tried to obey, we found we couldn’t. Our failure to be holy caused us to throw up our hands in defeat.
But isn’t this the point? Grace is most beautiful to people who know they don’t deserve it and can’t earn it. Jesus came to our rescue through his perfect obedience, because we couldn’t possibly rescue ourselves.
And when he saved us by his grace—dying on the cross as the holy, sinless sacrifice for unholy, disobedient sinners—he freed us from sin’s grip and gave us new hearts. He renewed our desires. Now we love him, and now we love what he loves, so we pursue holiness through his Spirit, who upholds us with all the power we need.
When the temptation arises to snap at your spouse, or when a click of the mouse brings an opportunity for lust, remember God’s call to perfection. He isn’t indifferent to your sin. He doesn’t make an exception for it. Instead, he gives you everything you need to fight it.
God expects you to be perfect, yes. But not because you can be—because Jesus has been, is, and always will be perfect. He imputes his holiness to you as a beloved child of God. He gives you his Spirit, who works obedience within you to bring Christ glory. And he will see to it that you make it to heaven, where his spectacular promise of perfect holiness will be completed within you.