Unless Your Righteousness Surpasses (Matthew 5.20)


According to the rabbis, the Law of Moses contains 611 commandments. They touch upon every aspect of human existence, sometimes in embarrassing detail.
 
A while ago, reflecting on the number, variety, and intricacy of the Old Testament laws, a parishioner remarked how glad she was that Christians are “not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6.14). She did not believe she could remember, let alone obey, all those commandments.
 
Without knowing it, this woman had made two theological mistakes. The first was to think that the Law of Moses plays no role whatsoever in the Christian life. To this way of thinking, law is for Jews, but grace is for Christians. Theologians call this idea antinomianism, from the Greek words anti (“against”) and nomos (“law”). It teaches that there is no grace in the Old Testament and no law in the New.
 
But the Old Testament is shot through with grace. Consider this description of God in Exodus 34.6–7a: “And [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin….”
 
Moreover, law is found in the New Testament. Jesus says, “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” (Matt. 5.17). Paul writes, “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13.10). Of course, Christians understand and apply the Law of Moses differently than observant Jews do, but the law still plays a role in our spiritual and moral development.
 
Which brings me to my parishioner’s second theological mistake: the assumption that Christians can play fast and loose with the commandments because grace is so readily available to them. Jesus rejects that assumption when he says, “For I tell you the truth that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5.20). To follow Jesus is to strive for greater, not lesser, personal holiness and social justice.
 
Indeed, such surpassing righteousness is an intended outcome of Jesus’ ministry. In Jeremiah 31.33, God promised: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time…. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” As the writer of Hebrews explains in chapter eight of his letter, this promise finds its fulfillment in Jesus’ ministry. (Pay close attention to verses 6–12.)
 
In other words, contrary to antinomians, grace does not destroy the commandments. Quite the contrary! Grace makes an ever-increasing obedience to God both desirable and possible. My parishioner quoted part of Romans 6.14. I’ll quote it fully: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.”
 
God has given us grace. Let us keep his commandments!

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