Note: This is a continuing weekly series on the book of Matthew that I began earlier in the year.
During a recent conversation with some fellow ministry-minded friends, the subject of the Sermon on the Mount came up. Though relatively brief, a comment was made that I found interesting: the Sermon on the Mount is not the gospel.
For someone like myself who admires and finds great affinity for Jesus’ discourse here in Matthew, I was not a big fan of the statement. To be sure, there is a very real sense in which I understand what my friend was saying. The Sermon on the Mount is not directly about the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and the grace and mercy of the Lord. It is not specifically about Christ’s salvific atoning work. What is it? A sermonic reworking of the Ten Commandments. A proclamation of the different ways of the Kingdom of God. A way of reminding us that living for God is a lot deeper than simply avoiding the letter of the Law.
So I understand that from a certain point of view the Sermon on the Mount is not the gospel. But I still have trouble with the statement. On the face of things, calling something “not gospel” runs the risk of making it a kind of second-class portion of the Scripture. Further, it has the danger of diminishing what the gospel–or good news–might actually be.
This is, after all, the most lengthy of Jesus’ discourses in the Scripture. It is a sustained period of teaching in which our Lord–often deeply parabolic elsewhere–says some pretty direct things. Things that I would contend are quite fitting with the idea of the proclamation of the gospel (and least broadly conceived). To imagine that such instruction is not constitutive of Christ’s larger mission is hard to believe.
Is Jesus talking about John 3:16 style things here in Matthew 5? No. Is he laying out the plan of salvation through the forgiveness of sins? No. But he is saying some things that I would say are very good news indeed. Think about the Beatitudes. The poor in spirit? The meek? Mourners? Those who are persecuted? All blessed in Christ. All blessed because of Christ. Followers of Christ are salt and light. In Him and through Him they have a real place in the world.
Admittedly, it is not these things but the specific prohibitions against oaths, holding murder in your heart, lust, divorce, and more that would lead someone to proclaim the Sermon on the Mount as not “the gospel.” I understand this. If we read the Sermon on the Mount as a set of instructions for living or how to sin or not sin (i.e. a new Law), then I’d have to admit the gospel-as-salvation content would seem a little slim.
But if we see the Sermon on the Mount as a radical proclamation of the new ethic, orientation, and operation of the Kingdom of God, there’s a lot more positive to see. It might then be understood as an effect of the gospel, if you will. Phrased alternately, it could be what a gospel-infused life might look like. Further, if we understand the gospel (as God’s great YES to us) to be inextricably tied to our separation from God (the great NO to our broken ways) then the Sermon on the Mount is closely linked with good news. Who, after all, can avoid despairing when we learn that hatred or lust in our heart are as bad as murder or adultery? By revealing this, Jesus–like John the Baptist before him–points to the need for repentance and reliance upon grace. Good news and bad as two sides of the same coin.
So is the Sermon on the Mount the gospel? For the sake of discussion, I’ll say yes. I say so because it is good news. Even if that news can at times only be seen in negative, it is still there. Though a broader view of “gospel” than others amongst my coreligionists might allow, I offer it as a way of thinking about the mission of work of Christ beyond only the salvation of the soul.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.