“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”
Are Christians free from the law? This age-old question has often been answered in two wrong ways. The error on one side is often described as ‘legalism’—the idea that Christians are bound by some or even most of the Old Testament law. This might mean that Saturday should be our Sabbath (on which no work is done), or that circumcision or other Old-Testament-style rituals are necessary to salvation, or that certain foods or forms of clothing are out for Christians.
The error on the other side might be described as ‘anti-nomianism’ (that is, ‘anti-law-ism’)—the idea that we are so free from any concept of law, and so thoroughly under grace, that there are really no rules to obey, and that even if we end up doing the wrong thing, God will forgive us through Christ anyway, so what’s the big deal?
Jesus’ famous words in Matthew 5 indicate that he is interested in neither of these approaches. He has not come to obliterate the law, so that it ceases to exist or have any application to life in his new kingdom. But neither has he come simply to leave the law in place, as if his coming made no difference; as if those who lived in the kingdom of God would live under the same law as Israel.
There is a third option in Jesus’ mind: not to abolish, nor to leave basically untouched, but to fulfil.
What Jesus means by ‘fulfil’ becomes clear in the rest of Matthew chapter 5, as he critiques the scribes-and-Pharisees approach to the law, and describes a different and much greater righteousness, the one that belongs in the kingdom of God he has come to inaugurate.
The heart of the Pharisaic approach is a disobedient heart. They wished to keep the law, or at least be seen to keep the law at a surface level, while still being free to pursue their own evil desires. They were like white-washed tombs, as Jesus says later in Matthew 23; an impressive exterior that masked corruption and hypocrisy. For them, the law was simultaneously a set of restrictions to be managed and a religious veneer for their evil purposes.
In his exposition and application of the law in the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus shows that the law is not a set of restrictions to our freedom but a guide to the freedom of the truly good life of the kingdom of God. ‘You shall not murder’ does not simply restrict deliberate killing, but protects the goodness of human relationships that should be preserved and nurtured—such that being angry with your brother and calling him a fool is just as serious a matter. Likewise with adultery, and marriage, and oaths, and vengeance. In every case, Jesus pinpoints the principle at the heart of the law and extends and expands its application.
This is possible (and essential) because the law is not a restriction of human freedom, or a brake on the good life. On the contrary, as it forbids or enjoins certain behaviours, the law is expressing in a simplified, codified form what the good life really is—a life of love and reconciliation, of purity and honesty, of forgiveness and generosity.
The freedom of the Christian is not freedom from the law, but freedom to live out the good life that the law constantly points us to. This end or purpose, for which the law was always intended, and to which it pointed, is the fulfilment that Jesus has come to bring—a fulfilment in which God’s people have the law written by the Spirit on their hearts, so that they perceive and love the goodness that the Old Testament law embodies and foreshadows, and long to practise it.
“How far can we go… and still be seen to obey the law?” This is the Pharisaic question that is asked by every teenager at the youth group ‘Sex and Relationships’ talk. It is not a Christian question.
The Christian asks, “How far can we go… in applying the good law of God in our lives?”