A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:3-12. c). The blessings promised (continued).
This brings us to a further question about the ‘blessings’ Jesus promised. It is a problem we cannot avoid. Do not the beatitudes teach a doctrine of salvation by human merit and good works, which is incompatible with the gospel? Does not Jesus state clearly, for example, that the merciful will obtain mercy and the pure in heart will see God? And does not this imply that it is by showing mercy that we win mercy and by becoming pure in heart that we attain the vision of God?
Some interpreters have boldly argued this very thesis. They have tried to represent the Sermon on the Mount as nothing but a thinly Christianized form of the Old Testament law and of the ethics of Judaism. Here is Jesus the Rabbi, Jesus the lawgiver, they say, issuing commandments, expecting obedience and promising salvation to those who respond. Probably the most forthright exponent of this view has been Hans Windisch in his *The meaning of the Sermon on the Mount* (1929). He puts his emphasis on ‘historical exegesis’ and rejects what he calls ‘Paulinizing exegesis’, by which he means trying to interpret the Sermon in a way which harmonizes with Paul’s gospel of grace. In his view this cannot be done: ‘From the standpoint of Paul, Luther and Calvin the soteriology of the Sermon on the Mount is irredeemably heretical.’ In other words, it preaches the law not the gospel, and offers righteousness by works not by faith. So ‘there is a gulf here between Jesus and Paul that no art of theological exegesis can bridge’. H.Windisch goes even further. He speculates that Paul’s emphasis on free salvation had led many to regard good works as superfluous, and that Matthew deliberately composed the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of anti-Pauline tract!
It is this same fear that promises of the Sermon on the Mount depend for their fulfilment on human merit that led J.N.Darby to relegate them to the future ‘kingdom age’. His dispensationalism was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) which, commenting on 5:2, calls the Sermon ‘pure law’, although conceding that its principles have ‘a beautiful moral application to the Christian’.
But both the speculations of H.Windisch and the fears of the dispensationalists are groundless. Indeed, the very first beatitude proclaims salvation by grace not works, for it pledges the kingdom of God to ‘the poor in spirit’, that is, to people who are so spiritually poverty-stricken that they have nothing in the way of merit to offer. The reader can guess with what hot indignation Luther repudiated the suggestion made by some in his day that the Sermon on the Mount teaches salvation by merit! He added to his exposition a long ten-page Postscript in order to counter this monstrous idea. In it he castigates ‘those silly false preachers’ who ‘have drawn the conclusion that we enter the kingdom of heaven and are saved by our own works and actions’. This ‘abomination of the sophists’ so turns the gospel upside down, he declares, that it ‘amounts to throwing the roof to the ground, upsetting the foundation, building salvation on mere water, hurling Christ from his throne completely and putting our works in his place’.
How, then, can we explain the expressions which Jesus used in the beatitudes, indeed his whole emphasis in the Sermon on righteousness? The correct answer seems to be that the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of ‘new law’, like the old law, has two divine purposes, both of which Luther himself clearly understood. First, it shows the non-Christian that he cannot please God by himself (because he cannot obey the law) and so directs him to Christ to be justified. Secondly, it shows the Christian who has been to Christ for justification how to live so as to please God. More simply, as both the Reformers and the Puritans used to summarize it, the law sends us to Christ to be justified, and Christ sends us back to the law to be sanctified.
There can be no doubt that the Sermon on the Mount has on many people the first effect just noted. As they read it, it drives them to despair. They see in it an unattainable ideal. How can they develop this heart-righteousness, turn the other cheek, love their enemies? It is impossible. Exactly! In this sense, the Sermon is ‘Mosissimus Moses’ (Luther’s expression); ‘It is Moses quadrupled, Moses multiplied to the highest degree’, because it is a law of inward righteousness which no child of Adam can possibly obey. It can therefore only condemn us and make the forgiveness of Christ indispensable. May we not say that this was a part of the Sermon’s purpose? It is true that Jesus does not explicitly say so, unless it be in the first beatitude as already mentioned. But the implication is there throughout the new law just as much as it is in the old.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:3-12. c). The blessings promised (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.