What Different Christians do with the Sermon on the Mount
It’s a story that I have known for years, and used myself in preaching and teaching. It’s about three people who head into the forest one day for a walk. One of them is a scientist, and as she walks through the forest what she sees is an intricate ecosystem. She sees the dynamic interaction of flora and fauna, and she can hardly wait to get home to read up on the species that she has seen and to better understand the symbiotic relationships that she has observed.
One of them is a business executive, and as he walks through the forest what he sees are natural resources just waiting to be harvested and monetized for a profit. He tries to calculate board feet in his head as he walks, and he wonders about the real costs that would be involved in getting this raw material to market. He can hardly wait to get home to put pencil to paper and get to a bottom line.
And one of them is a poet, and as she walks through the forest what she sees is a beauty that moves her deeply. She is inspired by the explosion of light and color, order and movement that she sees in the forest, and so she begins to play with words and images in her head, and she can hardly wait to get home to craft a joyful response to the glory that she has been privileged to witness.
Three people walk into a forest. One sees systems with the eyes of a scientist. One sees profit with the eyes of a businessman. One sees beauty with the eyes of an artist. So, were they in the same forest? Were they even looking at the same thing?
I have these same thoughts as I listen to the way that different Christians I know use the Sermon on the Mount. Almost every Christian I know would agree that the Sermon on the Mount is “the most comprehensive ethical discourse to fall from the lips of Jesus Christ,” a virtual “ethical directory for Christians” (Carl F.H. Henry). But from this common starting point, we all move out in different directions and make different uses of what Christ said. Years ago I read an essay called the “Versions and Evasions of the Sermon on the Mount.” In it the author explored some of the different ways that Christians through the years have used and abused the Sermon on the Mount, and I remember wondering to myself as I read his description of the dizzying array of their approaches – “Are we even in the same forest?” “Are we even looking at the same thing?”
Thomas Jefferson sat up at night in the White House with a copy of the New Testament, an exacto knife and some glue in front of him, cutting and pasting together his own version of Christianity. The result – the “Jefferson Bible” – is a moral code devoid of any supernatural claims, saving acts, or redemptive promises. Jesus was a great teacher of ethical ideals who died a martyr’s death in their defense, and to be a Christian today is a matter of adopting what He taught, especially in the Sermon in the Mount, as our own personal moral code. Insofar as we sound and look like what’s in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re Christian. Insofar as we don’t, we’re not.
Leo Tolstoy took the Sermon on the Mount as the blueprint for a new social order. He began its actual implementation by ordering the life of his own country estate according to his understanding of what it was that he found in the Sermon on the Mount, and he viewed the whole enterprise as a kind of experimental prototype for what he hoped would be the eventual application of the teachings of Jesus to society at large. He believed that if enough people would just commit themselves to the “simple, clear and practical commandments” of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, that what would soon be established in the world would be “a completely new order of human society,” the veritable coming of “the kingdom of heaven on earth.”
Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, called the Sermon on the Mount “Mossimus Moses” because he believed that it was “Moses quadrupled, Moses multiplied to the highest degree.” John R.W. Stott, the popular Bible preacher and teacher of the last generation, discussing Luther’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount wrote – “It is a law of inward righteousness which no child of Adam can possibly obey. It can only condemn us, and make the forgiveness of Christ indispensable to us.” Every attempt at perfect obedience to the things that the Sermon on the Mount teaches leaves us both exhausted and frustrated. It is an “unattainable ideal,” and so it always send us back to Christ the Savior to be justified by His grace rather than by our works.
The Three Uses of the Law
Jefferson, Tolstoy and Luther – and all of us who are their spiritual descendants – agree that the Sermon on the Mount matters, and we are, each in our own way, trying to take it seriously. We make different uses of it, to be sure, but at least we’re all reading it, and we’re all trying to heed it.
A tool from the Protestant Reformation has proven helpful for me as I have tried to honor this diversity of interpretation and application. Understanding the Law to be anything in the Bible with an “ought” or an “ought not” attached to it, any Divine instruction about what it is that we are supposed to do or not to do because of God’s righteousness, John Calvin and the Reformed tradition explained that those parts of the Bible like the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount have three basic functions. This is called “The Threefold Use of the Law” in the history of Christian thought.
The First Use of the Law
First of all, the Law shows us that we all fall short of the glory of God. This is the first use of the Law. As expressions of God’s intentions for us as human beings, those parts of the Bible that tell us what to do – the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots” – are constantly taking our measure and driving us to grace, to the Gospel message of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. This was Martin Luther’s use of the Law, and it is my own soul’s reflexive use of it as well. As an Evangelical Christian my first spiritual instinct is always to start with how Biblical teachings like the Sermon on the Mount shatter my illusions of moral superiority and imagined self-sufficiency, making me receptive to and entirely dependent upon God’s saving action in Christ.
The Second Use of the Law
Second, the Law alerts us to the fact that this is God’s world and that He has a moral will for humanity in general. This is the second use of the Law; its social or civil use. Human thriving depends on the powers that be promoting what’s good and suppressing what’s evil, and it is God alone who gets to define what the shape of this good and evil is going to be. But once we know what God wants, then it’s our job to try to embody it as best we can. This was Tolstoy’s use of the Sermon on the Mount, and while unlike him, I’m not at all convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is a political manifesto with immediate and obvious public policy implications, I nevertheless want to stay in conversation with my activist brothers and sisters who are trying to bring the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to bear on the great social, political and economic issues that we face today.
The Third Use of the Law
Third, the Law provides our regenerated hearts with a trellis for our growth as Christians. This is the third use of the Law. As the Puritans put it – “The Law sends us to Christ to be justified (forgiven), and then Christ sends us back to the Law to be sanctified (transformed).” Forgiven, then gradually we are changed (2 Corinthians 3:18). Regenerated, then slowly we are conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Redeemed, then incrementally we start to grow up in every way into Christ who is our Head (Ephesians 4:15). And this is what the third use of the Law does for us, and in us. It’s the blueprint for the change that Christ begins when we give Him our hearts. And while I am not convinced that Thomas Jefferson understood this sequence at all, the way that he tried to use the Sermon on the Mount as a moral map for his life nevertheless points in the direction of this third use of the Law. It reminds us that the moral life that the Bible describes is not just a set of ideals to be saluted from a distance with abstract appreciation, but rather they are actual instructions that are meant to be put into practice.
So, are we in the same Forest?
Spiritually, we may very well be the equivalents of that scientist, business executive and poet who went for a walk in the woods one day. We may be seeing things from different vantage points when we look at the Sermon on the Mount, but we’re all in the same forest, so let’s start there with that shared experience. To be sure, I may look at and make use of the Sermon on the Mount in a way that is very different from the way that you look at and make use of the Sermon on the Mount, but the fact that we are all looking at it, and are all trying to make use of it, puts us side by side in a common endeavor, and chances are that this means that I could learn something from you, and you could learn something from me, as together we are all try to make sense of some of the most important words that Jesus spoke. DBS +