A member of our church says that Matthew 5:48 says that we are perfect once we are saved. I understand that that verse says that we should strive to be perfect; our goal is to be perfect like Jesus. Which is it?
The context of Matthew 5 is fulfilling the requirements of the Law.
In Matthew 5:20 Jesus said our righteousness would have to surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law in order to gain entry into the Kingdom on our own.
Then He explained what the Law really requires:
The commandment against murder means you can never be angry.
The commandment against adultery means you can never have a lustful thought.
If different parts of your body cause you to sin, you should cut them off.
Don’t get divorced for any reason other than adultery.
Always do what you say you’ll do.
Always give more than others demand of you.
Don’t just love your friends, love your enemies as well.
In other words, be as perfect as God is (Matt. 5:21-48).
In Romans 3:20 Paul wrote that no one will be declared righteous by keeping the Law because it’s impossible for man to meet these standards. Then he said a righteousness has come from God that’s apart from the Law. It comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (Romans 3:21-22).
From the time we first believe, God sees us as a new creation, one who is as righteous as He is (2 Cor. 5:17,21). It’s as if we’ve never sinned at all, and that’s what gains us entry into the Kingdom.
In Romans 7:19-20 Paul said when we sin after being saved, God looks at these sins as coming from our old sin nature, not from the new us.
The new us is perfect in His sight, because with one sacrifice Jesus has made us perfect forever (Hebrews 10:14). So from God’s perspective, your friend is correct. We are already perfect. All the striving in the world won’t make us perfect, only our faith in what the Lord has done for us can do that.
None of this is intended to mean that we should just sin as much as we want. Out of gratitude to God for seeing us in this impossibly perfect way, we should try to live up to what we’ve already become (Phil 3:16). Not because we’re trying to achieve perfection, but because we’re so thankful that we don’t have to.