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Christ as a Moral Teacher

“And seeing the multitudes, He went up into a mountain.”—ST MATTHEW 5:1.

Christ came to teach men how to live—to live in the highest and fullest sense; this is the truth that our age insists upon and demands. He did not come to teach men to get through life anyhow, and to make what is called a good death at the last which should be a contradiction of everything that had gone before it. He came to call men to live every day of their lives as children of the Father; to link their lives on to the unseen world with all its wealth of motive and stores of grace; to live as “members one of another” in relation to others, counting service as the noblest employment of life; to live, as regards self-improvement, the highest life of which each one was capable; to live as men put in trust with talents, with gifts of heart and reason and will. So having regard to each one’s three-fold relationship, i.e. to God, to others, and to self, He came to teach men to live. Christianity is a conception of life in the widest and fullest sense of the term. Christ was full of truth, and so He taught men to live truly. He came also to give men that inward power which would enable them to rise to this conception of life and to attain to its fulfilment; He came to give grace to enable them to live this life. But this gift was in no way meant to dispense with the necessity of effort. “I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me,” was the correlative truth which gave the balance to the conviction, “I can do nothing of myself.” Since the days of Augustine there has always been a tendency, more or less marked in different periods, to regard moral effort as almost a disparagement of the power of grace, to treat man as a will-less being borne upon a current of the Divine directing. It is the same tendency at the bottom whether it take the form of getting one’s thinking done for one by an infallible Pope or self-chosen spiritual guide, or of a leaning with no personal struggle on the merits of an all-powerful substitute; whether it leads one to the Holy Communion as if the mere going were the supreme test of goodness, or substitutes a series of emotional paroxysms for a daily effort to do hard duty.

But again and again there comes by degrees a reaction, and men see that the Divine Hand stretched out does not dispense with moral effort; they awake to the peril of trying to find a way out of difficulties by always invoking a supernatural interference, which contradicts every known law of the Divine working. At such a time we are living. We are in process of reaction from two great waves, one of emotionalism and the other of ceremonialism; the first of these depreciated moral effort in the supposed interests of Divine Grace, while the second often appeared to leave men satisfied if they did this or attended to the other, and by its insistence on a quantitative theory of devotional observance often obscured the great law of love. We are now in a state of reaction both from one and the other, and may therefore be well occupied by looking at the other side of things. Christ came to teach men how to live, to give them a new conception of life. And the only real Christianity is not a system of observances or a series of emotions but a life—a life linked with the One Life which was manifested in its principles and ideals so that we could see it. “I am the Life,” said Christ, the Life to follow as well as to partake of. We become one with Him, we dwell in Him and He in us that we may learn how to live.

And to teach us He goes up into a mountain; the place is in itself the fitting emblem of a teaching which is pitched in a key far above all our ordinary ways of looking at things. From a mountain He fitly gives those laws of character and rules of life, the Beatitudes, and those general conceptions of the new Life which follow them, which stand out sublime and enduring for all time.

Before we deal with these Beatitudes there is a preliminary question which I desire to face.

Certain modern writers—some of them of great distinction—viewing the matter from the outside, have urged with much force that there are serious omissions in the moral teaching of Christ; they have felt the divergence that so often exists between Christianity and life; that (so it seems to them) it has become a faith, a creed, not a life; and they argue further that before it can be said to be a real conception of life a great deal has to be added and insisted on; that if a man were to frame his life on the Sermon on the Mount, to order himself according to the Beatitudes, he would not be completely virtuous—that there would be sides of his character undeveloped, and whole regions of his duty neglected. They chiefly insist on this in order to condemn the one-sidedness which refuses to accept any moral teaching save at the lips of Christ. They assert that “many essential elements of the highest morality are among the things not provided for nor intended to be provided for in the recorded deliverances of the Founder of Christianity.” To many persons, who have been accustomed to think of the New Testament as the one source of all moral teaching, this statement comes as a great shock at first. Dimly they have sometimes felt that something of the kind was true in detail, and that the tendency of a certain kind of religion was to make a man forgetful of public duty, e.g. that patriotism seemed to fade away as the conception of membership of the Church took possession of a man; or to come to the homeliest details, that a man might be meek and pure in heart, and merciful, and yet seem deficient in courage and self-reliance and the stronger virtues. Nay, to such an extent has this dimly-felt perception taken hold of us that there are certain strong virtues which some of us scarcely expect to find in religious persons. If we do not think of them as the soft padding of the universe, we do not naturally expect them to be strong and virile. We rather open our eyes wide when we find that a good person is also liberal-minded, for we have made up our minds that good people are seldom unprejudiced, that they often exhibit a very limiting narrowness, that they do not enter very warmly into questions of public justice, or even further them. And so we find ourselves admitting that there are religious people who are not good, as there are good people who are not religious. Hence it comes to pass that ethical societies are started to inculcate those sides of morality upon which Christianity is supposed to be defective; and the publications of these societies certainly would seem to remind many Christians of moral truths of which they have, to say the least, often undervalued the importance. Nothing can be more disastrous than that we who speak for Christ should allow that these implied exceptions were made by Him, that He deliberately left them out because He counted them of no importance, that the Christian conception of life is defective because it takes no account of them. It is to that fundamental misconception that I address myself this morning.

Before we deal with the subject in detail, it seems desirable to say this: that nowhere does Christ claim to have originated a new code of morals, that He always assumes an existing one, and that the advances which He makes upon previously existing ones ought not to be allowed to obscure this fact; that we do well to bear in mind and to say that the teaching of Christ and His Apostles takes very much moral effort for granted which it never mentions in detail. It could hardly have been otherwise. It was to the points in which previous morality failed that Christ would naturally address Himself. It was not necessary to dwell on lessons already learnt. The Roman Government, for instance, had taught men much civic virtue, the Roman law had developed man’s sense of justice. It would certainly be easy to point out how in His dealing with the centurion Christ assumes both the one and the other. Because the advance on certain sides is so great, because Christ “goes up into a mountain,” because He raises men’s aspirations to greater heights, we must not let ourselves be drawn into the old fallacious way of looking at things which had its early foundation in an exaggerated conception of the fall, and which assumed that there was no moral effort made before Christ came to inspire it and to teach its necessity. If we would really understand the moral teaching of the New Testament, we must assume a great deal that is not there explicitly stated to be morally binding; such, e.g., as all the conceptions that are contained in the phrase “a good citizen,” a “law-abiding man,” which existed wherever Roman rule prevailed. Christ did not ignore them. He built on them. He assumed them as already existing.

Let us dwell on this instance of duty to the State. One of the complaints of a certain school against Christ is that He did not teach politics. Why was it that Christ said so little about them? Because at the time political virtue held a disproportionate place in all pre-Christian systems of ethics; it overwhelmed everything else; it became a danger to the moral effort of individuals; the State swallowed up the individual. Is it not then perfectly intelligible that our Lord says little about State duties and political virtue? What He does say is on one point to enforce the claims of public order. “*The restlessness of the Jews in Palestine gained no support from Him, nor did the restlessness of Christians in Rome gain any countenance from St Paul.” “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s” is our Lord’s law. “Let every soul be subject to the higher power,” “the powers that be are ordained of God.” “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God,” and “they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation,” that is the strong rebuke administered by the Apostle of the Gentiles—too strong, it almost seems, when we remember that Nero was the power. Nor can the words be applied as a general rule which must govern all political movements. One must take them as governing the Christian attitude only under existing conditions, for historically there have been rebellions which have justified themselves in that they have undone oppressions. But as containing warnings against mere aimless restlessness, against the noisy self-assertion of little knots of people, against mere abortive attempts at insurrection on a small scale, they are capable of enduring application.

Speaking generally, we must say that political life is not dealt with directly by the New Testament, the rules for the guidance of citizens are scanty and ephemeral, not because the claims of public duty were ignored, but because there were other people who insisted on these; there were great prescriptions which enforced them, and “*the ethical function of the Gospel was” not to annihilate the moral code that already existed, but “to deepen the foundations and enforce the sanctions of morality generally,” to give great principles which would work on the conscience, as, e.g., those which led ultimately to the abolition of slavery, rather than to give what would have been an impossible command, at once to release the slaves.

In point of fact, the ethical teaching of the Gospel never aims at regulating the details of conduct, political or otherwise. If we want to turn it into rules we lose its spirit. Christ’s work is to quicken, to refine the moral faculty within every man so as to lead him by the exercise of his Christian consciousness to judge for himself. This is true not only as regards State duties, but as regards all duties. If we hunt through the Gospels to find special rules for special occasions we shall fail. “The letter killeth, the spirit giveth life.” “†Act (it has been said) on the literal sense of any one of Christ’s precepts, e.g., ‘Whosoever will compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain,’ and you will bring confusion on yourself.” You will find for yourself that you could never have been meant to do that, but “receive such a precept as a parable, as setting forth a right temper, as a corrective of self-assertion—take the kernel and not the husk of the precept, and you will produce harmony in your moral being.” And thus it is that Christ takes so little heed of the politics of the time. He assumes the good citizen and his duties. It was not needful to dwell on that, and if He had given any moral precepts in reference to the questions of the day, they must have lent themselves to mere details, which it was the aim of His teaching to avoid.

Christ then assumes rather than lays down the duty to the State. But this principle of tacit assumption must be carried much further if we are to understand the Gospel ethics.* There are many valuable elements of morality on which it does not insist, because the experience of life enforces them with sufficient distinctness. There are virtues such as courage, self-reliance and self-respect, which a man learns in self-defense; that he often practices them to excess, in disregard of the weakness and the claims of others, is unquestionable, but that in their proper measure they are absolutely essential to moral life no one will deny. Much of the teaching of Aristotle, as well as of the Republic of Plato, may well be laid to heart before we come to the Sermon on the Mount. A man ought to be brave, self-reliant, self-respecting. Many religious persons are not any of the three, because they have been trained in the false system which has expected to find all morality inculcated in the New Testament. Christ never said, “be brave, be self-reliant, respect yourself,” because the experience of life would teach men these things, and because Christian common-sense would teach them. So again He did not say “be honest,” because the law of the community, the very idea of human life, inculcates honesty as a virtue. He built upon these things indirectly. He sanctioned them, but it did not fall in with His purpose to inculcate them. He did not teach men what others or the experience of life had sufficiently taught them before.

This observation is most important in its bearing on education. We want moral lessons as well as Scripture lessons. Many children grow up with very imperfect ideas on such subjects as courage, self-reliance, self-respect and honesty, because they do not come in their Bible lessons; and very unsatisfactory the result often is. The Gospel, it cannot be said too plainly, assumes such virtues as the simplest elements of a moral life. While no denunciations are more severe than those uttered against religious teachers who had not mastered these first lessons of morality, yet little is said about them directly, because Christ felt that society could be trusted to inculcate that class of virtues.

I have left myself but a moment to say briefly that the region of moral life, where Gospel precepts do hold the field, is that region within man, where social restraint and public opinion exercise no control at all. It is the region of motive and inward self-regulation which the Beatitudes govern; they supply defects, they supplement previous systems, they touch these deepest springs within man which affect his whole moral nature. Their moral aim is (1) to accentuate the value of inward virtue as distinct from outward, and to lay down the absolute necessity of right inward intention; and (2) to emphasize the importance of certain moral elements which the existing morality either ignored or misrepresented, and which are always in danger of being forgotten in the fret and hurry of life, unless they are enforced by some higher sanction,—I mean such virtues as humility, forgiveness, endurance, patience, sympathy, purity.

If we remember this, we shall approach the Sermon on the Mount rightly; it is corrective, it is supporting in its ethical teaching, but it is not—could not be exhaustive. It was addressed to those who accepted and practiced the best moral teaching of the day, but who, inasmuch as they were destined to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” had to aim at a more perfect standard.

Nothing can be more important for those who have to do with children than to understand this. The cardinal virtues, justice, courage, prudence, and temperance certainly need inculcating before we try to build up the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. There are elementary lessons in morality which must precede the inculcation of the Beatitudes. We do no real service to Christian morality when we forget these things; we shall only make ourselves ready for the higher wisdom so far as we recognize that the New Testament was not meant to teach us everything, that it takes much for granted, much which we learn for ourselves by the discipline of life, much, too, that only the full play of Christian consciousness, the God-enlightened moral faculty within us, can ever make true and real and fruit-bearing for ourselves. So we shall arrive at that great and complete conception of life which we owe to our Divine Master, and which has been again and again realized, in the utmost variety, in the lives of His truest servants.

* Lightfoot, “Cambridge Sermons,” p. 35.

* Lightfoot, supra, p. 36.

† Do., p. 37.

* Cf. Lightfoot, supra, p. 38.

Eyton, R. (1896). Christ as a Moral Teacher. In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 1–13). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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