Throughout the centuries, Christians have faced the vexing question: How are we to live as Christians in the midst of a secular culture? This question reaches to the heart of Christian discipleship and the meaning of the Gospel-and challenges the church of the late twentieth century no less than the earliest disciples.
Called out from the world as a “peculiar people” and charged to be salt and light in a dark and rebellious world, the church has perpetually struggled with the command to be “in the world but not of it.” Sadly, the world has often appeared to influence the church more than the church has influenced the world.
The reality of our calling and the revolutionary character of the Christian faith are nowhere more evident than in the Sermon on the Mount. Addressing his disciples, Jesus spoke with directness and candor and established the rule of the Kingdom of God in the midst of a rebellious and ungodly culture.
Christians have struggled with the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount ever since those first disciples heard their Lord present these teachings on that pastoral hillside. The struggle basically comes down to this: Is there any way to escape the plain meaning of the sermon? Do those who lust in their hearts really commit adultery? Are we really to pluck out offending eyes and cut off sinful hands? Must we always turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile, love our enemies and bless those who curse us?
Jesus’ words cut like a surgeon’s scalpel into the soft underbelly of Christian discipleship. We have the live like this?
In all honesty, the church cannot relegate the Sermon on the Mount to some later age, limit its application to the first disciples, or evade its teachings by allegory and anxious explanation. Like frantic litigators looking for loopholes in a contract, some Christians have attempted to find a way to lessen the impact of the Sermon and establish a more comfortable mode of discipleship-“Christianity Lite.”
But twist as we may, there is no escaping the Sermon on the Mount, for we have but one Lord, and the Sermon is His manifesto for the church-His bride and body.
The Sermon must be taken as a whole, and its several sections must not be ripped from their context. Jesus begins with blessings-the Beatitudes-moves into moral imperatives, and then teaches us the Lord’s Prayer and aspects of discipleship in the church.
Jesus was not imparting a new legalism. Salvation is all of grace, and the Sermon on the Mount is not a catalogue of moral qualities to make one worthy of salvation. Jesus did not replace the legalism of the Pharisees with yet another. Rather, Jesus was establishing the rule of the Kingdom of God and making plain the transforming moral vision of citizens of that realm of the redeemed.
He was not painting a vivid picture of a distant reality, however. Though the Kingdom is not yet here in fullness, it is here in part and in truth through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our fulfillment of the moral imperatives and lifestyle of the Sermon is, like salvation itself, a matter of grace, and not of human faithfulness. Yet we are called all the same, and given our marching orders. As R. T. France comments: “The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is not to be admired but obeyed.”
The Church is, as John Stott has described, God’s Christian “counter-culture.” The Sermon on the Mount is thus Christ’s call to a Christian counter-revolution. No force on earth can match the influence of Christian disciples bearing witness to salvation in Jesus Christ and exhibiting lifestyles, which befit citizens of the Kingdom.
This is how Christians wage a culture war. Not with armaments and artillery, not with the sword but with the Spirit. The battles must be fought in the courts, in the schools, and in the marketplace of ideas. But it is fought with character and not with coercion, and with truth rather than terrorism. God’s moral counter-revolutionaries bear the mark of the crucified and resurrected Christ and order their lives by the precepts of the eternal Kingdom.
Never has the world stood in such need of the Christian counter-revolution. Living out the Sermon on the Mount, we will show the world how to live a different way-a way for which the only explanation is the unconditional lordship of Jesus Christ.