It isn’t complicated. We know what the standards are. Love God; love others. The Creed outlines our belief. The Bible delivers some of Jesus’ messages rather bluntly: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19); “Whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father” (Mt 10:33); “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
It’s in the follow-through where everything falls apart, where it does indeed get complicated. Trinitarian formula at baptism? Ok, easy enough. Not denying the faith under persecution? A gut-wrenching situation where I don’t know if I’d do the right thing. Be perfect? Impossible. Why would Jesus set up standards we can’t possibly meet? Humans are imperfect, and this is an imperfect world. Isn’t it unjust to demand perfection from us?
Good news! God knows we’ll fail, and he offers us salvation anyway. It’s the Gospel that we all know: Jesus came for us men and our salvation. God loves us unconditionally. Our sins are washed away. We receive salvation by grace not merits.
And that’s all true, and it is good news indeed. But it’s not the whole story. Christianity is not a Doctor Who Christmas special; not everyone gets saved. The Bible says otherwise: “Many are called but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14); “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt 7:14); “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 7:21).
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We fall into traps of imperfect philosophies or reasonable justifications. We convince ourselves that the ends justify the means. We lean on the notion that God will forgive any and all imperfections and therefore indulge in our messy, imperfect world.
But counting on God’s forgiveness is presumption. God gave us standards. We are held to perfection because God is perfect. Assuming “God will understand” or “He’d never condemn a good person” is shaping God to be who we want, not what we have seen him revealed to be. We want God’s mercy to fit into our created understandings of “good” and “bad.” And, being in the imperfect world, we can get those wrong. God does love us. He does forgive us. But he also calls us to be perfect, to suffer, to let the chaff separate from the wheat. His love is unconditional; our salvation is not.
Perfection is unattainable. Sometimes it even seems unknowable, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are called to it. We do not get to dictate the rules of the universe. There are rules and standards and expectations. They are there to guide us and form us and help us grow toward holiness. They are how we come to know God and how we align our wills to his. In growing closer to him, we grow to understand the rules and the need for the rules more clearly. Order in a chaotic world is a lifeline. It can keep us from drowning in our own desires and idols and confusion. My Western individualism rankles at submission, but in the end, I have no purpose other than bow to my creator. To follow his standards. To love God; to love others. To go and make disciples. To proclaim the Gospel. To be perfect.