Friday, June 15, 2012

Law and Grace

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the distinction between law and grace. The question of law vs. grace lies at the heart of Scripture, and is foundational to the Christian life:

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14, NASB)
John's Gospel begins with the amazing statement that
the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ (John 1:17, NASB)
So we have two foundational principles: first, Christ's coming is characterized by grace and truth in contrast to the Law; and second, that we are not under the mastery of sin because we're not under law, but under grace.

Now, Scripture differentiates between "law" and "the law". The first is a principle, the second is specifically the Law that Moses received from God. I've written about the Mosaic Law before, so there's perhaps nothing to be gained from going into great detail about it here. To a certain degree we can use the two interchangeably, because the Law of Moses is the most perfect law (Romans 7:9--12). This is really the only Law God gave, and so we might think of it as the ultimate example of the principle of law. Certainly if the Law of Moses was limited through the sinfulness in our flesh (Romans 8:1--4), then any other law must be just as futile.

But today I'm more interested in the question of "law" than "the law." That is, law as a principle as opposed to a specific Law.

Let's start by making it clear that God has never justified a sinner on the principle of law. Sinners have only ever been justified on the basis of faith (see Romans 4). From Abel to today, God justifies the one who does not work but believes. There has never been one sinner justified, but by faith.

But God did give the Law to Moses, and the people agreed to it (Exodus 24:7). And so they were tried (as it were) under law. The principle of law is, God deals with us based on what we do. We work to be accepted by Him.

Grace, of course, is the opposite principle. Grace is the principle that God treats us as He wants to, with no regard to what we deserve. Grace is the principle that we work because He has already accepted us. So where law says you get what you work for; grace says you get what God wants to give you, regardless of your work. Law is the principle of what man does, grace is the principle of what God has done.

Where law said, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," grace says, "forgive one another as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you." Law says, obey and God will bless; grace says, God has already blessed, now obey.

We need to be jealous of grace. We need to be very careful that we don't give up the grace of God. It's easy to fall into legal thinking, and thus abandon grace. We're not justified by law, we're not to walk by law. We can't begin in the spirit and finish in the flesh: the principle of our justification is the principle of our sanctification.

There is no place we see the distinction between law and grace like in the whole notion of our approach to God. Believers under the Law couldn't approach God: the high priest alone, and only once a year, was allowed into God's presence (cf. Leviticus 16; Hebrews 9:6--10). And there was danger in approaching God: the high priest is warned in Leviticus that he might actually die if he approaches God unworthily. This is approaching God on the principle of law.

But Hebrews teaches that we are to approach on the principle of grace. We have an High Priest who has already been accepted into God's presence for us. And because He is there for us, we are to approach with full assurance (Hebrews 10:19--25). Our consciences are purged once, and now we have no more conscience of sins. We come into God's presence freely, with no thought of any judgment at all, because God has already declared us clean and fit for His presence. This is exactly the principle of grace: God has already done all the work, we are only called to reap the rewards.

Now, the whole question of law and grace centers on the paradox of God's Sovereignty and Man's Responsibility. Law says, "Man is responsible," while grace says, "God is sovereign." And Man's responsibility and God's Sovereignty meet in exactly one Person; the Lord Jesus Christ is both Sovereign God and Responsible Man. In fact, Man's responsibility is completely fulfilled and completed in Christ. God has looked for a righteous Man, and it was when Christ came that He found that Man. Christ is the Man that God was looking for, and He has stopped looking. This is the real point of Hebrews 1:1--3. God has found what He wanted: one Man has pleased God, and God's no longer looking for anything from Man. When I approach God, I have nothing to offer Him except Christ. And God is looking for nothing from me, except Christ. Christ is my righteousness, my holiness, my wisdom, and my redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30 & 31).

It's important for us to understand this principle: that God is no longer looking for anything from Man. What God wanted in Man He found in Christ. This bears repeating: God has found what He was looking for, and He's not looking any more. God is delighted in His Son, and He's called us to be delighted in His Son too.

So when I go to approach God, He's not looking at me to see whether I'm worthy to be there. He's already said I am (Colossians 1:11 & 12), and He's invited me to come in (Hebrews 10:19--25). So I approach God. But when I get into God's presence, I find that being in God's presence is a very cleansing thing. This is what 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, we become like Christ as we look at His glory. Notice the order: we don't see Him as a result of getting better; we get better as a result of seeing Him. The former is law, the latter is grace.

Someday we're going to see Christ physically, and that's a cleansing thing too (1 John 3:2 & 3). Notice, it's the hope of seeing Him that leads to purity. It's not that we purify ourselves so we can see Him, it's that we're guaranteed to see Him, and this makes us purify ourselves.

Law reasons from man to God; grace reasons from God to man. Law says, "I'm no good, so God can't possibly love me" but grace says, "God is unimaginably good, and therefore He loves me." Grace is sovereign. If I am reckoning on my own goodness, I find myself very quickly despairing, because I've basically none. But if I reckon on God's goodness, I can rest because I know that will never change.

Now it is true that God disciplines His children; but notice, He does it because they are His children. In fact, Hebrews makes God's discipline proof of sonship (Hebrews 12:7--11). We don't become God's sons through discipline, but we are disciplined because we are His sons. Notice that even God's discipline on us flows from grace. Again, grace is the principle that we are to live up to what God has already given. But He has already given it, regardless of whether we live up to it or not.

William R. Newell said it this way:

To believe, and to consent to be loved while unworthy, is the great secret. ("A Few Words about Grace," Romans Verse-by-Verse)
This is what Scripture presents as the Christian life. God has abundantly blessed me with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ. This is where it all begins: there's nothing for me to earn, because Christ has already earned it. This is grace: not what I am for God (law), but what God is for me.


Shan said...

It's interesting...when you get to thinking about these things, you recognise legalism everywhere. A suffering friend said to me recently, "I know God has said all these promises to me; all I have to do is trust." And then she said "All I have to do is trust enough, I guess."

"No," I replied, "That's works."

It's baffling for people (and annoying for them sometimes). It seems like semantics, but it's actually kind of a critical distinction.

Chuck Hicks said...

Grace, of course, has its effects:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. ~ 1 Cor. 15:10

On the basis of that unmerited favor -- through Christ -- the believer is dead to sin (Rom. 6) and to the Law (Rom. 7) and alive by the Spirit (Rom. 8).

The Jews believed, rightly, they were the recipients of God's grace; but then went about establishing their own righteousness according to the Law. They did not misapprehend the meaning of the Law (do this and live), but they failed to see that none could live up to it save Christ, whom the majority rejected. This is the stumbling block, the temporary hardening, whereby in God's sovereignty we Gentiles are greatly blessed, with the aim of provoking them to jealousy until the Deliverer comes forth from from Zion.

In short, the Jewish problem wasn't so much legalism as lack of faith in God's righteousness as set forth by the crucified and risen Christ. We have to be careful, lest some construe "walking worthy of God" (1 Thess.) as legalism. There are things we don't do because we stand in His favor. His commandments are not burdensome to us. That's grace leading to obedience, as you noted.

Rambling aside, this post is chocked full of jewels, most notably:

"Man's responsibility and God's Sovereignty meet in exactly one Person; the Lord Jesus Christ is both Sovereign God and Responsible Man. In fact, Man's responsibility is completely fulfilled and completed in Christ. God has looked for a righteous Man, and it was when Christ came that He found that Man. Christ is the Man that God was looking for, and He has stopped looking."

A thousand amen's.

Chuck Hicks said... clarify, I meant my rambling aside.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I "happened" upon your blog through some research and read through two of your entries Law, and Grace and Law. Please forgive my ignorance, as I feel I'm towards the bottom of the ladder regarding the Bible, but your remark,[Where law said, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," grace says, "forgive one another as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you.] caught my attention. It seems I mix Grace and Law. Are you implying we shouldn't pray the Lord's Prayer? Thank you for these two entries, they have helped me see the differences. Rhonda

clumsy ox said...


I certainly won't tell you not to pray the Lord's Prayer. Prayer is an intimate thing between the Lord and us: far be it from me to intrude into that intimacy.

That being said... Between the time the Lord Jesus taught on the earth and now, the most important event in the history of the world happened: men nailed the Son of God to a piece of wood and watched Him die. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of that event. When we look at what the Lord Jesus taught on the earth, we need to remember He was teaching before His rejection.

To put it in more concrete terms... Galatians 2:18--21 and Romans 7:4--6 both teach that we have died with Christ, and that death has severed our connection to the Law. This was certainly not true of the disciples when the Lord taught them to pray: He hadn't died yet, they hadn't died with Him. We are in a totally different position than they were, and John's Gospel in particular emphasizes this point. "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone" (John 12). What we have now and what they had then are very different. This is the whole point of the discourses in John 14--16: something new and different was going to happen, and it was all going to be a result of His death.

I'm unaware of any Scriptural record of the Apostles ever reciting the Lord's Prayer. Acts and the Epistles record prayers of the Apostles, but I can't find a record anyone prayed the Lord's Prayer.

I don't mean to say it's wrong to do so, but I can't find Scriptural support for the idea that we ought to recite this prayer. To the contrary, Philippians 4:6 & 7 encourage us to "let [our] requests be made known to God", which seems to indicate not reciting a prayer, but asking for specifics based on our circumstances.

So I'm not at all saying it's wrong to pray the Lord's Prayer. But I am saying that there is significant Scriptural support for the notion that it was given by the Lord to the disciples before the Cross and was suited to men alive under the Law. Now that He has died (and we have died with Him) and has been raised from the dead (and we with Him), there is a new order of things. And the Lord's Prayer was not given as part of that order.

I'm painting with a wide brush here: this is a really complicated topic, and I'm over-simplifying to fit it into a blog comment. I hope this is making some sense and not just muddying the waters further.

Susan said...

Excellent reply Mark. The Lord's Prayer was a for the disciples prior to the Saviour's death but not suitable for the members of the Body of Christ.