on the Mount: Is it for churches?
Did Christ teach works salvation?
Some conservatives view Matthew 5-7 as applying only to the Millennium, thinking it teaches standards well beyond human ability today. For example, in Matthew 5:21,22 Christ raises the standard of the law against killing to include not being angry at a brother without a cause, such anger posing the danger of hell fire. But the teachings apply to all who would be Christ’s dis- ciples through salvation by grace. Doubtless, they are the ultimate standards of the Millennium, but they are also the high standards that New Testament churches endowed with God’s Spirit are to strive for in preparation for the Millennium.
Theories of men have no standing if they conflict with the teaching of Christ, and He says the Sermon on the Mount is for whosoever & everyone (7:24- 26), and He speaks to His disciples (5:1), and so to the church. He calls for a changed heart to avoid matters like anger leading to heart-hardening and killing (and hell-fire for the non-disciples, the people joining in – Mt.7:28). The sermon introduces New Testament standards of a changed heart through God’s Spirit soon to be given in redemption (see Eph.5:1-9). The standards are the high goals that Christ’s church, His representative in the world, must strive for. High standards hinder carelessness, and meeting them depends on being filled with the Spirit, which we today seldom are. The church today is to strive to be all that Christ teaches in the Sermon, poor in spirit (earthly type), mournful (of sin & failure), righteous, pure in heart, meek (not self- exalting), merciful, peacemakers and willing to suffer for righteousness sake (as many do today). We’re to avoid anger that can lead to killing, avoid look- ing on the opposite gender with lust (adultery in the eyes of God - 5:27-29), avoid divorce (5:31-33) and bless our enemies as part of our witness (5:44). We are never to interpret the scripture so as to presume a right to live below God’s standard for Christians. Standards of some professors of the faith to- day are well below those taught by Christ.
The Sermon on the Mount is plainly for churches today, the same teaching being seen in the gospels, epistles & Acts applying to churches. For example, Mat.5:21 says thou shalt not kill, and 5:22 relates anger to killing, saying whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. This is seen also in 1 John 3:15 that says Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer. Mat.5:28 says whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart, which is seen again in 2 Peter 2:14 that condemns having eyes full of adultery. Mat. 5:9 says, Blessed are the peacemakers seen again in Rom.12:18 that instructs Christians to live peaceably with all men. Mat.5:16 says, Let your light so sh- ine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven, which is seen again in Eph.2:10 that says For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, and in 1 Cor.10:31 that says, whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. And the Mat.5:10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake, is seen in Acts 14:22 that says, we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.
What has been said above is in the category of the spirit of the law, standards of living meant to characterize behavior of the redeemed. Christ summed-up these standards in His response to a lawyer who tried to trip Him up in His words (Mat. 22:35-40). He defined the spirit of the law in the most basic way meant to characterize God's people, loving God and our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. The spirit of the law applied in the Old-Testament era, and carries over into the New since it is the standard for all of God's people.
Throughout Mat.5, Christ speaks of a change of dispensations from the days of the Old Testament to the New, saying, Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time (The law told by Moses)...but I say unto you...These words mark a change that clearly is for New Testament churches, but He doesn't change the standard of behavior for God's people. Instead, He provides the power of the Spirit to meet the age-old standard of behavior, enabling us to live in honor of our God on the basis of redemption through His sacrifice on the Cross.
The Sermon on the mount does not teach works salvation
It's been said that the sermon indicates Christ in His earthly ministry was a teacher of the law to Jews, and that works salvation applies to the time of His earthly sojourn and the Old Testament era (and the Tribulation). However, salvation never was achieved by works, as seen in Galatians 2:16 that says, by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified (the law teaches standards, of life, not works salvation). Ephesians 2:16 says of Israel and the church that both are reconciled in one body by the cross…(by grace, not by works).
Christ taught salvation by grace from a works perspective since that’s how Jews saw the matter. We do this today in presenting the gospel to advocates of works salvation, like the so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jews asked Christ, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? He replied …This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent (Jn.6: 28,29). That Christ taught salvation by belief in Himself from a perspective of works is clear in gospel incidents where it's said He taught salvation by works.
1. In Mat.6:15 Christ said…if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Forgiveness of sin is crucial to salvation, so some think Christ was saying that His hearers had to do a work, forgiving, to be saved. But this is just another way to speak of God’s saving grace, using works for the sake of the works-oriented Jews. Christ here tells His hearers that, if a man can’t find it in his heart to forgive wrongs, he has not received the Spirit of forgiveness, the Spirit of God so vital to salvation. A person’s inability to forgive shows he has never been forgiven himself, and this is a way to teach the need to receive the Spirit to be endowed later. The way Christ expressed this is a different perspective on salvation by grace, one well-suited to the Jews.
2. In Matthew 5:27-29 Christ says that even thinking lustful thoughts is to be guilty of adultery, and that it’s better to pluck out an eye to avoid this, than to be cast into hell. Some think this teaches works salvation by body mutilation. The teaching applies to the spirit of the law, and continues that of Mat.5:20 regarding the Pharisees & scribes who believed that they earned salvation by keeping the letter of the law. It tells works-oriented Jews that, in view of the requirements invoked by the spirit of the law, the only way to avoid guilt for adultery on the basis of their works is to pluck out their eyes. No one can be expected to do so, but even that is better than going to hell. Christ is saying that, if salvation and avoiding hell depended on human works, people would need to do things like plucking out their eyes to avoid the sin that condemns. He says this to show them that they need something far greater than works for salvation. This is meant to turn people from the works-salvation theory, and make them see their need of God’s power in this matter. They need the Holy Spirit conferred in salvation by grace to resist sins like adultery. Resist- ing lustful sights is a New Testament standard, and the degree of resistance attained depends on the degree of filling with the Holy Spirit, but men begin to develop resistance by possessing the Spirit.
Application to Gentiles today
Now teaching of the spirit of the law has another aspect, a figurative one in the life of righteousness for the redeemed. When Christ said, if thy right eye offend thee pluck it out and if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, this means we must separate from all that we favor most, if it interferes with our service to God (i.e; that which has my right-eye of favor or one who is my right- hand man). This includes our most favored joys or people, even parents who discredit a redeemed person's departure from a traditional family religion; Christ refers to this when he speaks of hating one's own family (Lk.24:26), which is hate in the sense of the separation characterizing hate. If churches don't take seriously this type of teaching by Christ, we shouldn't be surprised if the carnality and gross sin characterizing some so-called modern "bible-believing" churches continues to spread to reach cataclysmic proportions. Likely, this type of situation underlies the words of Christ in Mat.7:13-14, "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." Professions of faith that don't cause despising of sin and a strong ongoing effort to refrain from it are of questionable authenticity! What a con- trast this is with the great change accompanying the reality of redemption in Christ, as seen in 2 Cor. 5:17, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
Now the suggestion of plucking out an eye to avoid sin is not usually meant to be practiced literally. It is offered by Christ to show how awful the conse- quences of sin are if a person ignores redemption, even the catastrophe of losing one's eyesight, that enables enjoyment of sin, being preferable to end- ing up in hell. Christ teaches such a concept in Mat.18:6 regarding one who can’t stop offending those who believe in God (terminology/context apply the teaching to all, not just those oriented toward works salvation).
3. Some think works salvation is taught when Christ speaks of salvation of Zaccheus the publican in association with the man’s willingness to give up much of his wealth to make things right with his fellow man (Lk.19). But this simply teaches that the only saving faith is that which brings forth fruits indicative of a changed heart since we are saved to do the good works that glorify God (Eph.2:9). This is the whole basis for the Sermon on the Mount, showing that this kind of faith is essential to avoid the kind of faith that is just intellectual in nature.