The Sermon on the Mount is not a Guide to Christian Salvation

The Life of Jesus, by William Hole

The Life of Jesus, William Hole (c. 1900) (Wikimedia)

Some preachers say the Sermon on the Mount is the Constitution for Christian Living, or call it a Manifesto for the Life of a Follower of Christ.

Don’t you believe it. Such teaching is nothing more than legalism dressed up in fancy phrasing.

Take a look at the language Jesus used in the first part of the sermon, immediately following telling his listeners they need to be more righteous than the Pharisees. He covers some of the biggest moral issues imaginable, both in his day and ours – murder, adultery, divorce, promises, vengeance, and love – and tells them about each: “You have heard that it was said … but I tell you … .” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44.) Six times Jesus points out that their understanding of a righteous life under the laws of Moses was insufficient.

He closes the sermon by speaking in various ways on the single point of doing God’s will, including the sobering comment: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21.)

Jesus couldn’t be clearer: you can’t enter God’s kingdom unless you do the will of God the Father. Many have taken that phrase and jumped to the conclusion that in order to be a Christian they have to do everything – everything! – Jesus described in the sermon he just preached: they can’t hate another person because that’s the same as murder (Matthew 5:22), they can’t look at someone with lust because that’s the same as adultery (Matthew 5:28), etc.

If that’s what Jesus meant, then no one enters the kingdom of God because no one is good except God. Jesus was clear on that too.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God aloneYou know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” (Luke 18:18-20.)

When it comes to doing God’s will, though, Jesus told his friends it’s not about following a set of commandments on  murder and adultery, stealing and lying.

Jesus said it’s about Jesus.

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29.)

That’s all it takes. Believe in Jesus.

Believing That Jesus Is All You Need

How can mere belief be a work of God? Because it means you acknowledge Jesus the same way your Father in Heaven does: that Jesus is God himself.

No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:23.)

And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. (1 John 3:23.)

… but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:3.)

Yet what is it about Jesus that means believing in him is all it takes to do God’s will? Jesus is the one who has perfectly lived out the Father’s will, and now we benefit from that and are counted as righteous along with Jesus, that’s what it means.

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22.)

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4.)

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.(1 Corinthians 1:30.)

Some will insist that even though Jesus made us righteous, all that means is that you are now able to live righteously, now able to follow all those laws, and that the Sermon on the Mount is your guidebook for how to do that. Those people are wrong. Our lives are not about righteous living but about living a life of faith through God’s grace.

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:21.)

[I do not have] a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:9.)

You might think, though, that this righteous life of faith through grace has eluded you for one simple reason: you keep on sinning.

Join the club, my friend.

Paul said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15.) He was talking about the sin that remained in his life even after he had become a believer, been sent out as a missionary, and established churches throughout the eastern portion of the Roman Empire. He still sinned. Sound familiar?

John (one of Jesus’ closest friends) had an assurance for people like Paul – people like you and me:

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2.)

How do you know that Jesus’s righteousness is fulfilled in you, though? You know because Jesus is “the author and perfecter of faith“, the one who originated (authored) your faith and perfected (completed) it for you. (Hebrews 12:2.)

This is what Jesus does.

Righteousness is found in him because he is the source of righteousness, and it is found in you because you belong to him and he has placed the Holy Spirit in you.

 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14.)

Look at the words in that passage: Christ, salvation, believed, Holy Spirit, guarantee, inheritance, God’s possession. You are God the Father’s possession, and God the Holy Spirit guarantees your inheritance with Jesus, who is God the Son.

Do you see? This is not about you and your [in]ability to follow rules Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount to those under the law of Moses. This is about God who has shown his grace in giving you the righteousness that Jesus himself achieved.

As the Bible says, this is for “the praise of his glory.

Believe in Jesus, then. That is the work of God in your life. And in your belief, God gets the glory and praise.


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35 Responses to The Sermon on the Mount is not a Guide to Christian Salvation

  1. On the one hand, I think you have a lot of great points, especially for someone who doubts God’s love because of their repeated sin. Indeed, God’s love is not predicated upon obedience to the entire sermon on the mount (or any other sermon/teaching of Jesus), but God’s love is extended first and faith is the response.

    On the other hand, I think your post smooths out a tension that is not meant to be smoothed. The same Paul who gave us the trustworthy saying that Christ died for sinners is the same one who instructed the 1 Corinthian church to run the race as though they want to win. The New Testament, especially in 1 John, lets this tension sit without resolving it. 100% grace. And a call to love the Lord with 100% of our being.

    Ultimately, I am suspicious of any exegesis in which Text A is resolved by Text B in a way that doesn’t make sense with Text A by itself. And I don’t see the Sermon on the Mount making the point you make on its own. A long view of the faithful life, in my mind, would be expressed in language resonant with the Sermon on the Mount.

    Love your stuff. Keep writing. Consider this resistance more like sandpaper than a brick wall.

  2. nmcdonal says:

    Well, I love your view on grace and the gospel. But this leaves me asking: why did the Apostles repeat almost all of Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount as imperatives for believers in the Epistles? Were they legalists?

    • Tim says:

      They certainly pointed out how the righteous live, and this is a blessing for believers to enjoy in Christ, but they did not say that this way of living is what achieves righteousness. So yes, anyone who says that the righteous life they preached is an imperative – as in required in order to belong to God – is preaching legalism.

      Rather, the point is that we can now desire righteousness because of God’s grace in our lives and we can then experience the righteousness of Christ because the Spirit of Christ is in us. (See my answer to Andy, above.) But if you sin that does not mean you have lost his righteousness in you; it is not something he has delivered only as long as you remain perfect. I’m no more antinomian than Paul and the rest of the NT writers who all taught that you are eternally righteous in Christ.

      • nmcdonal says:

        So…does that mean you don’t actually believe your statement that “The Sermon not the Mount is Not a Guide to Christian Living?” I agree with you that righteous living is a blessing for those who rest in Christ, and I agree following the law does not attain righteousness…but how does it follow from this that the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t contain imperatives for Christians?

        By the way, the problem with all this is that it leads to the “The Spirit told us to get married, even though he’s not a Christian” line of thinking. Or, “The fruits of the Spirit are so evident in the polygamous couple, so polygamy must be okay”. Or, “The Spirit told me to murder people working at an abortion clinic, to save the babies.” The Spirit teaches, corrects, rebukes and trains us in righteousness using His word – and once we let that go as a real imperative for life, we have no way to teach, correct, rebuke and train one another in righteousness.

        • Tim says:

          The point of the title (where the phrase you question is found) is to say that the Sermon on the Mount is not a guide in the sense of “do these things and you’re a Christian”. It is meant to be provocative, to guide people to read the text. That’s where I actually explain what I mean.

          As for whether the sermon contains imperatives for believers, it depends on what you mean by imperatives. Do you mean believers have to do this – or at least try their best to do these things – in order to be counted as members of God’s family? If so, then it’s legalism. If you mean something else by the word imperative, then you and I are separated only by degree, not by category, on what the sermon means for believers.

        • nmcdonal says:

          Imperative, as far as I know, simply means “command”. That’s literally the grammatical category of Jesus’ commands (all through the Sermon on the Mount) as well as Paul’s commands, which repeat them. So, there’s no way to deny that they’re actually imperatives.

          I think what you’re combatting against is the Pharisee’s legalistic motivations for following the imperatives – in order to attain self-righteousness, apart from God. Christians have a different motivation for following the commands: the good news of the gospel. But I think you’re going too far in some of your statements, including the title, in denying any role of the law in the Christian life.

          For example, I could easily and comfortably say (as I certainly think Jesus, and Paul would) that the Sermon on the mount is the “Constitutions of the Christian life” and a “Manifesto for the life of a Follower of Christ.” Why not? I don’t have the same motivation to follow those commands, and to be corrected by them, as the legalistic Pharisees. But I do have a motivation to follow them – the example and grace of Jesus. I don’t follow to earn righteousness, but to express it.

          So, I just think we need to be careful in our writing not to deny that the law has a real, continuing role in the Christian’s life. Otherwise it will (I’ve seen it way too often) lead to the “Spirit of love alone” ethic, which is really no ethic at all, because it has no room to confront us and train us in righteousness.

        • Tim says:

          Then you and I are agreeing, Nick, that imperative does not mean “Do this in order to belong”. We also do not do them in order to continue to belong because our belonging is all about Jesus not us. Rather, we do these things because we already belong to him.

        • Tim says:

          P.S. I also see that if someone as smart as you is telling me the title confuses more than it edifies, then it needs amendment. So I’ve modified it slightly to follow the point of the text better.

  3. Well the sermon of the mount is a guide to Christian Living. It’s the guide that says, yeah you can’t do this you need Christ ;).

    But, seriously I think you’re dead on. How we become or stay a Christian isn’t by following the Sermon on the Mount or any other set of rules, but by knowing Christ, relying on his grace, and following after him both in our successes in pursuing righteousness and our failures.

    • Tim says:

      “It’s the guide that says, yeah you can’t do this you need Christ” – that does seem to be the gist of the whole thing, Jeremy. Thanks for putting it in a nutshell.

  4. Laura Droege says:

    Really good post, Tim. I’m not sure I have anything profound to say in response–I’m feeling a little out of sorts spiritually–but this post is encouraging.

  5. Jeannie says:

    Well, all I need to do here is sit back and listen to you and Nick and Andy discuss this issue. 🙂 (Seriously, this is a refreshingly great comment discussion.) I appreciate that you say we do these things not in order to belong to Jesus but because we belong to Him.

  6. Susan Furst says:

    This is truly the Good News!!! Thank you for preaching it. It is so easy to become entangled in “doing,” How much is enough? Am I good enough? No, No, No !! You are only good enough because of what Jesus has already done! Only that! and the Good News is that all you have to do is believe “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (don’t ask me the scripture reference, not good at that!) There it is, Jesus frees us from the bondage of good works, we can be free to trust the Holy Spirit to work in us, and He will! Jesus did, does, will do it all. It is truly a marvelous gift! So amazingly simple that it is hard to receive it sometimes. But receive it, not worrying if you are good enough frees you up to be available to the workings and calling of the Holy Spirit, and you will do it with joy not fear. Praise the Lord!

    • Tim says:

      That verse is in Acts 16:31, Susan, and it’s a great salvation message.

      And when it comes to the finished work of Christ, Jon Wymer just said on Twitter:

      • susan furst says:


      • Related to assurance of salvation, I’ve found in my work as a pastor that many evangelicals are actually putting their faith in the quality of their decision rather than the person and work of Christ. This is why people agonize, analyze, and “re-decide” again and again. I’m quite certain our theology would work better if it put the weight on Christ rather than us.

        • Tim says:

          Exactly, Jon. Jesus said the will of the Father is that we believe in the one He has sent, and Paul said salvation comes to those who believe in their hearts that God raised Jess and confess with their mouths that he is Lord. Adding bells and whistles on that is extra-Biblical.

  7. A couple weeks ago I made this statement (r.e. trusting decision rather than Christ) to a friend who is a Lutheran pastor. He cut me off. “Oh, we do that too, it’s just we trust our baptism rather than Christ.”

    • Tim says:

      Funny. But the sad thing is that I was at a Lutheran funeral a few years ago where the pastor said how glad he was that the deceased had been baptized and placed faith in Jesus, saying it in a way that suggested these both were equally necessary for entry into the kingdom.

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  10. Edward McMahon says:

    You could be the dumbest person on earth. Your telling people not to worry about sinning just say I believe in Jesus and you will go to heaven. Believing info Jesus requires action that he told you makes you righteous. You can believe a house will be built but you have to work to build it. Take Christian action to build a Christian world. If you sin, feel the guilt of your sin and prove to God you love him by treating others the way Jesus did. Or — you could listen to this sinful idiot who believes he can profess faith and then live as sinfully as he wants. It is not meant to be easy. As in all things in life do your best to be good understanding you will frequently come up short. This is what the Surmon on the Mount is about. If you think you are being a good Christian your not working, trying, acting enough. This guys words… completely discounting Jesus’s teachings… are heretical. God bless you all. Act like you are a Christian. They will know we are Christians by our love. Do loving things. Test my Christian beliefs. Say to yourself and God that you believe in Jesus and then go and live your life normally. Is the world a better place. Now, go act lovingly, help others, make your actions reflect the Surmon on the Mount. You will remind people of Gods Love. The only people who will hate you are people like this guy. This guy would hate Jesus if Jesus was at the 7/11.

    • Tim says:

      “They will know we are Christians by our love. Do loving things.”

      Exactly. Bear good fruit as you abide in the vine, live the Spirit-filled life as the Spirit lives in you. This post is not an invitation to licentiousness, but an invitation to rest in Jesus as we also walk in the path he showed us. “This is the way. Walk in it.”

    • nmcdonal says:

      I agree this post is pretty far off the mark, Ed. But I think you’re also far off the mark if you think calling Tim “the dumbest person on earth” or a “sinful idiot” squares with the Sermon on the Mount, or even your own admonition to love one another.

    • Tim says:

      Ed, you might also want to read this post before you relegate me to the antinomian scrapheap: The Goodness of the Law – an answer to legalistic doctrine. I wholeheartedly agree with Paul in saying, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2.)

  11. daveuga says:

    I believe as Christians we are absolutely to live (as best we can) Jesus’ instructions from the sermon on the mount. He said so himself (Matt 7:24). Teaching differently is to tell Christians not to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, and is false teaching! Don’t believe this!

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