Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson
“Be therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect”
Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 4 January 1852
There are two erroneous views held respecting the character of the Sermon on the Mount. The first may be called an error of worldly-minded men, the other an error of mistaken religionists. Worldly-minded men—men, that is, in whom the devotional feeling is but feeble—are accustomed to look on morality as the whole of religion; and they suppose that the Sermon on the Mount was designed only to explain and enforce correct principles of morality. It tells of human duties and human proprieties, and an attention to these, they maintain, is the only religion required. Isn’t it strange that men whose lives are least remarkable for superhuman excellence, should be the very men to refer most frequently to those sublime comments on Christian principle? and should so confidently conclude from these that they are right and all others are wrong? Yet so it is.
The other is an error of mistaken religionists. They sometimes regard the Sermon on the Mount as if it were a collection of moral precepts and, consequently, strictly speaking, not Christianity at all. To them it seems as if the chief value, the chief intention of the discourse, is to show the breadth and spirituality of the requirements of the law of Moses; its chief religious significance, to show the utter impossibility of fulfilling the law, and thus to lead to the necessary inference that justification must be by faith alone. And so they would not scruple to assert that, in the highest sense of that term, it is not Christianity at all, but only preparatory to it—a kind of spiritual Judaism, and that the higher and more developed principles of Christianity are to be found in the writings of the apostles.
Before we proceed further, we would remark here that it seems extremely startling to say that He who came to this world expressly to preach the gospel (Luke 4:18), should, in the most elaborate of all His discourses, omit to do so: it is indeed something more than startling, it is absolutely revolting, to suppose that the letters of those who spoke of Christ, should contain a more perfectly-developed, a freer and fuller Christianity than is to be found in Christ’s own words.
Now, you will observe that these two parties, so opposed to each other in their general religious views, are agreed in this—that the Sermon on the Mount is nothing but morality. The man of the world says, “It is morality only, and that is the whole of religion.” The mistaken religionist says “It is morality only, not the entire essence of Christianity.” In opposition to both these views, we maintain that the Sermon on the Mount contains the sum and substance of Christianity—the very chief matter of the gospel of our Redeemer.
It is not, you will observe, a pure and spiritualized Judaism; it is contrasted with Judaism again and again by Him who spoke it. Quoting the words of Moses, Jesus affirmed, “So it has been said by them of old time, but I say to you”—for example, “You shall not forswear yourself, but you shall perform to the Lord your vows” (Matthew 5:33). That is Judaism. “But I say to you, Swear not at all … but let your yea be yea, and your nay nay” (5:34-37). That is Christianity.
And that which is the essential peculiarity of this Christianity lies in these two things. First, that the morality it teaches is disinterested goodness—goodness not for the sake of the blessing that follows it, but for its own sake, and because it is right. “Love your enemies” is the gospel precept. Why? Because if you love them, you will be blessed; and if you do not, cursed? No. “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be the children of”—that is, may be like—“your Father in heaven” (5:44, 45). Second, that it teaches and enforces the law of self-sacrifice. “If your right eye offend you, pluck it out … if your right hand offend you, cut it off” (5:29, 30). This is the law of self-sacrifice—the very law and spirit of the blessed cross of Christ.
How deeply and essentially Christian, then, this Sermon on the Mount is, we shall understand if we are enabled in any measure to reach the meaning and spirit of the single passage I have taken as my text. It tells us two things: the Christian aim (perfection) and the Christian motive (righteousness).
THE CHRISTIAN AIM: PERFECTION
The Christian aim is to be perfect. “Be therefore perfect.” Now distinguish this, I pray you, from mere worldly morality. It is not conformity to a creed that is here required, but aspiration after a state. It is not demanded of us to perform a number of duties, but to yield obedience to a certain spiritual law. But let us endeavor to explain this more fully. What is the meaning of this expression, “Be perfect”? Why is it that in this discourse, instead of being commanded to perform religious duties, we are commanded to be like God? Will not that inflame our pride, and increase our natural vainglory? Now the nature and possibility of human perfection, what it is and how it is possible, are both contained in one single expression in the text, “Even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The relationship between father and son implies consanguinity [of the same blood], likeness, similarity of character and nature. God made the insect, the stone, the lily, but God is not the Father of the caterpillar, the lily, or the stone.
When, therefore, God is said to be our Father, something more is implied in this than that God created man. And so when the Son of Man came proclaiming the fact that we are the children of God, it was in the truest sense a revelation. He told us that the nature of God resembles the nature of man, that love in God is not a mere figure of speech, but means the same thing as love in us, and that divine anger is the same thing as human anger divested of its emotions and imperfections. When we are commanded to be like God, it implies that God has that nature of which we have already the germ. And this has been taught by the Incarnation or the Redeemer. Things absolutely dissimilar in their nature cannot mingle. Water cannot coalesce [combine] with fire—water cannot mix with oil. If, then, humanity and divinity were united in the person of the Redeemer, it follows that there must be something kindred between the two, or else the Incarnation had been impossible. So, then, the Incarnation is the realization of man’s perfection.
But let us examine more deeply this assertion, that our nature is kindred with that of God, for if man has not a nature kindred to God’s, then a demand such as “Be the children of”—that is, like—“God” is a mockery. We say, then, that in the truest sense of the word man can be a creator. The beaver makes its hole, the bee makes its cell, but making is not creating. Man alone has the power of creating. The mason makes, the architect creates. In the same sense that we say God created the universe, we say that man is also a creator. The creation of the universe was the eternal thought taking reality. And thought taking expression is also a creation. Whenever, therefore, there is a living thought shaping itself in word or in stone, there is a creation. And, therefore, it is that the simplest effort of what we call genius is prized infinitely more than the most elaborate performances done by mere workmanship, and for this reason: the one is produced by an effort of power we share with the beaver and the bee—making—the other, by a faculty and power man alone shares with God—creating.
Here, however, you will observe another difficulty. It will be said at once, “There is something in this comparison of man with God that looks like blasphemy, because one is finite and the other infinite—man is bounded, God boundless; and to speak of resemblance and kindred between these two is to speak of resemblance and kindred between two natures essentially different.” But this is precisely the argument brought by the Socinians against the doctrine of the Incarnation; and we are bound to add that the Socinian argument is right, unless there be the similarity of which we have been speaking. Unless there be something in man’s nature that truly and properly partakes of the divine nature, there could be no Incarnation, and the demand for perfection would be a mockery and an impossibility.
Let us then endeavor to find out the evidences of this infinitude in the nature of man.
• First, we find it in man’s desire for something boundless and unattainable. Thus speaks our Lord: “What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). Every schoolboy has heard the story of the youthful prince who enumerated one by one the countries he meant to conquer year after year; and when the enumeration was complete, was asked what he meant to do when all those victories were achieved. He replied, “To sit down, to be happy, to take my rest.” But then came the ready rejoinder, “Why not rest now?” But it is not every schoolboy who has paused to consider the folly of the question. He who asked his son why he did not at once take the rest that was his ultimate purpose knew not the immensity and nobility of the human soul. He could not then take his rest and be happy. As long as one realm remained unconquered, so long rest was impossible; he would weep for fresh worlds to conquer.
And thus, that which was spoken by our Lord of one earthly gratification, is true of all, “Whoever drinks of this water shall thirst again” (John 4:13). The boundless, endless, infinite void in the soul of man can be satisfied with nothing but God. Satisfaction lies not in having, but in being. There is no satisfaction even in doing. Man cannot be satisfied with his own performance. When the righteous young ruler came to Christ and declared that in reference to the life gone by he had kept all the commandments and fulfilled all the duties required by the law, still came the rejoinder: “If you will be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come and follow Me” (Matthew 19:21; cf Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-22).
The Scribes and Pharisees were the strictest observers of the ceremonies of the Jewish religion. “Touching the righteousness which is by the law”, they were “blameless” (Philippians 3:6). Yet, perhaps wanting something more, they were found on the brink of Jordan imploring the baptism of John (Matthew 3:7; John 1:24, 25), seeking after a new and higher state than they had yet attained—a significant proof that man cannot be satisfied with his own works. Again, there is not one of us who has ever been satisfied with his own performance. There is no man whose doings are worth anything who is not expecting to do more in the future. While he was doing it, he was supported by the spirit of hope; but when done, the thing held no more interest. Therefore, it is that the author cannot read his own book, nor the sculptor look with pleasure on his finished work ….
• A second trace of this infinitude in man’s nature we find in the infinite capacity of the soul. Intellectually and morally. With reference to our intellectual capacities, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that they are indefinite, rather than infinite; that is, we can affix to them no limit. For there is no man, however low his intellectual powers may be, who has not at one time or another felt a rush of thought, a glow of inspiration, that seemed to make all things possible …. With respect to our moral and spiritual capacities, we remark that they are not only indefinite, but infinite. Let that man answer who has ever truly and heartily loved another. That man knows what it is to partake of the infinitude of God. Literally, in the emphatic language of the Apostle John, he has felt his immortality—“God in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15). For that moment, infinitude was to him not a name, but a reality. He entered into the infinity of time and space, not measured by days, months, or years, but boundless and eternal.
• A third trace of this infinitude in man’s nature we find in the power he possesses of selflessness or self-sacrifice. In this, perhaps more than in anything else, man may claim kindred with God. Nor is this power confined to the best of mankind, but is possessed, to some extent at least, by all. There is no man, however low, who has not one or two causes or secrets that no earthly consideration would induce him to betray. There is no man who does not feel toward one or two at least, in this world, a devotion that no bribe could shake. We have heard of the criminal who, when sentence of death was passed, turned to his acquitted accomplice and exclaimed, “Thank God, you are saved!” The savage, whose life has been one unbroken series of cruelty and crime, will endure a slow, lingering, torturing death rather than betray his people. Now, what shall we say to these things? Do they not tell of an indestructible something in the nature of man that is of divine origin? the remains of a majesty that, though sullied, is not entirely lost?
Before passing on, let us observe that if it were not for this conviction of the divine origin, and consequent perfectibility of our nature, the very thought of God would be painful to us. God is so great, so glorious that the mind is overwhelmed by, and shrinks from, the contemplation of His excellence, unless there comes the tender, ennobling thought that we are the children of God, who are to become like our Father in heaven ….
THE CHRISTIAN MOTIVE: RIGHTEOUSNESS
The Christian motive is to “be holy as He is holy” (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:15, 16). To “be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Worldly prudence, miscalled morality, says, “Be honest; you will find your gain in being so. Do right; you will be the better for it—even in this world you will not lose by it.” The mistaken religionist only magnifies this on a grand scale. “Your duty,” he says, “is to save your soul. Give up this world to have the next. Lose here, that you may gain hereafter.” Now, this is but prudence, after all—magnified selfishness, carried on into eternity—none the more noble for being eternal selfishness.
In opposition to all such self-serving sentiments the gospel says, “Be perfect.” Why? Because “your Father in heaven is perfect.” Do right, because it is Godlike, not because you will gain by it. Not that the gospel ignores the personal results of doing right, but blessedness is not the motive. The gospel says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:5-7). But when compensation is our motive—when we become meek that we may inherit—then the promise will not come. If we are merciful merely to obtain mercy, we shall not have the indwelling love of God that is the result and token of His forgiveness.
True, in the prosecution of the great work of redemption, Jesus had “respect to the recompense of reward” (Hebrews 11:26). True, He was conscious—how could He not be conscious—that when His work was completed, He would be “glorified with that glory which He had with the Father before the world began” (John 17:5); but this was not His motive. And that man has a mistaken idea of the character of the Redeemer, and understands little of His spirit, who has so mean an opinion of Him as to suppose that it was any consideration of personal happiness and blessedness that led the Son of God to die. “For this end was He born, and for this end came He into the world to bear witness to the truth” (18:37) and “to finish the work that was given Him to do” (17:4).
If we were asked, “Can you select one text in which more than in any other this unselfish, disinterested feature comes forth?” it would be this: “Love your enemies, do good and lend, hoping for nothing again” (Luke 6:35). This is the true spirit of Christianity—doing right disinterestedly, not from the hope of personal advantage or reward, either temporal or spiritual, but entirely forgetting self, “hoping for nothing again.”
When that philanthropist [Wilberforce], whose whole life had been spent in procuring the abolition of the slave-trade, was asked by some systematic theologian, if in his ardor in this great cause he had not been neglecting his personal prospects and endangering his own soul, this was his magnanimous reply, “I did not think about my own soul. I had no time to think about myself.”
The Christian is not concerned about his own happiness; he has no time to consider himself; he has no time for that selfish question that the disciples put to their Lord when they were but half-baptized with His spirit, “Lo, we have left all and followed You, what shall we have therefore?” (Matthew 19:27).
Two things are to be learned from this passage.
• Happiness is not our end and aim. It has been said, and has since been repeated as frequently as if it were an indisputable axiom, that “happiness is our being’s end and aim.” Happiness is not man’s end and aim. The Christian’s aim is perfection, not happiness, and every son of God must have something of the spirit that marked the Master: that holy sadness, that peculiar unrest, that high and lofty melancholy that belongs to a spirit that strives for the heights.
On this earth there can be no rest for man. By rest we mean the attainment of a state beyond which there can be no change. Politically, morally, spiritually, there can be no rest for man here. In one country alone has that system been fully carried out that, conservative of the past, excludes all desire of progress and improvement for the future: but it is not to China that we should look for the perfection of human society. There is one ecclesiastical system that carries out the same spirit, looking rather to the Church of the past than to the Church of the future; but it is not in Rome that we shall find the model of a Christian Church. In Paradise it may have been right to be at rest, to desire no change; but ever since the Fall, every system that tends to check the onward progress of mankind is fatally, radically, curelessly wrong. The motto on every Christian banner is “Forward.” There is no resting in the present, no satisfaction in the past.
• It is impossible to obtain the satisfaction of a good conscience. Some men write and speak as if the difference between the Christian and the worldly man is that in one conscience is a self-reproaching hell and in the other a self-congratulating heaven. Is this so? Think you that the Christian goes home at night counting up the noble deeds done during the day, saying to himself, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21)?
The habit of looking forward to the future prevents all pride and self-righteousness and makes our best and only rest and satisfaction contemplating the road that is bringing us nearer and nearer home. Our motto, therefore, must be that striking one of the Apostle Paul, “Forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth to those things that are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13).
“If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 12. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.