Jean’s Gospel: What Happened To The Sermon On the Mount?
Reformation theology, especially Lutheran, occasionally comes under scrutiny for its emphasis on St. Paul and the Pauline teaching of justification potentially at the expense of the fourfold Gospel and/or Christian sanctification. If that critique is widespread, it deserves investigation and response. This article explores how Luther held the writings of St. Paul together with the Sermon on the Mount (the “Sermon”).
Luther grew up with a Roman understanding of the Sermon’s place in the Christian life. In the late medieval period, Roman theologians taught that the principles of the Sermon were to be normative and required only for the “religious,” meaning those Christians, such as monks and nuns, who could dedicate their entire lives to living holy in accordance with the Sermon. For the laity, including noblemen, common people and soldiers, the principles of the Sermon were taught as optional or aspirational, but not binding, because for the laity the Sermon was thought to impose too high a burden. In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples at the Sermon were the religious, while the crowds at the Sermon were the laity. Late medieval Roman theology created two classes of Christians.
Part of the reason for this understanding of the Sermon stemmed from Rome’s teaching of justification. If, as Rome taught, justification required, not faith alone, but faith formed or completed by love, then operating according to the higher righteousness required by the Sermon (Matt. 5:20) would, it was thought, place salvation out of reach for anyone except a class dedicated to holiness in every aspect of life.
After years of personal striving as a monk, Luther discovered that even he could not meet the higher righteousness established in the Sermon. Luther also discovered that much of his striving was a sham. Instead of the love of neighbor, which Christ teaches throughout the Sermon, Luther realized that what was happening in the monastery was a retreat from the neighbor, to a worship consisting primarily of man-devised works, such as diets, chastity, asceticism, extreme physical discipline and voluminous rules for worship. Under the Roman system, Luther questioned his own salvation.
When Luther discovered the Gospel (which in the Western Church had been buried under corrupt Roman teaching and practice), he also discovered there is only once class of Christian, and the Sermon applies to all Christians. Responding to Roman teaching, Luther wrote:
“[T]hey have covered up Christ with it and have exalted and maintained the antichrist, namely, that Christ here does not wish everything which he teaches in the fifth chapter to be regarded by his Christians as commanded and to be observed by them; but that much of it was given merely as advice to such as wish to become perfect, and any who wish may observe these parts; despite the fact that Christ there threatens wrathfully: – no one shall enter heaven who sets aside one of the least of these commandments, – and he calls them in plain words commands.”
Luther’s Small Catechism
Luther’s best known and most widely used writing is his short Small Catechism, published in 1529, more than a decade after he penned the 95 Thesis, which in popular history instigated the beginning of the Reformation. This is the primary catechetical writing used today by Lutheran pastors for children’s confirmation and adult new member class. In his exposition of the Ten Commandments, Luther incorporated principles from the Sermon. Following are three examples:
“What does [the 5th Commandment] mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”
“What does [the 7th Commandment] mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, nor get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”
“What does [the 8th Commandment] mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
Summarizing and paraphrasing Jesus, Luther takes the Ten Commandments beyond mere external prohibitions and gives them positive explication based on the golden rule (Matt. 7:12) and other Sermon texts.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old…But I say to you”
Luther realized that Roman theology and Pharisaical Judaism share a common trait. The righteousness of God’s Law, not just Exodus 20:3-17 or Deuteronomy 5:7-21, but the entire moral Law, is beyond the reach of fallen man. Its glory is so intense that one can only seek after righteousness under the Law with a veiled heart. When Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20), he was not only telling the Pharisees that their righteousness was insufficient, but Jesus’ message to his disciples and the crowds was: “Don’t follow after the Pharisees; they’ve chosen the wide gate; follow Me instead; I have come to fulfill the Law and the prophets for you.”
The Pharisees and Medieval Catholicism tinkered with, obscured and corrupted the Law, so that man at his best and most committed could achieve something under it. For the Pharisees, they applied the Law to external behavior, but neglected the heart, and thus mercy. For the Medieval Catholics, the monks traded the love of neighbor lived in God-given vocations for cloisters and self-chosen works of piety.
“Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Rom. 3:31)
Following St. Paul, Luther learned that the only way to truly uphold the Law and in particular the principles of the Sermon, is by not striving to attain righteousness by works of the Law (including works of love), but to seek the righteousness of God apart from the Law, that is, the righteousness of God freely given through faith in Jesus.
It comes as something of a surprise that one can only begin to really hear the whole Law and even begin to love and follow it (not as a slave, but as a son), if one abandons the Law completely as the means of righteousness before God. When one turns to Jesus the veil is removed from the heart (2 Cor. 3:16).
Jesus desires to be your righteousness and your sanctification before your Father in heaven. He is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes. On the other hand, before your neighbor here on earth, the Sermon presents an excellent explication of faith working through love.
Luther did not believe in an idle faith: “faith is not feigned or hypocritical but instead it is real and alive. This is the faith that puts love into action doing good works and urges others to do them as well. It is the same thing as saying, those who desire to be true Christians, who belong to God’s kingdom, should be true believers. If the works of love do not follow their faith, they will not be true believers.” – Luther.
However, what Luther would want to maintain (and I believe these are an enduring legacy bequeathed to all Christians) are: (1) faith always precedes good works (indeed it is faith working); and (2) we are justified or made righteous before God by faith alone, and it is in the liberty (or freedom) of the Christian that our service to our neighbor (although tainted with the remnant of sin) is pleasing before our Father in heaven, because Christ is our righteousness. Amen.