John Wesley wrote in "Upon our Lord's Sermon on the Mount" – part 1, the following:
"And what is it which He is teaching? The Son of God, who came from heaven, is here showing us the way to heaven; to the place which he hath prepared for us; the glory he had before the world began. He is teaching us the true way to life everlasting; the royal way which leads to the kingdom; and the only true way, — for there is none besides; all other paths lead to destruction."
There are different attitudes today in the church regarding the importance of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5 through 7. Some teach that the whole teaching became essentially obsolete and non-binding as soon as Jesus died on the cross. The celebrated revivalist John Wesley, however, whose ministry transformed England and made England a great nation, believed that only the path laid out by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount leads to eternal life – all other paths lead to destruction. I know from reading his sermon on justification by faith that he would allow that people who have faith in Jesus but lack the opportunity to repent and live out the teachings of Jesus do enter life. But what shall we say of those who have the opportunity, but not the inclination?
I do not believe that people enter the Kingdom at first by trying to keep all the commandments and by striving to have the heart condition exactly as described in the Sermon on the Mount. It is impossible for an unregenerate heart to take heed to and follow everything written in these chapters. This is especially so because the Sermon on the Mount constantly hones in on the intentions of the heart, and teaches that external religiosity alone will never satisfy God.
However, there is Good News
The Bible teaches that "God justifies the ungodly". In Romans 4:5 it says:
"But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,"
All attempts to merit righteousness by conforming to the Sermon on the Mount are doomed to fail. We cannot merit righteousness if it is a gift – and the Bible says in Romans chapter 5 that it IS a gift. We need to start by recognising how spiritually bankrupt and unable to save ourselves or justify ourselves we are! Then we need to look to what Jesus our Savior has done in dying on the cross for us. When we do this with faith, we are changed on the inside, given a new life, and a fresh start with God.
I think it is really important for this point to sink in, otherwise all our efforts will be in vain. Try for a while in your own power – but you will not be able to substantially live as Jesus taught. You will need God's grace, God's transforming power in order to be able to approach this kind of living.
OK, So Can We Relax about The Sermon on the Mount, Then?
We need to be regenerated and given life by an Act of God's Grace. But what happens after we are given this fresh start by God? Are we free to keep on sinning, to keep on rejecting God's Word, trusting that the same principle by which we were justified at first is sufficient to keep us in God's favor, regardless of whether we live a godly life in Christ Jesus? Some would say yes, for them, anything else is a "works based religion"; but I cannot reconcile this view with certain words of the apostles – for example, read Hebrews 10:26-39, which I discuss elsewhere on this site. If we want to take seriously the authority of Scripture, we have to find a view which fits best with EVERYTHING the New Testament teaches about salvation and what is required to enter Life ultimately.
I believe that the regenerate man has the opportunity and possibility and even the reasonable commandment from Jesus Christ to be transformed by the renewal of the mind. Paul urges the readers in Rome to allow this by presenting their bodies to God as living sacrifices. Those who come to REJECT the will of God for themselves cannot expect to be finally saved. In this sense, the Sermon of the Mount DOES show the way to salvation. The beatitudes for example, the first 12 or so verses of chapter 5, show a progression in the life of the soul. There will be this ongoing transformation by the grace of God in the life of a true believer who receives Jesus for who He is – King as well as Savior.
Some issues in the Sermon on the Mount relate to salvation, and some more to rewards and your place IN the Kingdom of Heaven. Some enter, but will be "least" in the Kingdom because they taught the wrong things.
One of our problems is that we are reading this Bible sometimes with the attitude "What is the minimum I must do to escape hell?". This attitude shows our love for Jesus is not so strong. When we really want to please the Father, we read everything with a sense of expectancy, understanding that there is always ultimately a blessing for Obedience to the Word of God.
The Way into the Kingdom
Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 5:3) This then, is all it takes to possess the Kingdom of Heaven. But what is this poverty of spirit? It is not financial or material poverty – though sometimes the two can go together. It is an attitude of humility – which recognises one's own personal bankruptcy and dependence on God for righteousness, salvation, help, forgiveness and everything else that one needs.
When you have this poverty of spirit, you have humility, and the Bible says that God gives GRACE to the humble. This grace works regeneration in the human spirit and out of this I believe comes the capacity to trust God and believe His Word. As long as poverty of spirit is maintained the soul is secure. As soon as pride enters, there is danger of a fall.
Jesus also says that those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake are blessed (vs 11), for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Such people are persecuted not for their own righteousness so much as for their right relationship with God which is through faith, which in turn does lead to an ethical change. The persecution comes not so much for doing the right thing as for BEING righteous with God's righteousness and in so doing making sinners and demons uncomfortable, agitated and possibly angry. Such people are also assured of being in God's Kingdom whilst they are part of this group.
If we jump over to Matthew 7 we have the verses about bewaring of false prophets. I think this applies not merely to those who falsely claim to be prophets of God, but also to false pastors, priests and teachers who teach a way of salvation that is different to what Jesus taught. Jesus explains why further on. He says that not everyone who says to Him, "LORD!" will enter the Kingdom but only those who do the will of His Father in Heaven. He says that only those who hear His teaching given here and obey it are building on the solid rock. Everyone else is building on sand. When the storm comes, those who have not been doing what Jesus said will fall. Some say, "when the storms of life come" but it doesn't say "storms of life". It could be storms of life or storms of judgment. I would not assume that there is no reference to Eternal Judgment here, because Jesus just told us back in Verse 21 that you have to DO the will of God to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Powerful ministry works will not make up for sin on the Day of Judgment. So we all have to beware. We need to beware of anyone who teaches us that we don't need to hear and obey the Lord Jesus Christ in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And there are many such teachers today, even in the Evangelical Church, not to mention the false teachers in the various sacramental churches who teach that sacraments are going to fix things up when you have no intention of actually doing God's will.
So then, according to Jesus, being poor in spirit is what it takes to get started and possess God's Kingdom. It will also keep you there if you continue in this way. For Paul, "faith" is the key which unlocks the Kingdom. I believe these are two different ways of looking at the same reality. However, it is also important to see that in both Jesus AND Paul's teachings one must "endure to the end" and be faithful until the end. The meaning of this faithfulness touches ultimately on every area of our lives as God unfolds the truth concening His will to us. We cannot assume we are safe at all if we do not take hold of God in such a way through humility and faith that we actually change and find our lives conformed to the will of God.
I believe it is vital that we faithfully teach what Jesus taught about salvation. In future studies I hope to look further into this matter, especially seeing what we can derive from the teachings contained in the parables of Jesus. Do these fit in with the understanding I have given above? I believe they do. Please look into it.