From Studies in the Scriptures Publication: April, 1939
"Think not that I am come to destroy the Law, or the Prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Matt. 5:17). Though we have only just completed a more or less full exposition of the passage in which this verse occurs, we propose to quote some of the comments made thereon by one of the ablest Scottish divines of last century: principally because he treats of it from a different angle than we did, and also because its grand theme is now so little believed. Our present author dealt with its doctrinal import, in relation to the Atonement.--A.W.P.
1. In the fulfillment of the Law and of the Prophets the Lord Jesus must be considered as acting in the capacity of a surety or substitute; and the obedience in both lights was, beyond doubt, vicarious. Hence His active obedience is for us, and reckoned to our account, not otherwise than if we had fulfilled it. The entire obedience of Christ was a compliance with the will of God as expressed in the Law. And His conscious aim in His mission, as He here expresses it, was to fulfil the Law. If, according to the federal agreement, the Law was the special sphere of Christ's earthly work, it is obvious that without a clear conception of the Law, not only in the extent of its claims, but also in the extent of the curse which it entails, we cannot adequately know His obedience in our stead. Hence we must look at the usual threefold division of human duty, in relation to God, to ourselves, and to our fellowmen, if we would adequately apprehend the extent and breadth of this obedience.
With regard to the duties toward God, the whole life of Christ shows that He was animated by supreme love to God (John 14:31), that a desire to glorify God was His grand aim in all things (John 17:4); and that, from love to His Father, He followed with an undeviating purpose the will of God in all things (John 15:10). He gives expression to this at the threshold of the greatest trial: "But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave Me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go hence" (John 14:31). The trust which He reposed in the Father, the prayers and the thanksgivings recorded in His history, all suffice to show this.
The second class of duties are those which we owe to ourselves. And these, too, Jesus fulfilled in a perfect purity of conduct, in a self-denial which distinguished Him as the meek and lowly One (Matt. 11:29) and in that marked feature of His character by which He pleased not Himself (Rom. 15:3).
As to the third class of duties, again, those toward our neighbour, and which are summed up in that word which Paul designates the fulfilling of the Law--the Lord Jesus speaks of it when He says, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). This He did; and He went about during all His previous life doing good (Acts 10:38). It was in the exercise of this love that He made intercession for His own (John 17:9), and prayed for His enemies (Luke 23:34). And among these duties must be comprehended that obedience to His parents to which there is an early allusion (Luke 2:51), and which shone out so brightly on the Cross, just before the earthly relation toward his mother was dissolved forever (John 19:26).
Thus at every step we can trace the most prompt and undeviating fulfillment of the Divine Law. It was no common obedience, however, which was necessary to constitute the ground of our acceptance, but one which must needs pass through unparalleled difficulties and sorrows, which we can but faintly conceive of, and which must possess a value, on account of the dignity of His Person, such as is nothing short of infinite. The grand commandment laid on Him, and the culmination of His whole obedience, was to die; and hence it was in the spontaneous oblation of His life that the greatness of the obedience was peculiarly displayed.
2. It was one undivided obedience; for Scripture knows of only one service or work in which all the elements of submission or obedience meet. It was not a double obedience. The entire life of Jesus must be apprehended as one connected deed. But the obligation was twofold, including the perfect obedience of His life, as well as the suffering of death, or the obedience unto death. The right formula, then, is not "to obey or suffer"; for the claim to a service of love with all the heart still unalterable devolves upon man as man, just as it did in man's primeval state. Not only so: the person who expiates sin must of necessity accept the curse with the utmost alacrity and adoring love, and with a full sense that the infliction of it is to the glory of God. These two elements enter into the Lord's obedience, and neither could be omitted. Hence only a person free from all moral defilement, and therefore not needing to satisfy for personal defects, was in a position to undergo the inconceivable suffering due to sin. What He did concurred with what He suffered, to satisfy the Divine Law, and to place man in the position which he occupied before the Fall or, rather, in a higher relation, because in a primal state and in a state of confirmation.
Had the Church been left to herself without the attacks of error, the two elements of Christ's obedience probably would not have been so much sundered as they have often unduly been. We may distinguish, but not divide, the parts of that obedience which is one. But the obedience of Christ before His final sufferings, and during them, or, as it has been called, the active and passive obedience, may be vindicated, as two distinct but connected elements, in His propitiatory work. The active obedience belongs to the atonement, and is an essential part of the satisfaction to Divine justice, in the wide and proper acceptation of the word justice. This is a question which has been canvassed long and earnestly; and we rather refer to it in connection with this passage, because the tendency to deny the element of the active obedience is so strong in modern theology. The question is not whether the holiness and active obedience of Christ were necessary to sanctify His sufferings, which no one will call in question, but whether they were available for this alone.
Nor is this the question: whether Christ's passive obedience is the ground of our salvation: without the other. It is not, whether Christ's holy obedience was necessary to His Person as a due prerequisite to that atonement which He offered, but, whether Christ, in His entire obedience as well as in His expiatory work, won an unchallengeable title to life for such as are willing to be dependent on Him, and who were unable personally to meet the law's demand--"This do, and thou shalt live." The consequences of denying the active obedience of Christ are these: either God must be supposed to recede from His rights, which would just be tantamount to saying that He denied Himself, or man must be held to procure the title to Heaven by some services of his own, which are imperfect in their nature. Either supposition is inconsistent with the Gospel. If, however, we dismiss scholastic terms, the matter may be put in the following Biblical way, to which no exception can be taken: The law must be kept, and sin must be punished; and Divine wisdom and grace provided a man, that is, a God-man, who was in a position to accomplish both, and did so.
3. Christ's people are thus, through faith in Him, considered as if they had always fulfilled the Divine Law. This is the second fruit of Christ's satisfaction, as sin-bearing is the first. Thus, according to this essential element of Divine truth, the Lord Jesus not only bore sin, but fulfilled all the claims of the Divine Law, and so put His people in possession of a perfect and immaculate righteousness, and secured for them its due reward. For as God could not have ceased to demand punishment at the hands of sinners, from the very perfection of His nature, so He cannot but confer a reward from the same rectitude of His nature, when His Law has been fulfilled for them in so complete a way, and by a Person so excellent.
But to all these Biblical views of Divine truth not a few objections have been taken, and some of them of a nature that seem, at first sight, plausible and staggering.
a. Thus, it is asked, Was not Christ, as a man, bound, in common with every rational creature, to render obedience to God on His own account? The answer to this is not difficult. A right view of Christ's humiliation will suffice to show that He did not owe obedience on His own account, and that He was not under the Law by any necessity of nature. He owed obedience, not precisely because He took humanity, but because He willed to be made under the Law for us. The Law was not given for the human nature in union with a Divine Person, except as He condescended to be abased, and was made under it voluntarily, as a means to an end. Christ became man for no personal object of His own, but only to be a Mediator for others, and in that capacity to fulfil the Law.
But for this, He would not have come into the world, or have become man, hence the obedience which He voluntarily discharged was only for His people, not for Himself; and Scripture never deduces His active obedience from any natural or inevitable obligation, but always regards it as the end and scope of His mission. Nor can we regard the Lord Jesus as a mere man. He was still the Son of God, neither bound to assume humanity, nor submit to the laws of humanity, nor to encounter any of those numerous temptations by which His obedience was to be exercised. And He did all this spontaneously and vicariously in a humanity which He had assumed, not to be a separate person, but merely as a rational and intelligent instrument or organ, by means of which that great work of vicarious obedience could be accomplished.
b. But it is asked again, How can one be righteous, because another was obedient? The answer is obvious. The entire constitution of our race, as contradistinguished from that of other orders of being, was of this nature--that it stood or fell in a representative; and Christ is the second man. Men may quarrel with this arrangement and destroy themselves by proud and petulant rebellion, but it will stand, notwithstanding. Believers are treated in Christ as perfectly righteous, and as if they had done all that He did. The race is saved on the same principle on which it was placed at first: and we who believe are the fulfillers of the Law in the second man, the Lord from Heaven.--George Smeaton.