The Sermon, Grace & Justification

A month or so ago, in the comments to a post, I stated that, in my opinion, adherence to the Sermon on the Mount was critical to salvation. This belief of mine smacked so much of "works-based" righteousness that a reader, prayerfully, decided that he would no longer read this blog.

I've been thinking about that exchange ever since. I haven't changed my mind. Far from it. But I've been thinking about how my feelings about the Sermon on the Mount relate to a theology of "justification by faith."

Some biographical background here might be helpful. To start, I'm from an Arminian faith tradition (the Churches of Christ). So I don't really feel any pull from Reformed, Calvinistic, or evangelical positions. I couldn't give a hoot about Augustine, Luther, or Calvin. In short, I've never believed in "justification by faith" or sola fide. So if you're coming from a Reformed or Calvinistic position don't come knocking on this Arminian's door. I won't give you the time of day.

More, the tradition I grew up in really did believe in a "works based" righteousness. In the Churches of Christ of my youth you really had to "get things right" to go to heaven. We didn't believe in irresistible grace (pejoratively called "once saved, always saved" in my Sunday School classes). We didn't believe in predestination. But we did believe salvation involved a human's volitional act. And we loved the book of James: "A person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone."

Where, you might ask, was grace in all this? Well, not anywhere I could see. At least during my childhood. As best I can tell, the Churches of Christ started discovering grace (and some still haven't) during the 1980s. Just in time for my college years.

I'm exaggerating a bit. But not by much.

The point in going into all of this backstory is that my theological imagination has been shaped by a "works based" tradition. I'm not Reformed or Calvinist. I grew up working hard for salvation. Working out my salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2.12).

But during college a change did take place in my life and theology. The "works" of the Churches of Christ tended to focus on ecclesiology, how we organized church and conducted worship services. These ecclesial forms were what we had to get right. Because if we got them wrong (e.g., worshiped improperly) then we'd stand under God's judgment. Fall from grace.

So that's how I was raised. I saw the situation like this:

Me + Getting Church Right = Salvation
But as I said, in the 1980s (according to my own observation) a bunch of Church of Christ people started thinking about grace. Where was grace to be found in our tradition? Eventually, because of these explorations, quite a few Church of Christ people did adopt Reformed/Calvinistic positions. There are now quite a few Reformed/Calvinistic Church of Christ people running around in our churches. I tend to blink at them with either blank indifference or horror, depending upon my mood.

The changes I underwent in the 1980s were a bit different. I didn't run toward grace or John Calvin. I read books like Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship and decided that "getting church right" was kind of pointless. Jesus, after all, never seemed too keen on church or worship services. No, what really mattered, I decided, was the Sermon on the Mount.

And this switch, theologically and psychologically, was very easy for me. I simply went from this:
Me + Getting Church Right = Salvation
To this:
Me + Getting the Sermon on the Mount Right = Salvation
It wasn't that drastic of a switch, theologically speaking.

But practically speaking? Ethically speaking? Interpersonally speaking? Well, the change couldn't have been more profound and earth-shattering. I'm still picking up the pieces.

But the point I'm trying to make is that language of the Sermon on the Mount fit my theological imagination. The language of the book of James--You are justified by works--the language that shaped how I understood salvation, fit the language of Matthew 5-7 like a glove:
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything.

I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Enter through the narrow gate.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
Here's the deal. If you believe in "justification by faith" I have no idea how you deal with the Sermon on the Mount. I guess you'd have to privilege Paul over Jesus. But for me, due to my religious upbringing, I was, and remain, perfectly comfortable with the works-based theology of the Sermon on the Mount. I actually subscribe to crazy ideas like the notion that my ultimate forgiveness is contingent upon my forgiving other people. And I believe crazy stuff like this because, well, Jesus said it.

In sum, I firmly believe that my ultimate salvation (and justification) is dependent and contingent upon my relationship to the Sermon on the Mount. And I believe this simply because I'm a disciple of Jesus. I take him at his word.

Now, you might be wondering, where does grace and "justification by faith" fit into this picture? Again, you have to realize, due to my upbringing, that these just aren't urgent questions for me. I have very little invested in these theories or the doctrines of the Reformation. I simply don't care. You can care, feel free. But I don't. If you're Reformed I bet you don't care a lot about what happens at the Vatican. Well, that's how I feel about your tradition. I'm vaguely aware that your tradition exists, but your issues are not my issues.

Still, no one's perfect. Who can live up to the Sermon on the Mount? And if I can't live up to it won't I be hounded by guilt and bound for hell?

This is where my (very anemic) view of grace kicks in. It's not a theory or system like the Reformed notion of sola fide. It's more a feeling I have than a doctrine.

My feeling of grace has two complementary parts. First, I'm convinced that God is fundamentally for us. Second, I'm convinced that God simply wants our best, day in and day out. Basically, I think of God as a parent. God wants our all, our full effort, nothing held back. And if we've given our best God will be satisfied, even if we fall short. And we will fall short. So grace is rather like an ecosystem of loving support and strenuous moral effort. The effort isn't done to "win" or "earn" the support. No, the effort is only conceivable against a pre-existing background of support.

These feelings might seem woefully inadequate. They leave a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions. To answer those questions you'd need a system and an explanatory theory, like "justification by faith." But I don't care about theories. And that's how I view that doctrine. It's a system. An algorithm. A math problem. It's not the gospel. There's a reason Luther didn't like the book of James. It's because "justification by faith" as a theory isn't biblical.

See, what Luther got wrong is that he felt God was, fundamentally, against us. So his theory was cooked up to deal with that sort of God. I'm beginning in a very different place, a God who is for us. And if you start there, well, you don't need Luther or Calvin.

Because a doctrine of forgiveness is already found within the Sermon on the Mount. It's right there, in the middle of the Lord's Prayer. You simply pray "forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." That's all I need by way of theory. The simple assurance that God will forgive the sins of those who appeal to him as Father and who, like their Father, strive to forgive others.

Could it be that simple? And that hard?

I believe that it is.

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10 thoughts on “The Sermon, Grace & Justification”

  1. Fascinating, Richard. Thanks! I come from a Reformed background, so I come to this from the other side, as you say. What I like about what you're saying, and what I agree with, is that God is for us, not against us. And I see your point about Luther and Calvin. They took things too far, I think, contaminating the tradition ever since. But what I do get from Luther especially is the sense that it's not God who is against us, it's we who are against us. That the tragedy of sin is "homo incurvatus in se", man bent in upon himself. I strongly resonate with your impulse not to make these insights into theories that require near mathematical transactions of token graces and repentances. But the fact somehow remains for me: We are our own worst enemies. We trip ourselves up. Thank God that he is for us, when we are so profoundly against us. Thank God we live in this graceful ecosystem.

    You know?

  2. Arni,
    This post is a bit of a rant. I don't want to throw the entire Reformation under the bus. I'm a big fan of Luther.

    Mainly, all I'm trying to do is clear the air with Reformed readers. Every so often, as I started off with in this post, I get commenters who seem to think I'm betraying the Reformed tradition. I'm trying to alert them that I'm not coming from their tradition, so when I say stuff that doesn't sound Reformed it's because, well, I'm not Reformed. I grew up privileging the book of James over Paul. That isn't to say that my tradition isn't deeply flawed (it is), but it did shape my theological imagination to fit comfortably with the theology of the Sermon on the Mount.

  3. In our church we are preaching through the Sermon on the Mount on Sunday mornings -- we may complete that cycle in February -- and on Sunday nights we are attending to Romans 12-15 and other letters in which our brother Paul applies the teaching of Jesus. i find no contradiction between Jesus and Paul in making disciples or in the works of love to which disciples are called.

    Those who, having turned to God in faith, have been baptized into Christ, are called "to present your bodies as a living sacrifice." They are instructed not to be "conformed to this world," but they are to be "transformed by the renewing of your mind." This is what Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is teaching his disciples to be -- transformed by faith into "sons of God." ("Sonship" in Paul and Jesus is not a matter of what we now call "gender"; it is the inheritance of faith. "In Christ . . . there is no male and female.")

    Jesus does not intend to "relax" the commands given through Moses; he intends to amplify them, in his life and in the lives of his disciples. Jesus and his disciples will together "fullfill" the Law, becoming what the Law -- though it be "perfect" -- could not be: the living expression of God's grace and infinite mercy. That is what our brother Paul calls "the ministry of reconciliation," brought about by God's "new creation" in Christ Jesus.

    God's Peace to you.


  4. Oh, how this blog site has blessed me! Near as I can tell, as far as sytematic theologies go, I'm closer to a Wesleyan-Arminian than anything...while most of my acquaintances and family are Calvinists. I can so relate to your "feeling" of grace. In my "knowing" of God, in Christ, He is good, merciful, loving, and gracious. I just know it in the depths of my soul. The Calvinist sin/punishment paradigm just doesn't jibe with my knowing of God, no matter how long I try to see the rationale.

    I lead a weekly ladies' Bible study in a local nursing home. A few months back, one of the dear women in our group who has memory problems but clearly remembers her identity in Christ, asked me to devote one week's lesson to what it means to be "in Christ" and, more importantly, what we are supposed to "do" to be found in Him. I prayed over that, wanting desperately to get it right. My answer was to review the Beatitudes, and now we are doing a slow study of the gospel of Matthew. It was, therefore, so affirming to see your blog post about the Sermon on the Mount being central to your faith!

    Your words are so edifying to my daily faith walk, and I thank you for being a needed presence on the WWW.

  5. "I'm vaguely aware that your tradition exists, but your issues are not my issues."

    I laughed at this. I know exactly how you feel. I get this weird queasiness when I read people critiquing the New Perspective on Paul, for instance, because of this strange Reformed language that is so forced into the conversation.

  6. Richard,
    Tis my first time posting on your blog, so, nice to "meet" you!

    I accidentally surfed in and was surprised to find myself actually reading the entire lengthy post, rather than skimming. I think the post is a good one, if only for the fact that sometimes it takes us putting our ideas down in black and white to realize what sorts of internal assumptions we are running around with inside.
    In this case you seem like a very reflective and humble fellow in your responses today on this post - like the act of writing it all down has brought to your consciousness some weaknesses in your way of relating to all this..and heck, that's good to see.
    For me, you have illuminated for me some of my own cognitive dissonance as well. I was also brought up in C of C and later moved on.... I know I'm not a Calvinist, by far, although I'm not so far removed from reformed brethren to not care about what they think. I have found their perspectives often to be of great value, not so much when it comes to their views on justification, but the underlying heart motivation intrinsic to Calvinism that no doctrine can be tenable unless God is more glorified than man in its presentation and implications. I think they get the equation wrong, but this reason wherein they are so concerned with balancing it, that leads them to be overzealous to so balance it, is worth keeping.
    But seeing your me+ equations put so bluntly and without apology also reminds me of the pendulum swing of extremes ;) I too think perfection is a real goal, and yet... I know that I did not find life while trying to wear the burdens put on me by the C of C. Yet, the truth is around here it is nice to kick it around a bit.
    Peace to you in the Lord,

  7. I honestly believe that the salvation by works or faith debate should be a moot point. The way I see it, either you are saved by works and thus live out the teachings of Christ in such a radical way to gain that which has been promised, or you are saved by faith and in gratitude devote your life to fully living out the teachings of Christ.

    The former is obviously easier to conceptualize, but harder to swallow. While the latter goes down smooth, but is pretty vague and can lead to a lot of lazy "Christians".

    Being more of an Old Testament man myself, I prefer the middle of the road. God chose the people of Israel, but required much of them. There were severe consequences for breaking the covenant, but always the promise of restoration. The heroes of the Old Testament were imperfect. Liars, whores, and murderers. Yet, they were God's children and his chosen people, blessed and cursed with that responsibility.

  8. Stuart: You made the post I was about to write. It is amazing to me that there is a a biblical discussion of exactly what is required to inherit eternal life, yet everybody keeps coming up with complex theories. As for me, I'm a Parable of the Good Samaritan and Apostles' Creed Christian. Of course, there are those little, troubling questions such as figuring out who is my neighbor.

    By the way, a fun reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is found in the Cotton Patch Gospel, a paraphrase in Southern dialect written in the 1950's.

  9. Absolutely NOT. My point was that when a Scripture (any writing actually) is taken out of its context, it can be twisted to mean just about anything one came to it already believing.

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