The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn
Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 13: True And False Faith
From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 7:13-20. For the parallel passages see Luke 6:43-45; 13:24. To follow up the theme look at Matthew 12:33-35; Galatians 5:22-23; James 2:14-26.
One of the greatest of virtues, as our society sees it, is to be broad-minded. We encourage a general goodwill, on the assumption that most people, whatever their mistakes, are headed in the right direction. To doubt this is to be intolerant.
At this point Jesus meets us with a quite different teaching. "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7:13-14).
The Narrow Gate
Here we must be unusually careful to understand what Jesus means. If we remember his command against judging others, we will never boast that we are saved while many are heading for destruction. If we remember the place of love in his gospel, we will never scorn those who are not going our way. Too many Christians across the ages have read these verses with a satisfied feeling and a happy prayer, "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men" (Luke 18:11).
With these warnings burning in our minds we must still ask what Jesus means by the narrow gate and the difficult way. We may find that the answer has painful force for our time.
The twentieth century has been an age of the testing of faith. Great forces have risen to shake men's loyalties. We see this clearly in the case of the new faiths that have stirred revolutions, sent armies trampling across nations, and changed the maps of the world. Make no mistake: the modern movements of Nazism and Soviet Communism are, in their way, religions. They have their creeds, their heresies, their acts of worship, their reliance upon powers beyond anything human, their prophets and messiahs, their demands for faithfulness unto death, and their promises of salvation. Our major wars have not been over such issues as the fixing of national boundaries or the inheritance of the right to a throne. They have been ideological wars. They have marked classes between "ways of life," outlooks upon mankind and the universe, basic faiths. Political leaders have called nations to show loyalty to their convictions, to put into action their creeds. The point comes when one must say in dead earnest: If Jesus Christ is right, contradictory faiths are wrong.
All this we can see fairly clearly. We can sympathize with people living under the sway of destructive ideologies. We can understand how, for them, the way to destruction is broad and easy. We honor the heroes and martyrs who refuse to go with the throngs.
But the problem goes far deeper and comes closer to home. It is not just a question of the place one lives and the government that asks loyalty. It is a question of the warring faiths and impulses within every personality. People who proclaim their loyalty to the church and utterly despise "materialistic communism" may be quite materialistic in their competition for wealth. Every honest Christian must admit that a thousand temptations draw him away from the kingdom of God. Jesus speaks directly to his own church when he says: "The gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life."
Of course, we prefer a more comfortable religion. A popular book published in the rosier days of 1925 said that the God of Jesus was "not a stern Judge . . . but a kindly indulgent, joy-loving Father." Jesus, it said, "was notably tolerant of almost all kinds of sinners."
That reduces the message of divine mercy to a cheap piece of wishful thinking. Yes, God's love is infinite, and in his compassion he never ceases to seek the lost sheep. But some sheep, including some who love to proclaim that they are saved, keep running away. They reject that free grace which would transform their lives. They want no part of that "blessedness" described in the Beatitudes.
Why shouldn't the way be hard? Men will discipline themselves, adjusting their living habits and directing their ambitions for years, to make a football team or play the violin. Can the deepest concerns of life require less?
Even when we understand Jesus' words, we may distort his message. These last few paragraphs have come perilously close. Our tendency is to look around us and say: How few of us have found the narrow gate to life; how many of them have found the wide gate to destruction! No. Jesus is not inviting us to survey the world and contemplate how many skeptics or Communists are doomed. It's a neat, easily learned psychological trick to shift the question from ourselves to others. He tells us the way is hard, and we think he means it is hard for somebody else. He says, "I am the way" (John 14:6); and we avoid the challenge by saying, "What about all those other people?" He sees our dodge, and tells us (as he told Peter when Peter started worrying about John): What is that to you? You follow me. (See John 21:15-23.)
"By Their Fruits"
Jesus predicted accurately that there would be false prophets. His phrase, "a wolf in sheep's clothing," has become proverbial. Anyone can learn a pretty speech and promise us entrance to heaven, or a miracle in government, or a transformed personality.
The early church faced the problem. In its days of great missionary expansion there were many traveling prophets and evangelists. Some mixed their own vanity with their mission, and lured men into various heresies. Some others, with no allegiance to Jesus, found such a career an easy way to a meal ticket and a home wherever they went. The church had to learn to sift out the impostors. It went back to the words, "You will know them by their fruits."
This was a practical test. Do they come with acts of helpfulness, or with grasping hands? Do they encourage deeper fellowship, or do they stir up dissension?
That kind of test appeals to us practical Americans. No elaborate theories. Just a look at the fruit. A popular American philosophy is called pragmatism. The word looks, and means, something like practicalism. Pragmatists hold that the practical course of action is best; they choose the plan that works. There's just one gap in their theory as it is often expounded. Yes, we want the plan that works. But for what goal does it work? Often that question is left unanswered. Jesus offers a pragmatic test, but the testing takes place within the Christian faith. He tells us to look for the fruits -- fruits that resemble the ways of the kingdom of God.
All through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been pushing our thought back behind actions to motivations. Now he tells us that motivations bear fruit in actions.
Earlier he said that there was no virtue in an outward act that did not grow out of an inner sincerity. Now he fills out the picture by saying that inner sincerity will produce visible acts. The fundamental thing is the faith, hope, and love that set the character and direction of life. But these express themselves in all that we do.
The church has often argued about the relative importance of faith and works. Some of the arguments could easily have been solved by looking at Jesus' message. The arguments become unrealistic when they separate faith from works. Jesus is saying that the two go together. The inward is primary; the outward follows.
When we understand that, we see easily that works without faith are empty and that faith without works is dead. Each of these ideas is worth attention.
Works Without Faith Are Empty
A practical age like our own is likely to say that only actions count. We've often heard it said, "I'm not interested in your beliefs; I only want to know whether you can deliver the goods."
Of course no one really believes that. Suppose a Communist, who is actually loyal to Russia rather than the United States, is discovered in a key governmental position. No one says, "It doesn't matter, so long as he has committed no crimes." We recognize immediately that loyalty (which is akin to faith) is more basic than any isolated act.
Likewise, in the international negotiations of recent times, we have heard repeatedly the phrase, "good faith." If we could count on good faith, many other worries would settle themselves. But neither promises nor acts make us feel secure if we doubt that there is good faith.
Clearly, then, works cannot take the place of faith. Jesus' most scathing denunciations went to men who did numerous good things, but whose deeds were expressions of their own pride or efforts to win the approval of God. Jesus probed beneath the acts to the faith that prompted them.
There is a second reason why acts alone are empty. Recall some of the qualities of the blessed man, according to Jesus' definition. He is poor in spirit, merciful, sympathetic, thirsty for righteousness, pure in heart, loving, forgiving, sincere, trusting. These are not qualities that we can drum up inside ourselves. As we have seen before, no one can claim such spiritual accomplishment as to earn a place in God's kingdom. Rather, a loving and forgiving God offers us a place in his kingdom. Our response to God's mercy is faith. In that faith we enter into the spirit of his kingdom. Not by earnest effort, but by trusting him do we approach him. Once the trust (another word which is close to faith) is there, we can do some striving.
Faith Without Works Is Dead
If good works truly are the expression of faith, then true faith expresses itself in helpfulness. It has its fruits. The New Testament letter of James resoundingly asserts: "Faith without works is dead." We could just as well say that faith without works is not really faith. The phrase faith without works, as Augustine suggests, is like the phrase, "warm snow." There is no such thing. When snow becomes warm, it ceases to be snow. When faith bears no fruits, it is not really faith.
During a dramatic evangelistic campaign some time ago, someone noticed a passenger on a bus, talking to the driver in obviously intense enthusiasm. As the driver slowed the bus for the next stop, the passenger's voice was heard: "Oh, don't stop for them niggers. I just got saved, and I've got to get home as soon as I can to tell my wife about it!"
We have a right to wonder about that kind of salvation. With Jesus' warning in our ears, we know that we cannot comprehend the degree of sincerity in the convert's heart, nor assert that he is inferior to ourselves. But we can say that his "salvation" does not comprehend the "blessedness" of the Sermon on the Mount.
The Protestant Christian tradition has emphasized the theme of "justification by faith" rather than by works. (Justification means entering into a right relationship with God.) The apostle Paul gave us the phrase, and Martin Luther rediscovered it. But both insisted that faith finds expression in works.
In the letter where, above all others, Paul emphasized faith rather than works and the Spirit rather than the Law, he wrote that the "fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." (See Galatians 5:22-23.) And in his argument for faith as against the Roman Catholic law, Luther used Jesus' figure of the tree and its fruit. Faith, he said, forms the roots; they nourish the fruits (the good works). And this is the way Jesus puts it. (See Matthew 12:33-35 and Luke 6:43-45.)