The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
One of the things I always heard growing up playing sports was the old adage, "practice makes perfect." You know what? I hated that saying. I still do. Why? Because no matter how hard I practiced, I never achieved perfection…not even close. In fact, this bit of encouragement proves to be patently false when you hold it up against actual statistics and data. The numbers don't lie. Practice doesn't make perfect. And before anyone counters with the popular amendment that "perfect practice makes perfect," save your breath. I won't argue with you that continually practicing with bad habits only makes for bad habits when it counts in the game. That is true. But even "perfect practice," if there is such a thing, still doesn't make for perfect. Case in point: Ted Williams, one of the best baseball players of all time, practiced about as perfectly as anyone can, and he still only hit safely 4 out of 10 times on average, and that was for one single season way back in 1941. Nobody has been able to do it since, and believe me…a lot of very talented people have practiced and failed! Golf is the same way. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicholas, even the great Ben Hogan…none of these great golfers have ever put up a perfect score of "18" for 18 holes, and these guys practice—tirelessly and about as perfectly as any person is able to do! Practice doesn't make perfect. Even perfect practice doesn't make for perfect "game time" results. Face it: Perfection is impossible.
Well…this unfortunate reality does present a real problem when it comes up against the command of Christ that we hear today: "Be perfect, as your heavenly is perfect." That's easier said than done, isn't it? In fact, as we learned last week, keeping the Law of the Lord perfectly is impossible for us. Our sinful flesh is simply incapable. As Paul says, the good we want to do we don't do, and the evil we don't want to do, we keep doing. So what is Christ getting at here in commanding perfection? We know that this can't be done by anyone, no matter how hard they try. Jesus knows that this can't be done by anyone except Himself. As we said last week, Jesus clarifies His Law, removing all the loopholes and escape clauses so as to call us out of sinfully damning and deadly delusions, calling us back to Him in repentance.
Ahh…hold up a minute. You have to admit: In looking over the Gospel lesson for today, these are things we can do in our lives, aren't they? We can offer up our other cheek to someone who slaps us. We can go the extra proverbial mile. We can give to one who begs of us. We can love our enemies, and we can pray for those who persecute us. We can do all these things. That doesn't mean that we do. In fact, if we are honest, there's not one of us here who won't confess that we're downright lousy when it comes to keeping these commands of our Lord.
That brings up a good point though. Because we're lousy at doing these things, does it mean that we shouldn't try? Should we just throw in the towel and chalk it all up as impossible? Should we take God's amazing gift of gracious forgiveness for granted, turning it into "cheap grace?" What do I mean by "cheap grace?" You know exactly what I mean. "I know that this is wrong. I know that this is a sin. But…man, I want to do this! I want a piece of that action. God's a loving and forgiving God. Jesus paid for every sin of the world, so technically that means that I can do whatever my little heart desires and simply ask for forgiveness later, knowing that the slate will be wiped clean. Yes sir, I am free to do whatever I want Monday through Saturday. As long as I show up on Sunday morning, it's all good." That's cheap grace. Sound familiar?
This still doesn't solve the problem that is "perfection," does it? Yes…these are things we can do in our daily lives. Unfortunately, no matter how often we practice and try, we'll never achieve perfection, will we? "No pastor, we won't, which brings us back to the whole concept of repentance." Not so fast! You are correct that repentance is key here, but you're skipping over some very important things by simply bee-lining back to repentance. As I said before, this sort of bee-line approach is a very slippery slope into sinful cheap grace.
The key here is to understand what this word "perfection" means. You see, in the original Greek, that word doesn't necessarily carry with it our 21st century understanding of flawlessness and imperfection. There is certainly that sense in the meaning, but it's not just that sense. The word—telaiō—also carries with it the meaning of fullness and completeness. This same root word was used by Jesus on the cross when He declared victoriously, "It is finished!" It was too. The work of redemption was (and is) perfectly complete in the all-redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
"Okay…so what does this have to do with us being perfect?" Everything! Let's just say that we do keep every one of these commands perfectly in our lives. Let's just say that we do offer up our other cheek to someone who slaps us. We do go the extra proverbial mile. We do give to one who begs of us. We do love our enemies, and we do pray for those who persecute us. Does this mean that we're going to heaven? Not necessarily! Remember: "No one comes to the Father except through Me." Truth be told: You can do all these things "perfectly" and still be shut out from salvation. In fact, many people do. Why? Because they don't have Christ. And who is it who truly has Christ? The one who knows that his works, apart from Christ, are only soiled sinful rags; the one who relies, not on his "perfected works," but Christ's all-redeeming work of perfection on the cross. It is this penitent faith that makes a person "perfect" and righteous before Almighty God. It is this penitent faith in Christ alone that makes the person perfectly whole and complete. "Apart from Me, you can do nothing. Apart from Me, you are nothing."
"Okay pastor, so what are you saying here then? What do I need to do?" Well…I'll tell you what you don't need to do in order to be saved. You don't need to do any sort of good works and good deeds in order to supplement Christ's work on the cross. You're salvation is not a partnership or cooperative sort of thing, as if Christ does His percentage of the work and now you need to pick up the slack. It's not like that at all. Jesus Christ has already done it all. It is finished! This is what we call "justification."
However, does this mean that good works have no part of our life? Absolutely not! You are known by your fruits of faith. You are known by the salt, light, and fruit that your faith bears. This is called "sanctification." You are not complete without Christ. Your good works, apart from Christ, are sinfully incomplete. By the same token, as James says, your faith, absent of good works, is really no faith at all. Faith without works/fruit is nothing but empty lip service. It's calling yourself something that you're not. Living, saving faith naturally bears good, faithful fruit.
In this way, Jesus is not commanding you to be perfect in order to be saved. That can never be. He is commanding us to be perfect—to do these acts of unconditional love and kindness—because we are saved. As I said, context is very important here. Jesus is teaching His disciples. What does a disciple of the Lord look like? What does a faithful Christian look like? A faithful Christian looks like a person who offers up the other cheek to someone who slaps us, who goes the extra proverbial mile, who freely gives to one who begs of us, who loves our enemies, and who prays for those who persecute us. Are these things done "perfectly?" I guess that depends on who you ask and who's eyes you're looking through. From our heavenly Father's perspective, these things, done in humble, unconditional, repentant, Christ-centered faith and love, as imperfect as they may be, are exactly what shows us to be whole and complete in Christ. These things, done in Christ and because of Christ, are the fruits of our saving faith—saving faith in God's undeserved and unmerited grace alone because of Jesus Christ's all-redeeming death and resurrection alone.
May God bless you with this rich and vibrant saving faith so that all your thoughts, words, and deeds may proclaim and profess the joy of your perfect and complete justification in Christ alone. May He bless you with humble repentance in your imperfect life and unconditional loving patience for the imperfect lives all around you. May your Lord bless you with the true faith that actively practices because we're perfect—perfectly redeemed and forgiven in Christ Jesus.
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
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