Replace the Commandments with the Sermon on the Mount?

Replace the Commandments with the Sermon on the Mount? January 31, 2019

Andy Stanley is a prominent megachurch pastor in Atlanta who has become known for stirring up theological controversies.  He has recently written that Christians should not be putting up monuments of the Ten Commandments; rather, they should put up monuments of the Sermon on the Mount.

I would love to see public displays of the Sermon on the Mount!  But I have problems with Stanley’s reasoning.  Read his argument.  Below is an excerpt, with the emphasis mine.

From Andy Stanley, Why Do Christians Want to Post the 10 Commandments and Not the Sermon on the Mount? in Relevant Magazine:

Jesus issued his new commandment [“Love one another” (John 13:34)] as a replacement for everything in the existing list. Including the big ten. Just as his new covenant replaced the old covenant, Jesus’ new commandment replaced all the old commandments.

Participants in the new covenant (that’s Christians) are not required to obey any of the commandments found in the first part of their Bibles. Participants in the new covenant are expected to obey the single command Jesus issued as part of his new covenant: as I have loved you, so you must love one another. . . .

The church has a terrible habit of selectively rebranding aspects of the old covenant and smuggling them into the new.

The blended model began as early as the second century when church leaders essentially kidnapped the Jewish Scriptures and claimed them as their own. In the fourth century, following the legalization of Christian worship under Constantine, church officials began leveraging old covenant concepts to validate the creation of an imperial form of church.

During this same period, the church began doing to pagans what pagans had done to the church. By the eleventh century, the church offered “get out of hell free” cards to anyone who would join a crusade. By the fifteenth century, the church was at war with itself over theology. Entire villages were razed in the name of a version of Christian theology. Over and over, Christianity was weaponized in Jesus’ name. . . .

The justifications Christians have used since the fourth century to mistreat people find their roots in old covenant practices and values. Imagine trying to leverage the Sermon on the Mount to start an inquisition, launch a crusade, or incite a pogrom against Jews. But reach back into the old covenant, and there’s plenty to work with.

The early church moved past the old covenant—why haven’t we?

One problem is that the Sermon on the Mount itself says that the Law in the Old Testament is still relevant:

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)

And is it really true that Christians “are not required to obey any of the commandments”?  It’s OK for Christians to commit adultery?  To steal?  To have other Gods?

Stanley is describing the Law of the “old covenant” as actually bad, as the source of all of the bad things Christians have done through the centuries.  It isn’t clear why the Ten Commandments would be to blame for theological wars, inquisitions, and pogroms.  All sides of these conflicts agreed on the Ten Commandments, including most emphatically the Jews, whose Scriptures and morality Stanley is denigrating.

The Ten Commandments are justifications for mistreating people?  Who?  They teach honoring your parents, protecting life, honoring your spouse, respecting property, not lying about people.   They teach that people should not be mistreated.

Stanley himself cannot avoid the Ten Commandments.  In criticizing the wars of religion, isn’t Stanley invoking the moral principle of “Thou shalt not kill”?  In opposing the razing of villages, isn’t he assuming “thou shalt not steal”?

The Commandments are not in opposition to love; rather, they explain what love looks like.  Jesus says that we are to love God with every aspect of our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  “On these two commandments,” he says, “depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  Furthermore, in putting forth this ethic of love, he is quoting Leviticus 19:18 in the Old Testament!

The first group of Commandments–about having no other gods, honoring His name, setting aside a day for worship–have to do with loving God.  The second group–about parents, not killing, marriage, not stealing, false witness, not coveting–has to do with loving your neighbor.

Each commandment sets forth a principle that directs us what we should not do and what we should do, in light of love, amounting to a comprehensive ethical system.  (See Luther’s exposition of each commandment in the Small Catechism for how this works.)

It is true that Christ has fulfilled the Law on our behalf.  We are not under the Old Covenant and we are not under the Law (Romans 6:15).  But that does not mean that the Commandments do not apply to us.  God’s Law continues to convict us of sin, drive us to repentance, and cause us to turn to the gospel of Christ’s grace, atonement, and forgiveness.  And that gospel is also a theme of the Old Testament, from the promise of the Seed of the Woman who would defeat Satan, through the sacrificial system of blood atonement for sins, through the prophecies (such as Isaiah 53), through the intimate poetry of the Psalms.

And God’s Law serves not only as a mirror by which we can see our sins and our need for Christ, it also functions as a curb to make our external lives in society possible and as a guide to show us God’s will.

Furthermore, the Ten Commandments are a point of religious consensus.  The reason they have been put on public monuments and inscribed on courthouse walls is that not only Christians but Jews and even Muslims can agree to them.  They testify, as Luther said, to an overarching “natural law” that is written on the hearts of everyone (Romans 2:14-15).

The efforts to wrench Christianity away from its Judaic roots and to rip the Old Testament out of the Bible have a very bad history, from the Marcionite heresy (which Stanley is advocating) to the Nazified theology of the “German Christian” movement (which I am sure Stanley would reject).

 

Photo by Judgefloro [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

 

 


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