Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s law is good. The commandments are good. The psalmist sings in Psalm 119, “I find delight in your commandments, which I love” (Ps. 119:47), “I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold” (Ps. 119:127), “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Ps. 119:35). Through the commandments God tells us which works are pleasing in his sight and which are not. We aren’t left guessing like the pagans of old, whose so-called gods barely knew right from wrong themselves. Nor are we left guessing like the pagans of our day, who speak of ever-changing situational ethics and deny absolute right and wrong, at least until you cut in front of them in line at the grocery store.
Through the commandments, God also teaches us what good gifts he has given us, and through the commandments, God protects these gifts. For example, by saying, “You shall not murder,” God teaches us that he is the giver of life. And by saying, “You shall not murder,” God protects your life and pledges that he himself will be the avenger if someone takes your life. The commandments are good.
“But the commandments cut us to the heart. The commandments make us aware of our sins.” These are not enjoyable sensations. It doesn’t feel good when your conscience is suddenly guilt-stricken. But what? Are we going to fault the law? If I stick my hand into a fire, can I blame the fire when I get burned? If I take a running leap face first into a brick wall, can I blame the wall when I break my nose? Of course not. The fire and the wall would be acting consistently with their nature. And it’s good that the fire is hot. It’s good that the brick wall is strong. But if I don’t act toward them in a fitting way, I shouldn’t be surprised when it hurts.
If God’s law hurts, it’s not because of a problem with God’s law. If God’s law hurts, it’s because of our sin. When we don’t act according to the commandments, we shouldn’t be surprised when the law accuses us. This doesn’t show that the commandment isn’t good. It shows that we aren’t. The Apostle Paul reflects on this in Romans 7. He explains not only how the law shows us our sins, but also how the sinful nature completely misuses the commandments to learn how to sin. Yet he doesn’t conclude that there’s a problem with the law. Rather he says, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12).
Since the law simply riles up and exposes the sin that we have anyway apart from the law, getting rid of God’s good law wouldn’t solve anything. We would still have a sinful nature and we would still sin and death would still reign over us even if God had never given the law, as Paul noted in Romans 5:12-14. And so in the Gospel reading Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” (Mt. 5:17). The Son of God came to save us, and abolishing the law would not save us. “I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” The Son of God came to fulfill the law, and by fulfilling the law he saved us.
Now, what does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the law? This means two things. First, Jesus’ fulfillment of the law means that he kept the commandments perfectly and did not sin or stray at a single point. This is called Jesus’ active obedience. Second, Jesus’ fulfillment of the law means that he suffered all the punishments prescribed in the law for those who do not keep it. This is called Jesus’ passive obedience. This twofold fulfillment of the law is very important because we had two problems. Through our law-breaking, we lacked righteousness and we acquired the death sentence. If we were to be saved, we needed someone to supply the righteousness that we didn’t have and to suffer the punishment that we deserved.
The Advent of the Son of God is the advent of the Savior who would die on the cross to forgive our sins. But the birth of Christ loses something if we merely think of it as a prerequisite for the crucifixion. If the work of Christ were solely about his passive obedience, then we have to ask, “What was Jesus doing for the first thirty-three years of his life?” He was obeying the law. That’s the answer. He spent those thirty-three years having the right God, properly using God’s name, keeping the Sabbath day holy, honoring his father and his mother, and so forth through all the commandments.
And therefore when you sin by breaking the commandments, Jesus not only says, “Your sin is forgiven; I have taken the punishment for it.” But he also says, “The commandment that you have broken I have kept perfectly. I have the righteousness that you lack, and I give my righteousness to you.” And thus the Father in heaven doesn’t see us as sinners whom he merely tolerates because of Jesus’ suffering and death. But the Father sees us as perfect and is pleased with us because of the righteousness that Jesus has given to us.
Our Lutheran Confessions put this beautifully in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article III on Righteousness:
Thus, the righteousness that out of sheer grace is reckoned before God to faith or to the believer consists of the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ because he has satisfied the law for us [active obedience] and paid for our sins [passive obedience]. For since Christ was not only a human being but both God and a human being in one inseparable person, he was thus as little under the law – since he was Lord of the law – as he was obligated to suffer and die for himself. Therefore, his obedience consists not only in his suffering and death [passive obedience] but also in the fact that he freely put himself in our place under the law and fulfilled the law with his obedience [active obedience] and reckoned it to us as righteousness. As a result of his total obedience – which he performed on our behalf for God in his deeds and suffering, in life and in death – God forgives our sin, considers us upright and righteous, and grants us eternal salvation. (SD III.14-15).
Now how does Christ’s fulfillment of the law impact our relation to the law? In Christ, we don’t have to fear the law, because in Christ we are innocent according to the law. In Christ, we can truly call the law good. The law will still make us aware of our sins, but because of Christ’s fulfillment of the law we do not despair; rather we receive the forgiveness of sins and have the hope of eternal life through him. In fact, because of Christ, we can even be glad that God shows us our sins through the law. In Christ, we have come to know God as our Father who does all things for our good, including turning us away from things that are displeasing to him and harmful to us.
And so rather than seeing the law as something that’s going to arrest us and haul us to court and sentence us to death, we see the law as God originally intended it: as instruction for his people, as a revelation of what is pleasing in his sight, as a protection of God’s good gifts. In Christ we can sing with the psalmist, “I open my mouth and pant, because I long for your commandments” (Ps. 119:131). Amen.