An Impossible Standard?
If we approach the Sermon on the Mount only or mainly as a means by which we see our sinfulness, we’ve not taken the sermon on its own terms. Martyn Lloyd-Jones saw the situation clearly:
Is it not true to say of many of us that in actual practice our view of the doctrine of grace is such that we scarcely ever take the plain teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ seriously? We have so emphasized the teaching that all is of grace and that we ought not to try to imitate His example in order to make ourselves Christians, that we are virtually in the position of ignoring His teaching altogether and of saying that it has nothing to do with us because we are under grace. Now I wonder how seriously we take the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The best way of concentrating on the question is, I think, to face the Sermon on the Mount.1
Lloyd-Jones is exactly right. We’ve turned the Sermon on the Mount into a giant spanking spoon—good for making you squeal in pain, but not a welcome instrument or a way of life. The Great Commission, then, becomes a summons to teach the nations everything Jesus has said—which, of course, they cannot do, and he doesn’t expect them to observe.
But isn’t the Sermon on the Mount an impossible standard? Who among us never worries, never lusts, never gets angry, never lies, is never a hypocrite, and always loves his enemies, always follows the Golden Rule, and always serves God alone? Here it’s good to recall the distinction between true obedience and perfect obedience. There is a way to insist on genuine obedience as a way of life without doubling down on never sinning and always doing what is right. Besides that helpful theological category, however, notice four things in the text pointing us away from thinking Jesus means to give us an impossible discipleship plan.
First, Jesus presents us with bracing either/or options at several points in his sermon. We can take the narrow gate or the wide gate, the easy path or the hard path, the way of life or the way of death (Matt. 7:13–14). We can be healthy trees bearing good fruit or diseased trees bearing bad fruit (Matt. 7:17–20). We can build our house on the rock and be secure or build our house on the sand and be destroyed (Matt. 7:24–27). The stakes could not be higher. If we are no more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). If we murder in our hearts, we are liable to the hell of fire (Matt. 5:22). If we give ourselves over to lust, we will end up in hell (Matt. 5:29). If we don’t do the will of our Father, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21). We must not give up hope of obeying Jesus’s commands, lest we give up the hope of heaven.
Too many Christians instinctively set aside the commands of Scripture as utterly impossible to obey on any level. The danger with this mindset is not only that we might be disheartened when we shouldn’t be, but that we might not be warned when we should be. Once we convince ourselves that failure is the norm—“No one really obeys Jesus. No one really builds his house on the rock. No one really is pure of heart. No one really enters the narrow gate. No one really bears good fruit.”—we won’t take seriously the many warnings given to us in Scripture that people unchanged by the gospel prove themselves to never really have been saved by the gospel (1 Cor. 6:9–10; Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:8). When genuine (though imperfect) discipleship becomes impossible, hell often becomes impossible as well. By contrast, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount urges us to choose the right way to live and stick with it.
Second, Jesus understands that there is an already-and-not-yet dimension to our Christian walk. On the one hand, Jesus announces that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17). On the other hand, he also tells us to pray for the kingdom to come (Matt. 6:10). The fact that we have to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven implies that we are not always angelic in our obedience. Heaven has broken in but is not yet fully and finally come to earth (Rev. 11:15).
Third, woven into the fabric of Christ’s kingdom living is the expectation that we will need grace and forgiveness. This is a key observation, and one we often miss. When Jesus exhorts us to “[hear] these words of mine and [do] them” (Matt. 7:24), he’s thinking of all the words he’s just been preaching. And think about what we find among those words. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). “Forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12). And in Luke’s account: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). The Sermon on the Mount contains within its many commands an awareness that these commands will not be kept flawlessly. That means part of entering by the narrow gate is being so poor in spirit that you know you need God’s help. It means lamenting your sins and looking to God for mercy. It means asking your heavenly Father to forgive the debts you accrue daily. Jesus’s sermon is not a mount of self-defeating misery, because part of observing all that Jesus commanded is knowing where to find relief when we are miserable offenders.
This may be a good spot to say something about the importance of the conscience. The normal state of the Christian should not be one of low- to medium-level guilt. Remember, Paul said the conscience accuses and excuses us (Rom. 2:15). The conscience is supposed to be a prosecuting attorney when we sin and a defense attorney when we don’t sin. And yet many Christians operate with the assumption that if they are truly spiritual, they will feel bad all the time. That wasn’t Paul’s approach. He boasted in the testimony of his conscience (2 Cor. 1:12) and even went so far as to say he wasn’t aware of anything against himself (1 Cor. 4:4). That didn’t mean he was sinless. In fact, he quickly acknowledged that the Lord was the ultimate judge and he might be judging himself incorrectly. But his goal as a Christian was to serve the Lord with a clean conscience, and he frequently boasted of doing so in his ministry (Acts 23:1; Rom. 9:1; 1 Tim. 1:5; 2 Tim. 1:3).
Walking in the way of the Sermon on the Mount means walking close to Jesus.
In other words, when Paul sinned, he felt convicted, which prompted him to repent, which allowed him to know the grace of God and have a clean conscience. And when he didn’t sin, he didn’t manufacture a guilty conscience. He wasn’t going to make himself feel bad in order to make his opponents happy. If we are to follow Paul’s example, we too should always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man (Acts 24:16). Don’t train yourself to have a guilty conscience. If you are guilty, deal with it and know the joy of forgiveness in Christ. If you aren’t guilty, don’t wallow in feelings of failure as if that makes you a better Christian.
Fourth, the Sermon on the Mount is not an impossible standard, because pleasing Jesus is not impossible. With most sermons, the messenger should decrease so that message can increase. But when you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the point of the preaching is going to be the preacher himself. The Sermon on the Mount compels us to ask: Who is this that thinks we will be persecuted for his sake (Matt. 5:11), that religious tradition bows before him (Matt. 5:21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 33–34, 38–39, 43–44), that building a life on his words makes one wise (Matt. 7:24), that the final judgment will be given with reference to him and given by him (Matt. 7:23)? Of course, the first and lasting impression of the sermon was Jesus’s authority (Matt. 7:28–29). No one had preached like Jesus before because there never was a God-man like Jesus before.
Walking in the way of the Sermon on the Mount means walking close to Jesus. The relentless subplot to this entire sermon comes in the form of this question: Are you with me?
Are you really with me? Are you with me no matter what? Submitting to this sermon means finally and fully submitting to Jesus. The law in the Sermon on the Mount reflects the heart of the lawgiver. The commands of Jesus are not meant to crush us any more than Jesus means to crush us. Jesus came to save us (Matt. 1:21), to enlist us (Matt. 16:24), and to be with us until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). To the unbelieving and unrepentant Jesus will be a terror (Matt. 11:20–24), but to all who know the Son, to those who look for rest in the Son, to those who are eager to walk with the Son and learn from the Son, the yoke he gives you is easy, and the burden he asks you to carry is light (Matt. 11:30).
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 1:12–13.
This article is adapted from Impossible Christianity: Why Following Jesus Does Not Mean You Have to Change the World, Be an Expert in Everything, Accept Spiritual Failure, and Feel Miserable Pretty Much All the Time by Kevin DeYoung.
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