As we noted yesterday, Charles Spurgeon affirmed the same interpretation of the critical term pleroō in Matthew 5:17 as Greg. L. Bahnsen later did: what is normally translated as “fulfill” is better understood in the sense of “confirm” and “establish.” Today we shall see that Spurgeon did not only see the translation of the word pleroō in the same way, but he understood the meaning of the text in the same way as well. As we consider this passage, we will also be able to clear away yet another misrepresentation of Bahnsen promoted by Jordan Hall in our recent debate.
As we noted yesterday, it is clear that Spurgeon believed that the word pleroō should be translated as “confirm” and “establish,” and even as “reassert.” He wrote,
Our King has not come to abrogate the law, but to confirm and reassert it (p. 53; my emphasis).
I like that word: “reassert.” This is exactly what Jordan ridiculed on a later podcast as allegedly the exact opposite of what Jesus did: “So Jesus came down to say, ‘OK, y’all: that law you’re supposed to be following, keep doing that. Keep it up.”
Well, while a theonomist would hardly say this is the totality of what Jesus meant, and we would also be quick to dismiss certain unnecessary implications that some critics would attach to it, is this thought in-and-of-itself completely out of the question for the Christian?
Spurgeon didn’t think so.
Spurgeon’s view helps answer the question that seemingly puzzled Jordan during our first cross-examination, but which he bypassed before I answered. Jordan had argued, “So Jesus fulfilled the law—pleroō—it would not mean therefore He came to establish and confirm the law.” When I suggested that this dichotomy was not necessarily true, he seemed puzzled and asked, “How does the word mean ‘Jesus fulfilled it’ and at the same time also mean, as Bahnsen translates the word, or interprets the word, “to establish and confirm,” thereby saying . . . quote ‘You are to follow this in exhaustive detail’?”
Had I been able to answer that question, I would have answered very similarly to Spurgeon does in his commentary on Matthew. What Jordan put in absolute, irreconcilable dichotomy—i.e., it must be either fulfill or confirm/establish—Spurgeon had no problem understanding as multiple facets of the same work of Christ. He wrote,
Hence the Lord Jesus does not set up a milder law, nor will he allow any one of his servants to presume to do so. Our King fulfills the ancient law, and his Spirit works in us to will and to do of God’s good pleasure as set forth in the immutable statutes of righteousness (p. 53).
It is clear from just this that, for Spurgeon, the passage carries both connotations: fulfillment of the law for us and establishment of the standard by which we are to live. It is clear that it applies to both justification in Christ and the standard for the Spirit-led sanctification of the believer.
This is consistent with his views on verse 20. Jordan pressed us on the concept of our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees as if this were a novel and unacceptable view. But Spurgeon expressed that very view as well:
We cannot even “enter the kingdom” and begin to be the Lord’s, without going beyond the foremost of the world’s religionists [the scribes and Pharisees]. Believers are not to be worse in conduct, but far better than the most precise legalists. In heart, and even in act, we are to be superior to the law-writers, and the law-boasters [i.e. Scribes and Pharisees]. The kingdom is not for rebels, but for the exactly obedient. It not only requires of us holiness, reverence, integrity, and purity, but it works all these in our hearts and lives. The gospel does not give us outward liberty to sin because of the superior excellence of a supposed inner sanctity; but the rather it produces outward sanctity through working in our inmost soul a glorious freedom in the law of the Lord (p. 54).
I started to highlight sections of that statement in bold, but realized I was bolding the whole thing. So just read it again carefully. Spurgeon is teaching that Jesus’ establishment and confirmation of the law is not only as a schoolmaster to show us our incapacity to keep the law perfectly, and thus to drive us to Christ for our justification. He is going beyond the condemnatory purpose of the law and into the normative use of the law—as a standard of living the Christian life. Spurgeon is saying that the gospel works within us and “produces outward sanctity” according to the standard of the law, and that by keeping the standard, our righteousness will go beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees.
With Spurgeon’s assessment, Bahnsen and I agree.
Jordan, however, does not seem to share this view. He at least was not willing to allow that Bahnsen did. This is where he created one of these classic “boogeyman” quotations. He quoted Bahnsen from Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 91:
Why must one practice and teach the details of God’s law? Because then your righteousness will exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
It was Jordan’s point to present this as if Bahnsen was teaching works-righteousness. In fact, he went on, as we noted yesterday, in a later podcast to assert that this is “the best example I can give you of the danger of theonomy.” He and his hosts concurred in calling this works-righteousness. But was this really what Bahnsen meant?
Well, in the debate, when Jordan asked me if I agreed or disagreed with this statement, I answered: “I would want to read the full context first and see what he was actually saying before I said I agreed or disagreed.” And you can bet: read the full context I did!
First, Jordan didn’t even read the full sentence from Bahnsen. It reads: “Why must one practice and teach the details of God’s law? Because then your righteousness will exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees who have no part in the kingdom” (my emphasis). While this is a minor point, it would have helped to signify that whatever Bahnsen meant, he was setting it in juxtaposition to those excluded from the kingdom. As it is, it’s another truncated quotation from Jordan Hall.
Secondly, and more importantly, the immediate context clarifies that Bahnsen was not promoting the absurd notion of works-righteousness. He explains:
A righteous observance of God’s holy standards for human behavior would far surpass the righteousness and “legality” of the scribes. Jesus repudiates the perverse externalistic interpretations of the Pharisees, their exegetical distortions of the law, and their works-righteousness scheme of justification.
If a man is to be truly law-abiding, he must keep the law as delivered by God and in the way specified by God. A smorgasbord approach to the law is abusive; it leads to externalism, self-righteousness, and autonomy. Twisting what the law says is a satanic pretension and slanderous to God’s revelation. Using the law as a means of salvation is highhanded flattery and disdain for God’s grace.
So it is clear that Bahnsen is not promoting works-righteousness or salvation by works. He is merely upholding the standard of the law against the lawless distortions of the Pharisees in both their view of justification and their view of what the law contains. Christians, however, are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, and yet our standard of holy living is the law which He established. By living according to that law, we can in fact exceed the scribes and Pharisees, as Spurgeon said, in “outward sanctity.” Why? Not only because of being justified in Christ and filled with His Spirit, but also because we seek to conform to the actual standard of the law and not a watered-down, diverted, distorted, traditionalist version of it as the Pharisees did.
It would have helped, therefore, if Jordan would have read and considered just the few sentences of Bahnsen following the one he quoted, once again, in truncation. The context would have saved a lot of trouble for me, and would have saved the unfortunate deception many of his followers are now under if they accepted him at his word and will not seek to read further articles like this one.
It would have helped Jordan further to dispel the error had he continued to consider the very next chapter in Theonomy in Christian Ethics entitled, “The Law’s Inability to Justify and Empower.” Much context, that.
And if there remains any doubt about understanding Matthew 5:17–20 as teaching the confirmation and establishment of the standard of the law for New Testament Christian worldview and living, let us consider a final review from Spurgeon. In a sermon entitled “The Perpetuity of the Law of God” (No. 1660), preached May 21, 1882, he explained:
The law has to be fulfilled in us personally in a spiritual and gospel sense. “Well,” say you, “but how can that be?” I reply in the words of our apostle: “What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh,” Christ has done and is doing by the Holy Spirit, “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.” Regeneration is a work by which the law is fulfilled; for when a man is born again there is placed in him a new nature, which loves the law of God and is perfectly conformed thereto. The new nature which God implants in every believer at the time he is born again is incapable of sin: it cannot sin, for it is born of God.
Regeneration is, therefore, a work by which the law is fulfilled in us (definitively: justification), and it involves the creation of a new nature which loves the law and conforms thereunto (in history: sanctification). In both of these works we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, or as Spurgeon put it, “going beyond the foremost of the world’s religionists.”
I don’t see how or why Jordan missed the clear context Bahnsen provided. It was on eth every same page from which he quoted, and the one following. I also don’t see how anyone can understand Bahnsen’s position any differently than Spurgeon’s once the actual context is taken into account.
I hope this helps clear up an unfortunate misrepresentation of Theonomy and set the record straight again. Else, I’ll be waiting to hear Jordan declare Charles Spurgeon a heretic, too.
 References are to Spurgeon’s The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 1987 [reprinted 1995]).
 Page number from the Third Edition.
 TICE, p. 91.