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20. Perfection as an Attitude of Giving

– Chapter 20 –

Perfection as an Attitude of Giving

Regeneration (the new birth), then renewal

Regeneration — the new birth — is the starting point of the new life in Christ. We formerly lived a life of sin that separated us from God, a life governed by the flesh and self-centeredness. But when we are born again, we enter a new life that is sustained by God’s power, and is centered on Yahweh our God.

After regeneration comes renewal, a lifelong process during which God transforms us progressively into the kind of person He wants us to be. Becoming a Christian is not the end but only the beginning of God’s plan for us. The potential beauty of a renewed person is something wonder­ful to think about.

In the process of renewal, God will keep on trans­forming us into the beauty of Christ which far exceeds the beauty crafted by a plastic surgeon even if he gives you a movie-star look. God does not concern Himself with superficial appearances; He changes us inwardly until Christ’s beauty radiates from us. God renews us progressively until the full perfection of Christ is seen in us on that Day when we stand in His presence. What a community of beau­tiful people we will be!

Physical beauty fades and withers like a flower. With the passing of time, the physical vitality and exuberance of youth declines; white hair emerges and wrinkles are etched across the face. But when God adorns us with spiritual beauty, it gets better with time. Has it ever been possible for a person to get more and more beautiful right up to the end? That is entirely possible if we let God get on with His work of renewing and beautifying us.

Seeing a person in the first year of his Christian life, and then later in the fifth year, we often say to ourselves, “That’s an impressive transform­ation over five years.” The person becomes more beautiful as he walks with Yahweh God. When God beautifies a person, He does something no plastic surgeon can do. The plastic surgeon’s handiwork will deteriorate within a short time, but God’s masterpiece will shine brighter and brighter until that perfect day.

Justification, sanctification, glorification

In summary, regeneration is the starting point of the Christian life. This sets in motion the process of renewal, which is God’s work of making us ever more like Christ, conforming us to Christ’s perfect image and beauty. When that beauty reaches its final perfection, we will have arrived at glorification. For those who like theological terms, there is a three-fold equivalence:

Regeneration = Justification

Renewal = Sanctification

Perfection = Glorification

There you have it: justification, sanctification, and glorification — the three stages of salvation. Although theological categ­orization has its dangers and limitations, there is didactic value to it if used carefully. The first stage is regeneration or justification, by which we become Christ­ians. But it does not stop there. The second stage is renewal, a program of sanctification and beautifi­cation. The third stage is final perfection or glorification, to which we are heading.

Die with Christ, Live In Christ, Reign with Christ

Equivalently, Scripture describes the three stages (past, present, and future) in the following terms: we died with Christ, we live with Christ, we will reign with Christ. A verse that mentions all three is 2Timothy 2:11-12:

Here is a trustworthy saying, “If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him”.

At baptism we die with Christ. If we have died with Christ, we are now in him and live with him. This second stage is renewal. In the third stage — final perfection or glorification — we reign with him.

Before we can reign with Christ, we must first reach perfection, because the Lord won’t allow anyone to reign with him who is not like him. If we reign on his behalf but without his mind and char­acter, we would misrepresent him and become petty dict­ators. Even now, some church leaders feel self-important when their churches get bigger, and begin to throw their weight around. No one should assume authority in the church of God who is not Christ-like or who is unwilling to be a servant. “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The three interrelated aspects of salvation

Regen­eration, renewal and perfection are the three interrelated aspects of salvation. We cannot be perfect or Christ-like unless we are being renewed, and we cannot be renewed unless we have been regenerated. These three form a succession in the process of salvation.

Every Christian who is being renewed will model his life on Christ’s life. It is possible to “believe” in Christ in some vague sense without following him, but the reverse is impossible, that is, we cannot possibly follow Christ unless we have true faith in him. True faith is not just believ­ing in certain Christian truths. The demons believe yet tremble (James 2:19). It is possi­ble to “believe” in some sense without obeying the call to follow Christ.

Since regeneration is the first stage of salvation, we need to have some degree of certainty that we have truly been regenerated. Let us now consider the main evidences of regeneration as taught in Scripture, with specific focus on God’s self-giving character.

Five evidences of regeneration

(1) Freed from the power of sin

How can we be assured that we are regen­erate? There is true assurance and false assurance. Many Christians base their hopes on a false assur­ance. Many are uncertain if they are regenerate: “I don’t know if I am regenerate or not. Am I born again? Am I a true Christian?” How long can you continue in the Christian life without knowing the answers to these questions?

Let us begin with the non-Christian’s situation because we all know what it is like to be a non-Christian. The non-Christian life is well described by Paul in Romans 7:19f: In his non-Christian days, Paul couldn’t do the good he wanted to do, but did the evil he didn’t want to do.

We are familiar with the making of New Year’s resolutions. You aim to achieve certain things and refrain from others. But before long and to your great disap­point­ment, you fail to fulfill the resolutions. The problem is not with your intention. You sincerely want to fulfill your resolutions, but you are unable to.

As a non-Christian, you soon realize that you are powerless to live the right­eous life. A common solution to the problem is to lower the moral standard to such an extent that anyone can fulfill it. But even with the lower standard, you are amazed at how hard it is to do a few good deeds. Your sinful inclin­ation is so strong that you cannot break its grip. It controls you so firmly that you cry out, “Why can’t I do the good that I want to do?”

The first evidence of regeneration is this: You have been freed from the grip and the control of sin. Whether you are born again can be seen by whether you can do the good you want to do. And thanks be to God, when you died with Christ at regen­eration, you were freed from sin. Romans 6:7 says, “He who has died is freed from sin.” This prin­ciple permeates all of Romans 6, which teaches that we are no longer under the dominion of sin. Slaves of sin no longer, we are now free to do what is good.

If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36). If you lack the power to live right­eously, it means you haven’t been born anew or freed from sin, and Romans 6 is not part of your experience. Christians of this type won’t survive for long because sooner or later they will say that Christianity doesn’t work. In a sense they are right, for you cannot live the true Christian life just by getting baptized or accepting certain doctrines. You have not yielded your life to Christ, nor accepted his absolute lord­ship in your life. Spiritually and morally, a life of sin is an ugly life. When has a selfish person ever been beautiful? “I want this, I want that!” But a person becomes beautiful when God so changes him that his life goes out to others. If your life has been freed from self-centeredness, then you are born anew, the sure evidence of regeneration.

(2) Aiming for practical perfection

We return to Matthew 5:48 (“you therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”) which we have already studied, but now from a practical angle. It is vital for our spiritual growth to see that Biblical perfection is not an airy-fairy ideal but is something that has to do with the way we live.

Jesus commands us to be perfect as God is perfect. What does “perfect” mean here? A basic principle of biblical interpretation is to study a passage in its context. Jesus uses the word “therefore,” which indicates a link to the preceding verses. Let us therefore read the section immediately preceding it, namely, verses 43‑47:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in hea­ven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47)

Our heavenly Father is gen­erous to all human­kind, and this gives us a clue as to the nature of His perfection. Let us now read the other side of the context, namely, the verses immed­iately after Matthew 5:48:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men in order to be noticed by them; otherwise you will have no re­ward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Matthew 6:1-4)

The whole context, whether the preceding context or the succeeding context, speaks about gracious giving without desiring earthly reward or recognition. This is important for understand­ing the statement, “You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”.

(3) Give expecting nothing in return

To understand Jesus’ statement, let us look at another passage, Luke 14:12-14, which teaches the same principle. Here Jesus tells a man who had invited him for a meal not to look for earthly repayment, but for a future repayment of eternal value:

And he also went on to say to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neigh­bors, lest they also invite you in return, and re­payment come to you. But when you give a recept­ion, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Note the words, “they do not have the means to repay you,” and “you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” What is the Lord saying? He is telling us to give, seeking nothing in return. Don’t invite your rich friends because if you do, they will invite you to an even more sumptuous meal than the one you gave them. Not only will you get back what you gave, you will receive more than you gave, and will be in their debt. For a $20 lunch you get a $100 dinner in return, which is a good return on investment. In the world we make friends with those who give us a good return on our investment. We make friends in the right places and pull the right strings.

But the Lord’s teaching is contrary to worldly thinking. When you make an investment, seek no financial return from it. Try telling that to the business­men’s club or an MBA class! It makes business sense to invite the bank man­ager, the airline executive, or the vice-president of a company. You invite them to a banquet and lavish your generosity on them, and in due course they will return it to you with interest. Worldly logic makes perfect business sense.

But who does the Lord tell you to invite? The poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind! Your nice house will be crammed with “uncult­ured” people who will bring fleas to your carpets and filth to your sofas. “Lord, don’t you know how much it costs to clean the carpets and the furniture? Why do you ask me to invite a bunch of down-and-outs?”

The Lord is laying down a vital principle for us: The true Christian life is marked by a constant giv­ing that seeks nothing in return. Isn’t that remarkable? Have you ever heard a sermon on this topic? Some people may even warn us: “We may end up bankrupt and be accused of teaching salvation by works.”

On the contrary, this is salvation by grace, because we cannot fulfill this teaching without God’s grace. Would you allow your house to be filled with people who, for lack of shower facil­ities, want to dive into your bathtub? Can you endure seeing the clean towels reduced to filthy rags? We don’t normally encounter this kind of scenario in Canada, a rich country in which the blind and the lame are few, and are taken care of through government assistance. But wait till you go to third-world countries. Then you will say, “Lord, your teaching cannot be right. It must be hyperbolic!”

(4) Imitating Jesus who gave freely, seeking nothing in return

What is Jesus telling us about inviting the poor and the blind? Nothing he says is trivial, redundant, or in jest. He is bringing out a vital principle of the new life which we received at our new birth. And what is that principle? It is that God is always giving, even to the highest extent of giving His only begotten Son. The children of God, because they bear His likeness, will imitate their Father.

The other aspect of this principle is that God gives freely without seeking something back from us. In our carnal thinking, we assume that God thinks in the way we think, and that He gives in order to get a return on investment. But God is all-sufficient and needs nothing from us that we can supply. And from our perspective, we have no need that He cannot supply.

If in giving we seek something in return, it is evident that our giving does not come from a pure love, but that there is a self-seeking element in our giving. Any trace of self-seeking in our love means that our love is not pure or self-giving. Yet in our self-centered thinking, we project this kind of devalued love onto God.

One might argue, “Yes, Jesus did give himself for us on the cross, but doesn’t he also demand that we give ourselves to him? He gives every­thing, but he also wants every­thing!” That may be a crushing argument, but on further thought, perhaps not.

It takes only a few questions to dismantle this argument. What do we gain from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross? The answer is that we gain everything, including eternal life. And what does Jesus gain from our taking up our own cross? Is it sufficient to say that he gains us as his disciples? Is our giving “everything” (whatever it may be) really equiva­lent to his giving everything for us?

Every­thing that Jesus gave us and did for us was — and still is — for our benefit. It was never in his mind to benefit himself. And the same with the Father. Jesus succinctly described God’s benevolence to us in the words, “Freely you received” (Mt.10:8). Jesus, like his Father, gave freely without any thought of getting something in return. That is why he expects his disciples to do the same: “Freely give” (10:8).

(5) The regenerate gives, the unregenerate takes

This vital principle — “Freely you received, freely give” — is elaborated in Luke 14:12-14, quoted earlier about inviting the poor, the lame, and the blind. This principle will tell us whet­her we are regen­erate or not by whether we want to give or to take.

The unregen­erate man resists Jesus’ teaching because it is against his nature. Jesus’ teaching is hard to swallow because our self-seeking nature cannot cope with the “give all” way of life. Giving without seeking something in return is, to our human nature, impractical non­sense. Only when we are born anew and see God’s kingdom do we see that “our sufficiency is of God” (2Cor.3:5), the One who abundantly pro­vides for our every need. As we freely receive, we freely give. And the more we give, the more we receive (Lk.6:38).

If Christians reject Jesus’ teaching as impractical, what will be the inescapable result? Christians will then think just like non-Christians, being just as greedy, just as self-centered, and just as keen in making friends in high places for person­al gain. The difference be­tween a Christian and a non-Christian is thus non-existent in practice.

Haven’t we heard unbelievers say, “I’m just as good as Christians, maybe better”? And they are correct, for the churches are full of so-called Christians who reject the Lord’s clear teaching and whom the Lord will not recognize on that Day. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)

Another objection: Don’t the commandments show that the Lord wants something from us?

Regarding this verse, Luke 6:46, one might argue again, “Doesn’t the fact that the Lord requires obedience to him show that he wants some­thing from us? His love is not selfless because he wants some­thing.” This argument is forceful, but its force depends on the human presup­position on which it is based: When men issue commands, it serves the interests of those who issue them. The presupposition is that the Lord does things for the same reasons as we.

It shows that we don’t understand God’s character which is also displayed in Jesus Christ. Take for example the two great commands, loving God and loving the neighbor. Have we ever asked why the second com­mandment is attached inseparably to the first? Why didn’t God say, “You shall love Me and absolutely no one else”? We might expect that kind of commandment from the One who alone is God of heaven and earth. Yet contrary to our expectations, He says in effect, “If you love Me with all your heart, you must love everyone else too.” Thus the com­mand­ment, far from proving any selfishness in God, proves the exact opposite!

Even among human beings the giving of commands does not necessarily come from self-interest. A lifeguard who gives instruct­ions to a person in danger of drowning is hardly motivated by any self-inter­est but only the safety of the one he is trying to save. A guide who is leading people out of a jungle or over a mountain pass will demand that they follow his every instruction. An army commander issues orders in order to gain victory in battle, one that he might not survive to see.

The union of our will with God’s

There is another vital reason that obeying the commands is nec­ess­ary for our eternal welfare: God’s commands are the concrete express­ion of His will and character. In the act of obeying God’s commands from the heart, our will becomes united with His. In this union of wills, there is a union of persons. In obeying Him we become one with Him (1Cor.6:17). It is by our union with Him, from baptism onwards, that we are saved and transformed into the image of His Son. These three things — union, communion, transformation into Christ’s image — correspond to regeneration, renewal, and perfect­ion in terms of our relationship with God.

When we see God’s love and selfless character in all that He does, does it not draw forth from our hearts praise and adoration for a God who is wonderful beyond what we can imagine?

Not superficial obedience but transformation of heart

The point in Luke 14:12-14 is not whether we invite the poor for dinner once in a while, and think that we have fulfilled his teaching. The matter is not so super­ficial. You and I might invite a few poor people to dinner, so we say to our­selves, “Good, we have fulfilled Jesus’ teaching. Now let’s clean up the place!”

We might do this occasionally and think that we have fulfilled his teach­ing, but the Lord goes much deeper than that. The plastic surgeon deals with outward appearance, but God deals with the heart. He is not mainly interested in whether we have invited a few people for dinner. That we can do from time to time. God is inter­ested in the trans­formation of our hearts and a lasting change in our attitude. He doesn’t want us to deceive ourselves by covering our carnality with a few good deeds. He looks into the heart to see if there is an inner attitude of giving that seeks nothing in return. This further elucidates the meaning and content of Jesus’ call to perfection, which is to become like God his Father.

God’s generous nature

God gives unceasingly, but what does He get in return? What have we given Him today? Five dollars in the offering box? Even if we put in a hundred dollars, does God gain any benefit from it? Does God need our money?

What does God gain when we acknowledge His kind­ness? A sense of satisfaction from our thanks­giving? There is of course no reason to doubt that our thanksgiving, feeble though it may be, is pleasing to Him. But we must not turn the matter upside down, and think that He showed us His kindness with the goal of gaining thanks­giving. And how often have we remembered to thank Him at all? Is a mere “thank you” sufficient recom­pense to God?

Yet God continues to give freely. He causes the rain to fall on the good and the evil (Mt.5:45). While the good scarcely remember to offer their thanks, the evil do not thank Him at all. Yet God gives them rain and sunshine for their crops, sustaining their lives. He is always generous yet receives almost nothing in return. If He gave with the aim of receiving an adequate return, then He miscalculated the situat­ion. But God makes no mis­takes. It is out of His love that He gives without any self-serving motive.

It does not mean that expressing gratitude is unnecessary just because He was not motivated by the desire for thanksgiving. This way of thinking would be perverse. We have the perverse tendency to pro­ject our human motives onto God, which negatively affects the way we think about God and the way we relate to Him. We must get it in our hearts and minds that God was not motivated by any desire to gain something for Himself when He paid the huge price of saving us from eternal condemn­ation. His love is absolutely pure.

The selfless character of God, Lord of all

One might still ask, “Doesn’t Scripture say that God redeemed us and bought us with a price so that we are no longer our own but belong to Him as His possession? In redeem­ing us, didn’t He gain us for Himself?” That is partly correct, but what is the implication? That God redeemed us for His own benefit? Or partly for His benefit and partly for ours?

Is humankind not God’s possession in the first place? We belong to Him because we are His creatures and owe our existence to Him. By the blood of His Son, He purchased back from the grip of sin what was His own, for we had taken the liberty to sell ourselves into bondage to sin. God got back by redemption what was His by creation. Our sins made Him pay for what belonged to Him in the first place. He did not gain but regained what rightfully belonged to Him from the start.

When talking about the things which belong to God, we must not pollute the matter by reading our carnal thinking into God’s way of thinking. God has none of the selfish possessiveness that characterizes the way we exercise authority over others.

God’s exercise of His lordship over His people is so different from our human ways that it is hard for us to comprehend it. The vast difference between God’s way and man’s way is exemplified by His Son Jesus Christ who washed the feet of his disciples (Jn.13:1-17).

Many Christian see this a model of serving others, but the matter goes deeper than that. The emphasis is not mainly on the serving, but the attitude of serving, namely, the attitude of self-forgetful serving with its focus on caring for the other person. Jesus as Lord does not need to wash his disciples’ feet, but he cares that they remain clean (here the physical symbolizes the spiritual). His lordship stems from his self-forget­ful care for his people.[1] It is a reflection of his Father’s self-giving love for His people that is free of self-interest.

Learning to give as God gives

When we give to others especially the needy, have we really done any­thing meritorious? Are we not merely giving what God had given us in the first place? If He takes away our money, our health, and even our lives, we would have nothing left to give. So when we give, we don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Give and forget, ex­pecting nothing in return, is God’s attitude. But no one can do this consist­ently who has not been born anew.

What we are talking about is not something airy-fairy, but is practi­cal, down to earth, and connected to daily life. You cook up a nice meal for your roommate, and he gobbles it down without noticing that you had labored an hour in the kitchen. “How insensitive! He could have at least said a word of apprec­iation.”

The point about gratitude is valid. I am not justifying ingrati­tude. I am talking about our inner attitude in doing things. If we had, in the first place, cooked the meal as a service to the Lord, seeking no reward from man, then any thank-you would have been a bonus. Even if no one thanks you, God Himself will reward you. In fact, receiving a thank-you may work to your disad­vantage. If someone acknowledges your work and generosity, you have already received your reward, and no further reward will be expected from God. If someone is about to say thank-you at the dinner table, it may be better to cry out, “Stop! Don’t say that word! I’m going to lose my reward!”

We are, of course, being humorous. Yet it takes us to the heart of why Jesus tells us not to look for earthly reward: It is so that we may seek that which is eternal, a reward from God that endures forever. He teaches us to think spiritually, to exchange the earthly for the heavenly, to give away transient things to obtain eternal things. Paul lived accord­ing to its spiritual principle. Regarding earthly values and transient gain, he said, “I … count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil.3:8).

Who governs our lives, God or others?

We tend to feel insulted when our hard work is not apprec­iated by others. It shows us why renewal is important. We cannot remain at the stage of rebirth; our mind has to be renewed. Renewal is a new way of thinking that focuses on God and conforms to His way of thinking. This God-centered way of thinking frees us from being affected by other people or by our circumstances.

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free in­deed.” If everything we do is for the Lord, even cooking or washing, would we feel upset if people don’t remember to thank us for it? If I feel hurt when others fail to thank me, and happy when they do, then my life is being controlled by them. If our minds are not focused on God, if our lives are not God-centered, if our deeds are not done for Him, then we will be governed by other people, who will make us happy or sad. God has called us to freedom. If I live for God, I won’t be affected by what others say or do.

If we love our enemy, he wouldn’t be able to govern our feelings. If he slaps you on the face, will you be miserable for years to come, unable to forget the hurt? Will you allow your enemy to be your lord and boss who makes you feel miserable long after the event? If you are a victorious follower of Jesus, the enemy cannot control you. When he slaps you on the face, you will continue to show him God’s love. He slaps you more, and you love him even more, until he goes down on his knees and surrenders to God’s love. He doesn’t deter­mine your life, you determine his. That is the power of Christ-likeness and freedom from the self. People may hit you or even kill you (Mt.10:28), but they cannot do anything to impair the quality of your life.

This kind of freedom does not mean that we become insen­sitive to other people’s actions. Out of love and concern for others, we feel for them, both their joys and their grief. It is to say, rather, that we are free in the sense that our lives are not controlled by what people do or say.

No one determines God. If anyone blasphemes God, it is that blasphemer who will suffer in the end, not God. If we refuse to believe in God, He loses not­hing. We are the ones who will end up losing eternal life. Whether we believe that God is real or not does not change the fact of His reality. The moon doesn’t disappear just because someone refuses to believe in its existence.

A true Christian lives wholly under God’s authority and by His power, and is free in every situation. He is the truly free man. Have you experienced the freed­om of regeneration, renewal, and Christ-likeness? If we give without seeking anything in return, we are truly free, and God will be glorified in us.

[1] It is in this light that Matthew 20:27 (“whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave”) is properly understood, while also providing a comment on John 13:1-17.


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