Beware the Religion You Can Do

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

How refreshing our time in the Sermon on the Mount has been!  In the most humbling sort of way, that is.  Week by week we are stripped bare by the text, and the result is (or ought to be) the refreshment of repentance.  We are seeing God as He really is.  We are seeing ourselves as we really are.  Pride is being peeled away and something very precious is being gained.

Jesus said, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).  We tend to read that verse and say, “How meticulous our obedience must be!”  But that isn’t the meaning here.  Weighed by Jesus’ exposition of the law, which gives us what it always meant and always will mean, the scribes and Pharisees are not commended as good law-keepers – they are condemned as hopelessly unfaithful ones.  Paul summarizes it this way:

“For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.  For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:3,4).

The deficiency of the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is one of type, not degree.  In other words, they didn’t need more of the same, they needed an entirely different type.  They established their own kind of righteousness, which satisfied themselves but put them at enmity with God Almighty.  They needed Christ.  They needed His righteousness.  Through warped interpretation and distortion they had arrived at a religion that is like every other religion known to man.  A religion that satisfies us but enrages God.  A religion that can be done with a little rigor and self-discipline, not to mention careful concealment of the inward man.  Poverty of spirit?  Not required.  Mourning?  Nope.  Meekness?  Nope.  Hungering and thirsting for righteousness?  Not God’s kind.  Mercy?  Towards those “sinners”?

As we head into Jesus’ exposition of “You shall not murder”, I am praying that we will continue to be crushed.  The letter of the law, which the scribes and Pharisees were happy enough to have on the list (with a big fat check box beside it), is exponentially expanded by the spirit of the law.  “What about heart-murder?” says Jesus.  “What about tongue-murder?” says Jesus.  “Heart-murder?  Tongue-murder?” say we.  This is all very uncomfortable, of course, and I want to suggest that we should run towards the discomfort and not away from it.  The sooner we are free from any remnants of a religion we can do, the happier we will be, the humbler we will be, the more dependent on Jesus we will be.  That is indeed something to run towards!

Is this a case against meticulous keeping of the law?  May it never be!  We are called to meticulous law-keeping.  Again, the words of Jesus:  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23).  It wasn’t tithing down to the garden spices that Jesus condemned – in fact, He says they ought to have done that – it was their neglect of the weightier matters of the law.  But beyond that, obedience is not our righteousness.  Obedience is our response of gratitude to a redeeming Father.  A renewed round of self-effort wasn’t going to fix this for the scribes and Pharisees.  They needed to be redeemed.  Anything short of that leaves people with only the self-justification that setting aside a tenth of the mint has to offer.

May God use the Sermon on the Mount to make us this kind of people.  People who have been laid low by the impossible rigor of the spirit of the law.  People who have thrown themselves on the mercies of Jesus Christ for the only true righteousness.  And people who now look to the law to understand how to love God and love their neighbor out of profound gratitude to a mighty Redeemer.