In the last post I wrote about Justin’s conversion as part of our quest to investigate the nature of conversion in the early church. Our suspicion is that things have drastically changed over time – the church today doesn’t look a whole lot like the church then – and we’re asking why. One of the details of Justin’s story that stuck out to me was how he dealt with the seeming impossibility of Jesus’ teachings. For the sake of being specific, let’s think of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. It’s no secret that there are some very hard teachings here. (It’s kind of funny that we make the OT out to be tough and Jesus soft, because Jesus actually raises the bar here rather than lowering it.) In fact, through much of the church’s history, and in much of the church today, people claim that Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5-7 are not meant to be fully obeyed today. People say they’re designed to bring us to repentance by showing us that we can’t measure up to God’s standards of perfection, or that they’re a picture of how we’ll live when Jesus returns. There is some truth in both of these.
(Ironically, the SM most definitely is a picture of what life looks like when God reigns fully – but that doesn’t mean we don’t live them out now. On the contrary, that’s the essence of the church’s calling: to live right now the way the whole world will live when God is fully acknowledged as king – in NTW’s words, “Christians should live in the present as members, already, of the world that is yet to be” (RSG 235); or in Jesus’ words, to pray for and do God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven”.)
So there’s truth in these explanations, but they aren’t altogether true. They are excuses, albeit very sophisticated ones. To get to the point, what I noticed about Justin is that he applies the “with God all things are possible” idea to obeying Jesus’ teachings. Brilliant. This phrase is only used twice in Scripture: about a virgin giving birth and about rich people entering the kingdom. So one of the two uses is about people doing through God’s power what they cannot do alone, specifically in relation to Jesus’ exacting demands. So let’s fully admit that Jesus’ teachings are difficult and that none of us will ever practice them perfectly. Let’s by all means throw ourselves on God’s mercy and grace, recognizing with full force that for human beings these things are impossible. But let’s also remember that we’ve been called – and empowered by the Spirit of God as a foretaste of new creation – to live impossibly.