Grades vs. Grace
Matthew 5:1, Galatians 3:23-29
Dr. Jim Denison
Do you remember the story of Prometheus, the god who gave fire to mortals? For his transgression he was chained and tortured by Might, Violence, and Hephaestus, servants of Zeus. And so the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus makes Hephaestus say to Prometheus, “Such is the reward you reap of your man-loving disposition… Many a groan and many a lamentation you shall utter, but they shall not serve you. For the mind of Zeus is hard to soften with prayer.”
There have been times when I’ve wondered if Hephaestus was right. Times when God felt distant from me, days when my prayers seemed to ricochet from the ceiling unanswered, when it seemed clear to me that I must do more to merit the attention and help of the Almighty. That I must be more religious, keep more rules, do more to impress God. Many of you have been there as well. But we were wrong.
John Claypool once called the church a community of grades rather than a community of grace. This morning we’ll explore the difference, as we begin studying the Sermon on the Mount together. We’ll see this Sermon as grades, and then as grace. And we’ll choose which Sermon we want to hear this fall. And which faith we want to live.
The sermon as grades
Consider first the Sermon on the Mount as grades. Religious legalism. Spiritual rules and dogma. That’s how the religious people of his day heard Jesus. And how many religious people hear him still.
Paul explains: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed” (Galaians 3:23). How did they become so imprisoned by legalism, rules, and dogma? The same way we do.
God created us for relationship with himself, but our sin drives a wedge between our hearts and our Holy Father. And we know it. We know something is wrong, misguided, missing.
So we create what psychologists call an “idealized self,” the person we wish we were, the person we lost, the person we want desperately to be. Then we spend our lives trying to become that person. We project that image to others, always frightened that they will see behind the mask to the ugly truth hiding inside. We try to become what we think God wants us to be. And so religion becomes rules. And rules for keeping the rules.
The Jews of Jesus’ day found in the Ten Commandments 613 rules. And then they made rules for keeping the rules. For instance, they were very concerned about the Sabbath prohibition against work. What constitutes work? 39 basic actions were defined and prohibited. And then each was further defined.
A woman could draw water with one hand but not two. A man could not wear his false teeth or a needle in his clothes, for this was carrying a burden. Any man who lit a fire, rode a beast, traveled by ship, struck anything, caught an animal, bird, or fish, fasted or made war on the Sabbath must be put to death.
To this day some of the stricter Jewish synagogues employee Gentiles who work on the Sabbath doing things like turning light switches on and off. All to keep the rules.
But don’t shake your heads just yet. We Baptists know a thing or two about religious activities, rules, and regulations. Early in my Christian experience, I learned how church “success” worked: the more you did, the better others thought you were.
Here was a typical week in my home church: Sunday school and church services on Sunday morning; Training Union and evening worship, followed by youth fellowship on Sunday night. Visitation on Tuesday night. Prayer meeting on Wednesday night. Bus Ministry and youth Bible study on Saturday morning.
Then there was the annual calendar, running like clockwork each year: January Bible Study, February Valentine’s Day Banquet; spring Easter pageant; Vacation Bible School; summer camp, mission trip, and choir tour; annual fall revival; High Attendance Sunday every October; and the Christmas pageant. Along with the special activities planned each and every month.
And we were graded through it all by how much we did and how well we did it. By how well we knew the rules and kept them.
Blaise Pascal was a mathematical and philosophical genius. Listen to this observation from his Pensees, and see if it rings true with your experience:
“All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man….
“Yet for very many years no one without faith has ever reached the goal at which everyone is continually aiming. All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions….
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.
“God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place” (Pensees #148).
You can hear the Sermon on the Mount this fall as grades. Rules to keep, things to do, religious activities and requirements. But in the end you’ll be more frustrated than you are right now. For only one person in all of human history ever kept these rules without fail. And he was God.