There’s a perception in the church that all people at all times continually “miss the mark” and will always miss it no matter what we do. Straight from the womb, we hear, humanity falls short of God’s perfection, glory, and virtue. There are no exceptions, ever, even after we come to Christ.
It’s based on a partial Scripture: “…there is no one righteous, no not one,” usually coupled with “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” (Rom. 3:10, 23) Some Christians quote these as if God has nothing else to say.
But, (A.) there’s at least one exception: John the Baptist. “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.” (Luk. 1:17) And, (B.) nearly every verse on human wickedness is immediately followed or preceded by a contrasting verse of human virtue. The Psalms and Proverbs alone hold dozens of examples of the wicked doing such and such, but the righteous doing something else.
So if there were no one righteous ever, those Scriptures would be false. And wouldn’t it fly in the face of Abraham, Noah, David, Rahab, Job, Mary, Joseph, and others whom God describes as upright, blameless, or righteous?
We can’t use partial verses as the whole truth; and we shouldn’t confuse the words righteous or perfect with “flawless.” That only delivers shame-perpetuating bad news and produces all sorts of treasure-stealing accusations. There’s better news!
To shed some light, Biblestudytools.com has an online lexicon where anyone can look up Greek or Hebrew words to discover how they’re used. For “falling short” (used in “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”), we find the Greek word hamartano:
- To be without a share in.
- To miss the mark.
- To err, be mistaken.
- To miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honor, to do or go wrong.
- To wander from the law of God, violate God’s law.
What’s great is that there’s nothing here about perfection, only wandering from uprightness and God’s Law (loving God with all our hearts, and loving neighbors as self, according to Jesus). Missing the mark has more to do with being lost and mistaken than deliberately defying God’s standards. But what really grabs my attention is being without a share in something—like maybe a rich inheritance, treasure, and glory? In other words, to come up empty-handed.
Based on the lexicon’s word usage, the following would seem to be a decent paraphrase of Paul’s meaning: “All have mistakenly wandered from God’s Law and come up empty-handed.”
To be spiritually poor without a share is not a good thing and can be resolved. The complete context is “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:23-24) Instead of a fault-finding accusation, as we often hear it, it’s a compassionate heads-up of both robbery and remedy.
While we’re at it, let’s look at what Jesus says: “Be ye perfect, therefore, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mat. 5:48) Also, look at what Peter says: “…for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1Pet. 1:16) But aren’t these impossible? Didn’t God send Jesus to be perfect for us so that God can be with us without holding His nose? Not exactly.
Searching for “perfect,” we find the Greek word teleios (as Jesus used in “be perfect, therefore”):
- Brought to its end, finished.
- Wanting nothing necessary to completeness.
- Perfect, that which is perfect.
- Consummate human integrity and virtue of men.
- Full grown, adult, of full age, mature.
The NT use of perfect doesn’t mean flawless, which is great news! It means whole, virtuous, and complete. Finished. Calls to be perfect, holy, righteous, blameless, or pure are simply doable instructions to be whole, complete, and good—that is, not lacking, not empty-handed, not poor. Jesus came to assist and guide us to completion, a full life of glory, wellness, and spiritual riches.
Today’s unbalanced focus on lack of flawlessness is the same problem first-century crowds had under Pharisee perfectionism, precisely what Jesus says we must get over (exceed or surpass, as he put it) if we’re to enter the kingdom of heaven .
Humanity’s problem isn’t lack of flawlessness, but lack of completeness, goodness, and well-being. The remedy is to simply learn from Christ how to think, feel, and behave like Christ, to take on a spirit similar to his. “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” (Mat. 10: 24-25)
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mat. 11:28-30)
What a blessed relief! Instead of beating ourselves up in endless failure, we can breathe easier because the real meaning of falling short and perfect changes the focus. We can be confident that Jesus has us covered while we safely put off the old man, put on the new, and become perfect, finished.
If it weren’t possible, the original church wouldn’t have taught it.