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The Golden Rule

From Series: A Christian Manifesto

Luke 6:31-35 (ID: 2108)

The Golden Rule tells us to “do unto others” as we would have them do unto us. The Bible, however, disabuses us of the belief that we can fulfill this command in our own strength. As believers, we shouldn’t show love only to those who are like us, nor should we give only to those who can reciprocate. Instead, Alistair Begg teaches, God directs us to love our enemies and give to those who offer nothing in return.


Sermon Transcript:

Can I invite you, then, to turn to the sixth chapter of Luke’s gospel, where we resume our studies this morning at the thirty-first verse? And when you reach the thirty-first verse, you will notice that we find ourselves at one of the most frequently quoted—and misquoted—statements in the whole of the Bible.

Here in the thirty-first verse of Luke 6, we have what is referred to as the “Golden Rule.” It is a statement that has been hijacked by all kinds of people and pressed into service, often without any real understanding or consideration of its context and/or its meaning. And therefore, since it is so frequently used, and since it is in disrepute in terms of the way in which it is employed, it is important for us to understand it in light of what Jesus is saying in the surrounding context. And so, we’re going to begin by looking together at this rule. And then we will look at the question that Jesus asks between 32 and 34, and then we will consider the action that Jesus demands, and then finally, we will consider the reward that Jesus promises. So if you want to trace a line through our study and these pegs are helpful to you, as they are to me, then it simply goes: rule, question, action, reward—rule, question, action, reward.

The Rule

First of all, then, let us consider this matter of the Golden Rule.

Jesus makes it clear that the children of God are to be initiative takers in the matter of love.

Prior to the time of Jesus, this rule had been pronounced, but only in a negative form. When you read it in the Old Testament—for example, in the book of Leviticus—it is essentially something along these lines: “What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to them.”[1] In the Hillel it actually reads as follows: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”[2] So it’s stated in the negative fashion. Jesus takes it and states it positively. And that, actually, is the first thing that I want you to notice: that when we consider this rule, we need to understand it as it has been given to us in this positive fashion. Jesus is making it clear that it is not simply enough for us to be passive or to be refraining from recrimination; the children of God are to be those who are initiative takers in this matter of love .

Now, the rule is not uniquely found in the New Testament, as you will know. In one form or another, it pops up all over the place. You can find it in the writings of Plato,[3] and of Aristotle,[4] of Seneca[5]; you can even find it in the writings of Confucius.[6] But in every other instance, it is absent the framework which is essential if we are to be able first to understand it, and to apply it properly.

Now, in order that we might do so, I need to make clear to you that the antithesis to which some of us are perhaps prone, and which others of us delight to espouse, is false. “What antithesis is that?” you say. This one: the idea that when we read the Old Testament, we have all of these negative commands, and when we come to the New Testament, Jesus sets aside “all that negative stuff,” as we hear people say, and he replaces it with a positive statement that is far more palatable and doable, apparently, and he replaces it with the law of love, or with the Golden Rule. And so you will find people saying, “Well, you know, I am not really into any of the Old Testament negativity; I am into the New Testament positive dimension as described here in Luke 6:31.” It is a false dichotomy—because Jesus himself makes clear that these negative prohibitions of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the working out of this positive statement. For example, you take them as they come to mind: “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not kill,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet.”[7] All of that is summed up in this one positive dimension: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”[8]

Now, Paul actually uses the very terminology in Romans 13, where he is talking about our responsibilities within the framework of our citizenship, and he’s talking about indebtedness and not allowing debts to be outstanding, and he is talking about the love for one another that fulfills the law, and then he actually uses the terminology: “The commandments,” he says, “‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be”—which is an interesting catch-all phrase, isn’t it? As if he didn’t know the rest of the Commandments, or after he had gone through four, he ran out of the other six, “whatever other commandment there may be”—which clearly he didn’t; he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees—they’re all “summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”[9] And then he adds, interestingly, “And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber.”[10] He’s writing to these Roman Christians, and he says, “Now listen, fellas, it’s really time that you gave yourselves a shake and you wakened up to this. I’ve been teaching you all of this doctrine, and I’ve laid it down as fundamental: ‘Here are these foundational elements of Christianity.’ And now,” he says, “I’ve moved from these doctrinal indicatives to the moral imperatives. And the moral imperatives, which I now confront you with, are grounded in all that I have laid down before. And I want you,” he says quite kindly, “to waken up and make sure that you are loving your neighbor as yourself.”

So in other words, we need to understand the rule not only positively, but we need to understand it precisely. We need to see what it doesn’t say, as well as what it does say. And it does not say, “Treat others as they treat you.”

Now, you’re gonna need to look down, if your Bible is open, to check whether that’s accurate or not. If you sit and listen to me teach the Bible without your Bible open, you do yourself a disservice, because I’m saying things that you need to verify. ’Cause I’m not infallible. And therefore, you can catch me out from time to time, provided your Bibles are open. But I could stand up here and tell you that the Golden Rule says, “Treat others as they treat you,” and you may be tempted to say, “You know, I think that’s exactly right, because that’s what I hear people saying in the market; that’s what I hear people saying in my office. They say, ‘You know, somebody does this to you, you do that to them. You just treat them the way they treat you.’” And that’s not what it says. Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Don’t treat them the way they treat you. That gives you a mandate for all kinds of behavior! Treat them in the way in which you would like to be treated by them. The followers of Jesus are to be distinctive in this regard.

Now, as you think about it in terms of precision, it is also important to make sure that we do not view this statement here in verse 31 as simply a requirement which an individual is able to fulfill in their own strength. Now, this may not be immediately obvious to you, and I need to ask you to try and think it through with me. We should not regard this “Golden Rule,” so-called, as a requirement which men and women, by virtue of who we are and what we are, are able to fulfill this in our own strength. That is what people customarily believe: they think that you come to church, and “You can pretty well summarize it and give it to me in a sentence,” they say, and if there is to be a sentence, then it is going to be “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” And they say to themselves, “That is excellent. Now I’m going to go out and have a very good try at that.” And religious people are doing it all the time; and you may have come here because you’ve decided to turn over a new leaf, and you’ve decided to “get back into religion,” and you’re looking for somebody to summarize it for you as helpfully and concisely as possible so that you may go out and simply do it.

What Jesus calls for here is not the natural response of natural men and women; it is the supernatural response of ordinary men and women.

Let me tell you: you cannot do it. You can make an attempt at it, but you cannot achieve it. Because what Jesus calls for here is not the natural response of natural men and women; it is the supernatural response of ordinary men and women . How, then, can I, who by nature am merely natural, respond in a supernatural way? Answer: I cannot—unless, of course, I should be introduced to the power of God in the person of Christ, and that that power may come and live within me so that his love may flow from me.

Now, if I may quote John Lennon—which I haven’t done for a while, and feel a quote coming on—maybe I can make this clear. You take the song from way back, “We Can Work It Out.” You know, “Think of what I’m saying, only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong. Do I have to keep on talking ’til I can’t go on? Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.”[11] “I mean let’s just be honest: there’s no time for all this fussing and fighting,” he says to his wife, or to his business colleague, or to his member of the sports team, or to his doubles partner in tennis, whatever else it is; he says, “You know, there’s really no time for fussing and fighting. But we can work it out. So let’s just work it out.” And that’s what men and women are saying all the time: “You know, we can work this out.” And they can’t. Lennon couldn’t and didn’t. And nor can you or I.

So, you see, that’s why religion as an external code of practice presented to well-meaning religious people Sunday after Sunday after Sunday is the most dreadful tyranny. Because the pastor then stands and says, “Now go out and love your enemies.” And the people, wanting to be jolly good people, say, “You know, I think I’ll go out and have a good try at that.” And they go out, and they have a miserable week. And they come back and say, “You know, I never tried hard enough.” And furthermore, they think that by doing that they actually make themselves the sons of the Most High God: “So if I do this, I will become your son.” It’s the absolute reverse, as we’ll see when we conclude: “Until I become his son or his daughter, I cannot do this.”

You cannot bear the family likeness until you become a member of the family. And how do I become a member of the family? As a result of God’s goodness and grace.

You cannot bear the family likeness until you become a member of the family. And how do I become a member of the family? As a result of God’s goodness and grace  to me in the person of his Son as he comes to confront me with my inability, to make me distinctly uncomfortable, in order that I might know what it is, when my heart accuses me, to have the peace of God in my heart. It will only be as God works it in that “we can work it out.” That’s Philippians 2:12–13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God [who works within] you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

Also, we need to understand that it is wrong for us—thinking still in terms of the precision of the application of this rule—it is wrong for us to think of separating the rule of love for man from the commandment of love for God. Now, this is abroad all the time; indeed, for part of your homework, do this: for the next seven days, listen for how many times you hear the Golden Rule in some of its forms. You will hear people saying this to you, you know: “Well, all that really matters is that, you know, we love our fellow man, isn’t it?” And it’s so often the kind of concluding statement, when you’ve been having a serious conversation over a cup of coffee, and you’ve been trying to argue for the defense of the New Testament documents and the reality of Jesus in a pluralistic world and so on, and you think you’ve been making great gains, and eventually the person says, “Well, I’ll see you next Thursday, and by the way, all that really matters is that we love our fellow man.” And you say … and you say—nothing! And then five minutes later in your car, you go, “Oh, I thought of something to say now!” Too late! They’re gone. And they left you dumbfounded before the Golden Rule.

Now, you see, that’s why we’re studying it, so that next time we may at least be able to say something remotely helpful. The Golden Rule is not a form of “For he’s a jolly good fellow”—you know, that kind of thing—that Christianity is about becoming a jolly good fellow; that there is not a jollier fellow who ever walked the streets of earth than Jesus of Nazareth, he was a jolly fellow, and if you jolly well try your hardest, you can be a jolly fellow, too, because after all, isn’t that what he said? “Be a jolly nice person.” No, that’s not what he said! He did not distinguish—separate—love from God for love from our fellow man.

Now, if you doubt this, you only need to go forward a couple of pages to chapter 10 and to verse 25, and the story of the young man who is the testing agent here. Actually, we don’t know the age of the young man, but he was “an expert in the law.”[12] (Probably a young man; the older you get, the less of an “expert” you become, I hope. Most older people don’t think they’re quite as expert as they used to think when they were in their twenties. That’s a sign of not the onset of some senile dementia; that’s the onset of humility which comes with time.) But anyway, he stood up to test Jesus. (That’s why most of us are hoping we might grow a little older before we die: so that we might learn that humility.) But anyway, he stood up to test Jesus, and he said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “What’s written in the law?” and he replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “That’s absolutely right.”[13] The point I’m making is simply this: the guy did not stand up and say, “The summation of the law is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself; be a jolly good fellow.’” No. He said, “You love God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The commandment to love God is never separated from the commandment to love our fellow man.

You see, humanism is very, very happy with “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So is Confucianism, so is Buddhism, so is everybody else. Every person that is remotely interested in ecology or any kind of New Age nonsense is quite happy with, “You know, love your neighbor as yourself.” Where they get off the boat is when it says, “You will love the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength.” And the commandment to love God is never separated from the commandment to love our fellow man.  

Well, I’ve spent more than enough time on that. I think the rule, then, is to be understood positively, and it needs to be understood precisely; otherwise we will fall foul of a lot of these clichés which are so easily baptized into orthodoxy.

The Question

We need also to understand this rule practically, which of course brings us now to the verses that follow—because Jesus begins to explicate the significance of verse 31 by the question which comes in verse 32, 33, and 34. I think you would agree that this is an important question, because Jesus asks it three times, and his question is, “What credit is that to you?”—“What credit is that to you?”[14]

Now, if you simply allow your eyes to scan 32 to 34, you read it through just very briefly, then perhaps you will agree with me that Jesus is making clear one essential fact—namely, that the test of real love is that it should be unselfish; that it is a love which is not focused upon reward, a love that is not driven by the anticipation of being paid back. If you just read what he’s saying there, I think if you’re honest, you will agree that is exactly what he’s saying. “The love of which I’m speaking,” says Jesus, “is not driven by these things with which we are most familiar.” Which then, of course, allows him to say, on the strength of the reciprocal relationships which are so much a part of the fabric of the society that he addresses, “If we love only in return for love received, why would that ever be worthy of recognition?”[15] If someone’s very loving to us, and we love them back—what, do you want to drive around with a bumper sticker on the back of your minivan on the strength of that? You know, “I am an honors student in the School of Love. I love those who love me.” Jesus says, “Big deal. What credit is that to you?” Or, if we do good only to those who do good to us, how would that distinguish us from the practice of anybody else around us? That’s fairly common fare. And if we operate financially on the basis of “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” then we’re actually no different at all from the culture in which we’re living.

Now, think this out. Jesus is calling for a radical lifestyle that is dramatically different from the framework of the surrounding culture, both in his day and in our day. “What credit is that to you?” he says. “I mean, do you really think that you can put your head on the pillow at night and say to myself, ‘You know, I’m so glad that I’m a member of the family of God, I’m so glad that I am a son of the Most High, because I’ve been loving those who love me, I’ve been doing good to those who do good to me, and I’ve been lending my money, provided I’m getting the right kind of percentage return on it, and at least as strong as something that I would get back from a certificate of deposit’?” One commentator puts it like this: “If those people who are now listening to this sermon do not rise above such self-centered ethics, they cannot expect God’s special favor to rest on them.”[16]

This is quite staggering, isn’t it? Do you grasp what Jesus is saying here? I wonder, do I grasp what Jesus is saying here? Listeners who love merely those who love them, who do good only to those who do good to them, and who are prepared to make loans that are safe aren’t any better than the sinners that they like to look down upon.

See, this distinction here is so classic: “What credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.”[17] And it’s interesting that “sinners” in your Bible will have two little gizmos around them—whatever those things are: “Even ‘sinners’ do that.” Even “sinners” lend to “sinners.”

Now, you’ve got to understand the way in which these people would be inclined to spit out the word “sinners.” Because religious people are always so glad that they’re not “sinners.” You go forward again to Luke chapter 18—the story to which we refer with frequency, because it is almost epigrammatic of the whole emphasis of the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector—and what was the Pharisee saying? Well, the Pharisee was saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.”[18] That was his big claim to fame: “I’m here, and I have my robes. I’m here, and I have all of my religious stuff. I have just come from a very good biblical conference, and I’ve been listening to a number of sermons, and, of course, my tithing is up to snuff, and I’ve been really fasting twice as much as anybody would be expected to fast, and I am so glad that I am not like that tax collector over there. I thank you that I’m not like her. I thank you that I’m different from him.”

Now, Jesus says, “Okay, fellas, listen to the end of the story.” He’s talking to his disciples, he says, “There’s going to be a quiz at the end of this. Now, let me finish the story: There is another guy. He shows up, and he simply says, without lifting his eyes up to heaven, ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Now,” he says, “here’s the quiz: Which of the two men went down to his house justified,” or accepted by God?[19] Now, the answer of religion is obviously and always going to be “the man who was not like the other man who was a wretched sinner.” If that had been the answer they had given, then they would have gotten it wrong. Fortunately, they got it correct; they said, “the guy who wouldn’t lift up his eyes to heaven,” and Jesus says, “You’re absolutely right.”

It’s really too bad that there is so much of the spirit of the Pharisee that rises in my heart, and I don’t know about yours; how I can take comfort in the fact that “I am not like her,” or “I didn’t do what he did,” or “I haven’t been there like them”; and as if, somehow or another, that by the sheer externalism of that, I have now advanced my cause with God and simultaneously condemned these poor souls to a dimension of life which is virtually hopeless. Jesus says, “Listen. If you’re tempted to play that game, let me tell you, if you love those who love you, if you do good to those who do good to you, if you lend only safe loans and always with the prospect of getting a buck at the end of it, then I want you to understand this: you are actually no different from the very riffraff that you are condemning. You are giving no evidence,” he says, “of the radical difference that is to mark the follower of Jesus Christ.” To listen to the words of Jesus without corresponding action is to simply show ourselves that we’re in the same class as the others.

Do you realize how crucial this is? I hope you do. Verse 49, at the end of the chapter, as Jesus finishes with yet another story: in order to distinguish very clearly between those who listen to the Word of God, which is everybody that is represented when the Word of God is conveyed—people coming, attending the same place, listening to the same talks, nodding at the same moments—and out of that group, he said, “There are people who listen to the Word of God, and they do not put it into practice. Such individuals have built their lives on a flimsy foundation, and when the storm comes, they’re going to come down like a ton of lead,” to mix metaphors. “Those who will stand are those who hear my words and put them into practice.”[20]

In other words, there is honor even among thieves. People who cheat on their income tax are still kind to one another; they find ways of covering for one another. They’re good to those who are good to them. It’s not as a result of regeneration. People are happy to have folks over to their house who like them. That is not a result of regeneration. It’s understandable; it’s understandable human behavior. And so Jesus says, “Think it out. If that,” he says to his followers, “is the extent of your love, what credit is that to you?” It’s not irrelevant. It’s not wrong, per se. It’s nice to have people over. It’s good to be able to do these things. He’s not condemning that; he’s just saying that to live at the level of the patronal ethics of the culture does not mark us out as the followers of Christ. We haven’t done anything that is creditworthy.

The Action

The only way to prove by evidence that we are no longer common sinners, says Jesus, is to love our enemies.

That brings us, then, to the action—the action. The action to which he calls us is not natural, as I said; it’s supernatural. It’s to a different dimension altogether. And the only way to prove by evidence that we are no longer common sinners, says Jesus here, is to love our enemies . Isn’t that what he’s saying in this section of the Bible?

Most of us who were brought up in the kind of environment in which we are presently finding ourselves this morning are far too quick to explain why we are Christians on the strength of various things that we did, or various events that happened in our lives—not that these events are irrelevant; we understand them as being precious. But it would be like a man, you see, who doesn’t live in faithfulness with his wife, who hasn’t been spending time with her, who hasn’t cultivated his love for her, has not been listening to her talk, has not been enjoying her intimacy, and when somebody meets him on the street and says, “You know, are you a married man?” he says, “Well, yes I am,” and he goes in his pocket and he pulls out his marriage certificate, and he says, “You know, on the sixteenth of August, 1975, I was married.” The person says, “But that was twenty-four years ago. Tell me about today.” He says, “Oh, well, we don’t live together, we don’t sleep together, we don’t talk together; we really don’t do very much together at all.” And the person says, “Well, I think that little sheet of paper you’ve got there is really quite irrelevant. Not totally—but it certainly calls in question all the affirmations.”

Now, this is supposed to be an uncomfortable challenge. It is very uncomfortable to me. And by golly, if it’s going to be uncomfortable to me, it’s gonna be uncomfortable to you. You understand the process, right? I don’t see why I should stand up here with a giant poker sticking in my back, and you all sit out there and observe it. I would like you to feel a little of it, too.

Here’s the deal: Jesus is saying that we prove ourselves to be the sons of the Most High—not exclusively, not solely, but the application here is clear—we are no longer common sinners, he says—because common sinners do good to those who do good to them, and so on—we are no longer common sinners, and the reason that people know we’re not is because of the evidence in our lives. And he summarizes verses 27 to 34 by coming back to it in verse 35 and saying, “Listen, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”

This is profoundly challenging. This is, without question, uncomfortable: “Love your enemies.” Am I the only one that has trouble with this? And when you preach on something like this, it’s like standing on a rake all of the time, every day you live your life: Bang! You stand, and something hits you on the nose. Boom! Hits you on the nose again. It’s like, “Oh, no, I don’t want to love those people. I just want to preach about loving those people, Lord. Lord, don’t make me love ’em, I just … no! I don’t want to have to do that!” And Christ says, “Listen, don’t get up there and blow smoke. This is first for you. If you don’t preach it to yourself, don’t preach it to anybody else.”

So, I park the car at Hopkins on Wednesday. As I’m getting my stuff out of my bags, trying to make one bag out of three so that I can actually carry the lousy thing, I’m aware, just out of the corner of my eye, that two people are saying goodbye to one another in a kind of passionate fashion one car away from me. And I’m thinking to myself about the marginal kiss that I gave to Sue as I was leaving, thinking, “Goodness gracious, I really lost out on this one. I missed an opportunity here.” So I try not to intrude, you know, because this is personal time. But I close the tailgate, and as I turn around, it’s two women, and their mouths are locked in a mouth-to-mouth passionate embrace. And then, oh, my computer just went absolutely haywire, with stuff like, “Man, I hate that.” “Love your enemies.” “I hate you for doing that. I hate you for doing that in public. I hate that for what that means in our culture,” and so on, and all those things: “‘Love your enemies,’ and what do you … hate you, ‘love you,’ hate, ‘love,’ bleh….”

Now, I can give you more throughout the week; that’s just one. See, what did I do? I know someone’s going to write me a note: “Well, what did you do?” Well, I’d like to tell you that I went forward and said, “Hey, you know, John 3:16 says this …” but I couldn’t find it in myself to say anything at all; I picked up my bag and I walked away, you know. A bit like the Levite when he came to the place, and he passed by on the other side. Very unlike the Samaritan, who is the classic illustration of loving, and lending, and doing good without a calculator, without the expectation of a payback.

The story of the Good Samaritan must have fastened the people on their heels more than many a story that Jesus told. I almost can’t wait to get to it: how this man set the bloodied, beaten body of this individual on his own donkey, and he brought him to an inn, and he took care of him, and the next day he took out two silver coins, and he gave them to the innkeeper, and he said, “Look after him, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”[21] Or, as I learned it in school in Scotland in the King James Version, “And whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.”[22]

What prospect was there of return from this poor piece of humanity in the Judean dust? Zero! Therefore, do you think that he did it because he was going to get something back? Do you think he did it in the hope that one day, if he was lying bloodied, somebody may do that to him? Or do you think he did it out of the love of his heart? He said, “Here is need; I must meet it. Here is a burden; I must bear it. Here is a responsibility; I must fulfill it.” That, of course, is what Jesus is saying. And he uses the Samaritan as an illustration of love for our neighbor. There was no prospect of a reciprocal agreement between this man and the Samaritan.

Now, you see, the impact of this is not only striking now, but must have been striking in Jesus’ day, because the world of Jesus’ day was well used to an ethical system, much like our own, in which behavior was predetermined by what one owes to whom or by what one expects to receive from another. And that’s the way most of us live our lives. Indeed, we’re very tempted to say that this is Christianity. And what we do is, we take the striking demands of Jesus and this absolutely supernatural dimension of unbelievable love, and we essentially reduce it to “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” And indeed, Christian churches become the very emblems of that, because they’re little holy huddles of people who like to make sure that each other is taken care of, so they do business deals with one another, and they make sure that on the strength of all of these things they’re all taking care of one another, and so they’ve got their own little closed shop that’s called evangelical Christianity. You say, “Well, is it wrong for us, then, to help one another out?” Clearly not; the Bible makes it so. But it is certainly wrong for us to help one another out at the expense of helping out those who are our enemies. It is certainly wrong for us to love our brothers if we’re unprepared to love those who are so clearly outwith the framework, who are beyond the circle of our concern. Jesus says, “I want you to act in a way that is absolutely countercultural. I want you to live your life based on an inverted order of the social world. I want you to love your enemies.” And I say to you again, this is the most uncomfortable of demands on the part of the King Jesus.

I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’s words when he was speaking about this. He says, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”[23] That’s the absolute reverse of what we say to people: “Oh, come in, it’s very comfortable here. Come in! Come in! Be comfortable. Be warm, be well fed. Be not perplexed. Be not overcome with the exposition of the Bible. Be blessed with a little blessed thought. We won’t demand anything of you. Jesus doesn’t! All he wants you to know is that he’s a jolly good fellow, and he would like you to be a jolly good fellow, too.”

Do you see how messed up we’ve got Christianity at the end of the millennium, in the Western world? People in Russia that came through the events couldn’t recognize this pale imitation of the real thing. Our friends from mainland China haven’t a clue how we came up with this. Those who have come through the barbarism of Kosovo, and the times before in Nigeria and in other parts of middle Africa, they don’t recognize this nonsense. For nonsense it is! It is not the agenda of the King. It is our agenda, and it is, frankly, unpalatable.

The word of Jesus and the way of Jesus is to be very different from the political agenda, from the harsh rhetoric and from the fiery language to which we have all become so familiar, and, unfortunately, which many of us are prepared to use with frequency. The agenda of the King is not the agenda of the Christian Coalition. The agenda of the King is not the agenda that I have been bombarded with now for sixteen years in this country, from well-meaning people concerned about the demise of the political structures—a concern which I share. No, the only force that can make an enemy into a friend, and a criminal into a saint, and a biological father into a real parent, is this agenda. And, says Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas in their most helpful and striking book, Blinded by Might, which is just out by Zondervan, “It makes the most ambitious political agenda we can possibly imagine look trivial by comparison.”[24]

See, the political agenda is way too easy, ’cause you can throw money at it, you can throw rhetoric at it, you can throw your spleen at it, you can throw fiery language at it, you can explain it in terms of the ethics of our day: “You fight, we’ll fight. You shout, we’ll shout. You stand, we stand. You march, we’ll march.” It’s not the King’s agenda.

The Reward

And finally, notice, just a word about reward. Commonly understood that the patron would get back what he gave: the patron puts someone else in their debt, and then they receive obliged acts of service, and perhaps even homage. They understood that, and so do we; it’s the way it works. But notice the Jesus way: in this case, the patron gives without expectation of return, without strings attached, and yet he still receives repayment, and his “reward will be great,” he says.[25] “If you love your enemies, and do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back, without operating in the modus operandi of your day, then your reward will be very great, and you will be the sons of the Most High—not that as a result of doing this you will become the son of the Most High, but as a result of doing this you will reveal yourself to be the son of the Most High—because after all, if you think about it, God is kind to the ungrateful and he’s kind to the wicked.”[26]

Wasn’t it a lovely morning and a lovely sunrise? It certainly was spectacular where I was as I drove out of my street. Do you know who enjoyed that sunrise? Everyone that can see. Was this a sunrise just for Christian people? Just for the kids of the kingdom? That because we had been redeemed, we could see the sunrise, and everyone else who remains unredeemed couldn’t see the sunrise, and frankly, they woke up to a very gloomy and horrible day? No. Is it only Christian people who will be able to enjoy a lovely lunch? No. The ungrateful and the wicked will also enjoy lunch. Will they enjoy seedtime and harvest along with us? Yes. Do they deserve to? No. Do we? No. So how does God treat the ungrateful and the wicked? With mercy and with kindness. You see how it all fits together?

Can there be a greater reward? I’m sure there is, but at least in part it is this. “Then your reward will be great”—I thought about that for a while, but I must conclude, part of the reward must be this: when people say of us, “My, oh, my. You know, you look so very like your Father. You look like your Father!” Do you know what that means to a child who admires their father, who has a father who is well-spoken-of? That makes the child stand up tall. It humbles them, if they’re honest. They go back to their bedroom and they say, “Well, you know, I thought of myself as a bit of a wretch, really, and so unlike my father in so many respects. But the person down the street said, ‘You know, you’re starting to look like your dad.’”

God has showered his love upon us in order that we might shower his love upon those who seem the most unlikely and undeserving recipients of it.

That’s what Jesus says: “By your loving, by your lending, by your doing good, you so begin to look like your Father.” And the way in which he showers his love upon people is not a little trickle spurting out now and then, but he has poured out his love—He’s “poured out his love into our hearts,” says Paul to the Romans,[27] in order that out of our hearts may flow the love of the Lord Jesus. He has showered his love upon us in order that we might shower his love upon those who seem the most unlikely and undeserving recipients of it. 

Now, we leave it here, but let me finish with these observations.

I cannot convince myself that I have got to grips with the instruction of Jesus in this sermon when I am content to simply support, for example, the welfare bill that whoever it is that sends me that stuff tells me I’m supposed to support and phone my congressman. Now, don’t misunderstand me; I always get letters, and people say, “Alistair doesn’t like you to phone your congressman.” I love it when you phone your congressman. You heard it from me. Phone him as many times a day as you like. Okay? But if you think for a minute you’re going to turn the world upside down by phoning your congressman, you shouldn’t waste your money so quickly.

But if I think that by supporting the welfare package I’ve actually taken care of loving my enemies, I am wrong, unless I am prepared simultaneously to mentor the children of poverty, the boys and the girls who live without fathers. I’m kidding myself if I think that I can get by by fighting the gay rights lobby while at the same time totally unprepared to bring any measure of comfort, any message of hope, to those who are facing the lonely and painful death as a result of AIDS. I cannot convince myself or anticipate applause for my attempts to support a constitutional amendment to redress Roe v. Wade if I am at the same time totally unprepared not only to open my mouth to speak to young women in their need, but to open my heart, and to open my home, and to open my life, and to open my checkbook to show them the radical difference that Jesus makes.

And I ask you—think it out—do we honestly believe at the end of the millennium that the non-Christian world has been overwhelmed by a quarter of a century of the inundation of Christian people who, having read and understood their Bibles, said to themselves, “We’re gonna shower the people with love we love. We’re gonna show them the way that we feel”?[28] Or, are they tempted to believe that we’re just an angry, miserable, rigid, censorious, pharisaical company of theologians?

There’s got to be a reason that Spurgeon not only preached evangelistically and taught the Bible, but he was involved in orphanages. There’s got to be a reason that Moody was not only so effectively used in the proclaiming of the gospel, but so wonderfully used in the social impact of his day. I personally cannot teach this without being immensely exercised by it in my own spirit. And I wonder if that does not find an echo in many of your hearts.

Before, in an earlier generation, when the church got serious about these things, it built hospitals. It built orphanages. It built into the realm of need. We’re building bookshops, atriums, gymnasiums. There’s just a chance we may be missing a significant factor.

Father God, look upon us in your mercy, we pray. Remove from our hearts and minds any kind of man-engendered guilt, but do not allow us to shuffle off the clear demands of your Word today. Grant that it may be that in a consideration of the love which is expressed most manifestly in Calvary, in the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,”[29] that we may find ourselves at the place of usefulness.

 Help us, O God, then, to ponder the immensity of your love, and by your enabling to live it out. Amen.

 


[1] See Leviticus 19:18.

[2] Shabbat 31a (paraphrased).

[3] Plato, Phaedo 62b–e. 

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 4.1.

[5] Seneca, Moral Discourses, Letter 103.

[6] Confucius, Analects 15.24.

[7] Exodus 20:13–15, 17 (paraphrased).

[8] Luke 6:31 (NIV 1984).

[9] Romans 13:9–10 (NIV 1984).

[10] Romans 13:11 (NIV 1984).

[11] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “We Can Work It Out” (1965). Paraphrased.

[12] Luke 10:25 (NIV 1984).

[13] Luke 10:25–28 (paraphrased).

[14] Luke 6:32–34 (NIV 1984).

[15] Luke 6:32 (paraphrased).

[16] Source unknown.

[17] Luke 6:33 (NIV 1984).

[18] Luke 18:11 (NIV 1984).

[19] Luke 18:13–14 (paraphrased).

[20] Luke 6:47–50 (paraphrased).

[21] Luke 10:34–35 (paraphrased).

[22] Luke 10:35 (KJV).

[23] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 58.

[24] Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 97.

[25] Luke 6:35 (NIV 1984).

[26] Luke 6:35 (paraphrased).

[27] Romans 5:5 (NIV 1984).

[28] James Taylor, “Shower the People” (1976). Paraphrased.

[29] Luke 23:34 (KJV).

Thankfulness: A Mark of Grace
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