Calling All Neurotics
I am ready to leave the “introductory remarks” to the Sermon the Mount, and begin the second phase of our study: a deep dive into the scholarly background and history of interpretation. But one last introductory post is needed. Since I have argued that the Sermon on the Mount paints a new vision, sets out a new lifestyle, and invites us to participate, many will begin to feel an uncomfortable nagging sense of worry: are we really going to go down the road of guilt and shame–reading the Sermon as some rule-based performance-centered law to which I never quite measure up? Wouldn’t that lead to neuroticism? I understand the concern. You see, I’m a recovering neurotic myself (and my closest friends might question the ‘recovering’ part).
Neuroticism can come from a whole host of factors, including your early religious experience. Recognizing that perfect balance is rarely anyone’s experience, most people can place their inherited worldview on a spectrum ranging from left (emphasizing grace over duty, perhaps to the exclusion of virtue) to right (emphasizing duty and obedience as primary, perhaps to the neglect of God’s justifying and sanctifying work). For example, perhaps you grew up in a laissez-faire, live-and-let-live style of religiosity. The emphasis was on what God did for you, and how highly God thinks of you. Doing good works was, of course, encouraged—but every other lesson made sure to point out that nothing you do could ever earn, merit, or secure standing before God, and nothing you do could ever cause you to miss heaven’s grand opening on Judgment day. Everything about salvation was a free gift from a loving God who asked only that you say you’re sorry on occasion, and rejoice that no matter what you do, God always has your back. After all, “getting into heaven is the whole ballgame,” you might have been told, “and we are saved by grace, not works” (Ephesians 2:4-9; Rom. 11:5-6).
Theology that leans in that direction has some strengths, of course, but also has some hidden dangers. A high emphasis on ‘God-at-work in spite of you’ is quite encouraging, but finding a place for duty, ethics, virtue, and obedience (God at work in you, with your participation) can be difficult for some raised in such a tradition.
But that may not have been your experience at all. What our honest and good-hearted mentors actually said and what we remember hearing may, in fact, not be the same. But for some Christians, the God you grew up with always had a stern look on His face–terribly unpleased with your performance. And this did not bode well for you. The Bible to which you were introduced highlighted verses that emphasized obedience at every turn, taught you that God expected fine-detailed rule-keeping, and made you quite certain He kept a tally of church attendance. Salvation, indeed, was the whole ballgame (as far as you knew), and one of the most quoted verses was this one: “man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). Add in several robust descriptions of hell, and you have an explosive combination of memories that would affect any young, extra-sensitive neurotic with a penchant for perfectionism. It can easily create a nervous wreck. “Grace does not demand perfect obedience. We are saved by Christ, not by perfect obedience.”–R. L. Whiteside
“Grace does not demand perfect obedience. We are saved by Christ, not by perfect obedience.”–R. L. Whiteside
I get it. That’s why a big part of me can sympathize with the Lutheran/Protestant reaction to the Sermon on the Mount. Luther was an even bigger neurotic than I, and it was such a refreshing day when he came to realize that God’s righteousness is not what destroys us, but frees us! It was as if the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders. Luther would later claim that the Sermon on the Mount cannot be done, kept, lived, or attained…except by Christ. And once you realize that fact, it will bring you to your knees in a chorus of hallelujahs for Christ’s imputed righteousness in the face of our wretchedness. Seeking to ‘live by the rules’ of the Sermon is to return to the former way of thinking that is performance-based salvation, ruled by the twin gods of fear and pride.
I, too, had a small-scale ‘Luther’ moment in my late teens, standing by a pool in Nashville, Tennessee, as a wise preacher prayed that God would “break in me what needs to be broken”—including the pride that kept me from realizing my fear-driven view of religion was actually an insult to the love of God. I completely understand why Luther read everything written in the New Testament through that one, centrally-important lens. It makes so much psychological and sociological sense.
But it carries a significant theological problem. Pendulum-swings always bring respite from old dangers, while introducing new ones. The Scriptures absolutely major in grace, and remind us that God’s love has no parallel. But there are two other considerations that need to be addressed.
First, salvation is not just about what we were saved from, but what we were saved for. If salvation is only about the former, then we have a whole swath of Scripture that has no meaning, warnings that have no teeth, and object-lessons that have no application.
Second, salvation (as narrowly defined) may not be the whole ballgame—at least as the term is often used. “Going to heaven when you die” just doesn’t seem to be the only thrust of most New Testament teaching. Jesus and Paul taught us about the Kingdom of God, which was breaking into the world, bringing about a change of paradigm, and allowing God’s Spirit to create new people, a new society, and a new way of living. Growing into the image of Christ, fighting for justice, renewing our minds, learning doctrine, pursuing a holy life, being an active part of a local church, serving our brothers and sisters, and finding joy in the midst of suffering are constant themes—all of which are unnecessary side-issues if “getting saved” is the only thing that matters, and “getting saved” is only about receiving a free gift with no strings attached.
Do you see the issue? To be fair, heirs of Luther do too. “In the modern world, it seems so difficult to walk with absolute certainty in the narrow way of ecclesiastical decision and yet remain in the broad open spaces of the universal love of Christ,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Yet somehow or other we must combine the two.”
The word “righteousness” is used in the New Testament in two very different yet important senses. Sometimes, the word means “right standing” with God (Psalm 143:2; Romans 3:20-24; Romans 5:1, 9; Galatians 2:16; Galatians 5:5; Philippians 3:7-9). I believe that Luther, and others, were absolutely right to teach that right standing with God—the legal declaration that says we are “innocent” of the stain of sin, and have been set free from the punishment that should have been ours—is due to the work of Jesus Christ alone. For anyone to claim they have “right standing” with God because their actions earned or merited God’s forgiveness is a tragedy of the highest degree. My graduate professor, John Mark Hicks, mined some helpful quotes, showing that some in my own heritage saw this point clearly. “Let no man, therefore, comfort himself with the reflection that he who does right will be saved,” wrote James A. Harding (for whom the university where I teach is named); “for no man, in the church or out of it, does right.” “Grace does not demand perfect obedience,” added R. L. Whiteside in 1940. “We are saved by Christ, not by perfect obedience.”
But the word “righteousness” is also used in the New Testament to refer to “right living” (Psalm 119:172; 1 John 3:7; Romans 14:17; Matthew 5:48). Jesus, Paul, and John seem to think that the same God who expected obedient, faith-filled lives of service from Israel had similar expectations for the New Testament people of God. Our obedience is part of our faith story. “While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift of grace,” writes New Testament scholar John Barclay, “God expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit.”
Holding these two truths together is not as impossible as some might think. David Lipscomb was a prominent minister in my own faith heritage. Writing at the turn of the century, he showed a keen appreciation for the full weight of both sides of the ‘righteous’ coin:
We must strive to walk in the steps of Jesus and so grow into the likeness of God. But with our best efforts to serve God, we will often fall short of doing his will. We are human. And never a day passes that a man can say: ‘This day I have done my whole duty.’ We fall short; we make wrong steps; we are frail and imperfect. When we have done the best we can, we must be saved by the mercy and love of God. His grace is sufficient for us, but we never reach the point that we do not need his grace to save us. It was a blessed thing for humanity that Jesus gave the example of the two men that ‘went up into the temple to pray,’ and the assurance that the publican, who stood afar off, and ‘would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God, be thou merciful to me a sinner,’ ‘went down to his house justified rather than the other’—the self-righteous, self-sufficient Pharisee, who felt that he possessed all the virtues. God’s grace is revealed to our faith as sufficient to have all who continually strive to serve God, to do his will despite the weaknesses and frailties of humanity that cause men to fall short of a perfect obedience. What God requires is to be like Jesus in having no will of our own, but a constant, earnest desire to do just what God requires.
In his commentary on Philippians, Lipscomb paused to reflect on Paul’s great hope that one day, Paul would be “found” in Christ, having a righteousness that was not his own, but rather that which is through faith in the Son of God:
Faith in Christ leads man to do the things that Christ has commanded…[But] faith in God…changes a man’s feelings, desires, and character into a likeness of God. He is led by faith to live the life that pleases God, to do the will of God, becomes righteousness according to the righteousness of God, and becomes in life and character like God. Even when a man’s heart is purified by faith, and his affections all reach out towards God and seek conformity to the life of God it is imperfect. His practice of the righteousness of God falls far short of the divine standard…but if we trust God implicitly and faithfully endeavor to do his will, he knows our frame, knows our weakness, and as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities our infirmities and weaknesses, and imputes to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ. So Jesus stands as our justification and our righteousness, and our life is hid with Christ in God.
As these quotes indicate, a balanced appreciation for the larger story of God’s intended work leads us to trust in the finished work of Christ, and to seek with all our might to imitate the righteous life of our Master.
Which brings me to the Sermon on the Mount. “While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift of grace, God expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by…and to walk in the Spirit.”–John Barclay
“While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift of grace, God expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by…and to walk in the Spirit.”–John Barclay
There is the (poorly named) ‘Catholic tradition’ of reading the Sermon as a manual for certain super-Christians, but not for the general public. Another (poorly named) ‘Lutheran tradition’ says that the Sermon cannot (and must not) be lived out by anyone other than Christ. If you have cut your teeth on either of these approaches, allow me to introduce to you another reading greatly influenced by the wisdom and apocalyptic traditions of the Old Testament, and the virtue-ethics of Aristotle, Aquinas, and others. According to a third reading, the Sermon is a gracious invitation—offered by the Savior who came into the world to save sinners. But it is an invitation to participate in the blessed life of the kingdom which we long to enter. Participation includes action, a change of behavior as well as perspective; a life in which we grow out of our old way of living, and adopt a new way of living, being, and doing in the world. In short, the Sermon shows us what kingdom living looks like—the life adopted by Christ—and then invites us to participate in that life.
Grace and virtue should not be set against one another. If we could free ourselves from thinking “who is going to make the cut and get into heaven” as the only, bottom-line question worth answering, then we could open ourselves up to the beautiful invitation of the Sermon. As Dallas Willard emphasizes, “who gets into heaven” could be supplemented by another important question: “what kind of person will you be when you get there?” How does the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, the high calling of God’s holy people, and the lived-out vision of a church’s cry for justice and integrity, relate to our everyday lives? What difference does it make how I treat my neighbor, or how I face temptation or persecution? What difference does it make if anger, lust, and contempt rule my life? How does a life in pursuit of God’s Spirit make me think about money, time, worry, retaliation, and making commitments? Let the Sermon on the Mount be read as a gracious invitation to participate in the life of righteousness. No, it does not teach that we earn our salvation by equaling the work of Christ, and thus forcing God to punch our ticket. That is wrong. But it does call for us to live right, and to live well. This is the life we were destined for. This is the abundant life, and God asks for more than passive passengers; he calls for active participants.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev & unabridged, trans. R. H. Fuller and Imgard Booth (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. 32.
 James A. Harding, “Three Lessons from the Book of Romans,” in F. D. Srygley, Biographies and Sermons (1898; reprint, Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1961), p. 247.
 R. L. Whiteside, “‘The Curse of the Law’,” Gospel Advocate 82 (Jan 18, 1940), p. 59.
 John Barclay (interviewed by Wesley Hill), “What’s So Dangerous about Grace?”, Christianity Today (Dec 31, 2015). http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/january-february/whats-so-dangerous-about-grace.html
 David Lipscomb, “Assurance of Pardon,” Gospel Advocate 52 (Oct 27, 1910), p. 1184.
 David Lipscomb, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, Vol 4: Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, ed. J. W. Shepherd (Nashville,, TN: Gospel Advocate Company, 1958), pp. 205-206.
EARLIER POSTS IN THIS SERIES
The Complete Art of Happiness: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 1
Life with a Capital ‘L’: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 2
New Things To Love: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 3
A Change of Desire: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 4
The Cost of Apprenticeship: Sermon on the Mount Intro–Part 5
THE NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES
Conversation Partners for Reading the Sermon
photo credit: Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1890
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. He lives in Florence, Alabama, where he serves as President of Mars Hill Bible School.