The Logic of Law and Grace in the Sermon on the Mount

There is a lot of teaching and conversation going on these days concerning the sermon on the mount. Tullian Tchividjian is currently doing a sermon series on it and the Whitehorse Inn guys just did an excellent series of podcasts on it. It is amazing how clearly the sermon on the mount teaches grace and law. I’ve looked at this greatest of all sermons before:

The Sermon on the Mount
A Modern Person Reads the Sermon on the Mount

However, something hit me as I was preparing the material on the Reasonable Grace series. I’m a database programmer by trade, and finally my geekdom is paying off spiritually! Let’s say I have a list of shirts in a database, and I want to do a search. I can either do an “OR” search or I can do an “AND” search. An “OR” search means, give me all the shirts that are blue OR have buttons OR have collars OR are cotton. The results that are returned are called the “found set”, and the found set gets larger for each parameter added to the query. On the other hand, if I say, give me all the shirts that are blue AND have buttons AND have collars AND are cotton, then each parameter narrows down the results. The more parameters you add in an “AND” query, the less matches you end up with.

The beatitudes are an “OR” kind of condition. If you match any of the different beaten and losing and rejected conditions, you are in the set of people who are blessed. You don’t have to be a mourner AND a peacemaker to be blessed. You only have to be one or the other.

The portion of the sermon where He goes on to explain about living under the law is also an “OR” kind of condition. The problem is, if you match any of the conditions, you are cursed. Any particular match, such as lusting in your heart or being a little squishy with your words, and you are in the found set of the cursed people.

Jesus said that He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it:

17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17-18

If you choose to interpret this as meaning that Jesus fulfills the requirement of the law and its punishing consequence for failure on the cross, you fall under the “blessed” query. You are the one who not only hungers for righteousness, and not only lacks it, but realizes their lack of righteousness and is internally tortured by it. You match one of the parameters to be included in the found set of the blessed people. You’re one of the few who escape being in the found set of the cursed.

If you choose to interpret this as meaning that Jesus has come to lay a more stringent requirement of Law on our backs, and that He may on the periphery be a savior but he is mainly a moral teacher, then you fall under the “cursed” query. You don’t have to hate your brother AND lust for a woman. Either one or any of the many others will do. The law casts a wide net and Jesus points out that when each condition is interpreted to the level of heart covetousness, it is a very finely meshed net indeed. If you fail any small piece of it, you match the found set of the cursed ones.

The net effect (no pun intended) is that if you want to be blessed under the law, the found set of those who don’t match the cursed query has to escape ALL of the conditions. You have to NOT be a hater, a luster, a liar, a poser, a worrier. Any single violation of them will put you into the found set of the cursed.

It is easy to see which dynamic is the better one: I am choosing to be included in the found set of the blessed. I choose to interpret Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law as being His work on the cross. It is Biblical, it is doable, and it is clearly what He is trying to say here. he says, you want to succeed under the law? You must escape ALL of these conditions or you will be cursed. Legalistic churches who miss the message Jesus is saying in the sermon here should be filled with eyeless amputees, but instead they are filled with pretenders and posers who could never fulfill the degree of perfect virtue Jesus espouses. He doesn’t mean to curse us by teaching so stringent a law, He means to push us over from trusting our own power to remain uncursed into the found set of the poor meek beaten hungry ones who admit defeat and are thus blessed.

Aren’t I violating the idea that the way is narrow and few are those who find it? (Matthew 7:13-14) If you are asking that question, you need to think about this: are you seriously going to interpret those verses (from the sermon on the mount!) in a way that contradict the beatitudes? It is always damaging to interpret scripture in a way that excludes grace. The way of blessing is indeed a narrow way, because most people want to trust in themselves to escape cursing by behaving perfectly, instead of receiving blessing as a one-way promise on account of their weakness. The narrow way is the way of grace.

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  1. Haha, this SQL analogy speaks to my heart as I’m a bit of a geek too. The most stinging, all condemning condition of the law is this:

    And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.
    (Mat 22:37-38)

    That’s a bunch of AND operators there. No moralist will ever live up to that.

    • Matti,

      That is so true. People are shocked when you say that this is a law we aren’t under, but this is the big one that is pinpointed in 1 John 4:10. It certainly is a lot of AND operators, GREAT CALL!

  2. Enjoyed everything said here with the exception of one line: “Any one of them will take you out of the found set of the non-cursed.” I don’t believe you intended this, but I was concerned that some may read and misunderstand this as a “loss of salvation” statement. Keep writing and remember that your audience is probably wider than you may think!
    PS. I am NOT the Roger E Olson that is a Arminian professor at Baylor Univ in Dallas, TX.
    I am the “older” Free Grace Alliance Roger E. Olson that is a Dallas Seminary graduate!
    Thanks for all you do for the family of faith.

    • Good call Roger! Glad to know you’re not the Arminian professor, though I’m sure he’s a fine fellow. I fixed it.

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