Dispensational Theology and the Sermon on the Mount

A common criticism of Dispensational Theology is that dispensationalists ignore the Sermon on the Mount or make it applicable only to the Jews in the Kingdom.  Unfortunately this criticism has some weight since some early dispensationalists did in fact teach that the Christian did not have to follow the Sermon on the Mount since it applied only to the Jews.  There is no real “pope of dispensationalism” so these early statements are used as straw-man arguments to vilify any form of dispensational theology.

…The Sermon on the Mount has application…literally to the kingdom. In this sense it gives the divine constitution for the righteous government of the earth. Whenever the kingdom of heaven is established on earth it will be according to that constitution (C. I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible (1917),  999,1000)

…if it is admitted that the sermon contains requirements for entrance into the kingdom, then it must also be conceded that the teachings of the sermon will be in effect not only during the kingdom age but also at a period immediately preceding. A number of reasons indicate that this period will be that which is known as the great tribulation period (James F. Rand, “Problems in Literal Interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount” BibSac 112 (Jan 55): 28-39, 112 (Apr 55): 125-137; 35).

For example, to pray the Lord’s Prayer was not something that the Christian ought to do since it applies to the Tribulation when Jews will really need to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” The fact that the Lord’s Prayer asks for the “Kingdom to come” was thought to be a prayer that was applicable in the tribulation since the kingdom is what the Jew would be praying for at that time, not what the Body of Christ Believer ought to be praying for today.

The Kingdom Prayer will have its proper and full use in a time yet future. After the coming of our Lord for His people and the catching-up of the Church, there will be a believing Remnant of Jewish disciples raised up, who will go everywhere preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at, hand.’ … The Jewish Remnant will be terribly persecuted under the awful reign of the Beast-King and the power of Satan (Rev 13) (William L. Pettingill, Simple Studies in Matthew, 77-79).

This teaching was particularly offensive to those from a Mennonite / Brethren background.  To them, the core of Christian ethics is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount.  Bonhoffer, for example, based his ethics almost entirely on the Sermon on the Mount.  The recent Kingdom Ethics by Stassen and Gushee is based on the Sermon on the Mount as a foundation for Christian ethical thinking.

But the criticism that “all Dispensational Theology ignores the Sermon on the Mount” is simply false.  For example:

It is our conclusion that the presence of evil and evil men, the existence of poverty, famine, hunger, and need, are all contrary to the predictions made in the Old Testament concerning the character of the kingdom. Unsaved will not enter the millennium to run rampant against the righteous (Jer 25:31-33; Ezek 36:22-29; Matt 25:31-46). We thus conclude that the Sermon on the Mount cannot be made to apply to conditions on the earth after the establishment of the kingdom ( D. J. Pentecost, “The Purpose of the Sermon on the Mount,” BibSac, 115 (April, 1958): 135), emphasis mine.

As a correction to the excessive separation of the Church and Israel in the writings of early Dispensationalists, many writers see the application of the sermon as “trans-dispensational,” ethical teachings that are true for any dispensations.  How can there really be any time in the history of the world when the ethical standards of the Sermon on the Mount would not be applicable?  For example, the idea that the command not to commit adultery includes thoughts seems to apply to all of human history.   While it is true that Jesus is dealing with elements of Jewish Law and tradition, the way he (re)interprets these traditions is radical and clearly intended to be foundation for being the people of God from the time of Jesus forward.

Bibliography:

Harry A. Sturz, “The Sermon on the Mount and Its Application to the Present Age” Grace Journal 4:3 (Fall 63) p. 3–15.

John Martin, “Dispensational Approaches to the Sermon on the Mount,” in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, ed. S. Toussaint and C. Dyer (Chicago: Moody, 1986) 35-48.

Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, has a helpful summary of the various approaches to the Sermon on the Mount in theology, see pages 245-247. Page 247 note 36, has several articles on Sermon on the Mount and pastoral care.

14 thoughts on “Dispensational Theology and the Sermon on the Mount

  1. There is sound basis for Dispensational Theology in moderated form, avoiding the extremes which tend to over-dissect many Scriptures to a point of irrelevance. Unfortunately, the Sermon on the Mount has been a stomping ground for some dispensational “fringes.”

    The article strives for a balance, where truth is absolute, and principles span the ages.

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  2. I agree that dispensationalism prior to the mid 60’s was dismissive of the Sermon, but since the mid 1980’s there has been a healthy revision within dispensationalism that the Sermon is treated as it should be (not as a “constitution for the kingdom” and therefore not applicable, but as a foundation for Ethics.) There are several commentaries written by dispensationalist which cover Jesus’ teaching without resorting to “that isn’t for us” tricks.

    I guess my concern here is to short-circuit a common misunderstanding based on reading older, less thoughtful dispensationalist. I can’t help with the fringe.

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  3. It seems strange to me that common thoughts of Dispensationalism is that the sermon on the mount is non-applicable to modern-day Christians. I can definitely understand the thought process behind this opinion, and although we are not in the same dispensation as the Jews in Jesus’ time, I cannot help but believe that Jesus’ teachings are important.

    As far as the sermon on the mount as a foundation for ethics instead of a list of rules for the Kingdom, I tend to think of both these options as legitimate. Without these guidelines that Jesus lays out, many would not understand the difficulties of the Christian faith. It seems strange to say that a trait like meekness is difficult, but the way Jesus approaches it, it seems that way. The kingdom, which as we have learned is already established, but not yet consummated, so we, although not first-century Jews, can still wish to “inherit the kingdom” via our attention to Jesus’ teaching. The kingdom, however, has slightly different application to the people of Israel than it does to us, as we look forward to Jesus’ second coming as our “faithful and true” messiah. Jews were still in the mindset that their redeemer would come in victorious judgement, thus the gentle Lamb of Judah needed to adjust their thinking to a “new way of Judaism” and lay down requirements. Once we move past this understanding, then the basis for our ethics can begin to rest on Jesus’ Sermon.

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  4. After reading some of these post it doesn’t seem as though the question that was being addressed in the post was answered. If I read correctly this was the topic: “If Thomas is right, then this is an important issue – but is he right? Does inerrancy fall if we understand Matthew as creating a literary collection of Jesus’ words?”

    The main thought behind this question is whether or not this was an actual sermon given word by word from Jesus on a mountain top in Mathew (plain in Luke), or if it was a collection of Jesus teachings. Personally I don’t think it affects the inerrancy of Scripture either way. To me it seems to be irrelevant if it was an actual word for word sermon or collection of sayings. I will add 2 Peter 1:21, referring to the writers of the Word were carried along by the Holy Spirit. I think the Word would be inspired in spite of the fact of a sermon or collection of sayings.

    In regards to the sermon being applicable today, I find this interesting in Blomberg’s section: “Luke, as a Gentile writing to Gentile Christians, understandably omits all of Matthew’s material contrasting Jesus’ teaching with the Law and challenging the behavior of the Jewish leaders. What remains, however, focuses all the more pointedly on that most distinctive aspect of Jesus’ ethic- enemy love.” (page 296) I add this to make the distinction that if Luke was writing to Gentile Christians I would imagine the ethic is applicable to the gentile Christian of today.

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  5. I would most definitely agree with the main theme in this post, the basic generalization that all dispensationalists dismiss the importance, and applicability of the Sermon on the Mount to modern day Christian ethics is a gross overstatement. It is my understanding that this very issue has been a driving force in the progressive dispensational community as they attempt to take the valuable concepts of dispensational theology and address some of the issues that have plagued the classical dispensationalist stances that so many choose to attack. I absolutely believe that the Sermon is applicable to Christian ethics today, and how could it not be? If a person accepts that Scripture is inerrant and inspired of God, then they must accept that, even in the midst of the varying material of the synoptic Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew contains the very words of Jesus Christ, God in human form, and no matter who they may have initially been targeted to, they are applicable to the way we live out our faith as believers today. As was mentioned in the original post, the moral and ethical concepts taught in the Sermon transcend human history, and have been, and will continue to be applicable to Christian ethics and life in general for as long as we can imagine.

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  6. Is it fair to take stabs at Dispensationalism because of teachings in the past that have now been corrected? I would say, that it is pointless if you are trying to argue against them, but that a pattern of teachings that upon further study need to be changed is something to consider.
    It does seem that there is in fact no period of time, when, on earth, these principles and standards would not be applicable. As P Long stated that it was “intended to be foundation for being the people of God from the time of Jesus forward.” On the other hand, at this point in my study of Dispensationalism, I don’t believe that we will have no part in the kingdom if it were in fact only applicable then, because I don’t agree with the level of separation that Classic Dispensationalism believes there is between Israel in the OT and the Church in the New.

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  7. I agree with Britalia opening statement. Just P. Long says, it’s a straw-man argument. Just as the post reads, “How can there really be any time in the history of the world when the ethical standards of the Sermon on the Mount would not be applicable?” However, this argument is ridiculous. It seems to me that we have people out there, many leading theologians even, who seem to nit-pick everything they see, hear or read. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 12, we make up the Body of Christ and Christ is the head. This analogy can go beyond the context of this passage of spiritual gifts and be applied in many other areas of the Church as well. I would even say that this extreme criticism is an abuse of the spiritual gifts. If we argue and bicker over small issues that do not affect the narrative of the Bible, then how can we move onto the more important issues? If people have lowered themselves to arguing over these moot issues, then we as a Church have a huge problem on our hands. No wonder the world looks at us and turns away disgusted.

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  8. It is an interesting time to be a student at Grace Bible College, a school with dispensationalist views. In comparison to many other forms of theological studies, we can’t deny that DT is one of the more recent ones, which at times can put us in an odd position – defending legitimate arguments which were caused by “those who have gone before us” i.e. early dispensationalists, who might not have guarded their words as carefully as their modern day followers.

    While there are definitely some theologically unsound (word?) “blanket statements” about DT, some legitimate criticisms must not be ignored by the modern dispensationalists, such as the early teaching that the Sermon on the Mount only applied to Jews. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom directly involved the radical way he was living life, and the subsequent teachings that followed. So while Jesus’ audience during the Sermon on the Mount may have been vastly Jewish, to me the teachings applied to all those he intended to offer the new kingdom during his ministry and upon his death: both the Jew and the Gentile. Therefore, I don’t believe that this sermon is only “applicable” to Jews, albeit largely in the Jewish tradition. While we live in a period governed by Grace, not by Law, this sermon comes directly from the man who fulfilled that Law, so it is no longer the nation of Israel but through Him that we as Gentiles inherit the kingdom of God. I’m a Gentile, and I think this sermon was fully trans-dispensational in nature – as much for me to listen to as any of the Jews that were there!

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  9. This is simply disingenuous. It is not critics of dispensationalism who are employing a straw-man. Pointing out actual history, which you yourself acknowledge, documenting that dispensationalists historically believed this is a truth makes it a truth.

    So you now believe that your spiritual forefathers were wrong. Okay, say they were wrong instead of pointing fingers at its critics point your finger at your own fore-fathers and leave it at that.

    Besides, who can know what your position will be this week? Every time I bring up a “dispensational truth” from Ryrie, Walvoord or Scofield dispensationalists quip, “well, I don’t believe that.” In all honesty, I have no idea what they believe any more and neither do they.

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    • Thanks for the comment, although I am not sure what is disingenuous about my point. Dispensationalism does not have a master document or creedal statement that all must sign in order to be “dispensational.” Nor is there a “pope of Dispensationalsm” who leads all dispensational thinkers. I think that is why the theology took root in America, since it is wildly independent.

      This unfortunately means that there is a great deal of variation in dispensational teaching. I really do think that quoting the original Scofield Reference Bible as an example of “what all dispensationalists believe” is a straw-man argument since the notes in the SRB have been revised twice, and are not reflective of all writers who call themselves Dispensational. The fact that I cite Pentecost in the post shows that there is development and change in what it means to be a Dispensationalist.

      Early Dispensationalists (and many present ones) did not approach the Sermon on the Mount properly, that is a fact, but it is also a fact that at least some dispensationlists have “grown up” on that point.

      One could select statements from Luther on James, or his views on the Jews, and claim “this is what those Lutherans believe,” but that would not be fair since his statements do not reflect real reformation tradition, nor should he ever be thought to speak for “all reformed Christians.”

      I do think that the dialogue between dispensational and reformed scholars has benefited both. I am thinking specifically of the recent OT Theology by Bruce Waltke, a man with a foot in both worlds. In the introduction to that book he comments that he has learned a great deal from both sides of the discussion which he can bring to bear on the study of the OT. I think Darrell Bock would be an example from the dispensationalist side.

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  10. Looking at the timelne above reminds me of a Carvana commercial.
    It ain’t that complicated.
    Jesus said to Mary Lazarus’ sister “”I will raise him on the last day”& there is only one last day.

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