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5th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 3:19-28

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States, served as Secretary of state, was a senator, a congressman, minister to Russia, Prussia, and the Netherlands, he knew not only English but French and Dutch some German and other European languages, he learned Latin and Greek, translated the New Testament, graduated from Harvard University, taught at Harvard University. And yet, at 70 years old with most of his life behind him he is recorded to have said, “My whole life has been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success in anything that I ever undertook.” Most of us would agree that he accomplished a lot in his life and he experienced many successes. What, then, would lead him to conclude that his whole life has been just a bunch of failures? I submit to you that he may have believed the lie that we’re looking at today.

You know the phrase that we use all the time in some way or form. A child spills a glass of milk and you say, “That’s ok, no one’s perfect.” A coworker makes a mistake at work at you tell her, “That’s ok, no one’s perfect.” We use that phrase a lot. We know that no one is perfect. And there’s definitely a difference between mistakes and sins. Mistakes happen all the time without you even having to think about them. Sin is when you know something is wrong and bad and you do it any way.  The lie we’re looking at this morning is “I must be perfect.” And I’m guessing probably a lot of us are looking at that lie and thinking, “I know that’s a lie, no one’s perfect, I don’t believe that.” But there’s a big difference between what we say on the surface and what is actually, functionally true in our thoughts and emotions.

So, how do you know if you are believing the lie: “I must be perfect.” First, do you obsess about mistakes that you make? In a conversation maybe you say something you shouldn’t have said and later on you dwell on that and wish you hadn’t said what you said. Do you constantly find yourself telling other people how they can do things better? Are you constantly correcting one of your children causing them to believe the lie, “I must be perfect”? Do people around you feel judged by you? (And, how could you know that unless you asked them ?) Do you think to yourself, “I know that God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself?” Do you find yourself putting things off and procrastinating because you’re waiting for the perfect conditions to come? Do you get really defensive when someone criticizes you? Do you find yourself having a difficult time being honest about how you are really feeling? Thinking “I need to be perfect” makes you think that you need to be emotionally strong in every circumstance and so you’re afraid to discuss your fears, hurts, problems.

Not only does believing this lie hollow you out personally, but it will also end up draining your relationships. If you believe this lie your whole life becomes a report card. Any kind of failure is absolutely devastating. So what do you do? You end up prioritizing your work and leaving relationships on the back burner. If you believe this lie you begin to find your validation in life from your performance and so when things aren’t going well or meeting your high expectations, you’re grumpy, upset, easily angered, which then negatively affects the people close to you. And you also may begin to extend your high expectations on those close to you. A mom expects her child to get straight A+’s, a husband becomes upset with his wife who doesn’t to housework in exactly the right way. You get the picture.

Here’s a quote that I found, “For perfectionists, life is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. It’s a fast track to unhappiness, and perfectionism is often accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. And love isn’t a refuge; in fact, it feels way too conditional on performance.[1]” You can’t enjoy relationships because you feel you need to perform in order to be acceptable.

And if you’re thinking at this point, “So, you’re saying I should be ok with mistakes, that I should be ok with sinning?” If you think that, I can almost guarantee you are believing this lie. No, sin is not ok. We’re going to talk about that. But at the root of believing this lie is a sin. What’s underneath believing this lie is the thought, ‘If I look perfect, if I do things perfectly, live perfectly, then I can be accepted, I can avoid shame and judgment.” So you become the means to your own salvation, you’ve established your own standard and set of rules in order to feel accepted, secure, to be wanted, to be saved.

Yet, it’s God’s Word that frees us from this lie. People who believe the lie “I need to be perfect” in a weird way like rules, they like following standards and laws. But what does God say? “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” In other words, the more that you try to live up to any moral standard, the more your mouth is silenced because the more you do, the more you realize that you’ve failed. It’s really a life of self-condemnation. “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” So, by following laws or rules you’ll never get to the point of arriving- instead, you become conscious of sin.

Another way of saying “I must be perfect” is saying “I must be righteous.” I once heard “righteous” defined this way: a validating performance record that gets you in. So, having good grades is a validating performance record that gets you into good colleges or universities. Having a stellar athletic record is a validating performance record that gets you scholarships. Having a great resume is a validating performance record that gets you into great jobs. We can look to all kinds of things in life for a validating performance record: being a hard worker, always having a clean house, having perfect children, etc. But what God is saying here is that no one will have a validating performance record before God by living up to some standard, by obeying certain laws or rules. You can’t get your truest security in life, your acceptance before God by following rules, by doing things, by being perfect.

But there is a validating performance record that opens the door to God and it’s apart from law, apart from doing things, apart from performance, apart from trying to be perfect. It comes not from us, but from God through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” In other words, we’re all in the same boat, there’s no difference between any of us, nobody’s perfect, all are sinners, but all are justified.

Do you know what “justification” means? When we think of “justification” we are usually thinking about trying to justify our actions so that we don’t look bad for something we did. But the word in Scripture is literally a courtroom term that means that the judge declares the defendant innocent. Perhaps a better word would be acquitted, you are declared innocent of all charges. You see forgiveness has two parts. Not only does God take all your sins away, paying for them with Jesus’ death on the cross, but he also imputes to you, credits to your account Jesus’ entirely perfect life. You have been given Jesus’ righteousness, his perfect life, that identity is now yours! “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished (in other words, God didn’t strike people dead because of their sins, he was holding back to strike Jesus for all the sins committed) – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

Where then is boasting?” If you want to know where your righteousness is coming from, what you are looking to for your validating performance record, just look at where you boast, what you take pride in. That’s what the law does- it’all about standards, looking good, making comparisons, trying to be perfect. But “It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

You see, the root problem of trying to be a perfectionist is that I’m trying to prove something, I’m looking to what I do for approval, significance, validation. So the key is not just repenting of sin, but repenting of my self-righteousness. It’s repenting of all those things that I do in order to think that I don’t desperately need God and His grace to completely cover my life.

How is that possible? Because we look at what Jesus did. He didn’t just die for your sins, He also lived perfectly for you. Because of Jesus you already are perfect, that’s your identity, that’s your status, you are a child of God, an heir of eternal life.

And so yes, with hearts cleansed by God’s forgiving grace in Christ we strive to live in a way that is pleasing to him, we strive for excellence, we strive to do our best with the talents and the abilities that God has given us, but not to earn or win or gain anything for ourselves, but because we want to out of love for our Savior. And when we fail, when we make mistakes, when we find ourselves ruminating and thinking about our mistakes, stop, and just start thinking about all your sins- even your worst sins – and tell yourself this: “Christ has forgiven me. My performance record isn’t my own, it’s what Christ has done for me, He’s bled and died for me, He lived perfectly for me.”

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/perfectionism