The Burden of Faith


Matthew 7:24-29

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As you will remember, we have said that the Sermon on the Mount concludes with three distinct warnings, each in its own way dealing with the very real danger of a false or spurious Christian discipleship.  The first concerned false teachers for one of the principle means of fostering a false profession of faith in Christ is to lead Christians into a mistaken view of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  The second concerned the judgment day and the necessity of there demonstrating that one not only claimed to be a Christian, not only performed some of the religious acts associated with a Christian, but lived as one.  Now we come to the third and last of these warnings.  Once again the subject is the necessity of real obedience, of the practice of our faith.

v.24     The NIV’s “put into practice” is the simple word “do,” which is a key word in the entire last section of the Sermon from v. 15.  In fact, the verb “to do” occurs 9x in vv. 15-26, though it is appropriately translated by a number of different words in our NIV:  “bear” as in “bear fruit”; “put into practice,” and the like.  We are reminded in this way that the exhortation with which the sermon concludes is all about our doing, our practicing our faith.  It helps to render the Lord’s point literally:  we are to do his words!  The wise man is the obedient man.

v.25     The rains and winds represent both the pressures and temptations of life in this world and, supremely, the test of God’s judgment in the last day.  “Matthew describes the typical storms in the hot, dry climate of the Near Eastern lands:  blasting winds and torrential rains that produce sudden rivers where formerly there were dry wadis.”  [Hagner, i, 191]

v.27     The last word in the Greek sentence is “great.”  There is emphasis in that word placement.  This is not a warning to be taken lightly.

v.28     This is Matthew’s structural marker, a divider of his material.  You have precisely the same words that begin v. 28 in 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; and 26:1 and, in each case, with reference to a body of the Lord’s teaching that was just concluded.  So there are five discourses or large sections of teaching in the Gospel of Matthew and this formula leads from each of those sections of teaching back into the narrative of the Lord’s ministry.

v.29     Though the Sermon was addressed to the Lord’s disciples, as we read at the very beginning, in 5:1-2, the crowds were present and were a secondary audience.  A typical scribe taught by citing authorities for his viewpoint.  He was a collector and judge of the opinions of others, offering his own only when it was necessary to choose between conflicting opinions in the tradition.  The theory was that each scribe “received the law” from the preceding one.  [’Abot 1:1-12]  Originality of thought was not prized in that day.  Jesus, however, taught on his own authority; he gave his own understanding of the will of God.  That is why he could say, as in v. 24 that people had to practice his words if they were to live.  He was not simply an interpreter of the law; he was a lawgiver.

I find it very interesting that, as we are reminded again in v. 29, the crowds listened in on this instruction that the Lord gave his disciples.  He let them hear all about the life he required his followers to live.  He allowed them to hear him set for his disciples those terribly high standards for thinking, speaking, and living.  Jesus never seems to mind that the world knows what he expects of his followers.  Indeed, in some places he actually invites the world to pass judgment on him and on his message according to what they see in the living of his disciples.  When you and I go out every morning and walk the streets of Tacoma, we have the reputation of Jesus Christ in our hands.

The Lord obviously expects that his followers will take care of his reputation.  He expects that they will live differently than unbelievers and that they will live better.  They will be more humble, more pure, more honest, more faithful, more sincere, more merciful, more loving.  But he admits in these final sections of warning, and lets the crowds hear this also, that there will be, among his followers, people who hear but do not do.  He is not distinguishing in these verses between people who claim to be Christians and people who do not; between people who are known as Christians and people who are not.  He is not distinguishing between people who go to Christian churches and people who do not.  In both cases, these are people who hear the Lord’s words.  Both groups belong to the Christian community, both hear sermons in church, both are acquainted with the Bible.  But one group of people only hear, the other group hears and does!  Now, to be sure, as we learned the last time from vv. 21-23, we cannot always tell for sure who belongs to which class of Christian:  the spurious or the genuine.  The foundations of life are hidden from view.  Sometimes they are only exposed by the storms of life.   Sometimes we really find out what a person is and does when trial and crisis hit.  Sometimes, as we learned in vv. 22-23, the true nature of a person’s commitment to Christ is not exposed until the judgment day.

John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, once wrote that when he got to heaven he would see wonders there.  He would see people there he did not expect to see; and he would not see people that he had expected to see; and, last of all, and most wonderful, he would see himself there!  Now Newton did not mean that we couldn’t be sure of the state of most people, whether they were real Christians or not.  He only meant that we cannot be sure in every case.  He was being faithful to what Jesus said here in the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, today, I want to make theologians out of you.  For what we have here is a piece of theology, and by no means a simple piece of theology.  And because it is theology that bears mightily on the most practical issues of our lives, it is theology that all Christians should know and understand.  It concerns the nature and definition of true, of saving faith.  We can only make a beginning, of course, in this great and important question.

What Jesus is warning against in this final section and the two that preceded it, is the idea that a merely intellectual faith is sufficient for salvation.  He is warning you that the assent of your mind and heart to the way of salvation in Christ is not sufficient.  What is more, because such intellectual assent seems to be the embrace of the Gospel, it is a particularly dangerous form of self-deception.  One feels he has reason to believe himself saved when, in fact, he is not.

Now, in the history of Christian theology, this error has gone by many names because it has taken many different forms; but it is best known as antinomianism.  The word means “against-the-law-ism” and refers to the idea that Christians are not obliged to keep God’s law.   By faith in Christ our sins are forgiven and we are also freed from the obligation to keep the law of God.  It is enough only to believe.  Now, antinomianism is often not as bad an idea as it may sound at first hearing.  Antinomians often are not saying that Christians can lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery and murder with impunity because their sins are forgiven in Christ –only some have said that.  What is more often their viewpoint is Christians no longer have to think of their Christian living in terms of obeying commandments.  Rather the Holy Spirit produces the fruits of godly living directly in us without recourse to commandments and summoning us to obey.  The thought is that thinking of the Christian life in terms of laws and obedience to laws makes it less free, less spiritual, less Christian.  Antinomians tend to set law over against love as contrary principles.

There is a superficial logic to this position that explains why there have always been Christians beguiled by it.  The Apostle Paul in several of his letters already had to remind his readers that the fact that we are justified by faith does not abolish the law, that the fact that our sins are once for all forgiven in Christ does not mean that we are free to sin up a storm, and that being in Christ does not raise us above the need to work hard to subdue our sinful passions and put on obedience in the fear of the Lord.

And ever since, wherever the gospel has gone, this corruption of it, this false implication of it, has followed close behind.  Martin Luther had to deal with it in the teaching of one of his disciples, John Agricola, who was unwilling to teach the moral responsibility of Christians.  It was inevitable, to be sure, that when free grace was being discovered again after centuries of legalism and ritualism in the church, some would carry the point too far.  The Puritans battled antinomianism in the 17th century, the Great Awakening men in the 18th, and we have battled it in the 20th.  Dispensationalism was a form of antinomianism and many early dispensationalists went so far as to say even that the Sermon on the Mount, with all its commandments and all its emphasis on obedience, couldn’t have been teaching for Christians.  It was an ethic for the millennium, for the believing Jews who would remain after the church was raptured to heaven.

Antinomianism has been widely taught in American evangelicalism under the guise of the “carnal Christian theory.”  Taught in the Scofield Reference Bible and widely popularized by Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, this is the idea that one can take Christ as one’s savior without necessarily taking him as Lord.  You can profess faith and Christ and secure the forgiveness of your sins forever and your entrance into heaven without ever becoming a servant of Christ, without your life changing, without becoming obedient to God’s commandments.  You made a profession of faith in Christ at some point.  That is enough to get you to heaven.  No matter how unchristian your life remains, you are a Christian so far as salvation is concerned.   You are a Christian because Christ has saved you when you confessed your faith in him; you are a carnal Christian because you continue to live in the flesh, according to the sinful nature.   To be sure, they say, it is better to be a spiritual Christian than a carnal one.  Your rewards in heaven will be fewer as a carnal Christian and you will do much less for Christ here in this life.  But you are still going to go to heaven when you die.  People who teach this are sure that they are magnifying God’s grace by doing so.  They are making it clear that salvation is not our doing but Christ’s, not our achievement, but his.  And what better proof of that could there be but that people who trust in Christ will go to heaven even if they continue to live openly sinful, rebellious, and useless lives.

Antinomianism also comes in more subtle forms today as well.  We find it in the individual Christian or preacher who stresses experience to the virtual exclusion of obedience.  Being a Christian and knowing oneself a Christian is often, nowadays, a matter almost exclusively of what you feel and how you think not how you live and whether you obey God.

The Christian church, by and large, has always rejected antinomian views for several reasons.  First all antinomian thinking ends up pitting one part of the Bible against another and so damages the unity of the Bible.  There are simply too many places where far too clearly God’s people and Christ’s followers are summoned to obey his commandments and summoned to obey them or else!  The Sermon on the Mount is but one of those many places.  Second, it mistakes obedience as something that is essentially negative and harmful.  But obedience is a wonderful thing when it is offered in the spirit of love and when it is God’s perfect law that is obeyed.  Jesus Christ himself obeyed his father and by his obedience we are made righteous before God.  Where would the world be without the obedience of children, of citizens, and of individuals to their own consciences?  Finally, antinomian thinking always, in some way, implies that God’s commandments are a burden to be borne.  But it is not so.  They are torah, instruction in that way of life that will lead to happiness and goodness and fruitfulness.  They are a burden only as wings are a burden to a bird.  They are God’s gift to us, his direction for us, and if we love God they are the eyes of that love that show us both how to please him and how to serve him best.  No wonder the faithful in the Bible are always thanking God for his law and delighting in that law.

So, when Jesus says that we must be not only hearers of his words but doers of them, he is saying only what the Bible always says.  He is saying that true and living faith in him will always produce love and love will always produce obedience.  When a young man falls in love, he wants to please the young woman who has captured his heart.  He asks his mother or some other woman who he thinks should know, what sort of gift he might give her and how he might please her.  And so it is with a Christian.  He consults God’s law and seeks to keep it to demonstrate his love for Christ.

True faith in and love for Christ always does this.  That is why Christ can say, and his apostles after him, that if a person does not serve the Lord with obedience then he does not really love him or trust him.  True faith in Christ always obeys – not perfectly, but really.  And real Christians know this and it never occurs to them to doubt it.  For they want to obey and their struggle is not that they should have to obey, but that they can’t obey as perfectly and as completely as they want to!

Now the text clearly reads as a warning to us.  And so I now address this warning to all of you and, in particular, to those of you who are tempted to think that it is enough that you consent to the Christian faith, that you claim to be a Christian, that you expect Jesus to take away your sins and take you to heaven when you die.

The Lord Jesus is as much as warning you that there have been multitudes of people who, like you, have abused the grace and the goodness of God and the sacrifice of Christ by making them into an excuse for your soft and self-indulgent living.  You want the gift of life from Christ’s hand but you wish for him otherwise to leave you alone, to let you go on with your worldly life as you please.  You are happy to have him die for your sins, but you obviously haven’t realized that if Jesus had to suffer so terribly and die so horribly to remove the guilt of those sins, than those sins are awful things that any right-thinking person would want to be done with.  You are happy to receive Christ’s gift of life, but obviously you neither love him nor are thankful to him for that gift.  Otherwise you would not be so utterly uncaring of what pleases him.  You think so lightly about the astonishing thing that Christ has done and the wonderful gift that Christ has given that these surpassingly wonderful things, these life-changing things, have left hardly a mark on you. And you need to hear the Lord Jesus tell you plainly here, that anyone who does not want deeply to live for Christ, who does not strive to obey his commandments for love’s sake, who is not committed to changing his life root and branch in every way that Christ deserves, is not a Christian in truth.  His foundation is sand not rock and his pretense of a faith in Christ will not survive the shocks to come, whether in this world or the next.

Obedience may look very hard to you, and, I daresay, it may be hard to put to death some of your sins and to live in holiness in some of the ways Christ demands of his followers.  But all of that work, all of that effort will seem the easiest and most satisfying of all labor when the storms of life hit and you find yourself fixed on solid rock and when, still more, you find yourself at the Judgment Day and hear Jesus himself say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

John Adams, our third president, as a boy got fed up with his Latin lessons and told his father that he would stop attending them.  His father responded by ordering the lad to dig a long, deep ditch on their farm.  After two days the boy relented and went back to his paradigms, vocabulary, and syntax.  “If I have gained any distinction,” he said near the end of his life, “it has been owing to the two days’ labor in that abominable ditch.”   There is work, and there is work!  Well, in the same way, the hard work of the Christian life is not hard work at all in comparison to the hard work of living without the blessing of God and of facing the judgment of God without the favor of Christ.

There are two primary reasons why people will not become Christians.  The first is that they do not want to admit and will not admit that they are as bad as the Bible says they are, that they are as needy as the Bible says they are, and that they are as helpless as the Bible says they are.  To believe in Jesus Christ is to admit that I am a sinner through and through, that I cannot save myself, and that nothing short of the incarnation, the suffering and the death of the Son of God would be enough to put me right with God.  Human pride is deeply offended by this.  It refuses to believe that we are as bad as all that or that we need so extravagant, so excessive, so dramatic a rescue.

But the other reason why so many people refuse to become Christians is that they do not want to live as Christ requires his people to live.  Unbelievers often see this more clearly than people in the church.  If I am to become a Christian I must change my life profoundly.  I must give up many things that I now enjoy and I must begin to do many things that I have so far thought boring or distasteful or painfully difficult.  They do not become Christians because they do not want to live as Christians.  They cannot believe that they could be happy living as Christians.  They cannot believe that a Christian life would not be unbearably oppressive.  But they understand, instinctively, that following Christ would mean, must mean living for him.

This is the sadness and the futility of unbelief.  Pride keeps people from what would, if they only knew it, fill their hearts with love and joy.  Little do they know it but the humility that Christ teaches his followers will give them a far happier view of themselves and a far more glorious prospect of what they can become than ever their pride gave them.  And the Christian life, though not without difficulty, is rich with rewards beyond the power of unbelievers to conceive.  And, if only they knew it, the price of their pride and their love of their sin will be endless work; work that is grinding in its difficulty and has no lasting satisfaction in it.

What I mean to say to you is that you have nothing to fear in heeding the Lord’s warning here that if you are to find salvation it must be by surrendering your will to Christ’s and devoting yourself to living the life that pleases him.  You will not suffer any loss.  It will be only gain.  If it is hard work in some ways – as any faithful Christian will admit that it is – if your life must be marked by a measure of frustration as you find it impossible in this world to be as faithful, as fully obedient, as fully a doer of Christ’s words as you wish to be and know you ought to be – as any faithful Christian will admit it must – it is the best work, the most satisfying work, the most rewarding work of all, and even the frustration has its satisfactions, for it is the disappointment of the highest and purest of all human aspirations.  What is more, it is work that is wonderfully compensated and its compensation is that in the storms of life you will find your feet standing on solid rock.  It is a wonderful thing to live in this world, with its sorrows and with death approaching, always certain of a surpassingly marvelous future opening before you into endless days.

And, to the hard-working, obedient, serving Christians here, I say the same thing.  Take the Lord’s warning to heart; take it deep within your heart.  Tell him yourself that, far from wishing that you didn’t have to obey, to “do” his words as well as hear them, you only wish you could do them more completely and more perfectly.  Tell him that nothing would please you more than every day and in every way to be a doer of the Lord’s words and not a hearer only.  And then, like all good Christians before you, do what Samuel Rutherford said, and break off another piece of sin every day.  Find one of the Lord’s words that you have been hearing but not much doing and do it with relish.  Your conscience will tell you what those words are.  Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back.

William Tidd Matson was the son of a prominent man of English politics.  The able young man could have had a prominent successful career.  It was his for the asking.  He could have been famous, wealthy, and comfortable.  But he was converted to Christ at age 20 and gave up his glittering prospects to preach the gospel, not in the socially acceptable Church of England but in Methodist and Congregational churches.  He was a poet of some consequence and we have two of his hymns in our hymnal.  When asked about the life he gave up, he always said simply, “No sacrifice; all gain.”  Let the storms come.  What do they matter when the foundation of my life is solid rock!  And what better way for a human being to live and then to die than doing the will of the Son of God!  Or as Matson put it in one of his celebrated poems:

O blessèd life!  The heart at rest
When all without tumultuous seems,
That trusts a higher will, and deems
That higher will, not mine, the best.

O blessèd life!  The mind that sees,
Whatever change the years may bring,
A mercy still in everything
And shining through all mysteries.

O life, how blessèd, how divine!
High life, the earnest of a higher!
Saviour, fulfil my deep desire,
And let this blessèd life be mine.