Building on Rock: The Law of Christ and the Role of Works in the Christian Life (Part 1)

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great!” (Matthew 7:24-27)

In Sunday school and VBS when I was a child, this passage was a favorite of teachers and pastors everywhere. Why not? It’s one of Jesus’ most powerful images.

But like many things, we quickly misappropriate it. A good evangelical, I was taught that Jesus is the Rock, and to build one’s life on the Rock means to invite him into our hearts.

That’s not what Jesus said. Rather, this is his conclusion to the long-form teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount, the most comprehensive collection of moral and spiritual teachings Jesus gave us.

The Sermon is not about how to go to heaven. It’s about how to live. It’s about ordering our lives properly in relation to the kingdom, to God, to ourselves, and to others.

If we DO this, Jesus says; if we actually ACT on his teachings, we will build our house on rock—storm-proof.

On the other hand, if we allow his teachings to go in one ear and out the other, if we never turn hearing into action, they will do us no good. When the storms come, all our knowledge will not help us. It’s only what we DID with it that builds anything real in our lives.

As obvious—even self-evident—as this should be, Jesus’ common-sense conclusion can and does awaken ambivalence and confusion in us.

It brings anxiety as to our salvation: does the Sermon on the Mount’s emphasis on action mean that salvation is by works after all?

It brings anxiety as to judgment: do we need to plunge back into a law-oriented relationship with God, always afraid we’re not measuring up … forever uncertain as to whether our “Lord, Lord” at the end of time will result in our hearing, “Depart from me, I never knew you”?

I suggest these anxieties are a sign that we’re still thinking in the wrong categories. We can and SHOULD embrace Jesus’ emphasis on action, without fearing for our salvation. In this case, salvation isn’t the point.

We really need to grasp this, both so that we can get free of crippling confusion AND so that we can pour ourselves wholeheartedly into the lifestyle of the kingdom.

In the end, I think that’s where all this ambivalence results in the greatest loss. When we stop believing that Jesus has taught us how to be human and fail to put our best efforts into living the way he says, we miss out on one of his greatest gifts, and with it, the impact we are meant to have in the world.

The Pivot

Before we unpack this further, let’s look again at the context. Some of the anxiety that can come with a text like this has to do with the passage just before it: the judgment scene in which powerful people stand before Jesus and claim to be his followers, only to be told “I never knew you.”

I know (from conversing with people and from personal experience) that this passage has truly frightened many a sincere believer. But I don’t think that’s its intent.

Actually, I think the judgment scene is part of the warning against false prophets. Rather than warning his sincere disciples that they might turn out to be unacceptable in the end, Jesus is letting his disciples know that just because someone comes among them doing acts of power and saying “Lord, Lord” does not mean their claim to follow Christ is valid.

We will know God’s prophets by their fruit, not their verbal claims or their apparent access to power.

(In this, Jesus echoes the Old Testament, which warned Israel that even if a prophet came among them doing miracles, using Yahweh’s name, or accurately foretelling the future, if that prophet led them away from the worship of Yahweh they were to be rejected. More on this whole topic here: “Fruit, Sheep, and False Prophets: A Primer on Learning to Discern.”

Here with his parable of the builders, though, Jesus pivots away from warning about false prophets to concluding the entire Sermon.

A key link between the “false prophets” section and the conclusion is the phrase in Jesus’ denunciation that the HCSB renders “Depart from Me, you lawbreakers.”

A more accurate translation is “Depart from Me, you lawless ones.”

(“Lawlessness” is the literal English equivalent of the less-clear word “iniquity.” Interestingly, the figure we often call “antichrist” in the New Testament is described as “the man of lawlessness” or “the lawless one” in 2 Thessalonians—strengthening my view that the “Lord, Lord” passage is meant as part of the discussion of false prophets.)

Why is this important? Many today make claims about the dispensation of grace that amount to lawlessness. They confuse being free from the law of Moses (and its attendant curses) with being actually lawless—something which true Christians are not.

My point here is not that believers who tout “hyper-grace” are a manifestation of Antichrist, but rather that we’re confused about law. We need to get a lot clearer about our own spiritual identity if we’re going to interact with—and obey—the Scriptures effectively.

A Different Kind of Law

Much earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus claimed to have fulfilled the law of Moses.

This was an incredible claim on many levels, but as the rest of the New Testament clarifies, one of the consequences of this fulfillment was to remove the law of Moses as the identifier and shaper of the people of God.

In other words, God’s people in Jesus are not under the Mosaic law. But this doesn’t mean God’s people in Jesus are lawless.

In the Old Testament, a new law was prophesied that would be written on people’s hearts. This is the law we now have: one that isn’t based in commandments, sanctions, and rituals written in stone, but one that is based on the nature of God becoming part of our nature and directing us from within.

This law allows us to function much like Jesus did: in a relationship of hearing, loving, obeying, and fellowshipping with God, who not only directs our lives but also empowers them.

(I know I’m touching on some really big and explosive stuff here. To explore this for yourself, see John 14, the entire epistle to the Galatians, Hebrews 7:12, Romans 6-8, and 2 Peter 1:4 … for a start.)

The New Testament refers to this law often. The Sermon on the Mount certainly implies it, as do all of Paul’s moral teachings, which are always anchored in identity change. I believe Jesus refers to it when he speaks of “My commands” (as in John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commands”; see also John 14:21 and John 15:10).

It’s also named in a few places: the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:2), the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21, Galatians 6:2), the perfect law of freedom (James 1:25, 2:12), and the royal law [of love] (James 2:8).

Again, Christians are far from being a lawless people. It’s just that our law is not codified somewhere in stone or endless red tape. It’s based in the nature of God and our spiritual relationship with him.

Since we are so conditioned to think of law in terms of ordinances and legalese, I find it helpful to use scientific laws as an example.

The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, as Paul calls it, is like the law of physics or the law of gravity. You won’t find it written down somewhere, with the writing making it valid, as though God designed the universe by writing a set of rules.

But it’s real, able to be described and talked about, and powerful. It governs the spiritual life of a believer the way the law of gravity governs so much of what we see and do in this physical world. It’s the law of life, spirit, freedom, and love.

With this understanding in place, we’re ready to look more closely at Jesus’ injunction in the parable of the builders (or the parable of the foundations, if you like). Since this article is already on the long side, we’ll come back to this next week.


This is Part 95 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

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