Summary: There has been a lot of debate about what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Unlike Protestant faiths who believe that such perfection is impossible, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that Jesus does expect us to become just as perfect as God. But how do we do that? Moroni said that we are perfected in Christ, but what does that mean? This article seeks to answer these questions.
During his sermon on the mount, Jesus told his disciples, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
There has been a lot of debate about what Jesus meant by this statement, but nearly all Christians teach that being that perfect is impossible because no one can ever become like God. However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes this statement literally, meaning that Jesus does expect us to become just as perfect as God. For this reason, many members of Christ’s restored church feel that in order to be a good follower of Jesus, he expects us to be perfect in all we do.
This feeling is reinforced when the church teaches the necessity of keeping the commandments and honoring the covenants we’ve made with God in order to be worthy to be saved. The word “worthy” strongly implies that we have to live up to a high standard in order to be accepted by God, and this idea is further reinforced by the scripture that says, “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).
The way many people interpret this is that unless we put in a full effort to do everything God expects of us, then we won’t be saved by God’s grace. Since all of us have faults and weaknesses, no one does everything they can, therefore, no one can live up to that standard. For this reason, many Latter-day Saints feel as though they will never be perfect no matter how hard they try.
In order to attend an LDS temple, a person has to have an interview with their bishop and stake president, and one of the questions asked is, “Do you feel worthy of going to the temple?” Most people struggle with this question precisely because they don’t feel they’re living up to the standard they think God expects of them.
To compound this impression, they see others in the church who seem to be so much more spiritual than themselves and this increases the idea in the minds of some that they don’t have what it takes to be worthy of living forever with a holy God.
Even so, they hold onto the hope that despite their lack of worthiness, God will somehow still allow them into heaven where they will inherit all that he has and become an exalted being like him. This hope is further reinforced when they hear people say that if we do our best, Jesus will make up the difference, and the way many people interpret this is that as long as they faithfully come to church, fulfill the duties of their callings, and don’t commit any serious sins then, in the resurrection, they will suddenly become perfect.
To illustrate this, if someone puts in 10% effort to keep the commandments, and another person puts in 80% effort, there are those who think that in the resurrection God makes up the difference so that everyone will somehow become 100% as holy as God. But the impression this gives is that we can put in a minimal effort in improving our spirituality and Jesus will make up the difference so that in the end everyone will be at the same level of perfection.
However, everything in the gospel suggests that growth comes a little at a time, “line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). The concept of eternal progression strongly suggests that to improve, we have to put forth effort to become better and better until we reach our goal of becoming like God.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s taught that baptism is not the end of our salvation, but ly the beginning because once that ordinance has been performed, there is still a long road ahead that we’re required to travel to reach our destination of salvation. There’s a hymn that Latter-day Saints sing, whose lyrics says, in speaking of Jesus, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. Oh, dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too, and trust in his redeeming blood, and try his works to do” (hymn #194, “There is a Green Hill Far Away”).
What this suggests is that Jesus did his part by dying for our sins and has opened the gate that allows us to travel the strait and narrow path that leads to eternal life, but now we have to do our part, which is to keep traveling that road until we reach our final destination. This is what it means to endure to the end.
But if we are not faithful in doing that, or if we stray from that path, it’s taught that we can lose our salvation. That means, our salvation is dependent on how much effort we put into becoming perfect. For some people in the church, this is what they think Nephi meant when he said, “that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”
Then how do we become perfect? Is it God making up the difference no matter what we do, or does it happen after doing all we can?
Moroni said that we are perfected in Christ (Moroni 10:32), but what does that mean?
When we talk about the atonement of Jesus Christ, we generally refer to it as him paying the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross, but that is just one part of what the atonement is all about.
The apostle Paul explained that God “hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18,19).
To reconcile means “to unite or bring into harmony, or to coexist in peace,” Jesus died to reconcile or unite us with God, the Father, so we can live in harmony with him forever. That’s also what the atonement is all about’. It’s meant to make us at one with God., but that doesn’t happen just because our sins have been forgiven. To truly coexist in harmony with God, requires us to be as perfect as he is. Therefore, the atonement includes helping us to become perfect so we can truly be fully reconciled with God.
But we can’t do that by ourselves any more than someone can lift themselves up by pulling on their own bootstraps. We are not perfected simply because we keep all the commandments (which no one can do 100% of the time), therefore, it requires someone to help us and that is what the atonement of Jesus Christ is designed to do.
The atonement doesn’t just cover the penalty for our sins, but it also includes helping us to become just like our Father in heaven. This is why Moroni invited us to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him,” because without coming to him it is impossible for us to be perfect.
To illustrate this, if you want to paint your house and you don’t have any paint, then you have to go to someone who has enough paint to sell you. In the same way, if we want to become perfect, and we don’t have what it takes to do that, then we have to go to someone who has what we need. Since Jesus is the only one who has what it takes for us to become perfected, then we have to go to him to get what we’re lacking. However, there is a cost to acquiring his services, which is to believe in him enough to do what he asks. We refer to that as keeping his commandments.
But how does Jesus help us become perfect? Does he wave a magic wand and it suddenly happens? Yet, as we’ve just seen, our salvation depends on how much effort we put into becoming perfect. So, which is it? Does Jesus perfect us, or do we perfect ourselves?
The answer is that it’s both. We can’t become saved without Jesus, but he cannot save us without our help. It’s a team effort. Then how does this partnership work?
The answer is by understanding what Moroni said about being perfected “in” Christ.
Jesus told his disciples, “I am in the Father and the Father in Me” (John 14:11). Most Christians interpret this to mean that the Father and the Son are the same being, but, after he had eaten his last meal in mortality, Jesus told his disciples, “Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).
If the Father and the Son are the same person because they are in each other, then how can Jesus be in those who believe in him, and they be in him? Jesus gave us the answer when he prayed to his Father, saying, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:20-21).
When Jesus said he was in the Father and the Father was in him, he meant that he was one with the Father, and not that he and the Father were the same person. In the same way, when we are in Jesus and he is in us, it means that we are one with him and he is one with us. In the words of the apostle Paul, we are of one accord [and] of one mind” (Philippians 2:2) with Jesus. This is what Jesus meant when he said he was in the Father and the Father was in him and it is what it means for Jesus to be in us and us and we in him.
But how do we achieve this oneness?
Jesus told his disciples, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10). In other words, when his word abides in us, then he abides in us (John 15:4). Paul refers to this as having his words written, not in ink on a piece of paper, but written on “the fleshly tablets of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3). It’s when his words become part of who we are, and affects how we think, and how we behave that he is in us and we are in him.
Jesus kept the commandments of his Father, and for this reason he abided, or remained in his Father’s love. It’s when we take God’s word to heart and they abide in us, as they did with Jesus, then God’s love abides with us. It was because the words of God were in Jesus that the Father was in him and he was in the Father, and when the words of God are in us, then we too are in him, and he is in us.
Jesus further explained, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:5), therefore, keeping God’s commandments is a sign of our love for him, and the more we strive to keep his commandments, the more it shows how much we truly do love him. Of course, the opposite is just as true. When we deliberately choose not to keep God’s commandments, it shows our lack of love and respect for him.
But what does this have to do with the atonement helping us become perfect?
Despite our most sincere efforts, it is impossible for us to be as perfect as God, no matter how hard we try. But if we must become perfect in order to be reconciled to God, then it becomes obvious that we need help, and that’s what the atonement is there to do.
After Jesus died for our sins, he didn’t just go to heaven where he sits on a throne, watching us struggling to do something we can’t do. A significant part of his atonement is to help us in our efforts to become reconciled with God, and when that happens then we have become like God.
The scriptures tell us that “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13). It is God’s power that helps us to do his will. Paul understood this when he said, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13). There are some things we can do on our own, but we can’t do everything by ourselves. However, with God’s power, there is nothing we can’t do, and that includes becoming perfect.
The scriptures tell us that it is “because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent” that causes “a mighty change in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). That mighty change of heart doesn’t happen solely by our own efforts but is the result of the power that comes from Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
In one of our hymns we sing, “When other helpers fail and comforts flee; help of the helpless, oh, abide with me” (“Abide with me,” hymn #166). The word “abide” means more than just being with someone. It connotes commitment, faithfulness, steadfastness, and perseverance. When we are committed to keeping God’s commandments, and are faithfully striving to follow them, then Jesus likewise is committed to helping us gain eternal life. But if we are not serious about wanting God’s salvation, then there is no point in him helping us achieve something we don’t really want.
To illustrate this, suppose that someone wants to become a great artist, or singer, or doctor, or any other profession, but they don’t want to put in the hard work necessary to achieve their dream, then they are not really serious about it. And if that’s the case, then they’re wasting their time as well as the time of those who are willing to help them.
Jesus asked the question, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28). If someone wants a college education, they first need to consider if they’re willing to pay what it will cost them in both money, time, and effort. In the same way, those who want to become perfect must consider what it will cost them in time and effort, and if they are not willing to pay that price, then they cannot have what they say they want.
Jesus is more than willing to help us become perfect because with all of his heart, he wants us to become one with God. His desire is to reconcile us to the Father. But in return, he expects us to put forth the necessary effort in working with him.
The commandments God gives us are designed to help us become perfect, and the greater our effort to follow them, the sooner we become perfected. However, learning to keep God’s commandments doesn’t happen within a short period. It’s a learning process that happens gradually over a very long period of much effort and perseverance, and our life here on earth is just a small part of that time.
There is still much for us to learn, and our journey towards perfection will no doubt continue even after the resurrection. Therefore, to achieve perfection requires going through a long process of spiritual growth, but if we give up and don’t complete the process, then there is no hope of achieving it. That would be like someone who wants to obtain a four-year college degree but gives up after their first semester because they think their classes are too hard.
However, unlike school, when we commit to let Christ perfect us, he doesn’t flunk us no matter how many times we fail. Instead, he works with us, teaching us, guiding us, encouraging us, and strengthening us to keep going. As long as we’re willing to keep struggling to learn our lessons, he’s patient with us, and doesn’t give up on us.
As we walk the path to exaltation, Jesus walks with us every step of the way. If our goal is to become as perfect as God, then he’s committed to helping us reach that goal, no matter how long it takes. Just like running in a race where everyone who crosses the finish line receives a winner’s prize, as long as we keep struggling to keep moving forward, no matter how often we fall, Jesus will do whatever he can to help us cross the finish line. That’s what his atonement is all about.
But what he wants from us in return is our effort. As long as he sees we’re trying, no matter how imperfect that effort may be, he will never give up on us. As earthly parents, we do the same with our children. If we have a child who comes home with a C- in a subject, as long as we know they’re completing their homework assignments to the best of their ability, and are studying for their tests, we can be patient and understanding of their lack of good grades.
On the other hand, when parents see that their child’s low grades reflect a lack of effort to learn, they’re not so willing to be so patient with their child’s excuses. Yet, even then, most parents put forth even more effort of their own into helping that child to do better, and this is how Jesus works with us. This is what it means when we talk about how Jesus makes up the difference when we fall short.
If Jesus did all the work in perfecting us, we wouldn’t learn, but if we had to do all the work without his enabling power, we would never succeed. We don’t become perfect by our own efforts, but rather we become perfect because Christ is in us and we are in him, meaning that if we abide in him, he abides in us.
This is how we become perfected in, with, and by Christ.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Salvation