I know very few people who, deep down, don’t harbor a desire to be perfect. Flawlessness is the human heart’s holy grail, a myth perpetuated by street-corner salesmen who’ve convinced us that such perfection even exists. Models and celebrities stare at us from the glossy covers of magazines; trendy Instagram filters engender the fear that maybe we’re missing out on the kind of life we see our friends enjoying.
What’s to be done? We laugh at those who are “perfectionists.” You know the type. Those who spend hours cleaning. The straight-A students locked away in the library. The “grammar Nazi” who insists on correcting others’ mistakes. But all of us, really, are guilty of this.
- Have you ever bought a product—whether jeans or an SUV—not because of its usefulness but because you were drawn to the brand?
- Have you ever felt left out because your cell phone isn’t the latest model?
- Have ever felt anxious (or bitter) that your friends seem to be more successful than you?
Perfectionism comes in many forms. What others say about us seems to be of great value in shaping our sense of self-worth. There’s just one problem with this kind of pursuit: you never really reach your goals.
Some years ago New York Times columnist Guy Trebay covered a New York fashion show. What was most revealing was the hidden lives that went on off the runway. Though we tend to idolize the rich and beautiful, Trebay observes that this lifestyle obsession leaves us hollow:
“Models do not think they are too skinny. Actors do not find themselves handsome. Stars claim not to know what all the fuss is about. Our crazy cultural obsession with the perfected surface has become so absolute that everybody ends up having to work off some obscure psychic debt.” (Guy Trebay, “Look at Me, Look at Me, Please Look at Me,” The New York Times, September 17, 2006)
Mick Jagger was onto something when he wailed that he “can’t get no satisfaction.” I hear ya, Mick. Today’s greatest battles are fought not on the landscape of the “perfected surface;” they are fought in the inner longings of the human soul.
THE RELIEF OF JUSTIFICATION
The gospel starts by pointing out our own inadequacy; our own brokenness. This has been the core subject of Paul’s letter to Rome up to this point. We are deeply flawed creatures, every last one of us, not just because we fall short of our standards, but because we persist in our own ways in defiance of God’s eternally beautiful and righteous plan. The Bible has a variety of ways of understanding “sin,” but every image points to the same condition—that no human being can possibly claim to be righteous before God. So what’s to be done?
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
Some of what Paul shares here is entwined with what he’d written before—namely, that “all have sinned” and continually “fall short” of God’s eternally significant character. No one can match His perfection.
But that’s when Paul makes an abrupt turn, focusing now on the finished work of Christ. If you have time later, you may want to underline the terms that Paul uses here for salvation, words like…
- Redemption: This refers to the blood of Christ “buying” us out of our slavery to sin
- Propitiation: This term means “to render favorable,” meaning that Jesus’ death satisfies God’s intense anger at human wickedness and sin.
- Justification: This term means “to declare righteous,” and if you look at Paul’s other words regarding “righteousness” and “justifier,” we see that this is a prominent in this section—not to mention Paul’s other writing.
What does it mean to be “justified?” Paul is using a legal term to refer to the great reversal of human fate. Commenting on this, John Stott writes:
“‘Justification’ is a legal term borrowed from the law courts. It is the exact opposite of ‘condemnation’ (cf. Deut.25:1; Prov.17:15; Rom.8:33,34). ‘To condemn’ is to declare somebody guilty; ‘to justify’ is to declare him… righteous. In the Bible it refers to God’s act of unmerited favor by which He puts a sinner right with himself, not only pardoning or acquitting him, but accepting and treating him as righteous.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p.60)
To be “justified” means that though I am far from perfect, God has graciously chosen to declare us perfect and “righteous” because of what Christ has achieved for us. You want to be perfect? God declares you righteous—though not because of what you have done, but because of what Christ has done for you.
SOLA FIDE—“FAITH ALONE”
This is why Paul moves on to emphasize that justification brings an end to our feelings of perfectionism—to all feelings of superiority or inferiority. Why? Because our righteousness comes through faith, not works.
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:27-31)
How do we “uphold the law?” Does this mean that we are still required to obey the law of the Old Testament? Yes; emphatically, yes. But not through our effort, but through Christ. See, Jesus fulfilled every letter of the law through His righteous obedience (cf. Matthew 5:17). Therefore if we follow Jesus, we, too, can claim to “uphold the law” by being united with Him. This is why Paul emphasizes that now even non-Jews (Gentiles) can be brought near to God, because the Jewish laws have been fulfilled through Jesus.
On the one hand, this is deeply humbling, because we are forced to realize that we did nothing to earn our justification before God. But on the other hand, this is extraordinarily freeing, because it brings an end to the self-centered pursuit of perfectionism. Our lives are not defined by what others say about us, because we have the blessing of having God declaring us “righteous” and acceptable on the basis of our faith in Jesus.
So take heart, perfectionists of the world.
You are not defined by the number of “likes” you receive on social media.
You are not defined by what your friends say about you—to your face or behind your back.
You are not defined by your credit score, or how much money you have in the bank.
You are not defined by what the numbers on your scale say, or the number on the waistband of your pants.
You are defined solely—and completely—by a God who declares you “righteous” by the work of the cross. The work of perfectionism has no end; on the cross Jesus declared this work to be “finished.”
Lay your deadly doing down,
down at Jesus’ feet.
Stand in Him, and Him alone,
(James Proctor, “It is Finished”)