Part three of a three-part writing based on Vista’s 2012 “Following Jesus” series (listen in iTunes). Check out the previous posts in the series, “The Gospel: The Kingdom of God,” and “The Gospel: The Affirmation of God.”
Since the understandable and unsurprising standard of the God of All Creation is perfection, we cannot earn approval from God (that is, we cannot earn the Righteousness required to be right with God).
The only solution to our inescapably self-centered hearts is to accept the grace of God by faith through the work of Christ.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace… – Romans 3:21-25
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith –and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
A profound question remains: If we are approved by God (given righteousness) apart from what we do, what do we do?! What now?
Does following Jesus simply mean believing? Believing that…
He gave His life in exchange for mine, with no appreciable bearing on my practical life? Just live by faith? Or…
Does following Jesus simply mean practicing a religion? Just work? Or…
Does following Jesus mean that I should live (work) in some particular manner according to what I believe (faith)?
Knowing and believing that I am reconciled to God by his grace alone through faith alone – is there still “work” to be done by me?
The remaining entirety of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a blueprint for the work of the Christian life. The confusion comes when we misunderstand the “why” of the work. If we have forgiveness and life in Christ alone, why would more work be required?
The demands of Jesus are not in place to earn or keep the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life, but for the purpose of becoming more like Jesus in this lifetime…for spiritual transformation.
Behavioral Modification vs. Heart-level Transformation
It’s important to understand a critical distinction between following Moses and following Jesus. Stated simplistically, following Moses is to refine your behavior, and following Jesus is to refine your heart.
You see, Jesus’ issue with the Pharisees wasn’t strictly that they were or were not following the rules, but that in so doing, their hearts were not being changed to be like God’s heart. In fact, their hearts had become even less like God’s heart; they had become prideful and self-serving in their rule following – their religious expertise!
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. – Matthew 23:25-26
It’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t abolish the law – the rules for living — He fulfilled them (Mt 5:17). Although our eternity is secure in Jesus, we must finish out this life. Jesus goes on in the Sermon not to tell us how to gain God’s approval, but how to live lives that exceed the righteousness of the “perfect” religious elite Pharisees – to live lives of increasingly righteous hearts.
What we find throughout the remainder of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a shift from external righteousness to internal: from behavioral-related obedience to heart-transforming obedience. Jesus’ Sermon calls us to an obedience that brings about an increasing heart-level righteousness.
Jesus is clarifying that righteousness is about dealing with the roots of the issues that you are constantly having to fight with in order to keep your behaviors aligned with Godly practices. Jesus wants us to exceed the perfection of the Pharisees by working on the stuff beneath the behavior.
Jesus calls us to new righteousness of authenticity and restorative behavior.
Religiosity vs. Following Jesus
The final piece to the Sermon on the Mount puzzle is to see the “triplets” verses “doublets!” Sounds funny, but it’s a serious deal – the difference between being a prideful religious person or a humble follower of Jesus.
The remaining teaching modules of the Sermon are usually remembered as doublets:
1) That is wrong, so…
2) Don’t do that.
1) Murder is wrong, but I say if you get angry with your brother, you have murdered in your heart, so
2) Don’t get angry.
But that isn’t what Jesus says! He teaches in triplets:
1) That is wrong, but
2) your heart is also wrong, so
3) do this to transform your heart.
It’s that third instruction that is critical to understand and perform, because it is that one that changes your heart to be more like Christ.
For a specific example, take a look at Jesus’ teaching on anger:
Matthew 5:21-24 “You have heard that it was said to those of old,
1) ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. ’ But I say to you that
2) everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool! ’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,
3) leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Instead of being “religious” and pretending to not be angry, Jesus gives us a transformative initiative that, if practiced, will break the vicious cycle of anger in one’s life and begin to change their heart.
With this approach, Jesus frees us to be authentic about the negative emotions we feel without justifying them. Anger is wrong, and it’s a heart issue. Jesus doesn’t say to stuff your anger and pretend to be fine, it rather to admit it and go make amends.
If you can discover the triplet in each module, you’ll know what to do to work on the challenging heart-level issues in your life. Some of them aren’t easy to see. Here’s some help…
Mt 5:21 Angry? —> Be reconciled
Mt 5:27 Lustful? —> Eliminate the avenue for sin
Mt 5:31 Considering ending your legal marriage? —> Learn God’s way to be married
Mt 5:33 Having to convince people you’re telling the truth? —> Make and keep simple commitments
Mt 5:38 Legitimate reason to retaliate? —> Make an eternal impact with a faith-filled, sacrificially generous response
Mt 6:1–24 Hypocritical? Prideful? —> Do some seriously great stuff in compete secrecy
Mt 6:25 Anxious or worried? —> Exercise faith without delay by doing the transformative Kingdom stuff Jesus is teaching