A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on August 19, 2018.
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
. . . And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 5:48–6:8, 16-18 ESV).
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not a worldly appeal for social ethics but instruction for citizens of the kingdom of heaven exclusively. Citizens are characterized not as rich in merit but poor in spirit; not exulting in self-righteousness but mourning over remaining sin; not prideful of this life but meekly awaiting the next. They do not lust and covet the sins and ways of this world, but their hunger and thirst is satisfied in righteousness. They are the beneficiaries of God’s mercy, so they extend mercy. Their heart seeks not the applause of man but the applause of heaven. As adopted children of their Father in heaven, they live at peace with God and man. Though their love for and obedience to God is rewarded with worldly persecution, they know that theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
If we are by God’s grace through faith in Christ justified and adopted as citizens of the heavenly kingdom and children of our heavenly Father, then Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Such a heavenly standard is foolishness to this earthly kingdom, where the standard of righteousness is your ability to abstain from your neighbor’s sin. Those with eyes and ears attuned to this world may pervert Jesus’ words into salvation from sin by works of sinful man. But as children of our perfect heavenly Father, we bring nothing to our salvation but our sin: We are saved and sustained by His sovereign grace.
We also know that as children of our perfect heavenly Father we are to grow in His grace seeking to be more and more like Him.This is the practice of righteousness, or Christian piety. The word piety is foreign to modern ears and when heard it may have a negative connotation, often associated with external religiosity. However, its biblical equivalent means a righteous fear or reverence for God. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote, “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces” (1.9). This knowledge led Calvin to deduce, “The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness” (3.19.2). If I may summarize, piety is reverence and love for God lived out, a practice of righteousness.
The danger, of course, is that practice can become unattached from principle. Giving, praying, and fasting can be motivated by reverence and love for God, but they can also be motivated by the recognition of others. Therefore, Jesus cautions us, knowing our sinful flesh: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). It’s not just that we practice; it’s the principles behind our practice of righteousness. It is easy, however, for this warning to be trapped in the examples of the first century Pharisees, but it is closer to home than you think.
This is one of the great challenges of the Christian home, isn’t it? We can teach our children the pious practices of the Christian faith, but if they don’t internalize why they practice them, they will not continue in them. Or worse, they will practice them for the wrong reasons. As parents and grandparents, family and friends, let us teach our children piety, the practice of righteousness, and let us teach them why. And as many of us know so well, what we learn is often caught as much as it is taught. When our children and grandchildren see our reverence and love for God manifested in piety, they will see first-hand what it means to practice righteousness. But if they see (and trust me, they will see) that your religious practice is motivated by unrighteousness, they will follow in your footsteps, walking in either legalism or licentiousness.
So, with a heart of reverence and love for God, what are examples of pious practices?Jesus gives us three examples: giving, praying, and fasting. This is not an exhaustive list, but it provides a general understanding of piety and its pitfalls.
Giving is a practice of righteousness. For a child of God, giving is presumed: “when you give…” To whom do we give? We are to give to the needy, because when we give to those in need we are giving to the Lord: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Prov. 19:17). Giving begins within the church body and flows outward, and it is the responsibility of every member to support the ministry of the church.
How do we give? We are to give abundantly, cheerfully, sacrificially, regularly, discerningly, and secretly. Paul taught the Corinthians, “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:6-7). Sadly, many Christians are stingy in their giving, if they even give at all. This lack of piety is telling far more of the heart than the bank account, for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). A review of your check register will probably reveal your treasure. It was the poor widow who gave out of her poverty that Jesus commended not the rich (Mark 12:41-44). As a practice of righteousness, we are to give regularly, as Paul instructed the church at Corinth, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper” (1 Cor. 16:2). And we practice this righteousness discerningly, distinguishing between true and false needs, good and evil (Heb. 5:14).
But beware! Giving abundantly, cheerfully, sacrificially, regularly, and discerningly out of reverence and love for the Lord is not for public recognition. If your giving is lauded with much fanfare, or if you give to impress someone else, that is not pious but selfish giving. Passing the offering plate is not your time to shine but to submit. Instead, “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (Matt. 6:3-4a).
So, let us give abundantly, cheerfully, sacrificially, regularly, discerningly, and secretly. But, why do we give? We give because we are the recipients of God’s most precious gift: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NASB). We give because, as our Lord Jesus taught, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts. 20:35b). And, we give because “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:4). The hypocrite gives for the reward of the applause of men, but the Christian gives for the applause and spiritual blessings of heaven.
Praying is a practice of righteousness. When we pray, we are to pray secretly and simply to our Father in heaven, reverently “offering up our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies” (WSC 98). Christian prayer is a beautiful act of daily dependence upon our heavenly Father, not to be cheapened by the hypocrisy of sinful desires.
There is a time and place for public prayer, as an integral part of our weekly Lord’s Day worship, but crowd-pleasing eloquence is not the objective; God-glorifying corporate worship is. So, pray secretly and simply. You don’t need a secret prayer language to pray, or a collection of key terms for praying “effectively.” You are simply praying to your heavenly Father. You are not trying to sell Him on your desires or convince Him of your needs. He already “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). Then why pray? The hypocrite prays because he loves the praise of others, but the Christian prays because he loves the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). While no one is looking, simply pray to your heavenly Father because you love Him.
Fasting is a practice of righteousness. While giving and praying may be lacking in modern Christian piety, fasting is virtually nonexistent. In Jesus’ day fasting was part of the Jewish calendar. Fast days were not optional. They also became public spectacles for the gloomy, disfigured faces of religious hypocrites. Rather than a cause for exhibition, throughout Scripture fasting represents brokenness and repentance before the Lord. It is not a public performance but a private practice of piety.
As a practice of righteousness, fasting confronts our fleshly desires often revealing the true devotion of our heart. Fasting can reveal a hunger and thirst for something other than righteousness, and physical hunger and thirst can reveal that we are satisfied with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). It is also a rewarding discipline of renewed dependence in the Lord’s spiritual provision.
As a practice of piety, incorporate fasting into a special time of focused prayer. Perhaps your heart is troubled over something. Fast and pray. Perhaps your heart is burdened for someone. Fast and pray. Perhaps God has graciously revealed the ugliness of your sinful flesh to you. Fast and pray. Whatever the case, when you do, do it cheerfully and secretly. The hypocrite fasts for the praise of others, but the Christian fasts for the reward of being fully satisfied in our Father’s heavenly provision.
The Christian is called to piety, the practice of righteousness. Peter admonished the church, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:14–19). The call of piety in the life of every child of God is rooted in the finished work of Christ, and our obedience is bathed in His precious blood.
Because God’s perfect standard was achieved in the life of His only Begotten, because God’s righteous justice was satisfied in the death of His Son, and because God raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, we are called and enabled by His Holy Spirit to live pious lives, practicing righteousness for His glory. Let it be so in the lives of His people. Amen.