The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Discipleship
Discipleship — actually following Jesus — is not optional in Christianity, or for Christians. It’s not an extra add-on like satellite radio in your car, or the premium channels in your cable package. We can’t break the “Good Confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior in half. We can’t give Jesus our sins to be forgiven as Savior without Him, at the very same time, demanding to become the Lord of our lives. Consider the Great Commission — Christ’s final marching orders to the church. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” Jesus told His first followers (Luke 14:47; Mark 16:15), “make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, he Son, and the Holy Spirit, teach them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Menno Simons, one of the Protestant Reformers who gets lost in all of the attention that Luther and Calvin get, understood better than they did what the connection is between believing the Gospel and becoming Christ’s disciples, between getting baptized and obeying all that Christ taught. Menno Simons taught that baptism is probably the least important thing that God commands us to do. Jesus Christ taught so many more important things – loving our neighbors, dying to self, serving the least of these. But Menno Simons nevertheless insisted that people get baptized at the very beginning of their Christian lives because he viewed baptism as the first act of their obedience of faith. Menno Simons understood that if a person agreed to be baptized because Jesus told them to do it, that he or she was someone who was already disposed to do whatever else could be shown to be something that Jesus Christ wanted them to do.
It should come as no great surprise to learn that Menno Simons’ spiritual descendants – the Mennonites – more so than any other part of the Christian family today, have taken the actual living of the Sermon on the Mount most seriously. They get baptized to show their intention to be Christ’s disciples, to do whatever He commands, and they understand that the most comprehensive account of what Christ has commanded is the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not just meant to be admired by us as an inspiring ideal. The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be adopted as our working philosophy of life as Christians.
Now, if we are to do this – and our baptisms say that we should – then there are three things that we’ve got to keep in mind –
The first thing is understanding that living the Sermon on the Mount is not something that we do in order to become Christians, but rather it’s something that we do because we are Christians. I like the way that Frank Thielman, a Professor of New Testament at Beeson Theological Seminary over in Birmingham, Alabama, puts it – “The Sermon on the Mount shows us what life should look like for a heart that has been melted and transformed by the Gospel of Grace.”
We don’t gather at the Lord’s Table to hear the Sermon on the Mount read to us. No, we gather at the Lord’s Table to break bread in remembrance of Christ’s body broken for us, and to pour a cup in remembrance of Christ’s blood poured out for us. This is what makes us Christians. We are loved, forgiven, and accepted by Christ’s saving work when He died an atoning death on the cross and when He rose transformed and transforming from the Garden Tomb. But a copy of the Sermon on the Mount should probably be put in our hands at the door of the church every Sunday morning when worship is over and we’re on our way back into the world as people who have been loved, forgiven, and accepted by the Savior. The Sermon on the Mount is what a life of grateful obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord looks like.
The second thing we need to keep in mind if we are going to live the Sermon on the Mount is understanding that it is not a set of rules that gets imposed on us from the outside, but is rather the shape of the desire that arises from the heart of someone who has been indwelt by Christ. Living like this is not something that we have to do. It’s something that we want to do. In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about fruit and roots. “Grapes are not gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles,” Jesus explained. “Sound trees bear good fruit; bad trees bear bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-17). Reflecting on this, John Piper writes –
Christians have to be loving. Christians have to be just. Christians have to be caring. The fruit of the Spirit really matter. We’re not Christians if we aren’t living differently than we would if we weren’t Christians.
The real question is how does this fruit get produced in us? Jesus said that the kind of fruit we produce depends entirely on the kind of tree we are. And this means that the behaviors of discipleship that the Sermon on the Mount describe – the fruit – can’t be forced on us by some kind of external authority, but rather have to be formed in us by an inward transformation. The key to living the Sermon on the Mount is being a Christian -having a heart indwelt by Christ.
But even then, it’s not going to be easy, or automatic. That’s the third thing that we need to understand if we’re going to start living the Sermon on the Mount. E. Stanley Jones said that living the life of the Sermon on the Mount is sort of like trying to walk after you’ve sat for a long time with your legs folded up underneath you. At first it feels painful and completely unnatural, something impossible to do. But after a while, with a little effort and movement, nothing else feels right. And then it dawns on us that this is the right way to live, the truest and most satisfying way of being a human being. This is the kind of life that we were built for, and when we finally realize this then no other way of living will ever be possible for us again.
In his 15th century spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’ Kempis explained that one of the real keys to making progress in the Christian life was to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord each day as if it were the very first day of our Christian lives. Don’t start the day by congratulating yourself on any sort of imagined spiritual progress that you think you might have made, but instead consciously seek the help of Jesus who is your Savior as you continue to grow in your experience of Jesus who intends to be your Lord. It’s only by “doing what He told us to do, loving what He loves, and living by His word” (J. Ligon Duncan) that we show ourselves to be His disciples, and Biblically there’s no other way for us to be in a right relationship with Him. As A.W. Tozer put it – “It is altogether doubtful whether a person can be saved who comes to Christ for His help but who has no intention of obeying Him.” “If you love Me,” Jesus said, “then you will do what I tell you.” DBS +