This article was originally written for 1517.
The salvation of wretched sinners by an omni-holy and forever-righteous God is, by all accounts, a categorical impossibility. The logic of righteousness insists as much, not permitting even the smallest ounce of sin to blemish the remarkable majesty of the Lord’s perfection. Yet, there still persists much confusion surrounding the holiness of God, which, I would contend, forms the basis upon Christ delivers his most famous discourse, the Sermon on the Mount. (Mt 5:1–7:27) Throughout the majority of the message, Christ seeks to reorient all the false notions of his Father’s righteousness back to their true origin. The misconception that occurred manifested itself in the religious elite’s attempt to bastardize the holiness of God into keepable, performable rules and regulations that govern the entire life of a disciple.
On top of the Torah (the Old Testament law as recorded in the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the Old Testament), the Pharisees were strict adherents to another law, the Talmud. This was an oral code passed down through tradition to each subsequent generation. By the time of Christ in the first century, the Talmud had developed into a system of over 600 directives that dictated one’s every move. Contrast that with Christ’s emphasis on the true essence of the law — love God and love your neighbor (Mt 22:37–40) — which epitomizes the law in two commands, not 600 rules. And, what’s more, these commands were not meant to be derived out of your spirituality but Christ’s strength alone. The Pharisees adulterated God’s law with more and more statutes, all of which produce a haughty and heartless kind of religion. A false sense of righteousness was developed out of dedication to these rigorous rules, which, furthermore, were constantly being invented to account for new situations.
It’s to this class of sanctimonious saints that Christ primarily addresses as he begins his discourse. And while the Pharisees went to great lengths to ensure that their sense of holiness and religiosity was carefully accounted for, Christ makes the bold declaration they hadn’t gone far enough. Even the Pharisee’s goodness was falling short! The deeds mandated by the oral law were strictly external, calling for and accepting nothing but outward orthodox conformity to its regulations. These extrabiblical demands were uncompromisingly harsh, requiring faithful obedience to and careful observation of every one of its commands.
Yet, notwithstanding all their orthodoxy, Jesus says it’s still not enough. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:20) As is clear from Jesus’s words, the proportions of God’s law are far and above anything we can conjure up. It’s not just “don’t murder” but “don’t be angry.” (Mt 5:21–26) It’s not just infidelity, it’s lust. (Mt 5:27–30) It’s not just “don’t retaliate” but actively forgive, without any retribution. (Mt 5:38–42) It’s not just “love your neighbor” but “love your enemies.” (Mt 5:43–47) Jesus reveals that the good news he has come to bring to man is not a relaxation or removal of these statutes but a reinforcement of them, indeed, an intensifying of them to degrees that you and I can never realize.
As it is a reflection of God’s character, the law doesn’t say “be good” but “be perfect” — all the time, 100%, unflinching, unwavering perfection. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) In this way, Christ was saying that one can get to heaven and see the Kingdom of God by works, just not yours. Here’s the standard: Not goodness, but perfection; not continual trying, but flawless performance; not attempted piety, but unblemished purity. There’s no room for faults or failures. There’s no space for the guilty. The measure of God’s holiness is eternal, untiring, and absolute blamelessness — perfect righteousness. And so it is that Christ was saying to know the law, not so as to achieve any amount of personal righteousness but solely to be pointed to the One who is righteous for you. The utter impracticality and unachievable nature of God’s law should make all who are confronted by it give up at its sheer impossibility — and that’s the point!
You must endeavor to know the commands of the law; not that you may be enabled, by that knowledge, to practise them immediately and so to procure salvation by your works; but rather that, by your knowledge of them, you may be made sensible of your inability to perform them, and of the enmity that is in your heart against them, and the wrath that you are under for breaking them, and the impossibility of being saved by your own works; that so you may fly to Christ for refuge, and trust only to the free grace of God for justification, and strength to fulfil the law acceptably through Christ in your conversation.1
The absolute impossibility of salvation by your works is actually good news, as it naturally points you the work of Another, whose works justify and satisfy, and who, by grace, swallows your sin and imputes those works to your account. The law’s offer of salvation is never fulfilled by human means, only the Messiah’s mercy. The Christian’s hope of eternal life rests not on his services or performances for God, however noble they may be in their own right, but rests solely on the grace wrought by Christ as revealed in the gospel. As the apostle Paul elsewhere states, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes . . . because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Rom 10:4, 9–10)
Believers — mercy-filled and grace-addicted Christians — then, are not ones who disregard the law of God, attesting to a license to live however they please. Rather, they’re ones who know and understand the law and what it demands, recognizing their sheer inability to fulfill any of its demands. Yes, salvation is impossible. But — praise be to God! — the gospel pronounces the God of the Impossible has come for you!
Walter Marshall, The Gospel-Mystery of Sanctification (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1859), 245–46.