Grace always comes first


What’s the first word or phrase that comes to mind when you hear “Sermon on the Mount”? When I come to Matthew 5-7, I always jump to one word: grace.

Those chapters, despite containing some of the most difficult teaching you’ll find in the entire Bible—”Judge not, that you be not judged” anyone?—they are a great source of comfort and joy. Why? Because they remind me that, with Jesus, grace always comes first.

Those who know their need for grace

Think about it: these chapters open with the Beatitudes, where Jesus describes those to whom the kingdom belongs as “blessed.” That is, one who is approved of God. And those who are blessed—the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, and so forth—these aren’t disparate individuals: it is a single group of people sharing similar characteristics.

Those who are approved by God, those who are blessed, will inevitably display these attributes. They are like those whom the psalmist describes in Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” People who know of their own need for grace.

The promise of grace for those in need

And what’s more, Jesus is faithful to answer their need with the promise of grace. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he said. They shall be comforted, inherit the earth, be satisfied, and receive mercy. “They shall see God [and] be called sons of God.”

Is that not amazing grace? For God the Father to bring this promise to those who are profoundly broken by their sin, to those who place their trust in him and in the finished work of Jesus on the cross is astounding! It’s as though he is saying, my kingdom is yours, for you are my children and I love you.

The pattern of the promise

And what’s even more incredible is that this is no isolated incident. It is the pattern we see in all Scripture. For example:

  • When God looked out on the world and saw all mankind doing evil only continually, he showed favor—or grace—on Noah and his family.
  • In the giving of the Mosaic Law, God gave commandments not so that he might redeem the Israelites and make a people of them, but because he already had!
  • Virtually every one of Paul’s letters starts with a reminder of what God had done. In fact, the book of Romans starts with an 11 chapter explanation of all that God had done in history and how he was (and is) restoring all things.

And in the Sermon on the Mount, the pattern holds. Jesus offered no ethical teaching and issued no commands before he had offered grace. He offered good news for all who were weary and heavy laden, to free them from the guilt of their sin and their failure to keep God’s commands—calling together a people for whom he would obey all the commands of God perfectly.

The greatest grace of all

And perhaps that’s the greatest grace of all in the Sermon on the Mount. For when we look at its ethical teaching—I mean, really look at it—it’s easy to see that there isn’t a single command that can be fulfilled through human effort.

  • We can’t address our own issues before looking at the problems of someone else—nor can we even fairly evaluate others. (Matthew 7:1-5)
  • We can’t muster the energy to persevere in prayer. (Matthew 7:7-11)
  • We can’t even do to others what we would have them do to us! (Matthew 7:12)

It’s ludicrous to think that we’re capable of obeying anything Jesus commands us without his grace empowering us! The burden of even something that seems insignificant is too great for us to bear.

But grace bears it for us. And it’s grace that allows us to persevere. It’s grace that allows us to persevere in prayer, trusting that the Father will give good gifts to those who ask. It’s grace that allows us to be careful of how we judge, examining our own hearts before passing judgment on another. And it’s grace that allows us to put others before ourselves, doing to them what we would have them do to us. No amount of will power will allow us to do these things.

Only God, by his grace, can.

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.