The Fullness of the Law Provides the Gospel
I. The Goodness of the Law and the Weakness of the Flesh
As we looked into this central text of the Sermon on the Mount last week, we learned, even as the apostle Paul would express it, that the Law is holy, and just, and good (Rom. 7:12); and that Christ in no wise came to abolish it, but rather to establish it forever, in all its fullness. If we would enter the Kingdom of heaven, we must have a measure of the righteousness which the Law prescribes that exceeds the external righteousness of the pharisees. We must not only obey the Law, but we must obey it in all its fullness, in a way that is consonant with the very heart of the Law, viz., to love God supremely and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
The problem with this truth is that the Law itself, which displays the righteousness that is necessary to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, cannot produce that righteousness in the hearts of men, who are weak and sinful. The Law alone, which says, “If you do this you will live,” cannot make a person alive to do anything at all. It can promise life to those who do righteousness, but it cannot give the life that is necessary for the doing of that righteousness, until the righteousness has already been done. This sad reality is what makes the gospel necessary; and the solution to the predicament took the unexpected wisdom of the eternal God to provide.
Let us reflect a little more fully on these things: first, we must admit that the Law in all its fullness is good and righteous and holy (Rom. 7:12). It is the reflection of the very character of God; and therefore, God cannot simply set it aside, and be indifferent to whether or not its holy precepts will be followed. To do so would be to deny his own character, and God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). If we say that God has made us free to disobey the Law which Paul calls holy and righteous, then we are saying that the God whose eyes are too pure to behold evil (Hab. 1:13) is pure no longer. If the Law was once righteous, then by the immutable character of God, it will always be righteous. And if it is always righteous, then it is always pleasing to the righteous God that its precepts be followed – otherwise he would no longer be righteous.
Thus, knowing that God immutably and eternally desires that which is righteous, which is expressed in his holy Law, Christ came to earth not to do his own will, but rather with these words on his lips: “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Psa 40:8, ESV). Christ certainly did not come to abolish the Law, as we saw last week; but on the contrary, he came with that Law in his heart, ready to fulfill it and to teach others to obey it also. Thus he says, “He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (Joh 8:29, ESV), and many other such things. And not only did he do the will of the Father, but he also taught others to do likewise, as we have seen from his Sermon on the Mount.
So then, if the commandments of the Law are righteous; and if God and his Christ both love righteousness; then they who would be in the presence of God and his Son for all eternity must also love and do righteousness. Christ did not come to save people from the consequences of sin and then leave them in those same sins; he came to save them from their sins (Mat. 1:21). He came to make them into his own image, which is holy and righteous (2 Cor. 3:18). So will they who continue to live in disobedience to God’s Law be heirs of the Kingdom? No, for even as Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven must have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the pharisees, so all the apostle taught after him. For example:
“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph 5:5, ESV).
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1Co 6:9-11, ESV).
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev 22:14-15, ESV).
So we find that we are not only in need of a legal righteousness, imputed to us; but we are also in need of a personal holiness, imparted to us. Heaven would not be heaven at all if everyone there did not practice righteousness; for if any got in who did not have the image of Christ fully formed in him, he would make a kind of hell of that place, just as we sinners have made a hell of this earth. But in the new earth, which we await, only righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).
This, then, leads us to the great problem with the Law. It is not that the Law is evil (God forbid!), nor that the Law is not a fitting guide for all those who would enjoy God’s presence for all eternity. The problem is that the Law, which is holy and righteous and good, is impotent to justify the ungodly, for at least three reasons:
1. The Law is weak through the sinfulness of human flesh.
Many times, the apostle Paul proclaims that no flesh will be justified through the Law (see Gal. 3:11); but at the same time, he is clear that the Law is not therefore against the gospel promises of God. “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:21-22, ESV). The problem, then, is not that the Law is unrighteous; rather, it is that the Law cannot make a person alive to righteousness. The Law, being righteous, shows the sinfulness and impotence of the human flesh to obey its just commands. What is needed, therefore, is not something that will allow a person to continue at ease without obeying, but something that can make a person alive to righteousness. This is the same thing that Paul taught in Romans 7:5-13 (ESV):
“For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.”
So then, does Paul’s teaching that we have died to the Law, and that we are free from it, mean that we may live without obeying its just commands? Certainly not! For as he says elsewhere, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31, ESV). And again, “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:10-18, ESV). In these passages, we may clearly see that dying to the Law and being set free from it does not mean being freed to disobey its commands, but rather it means being freed from the weakness of our flesh, so that, no longer chained by sin, we are at liberty to obey God’s holy and eternal Law.
2. The Law is weak through the insufficiency of the types.
So then, the Law is impotent through the weakness of human flesh to enable anyone to obey its just commands; but it is also weak through the insufficiency of its types. This the letter to the Hebrews makes clear throughout, for example:
“According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9:9-14, ESV).
In this, we may see that the Law which Moses gave, in that it signified God’s gospel promises through ineffective means only, was inadequate to provide the true righteousness and holiness that it demanded, and hence, looked ahead to a new Lawgiver who would not just show the people what God’s righteousness required, but also be able to purify their consciences from dead works, so that they might thenceforth serve the living God.
This is in fact what the author of that letter explains, elsewhere: “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Heb 7:11-12, ESV). What then? Did Jesus come to give a different Law, when he saw that the people were not able to obey it? By no means! For by his own words he said that he had not come to abolish but to fulfill. What this means, then, is that, because the perfect Law was unobtainable through the Levitical priesthood, mediated through the hand of Moses, the same Law had therefore to be given through a different priesthood, after a different order. This means that it was not the eternal Law per se, but a weak and imperfect administration of the Law that had to be done away with, so that a better and more perfect administration of the Law might be given. Hence, it is not the Law in and of itself, but the Old Covenant which administered the Law, which had to be abolished. And this is what the author teaches, that the first covenant, which is “becoming obsolete,” had to “vanish away” so that the new one might be established (Heb. 8:13); but what is that new covenant, but the one which promised, “I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts” (Heb. 8:10)? The first, impotent giving of the Law on stone had to be put away, so that the second giving of the same Law on the heart might be given through a greater Lawgiver than Moses.
This means that the essential Law itself did not pass away, but only those imperfect ways in which the Law was brought to bear on the people. The Law that God’s people must be separate from sin and the world, and holy unto him, was never abolished; but the imperfect way of sanctifying the people by washings with water, the keeping separate of fabrics and grains, the abstinence from unclean foods, etc., was powerless to confer this true holiness and separateness on the people. Hence, those shadowy administrations of the essential Law were done away, so that what was perfect might be brought in. The blood of bulls and goats was abolished so that the blood of Christ, which truly justifies and forgives, might be established. The sprinkled ashes of a red heifer were done away so that the Spirit of sanctification might truly cleanse. The distinction in meats was abrogated so that a distinction between “righteousness and lawlessness,” “light and darkness,” “Christ and Belial” might be made forevermore (see 2 Cor. 6:14-18).
Thus, it is not the commandments of the Law themselves, but only the imperfect way of administering those commandments, that was set aside. In the fourth commandment, for instance, the essential part was that, God always brings through all his works to completion, and they who do not trust in their own works, but look in faith to him whose work is perfect, will be given rest. Now, the imperfect way of administering that commandment in abstaining from labor on the seventh day of the week was set aside, so that the perfect administration of resting in Christ’s resurrection victory, partially in this life but fully and eternally in the resurrection world to come, might be brought in. And so we could continue with other examples.
3. The Law is weak through the inadequacy of its teaching.
Finally, the Law, which is holy and just and good, is nevertheless weak through the inadequacy of its teaching. For Moses wrote on tablets of stone; but there wanted a greater Moses, who could write on fleshy tablets of the heart. This greater Law-Giver was promised through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who prophesied that the Christ would write the Law of God on the people’s hearts, and cause them to obey its statutes. And this the Savior did indeed, teaching his people the Law in all its fullness, and then sending down his Spirit to impress it upon their hearts, and make them walk in its commandments.
Thus, we see that the Law, in that it was weak, could never give the life that it promised to those who walked in its precepts. Therefore, it had to be done away with. But why? So that righteousness might be abolished and the people might be freed to disobey its holy commands? Not at all! But rather so that, dying once to its demands, they might live in its righteous precepts forevermore. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law…Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:28, 31, ESV).
II. The Perfect Fulfillment of the Law Establishes the Gospel
I have spent so much time this morning upholding the essential righteousness and immutable character of the holy Law of God, because opponents and false brothers have always used the doctrine of the gospel of grace to deny that we who have been justified by an imputed righteousness must thenceforth live in that righteousness. We have not been given a perfect righteousness in Christ so that we may live how we please; but rather, having been given that free justification, we are thereby enabled to begin living a life of true holiness, such as we had never been able to do before. Before our consciences were cleansed and forgiven by the perfect work of Christ, our hearts condemned us and made us terrified, so that we could do no works of righteousness out of love, but rather out of terror and doubt. But when justification by an imputed righteousness entered in, then we became able to obey out of faith, love, and gratitude, because we had died to the condemning power of the Law. Becoming free from the Law’s demands and threats by an imputed righteousness, we became free to follow its commandments with all our hearts. So then, only by preaching a righteousness that comes through faith alone may anyone truly uphold the Law, which can be obeyed satisfactorily only through love and gratitude.
As we return to our text for the day, then, let us look with an eye for seeing just how Christ, by fulfilling the Law, intended much more than just proclaiming it more fully, but also fully providing the righteousness that it demanded.
1. Christ fulfills the Law’s demands
We have now seen that, when Christ proclaimed that he did not come to abolish, but to fulfill the Law, he did not mean less than this much: that he came to fill the Law up with its fullest meaning, and to demand that it be eternally and fully followed. This, of itself, would be a most uncomfortable and terrifying doctrine. But what we will now observe is that, while Jesus’ statement means no less than this, it also means much more. And further, what it means beyond just this is the one point upon which depends whether the voice of Christ will seem harsh and difficult to us, or easy, light, and full of joy. For what we will now demonstrate is that, according to the teaching of Christ, the fullness of the Law not only demands, but also provides the Gospel.
We have spent some time observing that, when Christ said he had come to fulfill the Law, he was doing so in part by bringing its demands to their fullness. This may be seen, first, in how, immediately after saying he would fulfill the Law, he goes on to show how its commands may be seen in a fuller light – beyond not killing, one must not be angry without cause, and so on. Second, it may be seen in how he declares that anyone who fails to observe the least of the commandments will be called least in the Kingdom. Third, it may be seen in how its requirements are eternal and unchanging, even until heaven and earth pass away; and fourth, in how it requires a fuller obedience than the Pharisees had accomplished for the least saint to enter the Kingdom. In all these ways, the Law of Christ surpassed the Law of Moses in what it demands.
But when Christ said he came to fulfill the Law, we may be certain that he likewise meant, he came to submit fully and perfectly to both its positive and negative demands, and so to win a perfect righteousness, so that all those who look to him might be saved.
These truths may be discerned by examining how this Gospel of Matthew consistently speaks of Jesus’ work of “fulfilling” the righteousness of the Law. In Matthew 3:15, for instance, Jesus submitted to a baptism of repentance, which he himself did not need, so that he might “fulfill” all righteousness. Hence, his fulfilling of the things that God commanded meant, in part, that he came to obey perfectly even those things which, in himself, he had no need to obey. What sin was there in Christ, that he had to repent? Certainly, there was none; and so John the Baptist balked at his request. But even though he had nothing whereof to repent, he felt the need to fulfill every righteous requirement that God had commanded of his wayward people; this can only mean that, in fulfilling a righteousness he himself had no need of, he must have undertaken to fulfill it for another party.
When Jesus therefore speaks of “fulfilling all righteousness” or his coming to “fulfill the Law,” he must mean the perfect obeying of all its precepts, not for his own sake, but for the sake of others. But not only did he mean the winning of a perfect, positive righteousness for others; he also must have intended a full satisfying of the negative demands of the Law against all their offenses. We may see this, as well, from the way the Savior uses that term “to fulfill” the Law in this same gospel. For when he was tempted to call for twelve legions of angels, being about to suffer the accursed death of the cross, he refused to do so, but submitted rather to the curse, even drinking the cup of wrath that the Father had set before him, for he called to mind this truth: “How then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Mat. 26:54, ESV [cf. also vs. 56]). Clearly, when Jesus spoke of his fulfilling the Law, he intended this part of it as well: not only would he fulfill a positive righteousness, which he had no need of; but he would also fulfill all the curses of the Law which the scriptures had threatened against any infractions. This he would do for no need in himself; and so it must likewise be done in another’s behalf; and this, too, the Savior makes clear in his Sermon on the Mount, when he gives the promise, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mat 5:6, ESV).
2. Christ fulfills the Law’s promises
Jesus certainly meant, when he said that he had come to fulfill the Law, that he himself would fully obey its requirements and submit to its penalties in the place of those whom he had come to save, as we have thus seen. But he meant even more than this, as we will prove now: for when said that he had come to fulfill the Law, he went on to add that phrase, “and the Prophets”. Now, the designation, “the Law and the Prophets” was a common way of referring to the entire Old Testament Scriptures; and so Jesus, when he spoke of fulfilling the Law, meant more than just the commands and curses of the Law itself; he also meant that he would fulfill everything written in all the Old Testament.
We may see this truth borne out in the other gospels, as well; for Jesus taught the Pharisees that the entire Old Testament was in fact about him and the life that he would bring to those who believe on his name (see John 5:39-40); and also, he taught his disciples, after he was raised from the dead, that all the Law, Psalms, and Prophets were written about him and his death, burial, and resurrection, and the forgiveness of sins which would be preached to all the nations (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). So then, when Jesus uses this clear reference to the entire Old Testament, he is teaching that he would fulfill everything necessary for the salvation of a people from every tribe and nation, even dying and rising again for them – which is the very essence of what Paul defines as the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-4)! So then, when Christ proclaimed the fullness of the Law, he did not just show the need for the gospel; he also promised freely to provide that gospel of justification by faith alone.
But we do not have to go to the other gospels to prove this; for once again, in Matthew’s own gospel, we see the same truths established; for when Matthew frequently speaks of Christ’s “fulfilling” the scriptures, it may be easily discerned that he is often speaking either of the direct prophecies or promises of the scriptures, as when he indicated that the direct prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2 was fulfilled in him (Mat. 4:13-16); or else of the types of the scriptures, as when he fulfilled the sign of Jonah (Mat. 12:39-40), or the typology of the whole nation of Israel (Mat. 2:13-15).
a. In prophecies
How rich a gospel comfort may we derive from this truth! For there is nothing at all, either promised or typified, in all the Old Testament scriptures, that the Savior does not undertake to accomplish for his people by his expression here. The Scriptures promise that Jesus will suffer and be bruised for his people’s transgressions, so that he might freely justify them (Isa. 53) – and here he promises to fulfill that! The scriptures promise to send the Holy Spirit upon all who call upon the Name of the Lord, to save them, sanctify them, cleanse their evil hearts, cause them to walk in holiness (e.g. Joel 2:28-32; Ezek. 36:24-29) – and here, Jesus undertakes to make good upon all those promises. The Old Testament scriptures promise to send Christ to be Jehovah-Tsidkenu, the LORD Our Righteousness (Jer. 23:5-6) – we do not have to rely on our own works of righteousness, but trust that, in Christ, we are made the righteousness of God(1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21) – and in this passage, Jesus takes it upon himself to fulfill that promise. Dive deep into the scriptures, mine out the thousand sparkling gospel-promises of free redemption, perfect righteousness, sanctification, grace and peace and joy and eternal life – in this passage, Jesus solemnly promises to fulfill all. How precious should the Old Testament be to us, seeing that this is so!
b. In types
But there are more riches yet to be had in this statement, inasmuch as Matthew makes it clear that Jesus’ fulfilling of the scriptures included as well such types as Israel’s entire history and Jonah’s three days in the fish’s belly. Consider again the diverse and wonderful types of the Law: the sacrificial system, the purifying water of the red heifer, the scapegoat sent away into the wilderness – all those things that typified vicarious representation, substitutionary sin-bearing, full pardon and forgiveness. In this passage, Jesus promises to fulfill all of that. Consider the history of Joseph, who was exalted to the right hand of the king in order to save his brothers; or Moses, who brought the people through the Red Sea and preserved them with the blood of the Passover Lamb; or David, who was raised to the throne to shepherd God’s people. Consider the first giving of the Law, when the people immediately shattered the commandments in their hardhearted rebellion and worship of the golden calf – and yet, God at once provided a perfect and unbroken second set of tablets, through his mediator, to be preserved continually in the Ark, over which dwelt his mercy seat; the Holy Spirit thus signifying that when Christ took on the ark of human flesh, he would perfectly keep the Law that the people had broken, and thus win for them mercy and access to God. Or consider the tabernacle, which the letter to the Hebrews explains in some detail, and uses to point its readers to Christ – in these and many different ways, the types of the Old Testament all point ahead to the perfect work of Christ. And when he promises here to fulfill all the Law and the Prophets – both of which by his own confession testified of him and his life-giving work – he is promising nothing less than the full and final salvation of all who believe on him.
3. Christ provides greater comforts and assurances than Moses
The last point we will consider is this: even as Christ pronounced greater and more eternal threats against those who disobey the Law than Moses ever did, so also he provided much greater comforts and assurances to the people than Moses had. We see this in the same sermon in many ways: in the Beatitudes, for instance, where he stoops down to the most miserable and downcast of people, who bemoan their sinfulness and long for a better righteousness, and promises that they will be filled. They will receive the righteousness that they hunger for, they will be called sons of God, they will be heirs not just of the promised land of Canaan, but of the whole earth. These are blessings far greater than Moses was able to give! Then, after he brings the demands of the Law to their fullness, realizing that such demands might terrify and overwhelm poor, helpless sinners, he goes on to provide tremendous encouragement, teaching them that they might approach God as a loving Father, and ask confidently for forgiveness, knowing that they will certainly receive it. Yes, and in fact that will receive every good gift from him, so that they might have nothing to worry about at all – if they have need of anything, they have but to ask it, and he will give it to them – and I don’t say, as the kings of old were used to, “even unto half my kingdom” – no, but he promises to give the whole Kingdom of heaven to them! Surely, these gospel-promises must fall very sweetly upon everyone who has ears to hear them, so much so that there is nothing half so sweet in all the wonderful things that Moses promised and looked ahead to.
Far from being a burden, then, when Christ made the demands of the Law fuller, it was actually something very comforting to his children, for those fuller demands of the Law he freely promised to give them through the Gospel. It may be a burden that a better righteousness is required, if a person has to fulfill it by himself – but when the fulfilling of what is demanded is also promised, then that which would have been a burden becomes a blessing. If someone offered you a ten million dollar mansion, that would be an intolerable burden as long as you thought you had to earn the money to pay for it by yourself – you would rather have a ten thousand dollar shack offered to you, so that you might have some ability to pay it off. But when the offerer then proceeds to make his terms clear, that he himself will provide every last penny, then the requirement that had seemed enormous and burdensome suddenly makes the offer that much sweeter. So, too, the demand for a fuller righteousness may seem like a burden to us, but it is only burdensome as long as we do not realize that, at the same time he increased the demand of the Law, Jesus also promised to provide everything he demanded. Now, we have not only a shoddy heaven where people are neither so good nor so bad as they might be – but we have a perfect heaven, where a perfect righteousness dwells, and a perfectly holy God looks upon us with immense favor – and the terms of all this make such perfection a joy and no burden at all, when we understand that what is demanded is also freely given, including both the perfect righteousness to bring us in and perfect sanctification so that we might dwell forever in holiness and love with no more sin and guilt, forever and ever, in the presence of our God.