Posts tagged with: sermon on the mount

MatthewChristian’s Library Press has now released Matthew, the third primer in its Opening the Scriptures series. You can purchase it on Amazon today.

Written by Dutch Reformed pastor and preacher Cornelis Vonk, and translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman, the volume provides an introduction to the book of Matthew. Like others in the series, it is neither a technical commentary nor a collection of sermons, but rather an accessible primer for the average churchgoer.

Matthew focuses heavily on the Gospel itself, providing an accessible interpretation of its unique messages and themes, but always tracing each back to the larger unfolding God’s ultimate plan and to the grand totality of Scripture. This is true for all volumes in the series, but is particularly valuable here, given Matthew’s routine references to the Old Testament (no fewer than 59 times, compared to 25 in Mark, 32 in Luke, and 13 in John). (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 16, 2013
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Bhutan - Flickr - babasteve (2)At last week’s Acton on Tap, I discussed the economic teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism, beginning with the divine origin of material blessings as expressed in Lord’s Day 50, which explores the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The catechism emphasizes God as “the only source of everything good,” echoing the classical Christian understanding of God as the fons omnium bonorum, a Latin phrase meaning the font or source of all good things. This formula appears in many places, notably in the work of John Calvin.

The conclusion from such an understanding is, as the catechism puts it, that we are “to give up our trust in creatures and trust in you [God] alone.” So even though the bread we normally consume each day is brought to us by the work of others, including farmers, millers, and bakers, we are to look beyond these secondary means to the origin of all good things, giving thanks to him.

In his guide to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Rev. Cornelis Vonk provides us with a powerful image connecting the divine origins and the human means by which our material blessings normally are provided. Vonk writes,

Someone might nonetheless ask, “How can we ask the Lord for bread when it is already prepared and ready on our table?”

We see the same thing when a child takes an apple from a bowl on the table, after first asking, “Mother, may I take an apple?” The child does this even though those apples were purchased for him. But Mother is the owner. In the same way, before we enjoy a finely furnished meal, we acknowledge our heavenly Father as the owner by saying, “Please.”

The Lord’s Prayer is a way of gratefully acknowledging that God has provided for our material needs, most often through the work of our neighbors, and asking in faithfulness that such provision continue.
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Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 16, 2007
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Stanley Cohen, the Martin White Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, is quoted as saying that “good intentions become bad practices.”

In his critique of rather lame attempts to realize justice in the world (related to faulty definitions of justice), Herman Bianchi writes, “Even more dubious is another frame in which the formula is often couched: ‘Justice is the constant intention to give everyone his due.’ Never is it said, ‘See to it that everyone really gets his due!’ No, the constant intention apparently suffices; the result of the action is not worth mentioning. As Ovid suggests, ‘though strength may fail, intention should be praised.'” Bianchi concludes that there are many such examples of this kind of thinking in the modern world.

In searching out the source for the disconnect between intentions and consequences, Bianchi has provided us with one classical source (Ovid). I’d like to point to some others, particularly within the Christian tradition, as possible sources for this phenomenon.

One place to look, I think, for a source of the contemporary (typically liberal) valuation of intentions over outcomes is the perfectionist doctrine of John Wesley. One strategy for those who teach that perfect moral action or sinlessness is possible in this life is to restrict the notion of sin into some smaller category than it is generally taken. So, for instance, a literal interpretation of the Decalogue could allow the rich young ruler to claim that he had kept the law from his youth.

Jesus’ presentation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount radicalizes these commandments, to include not only the external aspects of the commandment, but the internal spiritual condition and intention as well. This is where Wesley’s strategy is the precise mirror of that of the legalistic ruler. Where the ruler focused only on the literal commandments, Wesley is concerned with interior intent.

So for Wesley, “Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin.” Sin is narrowly defined here to only include those acts of the will that spring from “envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper.” There is a separation here between the intellect and the will, however, so that a defect of the intellect is not to be considered sin, properly speaking. That is, perfect sinlessness consists in the Christian’s “one intention at all times and in all places…not to please himself, but him whom his soul loveth.”

But of course if there is an error in the intellect, but no defect in the will, it is still an evil, and Wesley acknowledges this: “Yet, where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin. However, it cannot bear the rigour of God’s justice, but needs the atoning blood.” So there are deeds that are not considered sins but still need to be atoned for.

Clearly the great emphasis here is on the purity of intentions and the valuation of motives over consequences. In an extreme version, intention is completely disconnected with effect and consequence. This is what I’m calling Wesley’s ditch, although Wesley is not alone in the Christian tradition on this score. Compare, for instance, Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing intrinsically good except good will.”

You do not need to be a consequentialist in order to care about consequences. I submit that Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, in radicalizing the nature of sin to include intentions, motives, and will, do not abandon concern with the intellect, consequences, or external effects. So, says Augustine, “there are two reasons why we sin, either because we do not see what we ought to do, or because we do not do what we know we ought to be done: the first of these evils comes from ignorance, the second from weakness.”

This is why the Heidelberg Catechism, in its description of what meets the qualification for Christian good, includes not only considerations of intentions or motives, but the external norm of God’s law. In answer to the question, “What do we do that is good?”, the Catechism answers: “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.”

Good intentions are not enough.