Gospel-centered Christian Obedience: Recovering the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount was the most significant sermon Jesus preached. Recorded at length in Matthew 5-7, its teachings are echoed and summarized extensively throughout Luke’s gospel, as well as in the rest of the New Testament. According to some scholars, the Sermon on the Mount was the most cited text of Scripture in the first few centuries of the Christian church.

And yet, it did not take long for the Sermon on the Mount to fall on hard times. As Christians rose to positions of responsibility in the military and government of the Roman Empire, they struggled to see how Christ’s ethical instruction could practically be carried out. Turn the other cheek in the face of those murdering your families and communities? No society can function this way. Abstain from all anger or lust? A beautiful ideal, but ultimately impossible. Store up treasures in heaven and not on earth by selling your possessions and giving them to the poor? Surely this is only an ideal possible for those who are particularly dedicated to the kingdom of God.

In the Middle Ages the church came to view significant parts of the Sermon on the Mount as spiritual counsels or ethical ideals that were binding only on the clergy and those who committed themselves to monasteries. For people who actually lived in the world, however, the commandments were significantly relaxed. During the Reformation the Protestant reformers attacked Rome for teaching that the Sermon on the Mount was not binding on all Christians, but even some Protestants tended to view the Sermon as embodying ethical ideals that Christians could never attain to in practice. Some argued that it pertains to Christians as individuals but not to communities. Others suggested that it is particularly concerned with our attitudes, not our actions.

One of the results of this confusion regarding the Sermon on the Mount was that Christians have tended to emphasize the Ten Commandments as the central text of Christian ethics. After all, if Jesus is simply echoing Moses, and if what Jesus said is so hard, why not go back to the (better and clearer?) source? The Law can be a comforting solution for Christians bewildered by the radical nature of the good news of the kingdom.

In their fascinating Christian ethics text book Kingdom Ethics Glen Stassen and David Gushee seek to restore the Sermon on the Mount to its place of centrality in Christian ethics. I haven’t yet read the whole book, and of what I have read, there are certain aspects that are troubling. Stassen and Gushee exalt the gospels above the rest of the New Testament in a way that is problematic if we are to receive the apostles as the ambassadors of Christ, I think, and at times the way in which they address certain ethical issues seems weak, too influenced by contemporary cultural trends.

That said, I have learned a tremendous amount from this book, and what I have learned starts from its assessment of a basic problem in Christian ethics, as well as its approach to addressing that problem. Stassen and Gushee write,

Here is the problem. Christian churches across the theological and confessional spectrum, and Christian ethics as an academic discipline that serves the churches, are often guilty of evading Jesus, the cornerstone and center of the Christian faith. Specifically, the teachings and practices of Jesus – especially the largest block of his teachings, the Sermon on the Mount – are routinely ignored or misinterpreted in the preaching and teaching ministry of the churches and in Christian scholarship in ethics. This evasion of the concrete teachings of Jesus has seriously malformed Christian moral practices, moral beliefs and moral witness. Jesus taught that the test of our discipleship is whether we act on his teachings, whether we ‘put into practice’ his words. This is what it means to ‘buil[d our] house on the rock’ (Mt 7:24).

What is at stake here? Nothing less than the question of who is in fact the Lord of the church. “When Jesus’ way of discipleship is thinned down, marginalized or avoided, then churches and Christians lose their antibodies against infection by secular ideologies that manipulate Christians into serving the purposes of some other lord.”

Their purpose in the book, and their consistent emphasis, is therefore on the teachings and practices of Jesus. And their goal is to “recover the Sermon on the Mount for Christian ethics.”

Jesus taught that as his disciples obey him and practice what he taught and lived, they participate in the reign of God that Jesus inaugurated during his earthly ministry and that will reach its climax when he comes again. So we are attempting to write an introduction to Christian ethics that focuses unremittingly on Jesus Christ, the inaugurator of the kingdom of God.

Focus on the teachings and example of Jesus? Emphasizing the Sermon on the Mount with its gospel of the kingdom? An intriguing idea. Who’d have thought this might be the way forward for Christians seeking to follow their Lord.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 31, 2012, in Law, Sermon on the Mount and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Gospel-centered Christian Obedience: Recovering the Sermon on the Mount.

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