Think Not that I am Come to Destroy the Law: An Exposition of Matthew 5:17-20

by William Perkins

The following is an excerpt from A Godly and Learned Exposition of Christ’s Sermon in the Mount by William Perkins, which can be found in Volume 1 of his works.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one  of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”   (v.17)

In this verse, and the rest which follow to the end of the chapter, is contained the third part of Christ’s sermon; wherein He goes about to restore the moral law to its true sense and meaning, which was much corrupted by the Jewish teachers. And to the end  the same might be the better accepted, He makes way thereto by a notable preface in vv. 17-20; wherein He seeks, as well to prevent as to remove the false opinion which the Jews conceived of Him in respect of the law; as also to procure all reverence and loyalty to be shewed thereunto. For the Jewish teachers seeing our Saviour Christ condemn and neglect the tradition of the elders, and not so much  to respect the ceremonies of the law, as they thought He should, did thereupon judge Him to be a deceiver, and one that went about to overturn the whole law of Moses. This opinion Christ confuteth by three arguments: First, from the end of His coming, in this verse; the second, from the nature of the law, in the 18th verse, whereupon He infers two notable conclusions to procure reverence thereunto (v. 19); and thirdly, from the scope of His ministry (v.20).

I. For the first: The exposition.

Think not that I am come etc.

This coming of Christ must be understood of the manifestation of the Godhead in our nature; for otherwise, His Godhead being everywhere, cannot be said to come properly; and as for His manhood, it had not been in heaven.

To destroy the law.

The law in general is that part of God’s Word which commands things just, honest and godly; and being thus conceived, it is threefold: ceremonial, judicial and moral. The ceremonial law is that part of God’s Word which prescribed to the Jews ceremonies, rites and orders to be performed in the worship of God. This law is laid down in the books of Moses, especially in Leviticus. The judicial law is that part of God’s Word which prescribed ordinances for the government of the Jews’ commonwealth and the civil punishment of offenders. The ceremonial law concerned the Jews only; the judicial law did indeed principally concern them; but yet, so far forth as it tendeth to the establishing of the moral law, having in it common equity, it concerneth all people in all times and places. What the moral law is, I will describe in three points: First, it is that part of God’s Word concerning righteousness and godliness which was written in Adam’s mind by the gift of creation; and the remnants of it  be in every man by the light of nature; in regard whereof it binds all men. Secondly, it commandeth perfect obedience, both inward in thought and affection, and outward in speech and action. Thirdly, it bindeth to the curse and punishment, everyone that faileth in the least duty thereof, though but once, and that in thought only (Gal. 3:10), Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things that are written in the law, to do them. The sum of the moral law is propounded in the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, which many can repeat, but few do understand.

That we may further conceive aright the moral law, we must make a difference between it and the gospel; for the gospel is that part of the Word which promiseth righteousness and life everlasting to all that believe in Christ; the difference between them stands especially in five things:

First, the law is moral, and was in man’s nature before the fall; but the gospel is spiritual, revealed after the fall, in the Covenant of grace.

Secondly, the law sets forth God’s justice in rigour, without mercy; but the gospel sets out justice and mercy united in Christ.

Thirdly, the law requireth a perfect righteousness within us; but the gospel revealeth our acceptance with God by imputed righteousness.

Fourthly, the law threateneth judgment without mercy, and therefore is called the ministry of condemnation, and of death (2 Cor. 3:7,9); but the gospel shews mercy to man’s sin in and by Christ, if we repent and believe.

Lastly, the law promiseth life to the worker and doer of it: Do this and thou shalt live (Rom. 10:5); but the gospel offereth salvation to him that worketh not, but believeth in Him that justifieth the ungodly (Rom. 4:5); not considering faith as a work, but as an instrument apprehending Christ, by whom we are made righteous.

The church of Rome in a manner confound the law and the gospel, saying that the gospel, which is the new law, revealeth Christ more clearly than Moses did, which they call the old law. But this is a wicked opinion, which overturns all religion, being the cause of many gross points in popery, which could not stand if they would acknowledge a true distinction between the law and the gospel. They say for their defence that the precepts of both are the same in substance; that both require righteousness, both promise life and threaten death; both command faith, repentance and obedience; and therefore they are the same. Answer: First, the laws and precepts of the law and gospel are not the same; for Adam in his innocence knew the law, but he knew nothing then of believing in Christ; and though both require righteousness, promise life, and threaten death, yet the manner is far different, as before was noted. So likewise they differ  in the commanding of faith; for the gospel commandeth faith, not as a work done,  as the law doth; but as an instrument laying hold on Christ. Again, the law command faith generally; as to believe in God, and to believe His Word to be true; but besides this, the gospel requires a particular faith in Christ the Redeemer, whom the law never knew. Thirdly, the law commandeth not repentance, for the knowledge of the law was in Adam’s heart when he needed no repentance; true repentance therefore is a saving grace, wrought and commanded only by the gospel. And fourthly, for obedience, though it be commanded both by the law and the gospel; yet not in the same manner; the law commandeth obedience every way perfect, both in parts and degrees, and alloweth none other; but the gospel commandeth, and in Christ approveth imperfect obedience; that is, an endeavour in all things to obey and please God, if it be without hypocrisy. Again, the law commandeth obedience, as a work to be done for the obtaining of salvation; but the gospel requires obedience, only to testify our faith and thankfulness unto God. The church of Rome therefore erreth greatly in confounding the law and the gospel, which indeed are far differing; and so we must believe, if we would come into, and hold the right way that leadeth to life.

Now whereas Christ saith, Think not that I come to destroy the law; by law He meaneth principally the moral law, and in the second place the ceremonial law also. Next observe the opposition that Christ maketh between the law and the prophets; thereby signifying unto us that by the law, He meaneth that part of God’s Word concerning righteousness and justice which Moses penned by God’s commandment; and by the prophets, He meaneth that part of God’s Word which is contained in the writings of all the prophets in the Old Testament after Moses; which books of the prophets contained in them either an interpretation of Moses’ law, or predictions of the state of the church in the New Testament. Again, by destroying the law, we must not understand a breach of the law, such as is made by man’s sin; but such a dissolution as taketh from it all virtue and power whereby it is a law; and so to destroy the prophets, is to put an end unto them so as they should nothing avail, either to the interpretation of the law, or to the foretelling of the state of God’s church under the gospel.

But to fulfil them. Christ fulfilleth the law three ways: by His doctrine, in His person and in men. By His doctrine He fulfilleth the law two ways: both by restoring unto it His proper meaning and true use, as we shall see afterwards where He correcteth the corrupt interpretations of the Pharisees; as also by revealing the right way whereby the law may be fulfilled. Secondly, in His person He fulfilleth the law two ways: first, by becoming accursed to the law, in suffering death upon the cross for us; secondly, by performing perfect obedience unto the law, doing all that the law required for the love of God or of His neighbour; in which respect He was said (Gal. 4:4) to have been under the law. Thirdly, Christ fulfilled the law in men. Men may be of two sorts: elect and reprobates. In His elect, He fulfilled the law two ways: first, by creating faith in their hearts whereby they lay hold on Christ, who for them fulfilled it; secondly, by giving them His own Spirit which maketh them endeavour to fulfil the law; which in Christ is accepted for perfect obedience in this life, and in the life to come is perfect indeed. In unbelievers, Christ fulfilleth the law when He executeth the curse of the law upon them; for this is a part of the law, and the execution and enduring of the curse is a fulfilling of the law. And thus doth Christ fulfil the law; so that the meaning of the words is this: Whereas you think that I came to destroy the law and the prophets, by making them of none effect, you are deceived; nay, on the other side, know that the end of my manifestation in the flesh was to fulfil the law, both in my dostrine and person; and also, in the persons of men both good and bad.

In this apology of Christ, for His behaviour towards the law; observe what malice some of the Jews, especially the Scribes and Pharisees, bare unto Him; for Christ was the author of the law, and yet they maliciously suspect and charge Him with the abrogation thereof; so as he is fain to clear Himself in this behalf.

The like hath been the malice of wicked men in all ages, against the dearest servants of God (Acts 6:14). Stephen is accused to speak blasphemous words against the Law (Acts 8); and Paul is charged with the same crime (Acts 21:28). And such is the malice of the papists against all evangelical reformed churches; because we deny justification by works, therefore they condemn us for enemies to good works; and in many other points they fasten upon us notes of reproach for holding the truth. Yea, among ourselves, the like malice doth appear in those that brand their brethren with odious names, because they shew forth more care than others, of their duty to God; but let all God’s children beware of this Pharisaical practice.

Again, observe the titles under which He comprehendeth the whole Scriptures of the Old Testament: The law and the prophets. They are called Moses and the prophets (Luke 16:31). Christ began at Moses and all the Prophets, and interpreted unto them in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27); there Moses and the Prophets do contain all the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

Here then we may note a property of the books of the Old Testament; namely, that every one of them was either written by Moses or some other of the prophets. And by this we may know the canonical books of the Old Testament, and distinguish them from the books called Apocrypha; for the Apocrypha books were not penned by any of the prophets, who spake and wrote in the Hebrew tongue, the native language of the Jews; but by some other in the Greek tongue, which was not the language of the old prophets. These books may be regarded in sundry respects, as containing many worthy rules touching manners; in which regard we may prefer them before other writings of men, so far forth as they are consonant with the Scripture; and so the church of God hath of a long time reverenced them; but yet they are no part of the law, nor of the prophets. And therefore the church of Rome doth notably wrong and abuse the world in styling these apocryphal books for canonical Scripture.

Thirdly, Christ, in this His apology, sheweth a sweet consent between the law and the gospel. They are not contrary one to the other; for Christ who is the substance of the gospel, came to fulfil the law; and therefore Paul saith (Rom. 3:31), We establish the law; and (Heb. 9:19ff.), When Moses had given the law unto the people, offered sacrifices, and sprinkled the blood thereof upon the book, and upon the people, which was a type of the shedding of Christ’s blood, as it is there expounded (vv. 23,24); which did notably signify this consent between the law and the gospel, insomuch as without Christ, the law could not stand.

Now this consent between them standeth herein: The law requireth perfect obedience, and threateneth death to the least breach thereof, not propounding any way for the fulfilling thereof out of ourselves; but the gospel directeth us to Christ, who as our surety hath fulfilled the law for us; for which cause Christ is called (Rom. 10:4) the end of the law for righteousness, in everyone that believeth. And through Christ it is (Rom. 8:4) that the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us, which walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”   (v.18)

II. Here our Saviour Christ propoundeth the second argument for the clearing of Himself from their false imputation of destroying the law, and it is drawn from the nature of the law, which is immutable.

The Exposition.


This sheweth the dependence of this verse upon the former.

Truly, I say unto you.

This is a form of speech which our Saviour used when He would solemnly avouch any weighty truth; and propounding this in His own name, herein He sheweth Himself to be the Doctor of His church, whom we must hear in all things, for He speaketh as one that cannot lie. The thing He saith is this:

Till heaven and earth perish, one jot or tittle of the law shall not pass.

In which words He setteth down the stability and the unchangeableness of the law; and that He might fully express His mind, He borroweth a phrase from the Hebrew alphabet, wherein Jod is the least letter; one jot signifying that not so much as this little letter Jod shall pass out of the law. Again, by tittle, some think is meant the Hebrew vowels; but properly it signifieth a line bent or crooked, or the top of an horn; so that here it properly signifieth the bending or bowing that is in the top of some Hebrew letters; insinuating that not so much as the least part of a letter in the law should pass away. Now these things must not be taken properly, for it hath been and may be that in the Hebrew copies of the Old Testament some letters should be changed, as may appear by the diverse reading in sundry copies; for that may be without the loss of any sentence; but Christ’s meaning is this: that not the least parcel or sentence in the law shall pass away; making parts in the law to be as tittles in the alphabet.

Till heaven and earth perish

That is, never; so much this phrase insinuateth; for though heaven and earth shall be changed in regard of their qualities, yet the substance of them shall never pass to nothing; and in this sense is the word till used elsewhere; (1 Sam. 15:35), Samuel came no more to see Saul till the day of his death, that is, never.

Till all things be fulfilled

That is, till everything commanded in the law be done, so as it shall no more urge a man to any obedience; which shall never be, for it must eternally be fulfilled; so that this phrase hath the like sense with the former, importing thus much: even for ever and ever. So that this is the meaning of this verse: that the law of God is unchangeable, not only in the whole, but for every part thereof; and the fulfilling thereof shall never have an end. Christ’s reason then stands thus: If the law be immutable, and for observation eternal, then I came not to destroy it: But the law is immutable and eternal; and therefore I came not to destroy it.

1. First, here observe that the law of God is made perpetual and unchangeable. If any man ask how this can be, seeing the apostle saith, the law is changed (Heb. 7:12)? Answer: The law is threefold: ceremonial, judicial and moral, as hath been said. Now that place is principally to be understood of the ceremonial law, which indeed is abrogated, in regard of the observation of it in God’s worship; but in the scope and substance of it, which is Christ crucified, with His benefits, whom it shadowed out, it remaineth still, and is now more plain than ever it was. As for the judicial law, though it be abrogated unto us, so far forth as it was peculiar to the Jews; yet as it agrees with common equity, and serves directly to establish the precepts of the moral law, it is perpetual. If it be said that Christ changed the moral law in changing the Sabbath day from the seventh day to the eighth; I answer Christ did so indeed by His apostles, but that is no change of the substance, but of the ceremony of the Sabbath; for the substance of that law is the enjoining of a seventh day’s rest  unto the Lord. Now though the seventh day from the creation be not kept, yet a seventh day is kept still. If it be further said that the law itself is abrogated; for that everyone that breaketh the law is not accursed, according to the sentence thereof (Deut. 27:26); Answer: We must know that the law is one part of God’s Word and the gospel another, revealing another part of God’s will, besides that which the law made known; for it adds a qualification to the law, moderating the rigour thereof, after this manner: He is accursed (saith the law) that faileth in any commandment, except (saith the gospel) he be reconciled again in Christ, and in Him have the pardon of his transgressions. And yet the moral law remains for ever a rule of obedience to every child of God, though he be not bound to bring the same obedience for his justification before God.

2. Again, this property of the law, in being unchangeable and for ever to be kept, sheweth that no creature may be abrogated and changed, but God’s law even in the least parts thereof, must stand for ever, till it be accomplished to the full; but if it might be dispensed with, then not jots and tittles thereof, but whole laws might be abrogated. This shews the blasphemous impiety of the popes of Rome, who in their canons be authorised to dispense with the laws of God; yea, in the last Council of Trent, he is privileged to dispense with some of the laws of consanguinity, against nature, flatly forbidden in the Word of God (Lev. 18); which is most horrible rebellion, and a great disgrace  unto God.

3. Thirdly, from the property of the law, we may observe that it is not likely that any whole book of canonical Scripture is lost; for not one sentence of the law shall pass till all be fulfilled; much less then can whole books perish. Sundry men do think that whole books be lost; but that opinion calls into question the fidelity of the church and God’s own providence in preserving His Word. Neither can it stand well with this text that saith no tittle thereof shall fail. Those that seem to be lost, were either human writings, as books of laws and chronicles, such as our books of statutes or chronicles be; or books of philosophy, such as Solomon wrote; or else some of them are in the canonical Scripture; for the books of Samuel and the Kings were written by divers prophets; and therefore we may more safely hold that no part of Holy Scripture is lost, neither shall ever fail. For howsoever after the last judgment the use of the written Word shall cease, yet the substance thereof shall remain in men’s hearts and be kept for ever.

4. Fourthly, this immutability of the law contains a matter of great terror and woe unto all impenitent sinners; for howsoever they may flatter themselves with a presumption of God’s mercy, yet the curse of the law which is against them, shall stand for ever; and therefore while they go on in sin, they have just cause to howl and cry; for God’s justice in His law is inviolable. Neither will (Prov. 11:4) gold or silver pacify God’s wrath; for though a man by his power and wealth were able to overturn heaven and earth, yet that would not help him; though heaven and earth be brought to nothing, yet every part of God’s law must stand for ever and be fulfilled. And therefore whosoever do lie in any sin, must in time repent, humble themselves, forsake their sins, and betake themselves unto Christ, that He may fulfil the law for them; or else the curse thereof shall certainly be fulfilled in them, and they shall lie howling under it eternally, where is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.

5. Fifthly, this immutability of the law, and so proportionally of every part of God’s Word, as it proveth the Scriptures to be the Word of God, so it is a most excellent ground of comfort for all God’s servants to stablish their hearts in the assurance of all His promises. A Christian heart is subject to receive many doubting of the truth of God’s promises, especially in the time of trial and temptation; but this must be remembered for ever, that the whole Word of God is immutable; though man’s promises may fail and their ways be abrogated, yet no jot or part of God’s Word shall pass unfulfilled; and therefore they must constantly wait for the accomplishment thereof, for in due time it shall be fulfilled.

6. Sixthly, we are hereby taught to put on patience in afflictions; for they come by special appointment of our God, who saith in His Word (Acts 14:22) that through many afflictions we must enter into the kingdom of heaven. Now every part of God’s Word must be accomplished; and therefore Christ bade Peter to put up his sword, when he would have rescued His apprehension; for (saith He) I could pray to my Father, and He would send more than twelve legions of angels to help me;  but how should the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must so be? (Matt. 26:52-54).

7. Seventhly, our Saviour Christ in this property of immutability, giveth unto the whole law, and unto every syllable and letter thereof, its proper force, virtue and sense; so as there is nothing in it, not so much as one letter, vain or idle; for every commandment reveals the perfect justice of God, and every letter serves to express the same commandment. And herein the law of God differeth from men’s laws; for in them be many vain and idle words; yea, oftentimes whole sentences; but in the law of God it is not so (Prov. 8:8), All the words of my mouth are righteous, there I no lewdness or frowardness in them; yea (Psa. 19:7,8), the law of the Lord is perfect, His statutes are right, and His judgments true and righteous altogether. Now the consideration of this integrity and perfection of the law, and Word of God, must move us to study the Scriptures with great diligence. So saith our Saviour Christ (John 5:39) Search the scriptures; that is, shake and sift them (as the word signifieth), search narrowly, till the true force and meaning of every sentence, yea, of every word and syllable; nay, of every letter and jot therein, be known and understood. Confer place with place, the scope of one place with another, things going before with things that come after; yea, compare word with word, letter with letter, and search it thoroughly. This manner of studying the Scripture is most necessary, as being the thing indeed which preserveth and upholdeth the church of God and the purity of religion; for about four or five hundred years ago, men left off to study the Bible after this sort, and betook themselves to the writings of men, occupying their wits wholly in vain quiddities in philosophy, and in hid mysteries of divinity; by which means it came to pass that popery and apostasy from the truth spread itself over the world for many hundred years together. Afterward, God of His mere mercy, put into the hearts of some men, to be careful searchers in the Word of God, by which means the truth appeared, as light out of darkness. Thus God stirred up Luther, about the year of our Lord 1517, who by diligent search in the Scripture, and especially by serious meditation, with prayer, upon these words of the apostle (Rom. 3:21) that now by the gospel, without the law, the justice of God is made manifest; did find that by the perfect obedience of Christ, our justification was wrought; and thereupon began to maintain and profess justification before God to be free, through and by faith in Christ only, without help from the works of the law, against the doctrine of the church of Rome; and so by further diligence and industry in the Scripture, the truth of God shone forth more and more. Let all men, but especially students in divinity, consider this effect of searching out the Scripture as a spur to diligence in this behalf. By this means also errors and heresies are avoided and suppressed, and the will of God is plainly revealed. And here by the way, we may see how profitable and necessary the gift of interpretation is; it is a most excellent gift of the Spirit, pertaining to the ministry; and therefore most commendable and necessary in the use thereof in schools of learning.

8. Eighthly, this immutability ascribed to God’s law, that every part thereof shall be accomplished to the full, teacheth that all princes and magistrates, not only to be keepers of Moses’ law in their own persons; but also within their rule and dominions, to do their best endeavour that the same be fulfilled and kept by others. For this cause did the law command that the prince of His people should have the law written before him in a book, to read upon continually, that he may learn to fear God, and to keep all the words of the law to do them (Deut. 17:18,19); and that which is there enjoined unto princes, belongeth also unto all magistrates, masters and parents, within their places and charges; they must be careful to see the whole law of God practised and obeyed, both in their own persons, and of those that are under them.

9. Lastly, by this immutability ascribed to the law, we may learn what it is to fulfil the law; namely, to keep and observe to the full every particular thing which the law commands us; and upon this we may ground two conclusions against the papists: First, that no man can come to life everlasting by his own righteousness and obedience; for he that would come to heaven by his own righteousness, must be able to fulfil the whole law perfectly in every respect; but since Adam’s fall no man could keep the law in all things, saving our Saviour Christ, both God and man. Secondly, that our fulfilling of the law must be in the obedience of Christ, for he only was answerable to the whole law in all things; and therefore if we would come to heaven, we must not come in our own righteousness, but in His; as Paul wisheth to be found of God (Phil. 3:8,9).

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”   (v.19)

Our Saviour Christ, having plainly propounded in His apology for Himself, the stability and the eternity of the whole law; doth here lay down two notable conclusions for the upholding thereof:

1. Because the law is immutable and eternal, therefore he that breaketh one of the least of the commandments, and teacheth men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

2. Because the law is eternal, therefore he that keeps the commandments, and teacheth men so, shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

1. For the first, by least commandment, He meaneth the precepts of the moral law, though in the former verse, by law He understood the whole law in three parts, judicial, moral and ceremonial. And He calleth them little, not simply in regard of themselves, as though they were so indeed; for in itself every commandment of God is great and weighty; but He speaketh according to the opinion of the Jews, for the Scribes and Pharisees had ordained certain rites and ceremonies according to the tradition of their fathers; the observation whereof, they made a greater matter of conscience than the keeping of some of God’s commandments; and so esteemed them little. Again, saying these least commandments, He appointeth out what particular commandments of the moral law the Jews esteemed less than the traditions of men; namely, those which afterward He expoundeth in this chapter touching murder, adultery, swearing and the rest; for they esteemed not all the commandments of the law lesser than their traditions.

Shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

Here Christ sets down the punishment of a false prophet, which breaks God’s commandments and teach men so; to wit, his base esteem in the church of God; for the kingdom of God is twofold: the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of glory. The kingdom of grace is the society and company of God’s faithful servants here on earth; the kingdom of glory is the blessed estate of all the saints in heaven. Now here by the kingdom of heaven, He meaneth the kingdom of grace, which is the militant church on earth; and so John Baptist calleth it (Matt. 3:2): Repent, and amend, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; that is, the church of the Old Testament is now abolished, and the church of the New Testament is ready to take place by Christ’s coming; and therefore, repent and amend. And (Matt 11:12), From the time of John hitherto, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence. So then the meaning of this first conclusion is this: whosoever breaketh one of the least commandments of the moral law (which afterwards I shall expound), and teacheth men so to do, he shall be contemned, and not counted worthy to be a member of the church of God in the New Testament.

(1) In this conclusion, in the practice of the Jews, Christ setteth forth two notable corruptions of an hollow heart towards God:

(i) The first, to see little by the commandments of God, esteeming no more of them, nay less, than of men’s laws and traditions. But St James saith (Jam. 2:10), He that breaketh one commandment, be it never so little, is guilty of all, though he make shew of keeping all. So likewise he that maketh light and base account of one commandment, condemneth all; though he seem to honour the rest never so much. Though Herod heard John gladly, and obeyed his doctrine in many things, and so seemed to make some account of some commandments; yet because he would needs live in incest, against the seventh commandment, he did in effect contemn and break them all. So at this day, there are many who profess religion, and give testimony thereof, by hearing the Word and receiving the sacraments; and hereupon they would be counted as lovers of God’s law; yet in the course of their lives, and in their particular callings, they will not stick to oppress the poor, and to deal unjustly for their advantage; to profane the Sabbath for a little profit or pleasure, and to swear and curse when they are a little provoked. Now howsoever such persons may make a glorious shew of profession outwardly, yet by these and such like particular actions, they shew plainly that they have but Pharisaical hearts, which indeed make little or no account of God’s commandments. Let us therefore every one look into our ways, and search in our hearts, whether this corruption be in us or no; and if it be, let us repent and forsake it, and labour to become like David, who had respect unto all God’s commandments (Psa. 119:6); and so shall we not be despised in the church of God.

(ii) The second corruption of an hollow heart, noted likewise of Christ, in these Jews is, to place the ceremonies, rites and traditions of men above the commandments of the moral law. Herewith He doth expressly charge the Jewish teachers (Matt. 15:3), Why do ye transgress the commandments of God by your traditions? And this is also the practice of the church of Rome at this day, they account eating of flesh in Lent, and on their fasting days, a deadly sin; and yet they will dispense with treasons and murders of Christian princes. They allow of stews, they permit and pardon sodomy; and yet utterly forbid marriage in some estate, which the Holy Ghost calleth honourable among men (Heb. 13:4). In these and many more, they prefer their own traditions before the most holy commandments of God; yea, many ignorant persons among us are tainted with this corruption; for be not some feast days appointed by the church as Christ’s nativity, All Saints, and such like, observed by them with greater conscience and reverence than the Lord’s own Sabbath? Though the memory of Christ’s nativity may be celebrated; yet the Lord’s day should have the special honour. Now for the reforming of this corruption, we must labour to have the same mind that was in David, who grew into admiration with God’s commandments, and thereupon inured himself to the observation of them. We must therefore labour to have a high estimation of the laws of God, and this will be a notable means to draw us to a reverent fear and obedience towards the same. One cause why men do not so highly advance the law of God as they ought, is because they do not sufficiently weigh the dignity thereof. In every commandment therefore, we must first deeply consider the weight thereof; then labour to understand it aright; thirdly, learn to admire the wisdom and justice of God therein; and lastly, endeavour to yield loyalty and obedience thereunto.

(2) Secondly, in this rule, our Saviour Christ puts a difference between a false prophet and a true; the false prophet breaks the commandments of God in his own person, and also by his doctrine teacheth others to do the like; but the true prophet and servant of God, in the ministry, endeavoureth the advancement of God’s glory, as well by integrity of life, as by soundness of doctrine.

(3) Thirdly, in the punishment of a false prophet here set down, we have good direction for our judgment touching the present church of Rome; namely, that she is not worthy to be esteemed a part of Christ’s church on earth, by the sentence of our Saviour Christ; because she breaks God’s commandments, and teacheth men so; for whereas the second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of images, yea, and the making of images to resemble God; the church of Rome doth not only allow the contrary, against this commandment, but teacheth others so to do; saying that it is lawful to resemble the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in images, either painted or carved, and to worship them therein; yea, and to worship the very images of Christ, and of saints, and also the saints themselves, with religious worship.

Again, they plainly break the tenth commandment, which forbiddeth the first motions unto sin with delight, though without consent of will, by teaching that concupiscence after baptism is no sin. And as they deal with the commandments, so deal they with the prophets, who give testimony unto Christ; for first, they destroy His manhood by their forged transubstantiation; secondly, they overturn His kingly office by making the pope the head of the church, and giving him power to make laws to bind the conscience. Thirdly, they overturn the priesthood by their massing priesthood, wherein they daily offer up an unbloodied sacrifice for the sins of the quick and the dead. Fourthly, they  rob Him of His prophetical office in giving liberty to the pope to make new laws, and to expound the Scriptures as supreme judge. These things they teach, and therefore that church is not worthy to be counted a member of Christ’s church. But seeing God in great mercy hath vouchsafed us this favour in this land that we should receive and embrace His holy Word, to publish and teach the same; and so esteemeth us worthy to be accounted a member of His church; we are therefore to rejoice in this mercy, and to praise God unfeignedly for this unspeakable blessing; and to shew forth our thankfulness, not only by teaching and receiving the truth of His Word, but also by yielding obedience in all things thereunto; yea, our earnest and daily prayer must be, because it is so great a blessing, to be counted worthy of His kingdom that God would continue the truth of His will to us, and to our posterity for ever.

2. The second conclusion: Whosoever shall keep them, and teach men so, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven; that is, he shall be honoured in the church of God, and esteemed a worthy member thereof, because by this means, he endeavoureth to keep the law unchangeable for ever. In this conclusion two points are to be considered: the office of a faithful teacher, and his reward.

(1) His office is twofold: First, in his own person he must be a doer of God’s commandments; secondly, in his public ministry, he must teach men so to do.

(i) Here first observe the order of these duties: doing must go before teaching. This order Christ propounds, and that doubtless on special grounds; first, because a man cannot with joy and comfort fitly teach others, before himself being a doer of the thing he teacheth; for if a man teach others, from the instruction of the Spirit, he shall find his own heart inclined by the same Spirit, to be obedient to the Word he teacheth.

Again, the experience of the fruit and efficacy of the Word, in his own person, is the best commentary a man can have, for the opening of it unto others. The writings of men with the knowledge of arts and tongues, are excellent helps; yet if a man want the Spirit of God, framing his heart to believe and obey the Word he teacheth, whereby he should become a doer of it; doubtless the Word will seem but a dream or riddle unto him, neither can he fitly apply the same unto others, having never had experience of it in his own soul. This then should move all ministers, and such as set themselves to this calling, first and chiefly to labour to become doers of the Word themselves; other helps of learning are to be sought for with all diligence, to make them fit and able ministers of so great mysteries; but especially they must labour for the Spirit of grace, to frame their hearts to embrace, and their lives to obey the Word which they teach, that so they may be fitted, according to our Saviour Christ’s direction. Now this Spirit is attained by knocking at heaven’s gates by prayer (Luke 11:13), and by opening the door of our hearts, when our Saviour Christ knocketh thereat by His Word (Rev. 3:20).

(ii) Secondly, in laying down this duty, our Saviour Christ propoundeth a singular comfort to such faithful ministers as be grieved with the untowardness of their people. He propoundeth not the conversion of the people, as a property of a faithful teacher, but the doing and teaching of the will and Word of God. And doubtless a man may be a faithful teacher, and yet not convert many unto God; hence the prophet complains that he had laboured in vain, and spent his strength in vain (Isa. 49:4). Nay, the same prophet is sent to blind the eyes of his people, to make them dull of hearing, and to harden their hearts by his ministry (Isa. 6:9,12); which was an heavy case; but yet that saying of the apostle Paul must be remembered; that howsoever unto some, his ministry was the savour of death; yet, unto God it was always the sweet savour of Christ (2 Cor. 2:15,16). So that a minister mourning truly for his people, to see their hardness of heart, may comfort himself with this: that in a good conscience he endeavoureth to obey the Word of God, and to teach men so.

(2) The reward of a faithful teacher is this: he shall be counted great in the kingdom of heaven; that is, he shall be honoured, and counted worthy to be a member of Christ’s church, both in this life, and in the life to come. This must be remembered, to incite all ministers to become faithful teachers, both in life and doctrine. To get respect in princes’ courts is much sought after on earth; O then, how should this high respect with God prevail in our hearts to incite us to be faithful in this calling?

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”   (v.20)

III. These words are commonly taken to be reason of the former verse, by way of answer to a secret objection which the Jews might frame therefrom, to this effect: Thou sayest, whosoever breaketh one of these least commandments, and teach men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but our teachers, the Scribes and Pharisees, look to have chief place in the kingdom of heaven; and yet (if thy doctrine be true) they break God’s commandments, and teach others so to do. Now hereto, Christ should answer thus: I say unto you, except your righteousness exceeds theirs, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. But if we mark well, , the words more fitly be referred to the 17th verse, as a third reason to prove that Christ came not to destroy the law, or the prophets, but to fulfil them; because He exacts at every man’s hands, a more perfect and exact righteousness than that which the Scribes and Pharisees either have in themselves, or require in others; without which, no man can enter into the kingdom of heaven.

In this verse are three points to be handled: First, what these Scribes and Pharisees were; secondly, what was their righteousness; and thirdly, what is that true righteousness, whereby a man may enter into the kingdom of heaven, and stand just before God.

1. For the first, a Scribe is a name of office, whereof there were two sorts among the Jews: Civil, who as public notaries did register the affairs of princes; and such an one was Shimshai (Ezra 4:8); and Ecclesiastical, who were employed in the expounding of the Scripture; such an one was Ezra (Ezra 7:1,5,6). And those of whom our Saviour Christ saith (Matt. 13:52), Every Scribe taught unto the kingdom of heaven is like an householder; and (Matt. 23:2), The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ chair; that is, they are expounders of the law of Moses. And such Scribes are meant in this place; to wit, men in ecclesiastical office, descending from the tribe of Levi, who expounded the law unto the people; and these were all one with the Priests and Levites, under the law; and therefore Ezra is called both a Scribe and Priest (Neh. 8:1,2).

The name Pharisee betokeneth a sect, not an office; for there were three special sects among the Jews; the Essenes, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Essenes were like popish monks and friars, which did separate themselves from the people, vowing and dedicating themselves to live in perpetual sanctity. The Sadducees were a sect that did expound the law, according to the letter and syllable, and withal denied the resurrection and the immortality of the soul, as is plain (Acts 23:8). The Pharisees were such as did forsake the common exposition of the Scribes, and taught and framed a more exact and strict exposition of the law, according to the traditions of the fathers; and they were most holy outwardly, and of chief account among the Jews; and therefore the apostle Paul saith (Acts 26:5), that after the most strict sect of their religion he lived a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. Yet besides these three were another sect, called Herodians, who (as some think) were courtiers, which held and taught that Herod was the Messiah. And thus we see what the Scribes and Pharisees were, whom Christ here joineth together for amplification’s sake; understanding thereby such teachers among the Jews, Priests and Levites, as lived after the most strait custom of the Pharisees; for the Pharisees were by office Scribes, as we may plainly see by comparing together John 1:19 with v.24, where the Priests and Levites (who were Scribes as we have shewed) are called Pharisees.

2. What was the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, which is here so debased, as being unable to bring a man to heaven? By the tenor of Scripture it will appear that it was (Luke 11:39; Matt. 6:2,5,16) an external righteousness only, standing in the outward observation of the law; for they were careful to abstain from actual gross sin, as whoredom, theft, murder, idolatry and such like, and they were very forward in keeping the traditions and ceremonies of the elders (Mark 7:3,4), and in all things to carry themselves in shew conformable to the law (Phil. 3:6); but the inward righteousness of the heart they nothing regarded; thinking that perfect righteousness consisted in outward obedience, and by that they looked to be saved; as it is said (Rom. 10:2), Neglecting utterly the righteousness of God.

In these Scribes and Pharisees we may observe what is the natural persuasion of man touching righteousness; to wit, that an outward righteousness will serve the turn; and therefore every man naturally contents himself therewith; and hence it is that men will bring their bodies usually to the place of God’s worship to pray, to hear the Word and receive the sacraments; but few have care to bring their hearts with them that they may inwardly worship God in spirit and in truth. So likewise, many are content to rest from their ordinary labours on the Sabbath day, but few are careful to consecrate their rest unto God. Men be careful to abstain from actual murder, but few make conscience of malice, hatred, reviling and quarrelling. Many hate theft that yet will not stick to rob their neighbours of their good name by vile reports. Many are ashamed to rob openly that make no bones to deceive by false weights and measures, by glosses and such like. And yet all these will bless themselves with their outward righteousness, and think all is well, not doubting but they shall be saved by it, though they have no more. But this is Pharisaical pride and folly; for all such outward righteousness is here condemned as unable to save the soul.

Again, here we mat see the palpable and gross opinion of all worldly men, even of those who commonly are called honest men. If they be told of their sins, and of the danger of damnation except they repent; their answer is that they are no thieves, no murderers, no gross sinners, and therefore they hope God will save them; for they live orderly, and do no man wrong. But let all such take heed lest they deceive their own souls, for this civil honesty was the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, which could neither bring them, nor any other, into the kingdom of heaven, as Christ the God of truth saith expressly in this place. To give alms, to fast, to pray and to deal uprightly with men, be very good things; but yet we must labour for more than these, if ever we mean to come to heaven. We must get another righteousness of the heart, renouncing utterly our own righteousness, in the matter of justification, and condemn ourselves for our best actions, that so we may be fit to receive that true righteousness which will commend us to God.

3. What is that true righteousness which will bring a man to heaven? Answer: It is the righteousness of Christ (1 Cor. 1:30), for Christ is made unto us of God, wisdom, righteousness; yea (2 Cor. 5:21), He was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. This is that righteousness which exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, and whereby a sinner doth stand just before God; for when as by Adam’s fall we all became guilty of sin, and thereby subject to the curse of God, and to eternal condemnation, from which we could never have delivered ourselves; then it pleased Christ to come from the bosom of His Father, and to become our Surety and Saviour, who in His life became obedient to the law for us, and in and by death upon the cross, suffered whatsoever was due unto our sins; which obedience and satisfaction being made by Him that was both God and man, was alone all sufficient, both to free us from the curse of the law, and also to justify us before God; and this righteousness of Christ is that which exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, and is able to bring a man to heaven. Yet further for our justification, Christ’s righteousness hath three parts: the purity of His human nature, the integrity and obedience of His life, and the merit of His sufferings upon the cross; and all these must be ours, to answer for our corrupt nature and sinful life deserving a cursed death.

Here some make question, How Christ’s righteousness can be ours? And how one man’s righteousness can save so many thousands? Answer: Christ’s righteousness is not the righteousness of a mere man (for then it could save but one at the most), but it is the righteousness of that Person who is both God and man; and therefore is an infinite righteousness, of merit sufficient to save a thousand worlds.

But some here say, If Christ’s righteousness be ours, then we are as righteous as Christ? Answer: The same righteousness that is in Christ is ours, but not in the same manner or measure; for Christ hath it by merit and action of Himself; we have it only by mercy and imputation. It is in Christ as a root and fountain, in us by reception and application; like the light in the moon and in the stars [planets], which is not in them originally, but received from the sun, the fountain thereof.

Thirdly, it is said, If we by Christ’s righteousness be justified, and made the sons of God; then is Christ by our sins made unjust, and so the child of the devil? Answer: We may safely say that Christ was made a sinner by our sins, not actually, but by imputation. Now hence it will not follow that He should be the child of the devil, for that cometh by the act and habit of sinning, after sinful conception; all which our Saviour Christ was freed from; for at the very time when He bare our sins, He was in Himself more holy than all men and all angels.

Fourthly, it is said that if Christ’s righteousness be made ours, then we are made Saviours? Answer: It followeth not; for Christ’s merits and righteousness are conveyed and applied unto men, not as they are in Christ’s person, in whom they are sufficient to save ten thousand worlds, but as they serve to save and justify that particular person only, to whom they are imputed; so that this remains an undoubted truth, that righteousness which bringeth salvation, is Christ’s righteousness only.

Here some may say, How is Christ’s righteousness made ours, and we assured of it? Answer: It is made ours by saving faith, which the Holy Ghost creates in the heart and soul, as an hand whereby we may lay hold on Christ, and apply His righteousness unto ourselves, as He is offered unto us in the promises of the gospel.

Some object that if Christ’s righteousness be made ours by our believing it to be ours, then if a man believe his neighbour’s house to be his, it is his also; and so for any other thing. Answer: There is not the like reason in these things; for it is a mere fancy and imagination for a man to believe his neighbour’s house to be his, having no grounds for it, besides his own conceit. But when a man believeth Christ’s righteousness to be his, he hath God’s commandment and promise for his warrant and assurance that it shall be imputed unto him; and withal that faith so grounded, maketh Christ’s righteousness as truly his, as anything a man hath in his own, being given him of another. Now this saving faith, laying hold on Christ’s righteousness for man’s justification, is never severed from sanctification by the Spirit, with the fruits thereof, whereby the old man being mortified, and the new man in Christ renewed, according to His image in righteousness and true holiness, the whole person is turned unto God, and made careful to please Him, both in thought, word and deed; and hereby do we receive assurance of our justification; for true sanctification is the earnest of the Spirit of adoption in our hearts, whereby we are sealed unto the day of our redemption.

Doth that righteousness whereby we must be justified and saved in the day of our Lord, come from Christ only, and not from ourselves? Then we see what just cause we have to humble ourselves, and to acknowledge our great unrighteousness, and want of all goodness in ourselves; and when we can do this unfeignedly, we have gone one step in the way to true happiness.

Secondly, we also must hereby learn to esteem all things as dross and dung (Phil. 3:8,9), with the apostle, in respect of Christ Jesus and His righteousness; for He it is that brings us to heaven, and therefore we must honour Him above all, and value His righteousness as that most precious jewel, which when a man hath found, he will sell all that he hath to get and keep it (Matt. 13:46).

Thirdly, we must hunger and thirst after Christ and His righteousness, for it is the fountain of all blessedness, and without it we are most miserable; yea, though we had all the world besides, yet without it we lose our salvation. Now what will it profit a man to win all the world, if he lose his soul (Mark 8:36)?

Fourthly, seeing Christ’s righteousness is made ours by faith, and we made assured of it, by sanctification of heart and life; we must labour for true faith, whereby our hearts may be inwardly renewed. We must not content ourselves with an outward holiness, for that will never bring a man to heaven; but our endeavour must be for inward holiness, whereby we shall be preferred with God above all the Pharisees in the world, and get assurance of eternal happiness. And this faith we must shew forth in all holy exercises; as when we hear the Word, we must lend the inward ear of the heart, with the bodily ear; and when we fall down to prayer, we must bow the knees of our hearts; and in fasting from meat, we must abstain from sin; yea, in all things we must be careful to serve God in spirit and truth; for which cause, we must pray with David, Lord renew a right spirit within me (Psa. 51:10); that so feeling Christ to live in us by grace, we may be assured that Christ’s righteousness shall bring us unto glory.


From The Works of William Perkins, Volume 1

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