“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20, NASB.
Does Grace Annul the Commandments?
There is a very important question that needs to be raised: does grace annul the commandments? Doesn’t this passage, right in the middle of the sermon on the mount, say something quite contrary to the message of unconditional love and grace and total forgiveness? Jesus teaches us that He came to complete the Law – to make it really stick. Every little jot and tittle, every dot on every ‘i’ and every cross on every ‘t’, will be required of each man. It clearly says that whoever OBEYS them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. You can’t just believe and wander on in forgiveness still sinning, you have to obey! Jesus says so, it says so here in black and white. Or rather, in red letters.
What does “fulfill” mean, as He says, “I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill?” It means we are supposed to adhere to and live under the Torah, the OT law? Is that what it means? But it says “I (Jesus) have come … to fulfill.” Is He saying that WE, His followers, are to complete it, by obeying it? On the contrary, no less than the apostle John says:
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 1 John 1:8, NKJV.
If we thus have sin, if we don’t deceive ourselves, if we are truthful, doesn’t that imply that WE can’t complete the law in that sense? So, it must mean that He, rather than we, are referred to in “completing” the Law.
Paul Shows that Sinners can Confess the Law as Good
Now, Matthew 5:17-21 clearly says, we should not teach others to disobey, lest we be least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Does the message of grace, of complete mercy, teach others to disobey? In Paul’s words, “shall we sin more that grace might increase?” Of course it does not. Let’s take a look at Romans:
“there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” Romans 8:1
This statement follows romans 7:
“For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good.” Romans 7:15, 16, NASB.
Teaching that the law is good does not mean one is empowered to keep it. In fact, if Romans 7 were not true then Romans 8:1 would not be necessary would it? What is Paul’s solution? Let’s read on:
“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Romans 8:2-6, NKJV.
So, we see that the mind set on the flesh, the mind set on the law, the mind set to do the law under human power, is death. It spells this out so clearly here, that the law could NOT achieve freedom or virtue, being weak through the “flesh”, through individual non-supernatural human power. Christian virtue is supernatural, you cannot strip the work and stirring and empowering of the Holy Spirit from the Christian way of virtue. But the requirement of the law is fulfilled by Christ, fulfilled in us. The law is, so to speak, completed in Christ, in that it requires punishment or justice for sin, and Jesus suffered and died to fulfill that requirement. Yes, the propitiatory death of Jesus is the way He “completed” the law. It certainly isn’t that we fulfill it or are sinless or even come close to fulfilling even the important parts.
What Kind of Righteousness Surpasses the Pharisees?
Let’s move on in the Matthew 5:17 passage. What is the ‘righteousness far greater than that’ of the pharisees? Does he mean, their moral fiber is far greater? Then how is it that JESUS teaches this in Luke 18:
“And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. “I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ “But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”” Luke 18:9-14, NASB.
The Pharisee prays truly that he does these things, he isn’t lying about it. Truly doing all of this isn’t enough; doing the Torah, the Law, isn’t enough! Who among us even does as good as this guy? He always fasts twice a week! Our righteousness has to exceed all of that? But the tax-gatherer went away justified, NOT THE PHARISEE!!! HIS righteousness did indeed exceed the pharisee’s, and he didn’t do any of those good things. Right? So how does this work? If the harsh interpretation of what Jesus means by ‘abolish’ and ‘complete’ the Law is correct, then He must be schizophrenic or insane, or at best a very poor and inconsistent teacher. But He is not, because that is not what He means.
I’ll tell you exactly what it is, the little secret that so few people seem to have put together. This is the part I hope everyone carries away from this chapter, if they couldn’t follow anything else. Jesus thinks exactly like Paul, Paul in fact learned it all from Jesus. Jesus does fulfill the law, JESUS fulfills the law. No one else does. All have sinned. All sin. ALL. Jesus offers true forgiveness while upholding the law, that is the miracle of salvation. The law is, as Paul says, “a tutor” that leads us to mercy. Romans 1 through 3 says that all have sinned, while Romans 3 through 8 says we are justified by His death, by mercy. This is how Paul thinks, this is how Jesus thinks.
The one who seeks mercy acknowledges, in fact KEEPS – holds on to the truest intent and precept of – the law more truly than the one who pretends to adhere to it and thinks they have no need of mercy. The confessor, the seeker of mercy, submits the inner secrets of the soul more truly to the law than the religious poser. It is forgiveness which adheres most closely to the law, saying in all its implications and inner motivations that it is true. The one who believes in grace can apply the law most deeply to himself, because he seeks not self-righteousness but forgiveness for the truth of his life. It is mercy that opens the door to the kind of inner transformation that can really fulfill the law without regret or wrong motivation.
In closing, notice this: the ‘legalistic’ way of looking at this is set at odds with Paul’s teachings. It can’t be good to throw out Paul’s epistles can it? The “scandalous grace’ way of looking at this preserves a strong interpretation of both passages easily. Not only is it true, but it is free and happy. I would rather believe in mercy and grace and beat my chest as a fully acknowledged sinner because it is true, it is actually doable, and it leads to a deeper and more honest holiness. Walking away justified is a great and wonderful thing, much better than I deserve – but after all, I’m not God, God is. I didn’t make any of His ways up, He did.