Is the Sermon on the Mount gospel?

Is the Sermon on the Mount gospel? November 21, 2011

One sort will look at my question and say, “No way!” This sort thinks the Bible has two operative principles. First, we have the Covenant of Works (God is holy; God demands perfection to enter God’s presence; humans have all sinned by nature and by act; therefore, humans are damned; the Sermon on the Mount is part of divine law to reveal sin; therefore it is not really gospel). Then we have the Covenant of Grace (God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves; this Sermon is the law that Christ both taught and did; we are to live this law by the grace of God). But for this sort of thinker, the Sermon is not gospel; it is Law. This is a soterian approach to the Bible and to the Sermon, and it is a justification gospel.

But a second sort will look at my question and say, “Obviously!” That is, this approach sees a moral vision for all of humanity sketched in utter beauty, and it says “This is how we are to live as Christians and we are to point the way to others.” So for this person the gospel is a moral vision, and it’s not so much a soterian gospel as it is a justice gospel.

I suggest both are missing the boat on the Grandest Sermon of them all. We fail to read the Sermon properly if we think this is Moses on Steroids or if we think this is simply the Moral Vision of Jesus for justice. Yes, it is both in some ways but we’re not getting to the heart of the Sermon if we see it as Law or as a moral vision for justice.

The way to read the Sermon on the Mount (a picture from the traditional site, looking down toward Capernaum) is to see it as Messianic and to see it as gospel (see The King Jesus Gospel). If we force the gospel into a soterian model, then the Sermon fails to gospel; if we let the NT define gospel, then the Sermon is the gospel.

Here Jesus rises to the mountain — surely an echo of Moses giving the Torah from Mt Sinai — to reveal God’s will for God’s people of the new creation. The first thing that strikes the reader of this Sermon is its profound christology: the Sermon is Christology on Steroids. The reader (or listener) comes away thinking, “Do I want to give myself to this Jesus?”

In this Sermon, Jesus who reverses all expectations of who is “in” and who is “out,” because Jesus points to people groups who are marginalized and says “The King’s kingdom includes these people.” Jesus says, “No, your way of classifying people is wrong. There’s a new way in my kingdom.” It’s very gospel like for Jesus to assume the posture of the New Moses and to begin classifying people all over again. Then Jesus, in essence, issues his mission: my followers, he says, are to be light and salt, one to the Gentiles and one to the Jews (?) (5:13-16).

Then Jesus utters what has to be one of the most gospel-ish statements in the whole Bible. I quote the words.

Matt. 5:17       “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. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.a 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Now if the gospel is what Paul says it is in 1 Cor 15:3-5, then the gospel is a message about Jesus, a message that claims Jesus fulfills Israel’s hopes (and the divine plans for the cosmos) …. and that is exactly what Jesus does here: Jesus claims in public that he is is the fulfillment of Israel’s Torah and Prophets. That’s gospeling. We have too many diminishing Christ in order to make this stuff Law, or too many who diminish Christ to make this a global vision for global justice. First comes christology, everything else follows. If we get christology right, we get everything else right. Get it wrong, and the whole thing falls apart.

The entirety of Matthew 5:21-48 illustrates that very claim by Jesus: those snippets on vows and lust and divorce and loving your enemies are not morals but Messianic claims on messianic people. Jesus is King and this is how the King’s people live in the King’s kingdom. We dare not delete the king and grab his morals; this only works when we attach ourselves to the King and let the King shape how we live.

I could go on, but will leave that to you. The Sermon on the Mount, folks, is pure gospel because it proclaims Jesus (not just morals and Torah). This is why the Sermon ends with an invitation: take up my yoke, it is saying, and follow me. Jesus sketches his vision for his people and invites us to turn from our current way of life and give ourselves to him and to his kingship.

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  • rjs

    The sermon on the mount is central and is gospel. We tear it apart and look at little piece – the Lord’s prayer, the beatitudes, the wise man and the foolish man, … – and let the pieces speak out of context and imperfectly. We need to look at the whole sermon.

    Another thing that struck me as I was reading several years ago in the writings of the early church Fathers (ca. 100-200 AD) is how central to their thinking this sermon really was – if it is not the most quoted passage it is certainly well up the list.

  • Percival

    If you are poor, meek, reviled, or spiritually bankrupt, the beatitudes are certainly good news, too. These need to hear that God favors them.

    Since Jesus apparently repeated this message a number of times, it must have been at the center of his gospel proclamation.

  • TSG

    I believe that my Amish neighbors are an example of a people group who take on this sermon as Messianic claims on messianic people.

  • phil_style

    @RJS: “We need to look at the whole sermon.”

    My light-touch perusing of biblical scholarship seems to indicate that the sermon on the mount is unlikely to be the record of a single “sermon” given by Jesus at one precise time. It seems the evangelist complied a series of phrases/sayings of Jesus into a combined account.

    Does that thinking influence how we approach this text? Does it suggest that maybe the content of the SotM was actually infused throughout Jesus’ entire ministry years, and not confined to a single speaking event?…

  • rjs


    It isn’t the beatitudes – it is the whole sermon. Taking the beatitudes as the “good news” or gospel is, I think, exactly what Scot is referring to as making this a “justice gospel.”

    The beatitudes and their message is only a part of the whole. They too are a part rooted in the story of Israel.

  • rjs


    I think that it is largely irrelevant whether the sermon is the record of one instance spoken by Jesus or a sermon put together by Matthew or a source used by Matthew. It is put together into a coherent whole to capture the message that Jesus taught and lived. This is how the early Christians remembered the teaching of Jesus.

    Taken piece-meal we miss the impact and importance of this intentional summary of the entire teaching of Jesus.

  • As you know, Dallas Willard has pointed this:

    “The Beatitudes in particular are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings. … They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus.”

    Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, Chapter 4 (p.102, 106)

  • I’d be interested to know what you and your readers think of this –

    It was written back in March, when Muammar Gaddafi was still alive.

    And following on from the beatitudes, it’s fascinating to see what Jesus said about sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). He divides them on the basis of what they have done, not on the basis of what they believed. Of course, what we do springs from following Jesus. He changes our nature if we will let him work within us. He gives us hearts of flesh.

  • Well said, Scot. As Hauerwas says, the Sermon on the Mount IS Jesus, more than anything else.

  • The Sermon on the Mount is the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God. Matthew calls it “kingdom of heaven.” I call it The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Everything in that sermon is about the kingdom (I call it “The Sermon of Heaven on Earth”). Indeed, the whole book is about it, and by the end, we can see quite clearly that Jesus is the King and that His rule and reign has already begun ~ He tells the disciples, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:19)

  • John W Frye

    How can the Sermon on the Mount be ‘gospel’ when there is not one drop of Jesus’ blood in it?…just kidding. The soterian gospellers can’t imagine the gospel without the cross and PSA. ‘The Way’ gospelers (King Jesus Gospelers) see King Jesus creating a new people and new way of life on this earth now (grounded in Jesus’ mutlifaceted atoning work–birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, appearances, ascension and pouring out the Spirit).

  • Matt

    Scot, could you recommend any books on this besides Willards?

  • I’m reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cost of Discipleship’. Reading the first section I felt a strong King Jesus Christology coming through. I’m now beginning to read the second part which explains the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Seems that Bonhoeffer is in the third camp- instructions for the King’s people. Is that’s fair call?

  • Wm

    Depends on how one reads the sermon. Some conclude from 5:17 alone, that Jesus was sent to point to and lift up the Law as if it was the absolute/eternal ‘thing’. Others, reading the whole gospel of Matthew, see the law pointing to and lifting up Christ as the absolute/eternal ‘Person’. For me, the gospel is never about an ‘it’, but always about the ‘One’. “I came to..I say to..But I say to..Truly I say to..For this reason I say to..Yet I say to..I will declare to..”

  • T

    I understand the approach that calls the SoM “law” and I sympathize with it, since it was like mother’s milk to me. But at some point we have to realize that such a view puts us at odds with the apostles’ own view of Jesus and of the gospel. We have to deal with the apostles’ willingness to call Jesus’ whole story ‘the gospel.’ Perhaps more so, we have to deal with the apostles’ ease with affirming Jesus’ kingdom gospel as gospel, and with Jesus’ characterizations of his own teachings as “spirit and life.” My understanding of the Lutheran conception of “law” and what it can do seem strongly at odds with calling Jesus’ words “spirit and life.”

  • The gospel fulfills the promise in Ezekiel 36:25ff, about God sprinkling us with clean water, cleansing us, and putting His Spirit within us. In Galatians 5, Paul shows that the Spirit dwelling in us and bringing forth His fruit in us produces what the Law never could.

  • Kenton

    Jesus reverses all expectations of who is “in” and who is “out,” because Jesus points to people groups who are marginalized and says “The King’s kingdom includes these people.” Jesus says, “No, your way of classifying people is wrong.”

    Hmm… It makes me wonder what other ways we’ve be classifying people as “in” and “out” that might just be wrong…

  • Percival

    RJS #5,
    Hmm, I wasn’t thinking of the beatitudes as a justice message but more about a declaration of who God is favoring with the coming of Jesus. You’re right, they are not the whole sermon, of course, but as a prologue, they set a tone.

    But I’m not sure of the distinction between justice and gospel, isn’t justice good news too? In this prologue I hear echos of his mother’s prophetic words of Luke ch. 1, which seems to be the first NT proclamation of the gospel — announcing God’s favor of one group of people over another. I don’t read Scot as saying that justice is not gospel, rather that it is not meant as “a moral vision for justice.” I agree with that. The beatitudes seem to be more about powerlessness than morality. Of course, the whole rest of the sermon is revolutionary as well when it comes to a description of discipleship after Jesus.

    Scot, would you care to clarify?

  • The inclusio (Matthew 4:23 and 9:35) indicates that Matthew himself considered the Sermon on the Mount to be the “Gospel of the Kingdom.”

  • No, but not because of the old Law-Grace question. The Sermon on the Mount, IMHO, is strongly tied to the program of mendicancy, miraculous healing, exorcism and proclamation of repentance in preparation for the coming kingdom that characterized the time between Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion. In these activities, the kingdom became present and visible in Jesus, and in those he sent in his name. The Sermon on the Mount was instruction for Jesus’ mendicant exorcists. As such, it is a part of the gospel because it is part of the story of what Jesus did. By itself, though, it is not the gospel. We can’t jump from the Sermon on the Mount to the post-resurrection situation of the church without some significant effort.

  • Hi Scot. ‘Christology on steroids’ could apply to the four gospels as a whole … great phrase!
    Maybe another thread sometime? – but it would be interesting to unpack how far this Christology (in the Synoptics especially) goes. For it’s one thing to say the gospels are Jesus centered as the whole focus and climax of God’s saving purposes for Israel and the world (and I like to say that Jesus was ‘self-centered’ and see how people react!). It’s another thing to extrapolate to how much the synoptics say explicitly about high Christology – the divinity of Jesus?

  • T


    It’s the other way around. You can’t limit the SoM and the activities of Jesus and the apostles to the pre-crucifixion without significant effort.

  • DRT

    hmmmm, Christology on Steroids, next thing you know we will be advocating muscular Christianity.

  • Diane


    Yes, you’ve absolutely got Bonhoeffer right–his is the “third call”–follow Christ all the way. For him, Christ was nothing less than the reality of the universe.

  • scotmcknight

    Patrick … great probing brother. You know I’m reading Tom Wright’s new book on Jesus, and he’s got one coming out soon called God Become King, and it’s very interesting to me how Tom is building a high christology from below — a way of saying Jesus thought he really was doing God things but wasn’t saying things in 4th Century kind of way. He was God ruling; he was the temple everywhere he went … and I think this apologetic theme through the framework of doing historical work is what Tom is seeking to establish. Long ago an American Royce Gordon Gruenler wrote a book called “New Approaches to the Gospels and Christology,” or something like that, in which he took a kind of phenomenological approach to Jesus to unpack the language to reveal a high christology at work. He used philosophers but worth a read if you can grab a copy somewhere.

  • scotmcknight

    Ben, yes but Bonhoeffer was a robust Lutheran in everything he said, so while many like to find him supporting themes today a good read of him — say the early parts of Discipleship — reveals a very strong Lutheran, grace-shaped (Lutheran gospel vs law) approach.

  • Btw the Jewish community spoke of the Torah as the yoke they take up. So Jesus’ “take up my yoke” reference would have been another reference to Moses/Torah, in Jewish ears.

    See the Talmud, Berachoth 13a, Mishnah.

    Take care & God bless

  • Scot, for sure, we mustn’t read into Bonhoeffer what isn’t there. He was a strong Lutheran (grace vs works), however when I read him there is this sence that Jesus is more than savior. It seems that to Bonhoeffer Jesus is King and we must follow. His book ‘Discipleship’ was written to combat the Lutheran doctrines, albeit departed somewhat from what Luther may have intended in the first place. Bonhoeffer wanted to throw the gospel of cheap grace out the window. Jesus died-my sins forgiven-do nothing was not going to cut it. For Bonhoeffer King Jesus calls we follow- Jesus died for our sins (which was costly grace) but rose as king therefore we follow. And so yes he is a Lutheran in his theology, but I would have to argue that he is more from the King Jesus camp than a majority of ‘soterian’ evangelicals today(might be a slight bit of stereotyping in this claim). Is that fair, or am I barking up the wrong tree?

  • Scot McKnight

    Ben, yes I agree.

  • Scot
    This statement is excellent.

    “Jesus is King and this is how the King’s people live in the King’s kingdom.”

    But it becomes dangerous when people start seeing it as a tougher moral standard that is impossible to achieve. I prefer to see the sermon as how we will live, if we love Jesus and walk in his Spirit. That takes the pressure off.

  • Susan N.

    A wonderful book on The Sermon on the Mount: ‘But I Tell You: Jesus Introduces a Better Way to Live’ by Karen L. Oberst.

    Yeah. What Jesus said throughout this collection of teachings was a good news/bad news kind of deal; good news to those down and out by worldly, and even religious, standards…bad news to many who thought themselves on top of the world 🙂 Do you think Jesus’ detractors were often listening in on these “talks”, if only to find flaws and weaknesses to capitalize on in their scheme to get rid of him?

    If the Gospel *is* Jesus, then to my thinking it is everything he said and did (including death and resurrection); it is about who He was (and is).

    My early “knowledge” of Jesus as my “personal savior” did less to emphasize His life and teachings–His identity in that regard (what kind of king is He?) When, much, much later in my life, I became earnestly invested in “knowing” all about Jesus’ life and teachings, the “relationship” changed dramatically. I found that in retrospect, I really *do* love and revere this Person/Savior/King! He became real and present in my everyday life.

    I doubt any human short of glory could live the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount perfectly. I do think these teachings show us what will please the King, and what will ultimately lead to “abundant” life. Though, often, following Jesus’ teachings ends up, in the short run, causing us more inconvenience by worldly standards. In the world as we know it, the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount appear backwards, upside-down, just plain crazy. Go figure!

  • Alice

    I just saw an interview online with Jamie Arpin-Ricci about his book, which is all about the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s a link to the interview:

  • Josh

    Hey Scot,

    Have you considered John’s prologue in determining what the gospel is…

    “[1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] He was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. [4] In him was life, and the life was the light of men. [5] The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. …
    [14] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1.1-5,14)

    Jesus = Word of God = Gospel
    “In the beginning was the [gospel]”
    “The [gospel] became flesh”

  • charlie

    i think it’s dangerous to draw a line like this for many reasons. Practically speaking- there are many “soterian gospelers” who view the sermon on the mount the way “the way” gospelers do. We don’t want to characterize certain groups of Christians in an unfair way or make them half breeds or something. I know i am guilty of this; so it’s a reminder for us all. There is a problem when we start sounding like…

    ” ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.”


    For whenever someone says, “I’m with Paul,” and another, “I’m with Apollos,” are you not unspiritual people?

    Bless you.

  • Navesele

    The gospel is that Christ died for our sins. The sermon on the mount is this. Moses gave the Law to disobedient people, not to follow, but to expose their sinful nature. The sermon on the mount spoken by Jesus is a gospel of love, not law. This is why it is so confusing. The mind wants to follow commandments, it wants to be obedient and understand what to do in order to accomplish the task. But Jesus is expressing love in his sermon. It’s like the story of the good Samaritan. It is not a matter of who the neighbor is, but that you love him, help people who are needy. Do not raise yourself above others (humble in spirit) or consequences of your pride can hurt others (instead of loving them, respecting, not dishonoring them.) Jesus is expressing things of the heart here, things of pure love. He is love. And he wants us to walk in love toward God the Father and all of his living creation. For example: Thou shall not kill, was given in times when killing others was so common. It still is today, but the law still works today, too. It works to expose people’s sinful nature, to repent of their sins, and commit themselves to following Christ.