I was going to start this lesson by stating that this section of Jesus’ sermon is the most important part! I feel like that each week with the passage we are learning. The truth is that every word, verse, passage, and section of Scripture is just as important and necessary as what came before and will come after.
Last week, we saw that Jesus addressed six popular teachings that were contrary to the actual message of the Old Testament. The major way in which the Old Testament was misused, according to Jesus’ sermon, was in support of religious legalism. We even saw how the popular teaching of the day exceeded what was written. Jesus brought the people back to what the Scriptures stated in context. In the next section of His sermon to His disciples and in view of the large group of people (6:1-7:6), we see Jesus address not only the legalistic teaching but also the legalistic tendencies of the religious community. After teaching from the Old Testament that faith was a gift and a condition of the heart and after exposing how the Law was being mistaught, Jesus begins to expose the absurdity of majority human worldview.
As we spend the next few weeks in this section of Jesus’ sermon, we will see the way in which Jesus evaluates our religion and our participation in church (or the equivalent thereof). Right practice (orthopraxis) follows right teaching (orthodoxy). Spiritually healthy people or groups don’t merely have one or the other but strive for both. Jesus didn’t compare Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, the Imperial Cult, and Eastern Religion- saying one was right and the others were wrong. Jesus got at real things and at the human heart. Let’s take a moment and not defend our own beliefs, churches, associations, denominations, or religions. Let us evaluate what is taught and what is practiced in our lives and in our churches the same way that Jesus does in this section of His sermon.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
Legalism forces self-glory (v. 1-2)
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them…
After addressing popular legalistic teaching, Jesus then warns His disciples about practicing their righteousness before men to be noticed by them. There is something about legalistic teaching that produces legalistic fruit. All of a sudden, our involvement in church becomes about becoming better people or overcoming our struggles or addictions. The true Gospel is lost. Legalism is reflected in many theological viewpoints including Lordship Salvation, Word of Faith, Prosperity Gospel, Health and Wealth Gospel, etc… It consists of the same lie that Satan told Adam and Eve in the Garden- If you do this thing, you can accomplish this other thing; or your work is required for you to accomplish the things of God. It is the serpent’s gospel repackaged through the annals of history. I want to think for a moment about what legalism actually requires.
First, legalism subjects God to people. God is no longer recognized as sovereign and grace becomes something other than grace (Romans 11:6).
Second, legalism forces us to practice our works in front of people to be noticed by them. I remember pastoring a church where there was a business meeting every month on a Wednesday. Every month, I was required to give an account for everything that I did that month, how many contacts I made as the pastor, how many people I followed up with, and whether or not I attended the associational and fellowship meetings in the area. In this same church, I was absent one Wednesday and found out that the church body voted to require me to go to the fellowship meetings (something I was already doing). The deacons would always ask me about personal details in people’s lives so that they could make sure they were living rightly. Of course, I can’t share those things. The ladies of the church constantly condemned people whose children made mistakes or acted up. I am not condemning this church body; I am saying that these things are the consequences of at least forty years of legalistic teaching leading to legalistic religion. Legalism always leads to our having to practice our works in front of people to be noticed by them.
Third, legalism honors the work of people and fails to honor God the Father or exalt God the Son.
An inherent legalism in most human religion and in most churches can be identified when we hear language like, “I did (this thing),” or “I am a good person,” or “I am a good Christian.” Similarly, when legalists share their testimony, it is more about what they have done, overcome, or survived than it is about the life and work of Jesus Christ. Legalistic religion depends on people and people who are legalists are concerned with the work they’ve done and with being recognized for that work. When I was a youth in our church’s youth group, people thought that if they could get more people to go to church or if they could get other people to not sin then they were good Christians. The more people saw you do, the more spiritual you were. In this section of His sermon, Jesus makes the exact opposite claim. In fact, this sort of mentality is irreconcilable with the Gospel. Individuals or churches who approach religion in this way or in any way like this are in direct opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Jesus Christ in this sermon.
…otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
What is the reward of Christ’s people and how do people obtain this reward? We receive the answer later in Jesus’ sermon. In chapter 7, verses 21-23, we read:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
The reward for God’s people is that they will enter the kingdom of heaven. That is eternal life, satisfaction, and rest. People obtain this reward by doing the will of the Father, which is explicitly not working, doing good or religious things, even in Christ’s name. It is explicitly being known by Christ. Legalism, then, actually makes people practitioners of lawlessness according to the Old Testament and to Christ. Throughout Jesus’ sermon, it is consistently and explicitly the case that practitioners of legalistic religion will have no reward with the Father and will have to depart from Jesus when that day comes. This is important enough to really pay attention to. Many people who think they are Christians and are convinced of their own salvation are actually running into Hell’s open arms. This is why the five points of Arminius are so dangerous and were condemned outright at the Synod of Dort. This is the whole reason for the protestant reformation. This is why the Apostles and Patristics wrote so strongly against the Judaizers and Gnostics. This is why we must be dedicated to Scripture Alone as Jesus has made so evident in the second section of His sermon. This is why it is so important for us not to practice eisegesis or narcigesis like so many people in our day do.
… they have received their reward in full.
What does it mean that so many religious people receive their reward in full on this earth? Since legalism leads to self-glory, then that self-glory is the extent of the person’s reward. Their reward has been received in full, which means they will not receive the reward of entering the kingdom of heaven (7:21).
We see how, in the way that most religious systems and churches operate, people are being led in masse into Hell- even by groups who refer to themselves as Christian groups. The church we attend matters. The type of religion (or irreligion) we practice matters. We cannot hold to a form of legalism and be Christians. The two are irreconcilable.
Right motivation (v. 3-4)
Here we see that, though they are not required for salvation, it is assumed that those who are known by Christ will practice the righteousness of Christ. Antinomianism is also impossible in light of the Gospel. Antinomianism is reflected in many theological viewpoints including Free Grace, The Emerging Church, The Church Unity Movement, Christian Progressivism, etc… This is often seen as the viewpoint that directly opposes legalism, but really they are the same heresy. They are both rooted in the serpent’s gospel. Antinomianism relies entirely on people’s ability to forsake personal conviction and simply get along with all people. It is marked by pragmatism- doing what works to get people in the doors or to make me feel better about myself or to help me live a better life. It elevates making people feel accepted in place of knowing what God has actually said. While the previous generations seem to have tended toward explicit legalism, this describes the religion of my own generation. It is the same lie- take these steps and you will accomplish these things. It is simply packaged in the wrapping of personal liberty and free will. It comes with a card that read, “Open this if you’d like to bring unity and love to the world.” Of course, we’ve seen that it doesn’t actually work.
I also want to think about what Antinomianism actually requires.
First, antinomianism subjects God to people. People become the standard for what is right and acceptable. As long as you say the name “Jesus” and/or pray some version of a “sinner’s prayer,” God is required to save you no matter what else you do or what you believe about Him. There is no sanctification, maturing, or growth in understanding because your spirituality belongs to you and not God.
Second, antinomianism forces us to practice our works in front of people to be noticed by them. Instead of bragging about personal piety or presenting their own morality before the church for acceptance, antinomians have to brag about how much good they are doing in the world and about how they are bringing unity and acceptance. Antinomianism always leads to our having to practice our works in front of people to be noticed by them.
Third, antinomianism honors the work of people and fails to honor God the Father or exalt God the Son.
Do we see how legalism and antinomianism are the same heresy? An inherent antinomianism in much human religion and in many churches can be identified when we hear language like, “We are doing this good,” or “People are basically good,” or “God loves you just the way that you are; God bless you.” There is no real call to repentance like we see from Jesus as the primary call of the Gospel on our lives (4:17). Similarly, as with legalists, when antinomians share their testimony, it is more about what they have done, overcome, or survived than it is about the life and work of Jesus Christ. Antinomian religion depends on people and people who are antinomian are concerned with the work they’ve done and with being recognized for that work- mostly bringing unity and acceptance to the world.
But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
For those who are truly in Christ, there is only one motivator for good works, that their Father will see. When Jesus says, “…your Father…” (“your” is singular here) the indication is that a personal relationship with the Father precedes the practicing of Christ’s righteousness (c.f. Philippians 3:9). This doesn’t make much sense for those who are not known by Christ. Nothing else makes sense to those who are actually known by Christ.
The Old Testament Promise (v. 4b)
In accordance with His own commitment to teach only what Scripture (at this time, the Old Testament) states, Jesus alludes to Jeremiah 17:10. I want to observe this Old Testament passage in context.
Thus says the Lord, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind And makes flesh his strength, And whose heart turns away from the Lord. For he will be like a bush in the desert And will not see when prosperity comes, But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, A land of salt without inhabitant. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord And whose trust is the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, That extends its roots by a stream And will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, And it will not be anxious in a year of drought Nor cease to yield fruit. The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds. As a partridge that hatches eggs which it has not laid, So is he who makes a fortune, but unjustly; In the midst of his days it will forsake him, And in the end he will be a fool.”
Jesus’ teaching, here, is exactly that of Jeremiah. Those who trust in human works and makes flesh their strength are cursed. The heart is deceitful. Root produces fruit. God is the one who searches the heart and rewards accordingly. Those who have deeds coming from a good heart reap the righteous reward. Before the heart, which is desperately sick, can do this, it needs to be made well. Everything that we earn by our work (or by the flesh) will depart from us and, in the end, we will be revealed as fools. Only God can make our sick hearts well and produce good works in us and through us. Both legalism and antinomianism are the highways by which people, regardless of their intentions, drive both themselves and others into Hell’s deep pit.
Over the next few weeks, we will see how different aspects of human religious practice become contrary to what true faith is. Let’s pay close attention to Christ and consider His words in the context of this popular sermon.
- What one thing distinguishes a true Christian or a true church from every other religion or worldview, whether or not it professes to be Christian?
- What differentiates God’s grace from legalism? from antinomianism?
- According to Jesus’ initial evaluation, is your Christianity true Christianity? Is your church a truly Christian church?