Grace in the Sermon on the Mount
I faced a huge problem almost as soon as I became a Christian. I joined a church and was baptised. My thirst for the Word of God was great, and my enthusiasm for knowledge compelled me to read the Bible. So far so good.
I began as most beginners do – with the Gospel according to Matthew. The problem came in the fifth chapter, the Sermon on the Mount. I was filled with horror when I read the words of the Lord: ‘Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:20).
Suddenly I realised that my righteousness would never exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. I tried to change myself, but, alas, without success. It’s impossible to describe what I felt at that time; I was afraid.
A thought lodged in my head: ‘I will not enter the kingdom of heaven. What am I to do?’ The words of the Sermon about a tempting eye and a tempting hand seared my mind. I believed in God, therefore the fear was great, but I saw no way to escape.
The church I attended advised me not to sin. This just strengthened my fears. I thought that there were some brethren whose righteousness did exceed that of the Pharisees. If so I had no hope.
The Sermon would not let me alone. I began to read whatever the Bible said about sin and I found: ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). So I had misunderstood – all the brethren had sins.
Did this make my life easier? No! It simply told me that some wear a mask of righteousness, but no one is without sin. Then I also read: ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21).
Was I one who said, ‘Lord, Lord’? It is not enough to believe only, one has to do the will of the Father. But what is his will? The most widespread belief is that the will of the Father is for us to keep the law. At least this was taught in our church. The one who keeps the law will enter the kingdom, but those who fail to do so will be excluded.
But I cannot keep the law. Jesus Christ proves this in the Sermon. You think you have never murdered or committed adultery, but you have done both in your heart. We must also love our enemies and ‘turn the other cheek’ when attacked. It seemed that the kingdom had departed from me. I had no hope.
Poor in spirit
Is this so? No! Earlier, Jesus offers this hope: ‘Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 4:17). Here is a kingdom absolutely nearby! And a condition of its appropriation is not law-keeping but repentance.
Is repentance, then, the saving will of the Father? If the result of repentance is an appropriation of the kingdom, then it must be so. But what is true repentance?
With all these questions in my mind, I suddenly saw how Jesus Christ began this Sermon and the Holy Spirit enlightened me. Speaking of certain people, Jesus said: ‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Who are these people? They are the poor in spirit.
These are people to whom the kingdom already belongs! They are its citizens; in other words, they are saved. So the condition to enter the kingdom is to be poor in spirit. What does it mean?
I recently heard a sermon about the two men who went to the Temple to pray. One was definitely poor in spirit, crying: ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). Why did Jesus tell this story? ‘He spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others’ (Luke 18:9).
They needed to hear it, for all our goodness is ‘as filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6). Where is my righteousness? I have none at all. I longed for holiness but couldn’t reach it. ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’
Whose righteousness, then, ‘shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees’? The righteousness of Christ – his and his alone! If I am truly poor in spirit my desire, with Paul, will be ‘to be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the lLaw, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith’ (Philppians 3:9).
I cried, ‘My Lord, take my sins and give me your righteousness; forgive me, I have no hope except in you!’
Suddenly, depression was replaced by joy. My God had forgiven me all my sins for Jesus’ sake and I was saved! I came to the conclusion that I should devote my life to preaching the grace of God in Jesus Christ – helping people to understand that the only true righteousness is that of Christ himself. The will of the Father is that we should come to Christ for forgiveness and for a righteousness that is not our own.
The author is pastor of Christ’s Covenant Church, Minsk, Belarus