Christ Is the Fulfillment of the Law

The Holy Law Is Not an End in Itself

Detail, Woe unto You Scribes and Pharisees, by James Tissot, painted between 1886 and 1894.

The core teaching in Pope Francis’s homily on October 13th is summarized in the following conclusion:

Do I believe in Jesus Christ, in Jesus, in what he did: He died, rose again, and the story ended there. Do I think that the journey continues towards maturity, towards the manifestation of the glory of the Lord? Am I able to understand the signs of the times, and be faithful to the voice of the Lord that is manifested in them? We should ask ourselves these questions today, and ask the Lord for a heart that loves the law—because the law belongs to God—but which also loves God’s surprises and the ability to understand that this holy law is not an end in itself.

Two weeks later, in his Sunday homily on October 26th, Francis returns to the theme of the place of the law in Jesus’ proclamation of the central commandment of love—unrestricted love for God, first, and then, second, love of one’s neighbor as one loves oneself (self-love). “Now, in the light of the words of Jesus (about the central commandments of love), love is the measure of faith, and faith is the soul of love.”

Legalism and Antinomianism

Here, too, Francis is criticizing legalism—“the dense forest of rules and regulations.” He says that Jesus did not come to bring rules and precepts that bar us from encountering God and neighbor. Rather, he made it possible for us to encounter the face of God and the face of our neighbor.

No! Not precepts or rules, he gives us two faces! Actually, it is one face: that of God that is reflected in the faces of so many, because in the face of every brother and sister, especially the smallest, the fragile, the helpless and the needy, the very image of God is present. We should ask ourselves when we meet one of these brothers or sisters: Are we able to recognize in them the face of God? Are we capable of doing this?

As is often the case, the Pope’s reflections leave us with many unanswered questions. Is it really so, that the chief enemy of the Christian life is legalism? Isn’t the flip side to legalism, antinomianism? And isn’t our culture deeply antinomian, such that people consider themselves to be above the moral law? If I had the opportunity to add a temptation to Pope Francis’s set of five in his address at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I would add the temptation to swing from legalism to antinomianism. Both are present in our culture; indeed, both were present in St. Paul’s time, as we find in his Letter to the Galatians, where he rejects the view that when we live in Christ, we are wholly separated from the moral law.

In light of this dilemma between legalism and antinomianism, there is one question, in particular, that I would like to address in the following reflections, in light of the Pope’s claim that the “holy law is not an end in itself.” Properly understood, his claim is biblically true. In what sense, then, does the moral law remain God’s will for the Christian, when he has been called to freedom in Christ (Galatians 5: 1, 13)?

Christ Is the Fulfillment of the Law

St. Paul teaches that the law’s fulfillment is in Christ. In other words, the revelation of Christ is the “goal” of the law. He is not the law’s termination, but rather, that towards which it moves (Rom 10:4), neither absorbing nor superseding it; rather, Christ has perfected the law. In this light, I think we can understand what Francis is getting at: Christ is the interpretive key to unlocking the meaning of the law. This is the view of Pope John Paul II in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body:

Jesus brings about a fundamental revision of the way of understanding and carrying out the moral law of the Old Covenant. … Especially significant are the words … Jesus declares, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Mt 5: 17). In the sentences that follow, Jesus explains the meaning of this antithesis and the necessity of the “fulfillment” of the law for the sake of realizing the kingdom of God. … The fulfillment of the law is the underlying condition for (the) reign (of God’s Kingdom) in the temporal dimension of human existence. It is a question, however, of a fulfillment that fully corresponds to the meaning of the law, of the Decalogue, of the single commandment. Only such a fulfillment builds the righteousness that God, the Legislator, has willed. Christ, the Teacher, urges us not to give the kind of human interpretation of the whole law, and of the single commandments contained in it, that does not build the righteousness willed by God, the Legislator. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5: 20) (MWTB, 24.1)

John Paul II is making several important points here. First, Jesus neither replaces nor adds to the moral teachings of the law, but rather he exposes its true and positive, indeed, fullest meaning in light of the central Love commandment: that we love God completely and love our neighbor as ourselves. In that sense, Jesus interiorizes the demands of the law because fulfillment of the law must be measured by that central commandment of love. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the central commandment of love expresses the “fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (§1604).

The Central Commandment of Love

Second, Jesus does not merely call for an increased rigor in obeying the law. If it were merely the latter, then our righteousness would not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, and we would be trapped in legalism, in fact, works-righteousness. Rather, the Pope’s stress on the fulfillment of the law as being the precondition for the reign of God’s Kingdom in temporal existence is made possible by Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The saving grace of God precedes, and makes possible, the demand for righteousness that God has willed. Thus, righteous living in God’s Kingdom is built on the foundation of fulfillment in Christ.

Third, against this background, we can appreciate the correct conclusion of Dutch theologian Joachim Douma: “When we take into account this fulfillment in Christ, it is impossible to view the Mosaic legal code in its totality as still being the guide for today. Moreover, the unity of Holy Scripture presupposes that, in our moral reflection, we will always use the entire canon of Scripture.” Indeed, this is the first hermeneutical imperative of Dei Verbum, no. 12: to attend to the canonical sense of the Scripture, which is arrived at by interpreting the literal sense in the context of the whole Bible. In light of this imperative, we can develop the notion of the law’s fulfillment in Christ.

The Gospel of Christ is, according to the Catechism, “a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law” (§1972). Civil, criminal, and cultic (ritual) Old Testament Laws are no longer binding for us. Laws regarding temple sacrifices, ritual cleanliness, and diet, like forbidding unclean meats, whose point is holiness and forgiveness of sins, have been fulfilled by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. His atoning death both perfected and transformed the OT sacrificial system, because he makes a full and perfect sacrifice for sin on our behalf. “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all … For, by one offering, he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:10, 14). Again, we read in the Letter to the Hebrews:

But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood, He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason, He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of eternal inheritance (9:11-15).

Indeed, the key to understanding what happens to the whole law (cultic, civil, and moral) of the Old Testament is Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come, not to abolish, but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). As the Catechism rightly states: “The Law of the Gospel ‘fulfills,’ refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection” (§1967).

On the one hand, Christ’s fulfillment of the law means that we are free from the law as a means of salvation. Because of sin, which the law cannot remove, sins remain a form of bondage from which Christ sets us free. Thus, we are justified through the saving work of Jesus Christ. We are no longer under God’s law, then, but under his grace.

On the other hand, that the law is fulfilled in Christ does not mean that the Gospel has no further relation to the law. Although we are freed from bondage to the law as a way of salvation, the moral law remains God’s will for the life of the Christian.

Freedom in Christ

In what sense does the moral law remain God’s will for the Christian, when he has been called to freedom in Christ? To answer this important question, we turn to the Doctor of the Church, and great theologian and philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’s distinction between the obliging and compelling forces of the moral law is helpful here (Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Chapter 5, 172).

The Obliging Force of the Law

Some key texts are found in St. Paul. St. Paul says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). Elsewhere he writes: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18). St. Paul here is talking of the interior freedom of those who are moved by the Spirit. But those who are moved by the Spirit would not be against the moral laws expressed in the second table of the Decalogue, for these laws have an obliging force. “All the faithful are under the Law, because it was given to all—hence it is said: ‘I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it’” (172). Pace antinomians, moral laws do tell us what one is allowed or not allowed to do, permitted, or forbidden. Yes, “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). But our freedom in Christ does not mean that we are no longer obliged to be faithful in marriage (and not commit adultery), to protect human life (and not commit murder), to honor our parents, keep our promises, tell the truth (and not bear false witness against our neighbor), and the like. Being free in Christ does not mean that we’re above the law. Christians are not antinomians.

This is evident from St. Paul’s description of those persons who “walk by the Spirit”:

Walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out (the) desires of the flesh. … If you are being led by the Spirit, you are not under (the jurisdiction) of the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality (porneia), (sexual) impurity (akatharsia; a term used concerning same-sex intercourse in Rom 1:24-27), (sexual) licentiousness (aselgeia). … I warn you, just as I warned you beforehand, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. … And those who belong to Christ (Jesus) (have) crucified the flesh with its passions and its desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Gal 5:16-25)

The Compelling Force of the Law

So those who are moved by the Spirit are not under the law—and thus are not constrained or compelled by it—means that they have the interior freedom to choose the good out of love for God, with the dynamism of the Holy Spirit in them being their inspiration. Thus, we do not obey the law because we are compelled to do so. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” says Jesus (Jn 14:15). “For charity inclines to the very things that the Law prescribes. Therefore, because the just have an inward law, they willingly do what the Law commands and are not constrained by it” (172).

Therefore, he who would do evil but is held back by a sense of shame or by fear of the law is compelled to keep the law, and thus experiences the moral law as a form of bondage, imposing moral precepts unrelated to his good. This man is still under the law, and hence, not free in a Pauline sense. On true freedom, then, Aquinas writes:

A person is free when he belongs to himself; a slave, on the contrary, belongs to his master. In the same way, he acts freely who acts spontaneously, while he who receives his impulse from another does not act freely. Therefore, he who avoids evil, not because it is evil, but because of a commandment of God, is not free. But he who avoids evil, because it is evil, is free. Now it is precisely this that the Holy Spirit brings about, for he perfects our spirit interiorly, giving it a new dynamism, and thus, the person refrains from evil out of love, as if the divine law commanded it of him. He is free, therefore, not in the sense that the divine law no longer holds for him, but in the sense that his interior dynamism moves him to do what the divine law prescribes. (Commentary on St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 3, Lesson 3)

Once Again, Christ is the Fulfillment of the Law

Aquinas’s concluding point, that the divine law still holds for the man of Pauline freedom, is clear because both Jesus and the Apostles appeal to the Ten Commandments (Mt 19:18; Rom 13:9; Eph 6:2; Jas 2:11). The moral law retains its meaning as, in St. Paul’s words, “holy law,” and as “holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12). Thus, on the one hand, Jesus fulfilling the law cannot mean that Christians can break with the moral law. On the other hand, as the former Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, correctly explains, “universalizing of the Torah by Jesus, as the New Testament understands it, is not the extraction of some universal moral prescriptions from the living whole of God’s revelation. It preserves the unity of cult and ethos. The ethos remains grounded and anchored in the cult, in the worship of God, in such a way that the entire cult is bound together in the Cross, indeed, for the first time has become fully real” (Many Religions, One Covenant, 41). Thus, as the law’s fulfiller, Jesus, takes up the law into his death and brings it to its deepest meaning by perfecting and transforming it (see Mt 5:17-20). The Catechism clearly articulates the relation of the Old Law to the New Law (§1968):

The Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope, and charity are formed, and with them, the other virtues. The Gospel thus brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father, through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity.

Jesus fulfills the law by bringing out its fullest and complete meaning. He fulfills it also by bringing the finishing or capstone revelation—he radicalizes the law’s demands by going to its heart and center, which is, that we love God above all, and our neighbors as ourselves. In Matthew 22:40, Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” That is, as God’s expressed will, love of God and love of neighbor is the root of the Ten Commandments.

As John Paul II explains, “Jesus brings God’s commandments to fulfillment … by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning. Love of neighbor springs from a loving heart.” Because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to us through faith in Christ (Rom 5:5), not only does his love now indwell, and act through, us, but God’s law is placed within our hearts (Jer 31:33f.; Heb 10:16).

Ethical Maximalism

Because love of God and neighbor is the heart of the law, Jesus shows that the commandments prohibiting murder and adultery mean more than the letter of the law states. Jesus is not an ethical minimalist, a view which associates the law with mere formality and externalism in morals, but rather, an ethical maximalist (borrowing a phrase from Aidan Nichols, OP). A maximalist—and Christ was a maximalist—refers to the dimension of interiority. Christ appeals to the inner man. As I argued above, Jesus neither replaces nor adds to the moral teachings of the law, but rather, he exposes its true and positive, indeed, fullest, meaning in light of the central Love commandment: that we love God completely and love our neighbor as ourselves. In that sense, Jesus interiorizes the demands of the law, because fulfillment of the law must be measured by that central commandment. Pope Francis is, then, right: “Now, in the light of the words of Jesus, love is the measure of faith, and faith is the soul of love.”

Eduardo Echeverria About Eduardo Echeverria

Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his STL from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He is the author of many publications, most recently Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma (2018), and Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (2019).


  1. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    It takes significant intellectual effort and articulate presentation to explain the ‘Love’ that is the subject of the Two Great Commandments and how we should incorporate it into ourselves to affect who we are. The author does an excellent job in this respect.
    Our Homilists, that all seem to be rallying around the call to preach ‘Love’, seem to feel that it is sufficient to leave it to the folks in the pew to figure this out since they never make any effort to distinguish the ‘touchy/feely’ from the ‘love’ spoken of above. The unfortunate result seems to be a significant increase in all forms of smiling, hand holding and hugging with no increase in how we think of and treat each other and incorporate the teachings of the ‘law’ into who we are through the attachment to the good vs. the adherence to what we ‘must do’.

  2. Avatar P Thomas McGuire says:

    Waging fingers, defining shoulds, and telling people what to do will not move people to obey the moral law. The only way to arrive at the full living out the law is in conversion of the heart to Christ. That requires great movement from the comfort of self assurance to the sacrifice of the cross in giving ourselves to others. The Church that always and unconditionally welcomes the poor will gives witness to the good news of salvation. Those who experience that kind of love among us will want to follow Christ and in Him come to love the law. How many parishes do you know that are living that kind of witness?

  3. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    A beautiful and moving fusion of non-sequiturs.
    An excellent example of adherence to the law through love is the teaching on the ‘Theology of the Body’. The teaching is heard and understood through catechesis and integrated into each partner and the relationship through love. As the old song goes..” you can’t have one without the other”.
    Christ instructed his Apostles to….”go forth and teach all nations, Baptizing etc.”. Teaching of the Two Great Commandments includes The Ten Commandments.
    A corollary can be drawn with the issue of Faith alone for salvation or Faith and Works. From James … “show me your works and I’ll show you your Faith”. Neither one necessarily assures the other or salvation. Show me your adherence to the teachings of the Magisterium and I’ll show you your Love. Mary, our great model, was not just love…she was humility and obedience also.

  4. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you Mr. Echeverria for your paper on love of God and neighbor which can be found in the Mosaic law with the fulfillment of Jesus. With Pope Francis the law is not an end in itself but since Charity /love is the form of the virtues mankind is free to choose to live the good life or the life of sin because Jesus has fulfilled the law or because mankind wants the evil.. ST Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor wrote of ” Participated theonomy ” where mankind should and could live the good life of virtue.


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