‘FAITH and WORKS’ IN THE CONTEXT OF ‘LAW and GOSPEL, M. Ali Mertcan

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Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Matt 5:17-18)

In this verse, Jesus clearly states that his teaching does not contradict the Old Testament law. According to the common Christian view, the fulfillment accomplished by Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the spiritual intent of the Old Testament Law. Such an understanding is held because of the attitudes of the Pharisees. The Pharisees usually did not keep the Law strictly, but kept their wrong interpretation of the Law. Although some of the Pharisees did teach the Law correctly, they failed to practice what they taught. (See Matt 23:5-7; Matt 23:23-28; see also Luke 12:1)

What is often seen in Jesus’s ministry is a struggle against the hypocritical religious obedience in Pharisees’ attitudes. Therefore, Jesus’s fulfillment of the spiritual intent of the Old Testament seems reasonable. There are many verses in the Gospels that emphasize on the spiritual dimension of the Old Testament Law. Consider the following verses in Matt 5:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire’. ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus provides the Old Testament Law with a spiritual dimension of fulfillment in the following verses where the commandments of Jesus seem to be stricter than the commandments given to Moses:

If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt 18:8-9; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 17:1-2)

Since Jesus appears to give some commandments that are sharper than the Old Testament commandments, it is quite difficult to agree with the following argument: “Everything in Holy Scripture that commands us to do or to be something, or that forbids us to do or give, or be is ‘Law.’ Everything that asks us to receive something is ‘Gospel” According to Jacops, the Gospel is the doctrine of God that neither requires works of us, nor enjoins the doing of anything, but announces only offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Contrary to Jacops’ assertion, there seems to be ‘law’ in the Gospel, too.

Matt 19:16-21 (see also Luke 18:18-22) is a good place to turn to, in regards to the fulfillment of Law. These verses contain a conversation between Jesus and a young man regarding eternal life. This young man tells Jesus that he had done all that is commanded by the law. Jesus says to the young man: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Thus, what we see in Jesus’s treatment of the law is that Jesus immediately refers to what was commanded in the Old Testament. He did not skip it when asked what to do. In the previous passage in Matthew, Jesus seems to refer to the commandment of the Old Testament, and then when the young man said he had done all of them, Jesus adds a commandment which was not opposed to the commandments of the Old Testament. These verses can help one see the meaning of ‘fulfillment.’ That is to say, the young man who carried out the commandments in the Old Testament was a rich man, and his wealth was a burden on his arms in the perspective of God. He probably failed in his relationship with God because his heart was filled with material concerns. Jesus counsels the young man to relieve him of his burdens so that he may walk easily in the way God.

When comparing Moses and Jesus, Dale C. Allison declares that the tension between Jesus’s teachings and the Mosaic Law is not that those who accept the former will transgress the latter; rather, it is that they will achieve far more with Jesus’ teaching than they would if the Torah were their sole guide. Thus, Allison believes that according to Matt 5:20 and 5:47, Christian righteousness means doing more. According to Schrey, Jesus “…came rather to remedy transgressions of it. Therefore through Christ the teaching of the law remains inviolable; by teaching, admonishing, reproving, and correcting, it forms us and prepares us for every good work.” (C.f. II. Tim. III. 16-17)

Jesus is against Customs of Jewish Clergy

What Jesus does through his statements concerning the Old Testament Law is that first Jesus tries to convince Jews to obey God’s law and not the customs of their ancestors. Jesus’s criticism is very clear in this case: He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt 15:3; see also Mark 7:10) Another key passage is Matt 23:1-12. In this passage, Jesus asks his followers to obey what the Pharisees say, but not do what they do. Thus, it seems that the central criticism here is about hypocritical customs and not about the law and its practice. (See also Mark 12:38, 39; Luke 11:43-46; 20:45-47) Likewise, in Luke 11:42-43 where Jesus says, “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” Another Gospel text is Matt 23:3 where Jesus asks his disciples to obey what Pharisees say. Jesus says, “Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”  

Jesus Criticizes the Interpretation of Law

Jesus was also concerned about the correct interpretation of the law. Therefore, he often criticized the Jewish clergy because they did not put God’s commandments in the appropriate places. In Matt 15:1-20, Jesus’s parable is about establishing God’s commandments in accordance with their values. For instance, regarding washing hands before eating, Jesus eventually stated that “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matt 15:19-20; see also Mark 7:14-23)

Another verse that deserves to be mentioned is Mark 3:4 where Jesus condemns the Pharisees who do not correctly interpret the law. Jesus provides a very logical argument. He says: “Is it lawful to do ‘good’ or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (See also Matt 12:10; Luke 6:10) It is possibly due to this reason that Douglas thinks of the concept of ‘fulfillment’ as Jesus’s God-authorized interpretation of the Law. For him, Matthew 5:17-20 must be understood in this way. Douglas also asserts that such an understanding ignores the immediate context, which is concerned with the law and its proper observance.

Jesus Encourages Keeping the Commandments

In the following verses, we see that Jesus stresses on keeping the commandments:

Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matt 19:16-17; Luke 18:18-20)

Similarly, Jesus says, “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law” (Matt 5:17-18) According to Douglas, verse 17 in Matthew was seen as so conservative that many commentators hesitated attributing it to Jesus. Some commentators who make the verse parallel to Luke 16:17 take it ironically. In Luke 16:17 Jesus says, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the scribes to give up the tiniest detail of the Mosaic law.”  

It may not seem necessary to take the verse ironically since Jesus’ fulfillment also includes some changing of it. One statement of Jesus in Mark 7:19 clearly shows one how Jesus changes the Law concerning the legitimacy of eating every food. The verse goes, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” Hence, one may claim that Jesus’s fulfillment of the Law includes some changes on it. There is another passage in the Gospel of Matthew in this case. (See Matt 15:10-20) Regarding Jesus’ changes, Matt 5:34 is a good example. Here, Jesus clearly commands that which is completely opposed to what was commanded before. Jesus prohibits swearing, saying that “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God.”

Carl Schünemann Verlag’s statements in his book Faith & Action are quite unusual. In this book, Verlag says “In faith in Jesus Christ we cease to be servants of the law, of the Decalogue of the sermon of the Mount, and we become servants of God.” Accordingly, much trouble and confusion arises in the establishment of the possibility and necessity of an authority of the Decalogue or of the Sermon on the Mount over the whole of human life. Verlag seems to dislike the concept of ‘law.’ Under the title ‘Gospel and Law’, he frankly says that it is not a good idea to speak of ‘Gospel and Law.’ Here, Verlag criticizes Barth’s statement: “The law is nothing but the necessary form of the Gospel whose content is grace.” Rather, Verlag offers the phrase ‘Gospel and commandment.’ For him, the Christian is free from the law but not from the commandment. Thus, for him, Gospel itself is commandment.

Even though Martin Marty asserts that the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount were not delivered as an impossible ideal, he shares the same ideas with Barth in terms of necessity of the Law. For Marty, the law of God plays nothing in respect to ‘being good.’ Marty seems to pay attention to the Law of God only for the doctrine of original sin. Marty says, “The law has only the indirect task of working negatively to accuse the sinner, to enlarge one’s list of sins, and to make a person aware of sin.”

Martin Marty’s and Barth’s statement may eventually mean that the law and the commandments of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are things which are impossible to practice. Further, Jesus’s words on the Mount must be considered as commandments that can be practiced in real life. A human heart depending on the will of God can handle the task. And like Jesus, the sayings of messengers of God are wisdom, and these wise men (i.e. God’s messengers) were always concerned about the pious way of life. Hence, when they utter any word, the wisdom within this word requires the word to be practiced. Otherwise, this word would be absurd and meaningless.

M. Ali Mertcan


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