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 = SalvationBut 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 = SalvationTo this:
Me + Getting the Sermon on the Mount Right = SalvationIt 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.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.
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.
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.