September 1, 2023
In this interview about his book The Christian Manifesto, Alistair Begg considers the challenge presented to us in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain and its relevance two thousand years later. The Lord’s teachings on forgiveness, possessions, obedience, and more speak to and make demands on believers from every background. But as we remember the compassionate character of our Lord and put our trust in Him, we can learn to live the life He’s called us to with perseverance and humility.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Bob Lepine: I want to start by asking you about the title of the book, because I don’t think of you as a provocateur, and yet here we are in the middle of conversations about things like Christian nationalism, and Alistair Begg writes a book called The Christian Manifesto. You want to explain yourself here?
Alistair Begg: Yeah, I think that’s the title we thought about for those very reasons and decided that the risk was worth the potential benefit, just in the sense that, you know, people are used to setting out their declarations, their statements regarding their company policy or their school agenda or whatever it might be. And so what we’re really saying in this is that if you listen to the King talk about his kingdom, what are the principles and values that are there? And so, Jesus in a couple of places we might say—the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain—actually sets out these principles. So that’s what it’s about. But it’s not… I think, you know, the provocative aspect of it hopefully will make people say, “Well, wait a minute. What do you mean a ‘manifesto’?” And then they’ll read it, rather than “Oh dear, I don’t want to hear a manifesto,” and they’ll neglect it. Time will tell.
Bob: You mention both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. There’s overlap between what we see in Matthew’s Gospel and what’s in Luke’s Gospel. This is really the heart of what Jesus is telling his disciples that life is supposed to be all about, right?
Alistair: Yes. I think it’s pretty clear that there are two separate occasions, for sure, but that the overlap between the material is exactly what we would expect when two of Jesus’ followers were giving to their readers in their Gospel the sort of highlights of the overarching teaching of the King—a bit like in newspaper articles: somebody highlights one piece, but when you read both of them, you realize that they are fitting in with one another.
Bob: Yeah. And as we think about this, I’m thinking back to the first sermon I ever preached, when I was in my twenties, which was on the Beatitudes. And I have to tell you, I’m embarrassed to go back and listen to it, because I was reading commentaries that were telling me that this was about the future, about the millennial kingdom—that these principles would be lived in the future, and maybe it wasn’t for today. I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’re supposed to read the Sermon on the Plain and apply it in our day, don’t you think?
Alistair: Oh, I think for sure. We can all be grateful for the fact that Martyn Lloyd-Jones eventually, you know, gave to us the Beatitudes and helped us navigate our way through that. He did that a long time ago. And of course, the work that John Stott did in the countercultural essence of Christian living I found very helpful as a young man. And yeah, no, I think it’s vitally important.
I think the other side, of course, is that the real danger in it is that we see this as just a sort of form of moralism (“Pull up your socks and try and be a decent person. If you’ll do this, then maybe Jesus will let you into his kingdom”) as opposed to what is actually being conveyed by Jesus (“Here are the evidences. Here are the marks of kingdom living. Here is the impact that comes when an individual or community bow their knee to me and trust entirely in who I am and what I’ve done”)—that the outflow is from there, so that it’s working from in to out.
Bob: And I think it’s easy for any of us to read Luke chapter 6 and go, “Wait a second, I can’t do this. I mean, love my enemies and think different… This is unnatural and feels impossible.” And I think that’s part of the point, isn’t it? That Jesus is trying to say, “You can’t do this.”
Alistair: Well, yes, I think… Well, I think, you know, it’s interesting that you phrase it in that way, because part of the problem is that the sort of moral framework of Christianity with a big C is such that people do read this and say, “Oh, yes, I definitely can do this.” And they might not make a very good job of it, but they’re trying their best to be these people. And I think that when we read the material carefully, we realize exactly what you’re saying: that Jesus is pointing out to us that this is an impossibility apart from the work of grace within our lives.
Bob: And we also need to keep in mind—and you point this out beautifully in the book—that this is not what we do to enter into the kingdom; this is what we do because we are citizens of the kingdom.
Alistair: Yes. And so, to read it… I must be honest, Bob. You know, I scan-read this book in preparation for this conversation. And I was immediately thinking of the passage where Paul says, “I don’t box in the air,” you know. “I don’t shadowbox, but I beat my body.” And to read this book is to give yourself a pretty good punch on the nose. Because immediately we want to jump to the conclusion that “Oh, yes, it’s very clear that these are the evidences of real kingdom living,” and yet we’re confronted by the fact that, you know, if we look on the last week, we haven’t just been exemplary people in relationship to these things. And so the wonderful thing about it is that it casts us back again and again on the Lord , but not to use that as an excuse for the potential disobedience of our own hearts.
Bob: I find great comfort that Paul said, “There are things I hate I end up doing, and there are ways I fall short.” And so as I read the Sermon on the Plain, as I read your book, I think, “Well, it does pull me up short over and over again, but that’s where I come back and rebelieve the gospel and find my hope there.”
Alistair: Absolutely. I think the thing that underpins this… And it’s a short book, I think, with a big punch—more of a punch than I actually realized. And if at this point in history, at this point in our history in America, with an increasingly divided country on all kinds of fronts, if the people of God, if we the people of God, are prepared to actually take these things seriously and endeavor at great cost to ourselves and perhaps to our reputation and perhaps to our own agendas and strategies and everything else—be prepared to let the world in to see the embryonic nature of this kingdom, that… Part of the problem is that… And I say this in the book; I say, you know, this idea of a forgiving spirit or loving your enemy or whatever it might be: Does the average person in our community say, “Well, if I want to know about that, I should go to such and such a church”? Or do university or college students say, “Oh, yeah, those are the people. Those are the kingdom people. Those are the Jesus people”—that they understand that? And to our shame, I don’t think that would necessarily be the immediate response. And so the opportunity that is before us now is for a phenomenal adventure: to actually take this material… I mean, I just imagine to myself reading this out loud in our congregation. I mean, I preached it many, many years ago. But I think it’s even more daunting than it was back in the late ’90s.
Bob: I think about principles in the Sermon on the Plain, like the teaching of Jesus that we are to love our enemy. And I think of, today, modern social media. I wonder how many Christians are taking a command to love your enemy and, as they write out their latest tweet or post their latest post on Facebook, are thinking, “Well, I need to be loving my enemy.” It seems we’ve lost sight of some of these commands of Jesus.
Alistair: Yeah, and they’re so fundamental. That’s the striking thing. I mean, this is not, like, a postgraduate course. This is Christianity 101. I mean, this is foundational—the nature of forgiveness, the amazing reality of mercy. And, you know, the trouble is that we read these parables, I read these parables, and, you know, I want to be the younger brother that comes back, you know, on my knees. And I look at it, and I say, “I—horribly—think I might be the elder brother here.” I want to be the guy who beat his breast and said, “[Lord], be merciful to me, a sinner,” but I see myself more forcibly in these guys who said, “Well, I don’t do this, and I don’t do that, and I do this, and I do that.” And therefore, I’ve been able to scale myself. That’s the challenge of it. That’s the challenge that Jesus was laying down, of course.
Bob: Forgiveness is one of the key themes in the Sermon on the Plain. And you and I both, as we talk to people in pastoral ministry, find a lot of people struggling with this issue of forgiveness—in part, I think, because they don’t rightly understand what it means to forgive someone. Forgiveness, though, is a command. It’s not an option for a Christian, is it?
Alistair: Right. The way in which it is framed, of course, is that our merciful response to people, reaction to people, is on account of the groundswell reality of realizing how merciful God has been to us. And, you know, when we say the Lord’s Prayer, you know, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—so hard to say that, because you’ve got the “trespasses” or “debtors,” whatever—but anyway, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And, you know, it’s only as I realize the immensity of God’s forgiveness towards me that I realize that I don’t really have an option here in terms of forgiveness. To forgive a person doesn’t mean that we condone what they’ve done or that we are just simply saying it doesn’t matter. No, we don’t condone it, and it does matter. If it wasn’t wrong, there would be no need for forgiveness. But to forgive in that way is a supernatural thing, in the same way that at the other side of the coin, to love in the way that Jesus calls us to love is also a supernatural reality.
Bob: As you’re sitting with someone who is struggling with forgiveness—they’ve been profoundly hurt or scarred by someone—and they say, “I just can’t forgive this person,” what’s your pastoral counsel to them in that moment?
Alistair: Well, funnily enough, I was with somebody just last week. They came through our building. They were traveling. And in casual conversation, we were just bantering things around. And then eventually the gentleman said to me, “Would it be okay if you and I just talked for a moment?” And as we talked, he told me that he’s been harboring all of his life a sense of anger towards one of his parents. He had reached a point, he said, where he has now been able to look on that parent with a sense of compassion. But he said… And then he burst into tears! This is a man in his sixties. He said, “But I just can’t say, ‘I forgive you.’ Can you help me to do that?” And so I said, “Well, I’ll try.” But that is the reality of it.
And it’s not immediately helpful, I think, to say to somebody, “Well, I’m not sure ‘can’t’ is right. I think perhaps ‘won’t’ is right. Because it is by an act of the will, and sometimes our hearts need to catch up with our heads, need to catch up with our words.” And so I encouraged him. And we prayed together. And he said, “This has been a burden shared and a burden halved.”
Bob: Let me ask you about Jesus’ teaching about money and possessions, which is a part of what’s in the Sermon on the Plain—which, again, seems countercultural to the consumerism and the materialism that is so prevalent in our own culture.
Alistair: Yeah, it is such a challenge. I mean, that’s what I say. When I read through this again… You know, I don’t know about you, Bob, but I don’t relisten to my own sermons. I mean, Spurgeon said, “Keep your old sermons to weep over.” And I can understand that. But as I read this material again, I was struck by the immensity of the challenge: that the things that we lay store by are not the things that Jesus lays store by. And we have, if you like, been tempted, at least in Western civilization, to baptize into orthodoxy a sense of well-being, a sense of position, and a sense of being relatively settled. But as I say in the book, you know, in terms of being rich, you know, most of us would fit, in the scheme of the entire world, in the “one percent” of those in the entire world. Therefore, it’s not as if I can sidestep it and say, “Well, I know a few people who are rich that need to hear this.” No, I need to hear this as well. Because the temptation is to find our security in something other than God himself. And Jesus is saying, “There’s no lasting joy that is found in that.” And, of course, we know that. But then it’s so easy to slip back into that and to be confronted by the challenge of the manifesto of the King. He says, “No. You’ve got it upside down if you go there. My world turns it upside down.” And that’s the challenge.
Bob: Is there anything that helps you rethink your relationship with money and possessions? As you read the words of Jesus, how do you get free from the bondage that can come from materialism?
Alistair: Well, I think, first of all, just being alerted to it is one thing, and not trying to sidestep the warning bell, saying, “Yeah, well, that’s very good for someone, but it doesn’t matter to me”—first of all, being prepared to allow the thing to scan our own hearts. And then, I think generosity with what we have is a tremendous help to recognizing that what we have was entrusted to us on loan, and it’s not ours to keep in any case. And, you know, I say that as a Scot. You know, we’re known, along with the Dutch and a few others, for a sense of frugality and for, you know, holding everything to ourselves. It’s a real journey for me to discover that generosity with the provision that God has made is a wonderfully satisfying reality. And also, when you do that, when you disburse what you have, then you have less left, and therefore, you are left to trust God, I suppose, more. ’Cause you’re saying, “I don’t need this for my security. I need you as my security.”
Bob: Luke chapter 6 and the Sermon on the Plain does not feel to me like a passage you go to for comfort. It feels like a passage you go to to be challenged in your faith. And I think a lot of us open our Bibles looking for comfort rather than exhortation or challenge. Is there comfort, do you think, found in reading through the Sermon on the Plain?
Alistair: Well, I think you’re right, Bob. I mean, I think the initial impact of it is either to skip over it quickly or to run and hide, or to say, “This must have meant something very significant in Jesus’ day, but of course, you know, we’re postmodern people, and we view things differently”—which, of course, is then just to be those who read the Word but don’t pay any attention to it at all. The joy that is found in it is the joy of bowing down to the King, is acknowledging that his way is actually perfect, that his plans are the perfect plans, and although they turn our lives upside down, so that the idea of…
It’s not that we go out to say, “I’ve got to find as many people as possible that can hate me, because then I would really be getting to grips with this, so that…” Because some of us can make people dislike us, you know, with just the blink of an eye. So it’s important that we set the impact of individual statements that are often unearthed from the sermon within the context of the totality of what Jesus is saying: that this is not everything about the Christian life; this is not everything about what it means to bow beneath the King. And so we need to make sure that in taking this particular address, we set it within the wider framework of the entirety of Christ’s ministry.
Bob: Well, in thinking again about the title, The Christian Manifesto, I’m thinking if somehow our world was shaped by this teaching, what a glorious reality that would be. If we lived this way—if we all lived this way—that’s what God intends for us.
Alistair: Yeah, exactly. I mean, you and I both are children of the ’60s, one way or another. And, you know, Woodstock, whatever it was and with all of its excesses and crazinesses aside, it was a genuine cry by that generation to discover what it meant to truly love. It was, as one journalist described it, the search for the nation’s soul. And, you know, it came up short. The challenge of dealing with wars amongst the nations has been addressed by establishing the United Nations, but anybody with half a brain realizes that whatever is going on there in Brussels, or whatever it might be, it can’t settle the deep-seated animosities of people and the cries of the human heart.
And so, that is why the idea of, you know—one day this thing will be there in glorious Technicolor. That’s the picture in Revelation: that there will be this gathering of the people. But in the meantime, somehow or another, local churches have got to figure out a way to open up their hearts and open up their doors, to let people come in, and understand that in our vulnerabilities and in our brokenness, we are subjects of a King, he is a merciful King, he tells the truth, he doesn’t dodge the issues, and he died in order that we might learn to die to ourselves as well.
And it is in dying to ourselves—instead of making apologies for things that happened two hundred and fifty years ago or five hundred years ago, which is, you know… It’s kind of, like, very trendy, you know, that I could apologize for things I never did to people that I never met. Forget that for the moment. How about we just apologize for the things or ask for forgiveness for the things that we have done to the people that we have met? And then perhaps people will say, “Well, wait a minute. I think we ought to give this a look. It’s not about this. It’s not about that. It’s about Jesus. It’s about… He’s a King. Apparently, he has decided that his followers will live in a certain way by the enabling of the Spirit. These people over there are apparently trying it. Why don’t we go check it out?”
Bob: You have, in recent months, been taking the Parkside congregation through Romans chapter 1 and Psalm 139 and Jude, which all point to how out of sync our culture is with God’s Word, God’s expectations. It feels like the Sermon on the Plain in Luke chapter 6 is pointing us back inward and saying, “It’s not just culture that is out of sync with God’s demands, but our own lives are out of sync. And that’s again why we need the Gospel—for forgiveness and for transformation.”
Alistair: Yeah, that’s good, Bob. I wish I’d thought of that.
You know, yeah, I think one of the salvations for me in trying to tackle Jude—and being tackled by Jude—is the fact that he doesn’t name anybody. He doesn’t call anybody out. I mean, he gives us an Identi-Kit picture of the characteristics of people that will cause trouble and chaos if they’re allowed to embed themselves. So there is… Despite his very forceful approach, it’s, if you like, an iron fist in a kid glove. And there is something in that, I think: that we need to be prepared to identify what he’s calling us to see while at the same time recognizing that every finger that points out has a number that point back towards us.
And the Sermon on the Plain, you know… You know, we all know the thing about the plank and the twig, you know. But we’re horrible at finding twigs in people’s eyes. And, you know, I think there’s a sort of humorous treatment of that in the book where, you know, we have this idea that we have a huge beam that is projected from our foreheads, and we’re trying to talk to somebody about something that they have in their eye, and they say, you know, “Could you back up a little bit, please?” And I say, “Well, why do I need to back up?” They say, “Well, you got that huge thing sticking out of your head.” “Oh no I don’t! No, I don’t!” They say, “Yeah, you do.” And yet we’re masters at that. And churches are horrible for that, you know: self-righteousness, self-pity—self. Self. And that’s why we need to bow down before the King. That’s why he gives us the sermon.
Bob: And I think it’s not unimportant for us to be looking and saying, “This is what is wrong in our world, and this is how the gospel would fix that.” But if we neglect “This is what is wrong in my own heart, and this is what needs to be addressed there,” then we drift into the self-righteousness that you’re talking about.
I want to ask you about the last chapter in the book. Because after all of the challenging teaching of the Sermon on the Plain, you conclude the book by talking about “the heart of the King.” Why is that so important as we work our way through this material?
Alistair: Well, just in the same way that when we listen to somebody giving a talk, there is a person there. There is a life there. We hear these words, and we respond to them not simply because we can understand the syntax but because we sense something of the person, at least at best. And so, when we read the words of Jesus, we need to realize that these are Jesus’ words. He is the Christ who has spoken clearly. He is the Christ who has compassion on people. He’s the Christ who gives up himself in order that others might find in him the longings of their hearts. And that’s why we finish in the way that we do: so that we don’t get the creed, as it were, distanced from the compassionate heart of Christ himself.
Bob: I think every pastor who preaches, every author who writes a book like this, comes away thinking, “I hope my readers or my listeners will think differently as a result of their interaction with this, will feel differently and will act differently. As you think about this book and your prayer for this book, what do you hope will be different? How do you hope people will be different after they have read this book and they’ve meditated on this sermon?
Alistair: Well, first of all, you know, I hope that I will be different. The old song that we never sing—you know, “It’s not my brother nor my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer”—I mean, that is foundationally the case. And so I hope that that would be multiplied. I hope that our church family, those who choose to read this book, that it might have an impact among us. Because learning to say, “I’m sorry,” learning to say, “Please forgive me,” learning to say, you know, “I’m not at my best at the moment; can you come alongside me?” learning to say, “Yes, I know that these people believe a very different agenda, that their lifestyle is orientated in another direction,” and learning to say, “But I have no basis upon which I could argue that I myself would not be where they are were it not for the amazing grace of God, were it not for his compassion towards me.”
And in very specific areas this comes across. I mean, you and I know that we field questions all the time that go along the lines of “My grandson is about to be married to a transgender person, and I don’t know what to do about this, and I’m calling to ask you to tell me what to do”—which is a huge responsibility.
And in a conversation like that just a few days ago—and people may not like this answer—but I asked the grandmother, “Does your grandson understand your belief in Jesus?”
“Does your grandson understand that your belief in Jesus makes it such that you can’t countenance in any affirming way the choices that he has made in life?”
I said, “Well then, okay. As long as he knows that, then I suggest that you do go to the ceremony. And I suggest that you buy them a gift.”
“Oh,” she said, “what?” She was caught off guard.
I said, “Well, here’s the thing: your love for them may catch them off guard, but your absence will simply reinforce the fact that they said, ‘These people are what I always thought: judgmental, critical, unprepared to countenance anything.’”
And it is a fine line, isn’t it? It really is. And people need to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. But I think we’re going to take that risk. We’re going to have to take that risk a lot more if we want to build bridges into the hearts and lives of those who don’t understand Jesus and don’t understand that he is a King.
Bob: John tells us he was “full of grace and truth,” and we have to figure out how we can be full of grace and truth at the same time, don’t we?
Alistair: Yeah. Yeah, our words should be “full of grace” and “seasoned with salt.”
Alistair: It’s so easy to get that upside down. And when a pastor does, then that will take on a role in a congregation as well and flavor it. And so, you know, “Let not many of you become teachers.”
 See Luke 6:27.
 1 Corinthians 9:26–27 (paraphrased).
 Romans 7:15 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 15:11–32.
 Luke 18:13 (ESV).
 Luke 18:11–12 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 6:12 (KJV).
 See James 1:22–24.
 See Revelation 7:9–10.
 See Matthew 7:1–5; Luke 6:39–42.
 See Philippians 2:12.
 John 1:14 (ESV).
 Colossians 4:6 (NIV).
 James 3:1 (RSV).