Over the years I have heard many people say that the sermon that Jesus spoke, as recorded in Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, is the greatest sermon ever delivered. Yet, the majority of people who identify themselves as being Christian disregard certain parts of this sermon or dispense with it altogether. They either excuse themselves from verses that are inconvenient or distasteful, or simply deny the relevance of the entire sermon. This is a tragedy, because this denial prevents Christians from knowing how they measure up to God’s standards for Christian living.
If we compare our lives to the standards that Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount, and prayerfully examine ourselves with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, then the results will reveal the strength and weakness of our Christian walk. Such self-examination is consistent with the teaching in 1 John, 1 and 2 Peter, James, and in 1 and 2 Timothy.
Unfortunately, the dominant teaching that guides the walk of Christians in most evangelical church organizations is typically rooted in the Gospel of John and in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Far too often, only casual observance is given to the three synoptic Gospels and to the epistles that were authored by men other than Paul. The leaders of some church organizations have even dispensed with the necessity of teaching the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke by saying that they were written for the Jews or were written for a future dispensation. Others may not ignore the three synoptic Gospels, but they carefully sidestep the centrality of the Sermon on the Mount by developing elaborate rationalizations to explain why Jesus really didn’t mean what He seems to have said.
I will be sharing some of the conclusions that I have drawn from observing how imbalanced readings of the New Testament can lead to dangerous assumptions about what it means to be a Christian, and how a person receives salvation. Let me be emphatically clear on one point — Every book of the New Testament belongs in the Bible and every Christian should be willing to open his or her mind, heart, and will to the transformative power of scripture. To withhold one’s heart, for example, from being touched and moved by any portion of scripture, cripples one’s walk as a disciple of Jesus. Each book of the New Testament offers something unique to our on-going process of transformation. The Book of Romans is a rich source of doctrine, while the Gospel of Matthew is a rich source of commandments that should be allowed to shape our daily walk as a child of God. Romans should not be elevated above Matthew. We need both in a balanced relationship. Similarly, the Gospel of John should not be elevated above the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. I hope I am not going overboard with this point, but this assumption is critical to a healthy and fruitful Christian life.
The books of the New Testament were added to the canon of Holy Scripture, in part, because each book was determined to be an authentic manuscript written by people who were students of the greatest teacher who has ever lived. Jesus is the master teacher and the high priest of our faith. He is Lord, savior, shepherd, and king. We, as Christians are joint heirs with Jesus in the Kingdom of God. He gave Christians the Holy Spirit who fills us with the presence of God and reveals truth to our soul. These realities should not be taken lightly!
The second point I wish to make regarding scripture concerns the teacher and student relationship. I believe the four Gospels were placed at the beginning of the New Testament because they contain a record of the ministry of our Lord, and because they contain his actual teachings as spoken by him. I believe that His words and His teachings should always hold a prominent place in the mind and heart of a Christian. Every word in the Bible is true and every word can be profitable for our study. The point I am trying to make is that the words of the master should come first in our study, and we should not wander far from them. I am not saying that the words that Jesus spoke are more true than the words written by His students. Everything is true in the Bible. I am warning against the one-sided habit of using Paul to interpret Jesus. All scripture in the Bible is internally consistent, however, if we routinely follow a single line of reasoning in our study, where everything in the Gospels is interpreted in terms of what Paul wrote, then we will find ourselves living an imbalanced Christian life. Paul, of course, can be used to expound upon the teaching of Jesus. Just as importantly, Jesus can and should be used to bring clarity to Paul. Let us never forget that Jesus is the master teacher and Paul was his most prominent student.
The practice of ascribing secondary value to the Sermon on the Mount is not new. It can be traced back to the fifth century teachings of the Roman Catholic theologian Augustine, and to his most famous 16th century students John Calvin and Martin Luther.
The central strength in the teaching of the well-known Protestant reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther is that they recognized the power of grace, and confirmed the fact that we cannot earn our salvation through works. The weakness of Reformed Theology is that it leads to antinomianism or lawlessness. People can spend so much time celebrating their salvation and the grace that they have received that they will not look at what Jesus actually commanded us to do. He clearly stated that we are to be conformed to His Holy nature during the course of our lives through obedience to His commandments. The proponents of Reformed Theology commonly react strongly against any suggestion that becoming more Christ-like (being conformed to the holy nature of Christ) requires active obedience to His commandments. They bristle and buck against the suggestion that obedience is a necessary part of being a Christian. They raise a charge of legalism against any suggestion that Christians bear responsibility for becoming more Christ-like. They insist that if God wants them to change, then He will cause it to happen. The Christian need not and should not examine himself or herself and initiate personal transformation through self-effort or acts of obedience. They often react against those who attempt to teach obedience to the specific commandments of Christ Jesus by vilifying such efforts, and giving the teachers the label “Arminian.”
The most common Protestant alternative to Calvinism and Reformed Theology has been given the name Arminianism. Jacob Arminius, John Wesley and other Arminian theologians believed that man has certain responsibilities for living a Christian life, and Christians must accept that responsibility by being obedient to the commandments of Jesus. The strength of Arminian theology is that it takes a sober look at the character of the life of a Christian and expects to see visible evidence of sanctification over the course of a lifetime. In short, a true Christian should look more like Christ as his or her life progresses. The Christian believer and the Holy Spirit must work together to bring this about. A person cannot save himself or regenerate his or her own heart, but he or she can choose to respond to the call. Once a person’s heart has been transformed by God, then the Christian is expected to take an active role in sanctification. The weakness of Arminian religion is that it tends toward legalism. People sometimes just obey the rules, not because of the presence of the Holy Spirit and their love of God, but because they believe if they follow the rules in their own strength, then they will secure a place in heaven.
Now I am sure that some who read the preceding paragraphs about Calvinism and Arminianism will say I have falsely characterized this polarity and have over simplified a very complex subject. Yes, this can become very complex, and it becomes even more so when put into practice within a congregation. In practice, the line between Calvinists and Arminians becomes extremely blurry when “easy believeism” comes into the picture. When a congregation teaches that anyone can be saved just by saying a prayer, walking an aisle, signing a commitment card, or being immersed in water, then it is very easy to lead people into either antinomianism or legalism depending on the theology taught by a specific pastor. Thus, I have seen pastors teach antinomianism and call anyone who disagrees with them Calvinists. The truth is that the labels Calvinism, Arminianism, legalism, and antinomianism are constantly being thrown around in the arena of Christian disagreement and debate for the purpose of justifying a certain system of theology or set of personal beliefs. These words are transformed into derisive labels, which are used to put down those who dare to believe a different theology.
I refuse to enter into the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. This debate, in various forms and under various names, has been going on since the 5th century when Augustine debated Pelagius. It has been causing unnecessary division in the body of Christ ever since. The debate has spawned persecutions, murders, and religious wars, and has never come close to resolving the differences in scriptural interpretation. The 1,500 year debate seems to be serving the interests of Satan and the anti-Christs much more than it will ever serve God. I see no value in attempting to organize Biblical precepts according to whether a person holds to Calvinistic or Arminian theology. I have read the New Testament as if I was a Calvinist and again as if I was an Arminian, and have found both theologies to be supported by scripture. I have chosen to not participate in the fruitless effort to prove that one theology is correct and the other is false. Such efforts have entrapped and neutralized countless Christians and have caused them to miss the central teachings of Christ. In short, I believe it is a tragedy for a person to be a “good Calvinist” or a “good Arminian,” while living a life that is not fully submitted to Christ.
I think we are called to something higher. We are called to live our lives according to the specific instructions that were given to us by Jesus and His students. We are called to live according to the Great Commandment and according to the Great Commission. Such submission and obedience to scripture requires us to learn to walk upon the very narrow road that Jesus laid out for Christians.
I believe that the narrow way that Jesus described is a razor’s edge line between legalism and antinomianism. The ditch of the law calls to us on one side while the ditch of lawlessness calls to us on the other side. This was clearly described by Paul in his Letter to the Romans. Regardless of whether the labels of Calvinism or Arminianism are used, the majority of church organizations do not attempt to define the narrow way that Christ Jesus described, and they often leave people in the ditches beside the narrow way or even worse, lead them there. Sometimes this happens through neglect of expository biblical preaching and sometimes it is a result of elevating extra-biblical resources and beliefs above biblical precepts. In some cases, it is the result of preaching a Gospel that speaks of a non-biblical Jesus. It is only through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and through the unencumbered interpretation of the entire Bible that we can hope to walk in the footsteps of Jesus on the narrow way and enter the narrow gate.
The Sermon on the Mount is our Lord’s most concentrated teaching regarding what He meant when He spoke about walking the narrow way in the Kingdom of God. Those who disregard His teaching and His commandments as presented in the Sermon on the Mount and in the remainder of the four Gospels, are also disregarding His sovereignty. Jesus is to be the Lord over every aspect of our lives. The New Testament commandments that He gave to us, as His disciples, explicitly reveal His expectations for every person that says that he or she is a Christian.
Throughout Christian history, there always have been a small group of Christians who pondered a key question. They asked themselves, “What would happen if we simply tried to live according to the commandments of Jesus?” This might sound at first to be a silly question. Doesn’t every Christian try to do this? I am sorry to say that few Christians do this. Most follow manmade theologies that depart from scripture at various points. My greatest challenge in writing or speaking about the Sermon on the Mount is to constantly examine my beliefs and my words to be sure that they are founded in what scripture actually says, instead of what I wish scripture had said. This is no easy task, since every church denomination holds to beliefs and practices that wander from scripture at one point or other. Such departures, no matter how harmless they might seem, place Christians in the position of needing to choose between being faithful to Jesus or being faithful to denominational interpretation of scripture. Far too often, denominational statements of faith and selected catechisms are elevated above scripture, or scripture is interpreted through such denominational statements. We may choose to pursue harmony in the body of Christ by pledging allegiance to certain cannons from certain councils, but this will only achieve a false manmade harmony. True harmony in the Body of Christ comes from submitting to Jesus and laying our lives and our faith upon every sharp edge of scripture. Denominational statements of faith, historical church councils, and religious debates from the past should be examined, however, they should never be given more weight than scripture. Yet, that is exactly what often happens in denominational Christianity. Paul recognized this danger when he wrote,
1 Corinthians 1:10 (NASB) Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
Many groups of Christians have walked the narrow way of Jesus by laying their lives upon the sharp edge of scripture and simply following His commandments. However, they did so at considerable cost. In the thousand years preceding the Protestant Reformation in Europe, these groups separated themselves from the Roman Catholic Church, which at the time, was the only official church in Europe. As a result, they were hunted down and martyred by the Church of Rome. In the era of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin, there were various groups that struggled to walk the narrow way. They were also hunted down by the Church of Rome as well as by the magisterial reformed churches that were headed by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. These persecuted Christians read the Bible and asked themselves many penetrating questions:
- What would happen if we actually tried to live our lives according to the clear teachings of Jesus as written in the Bible?
- What would happen if we examined every dogma of the institutional Church and only followed those that could be supported by scripture?
- What would happen if we lived our lives according to the principles of the New Covenant as described in the New Testament of the Bible, and did not follow the religious traditions of men?
- What would happen if we carefully discerned the difference between the principles of the New Covenant inaugurated through the blood of Christ as described in the New Testament of the Bible, and avoided living by the Old Testament covenant of Judaism?
- What would happen if we dedicated our lives to the Great Commission and went into the world and preached the Gospel of repentance and faith in Jesus, baptized new believers, and made disciples, without placing ourselves under the control of the government approved church or the Pope?
- What would happen if we relied upon the power of the Holy Spirit and the authority of the Bible, and refused to submit our relationship with God to the dictates of political powers such as magistrates, government councils, and the Pope?
- What would happen if we conscientiously chose to live our lives according to every instruction that Jesus set forth in the Sermon on the Mount without modification or interpretation?
- What would happen if we were willing to obey Christ Jesus by doing everything that He said to do without second guessing Him or questioning the reasonableness of His commandments?
In the 16th century, the people who wrestled with the preceding types of questions and tried to walk the narrow path according to Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount were called Anabaptists. These were people who were baptized a second time. They rejected the infant baptism of the Roman Church and the church of Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli. Instead, they used the Biblical standard of baptizing adults who had repented and who were believers in Christ. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic Church leaders used the term Anabaptist to describe what they believed were heretics. The Anabaptists believed that they were called to preach the Gospel of Jesus, to make disciples, and to die in the process if necessary so that the Great Commission could be fulfilled. Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and the Pope saw them as rebellious troublemakers, and sought to eradicate their movement by exterminating any of them who would not submit to them and recant for their beliefs and practices.
The Great Commission
Matthew 28:16 (NASB) Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The Anabaptists agreed with the Protestant reformers on many beliefs, such as salvation being given through the gift of unmerited grace and not through works. They also were in general agreement that the Pope was the anti-Christ. They rejected the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation (where the bread and wine is believed to be literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ) and rejected the Lutheran belief in consubstantiation (where Christ is believed to come alongside the physical bread and wine and can be ingested with the substances). The Anabaptists believed that the bread and wine were unchanged during communion. They did not perceive the power of communion as being in the substances being consumed, but in the recognition of commitment and celebration of true Christian fellowship that existed under the headship of Christ Jesus. They believed that Jesus must be the head of His church and He must not be supplanted by Popes, government councils, or manmade human authority and tradition.
When we place our trust in denominational statements of faith or entwine our faith with a human hierarchy of denominational leaders, we risk repeating the shortsighted call of the Old Testament Jews who demanded that God give them an earthly king to rule over them (Samuel 8:5). Our faith must always be firmly placed in God, and not in men or our institutions. Within the congregation, we are to follow Paul’s guidance and practice “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21). Such submission and service is to be done according to the principles described in Ephesians 5:22 through the end of chapter 6.
After God granted the request of the tribes of Israel to have an earthly king, things went along OK for a while, but Saul, their first king, proved to be a poor replacement for an all-present, all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely holy God who was always faithful to His people. I believe we do well when we pray to the head of the Church, our Lord Jesus, and ask that He give us unity through the power of the Holy Spirit, and avoid asking men to impose unity upon us.
There were many Anabaptist groups in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Most walked the narrow way described by Jesus, but some were just confused people who were not following Christ at all. Unfortunately, the historical opinions from this era simply lumped together all groups that dared to depart from the various teachings of the Roman Church and the teachings of Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli — and called them all Anabaptists. In actuality, the majority of the people that were persecuted and murdered by the Roman Church and the Protestant Reformers were members of the true Church founded by Jesus, which consisted of people whose hearts had been set a flame by the Holy Spirit. They were targeted by the newly formed institutional churches of Protestantism and by the old institutional Church of Rome, because they would not restrict the scope of their faith by submitting to the non-biblical teachings and practices of the magisterial empowered churches and/or to the manufactured hierarchy of the Church of Rome. The Anabaptists would not stop preaching the full Word of God and would not stop baptizing adults and making disciples. They would not compromise their biblical beliefs or the control over their religious lives to human authority when that authority departed from the Holy Scripture. They insisted on walking the very narrow way that Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount, and accepted persecution, torture, and even death rather than renounce their relationship with Jesus by walking in the traditions of men.
The Anabaptists were not perfect, but they clung to the truth that had been revealed to them through the Holy Spirit when they read the Bible, and remained committed to sharing the Gospel message of repentance and belief, and baptizing believers regardless of the personal cost. They were peace loving and God fearing people. Their lifestyle was centered on honoring and building their relationship with God and their relationships with other citizens of the Kingdom of God. They were evangelists at heart and worked tirelessly to bring the lost into the Kingdom of God. They turned the other cheek, refused to use the weapons of physical warfare, and relied upon the Sword of the Spirit as their only weapon of aggression. They left homes, employment, family, and friends to give their lives for the Gospel of Jesus.
Based on their understanding of scripture, the Anabaptists recognized the painful fact that, most people who claimed to be Christians were probably not Christians. They watched the leaders of the organized church, which exercised power through governmental institutions or through the historical authority of the Church of Rome, hunt them down and kill them in the name of God. The experience of the Anabaptists was very similar to the experience of the 1st and 2nd century Christian church.
Until the year 313, Christians were under intense persecution by the Roman Empire, because they would not acknowledge Caesar as lord and god. When they would not profess Caesar as lord, but instead professed Jesus as Lord, they were killed by the hundreds of thousands for their profession. Nevertheless, the Gospel message rapidly spread into Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the church flourished. The positive aspect of persecution was that it separated the true believers from the false confessors. When persecution places a person’s life at stake, the false confessor will not choose to die for a false faith. These people will turn away and confess belief in anything that will save their life.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., he brought an end to the persecution of Christians for a while. However, when he established a formal hierarchy of church authority centered in Rome, he opened the door to a new source of persecution. In less than a hundred years, the source of Christian persecution would shift from the pagan government of Rome to the institutional Church of Rome. It would now be the bishops of the Church of Rome who would persecute Christians who were trying to live according to the words of Jesus and to fulfill the Great Commission.
Through the successful persuasion of Augustine in the fifth century, the Bishops of Rome began to persecute Christians who disagreed with the institutional practices, biblical interpretation, and the new traditions that the Roman Bishops were inventing. The Christians who refused to submit to the institutional Church of Rome were stripped of their financial resources, exiled, and put to death, because they would not compromise their walk with Jesus. Through such persecution, the Roman Church gradually consolidated its power and established the concept of Pope. From that time until the early 1500s, the Roman Church was the chief persecutor of Christians who walked the narrow way of Jesus as described in the Sermon on the Mount and who dedicated themselves to the Great Commission.
The refusal on the part of early Christian believers to follow the new religious traditions that were being formulated and enforced by the men of the Roman Church became the basis for the persecution. A thousand years later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church both persecuted the Anabaptists, however, they did it on the basis of different doctrines. Even though the points of doctrinal disagreement differed, the result was the same for all those who were persecuted either by the Roman Church or by the magisterial churches of the Protestant reformers. Any person who denied the authority and teaching of the institutional church was branded a heretic, and faced a certain death sentence unless they renounced their beliefs and agreed to cease biblical evangelism.
Between the time of Augustine and the time of the Protestant Reformation, there were other Christian groups in Europe who did not live under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. These groups had the Bible in their own language and attempted to quietly live according to biblical principles. Even though we don’t know as much about these groups such as the Waldensians (Waldenses), Albigenses, Wycliffites, and the Hussites (Husites), they were also hunted down and killed by the Church of Rome, because they refused to obey the dictates of the Pope and to conform their beliefs to the false teachings of the Roman Church. These Bible believing groups were actually not heretical sects that spontaneously popped-up in opposition to the Roman Church. The Church of Rome gave Bible believing Christians a new name every time they learned of their existence. In actuality, their simple faith and religious practices preceded the rise of the Roman Church and is believed to extend back to the first and second centuries. These were people who were devoted to scripture and to living a God centered life. They were committed to following the Holy Spirit and being conformed to the nature of Christ. They were a very small part of the population that called themselves “Christian.” They were active from the first century of Christianity through the era of the Protestant Reformation, and remain active today.
Today, this true Church continues to be a small part of the total number of people who claim to be Christian in countries such as the United States. Those who try to live by the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and who walk the narrow way are still misunderstood and persecuted by many traditional church hierarchies regardless of whether they are attempting to participate in Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Anabaptist churches.
Even though I have been speaking in positive terms of the 16th and 17th century Anabaptists, most of their direct descendants that we see today have slipped away from the principles of their spiritual ancestors. Modern Mennonites, Brethren, Amish, and others have gone the way of other modern denominations in America. They, for the most part, have chosen compromise over principles of faith, and their message has been watered down by the influence of contemporary secular values and by the emerging church movement, which is disseminating the mystical/contemplative teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the oneness doctrine of the New Age movement. Sometimes current day conservative Anabaptist congregations retain an outward appearance of their spiritual forefathers by clinging to certain uniform styles of dress and by avoiding some of our modern-day worldly distractions. Nevertheless, such attempts to cling to the traditions of the past do not make a person holy any more than does the completion of certain works in the name of God cause the stony heart of a sinner to be transformed into a heart of flesh.
I believe that the majority of people, who are participating in church activities in North America at the beginning of the twenty-first century, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Anabaptist, are probably not Christian at all. They have many reasons for being involved in church activities, but the desire to walk the narrow way, to become more like Christ, and to fulfill the Great Commission are not really on their list of priorities. They are happy with themselves and want to keep their worldly attachments intact. They like to participate in a church that is self-focused and inward gazing. In short they like their lives just the way they are and do not want to change. They resist turning their attention outward toward the world and fulfilling the Christian responsibility to be people of salt and light who go into the world of the lost to preach the Gospel of Jesus and make disciples. They see no reason to abandon the practice of keeping one foot firmly planted in worldly activities and the other foot planted in undemanding church activities.
When a truly committed Christian seeks to participate in a church, which is dominated by people who are not committed to being salt and light in the world, and who are ambivalent about the Great Commission, then there will be conflicts. The conflicts will center on the need for repentance, the need for being sanctified, the need for being a living sacrifice in service to God, the need for being obedient to the commandments of Jesus, and the requirement for evangelizing the lost.
Among many church going people, there is a belief that repentance is a one time act involving the changing of one’s mind about the divinity of Jesus. Repentance is not understood to be about the recognition of current sins or about the acquisition of the power to overcome sinful patterns. In too many situations, the Christian life takes on a past tense quality, i.e. I have been saved, sanctified, and glorified, and I don’t need anything else or to do anything else. Everything has been done for me and I am OK just the way I am. Being light and salt in the world through service and evangelism is seen as an optional part of Christianity – usually relegated to professional Christians who are being paid to perform these functions.
The teaching of Jesus as given to us in the Sermon on the Mount is about life in the Kingdom of God as it exists on Earth today. It describes the characteristics that true Christians possess and the lifestyle that true Christians are to follow. It reveals the spiritual principles and commandments that have been established for those who walk the narrow way. This is a path of faith, grace, love, and obedience to Christ. It is a path that rests upon every word that Jesus spoke, and it is often a path of conflict and persecution.
I do not describe myself as a Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Anabaptist. I simply think of myself as a biblical Christian who desires to live by every written word of Jesus, and who wishes to follow the fullness of New Covenant and New Testament teachings.
From time to time I hear of people who struggle with the issue of understanding why some Christians delight in sin and seem to disregard biblical standards of Christian behavior. Specifically they seem perplexed about how it can be that people can be saved, and then go on living as if they had never had their hearts touched by God or never knew Jesus. They sometimes create elaborate systems to explain this phenomenon.
Scripture describes two types of people: those who will spend eternity in hell, because their hearts have not been regenerated by God, and those who have received a new heart and a new life, and have been brought into the Kingdom of God. A person either lives under the worldly power of Satan with hell as his or her final destination, or has been received into the Kingdom of God. A person either submits to the leadership of Satan and follows a lifestyle of self-interest and selfishness, or submits to Jesus as Lord and King, and follows a lifestyle of God centered worship and sacrificial living. There are only two alternatives and there is no middle ground. Ultimately, a person either serves self and Satan, or humbly serves the Lord Jesus through obedience to His call and His commandments.
Despite the clear description of only two kinds of people in scripture, we see the common belief in the Church today that there is a third class of person. In addition to the lost souls, some people try to divide Christians into two groups. The first consists of those who desire to be more like Jesus. They seek to be fed from the Word of God and are willing to repent and to be transformed over the course of their lives. They may still sin from time to time, but the conviction of the Holy Spirit that dwells within them routinely brings them to a change of mind, heart, and will. They desire to overcome sin through repentance and to be conformed to the nature of Christ. They are willing to submit to Christ Jesus as their King and to submit to one another. They desire to evangelize the lost and live their lives according to biblical standards. This type of person reflects the character of a born again Christian. There is another category of Christian that seems to have been invented in the early 20th century. These people are being called “carnal Christians.”
There is no biblical basis for the concept of a carnal Christian! Yes, the word “carnal” is used by Paul in many places in his letters. He uses the word to describe the carnal nature of the flesh, which all Christians possess as long as we have a physical body, and is not describing a subgroup of Christians. Many people believe that a carnal Christian is a person who has made a profession of faith, but has not made Jesus their Lord. The belief is that the carnal Christian became a Christian by having said a certain prayer, walked down the aisle during an altar call, signed a commitment card, has been pronounced saved by a pastor, or has been baptized, but the person has not yet made the full commitment to letting Jesus be their Lord. They believe it is possible for a person to “invite Jesus into his or her heart,” and then to prevent Him from having an effect upon one’s heart and life while He is there. These are people who claim to be heirs in the Kingdom of God, but whose lives have not changed after their supposed conversion. They produce no fruit and seem to have no regret about their on-going rebellion against God’s call to become holy as He is holy. They display no evidence of being filled by the Holy Spirit. They are bored by church and rarely open the Bible. They don’t repent, because they did that when they were saved and they are convinced that they never need to do that again. In short, they claim liberty and freedom in Christ as the justification for letting the direction of their lives be ruled by the appetites of the flesh. They are convinced that their salvation gives them the right to live a lifestyle that looks just like the world.
I have frequently heard it said that we should never make judgments regarding whether a brother or sister has a true or false conversion, because only Jesus knows the heart of a person. Of course, we should not put ourselves in the place of Jesus and attempt to judge the heart. However, we most certainly may examine the fruit. A true Christian will display evidence of conversion. A true Christian will progressively become more Christ-like. A true Christian will have a longing to become more holy and more like Christ despite the presence of occasional sin. A true Christian will be willing to be refined and pruned, and will not run from the opportunity to repent even if the process is unpleasant. A true Christian will be deeply concerned about quenching the conviction of the Holy Spirit and resisting the leading of the Holy Spirit. A true Christian will experience the conflict between fleshly desires that pull him or her toward sin, and the power of the Holy Spirit who gives the power to repent and overcome sin. A true Christian wishes to please God and dreams of the day when he or she will have eternal communion with God in heaven. This is not an exhaustive list of what it means to be a true Christian. This list dramatically highlights the differences between a true Christian and what some call carnal Christians.
Sometimes, the term “Lordship Salvation” is use to identify Christians who see Jesus as their Lord and King. It is said that this type of Christian has made a higher commitment to God, and Jesus is truly their Lord. The notion of lordship salvation only makes sense if it is paired with the notion of a carnal Christian. It is believed by the proponents of lordship salvation that it is possible to be a Christian without making Jesus the Lord of one’s life. These non-lordship Christians are considered to be carnal Christians. This second class of Christians consists of people who have not made a commitment to Jesus as Lord, and they have no problem in living like the devil. I see nothing in scripture that supports such a division between Christians.
Those who support the concept of a carnal Christian seem to over-emphasize the power of the individual to make themselves into a Christian by speaking some words or doing some type of deed. Some misguided church leaders will attempt to give assurance of salvation to a person simply on the basis of their having made a decision for Christ, said a certain prayer, signed a commitment card, walked the aisle and knelt before an altar, been baptized, or been officially been received as a member of a local church. Such acts should never be the basis for our assurance of salvation. True salvation will always be accompanied by specific evidence in the form of fruit, and the Holy Spirit will testify to the mind and heart of a new Christian that he or she has been saved. If there is a true change in the heart, then changes will begin to appear in the life of the person. Such changes will reinforce one’s perception of his or her salvation. In short, the person will begin to be conformed to the nature of Christ Jesus, and both the person and the congregation will perceive the change. When a man seeks to give assurance of salvation to another person, then he is usurping the role of the Holy Spirit. To do so is a sin. No man has the right to assure another person that he is saved. We can and should help one another to examine our salvation through the tests of scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is true Christian fellowship and a sign of our love for the brethren. I shudder to reflect upon the number of people that are now in Hell who believed they were Christians, because of the assurance given by men. What a tragedy!
The process of Christian maturation (sanctification) may start slowly, or it may result in radical jumps. Regardless of the pace, the direction will be positive. And of course, there may be setbacks from time to time as when a person succumbs to the power of the flesh. However, the sins of the flesh systematically lose the power to satisfy as they once did, and the Holy Spirit calls the person back to repentance and to a holy standard of Christian living. Being a Christian does not mean that our struggle with sin is over, rather, our struggles move to deeper levels. Sins that were easily overlooked in the past begin to take on greater significance as the Holy Spirit brings conviction and takes away the pleasure of sin.
If you believe in the concept of a carnal Christian or believe that you do not need to obediently walk in the narrow way of Christ’s commandments or you believe in certain types of Dispensational Theology, which invalidates the relevance of the synoptic Gospels for life in the so called “Church Age,” then you will most likely find it difficult to approach the Sermon on the Mount with the necessary attitude of submission. Without humble submission to Jesus as Lord and the desire to be obedient to His commandments, your life will not be radically transformed by the words that He spoke in the Sermon on the Mount. If you understand that Jesus rules and reigns as King over the totality of your life, then the Sermon on the Mount will begin to make sense and fruit will be produced by studying the sermon that Jesus spoke. If you believe that Jesus didn’t established His Kingdom on the Earth two thousand years ago during His Earthly ministry, and He doesn’t rule over those who have been born again into that kingdom while we are on Earth as citizens of His heavenly Kingdom, then you will find it difficult to feel the weight and power of the Sermon on the Mount. If you believe that He established His Kingdom in part for us as His disciples while we are on the Earth, and He will return to the Earth again to fully establish His Kingdom at a later point, then you should find it much easier to accept His sermon. However, if you are still having an inner debate over whether Jesus is really your Lord or whether His Kingdom has been established, or whether the Gospel of Matthew should be allowed to have relevance for Christian living today, then you will face serious obstacles to applying this set of scriptures to your life. The Sermon on the Mount is truly life transforming if we do not withhold ourselves from its power.
The questions that I wish to put before you today are central to living a God centered and Bible centered life. Will you be led by the Holy Spirit, walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and follow His commandments? Will you obey our Lord in all things, or will you look to men and their manmade theologies to excuse you from the necessity of submitting every aspect of your life as a bond servant to the Lord Jesus Christ?
Jesus put it this way,
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. (John 14:15 NASB)
Those who are willing to walk the narrow way that Jesus described in the Gospels, even if it leads to persecution and death, are the brothers and sisters of Christ. They are joint heirs with Jesus in the Kingdom of God. This status as a child of God is marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life, and evokes a strong desire to be conformed to the holy nature of Christ, and to bring glory to Him and to our Father in heaven. This desire will not be quenched. It is an eternal flame of faithfulness to the true King and His eternal Kingdom. It is made visible through our activities of love, faith, and obedience.
I pray that as I present my exposition of the Sermon on the Mount you will not turn away from the teaching that Jesus gave to His disciples and to the citizens of His Kingdom. I pray that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, mind, and soul, and you will be willing to demonstrate your love for God through your willingness to yield to the Holy Spirit who is working to develop Christ-like character in you. I pray that any lingering doubt that you may have regarding the value of the Sermon on the Mount will be addressed by the Holy Spirit, and that you will be willing to lay down your life in service to our Lord Jesus and to the men and women who live in His Kingdom. I pray that as I turn my mind and heart toward the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and write my future articles, I will be transformed more completely to the image that reflects the character of Jesus. I pray for the same transformation for those who will read the articles that follow. May God be glorified by the work He does in us! Amen.