With minor edits this is an excellent balancing article about accurately assessing law versus grace.
by humble Theology | January 5, 2022
When reading the Bible most Christ-followers hear the word “law” and immediately have a negative connotation form in their mind as being conditioned on the premise that we are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14). The argument goes something like this: Christians, being under grace, no longer need to obey God’s law. This is a false conclusion for a few reasons, but to get started, we need a bit deeper understanding of what the law even is, and how many ways it can be taken to mean.
First is the law as the moral character of God. When we talk about God being a God of love, we are also saying that He is therefore necessarily a God of law (Matthew 5:48). Love and law are predicated upon one another in any covenant relationship (John 14:15). We see this as the summary of the law is to love God and neighbor, and in the marriage/bride illustrations within Scripture. A bride both loves the groom, and as such willingly submits to laws that typify the exclusivities of marriage. For example, a bride does not seek other lovers any more than someone who loves God goes after idols. This perfection of character is both of the nature of God, and perfectly displayed in the person and life of Christ.
As we are to be a reflection of God’s glory to the world, and take Christ as our example, we are no less expected to love than to follow the laws that God expresses (John 6:38). Some may say that the Christian law is to love, and yet we see what that law looks and acts like in the Ten Commandments (as well as some of other laws of Exodus and Leviticus) (1 John 2:3, 1 John 5:2). There are three uses of this moral law. Within many Presbyterian, Calvinist, and/or Reformed circles the moral law is found to have three main uses.
- The first is that the law shows us our sin, and thus the need for grace. Because the law is the perfect reflection of God’s righteousness, we see (as in a mirror) that we do not meet that standard.
- The second use is that of a civic standard for law and order. The law cannot change the heart, but its threats can have a restraining effect upon all who are subject to it.
- Third, the law is a guide for the Christian (as already mentioned) that shows us the perfect will of our Father. These laws, commands and such direct us as His kids, as to what pleases Him, and what we can do to glorify Him. We do not and cannot do so for any merit, but we submit to them in gratitude.
Second, the law is also seen as civil code. Throughout scripture there are laws by which civic order is established and wrongs can be righted. These are not salvific in nature, that is they do not earn salvation, but are meant to preserve the common peace of the community so far as sinners can submit to them. These are the rules of the land and can be as simple as the “golden rule” (Matthew 7:12). Christians, so far as they are a dual citizen of Heaven and their land, are to observe the national rules/laws, so far as they do not conflict with God’s laws (Acts 5:29).
Third, law in Scripture is understood as ceremonial practice. There were many ceremonial laws prescribed to Israel as a theocracy and under the rule of kings. These have passed with time, and yet the things they foreshadowed in practice are still shown with greater clarity in the New Testament practices (like Communion and Baptism). Although fewer in number, and salvation is by grace through faith, these practices extend and show salvation visually, as expressly confirmed by the Word. Ceremonies do not save, but they are the sign and seal of God upon His people to show that they have been called according to His Word and such ceremonies are the outward exhibits of faith (Colossians 2:11-12).
Law is not salvific, that is, effective for our salvation. The law does not and cannot save. Even under the covenant of works, the main premise was not law keeping, but for Adam to love God to such a degree that to obey would be a daily joyful act of gratitude, not a chore. Think of a marriage where the two do not reflect on their legal obligations to each other nor the prohibitions against seeking love in another. They simply love one another and seek each other’s happiness and welfare.
Scripture proposes that the law is opposed to grace when it is incorrectly taken from its moral sense and used or interpreted to suggest that following the law is effective for man’s salvation before a Holy God. In these instances, as in Romans 6:14, Paul can say, as should we, that we are not under the law as a system of salvation, but under the covenant of grace, as our rest for salvation. This does not free us to be disobedient children, as we still have our Father’s rules to follow, but we are not following them, as if some sense of merit accompanied them.
The law is always a good thing, when used lawfully (Romans 7:7-12). Paul, as well as Jesus, criticized many of the religious leaders of their time because they missed grace and had made the law into something it is not. So, we have to understand that condemnation of the wrongful use of the law, is not the same as condemning the Law as given by God. When Jesus says that He has come to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17), then it can hardly be said that there is anything wrong with it (as Jesus becomes its fulfillment). Yet if taken from that context and used as any type of merit system, even if combined with grace (penance), it is to be condemned as not a true and accurate use of the law.
Law was part of the Covenant of Works. Certainly, there are commands within the Covenant of Works, under which Adam was directly told to be fruitful and multiply, and was commanded not to eat of the tree in the center of the garden. The law was to be followed, not for the sake of earning something, but out of love, reverence, and awe of God, he was to keep the relationship going. Adam was already created good, and so enjoyed a harmonious relationship with God. Yet with the option to sin, Adam fell from this original estate by not only breaking the law, but also refuting his love for God. Those not “in Christ” by His grace, die and go to an eternal hell based upon the results of this covenant breach of Adam, imputed to all. It is this breach and all other actual sins of believers only, that are atoned for on the cross. Jesus took the penalty they must exact upon Himself.
Law remains in the Covenant of Grace (New Covenant). Since the fall, and now, man is only ever saved by grace, whereas our performance to keep the law is not a factor. But law keeping is a factor of our salvation (James 1:22). Jesus kept the law on our behalf in two senses. First in a passive sense, Jesus kept the law to prove He was the spotless lamb of God, able to bear the sins of sinners on the cross. Actively Jesus kept the law throughout His life so to have accomplished what Adam did not do, thus earning the righteousness which He gives freely to us. If Jesus just forgave sins, we would be back at square one like Adam, and we would have to maintain our relationship with God, by our love and works. But because Jesus imputes to us His righteousness, there are no other works that can be added to His own to earn any other higher standard of relationship with the Father.
So, the Law is not a merit system for getting into heaven; it cannot and does not function that way. Those that try to make it salvific (effective for salvation) are condemned in the Bible for their abuses of the law, and forsaking grace. Yet, the Christian (in grace) should always strive to keep the commands of God, in gratitude, as those actions we know please our Father and bring Him glory.