It is hard to reconcile the statements Jesus makes about not abolishing, but fulfilling the law, with our doctrines of salvation by grace. Grace is opposed to the law, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Paul in Romans and Galatians clearly shows that grace is the ground for salvation and even ultimately for successful righteousness in terms of how we conduct our lives. Since the Reformation and the slogan “Faith Alone,” evangelicals have repudiated works, to such an extent, that the fear of devolving to a system of works righteousness is pathological.

Jesus has no such fears when he speaks about the law. He has come to bring it to its fulfillment and perfection! He even tells his followers that their righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees, if it is to be of any value with respect to the kingdom of God. Paul is not afraid to says that we were created by God in the first place with “good works” in mind (Eph. 2:10). Continually throughout his epistles, Paul is exhorting his readers to good conduct, as the outflow of their sanctified lives. The problem is not good works (better righteousness, the practice of right conduct before God), in and of themselves, but our inability to perceive how good works fits in the whole salvation/sanctification scheme.

In Romans 6 Paul expresses a concern that sin not retain mastery over the life of the believer or reassert itself after salvation. Instead he argues that based on the transformation of salvation, righteousness should dominate the life of the believer or become master (Rom. 6:14, 18). Righteousness is not simply a neat way of describing the inward state of a purified heart, or the legal standing of the believer in the eyes of God, based on the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ… righteousness is a right heart producing right conduct. Righteousness involves the outflow of the believer’s life in terms of how it is conducted in practical terms.

If we are willing to accept this premise, that righteousness is right conduct coming from a right heart, then it is easier to approach what Jesus said in Matthew 5 about fulfilling the law. To grasp his meaning we may have to work backwards. He states to his followers that their righteousness should exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. To his hearers this must have seemed like an impossible demand that put righteousness out of reach to ordinary people, who already must have felt like the standards were out of reach, at least in light of the religious piety of the Pharisees. Now Jesus is saying that they must exceed them!

To put this in perspective we must look at the context. Following the statement about righteousness exceeding the Pharisaical piety, Jesus castigates the reprehensible way in which traditional commentary and interpretation of the original law had found ways to circumvent the commands in many instances, while giving the appearance of conformity. To the Pharisees appearance was everything, and their piety was a matter of technical religious performance, rather than heartfelt obedience to God (Matt. 6:1). When his followers gave alms, Jesus said they were to do it secretly, outside of public gaze (Matt. 6:2-4). Jesus advised his followers that prayers should be private not public, seeking the adulation and praise of men who look on (Matt. 6:5-15). Similarly when fasting they should do their best to make it a private matter between themselves and God, unlike the Pharisees who did everything they could to make sure people knew they were practicing their religious disciplines (Matt. 6:16-18). If the law cut across their desires, the tradition simply provided a work around, that allowed them to maintain the appearance of piety and even superior spirituality in some cases. So, for example, they could protect assets by devoting them to God, rather than using them to honor their parents (Matt. 15:1-9). They could love their neighbors, and hate their enemies (Matt. 5:43), even though the law does not say or imply this.

Jesus went beyond Pharisaical interpretation of the law, and required his followers not only to be technically obedient, but to adopt the spirit of the law. Not only must they not murder, they must not hate or despise their enemies either, but rather seek to be reconciled to them (Matt. 5:21-26). They were not only to avoid adultery, but lust as well (Matt. 5:2-30). Divorce was allowed even in the law, but they were to avoid it at all costs except for adultery (Matt. 5:31-32). They did not need complicated or grand sounding oaths to establish the veracity of their word, a simple yes or no, should be sufficient for men of their word (Matt. 5:33-37; 23:16-22). They were meticulous about their tithing, but not generous in their giving, and even that was an opportunity to show off their piety (Matt. 23:23-24).

He called them hypocrites, a brood of vipers. They upheld the law in word only, but did not practice it whole heartedly. He condemned the Pharisees for making the law cumbersome and odious by their rules and regulations, which they did not keep, and which treated Israel’s covenant with God as merely a matter of keeping the technicalities, rather than as a relationship based on mutual love. Jesus told his followers to follow the teaching, but not the example of the Pharisees, because they did not act in accordance with it (Matt. 23:1-4). Their concern was not so much with righteousness and the approval of God, but with the adulation of men, and Jesus castigated them for it (Matt. 23:5-7). They loved the title Rabbi, because it gave them a sense of importance, but God was looking for those who were willing to serve to become the greatest in his kingdom (Matt. 23:8-12). They paid lip service to their heritage in the prophets of the Old Testament, and proved their loyalty to them by adorning their graves, but they persecuted those who brought truth, just as their fathers did to the prophets in the first place (Matt. 23:29-31). So by identifying themselves with their fathers who persecuted the prophets, they underscored that their own attitudes were just like them. Just before his crucifixion Jesus went on a scathing condemnation of the religious leaders.

In all of this as Jesus’ condemnation builds t the point of revealing the reason for his repudiation of the righteousness of the Pharisees. They were so concerned with the outward appearance, that they paid scant attention to their own hearts (Matt. 23:23-28) . Though their outward conduct gave the appearance of being pious, inwardly their hearts were full of sin and were unsanctified before God. They were like their decorated tombs, outwardly impressive, but inwardly unclean (Matt. 23:27-28). The common thread in all of this is the failure to have righteousness (right conduct) arising from a right heart. To separate conduct from the condition of the heart is to miss the point of God’s call to righteousness. Righteousness was much more than religious piety. It was a matter of relationship, beginning with a right heart and a relationship with God, that produces right conduct – the way we live and behave. Without the alignment of heart and conduct, mere piety falls short of God’ standard and is unacceptable to him.

So what does Jesus mean when he calls on his followers to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? From the above it becomes clear that they are exceed it from the perspective of making righteousness a matter of their heart devotion to God, as well as a matter of conduct. Another way to speak of righteousness is to use the term obedience. Obedience is conformity to the expressed will of God, and acceptance of his sovereignty in our lives. Disobedience and sin are the rejection of God’s express will and sovereignty. This is the issue encountered in the garden with Adam and Eve, their rejection of God’s command and his reign. The result was a fracture and dissolution of the relationship. The issue of obedience was not a matter of technicality alone, but of relationship, of love, if you like. This becomes even more evident in the Torah where God insists that his people not only obey him but love him! In the law God sets obedience juxtaposed to love, as though they were two sides of the same coin. Obedience was never a matter of technical piety, but of loyalty, love and covenant with God. Righteousness is bound up in love for God and is at one and the same time the basis for relationship with him, and the outflow of that relationship.

The challenge of sin was that it shattered the relationship, through a rejection of the command and sovereignty of God. The result was that a disposition opposed to God was established at the normal functioning internal environment of the human heart and life, resulting in the outflow of sin as a matter of conduct. The devastating effects of this have reverberated down through history and throughout the world. God’s sacrifice of his Son to pay the penalty for sin was designed to make the restoration of the relationship possible out of which righteousness could again flow. What salvation does, as Paul demonstrates in Romans 6, is it changes the environment of the human heart. Those who are in Christ become new creations; the old life is gone and the new life has come (2 Cor. 5:17). With a new heart, properly aligned to God, thanks to grace, righteousness as a matter of right conduct can now flow. However, Paul also argues that the Holy Spirit takes up the place that was once held by the sinful nature, as the new motivator of behavior, and he supports the outflow of righteousness from a redeemed and sanctified life. In this way, even righteousness as conduct is a matter of grace, originating from a sanctified heart, as a result of the inner influence of the Holy Spirit (cf. Paul’s argument in Galatians, particularly chapter 3). Salvation restores the ground for righteousness by cleansing and changing the heart and reestablishing the relationship of the believer to God.

It is, therefore, in this sense that Jesus had come to fulfill the law. The law was never a matter of technical piety and superior performance. It was about obedience and love, relationship and conduct. Righteousness, right conduct from a right heart as a result of salvation, is exactly the standard God sought from Israel in the Old Testament, but rarely got. So when a believer in Jesus Christ obeys God out of his deep love for God, he is a fulfillment of the law! Indeed Paul makes this very statement in Romans 8, where he says the law was powerless to achieve the goal of producing righteousness, until sin had been dealt with, sin that was intrinsic to human nature. But now that sin has been conquered by Christ and transformation is possible through salvation, those who are prepared to walk (conduct their lives) under the influence of the Spirit of God, will fulfill the law; that is obedience will be made possible in their lives.


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