Law and Grace
I grew up hearing about grace… naturally. I went to a Baptist church that taught the great truths of the Word, including that my salvation was, and continues to be, by grace through faith alone, according to Ephesians 2:8. It was only in my mid-twenties that I fully came to grips with what grace really is – receiving that which you do not, for a second, deserve. My revelation didn’t come through a sermon or a commentary or even my theological studies, but through an expression of grace through a person in my life. That lead my to understand that if a mere human, full of faults, full of sin, full of everything Jesus had to die for, was able to extend such indescribable grace toward me, how much more does my heavenly Father?
That lead me to claim the expression “Grace Wins” as my life motto. I fail at that every single day. I wish that I could extend the kind of grace that has been extended to me – both by people, and my God. It also lead to my tattoo (“Grace”) on the inside of my right bicep.
Over the past few years, a new wave of “grace preaching” has exploded all over the globe. I am choosing to keep names out of this post, but there are a significant number of world renown speakers who have chosen to preach either “mostly grace” or “solely grace”. There message is simple: there is nothing you can do to win God’s approval – you have it through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. And to that, I scream from the top of the grace filled mountain – Amen! I love it! I love that suddenly, more and more people are hearing that the message of Christ is not condemnation. Young people are sitting up and realising that Jesus doesn’t hate them. Old people are coming to terms with the fact that their sin is forgiven, regardless of how evil they or society perceived it to be. So I celebrate the movement of grace, because without it – we would all be lost.
But, and there has to be a but, I fear with a level of anxiety that goes beyond a slight concern, that the message of grace is confusing those who are hearing it without being taught fully. Allow me to explain:
Grace is the expression of the love of God displayed no more powerfully than in His sending the Messiah to come, to live, to teach, to die, to rise, to appoint, to send and to go and prepare a place for us. Jesus is grace. What He extends is grace. What He pours out lavishly is grace. But somehow, the message of grace has been intrinsically coupled with law, and the message is being preached like this: This is a time of grace – the law does not apply. What people say, and what people hear is often two things – I concede – but there is a problem here, as this statement is only half true.
We cannot have this conversation without paying attention to Christ’s words in Matthew 5:17
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets.
No, I came to accomplish their purpose.
I don’t know how preachers have got confused – Jesus could not be more clear. He has not come to put an end to all things related to the law, but He has come to make them complete. Somehow, we have taken the expression of grace, our limited understanding of the law and its purpose, salvation, works and becoming more like Jesus… we’ve put those ingredients in a cement mixer, shook them around and come out with “the law doesn’t apply – only grace does”.
I think there are two areas where we go wrong. The first, has to do with how those who preach grace only are interpreting what those of us who believe in the balance of law and grace are saying. I am not, for a single second, saying that the law has the power to lead us to salvation or that our works will guarantee us an eternity with God. I believe my Bible. I believe what Ephesians 2:8 says – it is only by the grace of God that those who respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and put their faith in Jesus come to salvation. But, take a step back… is the entire gospel story just about salvation? Is it just about me going to be with God in heaven (or, rather, the New Earth) one day? No – what it is also, if not more so, about, is my becoming like the one I want to be with. It’s about my being “transformed into the likeness of His Son” (2 Cor 3:18; Rom 8:29). Does grace accomplish that? I believe yes. How? Through the standard that God has put in place, expressed through the Law. Which leads me to the second area where I believe we go wrong.
We read “the law” as if it’s one thing, and we either vote in favour (it applies) or against (it doesn’t apply) in the context of the post-Messiah age. But the ‘law’ – even in our society today – is a complex system applying to different people in different ways. In the Old Testament, we encounter at least three different types of law. Firstly, we encounter the moral law – a system of ethics, or “right and wrongs” if you will that relates to God’s design and desire for His creation. The ten commandments, for example, fall into this category. This law reveals the character of God. It reveals to us what He, in His nature, considers to be good and evil. Then, there was the ceremonial law. This law had as its purpose the looking ahead to the coming Messiah, and preparing the nation of Israel for Jesus’ arrival. Not eating pork falls into ceremonial law. It was a law that was connected to the prophetic expectation that the Messiah would come. And He did! So… the law was fulfilled in His coming. He accomplished it’s purpose by leaving Heaven and coming to Earth. The third law had to do with state governance. How much tax to pay, was part of this law. It related solely to the nation of Israel just as the constitution of South Africa differs from that of Zimbabwe.
So if we look at those three kinds of law(s), what we immediately should see is that the governing law of Israel does not apply to us today – we are not citizens of ancient Israel under the rule of the kings. We should also understand that we are not subject to the ceremonial law, because Jesus came to fulfil that – so we find our fulfilment thereof not in the ceremonial system, but in the person of Jesus Christ. As for the moral law – that has to stand. We have to be subject to that law today because that law reveals the nature of God, and for us to discount the moral law is to say that God’s value system, His desires and His nature are different today than they were in the Old Testament times.
So, does grace mean that I don’t have to earn my salvation? One hundred percent – without a doubt. Does it mean that grace excludes the law? Not at all. It is the moral law of God that helps us today, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to know what is right, and to do what is right. When we mess it up – grace is there. But grace is only there because the law is there. Without the law, there would be no need for grace.
Phew. That was long – but I had to get that off my chest. Now, go revel in His grace! It is freely given…