Law & Grace: Answer to a Letter
The following is an answer to a letter that we received. I will briefly try to summarize the questions and the main points made. The letter begins, “I understood you to say that the Old Covenant has been done away with and it has been replaced with a New Covenant. I would like to hear your explanation.”
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The letter also said, “Christ said that he came not to abolish the law. He fulfilled the law in that he became the sacrifice. Matt. 5:17. He says the law will remain until heaven and earth disappear. Matt. 5:18.” The claim is made that Matt. 5:19 was addressed to believers and that our status in heaven will be determined by our obedience to the law.
The author disagrees with the idea that there was an age of law but now there is an age of grace. Again he says that God’s law will remain until heaven and earth pass away. God’s law is “my guideline for living. It tells me how to please God and what God expects of me.”
He says, “Don’t get me wrong, trying to keep the law doesn’t make me born again. I say that the law is for believers, first things first.”
He also says, “I think God’s law should be taught in the home, in the churches, and even in the schools.” The final question: “Just what part of the law is it that evangelical churches disagree with, so very strongly?”
Thanks for writing. I hope you are well. I believe you have asked some thoughtful and sincere questions, ones that are very understandable given your religious background. No doubt many of those who emphasize God’s laws do so for the reason you cite, namely in order to uphold a standard for righteous living. Certainly there is nothing wrong with that. It should be obvious that the New Testament has a lot to say about righteous living.
However, I believe that much of the “debate” between an emphasis upon law or grace is founded upon misunderstanding so lest we talk past each other some points need to be established. As I noted above at least some of the emphasis upon God’s laws has to do with upholding a standard of righteous living and those who make that emphasis see the teaching of grace as a departure from that.
And sadly it must be admitted that many who emphasize grace exhibit little of it, living lives that show scant evidence of godliness, yet claiming that they are “saved by grace.” To one looking on, therefore, it seems that they are saying that whereas God once had a very high inflexible standard of righteousness under the law, things have changed now and God doesn’t care about that so much anymore. He is now more understanding and indulgent, declaring men righteous even though they really aren’t and seem to have a limited desire to live in a godly manner.
A Caricature of Grace
If people confuse such a caricature of grace with true biblical grace I can understand their desire to emphasize God’s laws. The fact is, however, that biblical grace actually upholds a much higher standard of righteousness than does the law! The law tends to deal with outward behavior whereas grace changes the heart.
The Pharisees were among the most scrupulous observers of the law – at least in their own estimation. But Jesus said in Matt. 5:20, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” He went on in his discourse to set forth a higher standard than the law in several specific examples: anger is murder (verse 21); lust is adultery (verse 28); and others. The command to love your enemies certainly goes beyond the law (verse 44).
The Real Questions to Ask
The real questions to ask regarding law and grace are these: how does a man become righteous before God? And what role, if any, does the law play under the new covenant?
It should be abundantly obvious what the answer to the first question is. Rom. 3:19-20 tells us, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” Gal. 2:15-16 says, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.”
Obviously many other scriptures could be cited but I rather imagine that you are in agreement thus far. What, then, about the role of law?
The Role of Law
As you noted Matt. 5:17-18 says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
The question then becomes, how is the law fulfilled and what is it that needs to be accomplished? You rightly note that Jesus fulfilled the law by becoming a sacrifice but he also fulfilled the righteousness of the law that he might become a sinless sacrifice. And so the type of the unblemished lamb was fulfilled. Thus when he died he cried, “It is finished.” John 19:30.
But what was finished? Thank God that Christ fulfilled the law by becoming a perfect sacrifice for sins, but according to Paul he also “… canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” Col. 2:14. Scriptures like that make the “law” folks nervous! But does that mean that doing away with the law with its commandments does away with righteousness? Of course not! Righteousness just happens a different – and much better – way.
Another way in which the law is fulfilled is through our faith according to Rom. 3:31. Faith upholds the law. That is, when we believe in Christ, we are affirming the justice of the law, our guilt before it, and the sufficiency of his sacrifice on our behalf. The role of law, therefore, is to establish guilt and bring us to Christ, but our faith affirms that law. When we are thus brought to faith the law has done its job and its role ends. As Rom. 10:4 tells us, “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”
When you break it all down Christ has given us just one command: “love one another.” John 13:34. In Rom. 13:10 we find Paul writing, “… love is the fulfillment of the law.” Where genuine divine love is manifest in a believer what need is there of “commandments”? Did Paul mean what he said or not?
But yet another role still played by law is the judgment of the ungodly – and that indeed extends the role of law until the passing away of heaven and earth. Those under the law will most certainly be judged by that law. That includes the wicked who know it but choose to live in sin nonetheless, but it does NOT include believers since they are NOT under law but under grace. Romans 6:14. For the believer, his sin against the law has already been judged in Christ. God’s wrath against his sin was vented upon Jesus and those sins – and their guilt – are completely gone! Hallelujah!
The Law and the Righteous
Paul and his fellow laborers had to contend with many people who emphasized the law. In 1 Tim. 1:8-9 he wrote, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels ….” Focus on that thought for a minute! If the law is NOT made for the righteous why do so many emphasize it and teach it as though it is? Trying to impose it in any sense upon the righteous is clearly NOT using it properly! Did Paul mean what he said?
What is Grace?
What about grace? What is that about? I believe in the minds of many grace has been confused with mercy. We are all helpless, guilty sinners, justly condemned by the law, and God has a choice. He can show judgment or He can show mercy. Thank God He has chosen mercy! God in His love reaches out to the undeserving.
Yet even in mercy He upholds justice since our sins against Him are fully punished in His Son. But that satisfaction of justice is what makes a way for us to be reconciled to Him, free from sin. There is an amazing exchange that takes place: we give Christ our sins and he gives us his righteousness! 2 Cor. 5:17-21. Through faith I legally become as righteous as Jesus is!
Mercy might be described as God’s attitude toward us, an attitude rooted in love that chooses to reach out to us with the help we so desperately need. Grace is the actual help He extends. It is simply His Spirit at work in our hearts and lives.
Demand or Supply
I once heard a preacher aptly describe law as “demand” and grace as “supply.” The law imposes demands upon me. It is up to me to meet those demands. Law not only offers no help, it even has the curious effect of making sin stronger! Paul said in 1 Cor. 15:56, “… the power of sin is the law.” In Rom. 7:10 he said, “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” Law demands something from me that I cannot produce and causes sin in me to rise up and grow stronger.
Grace, on the other hand, is about God supplying what we lack. And we lack everything! If God didn’t seek us out we would never seek Him. Rom. 3:10-11. But in mercy He extends His grace to us by working with our hearts and minds to show us our need and draw us to Christ. John 8:44. It is by grace – the overshadowing of His Spirit working with our hearts – that we are enabled to repent and believe. Eph. 2:8-9. We have no power in ourselves to do either.
And it is by the supply of His grace alone that we are able to live for Him. Rom. 5:17 says, “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” Law condemns but grace empowers. Grace is the only thing stronger than sin. And God promises an abundant provision!
Another reason that law is not part of the new covenant is the simple fact that in Christ we died! In Rom. 7:4-6 Paul wrote, “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
Bro. Thomas, the founder of this work, recalled an incident in which a man was in jail for some crime he had committed. But when they went to get him to bring him before the judge they found he had died! Did they haul him into court anyway? Of course not! He was dead, beyond the reach of the law. They took him out and buried him.
And so it is in Christ. When we are truly united with Christ we actually are united with His death. His death is our death. We died. But to what end? Paul says, “that you might belong to another.” OK, so we belong to another, but why? He continues, “in order that we might bear fruit to God.” Thus the end result of dying to the law is not lawlessness but rather godly fruit. The law actually arouses our “sinful passions” resulting in our bearing “fruit for death.”
Two Approaches to Serving God
Paul refers in Rom. 7:6 to two different ways people approach serving God: “the new way of the Spirit” and “the old way of the written code.” The law “once bound us” but by dying to it we have been “released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit….”
The rest of Rom. 7 and the beginning of Rom. 8 enlarges on this thought. Paul first explores his experience with the law. Even though “the law is good” he found himself in a state of utter failure because of the law of sin within. It was this experience that ultimately caused him to cry out in Rom. 7:24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” The answer comes through “Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Then comes the glorious truth of Rom. 8:1-4, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”
Notice carefully that it is through living according to the Spirit – and not by striving to obey commandments – that the “righteous requirements of the law” are “fully met in us.” This is the new covenant! Heb. 8:10-12 quotes from Jeremiah, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
The righteousness that is actually impossible under laws and commandments becomes possible under grace. As I indicated earlier there are so many religious folks that use the word “grace” yet are strangers to the real thing. Of course it must also be acknowledged that even those who have begun to enter into true grace have a lot of growing and maturing to do. The transformation that is needed to make us fit to live with a holy God – called “salvation” – is a process that is worked out in us over a lifetime.
A Description of True Grace
One of the best descriptions of true grace is in Titus 2:11-14 – “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” If a man calls something “grace” that doesn’t do those things in his life it’s not grace!
You mention practical issues such as premarital sex. I have no problem at all with teaching such righteous principles – nor did Paul. For example Eph. 5:3 says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people.”
Paul’s letters to the churches are full of practical instruction in righteous living, instruction that goes far beyond the law. The law indeed condemns sex outside of marriage. But new covenant truth goes beyond the outward act to issues of the heart such as lustful thoughts and looking with lust, etc. Remember that in the new covenant God writes His laws in the heart. Heb. 8:10.
Practical righteousness under the new covenant is described as “fruit.” Any so-called “righteousness” that results from law-keeping is really self-righteousness, something God hates. It is a nothing less than a self-willed attempt to demand acceptance from God based on self-effort. This is legalism, pure and simple. It deceives people into believing that they are righteous while leaving them in their sins. It is a downhill road that leads to the condition Jesus described in Matt. 23.
On the other hand Paul writes in Gal. 5:22-23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Eph. 5:9 says, “… for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth.” Phil 1:11 speaks of being “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.”
Think of the vine and its branches. John 15. The vine represents Christ, filled with the very life of God. The branches represent people whose sins have separated them from God. Does the vine simply issue commands to the branches to produce fruit – somehow? Of course not. Because of what Jesus did a union between vine and branches is now possible. Sin has been dealt with and put away and the branches have been made “clean.” Therefore there is a real living connection that allows the divine life that is in Jesus to flow into the branches and the result is fruit that is according to the nature of that life. Fruit is produced not by striving and self-effort but by yielding and believing.
New Testament “Commandments”
Many see words like “commandments” or “commands” in the New Testament and they immediately think “law.” But there is a huge difference between Old Testament law and those New Testament commands. As we have said, law demands obedience based on our ability. But commands under the new covenant are really the instructions of a loving Father to His children.
He desires that we grow in knowledge, wisdom, and understanding and learn to cooperate with the great salvation He is working out in us. Certainly the “commands” we read in the pages of the New Testament convey the practical things that God desires of us but they also imply His help. God is saying, “This is what I desire of you – but don’t ever forget that I am in and with you to empower you to live a life that pleases me.” As the Lord said to Paul in 2 Cor. 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
A Legitimate Role for Law
There is one legitimate role of law today and that is to awaken the lost to their need of God. Remember Paul’s words in Gal. 3:23-25, “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.”
I know of some who emphasize using the ten commandments as a witnessing tool to bring people under conviction. I have no problem with using the law in this way. It is exactly what the law was designed for. But notice Paul’s words, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” That’s pretty plain!
No doubt where there is a belief in God and judgment the law acts to some extent as a restrainer of evil but that certainly isn’t salvation!
Why Not Use Law?
But why not use the law the way you describe to instruct people in righteousness? Again, if you are talking about the lost I have no problem with that. But trying to use “law” among God’s people is totally contrary to new covenant truth and has bad fruit.
As we have pointed out there are plenty of instructions to God’s people in the pages of the New Testament that cover the righteous principles of the law. God hasn’t done away with righteous living simply because His children are not under law. Paul’s letters are full of instruction and admonition in this regard.
The Spirit of Legalism
My biggest objection to using the language of “law-keeping” to produce “righteousness” is one of spirit. There truly is a religious spirit that promotes law-keeping. But the fruit of that spirit is not good. It includes such things as self-righteousness, pride, and a judgmental spirit. However mildly and subtly it begins it sets people on the road to full-blown legalism with all its bondage and deception. Those under that spirit begin to base their supposed relationship with God upon what they do instead of on what Christ did. That is a spiritual dead-end totally contrary to the spirit of the new covenant.
I readily agree that those who embrace what they call “grace” apart from a true work of grace in the heart are likewise heading toward a spiritual dead-end but that is not the fault of the true doctrine of grace. The gospel of grace needs to be preached with the power and anointing of God’s Spirit. If it is then God will call people to Himself thereby, resulting in a work in the heart that will produce true righteousness.
Freedom in Christ
As Paul said in Gal. 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” It is in the context of this very question of law and faith that he also continues in Gal. 5:13-14, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The love of which he speaks can only be produced as a fruit of the Spirit. Verse 22.
I pray that these thoughts will help in some measure to answer your questions and that the God of all grace will continue to work in the lives of all His children for His glory.
Sincerely in Christ,