I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Matthew 5–9, Psalm 29, Proverbs 29.
It is common right now in some circles of evangelicalism to so emphasize the dialectic of law and gospel that every moral exhortation or command in the Bible is turned into mere evidence of our inability and God’s grace toward us. This is a tragedy.
As I was reading through Matthew 5–9 this morning, I was struck again by the force of Jesus’ moral teaching here. He takes major categories of sin and intensifies the Old Testament’s teaching on it: murder, adultery, penury, and self-righteousness all come in for his condemnation here. Now, it is true that the standard he sets is perfection: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he says (Matthew 5:48, ESV). To be sure, none of us can measure up to this standard. In one sense, then, those who point out that this teaching shows us our need for Christ’s salvation are absolutely right.
However, there is more going on here than merely highlighting our need for Christ. There is a picture of kingdom ethics that we are too quick to step over. “Ah,” we say, “I can never be perfect, but thank God for covering my imperfections!” and we move along through our lives. This is not what the text requires of us; it is not what God requires of us. The resurrection of Christ was like the first crack in a piece of glass, and our participation in his resurrection is like the spidering of that crack out until the whole glass is shattered completely. The old world has not yet passed away, but the new one is pushing its way through the cracks, visible more and more in our lives as we pursue holy Christlikeness.
At least, that is how it ought to be. But this in-breaking of the new age is hard work, and it is far easier to empty the Sermon on the Mount of its binding force on our lives. It is easier to look at the moral instruction of Scripture and see only one use of the Law: condemning sinners where they stand so they will look to Christ. Yet the Law does more than this. It also teaches us what God is like, and what his people ought to be like. So when Jesus says to us that we must put aside our anger at our brothers and sisters, that we must do whatever it takes to deal with lust, that we must not retaliate but instead go above and beyond in serving those who do us harm, we must obey. When he tells us how to pray, how to fast, how to give to the needy (and, for that matter, that we are to give generously to the needy), we must obey.
Jesus said both:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
The Sermon on the Mount both tells us of our need for Christ because we cannot be perfect, and requires us to genuinely pursue perfection to honor our Savior.