John Wesley explains the role of God's Law in Grace, Faith and Love...

The Christian and God's law

Matthew 5:17-19 "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. {18} 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. {19} 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."

1. Among the multitude of reproaches which fell upon Him who "was despised and rejected of men" (Isa. 53:3), it could not fail to be one, that he was a teacher of novelties, an introducer of a new religion. This might be affirmed with the more colour, because many of the expressions he had used were not common among the Jews: either they did not use them at all, or not in the same sense, not in so full and strong a meaning. Add to this, that the worshipping God "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23) must always appear a new religion. to those who have hitherto known nothing but outside worship, nothing but the "form of godliness" (2 Tim. 3:5).

2. And it is not improbable, some might hope it was so; that he was abolishing the old religion, and bringing in another, - one which, they might flatter themselves, would be an easier way to heaven. But our Lord refutes, in these words, both the vain hopes of the one, and the groundless calumnies of the other.

I shall consider them in the same order as they he, taking each verse for a distinct head of discourse.


"Lawson:" - excerpted from John Lawson (1946) "Notes on Wesley's Forty-Four Sermons", London: The Epworth Press." "This serves to introduce the Methodist people in general to this part of our great heritage."
Lawson: The argument advanced was that there were two parts of the law, the moral and the ceremonial. It was taught that Christ confirmed the former and abolished the latter. This distinction became a recognized element in Christian theology, and is hence used by Wesley here. As a matter of historical fact the theory is unfounded. It nevertheless bears witness to an important truth,namely, that Christianity is continuous with Judaism, new and yet not new, and the heir of all that is good in the old Covenant.
ABCOG: Unfortunately Wesley is parroting clichés and half-baked proof texts. He actually undermines his own later argument that the law is not abolished! The problem in Acts is not "the ceremonial law". The problem is the legalistic application to Gentiles of certain Old Covenant regulations that did not apply to them. This legalistic application was a burden even to Jews. When Jesus was accused of breaking the law, he was actually only rejecting its legalistic application, "the glosses of men" as Wesley calls them. "The handwriting of ordinances" does not refer to the law code itself but either (1) the sentence of death we have incurred for breaking God's law, or (2) demon-inspired regulations, such as asceticism, designed to bring us under bondage. See CEM Lesson 9 and COGUK Lesson 8 for more explanation.
I. 1. And first, "think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil."

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, a "tempting God" (Acts 15:10), 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 (Acts 15:22), 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 "hand-writing of ordinances" (Col. 2:14) our Lord did blot out, take away, and nail to his cross." (Verse 28.)


Lawson: Here is illustrated the difficulty in separating the moral and ceremonial elements of the Mosaic Law. The Ten Commandments are undoubtedly one of the world's great historic statement of the principles of moral conduct. As such they are still a light to the Christian's path, and rightly find a place in Christian worship. yet even the Ten Commandments contain ceremonial elements, which are not literally obeyed by the Methodist church. For example the prohibition of graven images would forbid all statuary. So, also, the Methodist Church does not in fact observe the Jewish Sabbath, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset as ordained in the Decalogue. Our Sunday, the anniversary of the Lord's Resurrection, is a similar yet new and distinct custom, based upon the tradition of the Church rather than upon the Fourth Commandment. The Second and Fourth Commandments are just as much part of the ceremonial law as the rite of circumcision.
ABCOG: Surely Wesley would not agree with his modern interpreter, Lawson! Do Methodists really now think God permits worshipping graven images? Of course not, and Methodists don't! Wesley below says "No reserve for one idol!" The prohibition is against making statues to worship, not against sculpture or religious art - Solomon's Temple had plenty of that.
Do Methodists now teach that we should work every day of the week? Of course not! Wesley below berates "Sabbath-breakers", but he teaches we should observe Sunday. By choosing to worship on Sunday, he is "changing commands" (see II 4. below) and following one of those very "Roman Catholic delusions" he condemns! The Scriptures are clear that God's Sabbath, instituted at Creation, has always been and will always be His day of worship, see COGUK Lesson 8 for more explanation.
Is circumcision abolished? True, physical circumcision is now optional, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing" (1 Cor. 7:19), but it was only a symbol of mandatory spiritual circumcision, "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked" (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer. 4:4; Rom. 2:29).
2. But 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" (Psa. 89:37). 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 stiffnecked people; whereas this was from the beginning of the world, being "written not on tables of stone" (2 Cor. 3:3), 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.

3. "I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Matt. 5:17). Some have conceived our Lord to mean, I am come to fulfil this, by my entire and perfect obedience to it. And it cannot be doubted but he did, in this sense, fulfil 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 fulness, 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.

4. 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.

II. 1. "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," mia keraia, - 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:" ou mee parelthee apo tou vomou. The double negative, ou mee, here used, strengthens the sense, so as to admit of no contradiction: and the word parelthee, 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.

"One jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass, till heaven and earth pass;" or, as it is expressed immediately after, heoos an panta geneetai, - 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.

2. 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.

3. There is, therefore, the closest connection that can be conceived between the law and the gospel. On the one hand, the law continually makes way for, and points us to, the gospel; on the other, the gospel continually leads us to a more exact fulfilling of the law. The law, for instance, requires us to love God, to love our neighbour, to be meek, humble, or holy: we feel that we are not sufficient for these things - yea, that "with man this is impossible" (Matt. 19:26). But we see a promise of God, to give us that love, and to make us humble, meek, and holy: we lay hold of this gospel, of these glad tidings: it is done unto us according to our faith; and "the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us" (Rom. 8:4), through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

We may yet further observe, that every command in holy writ is only a covered promise. For by that solemn declaration, "This is the covenant I will make after those days, saith the Lord: I will put my laws in your minds, and write them in your hearts" (Heb. 8:10), God hath engaged to give whatsoever he commands. Does he command us then to "pray without ceasing?" (1 Thess. 5:17) to "rejoice evermore?" (1 Thess. 5:16) to be "holy as He is holy?" (1 Peter 1:16) It is enough: he will work in us this very thing: it shall be unto us according to his word.

4. But if these things are so, we cannot be at a loss what to think of those who, in all ages of the church, have undertaken to change or supersede some commands of God, as they professed, by the peculiar direction of his Spirit. Christ has here given us an infallible rule, whereby to judge of all such pretensions. Christianity, as it includes the whole moral law of God, both by way of injunction and of promise, if we will hear him, is designed of God to be the last of all his dispensations. There is no other to come after this. This is to endure till the consummation of all things. Of consequence, all such new revelations are of Satan, and not of God; and all pretences to another more perfect dispensation fall to the ground of course. "Heaven and earth shall pass away;" but this word "shall not pass away."

III. 1. "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."

Who, what are they, that make the preaching of the law a character of reproach? Do they not see on whom the reproach must fall, - on whose head it must light at last? Whosoever on this ground despiseth us, despiseth Him that sent us. For did ever any man preach the law like Him, even when he came not to condemn, but to save the world; when he came purposely to "bring life and immortality to light through the gospel?" (2 Tim. 1:10 ) Can any preach the law more expressly, more rigorously, than Christ does in these words? And who is he that shall amend them? Who is he that shall instruct the Son of God how to preach? Who will teach him a better way of delivering the message which he hath received of the Father?

2 "Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments," or one of the least of these commandments. "These commandments," we may observe, is a term used by our Lord as an equivalent with the law, or the law and the prophets, - which is the same thing, seeing the prophets added nothing to the law, but only declared, explained, or enforced it, as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

"Whosoever shall break one of these, least commandments," especially if it be done wilfully or presumptuously: - one - for "he that keepeth the whole law, and" thus "offends in one point, is guilty of all" (James 2:10); the wrath of God abideth on him, as surely as if he had broken every one. So that no allowance is made for one darling lust; no reserve for one idol; no excuse for refraining from all besides, and only giving way to one bosom sin. What God demands is, an entire obedience; we are to have an eye to all his commandments; otherwise we lose all the labour we take in keeping some, and our poor souls for ever and ever.

"One of these least," or one of the least of these commandments. Here is another excuse cut off, whereby many, who cannot deceive God, miserably deceive their own souls. "This sin," saith the sinner, "is it not a little one? Will not the Lord spare me in this thing? Surely he will not be extreme to mark this, since I do not offend in the greater matters of the law." Vain hope! Speaking after the manner of men, we may term these great, and those little commandments; but, in reality, they are not so. If we use propriety of speech, there is no such thing as a little sin; every sin being a transgression of the holy and perfect law, and an affront on the great Majesty of heaven.

3. "And shall teach men so." In some sense it may be said, that whosoever openly breaks any commandment teaches others to do the same; for example speaks, and many times louder than precept. In this sense, it is apparent, every open drunkard is a teacher of drunkenness; every Sabbath-breaker is constantly teaching his neighbour to profane the day of the Lord. But this is not all; an habitual breaker of the law is seldom content to stop here; he generally teaches other men to do so too, by word as well as example; especially when he hardens his neck, and hateth to be reproved. Such a sinner soon commences an advocate for sin; he defends what he is resolved not to forsake; he excuses the sin which he will not leave, and thus directly teaches every sin which he commits.

"He shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven;" - that is, shall have no part therein. He is a stranger to the kingdom of heaven which is on earth; he hath no portion in that inheritance; no share of that "righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost" (Romans 14:17). Nor, by consequence, can he have any part in the glory which shall be revealed (1 Peter 5:1).

4. But if those who even thus break and teach others to break, "one of the least of these commandments, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven," shall have no part in the kingdom of Christ and of God; if even these shall be cast into "outer darkness, where is wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:42); then where will they appear whom our Lord chiefly, and primarily intends in these words, - they who, bearing the character of teachers sent from God, do nevertheless themselves break his commandments; yea, and openly teach others so to do; being corrupt both in life and doctrine?

5. These are of several sorts. Of the first sort are they who live in some wilful, habitual sin. - Now, if an ordinary sinner teaches by his example, how much more a sinful minister, - even if he does not attempt to defend, excuse, or extenuate his sin! If he does, he is a murderer indeed; yea, the murderer-general of his congregation. He peoples the regions of death. He is the choicest instrument of the prince of darkness. When he goes hence, "hell from beneath is moved to meet him at his coming" (Ref?). Nor can he sink into the bottomless pit, without dragging a multitude after him.

6. Next to these are the good-natured, good sort of men; who live an easy, harmless life, neither troubling themselves with outward sin, nor with inward holiness; men who are remarkable neither one way nor the other, - neither for religion nor irreligion; who are very regular both in public and private, but do not pretend to be any stricter than their neighbours. A minister of this kind breaks, not one, or a few only, of the least commandments of God; but all the great and weighty branches of his law, which relate to the power of godliness, and all that require us to "pass the time of our sojourning in fear" (1 Peter 1:17), to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12), to have our "loins always girt, and our lights burning" (Luke 12:35), to "strive" or agonize "to enter in at the strait gate" (Luke 13:24). And he teaches men so, by the whole form of his life, and the general tenor of his preaching, which uniformly tends to soothe those in their pleasing dream who imagine themselves Christians, and are not; to persuade all who attend upon his ministry to sleep on and take their rest. No marvel, therefore, if both he, and they that follow him, wake together in everlasting burnings!


Lawson: Wesley was troubled at times with antinomianism among the Methodists. It is the neglect, in favour of a religion entirely composed of inward feelings and thoughts, not only of the meas of grace and of Christian service, but also of the decencies of life.
7. But above all these, in the highest rank of the enemies of the gospel of Christ are they who openly and explicitly "judge the law" (James 4:11) itself, and "speak evil of the law" (James 4:11); who teach men to break (lusai, to dissolve, to loose, to untie, the obligation of) not one only, whether of the least or of the greatest, but all the commandments at a stroke; who teach without any cover, in so many words, "What did our Lord do with the law? He abolished it. There is but one duty, which is that of believing. All commands are unfit for our times. From any demand of the law, no man is obliged now to go one step, or give away one farthing, to eat or omit one morsel." This is indeed carrying matters with a high hand; this is withstanding our Lord to the face, and telling him that he understood not how to deliver the message on which he was sent. O Lord, lay not this sin to their charge! Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do!

8. The most surprising of all the circumstances that attend this strong delusion is, that they who are given up to it really believe that they honour Christ by overthrowing his law, and that they are magnifying his office, while they are destroying his doctrine, Yea, they honour him just as Judas did, when he said "Hail, Master!" (Matt. 26:49) and kissed him. And he may as justly say to every one of them, "Betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss?" (Luke 22:48) It is no other than betraying him with a kiss, to talk of his blood, and take away his crown; to set light by any part of his law, under pretence of advancing his gospel. Nor, indeed, can any one escape this charge, who preaches faith in any such a manner as either directly or indirectly tends to set aside any branch of obedience; who preaches Christ so as to disannul, or weaken in any wise, the least of the commandments of God.

9. It is impossible, indeed, to have too high an esteem for "the faith of God's elect" (Titus 1:1). And we must all declare, "By grace ye are saved through faith; not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). We must cry aloud to every penitent sinner "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31). But at the same time, we must take care to let all men know we esteem no faith but that which worketh by love; and that we are not saved by faith, unless so far as we are delivered from the power as well as the guilt of sin. And when we say, "Believe, and thou shalt be saved" we do not mean, "Believe, and thou shalt step from sin to heaven, without any holiness coming between; faith supplying the place of holiness;" but, "Believe, and thou shalt be holy; believe in the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt have peace and power together: thou shalt have power from Him in whom thou believest, to trample sin under thy feet; power to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and to serve him with all thy strength: thou shalt have power, 'by patient continuance in well doing, to seek for glory, and honour and immortality' (Romans 2:7); thou shalt both do and teach all the commandments of God from the least even to the greatest: thou shall teach them by thy life as well as thy words, and so 'be called great in the kingdom of heaven.' (Matt. 5:19)"

The first 3 sections of John Wesley's (1746) "Sermon on the Mount: V", Sermon 20 of the "44 Sermons".


Go to Literature Index Page

This URL is abcog.org/wesley20.htm