I’ve had my nose in the Sermon on the Mount, of late. It starts with the Beatitudes, the blessings given to those who embody certain godly characteristics. Check out its opening line:
What follows is a beautiful list of not only blessings, but also of the traits that we who love Christ long to possess. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount identifies lots of other behaviors and characteristics that God values in his children. A quick glance at just the headings tells me that God wants us to give to the needy, love our enemies, pray, fast, refrain from murder and adultery. The list goes on.
The Bible is full of passages exhorting us toward all aspects of godliness, but they always give me pause. They ought to be handled with care. It is too easy in our study (or teaching) of these passages to reduce their application to “Go, do all of these to maintain your standing with God.” But the scripture says, “blessed are the merciful” not “blessed are those who do merciful things.” Our ability to see the difference in these statements is crucial.
Believing that God merely wants us to change our behavior is exchanging the Gospel for moralism. The Gospel becomes a behavioral “to-do” list. Make no mistake, the Gospel is not a behavior modification plan.
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4)
In other words: we can’t behave our way into godliness. Rather, we participate in the divine nature (godly character) by his power. God has promised (among other things) that he will finish his work in us (Phil 1:6.) He will do the work of making us like himself!
Moralistic behavior is, essentially, masking who we really are; acting counter to our our desires. Many who have reduced the Gospel to moralism (understandably) tire of trying to be something they’re not. Recognizing the futility of it, many moralists have walked away from Christian teaching altogether. “I tried being good” they say, or, “I tried to follow God, but I just couldn’t do it.” In the end, the disparity between who they are and who they were trying to be was too stifling or difficult to maintain.
But many who remain in our churches have also bought into the lie of moralism, saying, “God is pleased with me because I do what the Bible says.” This is tragic. Jesus had something to say about this:
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ – Matthew 7:22-23
How ironic is that? Jesus seems to preach an entire sermon about how he wants his followers to behave, but when he gets to the end he says people who were doing the right things are evildoers!
Clearly, there is more to a life of faith than doing the right things!
Where does this leave us? If God does the work, why should we endeavor toward right behavior at all?
And therein, I admit, lies a mystery that is bigger than what I fully understand. But here is the small glimpse I see:
Remember those “poor in spirit” from the first verse of the Sermon on the Mount? “Poor in spirit” refers to those who are aware of their failures and sin, as well as their inability to overcome them. They know that no matter how righteously they act, they can never heal their own unrighteous hearts.
The poor in spirit take personal responsibility for right behavior, but depend on God to affect their right being.
This is how it plays out: The one who is poor in spirit acts rightly (even if she doesn’t want to) simply because it honors God. But she recognizes any disparity between how she is acting and who she really is. She knows when her heart is seething with rebellion, and acknowledges that before the Lord. It prompts her to pray, “God, change my heart! I can’t do it!” She does this again and again until, one day, she realizes that, somehow, her heart has stopped resisting. Some(supernatural)how, God has replaced her heart of rebellion with one that actually rejoices in right action.
We ought to always choose right action, but this is not enough. We must also watch how our hearts respond. Is it rebelling or is it rejoicing? Be honest! If it is rebelling, that is a call to fervent prayer for God’s supernatural power. Keep acting rightly. But keep bringing that rebellious heart to God too! That’s the difference between one who merely acts rightly and the one whose being is transformed by God.
Let’s be careful to articulate this distinction clearly and often. And let’s resolve never to put the millstone of moralism upon ourselves or those under our spiritual guidance.