The Rich and Perfect Law

Epiphany 5 Thursday

Matthew 5:17

“You should not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

Since the Lord Christ imposed the office on the apostles and earnestly charged them to carry it out, he now continues and begins to salt and to shine to give them an example so that they may know what they are to preach. Christ here attacks both the teaching and lifestyle of the Jews to rebuke and improve their false opinions and works. As I have said, he does not urge the lofty chief doctrine concerning faith, but begins farther down by correctly explaining and interpreting the law that had been utterly darkened and perverted by their Pharisees and scribes. For it is also necessary to cleanse and correct the doctrine concerning God’s commandments. But it is such a burning, intolerable salt that he lays hands on, and condemns, such people and does not leave anything good about them, although they were the best and holiest people who daily taught God’s commandment and who daily practiced the holy worship, etc., so that no one was able to rebuke them. By doing so he gives them cause to scream against him confidently and to accuse him that he wanted to abolish and destroy the law of God, although God commanded it, etc. In the same way, the pope and his party scream against us and call us heretics who prohibit good works…Accordingly, Christ means to say: “I do not want to bring a different or new law, but only take the Scripture you have and interpret it correctly and do this so that you may know how to keep it. For the gospel or Christ’s preaching does not bring a new doctrine that abolishes the law or changes it, but brings the very thing that, as St. Paul says (Romans 1:2), was promised beforehand by the prophets. Accordingly, we take from the church in our time Scripture, baptism, the sacrament of the altar, etc., which it has; we do not desire to invent anything that is new or better. But this we do only so that these things would be preached and used correctly and
that the teachings and practices that do not agree with these things would be removed. St. Augustine interprets the word “fulfill” in two ways: First, fulfilling the law means to add to the law what it lacks. Second, it means to fulfill it by works and life. But the first explanation is not correct. For the law, in itself, is so rich and perfect that one must not add to it. For even the apostles must prove the gospel and preaching concerning Christ from the Old Testament. This is why no one, not even Christ, is able to improve the law. For what can be made or taught that is higher than the First Commandment, “You shall love God from all your heart,” etc., Deuteronomy 6:5. What Christ does do is that he pours out his grace and Spirit over the law and the doctrine, so that the law may be done and fulfilled as the law requires it. But this does not mean to add anything to the law. Accordingly, he does not here speak about this, but about the fulfilling that is done by teaching. Likewise, “abolishing” here does not mean to act contrary to the law by works, but to abrogate the law by the doctrine. This is why Christ here says what St. Paul writes in Romans 3:31: “Do we abrogate the law by faith? Far be it! Rather, we establish the law,” which is to say that Paul does not want to bring a different teaching, as if the previous  teaching were no longer valid. Instead, he wants to preach and interpret the law correctly, show the true core and meaning, so that they may learn what the law is and what it requires, against the glosses of the Pharisees which they inserted into the law, preaching only the law’s shells or husks.

St. Louis ed., 7:421-424.

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