There’s a quote by Carl Trueman that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. He wrote, “Christians do not do things because they think they will succeed. They do them because the New Testament tells them this way of speaking reflects the character of God to the world.”
I wonder if we really believe that. So much of how we approach the Christian is fueled by pragmatism– what works best. Whether it’s Joel Osteen’s semi-prosperity gospel of “your best life now,” or standard evangelical admonitions that “God’s way is the best way,” we’re conditioned to think of the Bible’s commands as the best way to live a successful life.
And of course, that’s true to some extent. The whole point of the book of Proverbs is that living along the grain of God’s view of reality is a good idea. God designed the moral universe to operate in certain ways, and when we respect that order and structure, life often does work better.
But I also worry that such a pragmatic view of wisdom misses the larger point of New Testament ethics. Every time I teach on the Sermon on the Mount, I can tell something is “off” in our Christian motivations, because of the pushback and objections I hear. All those objections are rooted in practical concerns: “If I’m meek, won’t I be taken advantage of?” “If I turn the other cheek, won’t I just get slapped twice?” “Isn’t worrying about food and clothing– to some extent– necessary?” Jesus commands don’t seem to fit our reality, so we either soften them, water them down to make them more palatable, or try to convince ourselves they really do “work.”
But what if we’ve got it backwards? What if “life works better Jesus’ way” is not the point of Jesus’ way?
If you take Jesus at face value, you can’t escape the hard fact that much of the Sermon on the Mount is eminently impractical. “Turn the other cheek.” “Don’t even think about lust or anger.” “Blessed are the meek.” “Love your enemies.” “Don’t worry about life.”
Give me a break. This is not how the “real world” works. Yes, God’s version reality is the best version to live by. But our world is fallen and broken; it no longer fully reflects God’s “very good” design. Life doesn’t always operate according to God’s ethical principles. That’s what “creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20) means: life doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. In a fallen world, the strong survive and the meek get trampled. Those who look out for #1 often end up as #1. Those who seek first their own security and prosperity usually wind up secure and prosperous.
To put it even more bluntly: if you live according to the Sermon on the Mount, life is probably not going to work out very well for you. People will take advantage of you. You’ll get trampled and used and you’ll miss out on a lot. It will cost you. If you follow Jesus’ instructions, you’ll lose the game of life.
But here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t telling us how life works; he’s telling us how life *will* work one day, when the tables have been turned and all wrongs set right. His kingdom is going to scramble our present reality and replace it with his own. This isn’t pragmatism; this is eschatological ethics, a life lived in light of the future. The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to live the way life *will* work one day; to live in view of future realities that haven’t arrived yet; to live “ahead of schedule,” if you will. Today, losers… well, lose. But in his coming eschatological kingdom, the losers win. And so Jesus is inviting us to start living as losers now.
Today, the meek get trampled… but tomorrow they inherit the earth. Today, following Jesus means persecution. But tomorrow it will mean the whole kingdom is yours. Today, turning the other cheek gets you slapped twice. But tomorrow, peacemakers will be crowned “children of God.”
The question is: do we really believe that? Are we willing to live in light of that future, even though it doesn’t make sense now? In other words, the Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to live by faith: to trust that though this doesn’t make work now, one day it will.