Law and Grace


A huge chunk of the Old Testament is taken up with teachings on the Law. When we read books like Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, we are reading about the Law. As Christians, we dismiss the Law. Yet we shouldn’t. The Law was given to Israel by God; it came from the very heart of God. It may not apply to Christians, but we certainly should know about the Law. Jesus Himself was known to have said things like this:

Don’t misunderstand why I have come—it isn’t to cancel the laws of Moses and the warnings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them and to make them all come true. (Matthew 5:17 TLB)

As Christians, we would rather talk about grace. Most of us have been taught that the Old Testament is all about Law while the New Testament is all about grace. That’s partly true, but partly wrong. In the Old Testament, the Law is prominent but grace is there, lurking in the background. In the New Testament, grace is obvious but the Law is still there, in the shadows.

Is there a conflict between the Law and grace? Does grace nullify the Law completely? Since the Law is present in the New Testament, Christians should try to understand why it’s there and resolve the tension that may exist between the Law and grace.

Galatians 5:1 – 11

Paul was probably the greatest theologian who ever lived. He was probably the greatest thinker in history. He possessed a towering intellect, and yet he never divorced doctrine from life. He always sought to integrate the two, doctrine and life, so that doctrine could actually change a life. Typical of Paul, his letters followed a pattern. First, he would put forth some heavy duty doctrinal ideas. Reading these parts of his letters requires patience and sometimes a dictionary. He uses big words to teach his big ideas. Thankfully, though, he always followed his purely intellectual teachings with a “how-to” section. In other words, first he would tell you how you should live, then he would show you how to live. Galatians 5 begins Paul’s showing you how to live.

So Christ has made us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get all tied up again in the chains of slavery to Jewish laws and ceremonies. (Galatians 5:1 TLB)

This verse represents Paul’s summation of what preceded it, namely, that the Law brings slavery but faith brings freedom. Another translation of this verse goes like this:

Plant your feet firmly therefore within the freedom that Christ has won for us, and do not let yourselves be caught again in the shackles of slavery. (JBP)

Or, maybe you prefer this translation:

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. (NIV)

Well, no matter which version you prefer, the idea Paul is advancing is best summed up like this:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? (Galatians 3:1 NIV)

That’s pretty strong language! The “bewitching” took the form of some false teaching that had infiltrated the church. These Galatians had once been heathens, in bondage to heathenism. Upon hearing the Gospel, they exchanged their bondage to heathenism for Christ’s free grace. But this new-fangled false teaching said that while faith in Christ was important, it wasn’t enough. If you wanted to be saved, you needed Jesus and the Law of Moses. That’s how false teaching works, by the way. There’s usually an element of truth in it. The false teachers, Judaizers by name, made a career out of following Paul and the apostles around, slipping into churches they founded, and teaching their perversion of the Gospel. For them, salvation was Jesus + the Law.

Paul’s point of contention with the Galatians was that it was totally crazy of them to give up the wonderful freedom they had found in Christ, to go back into having to obey a bunch of burdensome regulations. It was Christ who had set them free from their slavery to sin. They couldn’t set themselves free.

This is an important point to make note of. We cannot set ourselves free, either from the Law (in the case of Israelites) or from sin (in the case of the Galatians and us). Only Christ can do that. However, there is a definite sense of co-operation. That is, we must co-operate with the Holy Spirit in living the Christian life in freedom. Even though Christ lives in us, we must determine to keep standing firm in the freedom Christ has won for us.

The thing the Judaizers were trying to get the Galatians to practice in order to secure salvation was circumcision. This incensed Paul.

Listen to me, for this is serious: if you are counting on circumcision and keeping the Jewish laws to make you right with God, then Christ cannot save you. I’ll say it again. Anyone trying to find favor with God by being circumcised must always obey every other Jewish law or perish. (Galatians 5:2, 3 TLB)

Keeping part of the Jewish Law meant keeping all of it. It’s as if Paul were saying, “You think it was rough being in bondage to sin. Wait till you try obeying the Jewish Laws!” No wonder he called them “foolish.” And Paul would know! He was a strict observer of the Jewish Law until Christ set him free.

It was so serious to add anything to Christ’s gift of free grace, Paul adds this:

Christ is useless to you if you are counting on clearing your debt to God by keeping those laws; you are lost from God’s grace. (Galatians 5:4 TLB)

In the strongest language possible, Paul says the consequences of seeking salvation beyond the simple Gospel are dire indeed. They would literally lose God’s grace because Christ would have nothing to do with them. It’s not that God would abandon them, it’s that they would abandon God. Turning to the Law, or anything else, for salvation after having experienced Christ’s free grace is fatal.

If anyone sins deliberately by rejecting the Savior after knowing the truth of forgiveness, this sin is not covered by Christ’s death; there is no way to get rid of it. There will be nothing to look forward to but the terrible punishment of God’s awful anger, which will consume all his enemies. (Hebrews 10:26, 27 TLB)

Why so dire? E.M. Bounds offers a bit of wisdom that goes a long way toward ansering that question:

All God’s plans have the mark of the cross on them, and all His plans of death to self in them. But men’s plans ignore the offense of the cross or despise it. Men’s plans have no profound, stern or self-immolating denial in them. Their gain is of the world.

He’s absolutely correct. Seeking salvation through any means other than the supernatural means provided for by Christ through the Cross is not profound at all and it elevates man to an unnatural height far beyond the place assigned him by his God. Not only that, it devalues Christ and God’s grace.

John 1:14 – 17

This group of verses is remarkable in it’s implications as far as God’s grace toward sinful man is concerned.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

What kind of person could ever minimize what happened in the above paragraph? What kind of hard heart could disregard that kind of grace? Leon Morris comments:

God’s grace to His people is continuous and is never exhausted. Grace knows no interruption and no limit. In contrast to the Law, it stresses the dynamic character of the Christian life. “Grace” means an ever-deepening experience of the presence and the blessing of God.

To give that up and simply walk away from it takes a special kind of cold, hard heart. No wonder Paul’s warning to the Galatians was so stark!

God the Father literally gave sinful man all He had when He gave His only Son to make a way of salvation. To accept God’s grace through a relationship with Jesus Christ is to become part of His family – that’s how close we become to God through Jesus. Lee Strobel makes this clear when he wrote –

Believing the right things about Jesus isn’t enough. You’re not adopted as God’s child until you confess and turn away from your wrong doing and receive the freely offered gift of forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus purchased with His death on the cross. Until that, you’ll always be on the outside looking in.

Ephesians 1:3 – 10

This passage is perhaps the most profound in all of Scripture concerning salvation. In it, Paul shows us how God laid the plan for our salvation long before He actually created the material universe.

The source of all blessings

How we praise God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every blessing in heaven because we belong to Christ. (Ephesians 1:3 TLB)

In the Greek, it’s simply “blessing,” in the singular. Paul doesn’t distinguish between material or spiritual blessings. All those things that benefit us in some way come from God simply because we belong to Christ. That’s important to note. It’s not out of love for us, although God does love us. It’s not out of obligation or even compassion. God blesses us because we belong to Christ.

To be “in Christ” denotes a kind of “union of persons.” It’s Paul’s way of describing a relationship so close there really are no words to adequately describe it.

Salvation enacted before time

Long ago, even before he made the world, God chose us to be his very own through what Christ would do for us; he decided then to make us holy in his eyes, without a single fault—we who stand before him covered with his love. His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by sending Jesus Christ to die for us. And he did this because he wanted to! Now all praise to God for his wonderful kindness to us and his favor that he has poured out upon us because we belong to his dearly loved Son. (Ephesians 1:4 – 6 TLB)

Election is a Biblical doctrine no matter how hard it may be to understand. God chose us. Salvation is always HIS initiative. Our salvation is so important to God, He began His initiative before the creation of the universe! When a sinner responds to that initiative, that sinner becomes part of “the elect,” a group of believers God knew would become part of His great family. One scholar put it this way –

This new people, the church, is not the result of a hasty, temporal expedient, but is a part of God’s eternal purpose…

And part of that eternal purpose is to take a man, corrupt and covered in the filth of sin, and clean him up, re-creating and re-making him into someone holy. This happens when God’s grace is operating in his heart. At that moment, that redeemed sinner is made part of God’s family. Paul uses the term “adoption,” and without delving into the deep theological significance behind it, let’s just say that only God the Father is able to take a person estranged from Him and in an instant make him part of His family. The person can’t do that. He can’t make himself part of God’s family. This is wholly a work of God.

So overflowing is his kindness toward us that he took away all our sins through the blood of his Son, by whom we are saved; and he has showered down upon us the richness of his grace—for how well he understands us and knows what is best for us at all times. (Ephesians 1:7, 8 TLB)

Our adoption was purchased through the death of Christ. It was that sacrifice that resulted in the forgiveness of our sins. The idea of the “blood” of Christ is significant. It shows how valuable we really are to God! We are equal in value to Him as His Son is.

Again, the words of Hebrews 10:26, 27 ring in our ears –

If anyone sins deliberately by rejecting the Savior after knowing the truth of forgiveness, this sin is not covered by Christ’s death; there is no way to get rid of it. There will be nothing to look forward to but the terrible punishment of God’s awful anger, which will consume all his enemies. (Hebrews 10:26, 27 TLB)

Considering what God did for us, in us, and to us, we can understand how serious a thing it is to willfully turn your back on Christ’s salvation. This isn’t merely backsliding referred to here; it’s a selling out of your soul to the world. It’s apostasy. No wonder Paul called the Galatians “foolish” when they were just contemplating messing up God’s perfect plan of salvation.

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