The Reformers recovered the gospel from the superstitious and corrupt practices of the Medieval Christian church. The reformed church returned to pure preaching the Gospel, proper administration of the Sacraments and practice of church discipline. However, their efforts to reform Christendom was challenged by the Roman church. They encountered several responses and as expected a lot of criticisms. Historically, it is known as the Counter-reformation. It officially began during the Council of Trent in 1545–1563. The reformers often refer to this as the time when the Roman church repudiated the gospel by placing an anathema to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
One of the most popular charge against the reformed faith was put forward by a bishop named Sadoleto. Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto was the bishop of Carpentras, and a Jesuit priest. And in 1539, he wrote a letter to the city of Geneva inviting them to return to the Roman church. The government officials of the city asked John Calvin to respond despite that Calvin back then was an exile of Geneva.
Sadoleto charged the reformers of promoting loose living. He was criticizing the implication of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For the bishop, this doctrine takes “away the desire of well-doing from the Christian life by recommending gratuitous righteousness.” He said believing that we are saved only by faith in Jesus Christ results to “lust…left with loosened reins”. However, Calvin denies the charges by explaining how faith and works are distinguished but not separated in the Christian life. He emphasized how faith brings both the benefit of justification as well as sanctification. That those who were regenerated and converted by faith and repentance are justified and sanctified in this life. Our union with Christ comes with the Holy Spirit that empowers us for living godly and holy lives. Therefore, the reformers not only recovered the gospel but also taught the proper place of the law in the Christian life. They believe that good works are the necessary evidence or fruit of saving faith. It is based in the Law of God for the purpose of glorying God before men.
We come now to the teaching of Jesus where he explains the relationship of the Christian with the Law of God. In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus laid down the principles for understanding the law. This serves as a primer for the next section of the Sermon on the Mount.
For our sermon points this morning, we will answer the following questions: 1) What does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the law?; 2) What is the role of the law in the Christian life?
Before we begin, let us pray…
What does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the law?
Jesus now begins his exposition of the law. But as a teacher of Israel, unlike his predecessors who focuses on obeying the law to merit God’s favor, Jesus did not begin his message with keeping the law but with a proclamation of God’s grace to the poor in Spirit, the meek, and the peacemakers. The structure of the Sermon on the Mount reveals the emphasis Jesus wanted for his message. He puts grace before obedience. And in verse 17, Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Again, what does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the law?
The text specifically says Jesus came to fulfill the “Law or the Prophets” (notice the proper names) and when it is specified this way, we know it points to the Old covenant under Moses. In the Old Testament, there are three kinds of laws: 1) civil; 2) ceremonial; 3) moral. The civil touches those laws specifically applied to Israel as a nation or a state. The ceremonial are those ritual laws performed in the temple. And finally, the moral are those laws reflecting God’s holy character and as God’s people, they are called to follow and obey. Taken as a whole, they are the Law of God, teachings , or Torah.
Now in relation to the New covenant, we understand that as its new mediator, Jesus fulfilled them all. Jesus obeyed the law with his passive and active obedience. The passive obedience of Christ deals with payment of the penalty of our sins by Christ’s death at the cross. This is his suffering and death that saved us from the guilt of sin but it only brings us to the same status as Adam prior the fall. This will not bring us to heaven. Eternal life must be earned.
Now, the active obedience of Christ is in relation to the types and shadows of the Old Covenant, its rituals, ceremonies and moral requirements. Therefore, it is the active obedience of Christ that satisfies the righteous requirements of the Law. Someone needs to obey on our behalf. He needs to earn heaven for us. This is what it means when we say Jesus fulfilled the law. The law is good and spiritual says Paul in Romans 7:14-16 but we are sinners and unable to obey them so we need a mediator who will do it on our behalf. Jesus explains, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (verse 18).” Jesus accomplished with his life, death, and resurrection all that the law requires.
Most Christians today not only neglect the gospel but also relax the righteous requirements of the law. There are some who are misguided to think that because Christians are saved by God’s grace, there was no one who merited their favorable status. But grace without the law is lawlessness and it leads to antinomianism. As Christians, we do not neglect the law but put it in its proper place. Jesus reminded us in verse 19, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Christians obey the law because Christ obeyed it first on our behalf and in union our with him, empowers us to do the same. This is second sermon point. But what is the role of the law in the Christian life?
What is the role of the law in the Christian life?
In order to answer this question, we need to remember the way the reformers view the purposes or uses of the moral law of God. There are three uses of the law laid down by the Reformers. They are: 1) to restrain evil in society; 2) to show our need for a Savior; and 3) to mirror God’s holiness for godly living. The first use is common and shared between believers and unbelievers. When nations follow the precepts of God, they curb evil and maintains a just society. It is not perfect for it does not result to Utopian society but it still restrains sin and delays the degradation of sinful men. But the second use and third use is for believers only. They relate the law to the Christian in two different senses. The second use of the law shows us our need of a Savior while the third use reveals to us what it means to lead a godly and holy life.
Jesus says in verses 19-20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” To exceed the righteousness of the Pharisee means to receive the imputed righteousness earned for us by Christ and to live the inherent righteousness empowered in us by the Spirit. The second use brings us to Christ imputed righteousness and the third use reveals to us what the Spirit qualifies as godly living.
Dr. Sinclair Ferguson explains, “What did Jesus mean (exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisee)? It has sometimes been assumed he meant something like this. The righteousness that the Pharisee possesses will not gain him entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Only God’s gift of righteousness to man will do that (compare it with Romans 1:16-17). That is, no doubt, Jesus’ meaning, but its implications are not always fully understood. Jesus Christ not only justifies us by sharing with us his righteousness; he also sanctifies and transforms us by making us righteous. In other words, our righteousness really must surpass that of the Pharisees. For if we are not more righteous than they are, we are not righteous at all. The verses that follow (5:21-48) illustrate what Jesus meant. Pharisaic righteousness was skin deep; Christian righteousness is to be real. It is to be true heart conformity to the law of God. Our obedience to the law is not to be merely external and ceremonial, but real and spiritual. Our understanding of it is not merely traditional and superficial (cleansing the outside of the cup, but not the inside of the heart [Matt. 23:25]).
Our union with Christ comes with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This enables us to fight sin and lead godly lives. When Calvin was defending the doctrine of justification against the charge of Sadoleto, he cited Ephesians 1:4 and explained that we are elected in Christ to be holy. He also mentioned 1 Thessalonians 4:7 and affirms that Christians are not called to impurity but to holiness. Therefore, it is clear that in our regeneration, we will lead sanctified lives prior to glorification. Like what Martin Luther once said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” It comes with all the saving graces of sanctification and perseverance.
This serves as an introduction. Jesus applies each law to his kingdom members. Next week, we will go through them, think, and apply them to us as well.
ZCRC(Imus), God calls us to lead godly lives. This comes to us by faith and regulated for us by his law. May our Lord Jesus Christ continue to empower us by His indwelling Spirit. Let us continue serving and loving Him. Let us do what is pleasing to him and glorify his Name. Amen.