This is the difference between justification and sanctification. The moment you accept Christ, the grace of God comes into your life and you are justified, legally pronounced righteous before God in Christ. But, as you grow in grace, you are sanctified, changed as you abide with Christ. And over time, you become more “righteous.” It’s like orphans when they are first adopted. The moment they are adopted, they are legally the son or daughter of the new parents. But in the first few months, they might hide food under their beds because they still have a beggar’s mindset. But the longer they live with their new parents in their new homes, they begin to realize that everything in the house is theirs. They grow into their new role as an adopted son, they are sanctified, if you will, in their sonship. They had the status as son at the beginning but they are growing into the fullness of their new role.
We are justified and we are given the legal status as children of God at the moment of conversion. Justification. Now, live in such a way as to reflect your adoption more and more. Sanctification.
Jesus is not saying: I have an impossible standard of righteousness that you can never meet, and so stop trying to meet it, and trust in my righteousness. That’s a wrong understanding of grace. That’s not what he is saying. He is saying, If you come to me, and trust in me, and receive the power of the kingdom, and you are cleansed on the inside by the forgiveness and love of God that I offer, and bank everything on my promises, then you WILL be able to live this way. You won’t be perfect, you will still fail, but you will lead a qualitatively different life. A life of true spiritual power. And your life will be the light of the world that proves you are the children of God.
The grace of God assumes transformation, the grace of God assumes sanctification, the grace of God assumes change from the inside out. Isn’t this why people stop going to church? They look around and the so-called Christians are no different from the non-Christians out there. They cheat on their taxes just like those outside the church. They are just as greedy as those outside the church. They have bad tempers, just like those outside the church. The amount of gossip and slander within the church rivals the gossip and slander that you find in the world. There is no difference. This is why many stop going to church. Non-believers step into a church and they expect to find salt and light, but they don’t find it.
Shouldn’t Christians grow in their holiness, in their compassion, their love for others, shouldn’t there be a humility that permeates their lives? Fruit of the Spirit – shouldn’t there be signs of the Spirit’s activity in a believer’s life that flavors the corporate life of the church?
This is what Christ is promising. He is promising that it is ACTUALLY possible to have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees, not simply because Christ’s righteousness is imputed or credited to us, not simply because the blood of Jesus covers over a multitude of our sins like a blanket. There is no denying the truth of that statement. But there’s more. Christ is promising a deeper work, an inward righteousness of the heart.
In other words, Jesus is assuming that something very profound has happened to people who live the way the Sermon on the Mount calls us to live.
When Jesus says in Matthew 5:44-45–
44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
…he does not mean that loving our enemies earns us the right to be a child of God. You can’t earn the status of a child. You can be born into it. You can be adopted into it. Jesus means that loving our enemies shows that God has already become our Father, and that the only reason we are able to love our enemies is because God loved us first.
If you take the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, all the commandments assume—they presuppose—that a profound conversion has happened—a new birth—before our righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. We do not earn or merit our sonship or our entrance into heaven. We receive it as a free gift and gracious promise, and then we live in a way that shows who our Father is. Loving our enemies is proof, the litmus test that the power of the kingdom has entered your life. Loving your enemy doesn’t pay for or merit or earn your birth into God’s family; it proves you’ve been born already into God’s family.
The Sermon on the Mount and the command to love our enemies are not isolated ethical teachings. They rise up out of the same fountain of grace in the life and ministry of Jesus. It is this grace that we received when we were first saved that enables us, empowers us to love our enemies. This wellspring of grace is where we get the power to love our enemies.
The very first word of the Sermon on the Mount—and this is no mistake—is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We don’t enter the kingdom of heaven because of the moral resources that we bring to the table. We enter by confessing with tears our poverty of spirit. We receive Jesus and his kingdom through bankruptcy—by admitting the poverty of who we are apart from Christ.
Now, we are ready to talk about v43-48. In this text Jesus is responding to a misinterpretation of the Old Testament commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.
What can we learn from this? How is it human nature to interpret the Law along the same lines that the Jewish leaders did?
It’s sneaky what these Jewish leaders did. The original commandment treated everyone as a neighbor. What was the distortion introduced by the religious leaders? They separated people into neighbors and enemies. Neighbors are a category of people that one loves. Enemies, this category of people, it’s okay to hate them. You see how they distorted the Law?
One of the reasons we know Jesus thought it was wrong to interpret “neighbor” merely as friend or brother or sister is that in Luke 10:29, when he was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he answered by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable the man who loved was a Samaritan and the wounded man whom he loved was a Jew. And the Jews and Samaritans were anything but friends and brothers. They had nothing to do with each other. They were mortal enemies, religiously and racially.
So Jesus doesn’t just say, I have two commands: one that you love your neighbor and one that you love your enemy. Instead, he says, I have one command: love your neighbor and I mean, even if he is an enemy.