As Christians we believe that God and Christ are totally and absolutely perfect in every way imaginable. Therefore, the commandment that we should become perfect to the same degree as our Father in heaven is perfect seems like an impossible task, yet that is what the scriptures indicate we should be striving to become. For this reason, biblical theologians, scholars, and even ordinary believers have tried to understand exactly what it means for us to be "perfect."
This question has have been debated among Christians for centuries and there have been multiple differing explanations. The most common is that the Greek word "teleios" which is translated as "perfect" means "complete, finished, fully grown, or mature." Thus people say that being perfect means that we should be complete in Christ, or fully grown or mature in our relationship with Christ, but that is a vague, almost meaningless explanation. More than that, how does that make us perfect in the same way our Father in heaven is perfect?
The problem with this question is in not realizing that there are two different kinds of perfections but we tend to only think of being perfect in the sense of keeping all the commandments of God all the time. In other words in this kind of perfection we never, ever break any of the commandments of God and when that happens we are said to be sinless because breaking any of God's commandments is the definition of committing a sin. Under this definition, we can call this kind of perfection sinless perfection or legal perfection since we are perfectly obeying the law of God. However, to most people, this kind of perfection seems impossible to achieve.
But there is another kind of perfection that better describes our Father in heaven. Although God perfectly keeps all the commandments all the time and is therefore totally sinless, his perfection includes much more than this because it goes beyond merely obeying the law. His perfection is in his character, his attitude, his thoughts, desires, and actions. We can call this God's perfection or godly perfection.
To illustrate the difference between these two kinds of perfections let's look at just one of God's laws. The law says Thou shalt not steal, however a person may obey this law only because they fear the consequences of violating it. In other words, if there wasn't a law preventing them from stealing, they would do it. In this sense, the law acts as a barrier that keeps people from doing something they would like to do but can't.
Or there is the attitude where someone keeps the commandments, not because they really want to but because they think this is what they have to do in order to inherit the kingdom of God. In their mind they think that once they get to heaven they'll be rewarded for their diligence in doing what God asks of them. Thus, they grudgingly try to keep the commandments under the mistaken impression that this is pleasing to God and that he will then shower blessing upon them for their efforts.
However, someone who has attained God's perfection wouldn't steal even if they were allowed to. This kind of person doesn't see the law as a hindrance to their desires but loves the law because they fully agree with it. In fact, their character is such that they could have written the law themselves if it didn't already exist. This kind of person doesn't need to be told what the law says because their character, attitude, thoughts, desires, and actions are the same as what the law prescribes. Thus, to them keeping the law of God is as natural as breathing.
There is a word that describes this kind of character. It's called being holy. The Lord has revealed that one of the names of the father is "man of holiness" (Moses 7:35) and the scriptures not only tell us that we are to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect but God also said, "Ye shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 11:44). To be holy is to have thoughts that are continually clean and pure, language that is ennobling, and deeds that are always thoughtful and caring. It is the never ending resolve to be like him who is the holiest of all.
But godly perfection isn't something that happens to us in one sudden moment. It's something that we have to learn to develop and that is a long, slow process that takes place a little at a time. When we not only finally come to understand the necessity of keeping the laws of God, but more importantly come to appreciate and love keeping the law in its entirety then we will have arrived at the point where our desire is to do good continually.
The problem is that we learn through trial and error, and each time we commit an error, we commit sin. Since even just one tiny sin can keep us from inheriting the kingdom of God, how can we learn to become godly perfect without committing sin? The answer is, we can't.
This is where the atonement of Christ comes in. When we take upon ourselves the covenant with Christ that we make at the time of our baptism, our former sins are washed away. When this happens, we instantly are made sinless. And as we continue to commit more sin, through our repentance we can have those sins wiped away as though they had never happened. Thus, because of the atonement we become sinless and are therefore worthy to live in the sinless environment of the celestial kingdom.
However, a person can live in the celestial kingdom without being godly perfect. In other words, a person doesn't have to be perfect in order to be admitted into the celestial kingdom.
To understand why all we have to do is look at who we were when we lived as spirit beings with our Father in heaven. Back then we were sinless because we never violated any of God's laws and that's because the thought of doing something contrary to God's will never entered our mind. We didn't even imagine doing such a thing. As such we were legally perfect but that's only because we didn't know what sin was.
But back then we were not, nor could we be perfect in the same way that our heavenly Father is. If that wasn't the case, then there would have been no reason for us to come here to earth. As spirit beings we didn't know the difference between good and evil and without that knowledge we didn't have a real choice of whether to sin or not. But because God knows what evil is and chooses to always do good, when he has the freedom to choose evil, that makes him legally perfect. But he has progressed far beyond just choosing good over evil. He has become all good or all righteous in both thought as well as in deed and that is what makes him godly perfect.
Therefore, it is clear that just because someone lives in the celestial kingdom doesn't automatically make them as perfect as God. However, to become exalted and receive all that the Father has does require us to become godly perfect, and that condition takes a long, long time of practice to acquire. Thus, the atonement of Christ makes us sinless or legally perfect beings, which therefore allows us to continue our progression towards learning how to become godly perfect, if that is our desire.
Since there are two different kinds of perfections there must be two different kinds of processes for us to go through in order to receive full salvation.
It's been said that to become perfect we must do our part and that whatever we lack, the atonement makes up the difference, however, this is not an accurate way of illustrating how we become legally or sinlessly perfect. The scriptures tell us that both the blood of Christ and baptism washes away our sins (Revelation 1:5; 1 Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5) and that through repentance we can obtain a forgiveness of the sins we commit on a daily basis.
For example, take the case of someone who has committed a serious sin and confesses their transgression before their bishop or stake president. There is a process of repentance they must go through and when the proper priesthood authorities determine that their repentance is complete, God no longer remembers the sin they've committed (D&C 58:42). That means their sin has been wiped off the books. It's gone! Once we are forgiven of any sin we've committed, it's as though that sin was never made.
The atonement of Christ doesn't "make up the difference," it renders a verdict of "not guilty" no matter what we've done wrong, and we are set free of the consequences of our sins. Rather than making up the difference between what we can do and what the law requires, Jesus simply forgives us of everything we've done wrong.
Since Jesus has said that he will forgive whom he will forgive (D&C64:10) then it is up to him to decide whether to forgive some of our sins, all of our sins, or none of our sins. But since Christ is fair and just, he doesn't make this decision arbitrarily. There is a standard or criteria he uses on which he bases his decision. That standard is the sincerity of our heart. The more sincere our repentance is, the more Jesus is inclined to forgive us of our sins. And the opposite is just as true. This is why Jesus said, "if they would not repent [then] they must suffer even as I" (D&C 19:17). And the reason why they must suffer is because their sins have not been forgiven because they would not properly repent of them.
This is why it's not all that important to Christ how much or how little we do . What is much more important to him is how little or how much our heart is inclined in faithfulness toward him. It's not what we do that is important but why we do what we do that makes all the difference in our salvation. The story of the widow's mite is the perfect example of this principle. Although the Pharisees made an offering consisting of much more money than the widow did, she gave a far greater percentage of what she had than they did. They gave out of the abundance of their money but she gave out of the abundance of her heart.
Exactly how our sins are washed away is a subject for another discussion but suffice it to say for now that this is one of the functions of the Holy Ghost. But his role as a sanctifier becomes even more important when we consider how we achieve godly perfection.
When what motivates someone to keep the commandments of God with all of their heart is their love for God and their love for their neighbor, then they are learning to exhibit the kind of love that motivated Christ to lay down his life for us. As Paul told the Romans, "Love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:8,10). It is Christ's pure love for the law that makes his character what it is, and if we want to have the same character as God then we have to learn how to develop this same kind of love for God and for our neighbor as Christ has.
But how do we go about developing that kind of character?
It's been said that the more we read the scriptures the more we come to understand and know God's character, and once we know it we know what to emulate. But again, this is not an accurate example. It's one thing to know someone's character but it's an entirely different matter to imitate it.
We can illustrate this by looking at a contemporary example. Mark Zuckerberg developed the program for Facebook and became a multimillionaire at a very early young age. Although someone could intimately study every aspect of his life, and try to emulate everything he did to become successful, it is still unlikely that they would become as successful as him because there is something else to Zuckerberg's success that can't be quantified, categorized, and duplicated. There is an intangible quality, a talent, or native ability that someone possesses that is often what makes the difference between them being ordinary and being great.
Perhaps a more accurate illustration of how we develop the same character of God is that of association. If a happy person associates with someone who is always complaining, whining, being grumpy, and looks on the negative side of things, eventually those traits will rub off on the happy person and they will find themselves becoming less happy and exhibiting a negative attitude. By the same token, someone who tends to look at the gloomy side of life but who closely associates themselves with someone who is happy all the time, will soon find that their attitude is becoming more positive.
It is a proven fact that the people who we tend to associate with have a direct influence on our thoughts, feelings, and desires. This is why parents are always concerned about who their children associate with. In most cases parents have a strong influence on their children which is evidenced by how those children often exhibit the same kind of attitudes, behavior, and preferences as their parents.
People tend to associate with likeminded people. One of the reasons why we attend church is to associate with people who hold the same spiritual values we do because this helps strengthen our beliefs and better motivates us to live according to those beleifs. In his book "Think and Grow rich" author Napoleon Hill says that people who become successful are those who surrounded themselves with and associate with other successful people. All of these examples provide us with abundance evidence that it is our association with others that shape our thoughts and actions which eventually determines our destiny.
And the same is true of developing divine qualities. The Holy Spirit is a spirit being who is as holy as God and the more we associate ourselves with him the more we tend to become like him. In other words, we tend to become holier just because of the holy influence that the Spirit has on us. The closer we are to him the more we feel the influence of holiness and the more that influence affects our thoughts, desires, attitudes, and actions. In a sense, his holiness "rubs off" on us which has the effect of changing our carnal nature into a godly nature.
The more frequent and closer we stay to the Holy Ghost the more our thoughts are influenced by his presence and the more inclined we are to act in a righteous manner. But just the opposite is also true. The less frequently we associate with the Holy Ghost the more inclined we are to let our thoughts be influenced by the things of the world. Since it is our thoughts that determine our desires, which affects our actions, we need the Holy Ghost to aid us in learning to think like God does. And it is when our thoughts become the same as God's that we will finally have become godly perfect.
In addition to this, the Holy Ghost also gives us light and knowledge about God that can come from no other source. The scriptures tell us that no man can truly know God through his natural senses so it is the role of the Holy Ghost to reveal that knowledge to us (1 Corinthians 2:11). Thus, one of the things the Holy Ghost does for us is to illuminate our mind, help us see truth more clearly, and show us the path we need to travel to become like God. But when we get away from God's Spirit, our view of things becomes darker and less clear.
For this reason it's not possible for us to become holy without the influence of God's Spirit in our life. It is through God's Spirit that is passed onto us, or shared with us or used by us that we learn how to become holy. It is the Holy Ghost who shows, teaches, guides, and influences us in our efforts to develop the same character as God's and it is in this way that we learn how to love others with the same pure love that Christ has. And as we follow the Spirit's guiding influence we slowly find that we ourselves are naturally becoming holier, until one day we find that we have become as holy as God, meaning that we have the same character, attitude, thoughts, desires, and actions that God has. And when that day comes then we will be godly perfect and worthy of being exalted.
But we don't make it to that point without effort. Despite all that the Holy Ghost does for us, we have to do our part. Just like we can't do the job of the Holy Ghost for him, in like manner he will not do our job for us. We learn by doing and where there is no effort there is no growth. It is a truth that nothing great is ever achieved without effort, and the greater the accomplishment, the greater the effort must be.
If the greatest gift God has to offer us is eternal life then it follows that the greatest effort on our part must be made to obtain it. But without the atonement and the gift of the Holy Ghost, no matter how much effort we put forth, it would be utterly impossible for anyone to gain eternal life on their own. That's why, with God, all things are possible.
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