THE LAW AND GOSPEL AS EXPLAINED BY JOHN WESLEY

Edited by Joseph D. McPherson

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 35. Spring 2017. Volume 35. Posted May, 21, 2017  

Mr. Wesley wrote thirteen discourses "Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount." By these he has greatly expanded understanding of our Lord's teachings. In the opening pages of Sermon 25, Wesley provides suitable explanation of the relationship the moral law has with the Gospel of this New Testament dispensation. In the following we wish to share Wesley's insight by way of a simulated interview. Questions will be asked of Mr. Wesley as though he were present with us. His answers will then follow as found in this sermon.

Question: When Jesus says: "Think not I am come to destroy the Law, or the Prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill," how are we to understand our Lord's view of the ceremonial law? Was it not a part of his mission and intention to annul or abolish this part of the law?

Wesley: The ritual or ceremonial law delivered by Moses to the children of Israel, containing all the injunctions and ordinances which related to the old sacrifices and service of the temple, our Lord indeed did come to destroy, to dissolve, and utterly abolish. To this bear all the apostles witness: not only Barnabas and Paul, who vehemently withstood those who taught that Christians "ought to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5); not only St. Peter, who termed the insisting on this, on the observance of the ritual law, as "tempting God, and putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers, (saith he) nor we, were able to bear;" but "all the apostles, elders, and brethren, being assembled with one accord" (v 22), declared, that to command them to keep this law, was to "subvert their souls;" and that "it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to them, to lay no such burden upon them." This "handwriting of ordinances out Lord did blot out, take away, and nail to his cross" (v 28).

Question: What part of the law did he not take away? What law is in continuance to which we are all obliged to observe?

Wesley: The moral law, contained in the Ten Commandments, and enforced by the prophets, he did not take away. It was not the design of his coming to revoke any part of this. This is a law which never can be broken, which "stands fast as the faithful witness in heaven." The moral stands on an entirely different foundation from the ceremonial or ritual law, which was only designed for a temporary restraint upon a disobedient and stiff-necked people; whereas this was from the beginning of the world, being "written not on tables of stone," but on the hearts of all the children of men when they came out of the hands of the Creator. And however the letters once wrote by the finger of God are now in a great measure defaced by sin, yet can they not wholly be blotted out, while we have any consciousness of good and evil. Every part of this law must remain in force upon all mankind, and in all ages; as not depending either on time or place, or any other circumstances liable to change, but on the nature of God and the nature of man, and their unchangeable relation to each other.

Question: When Jesus assures us that he came "not to destroy, but to fulfil," how are we to understand the meaning of his fulfilling the law?

Wesley: Some have conceived our Lord to mean, I am come to fulfill this by my entire and perfect obedience to it. And it cannot be doubted but he did, in this sense, fulfill every part of it. But this does not appear to be what he intends here, being foreign to the scope of his present discourse. Without question, his meaning in this place is (consistently with all that goes before and follows after): I am come to establish it in its fullness, in spite of all the glosses of men: I am come to place in a full and clear view whatsoever was dark or obscure therein; I am come to declare the true and full import of every part of it; to show the length and breadth, the entire extent of every commandment contained therein, and the height and depth, the inconceivable purity and spirituality of it in all its branches.

And this our Lord has abundantly performed in the preceding and subsequent parts of the discourse before us, in which he has not introduced a new religion into the world, but the same which was from the beginning: a religion the substance of which is, without question, "as old as the creation," being coeval with man, and having proceeded from God at the very time when "man became a living soul." (The substance, I say; for some circumstances of it now relate to man as a fallen creature); a religion witnessed to both by the law and by the prophets in all succeeding generations. Yet was it never so fully explained, nor so thoroughly understood till the great Author of it himself condescended to give mankind this authentic comment on all the essential branches of it; at the same time declaring it should never be changed, but remain in force to the end of the world.

Question: Can it be supposed that some parts of the moral law which include the Ten Commandments might reasonably be altered, modified or omitted to make suitable adjustment to our enlightened time and dispensation?

Wesley: "For verily I say unto you" (a solemn preface, which denotes both the importance and certainty of what is spoken), "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled."

"One Jot" - it is literally, not one iota, not the most inconsiderable vowel; "or one tittle," one corner, or point of a consonant. It is a proverbial expression, which signifies that no one commandment contained in the moral law, nor the least part of any one, however inconsiderable it might seem should ever be disannulled.

"Shall in no wise pass from the law." The double negative, here used, strengthens the sense, so as to admit of no contradiction: And the word parelthe (shall pass), it may be observed, is not barely future, declaring what will be; but has likewise the force of an imperative, ordering what shall be. It is a word of authority, expressing the sovereign will and power of him that spake, of him whose word is the law of heaven and earth, and stands fast for ever and ever.

Question: If the law has been fulfilled by Christ, should we not assume that it is to pass in order that the Gospel be established in its place?

Wesley: "One jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass till heaven and earth pass;" or as it is expressed immediately after, "till all" (or rather all things) "be fulfilled," till the consummation of all things. Here is therefore no room for that poor evasion, (with which some have delighted themselves greatly) that "no part of the law was to pass away till all the law was fulfilled; but it has been fulfilled by Christ, and therefore now must pass, for the gospel to be established." Not so; the word "all" does not mean all the law, but all things in the universe; as neither has the term "fulfilled" any reference to the law, but to all things in heaven and earth.

From all this we may learn that there is no contrariety at all between the law and the gospel; that there is no need for the law to pass away in order to the establishing the gospel. Indeed neither of them supersedes the other, but they agree perfectly well together. Yea, the very same words, considered in different respects, are parts both of the law and of the gospel. If they are considered as commandments, they are parts of the law: if as promises, of the gospel. Thus, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart," when considered as a commandment, is a branch of the law; when regarded as a promise, is an essential part of the gospel -Question: If the law has been fulfilled by Christ, should we not assume that it is to pass in order that the Gospel be established in its place? Wesley: "One jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass till heaven and earth pass;" or as it is expressed immediately after, "till all" (or rather all things) "be fulfilled," till the consummation of all things. Here is therefore no room for that poor evasion, (with which some have delighted themselves greatly) that "no part of the law was to pass away till all the law was fulfilled; but it has been fulfilled by Christ, and therefore now must pass, for the gospel to be established." Not so; the word "all" does not mean all the law, but all things in the universe; as neither has the term "fulfilled" any reference to the law, but to all things in heaven and earth. From all this we may learn that there is no contrariety at all between the law and the gospel; that there is no need for the law to pass away in order to the establishing the gospel. Indeed neither of them supersedes the other, but they agree perfectly well together. Yea, the very same words, considered in different respects, are parts both of the law and of the gospel. If they are considered as commandments, they are parts of the law: if as promises, of the gospel. Thus, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart," when considered as a commandment, is a branch of the law; when regarded as a promise, is an essential part of the gospel the gospel being no other than the commands of the law proposed by way of promise. Accordingly, poverty of spirit, purity of heart, and whatever else is enjoined in the holy law of God, are no other, when viewed in a gospel light, than so many great and precious promises. the gospel being no other than the commands of the law proposed by way of promise. Accordingly, poverty of spirit, purity of heart, and whatever else is enjoined in the holy law of God, are no other, when viewed in a gospel light, than so many great and precious promises.

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