Is the Sermon on the Mt. Law or Gospel? I Say Law. by Pr. Rossow

I ask for your patience and understanding for the lack of posts in the last few days. There as been a confluence of circumstances leading to this. First, I have had a very busy travel schedule recently with my trip to St. Louis, the speaking engagement at the Minnesota North Confessional Lutherans’ conference and some personal travel. This has led me to spend the last few days focusing on parish matters. Also, Klemet Preus had been busy travelling and is no longer able to serve as one of our Brothers’ Cafe bloggers. We thank Klemet for giving us a wonderful two years of blog posts. We are in the process of looking for a substitute. Mollie has also been busy lately with her political work. Last I heard she was seen out in Nevada paying close attention to some little congressional race out there.

Because I have been more focused on congregational administrative matters n the last few days, I have not been in the ether zone of inspiration until a few moments ago as I was preparing for a Bible class to be taught tonight on Matthew. In my preparations I was once again alerted to the age old question of the sermon on the mount: is it Law or Gospel? I have not engaged this matter on the highest academic level but have engaged it as a pastor, preacher and Bible teacher. Here is my take after twenty five years of preaching and teaching on the words of Matthew.

I know there are some respected LCMS theologians who staunchly choose the side of the Gospel in this debate. (Let’s be clear that any extended section of Scripture such as the Sermon on the Mount will have both Law and Gospel. We are asking an academic question here but like most such questions, it can be useful for leading us into a deeper understanding of God’s word.) The new Lutheran Study Bible seems to take the Gospel side (p. 1577). I look forward to your comments below, those of you who defend the “Gospel” side of the equation but I am thoroughly convinced that the Sermon on the Mount ought to be characterized in general, as the Law of God, and in particular the second use or mirror. Here is why I assert this.

  1. A few verses before the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). He then follows it up with the words Law calling people to repentance.
  2. It makes sense from a theological and systematics standpoint that the Law would come first. That is the typical order (Law then Gospel) and so the beginning of the ministry of Jesus would be characterized by the Law.
  3. The beatitudes certainly could be describing those already converted but at this point in the Gospel Jesus has yet to have done any preaching to convert anyone and so as I read them, they convict me. I am not meek. I am not merciful. How much mercy do I need to show before I am blessed for my acts of mercy, etc..
  4. Jesus words in Matt 5:20 – “For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
  5. Then follows all of Jesus tightening of the law in Matt 5:21 – 47 (e.g. “You have heard it said you shall not murder…I tell you everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.”)
  6. Matt 6:31 – “O you of little faith…”
  7. Matt 7:6 – “Do not give dogs what is holy…” I am the chief of dogs and so stand convicted by this verse.
  8. In Matt 7:23 Jesus says about some who considers themselves his ardent folowers – “I never knew you; depart from me you workers of lawlessness.”
  9. The clearest and harshest words of the second use of the law that I know of are in the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5:48 – “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

This list seems sufficient to defend the proposition that the Sermon on the Mount is primarily the Law of God. This is to me the straight-forward, common sense approach to this section of Scripture. Seeing this as primarily Gospel would take a few extra steps of rationalization and thus move us beyond the common sense understanding. I could be wrong. I put this out there for discussion and learning. Have at it BJS’ers.

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