I was recently reading Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7). This thought crossed my mind once again. Each time I read it, I ask myself: “Can I achieve what Jesus just taught?” If I answer, “Yes, by the power of the Holy Spirit and grace of God, I can do it”, then to me, this is ‘prescriptive’. If I answer, “No way Jose! Honestly I can’t remember when I fulfilled everything Jesus just taught here”, then what Jesus is teaching is law to me, and is a ‘description’ of who I am: a sinner saved by grace… but still a sinner nevertheless.
Most of the time, I feel the Sermon on the Mount is describing who I am, a person who fails at achieving what Jesus sees as the ideal. Thankfully, I have Jesus who tells me his grace is sufficient for me when I fail to measure up. But when Christians present Jesus’ teachings from the mount as what I need to do in order to be a righteous Christ-follower, I feel like I’m being set up for future failure.
Do we have to take a position of Jesus’ teachings being 100% descriptive or 100% prescriptive. Is there room for middle ground or even least 95% descriptive? Personally, I see Jesus’ teachings to be hugely descriptive but I cannot deny that he also prescribes for his followers a way to live that is alignment with his ideals of righteous behavior and personal piety. The New Testament has some prescriptive laws as taught by Jesus and the Apostle Paul.
The challenge for us as good theologians and thoughtful Christians is to try to find law and gospel in what we teach. The world is hungry for a gospel that clearly spells out God’s free gift of forgiveness motivated by unconditional love. It is a mystery hidden behind religion; but when it is uncovered, it can be a newfound revelation because it can lead a person into an experience of spiritual freedom in Christ out from a slave-mentality under rules and laws.