Criswell Theological Review 6.1 (1992) 3-14

Copyright 1992 by The Criswell CollegeCited with permission.











Immanuel Christian Reformed Church

Salt Lake City, UT 84121




Christians, indeed scholars of all sorts, never seem to tire of study-

ing the Sermon on the Mount.1 The wealth of literature dealing with

these three chapters in Matthew's gospel is overwhelming. J. Car-

mignac's study on the Lord's Prayer concludes with an 84 page bibli-

ography on that part of the Sermon alone.2 W. S. Kissinger lists nearly

150 pages of bibliography on the Sermon.3

The interested Bible student can easily feel himself crushed be-

neath this avalanche of material, not all of it necessarily helpful, for

once all of the critical investigations are finished, one still has to reach


1 The reader will notice that this article lacks the extensive notation found in

others in this issue. The reason for this is the comparative lack of literature directly ad-

dressing the issues involved in the practical, contemporary application of the Sermon

on the Mount. Cursory comments are sometimes made in the better commentaries,

R Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount, (Waco, TX: Word, 1982) is a good example of this.

But, as one would expect, the space constraints and exegetical emphasis of such works

prevent any principal analysis and thorough outworking of the details of real applica-

tion. More popular treatments offer more extensive practical discussions but seldom, if

ever, reflect upon or justify their own presuppositions or method; for example, see

D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1959, 1960); E. Arnold, Salt and Light, (Rifton, NY: Plough Publ, 1967); J. R W. Stott,

Christian Counter-Culture, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978).

2 Recherches sur le "Notre Pere" (Paris: Letouzey & Ane, 1969),

3 The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography

(Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1975).




some conclusions about what you do with the Sermon on the Mount.

At least, this should be the important question for those followers of

Jesus who believe his teaching continues to make demands upon their

lifestyle today. How is the Sermon to be applied now, not just in

vague generalities, but specifically? Does it really demand nonresis-

tance of all disciples in all situations? Should I actually be willing to

surrender all my belongings to anyone who wants to sue me?

This article will attempt to offer some suggestions for answering

these sorts of questions, indicating how Christians can continue to

take the ethics of the Sermon seriously while avoiding the two most

common extremes of: 1) absolutizing isolated sayings of Jesus by ig-

noring their broader canonical context, or; 2) flatly ignoring or ex-

plaining away Jesus' teaching as being unrealistic.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, "There is nothing new under

the sun." Modern approaches to the Sermon's application can best be

understood by briefly looking at the history of its interpretation. Space

limitations require focusing only on major trends, but this will be ad-

equate for our purposes.


History of Interpretation

The Church Fathers

Prior to the medieval period it is clear that the Sermon on the

Mount was viewed as a straightforward presentation of Christian

ethics. Beginning with the Didache through the apostolic and post-

apostolic fathers, this teaching was held to represent the Lord's expec-

tations of his disciples. Much of the discussion focused upon Jesus'

relationship to the OT law, but regardless of how one might answer

that question, and irrespective of the exegetical method used (whether

Chrysostom's Antiochene straightforwardness, or Origen's Alexan-

drian allegory), there was no suggestion that Jesus' teaching was unre-

alistic, or that it might relate only to some future era of the coming

kingdom. Origen's youthful castration, by his own hand, performed in

obedience to Matt 5:27-30, shows how seriously Jesus' teaching could

be applied by some (though later in life Origen regretted his sponta-

neity, and would have interpreted this passage differently).


The Middle Ages

The medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, introduced a major

development in the popular interpretation of the Sermon on the

Mount through his great treatise, the Summa Theologica. Here

Aquinas claimed that there were two levels of significance to Jesus'

teaching: one which was relevant for all Christians; and a second




which applied only to a few. This was his distinction between com-

mandments (also called precepts) and counsels (also called evangelical

counsels or counsels of perfection). Jesus' commandments must be

obeyed by anyone who hoped to inherit eternal life. But the precepts

were additional, optional instructions which brought the disciple

closer to perfection and facilitated the true imitation of Christ. These

precepts covered three areas: poverty; chastity; and obedience. Conse-

quently, there were now two "types" of Christians (generally, the laity

and those involved in the various priestly/monastic movements), and

the Sermon was believed to teach some things which were too diffi-

cult for the average believer.


The Reformation

The Reformation saw three basic trains of thought develop

among those who shared in the reawakened understanding of salva-

tion by grace alone. Martin Luther developed a view of Christian eth-

ics defined by the presence of "two kingdoms" in this life, the

kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.4 Christians must live

in both. Behavior must be determined not only by personal convic-

tions, which for the Christian are largely shaped by the presence of

God's kingdom, but also by public obligations and responsibility,

shaped by the laws of the land.

In forging this ethical system Luther was interacting with two

different "opponents." First, Luther was rejecting the works righ-

teousness approach to Christian living fostered by Aquinas' theology

of the counsels of perfection. For Luther, all of the Sermon on the

Mount was relevant to all believers. No one could escape its radical

demands because it was Christ's word to his church, but neither

should anyone feel the need to escape this part of Jesus' teaching;

there was no hierarchy of salvation because all were saved by grace.

Secondly, Luther was also rejecting the enthusiasm (as it was

called) of the various Anabaptist groups who insisted upon a very

strict, literal application of all facets of the Sermon's teaching (see be-

low). Luther saw the Anabaptist rejection of any Christian participa-

tion in society as an abdication of Christian responsibility, as well as a

misunderstanding of Jesus' intention. In Luther's mind, life in the

kingdom of God demanded a straightforward application of the Ser-

mon's demands in the personal life of every believer. This required

behavior which was simply the overflow of a heart filled with the love

of Christ.


4 For a good introduction to Luther's view of the two kingdoms, see P. Althaus,

The Ethics of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972).




On the other hand, a Christian's responsibilities in the world may

at times demand behavior which, on the surface, appears to be in

conflict with the ethics of God's kingdom. But such apparent conflicts

are only superficial. As long as the Christian maintains a heart of love,

he can fulfill his outward duty to society while inwardly conforming to

the expectations of Christ. For example, when a Christian judge pun-

ishes some wrongdoer, outwardly he may not be "turning the other

cheek" (Matt 5:39), but if he loves the criminal with the love of God, he

is being a faithful citizen of both the heavenly and earthly kingdoms.

The second stream of Reformation interpretation was found in

the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists read the Sermon on the

Mount as the central piece of biblical teaching for all believers. It was

to be interpreted and applied literally. As citizens of the new King-

dom of God, the Anabaptists withdrew from participation in civil gov-

ernment and rejected all notions of a state church. Consequently,

Christian ethics were for Christians alone; not only could they not be

applied to society at large, but it would be damaging for any Christian

to attempt such an application. You cannot successfully participate in

civil government and live according to the principles of "loving your

enemies," "judging not lest you be judged," etc. Therefore, since all as-

pects of Jesus' teaching were to be strictly followed, the Christian had

no choice but to withdraw from any participation in this world order.

The Kingdom of God could only be realized among the saints as they

related to one another.

The third approach to applying the Sermon among the Reform-

ers was articulated by such leaders as Huldreich Zwingli and John

Calvin. These men sought to establish Christian, theocratic states in

the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva, respectively. They were the ar-

chitects of a reformed world-view which strived to see all aspects of

life brought under the domain of Christ, including the state and civil

authority. They rejected both the two-kingdom ethic of Luther, as

well as the isolationist conclusions of the Anabaptists. For these men

there was only one realm of existence, the kingdom of Christ, and

Christians were obligated to apply this perspective to all aspects of

life in this world, including business and government.

However, Zwingli and Calvin were not naive. They realized that,

at certain points, strict, literal application of some facets of the Ser-

mon's teaching were incompatible with the successful enforcement of

civil law. The Sennon's teachings on nonviolence, nonresistance, pass-

ing judgment and swearing oaths were particularly troublesome is-

sues; hotly debated among all branches of the growing Reformation

leadership. Though Zwingli and Calvin had slightly different meth-

ods of arriving at their conclusions, they both, in effect, made the




needs of civil order an overriding presumption in their method of in-

terpretation. Consequently, those features of the Sermon's teaching

which appeared incompatible with effective government were mod-

erated in one way or another.


Reformed Scholasticism

The post-reformation Protestants began a process of codifying

the various tenets of the different branches of reformed thought

which came to be known as reformed orthodoxy or scholasticism. The

Puritans would be the progenitors of the long term influence of this

theology in the English speaking world. The important development,

as far as the present study is concerned, is what Kissinger has called

"the Paulinizing" of the Sermon on the Mount.

It had long been suggested (beginning with the Church Fathers)

that Jesus originally preached this Sermon as a New Moses bringing a

New Law to God's people. Since reformed orthodoxy understood the

primary purpose of the law to be the conviction of the sinner's con-

science, preparing him for the forgiveness of the gospel, the Sermon

on the Mount was naturally interpreted in this light as well. Jesus'

teaching presented such an unrealizable ethic that anyone who took

his words seriously could only find himself broken by the conviction

of sin and driven to the acceptance of Christ. Just as the grace of sal-

vation offered through Christ in the New Covenant was greater than

that of the Old, so too was this new implement of the sinner's convic-

tion and repentance. This explained why the New Law of the Sermon

was typically interpreted as an intensification of mosaic legislation.

This view of the Sermon continues to be reiterated in different

quarters today, modern representatives being found in men such as

Carl Stange ("Zur Ethik der Bergpredigt," 1924) and Gerhard Kittel

("Die Bergpredigt und die Ethik des Judentums," 1925).


Protestant Liberalism

Numerous forces converged in the 19th century to give rise to a

new theological movement known as Liberalism. Without going into

all the details, the primary articulation of this new school was put for-

ward by Adolf von Harnack in his book What is Christianity? Ac-

cording to Harnack, when we scratch the surface of the church's

teachings about Jesus in order to discover the actual teachings of

Jesus, we find an ethic summarized in the tenets of the universal

fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, most succinctly pre-

sented in the Sermon on the Mount. According to most spokesmen for

this new liberalism (although, as in all things, there is some variety in

approach, the goal of interpretation is not to turn the Sermon into a




new legalism by stringent application of all the details, but the dis-

covery of a new, radicalized love for both God and neighbor blooming

in each person's heart.

Individualized decisions are to be guided by this new heart of in-

discriminate love; and this new love is to guide all decisions in life,

whether private or public. In this sense, the concerns of 19th century

liberalism were somewhat similar to the goals of the theocratic

reformers, in that the ethic of Jesus was to be applied to all of life.

Each was an attempt to forge a wholistic worldview, even though the

outworking of that perspective was radically different in the two



Traditional Dispensationalism

The final approach to interpreting and applying the Sermon to be

reviewed in this study is that of traditional dispensationalism. We use

the modifier "traditional" in recognition of the ongoing evolutionary

character of contemporary dispensational thought.

Traditional dispensationalism begins its study of the Sermon by

sharing an important assumption with protestant orthodoxy: the teaching

in this Sermon knows nothing of God's grace; it is entirely a new law.

Therefore, to apply its teaching to the church, which lives under grace, is

a major mistake. The Sermon on the Mount is not church teaching but

kingdom teaching, and is strictly relevant only to the Jews who will reign

with Christ in the coming kingdom age on this earth. Although some

would insist upon an exemplary aspect of the Sermon's love ethic which

does offer a model for Christian living today, this simply points the be-

liever towards God's perfect expectations for the future; one cannot hope

to fully realize such obedience today.



This is hardly an exhaustive review of the history of the Ser-

mon's interpretation. There are many other movements and individu-

als which might be discussed. But, as R. Guelich has pointed out, a

detailed history of the Sermon's interpretation has yet to be written,

and there is no need to attempt such a work here.5 This brief survey

has revealed enough of the major issues and the basic contours of the

debate to ensure that new attempts at answering questions of applica-

tion will be reasonably well informed about the pitfalls and obstacles

that await and how others have dealt with them. This may help us to

avoid old "mistakes" (although, admittedly, one person's mistake is an-

other's solution--something the reader may feel more strongly before


5 The Sermon on the Mount, 14.



the end of this article). And if we choose to occupy an old pitfall, we

should at least know the company we keep.

We should now be able to recognize the major issues which must

be addressed by any attempt to apply the Sermon on the Mount to

modem living:

1. Does the Sermon offer "entrance requirements" for the Kingdom?

Is it addressed to disciples who are being given instructions for Chris-

tian living, or does is address the seeker who finds in the Sermon a

means of gaining salvation?

2. What is the Sermon's relationship to grace? Is it entirely "law"

(whether old or new), or is there some element of forgiveness to be


3. More particularly, is the Sermon's sole purpose to drive the sinner

to repentance? Is it Jesus' articulation of the Pauline view of law

found by some interpreters in Gal. 4:1-7?

4. Perhaps the Sermon has no relevance to this present era at all?

5. Depending upon one's answer to the preceding questions, we

might still want to ask whether the Sermon is to be applied to society

at large? If so, is obeying this ethic incumbent upon unbelievers?

How would that be enforced? Or does it simply regulate the Chris-

tian's behavior? In which case, is the Christian to make any distinc-

tion between private and public applications of the Sermon's ethic?


How Do We Apply the Sermon Today?


To fully document all the argumentation offered below would re-

quire more space than is available in this article. Therefore, we will

only briefly sketch proposed answers to the questions raised and offer

one example from the Sermon (Matt 5:38-42) to illustrate its current



Basic Principles

The starting point for any proper reading of the Sermon on the

Mount is the understanding that it is instruction given to disciples

who have already made the commitment to follow Jesus. Its teaching

is not for "outsiders" (which is not to deny that everyone would

benefit if they followed its teaching, whether they believed in Jesus

or not). This is Kingdom teaching in the sense that it outlines the obe-

dient lifestyle expected of anyone who has entered the Kingdom of

God by submitting to Christ. This is the general consensus of schol-

arly opinion today, and a quick survey of various features on the Ser-

mon will make it clear:




a) Matt 5:1 demonstrates that the primary audience of this teaching

was Jesus' disciples. Though the surrounding crowds benefit as well,

Jesus was speaking directly to those who had already left everything to

follow him. He is not telling people how to get into the Kingdom, but

instructing them in how they should live once they are inside it.

b) The beatitudes (5:3-10) describe the process of entering this

Kingdom, what heart attitudes are necessary, and the blessings that

one gains as a result of such repentance. A clearer description of ac-

ceptance by grace could not be found anywhere. Jesus' teaching is

offered to those who know that they do not deserve anything from

God; they are in the Kingdom only because they have humbled them-

selves, acknowledged that they are spiritually bankrupt, and have ac-

cepted salvation as God's gift.

c) Various present tense promises illustrate the current benefits

of discipleship: the Kingdom is already theirs (5:3, 10); they are the salt

and the light of the world (5:13f); God has already made himself their

Father (5:16). This list could be greatly expanded, but the point is

plain. Jesus is talking to those who are already members of his family.

With this fundamental principle established, the remainder of

the questions raised above begin to answer themselves.

1. The question of whether the Sermon offers a new law is some-

thing of a red herring, at least as far as questions of practical applica-

tion are concerned (which is not to deny that deciding whether or not

Jesus presents himself as a New Moses bringing a New Torah is a

significant issue). It is clear that, however we answer this question,

the Sermon does not present a way of earning salvation. Aquinas'

"counsels of perfection" must go.

But, aside from that obvious conclusion, it is also clear that the

Sermon points us to a new way of living; it is not simply condemnatory,

as reformed orthodoxy would have us believe. Even in the Old Testa-

ment, the law was offered as God's instructions for godly living to his

people who had already entered into his covenant of grace, e.g., Israel

stood at the base of Mt. Sinai after being delivered from Egypt, not be-

fore. E. P. Sanders' lengthy studies into "covenantal nomism" have ex-

plained this traditional Jewish--and biblical--understanding of the

law at length.6 Of course, to say this is not to deny that such kingdom

instruction can also convict the disciple's conscience, nor is it to assert

that any disciple will ever experience a day when he or she will obey

the Lord's teaching completely. But these things are true of any ethi-

cal teaching found in either testament. The Christian's struggle in


6 For example, see Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977);

Jesus and Judaism, (London: SCM, 1985).




sanctification is the result of the "already/not yet" tension inherent in

the Kingdom's coming: it has come in part, but not completely. This is

the true explanation of the disciple's ambiguous relationship to Jesus'

expectations in Matthew 5-7. Arguments concerning grace vs. law in

the Sermon set up a false dichotomy and avoid the real issues pertinent

to the Sermon's application.

2. Obviously, if the Sermon on the Mount is addressed to disci-

ples, then it must be taken seriously now; it offers neither a future

ethic that can be deferred, nor an unreasonable ethic that can be

avoided or watered down. The demand of present obedience is made

clear in the Sermon's conclusion (7:21-27).

3. Finally, if this Sermon is Jesus' teaching for his followers, then

it is not to be applied as a universal ethic to society at large. This is

not a blueprint for social, political and economic reform. It does not

provide a new code for civil law or the guidelines for how we can in-

augurate a utopian culture in this world. Admittedly, any individual

can experience this breathtakingly radical ethic of love and find his or

her own private part of the world amazingly transformed as a result.

And there is no doubt about the fact that our society can be (and, in

the past, has been) radically reformed when enough of its members

experience this life changing gift of God's grace. But such private ren-

ovation happens only through a personal encounter with Jesus. It is a

change from the inside out. It cannot be legislated. It cannot be im-

posed. Perhaps this is the greatest weakness of any interpretation

which would view the Sermon on the Mount as a new law. Laws can-

not legislate attitudes or dispositions. No human court can prosecute a

man for lust, or sentence a woman for failure to love.

Let's not be confused about this issue. To argue for the "privitiza-

tion" of the Sermon as described here is not to side with Anabaptist

isolationism. To say that the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount can-

not successfully be applied indiscriminately to society at large is not

to say that individual Christians are excused from applying these eth-

ics to all areas of their own lives within that society. It is, however, to

suggest that movements which seek to establish modern "theocratic

states"--whether the architects are Zwingli, Calvin or current recon-

structionists--misunderstand the nature of the Kingdom of God, and

thus the force of the Sermon's personalized ethic. Any attempt at the

universal imposition of the ethics of the Kingdom will inevitably be

unfair to both the unbelieving citizen and the Sermon's true meaning,

for invariably the cutting edge of Jesus' expectations will be compro-

mised (as we saw in Calvin), and the expectations of Kingdom living

will be gutted of their true import as the responsibilities of individual

conscience are transferred to the state.




One Example

Before illustrating these principles by looking at Matt 5:38-42,

one more matter of interpretation needs to be clarified. The Sermon

on the Mount is not the only piece of ethical teaching in the Bible.

This would seem to be a fairly obvious point, and one may wonder

why we even bother stating it. However, many of the debates re-

viewed above stem from the failure to remember this simple fact. For

example, early Anabaptist radicalism was admirable in that they

wanted to take their Lord's teaching seriously, whatever the personal

cost. But their attachment to the Sermon on the Mount was misguided

insofar as they transformed these three chapters of Matthew into a

"canon within the canon"; that is, in practice they behaved as if this

Sermon nullified all other ethical teaching in the Bible. This is a seri-

ous mistake.

Matt 5:38-42 is a key passage in any debate concerning the Ser-

mon's applicability; it is probably the most important text for anyone

who is looking for a biblical justification of pacifism, nonviolence and

nonretaliation. The teaching seems clear: disciples are not to engage

in violence, including self-defense. Even unjust oppressors are not to

be resisted. When taken at face value it is not difficult to see how the

Anabaptists might conclude that withdrawal is the only course open

to Christians in this world. But when we remember that the Bible

also offers other bits of instruction, covering other circumstances, the

picture begins to change.

People are social beings. We live in a context of relationships

defined by various degrees of interdependence. Individuals are not

only accountable for themselves, but heads of families are account-

able for (and to) other family members; neighbors are accountable for

(and to) others in their communities; community accountability is not

only personal, i.e., friend to friend, but can also be public, such as

"office holder to constituency." The Bible has something to say about

all of these aspects of our relationships, but they are not all found in

the Sermon on the Mount.

For example, the Bible has a great deal to say about the care of

the more defenseless members of society: widows; orphans; and the

dispossessed. Widows are to be cared for (Deut 14:28; 16:11; 24:29f;

26:12f; 27:19). Judges are to execute their responsibilities with fairness;

the rich should not be able to buy their judgments against the de-

fenseless (Deut 27:19; Isa 1:23; Jer 7:6; Zech 7:10; Mal 3:5; all concern-

ing widows). Both private and public righteousness requires care for

these members of our community (Isa 1:17).

Consequently, how one responds to any given situation is deter-

mined by the nature of the inter-relationships between the various




parties involved, and one's own role as a private or public figure. An il-

lustration will help. Imagine you are walking down a city street alone

after dark (never mind how you got yourself into this predicament). A

man walks up to you, hits you over the head and begins to take your

wallet. You may well begin to yell for help; you may even try to run

away if you can, or defend yourself in some reasonable manner, but

you do not begin to plan how you are going to track this man down,

have him arrested and seek legal redress by having him prosecuted to

the fullest extent of the law. The teaching of the Sermon strictly for-

bids such retaliation. "Turning the other cheek" means that the disci-

ple surrenders his or her rights to legal compensation.7 This is where

Jesus' teaching applies to your own personal decision making concern-

ing your own private person. Jesus says, "turn the other cheek. . . let

him take your cloak as well." These are non-negotiable expectations

for individual, Christian behavior. When it comes to personal applica-

tion, we must all be Anabaptists. To compromise this level of applica-

tion, as some reformed interpretation has done for example, is to

eviscerate Jesus' teaching of all real significance. The Sermon would

simply become a wax nose, to be reshaped any way we like; and when

push comes to shove most of us do not like the personal demands of

Christian discipleship.

But imagine that the very next evening you notice the same man

breaking into your neighbor's house. This neighbor is a good friend of

yours; she is an elderly widow who lives alone. What do you do? Do you

sit back and think, "I hope she turns her other cheek as easily as I did,

and surrenders her cloak as well"? No. You call the police and do what

you can to aid in the burglar's arrest in defense of your neighbor. This

is also God's command. How the neighbor lady responds to this thief is

another matter altogether; Jesus would ask her to be free of all venge-

ful interests. But Jesus' instruction is that each individual turn his or

her own cheek when struck, not that we all turn our heads when our

neighbor's cheek is being struck. There is a big difference between the

two. You can defend your neighbor without disobeying the Sermon.

Now imagine again that you are a judge. Several days later this

very same criminal is brought before your bench charged with bur-

glary. What do you do? Do you free the man without even hearing the

case because the Sermon on the Mount forbids legal retaliation? No.

You hear the case and give him the proscribed punishment once he is

proven guilty. Why? Because as a public figure you also have the re-

sponsibility before God to see that justice is exercised in society. This

too is God's command.


7 See Guelich, 251.




Initially, this may look like the reintroduction of Luther's two

kingdom theology, but this would be a misunderstanding. Luther had

an important insight in recognizing the difference between private

and public roles in society and the tension created within any Chris-

tian who tries to apply the same ethic across the board in all situa-

tions. The dilemma has been resolved here, not by recourse to two

different kingdoms, but by simply applying the full range of biblical

teaching to the diversified situations of life. Different responses are

required depending upon the shifting dynamics of each new set of re-

lationships. The Sermon on the Mount is only one part of the equa-

tion. This is not a new way of watering down Jesus' demands. Quite

the opposite! It is the way of ensuring that his expectations are ap-

plied as straightforwardly as possible.

Obviously, this is only one of many possible examples. The key to

applying the Sermon on the Mount to real life is not reading an arti-

cle which catalogues every possible response to every possible permu-

tation of life. Lifetime, obedient application consists of first knowing

Jesus as the Lord of your own poor spirit who has replaced your old

heart with his new heart of love, and then measuring your response

to life by the whole counsel of God.




This material is cited with gracious permission from:

The Criswell College;

4010 Gaston Ave.

Dallas, TX 75246

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: