Blow by blow, Jesus systematically deconstructs the notion that my deeds can be good enough. And He takes direct aim at my desires, and the heart from which they came.
Jesus spent much of His ministry turning righteousness "outside in." He continually brought things back to the heart. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. What comes out of a person is what defiles him. This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
He condemned the scribes and Pharisees, whose empty deeds were deceptive coverings for dirty cups. And he commended the poor widow, whose deed proceeded from a desire to give everything she had.
As I read slowly through the Sermon on the Mount on this morning’s bus ride, I started to take a much closer inventory my desires—my affections. And honestly, I didn’t like what I saw.
I was reminded of how C.S. Lewis described self-examination so well in his book The Four Loves:
[It’s] like getting your household furniture out for a move. It did very well in its place, but it looks shabby or tawdry or grotesque in the sunshine.
Dragging dark desires out into the bright sunshine of God's Word is a very unflattering experience. It sobers me greatly to think that I am only as sanctified as those darkest desires. I can abstain from pornography and adultery in deed, but not at all mind the bikini-clad banner ad. Jesus says that makes me an adulterer. I can abstain from murder, but mentally mutilate people who cut me off on the highway. Jesus says that makes me a murderer. I can abstain from overeating, but burn for a bowl of ice cream at bedtime. Jesus says that makes me a glutton. I can go to men’s Bible study, but secretly desire to sleep in. Jesus says that makes me a sluggard.
I may look pretty good on the outside. But I'm an adulterous, murderous, gluttonous sluggard through and through because of what's secretly raging on the inside.
In His book The Mortification of Sin, John Owen describes the battle with indwelling sin as severing the root. In other words, sin is a foe that must be faced at the level of my desires. Far deeper than dwelling on my evil deeds, I must cultivate a genuine distaste for the evil desires that first gave birth to them. I must earnestly ask for help hating the things that hinder me from savoring Christ above all things—things that are actually far less satisfying than He is. And when He does His work in me, He gets the glory.
This takes a supernatural work of His Spirit in me, and an utter dependence on my part for His help. It takes a Savior who fulfilled all righteousness because I can’t do it in my own strength.
The unachievable standard of the law Christ lays out in the Sermon on the Mount is like a blinking neon sign pointing me directly to Him. Though it deeply convicts me, it also lifts me to praise God for sending a perfect Savior—apart from whom I would have no prayer of ever severing sin’s root. To which I say with Paul, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus our Lord!"
May God give us all Gospel strength in the root-severing work of sanctification.