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August 26, 2011 / Daniel

D.A. Carson on the Lutheran approach to the Sermon on the Mount

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Last Sunday I wrapped up my class on the Sermon on the Mount.   However, this text still weighs heavily on my mind.  So I purchased a couple of books in order to wrestle some more with Matthew 5-7.   The first one is D.A. Carson‘s The Sermon on the Mount.  The other book is Martyn Lloyd Jones Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.    I’m interested to see how these authors understood many of the difficulties in the Sermon.  Perhaps they will be useful in the future.

At the end of his book, Carson gives a brief survey of the various interpretations of the Sermon.  Carson interprets the Sermon from the standpoint of “Already but Not Yet” eschatology.   His comments on the Lutheran approach stood out to me, since I have several friends who read the text this way. (Andrew Farley’s approach is similar to this viewpoint).

The Lutheran tradition argues that Matthew 5-7 is pure law.  It’s designed to condemn unbelievers.  It does not offer ethical standards for believers.  The Sermon confronts sinners with an impossible ethic.  Its goal is to humiliate sinners.  To bring the sinner to his knees.  To force him to turn from his pride to the gospel of grace.

D.A. Carson gives this succinct critique of the Lutheran approach.

I accept the Lutheran position as a partial explanation: the Sermon on the Mount does indeed drive men and women to a sober recognition of their sin and a realistic understanding of the need for grace.  But the Sermon does more than that.  It portrays the pattern of conduct under kingdom authority, a pattern that demands conformity now, even if perfection will not be achieved until the kingdom’s consummation.

The main problem with the Lutheran approach is not in what it advocates.  It is in what it denies.  Jesus insists on the Law’s abiding value (Matt 5:17-20).   The Law reveals God’s moral standards for believers and unbelievers alike.   Just because we are moral failures, it does not mean that we should scrap moral standards.   Jesus calls sinners to follow him, but he challenges them to change.  To become more and more like him.   The Law drives us to Grace.  Grace gives us the power to fulfill the Law.

What do you think?  Does the Lutheran perspective do justice to Jesus’ ethical demands in Matthew 5-7?



Leave a Comment
  1. Glenn / Aug 26 2011 7:30 pm

    I would disagree and say Farley’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount is closer to Pauline Dispensationalism while Lutherans see the Sermon thru the Law/Gospel contrast. Farley is what is historically called antinomianism while Lutherans do uphold the third use of the law which Farley denies.

  2. Daniel / Aug 26 2011 11:37 pm

    According to Wikipedia (a so-so source), Lutherans are divided over the third use of the Law. Some agree with it. Some don’t. I was mistaken. I thought that Luther was opposed to the third use of the Law.

    You are right. Farley has more in common with hyper-dispensationalism than he does with Lutheranism. However, Farley (and hyper-dispensationalism) agrees the overall approach of Lutherans to the Sermon on the Mount. They treat the Sermon as Law, not gospel.

    Where are you coming from? Are you a Lutheran in your approach to the Sermon on the Mount?

  3. Daniel / Aug 26 2011 11:40 pm


    I revised that statement.

  4. Glenn / Aug 27 2011 2:04 am

    Lutherans who don’t subscribe to the third use of the law stand against the confessions of Lutheranism. Farley is clear that the law has no purpose for the Christian except in the evangelism of unbelievers. The Law is only to be used for the unbeliever to reveal God’s standard and the need to die and be born again/given new life. For Farley believers are saints and no longer sinners. Thus, no role for the law in the life of the saint. Lutherans hold to the sinner/saint paradox and use the law/gospel contrast for the believer (Luther’s Catechisms) in a way that Farley would not approve.

    I am vistor in a Lutheran church at the moment and have studied Farley. I would not see Farley’s view in agreement with Lutherans. That does not mean Farley is wrong, it just means Farley is outside the bounds of historic Orthodoxy.

  5. Daniel / Aug 27 2011 2:23 am

    I agree with your assessment of Farley. I believe in the third use of the Law. I’m not super familiar with historic theology. However, I think that I agree the most with the Reformed view of the Law.

    Did Luther believe in the third use of the Law?

  6. Glenn / Aug 27 2011 6:14 pm

    IMHO – Luther’s Large Catechism instructs how each believer may apply the law in daily life.

  7. Glenn / Aug 27 2011 6:17 pm

    I enjoy the White Horse Inn’s approach which seeks to offer a combination of Lutheran and Reformed theology in a “Reformation” package.

  8. Daniel / Aug 27 2011 8:30 pm


    do you have a link to the White Inn’s approach? I would be curious to see it.

  9. Glenn / Aug 27 2011 8:35 pm,_Cambridge

    The White Horse Tavern or White Horse Inn was in the 16th century the meeting place in Cambridge for English Protestant reformers who discussed Lutheran ideas. These discussions met as early as 1521. According to the historian Geoffrey Elton the group of university dons who met there were nicknamed ‘Little Germany’ in reference to their discussions of Luther.

  10. Brian Midmore / Sep 22 2013 6:47 pm

    Jesus was peculiarly anointed to preach the good news to poor (Luke 4.18). His ministry is contrasted with Moses, the Lawgiver John 1.17 and he preached the gospel of the kingdom Matt 4.23. When this issue is discussed the abstract (philosophical?) ideas of law and gospel are used. These are very slippery terms and can mean many things to different people. I believe it is more helpful to understand what is meant by ‘the gospel of kingdom’ since this is a concrete idea that we know Jesus preached.


  1. George Eldon Ladd on the Sermon on the Mount « Anchor for the Soul
  2. Sermon on the Mount, via Aristotle | Unsettled Christianity

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