Sermon: The Greatest Sermon
Scripture: Matthew 5-7
In this week’s lessons we introduce our new series on the Sermon on the Mount, and see its significance for our Christian lives.
Theme: The Need for New Life
Today I should like to begin a study of the Sermon on the Mount, which is found in the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. Before we begin, however, I think we need to recognize that in dealing with the Sermon on the Mount we are dealing with the need for a new life—a new birth—rather than with a legalistic system of morality. And this is true, not only of the Sermon on the Mount, but of the New Testament generally.
You know the difference between a new life and a law, and you also can understand why the first is far more important. For instance, there is a strong sense of law and brotherhood among the members of the Mafia. There is even a tendency to work within the letter of the law of a country where possible. In some respects, a member of the Mafia is probably more conscious of the law than the average citizen.
And yet, no one who is not a criminal would endorse the Mafia because of its sense of law or even, as is sometimes the case, because the members of the Mafia are able to practice crime within the letter of the country’s laws. The life of the criminal is wrong. What is needed is a new way of life, a life in which the individual member is lifted out of the context of crime entirely and is given new loyalties and new motivations for his conduct. Right conduct arises from a right heart. This means that proper Christian conduct can only follow from a life that has been transformed by the Lord Jesus Christ. This truth is basic to all of Christ’s teaching.
It has been a failure to see this truth that has led to nearly all of the great misunderstanding of the Sermon on the Mount. It was true of the way the Sermon on the Mount was handled by leaders of the Social Gospel movement, which flourished at the beginning of this century. Under the leadership of such men as Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel movement focused the Church’s attention upon the corporate aspects of twentieth century life and the need for achieving social justice. In this crusade, the Sermon on the Mount was regarded as something like the battle plan of the churches, and the phrase “the Kingdom of God” was erected as their banner. All that was needed for the realization of Christ’s kingdom, they said, was a widespread understanding of the Sermon on the Mount and its vigorous application to our culture.
Now, it must be said in all favor of the leaders of this movement that they were aware of the crying social needs of our society at a time when the defense of the working man or the poor man was not popular. And their efforts have certainly borne fruit in the gradually awakening social conscience of the Christian churches today. But for all their virtues, the Social Gospel movement to which they gave birth had one great and ultimately fatal defect. It was aware of Christ’s ethic, but it tried to preach the ethic to those who were not possessed of Christ’s life. Consequently, the attempt to actualize Christ’s standard of human conduct universally was doomed to disheartening failure. Shaken by the hard realities of two world wars, this form of the Social Gospel movement quickly became outmoded. And the churches now turn to wealth, mass movements, and politics to effect by force what they cannot effect by merely moralistic preaching.
Why do we need a new heart and not just a system of morality?
Explain the Social Gospel movement. What was its fatal defect?
Reflection: With the demise of the Social Gospel movement, what other methods or movements has the church embraced to help achieve its biblical objectives, rather than looking to Scripture itself?