It’s often erroneously assumed that the way to be saved under the Law of Moses was to simply keep the “old law,” whereas salvation under Christ demands that we keep a “new law.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
When Paul said that “by works of law no flesh shall be justified,” such holds true for anyone in any age (Rom. 3:20). If we could be saved by works of law (i.e., keeping the rules) then a holy God could accept nothing less than perfection. But that we all fall short proves that works of law cannot save (Rom. 3:23).
When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he wasn’t giving a new law to replace the Law of Moses. His sermon includes a series of contrasts signaled by the phrases, “You have heard…but I tell you.” He was not contrasting an old law with a new one. He was rather contrasting the scribes and Pharisees' misinterpretation of the law with the original intent of God’s law. Jesus states from the outset that his argument was not with the Law of Moses, but with the scribes and Pharisees, whose standard of righteousness we must surpass (Matt. 5:17, 20).
The scribes and Pharisees exemplified that it’s possible to be in technical conformity with the “letter” of the law, while violating the spirit, or intent, of the law. It’s possible, for example, to technically keep the law against murder while harboring hatred in the heart. It’s possible to avoid adultery while harboring lust in the heart (Matt. 5:21-30).
Jesus knew that what humans needed was not a new law, but a new heart (Ezek. 36:26). Outward conformity to a list of dos and don’ts is not enough. Our outward behavior must proceed from the inner person. Only then will our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Only when the heart is changed will we go beyond the law that says “Do not murder” and devote ourselves to loving others from the heart as we serve their best interests. Only when the heart is changed will we go beyond the law that says, “Do not commit adultery” and keep ourselves to one person alone in both thought and deed.
What Jesus contrasted was a law-centered approach to righteousness with a God-centered approach to righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees’ approach to righteousness aimed at mere conformity to the letter of the law. Jesus’ aim was higher. As opposed to merely conforming to the letter of the law, we’re to be transformed into a people who are after God’s own heart. So righteousness is not so much a matter of what you do or don’t do, but it’s a matter of who you are in Christ. We don’t just conform to a law written in stone, but we are transformed by the law written on our hearts (2 Cor. 3:7-8; Heb. 8:10). If you’re truly transformed, then good works will follow, flowing freely from the love you have for God and those created in his image.
I am indebted to my former Bible College instructor, Stephen Broyles for having first introduced me to the possibility that one can be in technical conformity with the law, while violating the spirit of the law.
I am further indebted to the work of Dallas Willard, especially in his book Divine Conspiracy.
I am above all indebted to Jesus, Matthew, and Paul.
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