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The Rev. David W. Hall (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary) is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. After completion of his undergraduate studies, Pastor Hall studied at Swiss L’Abri and then enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1980. In addition to pastoring, David Hall is the author or editor of over 20 books and numerous essays.

Column: First Truths from the First Gospel by David Hall

What If We Practiced This?

February 10, 2015 •

Some Christians have become so allergic to work or effort that they blanch at the prospect of practice, virtually cursing any kind of effort as a legalistic bogeyman of some sort. However, it’s no mistake that the competitors for this year’s Super Bowl practice—a lot. Imagine a player from the Seahawks or Patriots who tried to tell his coach, ‘You know, we’ve done this before—lots of times—I could get burnt out. It’s fairly legalistic to practice, especially when it hurts.’ In other words, what percentage of practice antinomians do you think were in the Super Bowl? Practice is needed.

It’s no accident that other professions do the same. A doctor is in a medical PRACTICE. An attorney has a law PRACTICE. Maybe instead of speaking of application we should call for practice. I wonder if our sermons might not be better if we practiced what they call for. And instead of whining that one has not been spoon-fed enough application or handed fill-in-the blank sheets, maybe shepherds need to be more consistent in urging sheep to practice the Word that they hear, lest we look in a mirror and walk away disheveled (James 1:23-25).

Maybe we need to practice certain applications of some sermons over and over. I think we probably need to repeat our practice of this particular sermon by Jesus.

And what would happen if we did repeat his calls contained in the Sermon on the Mount?

In Mt. 5:43-48, Jesus concludes by clearly commanding how we are to love our enemies. “The preceding commandment had only spoken of the passive endurance of evil; here Jesus goes further (43-48) . . . and bids us . . . actively to engage in love towards our enemies.”[1] Notice how Jesus contradicts the scribal tradition but not God’s Law.

The Scribes taught concerning “you have heard it said,” that one was to love your neighbor and hate your enemies. The first duty to love your neighbor was clearly mandated in the OT (cf. Lev. 19:18). That’s God’s Law. But where in the Law of God are we commanded to hate our enemies? Nowhere. This was a scribal addition and an unwarranted deduction. The Scribes, in seeking to justify their own ill-practice, argued that since they were not naturally and easily disposed to loving their enemies, then surely God (who would always approve of what they approved) must not intend for them to love their adversaries. Thus they implanted onto the law this parasitical tumor “And hate your enemies,” despite the clear evidence that numerous times, elsewhere in the Old Testament, they had been commanded to love their enemies. All they needed to do was to define neighbor as a very small sub-set of the population, i.e., “their own” and presto they fulfilled the Law. What law they fulfilled, however, was the law of man, not the Law of God.

John Stott put it well: “A blatant perversion of the law is the instruction, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ because of what it omits from the commandment and adds to it. It deliberately narrows both the standard of love (leaving out the crucial words ‘as yourself,’ which pitch the standard very high) and its objects (qualifying the category of ‘neighbor’) by specifically excluding enemies from it and adding the command to hate them instead.”[2]

They’d compressed the law and Jesus sought to decompress it back to its original extent.

Thus in v. 44 Christ startles his audience by telling them and us to love our enemies. Let’s define two terms of this true command. First, enemies are not those people we hate; for Christ refuses to permit or envision that tendency to us. We are not to hate enemies. But we do have enemies who hate us. There will always be those who are not satisfied with us or offended by us. These are the enemies in view. Second, be clear about the word love. It is agapé love here. Although agapé is thought to be the highest of four New Testament words for love, it is not the most intensely emotional or easily felt love. That is phileo (brotherly love), a natural good feeling love, affection, or positively oriented sentiment. Phileo comes easily. This heartfelt love just happens when we like or feel good about another person. However, agapé love, does not refer to feelings but to our will or commitment for the best for the other. This is like God’s love shown to us in Christ. God’s love is his active commitment to give us the very best, as he knows the best to be. On the cross, Christ did not feel good or emotionally enjoy the sin of mankind. But his agapé love is demonstrated in that he loved us and died for us—even though it didn’t feel good. That’s love of the will or commitment or determination. This is the agapé love we are to have for enemies. We may not feel sentiment or great throes of passion for our enemies or like everyone, but we are to commit ourselves by an act of our wills, to do love and be loving toward them. “True love is not sentiment so much as sacrificial service. In fact we’re commanded to do something else for our enemies as an act of love. . . to pray for those who persecute you.”[3] (Stott)

I was once told that you cannot hate a person and simultaneously pray for them (note not pray against them). For if we pray for a person to receive God’s best—that’s agapé love—then we are pleading to God on their behalf for him to be merciful and bless them. We might find that if we’d practice these two steps more unhesitatingly that our love would grow for our enemies. “The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray for the person we are tempted to hate.”[4]

Notice in the next verse what this accomplishes. The result of this extraordinary love for our enemies will be that we will be sons of our Father in Heaven, who has the kind of outlook of love on all his creatures. God who wills for all to be blessed by his love, causes the natural elements—sun and rain—to be showered on all people without discrimination. He acts in love toward both the just and unjust, his loving children and rebellious enemies. So we are to love the unjust and our enemies as he does. If we do, then we’ll prove conclusively our sonship both to ourselves and to others. Verse 45 provides us with a criteria for authentic sonship. If we love our enemies, as our Father does, then that is a tell-tale indication that we are his true children.

The reason behind this is that God’s children are to be different from others in the world. We are not to be like all the rest. To the natural man, “the very notion of loving his enemies is an intolerable offense and quite beyond his capacity.”[5] But extraordinary Christianity is different.

In vss. 46-47 Jesus provides an insuperable argument. He argues that it is easy and natural to love our own (that’s what the Scribes did; and hate those not like us!). Even the tax collectors (a despised traitorous group) and pagans are like that. But the Christian is to be different.

See if you, today, can avoid his argument? Do the tax collectors or murderers or rapists or drug addicts or non-Christians love people who love them? Sure they do. If you love those who only love you what is different about you to make you think you’ll earn a reward? And if you publicly smile only at Presbyterians, or same-class people, or neatly dressed folk, or the upper echelon, then what are you doing more than anyone else? How are you extraordinary? It’s easy to love a person who thinks you’re great and who affirms you. But you’re no different from pagans if that’s all you do. The word “more” (47) is the quintessence of what Jesus teaches. It means to super-abound, to outstrip, to exceed or to surpass the type of love of unredeemed humanity.

We can’t escape the force of this argument and are challenged to live up to our extraordinary calling and be different. The chapter concludes with an enigmatic caption. We can’t discuss it in detail, only in its context. We are finally told to be perfect or complete in this context (think of the subject we’ve been discussing) in regard to our love for our enemies, just as our Heavenly Father perfectly loves his enemies. We are not asked to be morally or infinitely perfect in Holiness as our Father is, but to practice perfectly and consistently love for the unlovely as he does. This is the extraordinary demonstration of Christianity in which we function like our Father with an inclusive, all-embracing love.

So we conclude one of the most famous and challenging passages in the whole Bible which sums up the ethic and conduct of Christians that should be extraordinary or more than others.

Let me conclude with one question and one challenge:

  • One Question: Is there anything in your life that is extraordinary? Is anything present, attributable only to Christ and not to your own natural self? There should be. If not, ask Christ to reside in you and make you different.
  • Challenge: If this sermon were to be practiced, if the Holy Spirit moves and you follow, then extraordinary Christianity would result and your life will be different. And if extraordinary Christianity were practiced, your extraordinary church would draw people to our extraordinary Savior. And that Saviour who preached this sermon would be pleased and pronounce “Blessed are you.”

Practicing the Sermon . . . might just lead to extraordinary living and witness.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: Scribner, 1963), 165.

[2] John Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (Wheaton, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1978), 92.

[3] John Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (Wheaton, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1978), 94.

[4] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 174.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: Scribner, 1963), 163.


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