Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Sermon on the Mount: Law or Gospel?

You've heard the expression, "The devil is in the details?" When people say this they mean that small things in plans and schemes that are often overlooked can cause serious problems later on. Some have suggested that this idiomatic phrase was derived from the supposed original statement that "God is in the detail." The truth in either idiom is the same however: details, sometimes even small ones, are important! It's the small details of something which can often muddle or confuse someone's judgment about something very important.

This is especially true in theology I think. When it comes to interpreting the Bible in preparation for preaching, unfortunately, I've discovered that the failure to be attentive to seemingly small details in a passage can derail an entire sermon. Clearly, even missing the detail of a single verse in your sermon could have a drastic outcome in the perception by the congregation of your interpretation not only on the passage you are preaching from, but on your entire take on the Gospel!

I recently heard a sermon where the pastor interpreted Matthew 5:48 in such a way that it suggested that he was at least confused about whether the Sermon on the Mount as a whole was to be understood as being in reference to the Law or the Gospel. This confusion occurs frequently enough I suppose, but it is alarming none the less because it means that as a church body we generally do not have any foundation regarding the necessity of clarifying this distinction between Law and Gospel.

Fleshing out the Necessity of Making this Distinction

We live in a day when few professing Christians bother to seek to understand either the law or the gospel as they were intended to be understood, much less their relationship to each other.

This distinction that the theologians of old were convinced needed to be clarified in preaching was that the Law condemns, threatens, and brings no good will to men; and the Gospel gives life where the Law brings death. This must be communicated clearly in a sermon otherwise the hearer fails to find the wrath and condemnation of the Law, which is intended to drive him to Christ; nor do they find the mercy and grace in the Gospel. If the Sermon on the Mount is an exposition of the seriousness and inescapability of the condemnation of God's law, then it must not be suggested that anyone can be perfectly obedient to it as it requires; or that Christ was suggesting that anyone could obey it as it was intended to be obeyed when He said in Matthew 5:48, "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."

Just as God is perfect, just, good, unchanging, etc., the same is true of His law -- it is a perfect, unchanging expression of His character.  There is a universal application of God's law too.  It refers to all people, of all nations and all ages.   
Jeremiah 6:19; Romans 3:19; Leviticus 24:22; Psalm 47:2-9. 

Another aspect of the law is its universality.  There isn't more than one standard for obedience.  The law that was revealed to Moses is Christ's law.  It didn't originate with Moses. It was God's law revealed to him:
God's law (Jeremiah 31:33) =
the law of Christ (Matthew 5:17) =
the law of Moses (10 Commandments Deuteronomy 4:13)

John Murray said

"The law is the moral perfection of God coming to expression for the regulation of life and conduct."

In The Life of St. Paul, James Stalker writes

The law has no creative power to make the carnal spiritual. It cannot change an unrighteous heart into a righteous one. The purpose of the law is rather to aggravate the evil; it multiplies offenses. It is fully able to describe the sins of human nature, but rather than serving as a roadmap to avoid them, the Law turns into the temptation to sin.

The whole history before Christ could aptly be described as God allowing time to prove that fallen man could never reach righteousness by his own efforts, and when He had demonstrated that man’s righteousness was a complete failure – He brought in His secret weapon: The righteousness of God.

This is Christianity. This was the sum of Christ and His mission – the conferring upon man as a free gift, of that which is indispensable to his blessedness, but which he himself had failed to obtain by the keeping of the law. It is a divine act; it is grace; and man obtains it only by acknowledging that he has failed himself to attain it and by accepting it from God; it is got by faith only. It is “the righteousness of God, by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all and upon them that believe.”  The law was no part of salvation. It belonged entirely to the preliminary demonstration of man’s failure .

Martin Luther said that the law ought never to be preached apart from the Gospel, and the Gospel ought never to be preached apart from the law.

"If any man be not a murderer, an adulterer, a thief and outwardly refrain from sin, he will swear that he is righteous and presume on his good works and merits.  Such a one God cannot otherwise mollify and humble, that he may acknowledge his misery and his damnation but by the law; for that is the hammer of death and the thundering of hell and the lightening of God's wrath to beat to powder obstinate and senseless hypocrites."
[Grace in Galatians, Rev. George Bishop, 1912, p. 52]

William Perkins explains how confusion stems from a failure to distinguish whether or not a passage is speaking about the Law or the Gospel:

The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it…. A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them….

By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works.… The Law is, therefore, first in order of teaching; then comes the gospel. [William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 54.]

Theodore Beza said the same:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings… "'The Law'" is written by nature in our hearts," while "What we call the Gospel (Good News) is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from Heaven (Mt. 16:17; John 1:13)." "The Law leads us to Christ in the Gospel by condemning us and causing us to despair of our own 'righteousness.' Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel," Beza wrote, "is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity." [Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. by James Clark (Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1992), 40-1. Published first at Geneva in 1558 as the Confession de foi du chretien].

Calvin also discussed this issue, showing us why we needed to understand which one was being brought forth in God's revelation:

...[For] the law cannot do anything else than to accuse and blame all to a man, to convict, and, as it were, apprehend them; in fine, to condemn them in God's judgment: that God alone may justify, that all flesh may keep silence before him." [Calvin, 2.7.5 -1536 Institutes, tr. by F. L. Battles (Eerdmans, 1975), 30-1; cf. 1559 Institutes 2.11.10].

"Thus," Calvin observes, "Rome could only see the Gospel as that which enables believers to become righteous by obedience and that which is 'a compensation for their lack,' not realizing that the Law requires perfection, not approximation.” [Calvin, 1559 Institutes 3.14.13, italics mine].

Therefore, the Gospel is the message, the salvation-bringing proclamation concerning Christ that he was sent by God the procure eternal life. The Law is contained in precepts, it threatens, it burdens, it promises no goodwill. The Gospel acts without threats, it does not drive one on by precepts, but rather teaches us about the supreme goodwill of God towards us. Let whoever therefore is desirous of having a plain and honest understanding of the Gospel, test everything by the above descriptions of the Law and the Gospel. Those who do not follow this method of treatment will never be adequately versed in the Philosophy of Christ. [Battles edition of 1536 edition, op. cit., 365. Delivered by Nicolas Cop on his assumption of the rectorship of the University of Paris; there is a wide consensus among Calvin scholars that Calvin was the author].

Ursinus, primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said that

the Law-Gospel distinction has "comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures," are "the chief and general divisions of the Holy Scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein." [Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Presbyterian and Reformed, from Second American Edition, 1852), p. 2.]

Louis Berkoff stated that this distinction is not merely to be understood as being in either one or the other of the testaments either:

The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace. This distinction was not understood to be identical with that between the Old and the New Testament, but was regarded as a distinction that applies to both Testaments. There is law and gospel in the Old Testament, and there is law and gospel in the New. The law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God’s will in the form of command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether it be in the Old Testament or in the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus.

Let me conclude this section with some observances that the Rev. George Bishop makes in his commentary on Galatians regarding the purpose of the law:

 = The law has its place, (if a man uses it lawfully -- i.e., according to its proper design and intention) although it cannot save or help to save any man…

= The law serves the necessary purpose of showing what sin is, and the impossibility of fallen man's obedience.  It was added … in order to bring sin to light and [severely and well-deservedly] condemn it.

= …the harder [man] works for salvation, the more surely he damns himself.  The law then comes in like a hammer and knocks this snake on its head … the law smites the doer of the law for righteousness whether it be doing in whole or in part.

= The law locks the door on the sinner; Christ unlocks the door and sets it wide open. 

= This is how a man becomes a child of God -- not by keeping the law, nor by trying to keep it, but by simply believing on Christ. (pgs. 49-55)

Though the Reformers were most careful to clarify and make this distinction in their preaching, this is by no means critical only if one is interested in Scripture from a Reformed perspective. This does add credence to the argument however, that in general, Reformed theologians are more careful in their understanding of theology with respect to a systematic approach to the Bible. Making this distinction is hard work, and can be easily overlooked by beginner theologians, more so by beginning Christians.

The Verse  in Question

Why is Christ's first recorded sermon characterized by Law and not by grace? Why are the themes of God's mercy, lovingkindness, longsuffering, compassion and grace absent from the Sermon on the Mount?  Why isn't there even a thread of explanation of grace?

Because you need to know that God requires absolute perfect obedience to His law, and that you are utterly incapable of accomplishing that before you can ever understand the extent and the need for His grace.

The passage in question was Matthew 5:17-48.  The verse in question is Matthew 5:48: "Therefore, you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect." In the context of the entire passage of the Sermon, should this verse be understood as Jesus speaking about the absolute condemnation inherent in the Law?  Or should it be understood as explaining the grace of the Gospel?

Charles Erdman, in his Commentary on Matthew, wrote

"The Sermon sets forth the fundamental laws of the Kingdom … and it fills the heart of the hearer with bewilderment and despair.  It reveals a divine ideal and a perfect standard of conduct by which all men are condemned as sinful and to which men can attain only by divine help … Its theme is the righteousness which the King requires.

A little homework about how many modern scholars interpret the Sermon on the Mount shows that most don't see any reference to the Gospel in it at all! Though Bill Bright's conclusions and perspectives are Dispensational leaning, I do believe the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ has addressed the interpretational problem correctly by noting that the Sermon on the Mount is devoid of grace!

“It could not be that Christ was addressing the Christian Church in the Sermon on the Mount ... There is nothing about the Holy Spirit, our position in Christ, [or] redemption through the blood of Christ in this sermon ... As a way of salvation it is useless.... It is legal, not gracious in character, and is full of judgments and threats (Matthew 5:22-29).  It offers no salvation to any man.  The non-Christian world, which so admires this sermon, is condemned to hell by it.  As a way of sanctification it is useless.... the motive is fear, not love.... The way of grace is not here.”

I would contend that his comment that 'As a way of salvation it is useless' is perhaps shortsighted. It might be better to say that without a proper grasp of the severity of the law as it is expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, there can be no sense of one's need to run to Christ for salvation. So the Sermon in itself is useless to save, unless it is seen as the catalyst for man to see his complete failure to observe the perfect requirements of the law and seek salvation in Christ alone. This is why it is critical to keep a proper perspective on the intent of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.

It appears that the Pharisees Jesus was referring to were thinking that the Law wasn't that hard to keep. All you had to do was not commit adultery, for instance, and you had kept that aspect of the law. But Christ shows us clearly that the intent of the law was much more serious. Its intent was to show you that you couldn't keep it! If you had lustful thoughts in your heart for a woman, you had already committed adultery with her. It wasn't about whether or not you could get close to keeping the law either, and yet still be righteous.

The purpose of Christ’s comments about the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is to show us our inability to keep the Law perfectly, with the intention of having us flee to the mercy of Christ as Savior. For a pastor to conclude his sermon on this passage by suggesting that Christ's last comment in this section (5:48) was a plea for us to radically obey the Law, by saying, “In what way should we imitate God? Radical obedience to the law and loving others," clearly suggests that he missed making this important distinction.

The issue that Jesus was demonstrating in his discussion of the law in the Sermon on the Mount was that it is impossible to keep the law, regardless if you were attempting to keep it in a Pharisaical way, or as a believer. This is why I am suggesting that Jesus' remark "You shall be perfect just as your heavenly Father in heaven is perfect" is not a command for us be more obedient, but rather, the final nail in our coffin of self righteousness delineating our condemnation that the law presents.

Jesus concluded this section of the Sermon with the words "Therefore, you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect." The pastor said that verse meant, "Do what God does; act like God acts; live like God lives; imitate his character – Be like your Father." In other words, he was suggesting that Jesus was commanding that the hearer actually be perfect in his actions as God is perfect!  Now if that were possible, one certainly would not need Christ or the mercy found in Him alone.

I believe Jesus was actually driving a nail into anyone's self-righteous coffin with this statement! He is actually saying that the Law demands complete perfection -- and therefore, it is absolutely impossible for anyone to fulfill it by any human effort! If this is what Jesus meant, one can only wonder why the pastor would have said it means "Do what God does; act like God acts; live like God lives; imitate his character – Be like your Father." This interpretation, it seems, is simply a moralistic platitude.

Granted, it isn't often that we hear pastors in evangelical churches make statements like this. An ex-Mormon who heard this sermon was deeply troubled by this pastor's take on this verse -- and rightly so. Taken at its face value, she thought his statement was about as close to Mormon doctrine as one can get. After all, Mormon doctrine would interpret this verse just like this based on their understanding of theology!

After you become a good Mormon, you have the potential of becoming a god (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345-347, 354.)

"Christ [Was] Not Begotten of [the] Holy Ghost ...Christ was begotten of God. He was not born without the aid of Man, and that Man was God!" (Doctrines of Salvation, by Joseph Fielding Smith, 1954, 1:18).

"God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!!! . . . We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea and take away the veil, so that you may see," (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345).

Some Mormons may disagree with a few of the points listed on this page, but all of what is stated here is from Mormon authors in good standing with the Mormon church.

Now please understand that I am not suggesting that this pastor intentionally meant to teach a doctrine anything like the Mormon doctrine of man becoming God. It just so happened, that his interpretation at this point was virtually identical to Mormon doctrine. What I am saying is that his presentation was unclear enough to suggest that he at least inadvertently misrepresented Matthew's intent with his interpretation because of his failure to make the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Hence, the importance of clearly defining how we understand the law/gospel distinction in our sermons. For an ex-Mormon to walk away from this sermon not knowing what the pastor intended to mean is at least poor communication.

What about Obedience?

Part of the distinction we are talking about also means that we are not suggesting that the Law has no significance in the life of the Christian believer any longer either. It is critical to remember that even Christian so called 'obedience' to the law is sinful and imperfect. It is not that the Law should now be ignored (antinomianism), or that it should become our means of salvation (legalism), but rather that it becomes the Christian's guide to understanding the will of God.

… the unparalleled tendency of the historic Reformed faith [is] to ground its adherents in the vast and glorious freedom of the Gospel, and always in such a way as not to minimize a life of practical holiness, but rather to excite and encourage true piety and devotion [due to the grace received in the Gospel]

Michael Horton wrote that

we often hear calls to "live the Gospel," and yet, nowhere in Scripture are we called to "live the Gospel." Instead, we are told to believe the Gospel and obey the Law, receiving God's favor from the one and God's guidance from the other. The Gospel--or Good News--is not that God will help us achieve his favor with his help, but that someone else lived the Law in our place and fulfilled all righteousness [The Law & the Gospel, Michael S. Horton, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 1996].

Horton further clarifies the need to be most careful in our explanation:

Does that mean that the Word of God does not command our obedience or that such obedience is optional? Certainly not! But it does mean that obedience must not be confused with the Gospel. Our best obedience is corrupted, so how could that be good news? The Gospel is that Christ was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification. The Gospel produces new life, new experiences, and a new obedience, but too often we confuse the fruit or effects with the Gospel itself.

While the Law must be preached as divine instruction for the Christian life, it must never be used to shake believers from the confidence that Christ is their "righteousness, holiness and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). In fact Calvin took this thought even farther by writing that

The logical consequence of [the] doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is that never, not even after the remission of our sins, are we really righteous. On the contrary, we have noted that the sanctification which accompanies justification, or at least begins with it, enables us to become precisely more and more aware of our sin [Francois Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of his Religious Thought, translated by Philip Mairet, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1950), 258-259].

Calvin says the same thing here as well:

For, inasmuch as these two things are very different, we must rightly and conscientiously distinguish them. The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness, for we have been called to sanctification. Here it is the function of the law, by warning men of their duty, to arouse them to a zeal for holiness and innocence. But where consciences are worried how to render God favorable, what they will reply, and with what assurance they will stand should they be called to his judgment, there we are not to reckon what the law requires, but Christ alone, who surpasses all perfection of the law, must be set forth as [our] righteousness. [Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.18]

The believer goes to the Law and loves that Law for its divine wisdom, for it reveals the will of the One to whom we are now reconciled by the Gospel. But the believer cannot find pardon, mercy, victory, or even the power to obey it, by going to the Law itself any more after his conversion than before. It is still always the Law that commands and the Gospel that gives. This is why every sermon must be carefully crafted on this foundational distinction.

 Jesus was putting the final nail in the coffin of our doom with this statement in 5:48 by meaning that all of us are subjected to the death, condemnation and misery inherent in the severity of God's law, which he just articulated in the Sermon on the Mount in 5:17-48.  Didn't Jesus mean that thinking we have somehow kept the Ten Commandments means that there can be no escaping His judgment?

The pastor's comment then that “The intent of the law is to bring life,” at the close of the sermon, clearly reveals a failure to understand this distinction between gospel and law. In 2 Corinthians 3:7 it is clarified that the Ten Commandments are the ministry of death, not life, as this pastor said.

This particular exposition of Second Corinthians 3:2-18 clarifies this.

"The law is literal, it rests on written documents … and what is spiritual is the Gospel…. The Apostle says he is drawing a parallel … between the law of Moses and the Gospel of Christ. The former 'kills,' inasmuch as it denounces death without hope on all who disobey it; … the spiritual system of the Gospel brings life and immortality to light, and affords the means of salvation, it imparts life, new life, by the Holy Spirit… [Law and grace] are contrasted as to their tendency: that of the Law was punishment: that of the Gospel was reformation, rather than punishment; salvation rather than condemnation." [Rev. S. T. Bloomfield, The Greek Testament with Notes, vol. ii, 186].

In summary then we must note what the failure to clearly make this distinction implies:

“The law and the gospel are the principal parts of divine revelation; or rather they are the center, sum, and substance of all the other parts of it. Every passage of sacred Scripture is either law or gospel, or is capable of being referred either to the one or to the other . . . If then a man cannot distinguish aright between the law and the gospel, he cannot rightly understand so much as a single article of divine truth. If he does not have spiritual and just apprehensions of the holy law, he cannot have spiritual and transforming discoveries of the glorious gospel; and, on the other hand, if his view of the gospel is erroneous, his notions of the law cannot be right.” —John Colquhoun

There is an excellent book on this topic called A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, John Colquhoun, ed. Rev. Don Kistler (Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999) that is well worth the time to read.

1 comment:

Michael Snow said...

Just a week ago, I read a telling comment on the Sermon on the Mount. It was referred to [tongue-in-cheek] as 'that optional part of the Bible.'

And in American Christian culture, that seems to close to the heart of the matter.