I believe that a major misunderstanding exists among some Christians and among many non-Christians. I am speaking of the need for moral perfection, flawless performance of God’s law, or absolute sinless living. When a Christian has this misunderstanding, the consequences may be serious. The Christian who believes that God demands absolute sinless living may give up when he understands that he has fallen short. When a non-Christian has this misunderstanding there may also be serious consequences. It may cause him to reject Christianity, and not even try, reasoning, “I can’t do it. I am not good enough.” It may cause him to reject instruction from a Christian; he may reason, “Why should I listen to you? You, yourself, have sinned.”
It is true that we should seek to avoid sin (1 John 2:1). We should not engage in willful sin (Hebrews 10:26). We should not turn from God’s holy commandments (2 Peter 2:21-22). Our manner of life should not be one described as walking in darkness (1 John 1:6-10).
However, it is not true that sinless perfection is needed to please God. Other than Jesus, which man or woman in the Bible was without sin? David was guilty of adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11-12). Yet, he was forgiven (2 Samuel 12:13). He would say, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity” (Psalm 32:1-2). Peter denied the Lord three times (Matthew 26:34 cf. 26:69-75), and mistreated certain Gentile Christians due to peer-pressure (Galatians 2:11-21). Yet, he was clearly a beloved member of the church. He would write, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away…” (1 Peter 1:3-4).
What does God expect? He expects us to live our lives by faith (Galatians 3:10-12; Hebrews 10:35-39). He expects us to repent and pray when we know that we have sinned (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:7-9). He expects us to live a life striving to follow His will. He does not expect us to never sin.
What about Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”? The word ‘perfect’ (teleioi) does not refer in context to sinless perfection. It refers to mature love, which loves not simply neighbors and brethren, but humanity, even one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). We must develop a heart which cares about others. Wayne Jackson points out, “one must remember, however, that agape love, is not an emotional feeling, such as one would have for a family member or close friend. Instead, it entails a dedication to the person’s eternal welfare… God is our example. He sends providential blessings upon both the just and unjust (v. 45). This kind of ‘perfect’ love, manifested by God, is the goal for which all must strive (v. 48)” (Wayne Jackson, A New Testament Commentary, p. 11).
What about 1 Peter 1:15-16, “But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (cf. Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 20:26)? This is speaking of the model or standard of life. Albert Barnes comments, “The meaning here is, that the model or example in accordance with which they were to frame their lives, should be the character of that God who had called them into his kingdom” (studylight.org). In context, we are not to direct our lives according to pre-Christian sinful lusts. We are to seek to conform ourselves to the holiness of God, living as obedient children (1 Peter 1:13-16). This is speaking of direction in life, not absolute sinlessness. We are to pursue a certain course in life. “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). There is a big difference between a Christian trying to pursue holiness but who fall short, and one who is living a life pursuing his own lusts.
We should understand that the only way that we can be counted as righteous is due to Jesus. Paul said, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). Again, “not having my own righteousness… but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:9).