Monday, December 13, 2010

Did Christ Fulfill the Law in our Place?

A common but very serious theological error is the Protestant notion that Jesus fulfilled the Law in our place. This error is of a two fold nature: first, conflating and confusing the two notions of "fulfill" and "obey all the commandments perfectly" as if they were synonymous, and second, not recognizing Christians are called to fulfill the law and that the Bible never teaches Jesus "obeyed all the commandments" in our place.

To "fulfill" something means to realize it's original intent and potential, while to "obey all commandments perfectly" means to never sin while doing all you are required. To drive home the point I'm making - that there is a real conceptual distinction between the two - consider a few examples:
  • When we say a prophecy was "fulfilled," that means it came to pass, yet this obviously has no logical connection to perfect obedience. Prophecies have been fulfilled about and by evil men, which is impossible if it meant they were perfectly obedient (e.g. see Acts 1:15ff of how Judas' sins fulfilled the Scriptures!).
  •  A prophecy or pre-figurement not about you cannot be fulfilled by you, nor does it depend on your obedience. For example, Paul says Christ is our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7), something that never applied to men as individuals nor as Jews observing Passover. Another good example is when Jesus says, "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. ...This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day..." (Luke 24:44ff). Clearly, Jesus fulfilled the Law, but not in a way we were ever intended to. Jesus is the one and only Messiah, we are not called to be a Messiah. 
  •  A man becomes a Jew by circumcision, yet Jesus didn't get circumcised in place of saved Jews (who were already circumcised). Similarly, the Law forbids eating certain foods, such as pork, yet Jesus didn't abstain from pork in place of Gentile Christians (who never had to abstain from pork, and in fact many Christians eat pork, and this has no bearing on sin or salvation whatsoever). Such examples could be multiplied (e.g. Jesus getting Baptized and Christians getting Baptized). Thus, it cannot be said Jesus "fulfilled the Law in our place" is synonymous with saying Jesus "kept all the commandments in our place," since the latter is manifestly false. 
  •  Saint Paul was very clear that Christians are called to fulfill the Law (Rom 13:8ff, Gal 5:14): "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not covet,' and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." If Jesus has to fulfill the Law "in our place" because we cannot, then Paul is either deluded or lying about what he's calling believers to do. Saint Paul's point here is neither about never sinning nor obeying all the commandments perfectly, but rather pointing out that Love is what all those individual commands was pointing to as the full realization of what God was trying to get across. Christians, who were sinners prior to their conversion, and at times still struggle with sin, are called to (and must) fulfill the Law as Paul describes above. 
  •  As with the previous point, Christians are called to fulfill the Law in a way not humanly possible, since it rises above our natural human abilities (even Adam couldn't do them). One prime example of this is found in Romans 2:28f, "A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God." What pleases God is a person who is inwardly transformed by the Power of the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, something man lacks the ability to do, and this is what makes man a real Jew and truly circumcised (the fulfillment of each). Saint Paul is saying circumcision is required for salvation, just not the one made by human hands (cf. Col 2:11f). This isn't about us keeping all the commandments perfectly, nor is this about Jesus doing this in our place.
  • The Bible never says anything to the effect of Jesus "kept the commandments in our place." True, Jesus never sinned and did keep all the commandments, and even fulfilled the Law in a unique sense, but nowhere does Scripture ever say this was done "in our place." 
The question now is: Why would Protestants suggest this? The reason why is because Luther's heresy of Justification by Faith Alone required this concept of "Jesus keeping the commandments in our place" in order to work as a doctrine. Luther and Protestants think that salvation is about being a "perfect commandment keeper," and that God requires you to keep the commandments perfectly if He is going to let you in Heaven. And since man obviously has not kept all the Commandments, and assuming God doesn't change His Perfect Demands, this suggests Jesus had to keep the Commandments in our place in order for us to be justified (this is popularly termed the "imputation of Christ's Active Obedience"). But this is simply unbiblical, and yet it's been hammered into the heads of so many Protestants throughout history that they think this is plainly found in the Bible. But the fact remains: it's a false concept, nowhere taught in Scriptures, and its only basis comes from first assuming (faulty) theological ideas and only then believing and formulating whatever is necessary to prop up those (faulty) ideas.

While many don't realize it, the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone as the Reformers taught it hangs in the balance on many factors, including this one, so it's critical to know about and refute. Anyone who researches Protestant arguments on this notion of Christ's "Active Obedience" will see this error being frequently employed when they appeal to various Scriptural texts. Those Catholics who can understand this crucial concept will be on their way to properly explaining the true Biblical position (and refuting any Protestant errors) regarding the doctrine of Justification.


Dan Lower / KKairos said...

What is this "New Perspective on Paul" that the more respectable Calvinists seem so down on, and where (in your estimation) does it fit or conflict with the Catholic perspective?

Anonymous said...

Nice to see you back Nick. I thought you were never going to post again!

This is a good post. The Prots are confused about this fulfillment of the law and scripture thing. I can't remember how many times I've heard this phrase used to denouce so-called 'legalism'. Protestantism is unique among world religions IMHO because to the best of my knowledge, it is the only religious philosophy in the world that downplays the importance of law in the scheme of salvation by overemphasizing grace while, by contrast, rabbical Jdaism goes the other way in overemphasizing the law for salvation and downplays grace. Juscot

Nick said...


The NPP is, in my opinion, a rediscovering of Catholicism from the 'back door'. Some Reformed Protestant scholars - who were simply being 'good' Protestants by following what they believed Scripture alone pointed to - came to realize that folks like Luther got it wrong when it came to justification. (gasp!) The fundamental NPP thesis is that the Judaizers never operated in a "works righteousness" famework - they never believed in "salvation by works." There are various ramifications that flow from this, but the most important point is that it manifestly denies the notion Paul was teaching within in a (anti)Pelagian framework. The (anti)Pelagian framework is how Luther and Calvin read Paul, but the NPP says that's a critical exegetical mistake. The NPP says the Judaizers were using "works" like circumcision as a 'badge' to define the parameters of who "God's People" the Christians were. The issue was more racism than Pelagianism.

Al Kresta sums it up well:

Unlike the modern evangelical Protestant revivalistic preaching tradition, the Apostle Paul was not preoccupied with his acceptance as a sinner before a holy and righteous God. That was
Luther's crisis. Protestants have tended to read Paul through the lens of Luther's experience.

1. ...Luther said he feared God but clung to the Apostle Paul. All the constitutive elements of the classic Luther-type experience, however, are missing in both the experience and the thought of
the Apostle.
Unlike Luther, Paul was not preoccupied with his guilt, seeking reassurance of a gracious God. He was rather robust of conscience, even given to
boasting, untroubled about whether God was gracious or not (Philippians 3:4 ff.; 2 Corinthians
10, 11). He knew God was gracious. He never pleads either with Jews or Gentiles to feel an anguished conscience and then receive release
from that anguish in a message of forgiveness
... Paul's burden is not to "bring people under conviction of sin" as in revival services. Forgiveness is simply a matter of fact.

When Paul speaks of himself as a serious sinner, it is...very specifically because...he
had persecuted the church and missed God's new move -- opening the covenant community to the
Gentiles (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Ephesians 3:8; Galatians 1:13-16; 1 Timothy 1:13-15).
What is now set right in his life is not that he is no longer trying to work his way to heaven,
abandons self-exertion and now trusts Christ; it is rather that he now sees that God has inexplicably chosen him to reveal this new and more inclusive covenant community made up of Jew and Gentile
... (Ephesians 2:11-3:6).

Nick said...


Glad to see you too. Some stuff came up in my life that put a lot of work on hold, but I still want to keep this blog up and running.

The Protestants are confused about fulfillment versus sinlessness because they're looking for something not really there in their quest to validate Sola Fide. These 'glasses' prevent them from seeing certain teachings, as well as misunderstanding others. It's not intentional, it's their framework.

While this will stun many, especially Calvinists, I don't think the Jews or Judaizers downplayed grace - quite the opposite in fact. The Judaizers were the epitome of "grace alone". The Judaizers taught they were 'more important' in God's sight than the Gentile dogs by the sheer fact God unconditionally made them born of Jewish lineage, which carried with it unconditional and unilateral Promises and Blessings. This is, in essence, Calvinism but with a twist.

Note what Jesus said for the Gospel reading last Sunday (Mat 3):

"Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’

For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees."

Do you see what these corrupt Jews were doing? They thought of themselves as *entitled* simply because they were biological descendants of Abraham. They thought that since God would never break His promises to Abraham and his offspring, that God would assure the Jews a guarantee of safety and prosperity. Jesus and Paul both say: NO! Jesus says God would turn the stones into Abraham's children before He would bless those self-important corrupt Jews.

The scandal of Jesus and the Cross was not about man or the Jews working their way to Heaven, but of the fact the Messiah they were expecting and wanted did not come and conquer in a way they could accept.

Brian said...


Thank you for that last comment. It is a good'n.

Keith Watson said...


Speaking from a Protestant point of view, I have always seen "the Protestant notion that Jesus fulfilled the Law in our place" as support for penal substitution not "Luther's heresy of Justification by Faith Alone". In fact Jesus fulfilling the law is always used as support for Jesus satisfied the demands of the law, which is not a phrase in the Bible.

To better understand fulfil, I once did a study of looking up the Greek word pleroo (Strong's G4137) which is translated as fulfil. This Greek word is used 90 times in the New Testament. But this word is only used in 2 ways to describe the fulfilling of the law. The first is how man fulfils the law.

James 2:8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:

The second is how Christ fulfils the law.

Luke 24:44 And he said unto them, These [are] the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and [in] the prophets, and [in] the psalms, concerning me.

In fact, the word fulfil is used with regards to Jesus and the law 29 times. In 28 of those times it is used as, "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet", or "that the scripture might be fulfilled", or "all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me [Jesus]". Only in one place is that type of phrasing left off. But a case could be made that that is what is meant.


Nick said...


In classical Protestantism, there is a direct link between Jesus fulfilling the Law *in our place*" and the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. By faith (alone) the believer receives that 'in our place' work that Jesus did. For example, if you want to get into Harvard, you need good SAT scores. But since you don't have good SAT scores, you need someone else to score 100% on the SAT for you. By faith you 'receive' the 100% grade that Jesus earned, and thus you become worthy of entering Harvard.

When texts like Luke 24:44 speak of Jesus "fulfilling," this refers to Him fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, such as the Messiah being born in Bethlehem. Those texts do not refer (ever) to Jesus keeping the Law perfectly *in our place*.

Keith Watson said...

Hi Nick,

I've been thinking about what you said. It has caused me to remember one of the conclusions I came to after a long period of examining penal substitution. This one theory/framework has its tentacles into a lot of different doctrines!

I believe Justification by Faith Alone stands as an independent idea outside of the framework of penal substitution. Penal substitution theory is an attempt to explain what justification means, and how did Jesus bring about our justification; while justification by faith alone explains what is our involvement in bringing about our justification. For me it is easy to distinguish between these areas. But I also realize classical Protestantism does not make the same distinction I do.

A reformed Protestant who does not agree with penal substitution,

Nick said...

It is possible to have different definitions of "Justification by Faith Alone" - all depending on how you define those terms. There can even be an orthodox Catholic version of "Justification by Faith Alone".