Grace and Law in the Christian Life
Previously in this series I have attempted to show some of the pitfalls surrounding the subject of grace. Some pervert grace by making it a license to sin while others frustrate grace by subtly adding a meritorious (legalistic) system of thought. In the first error, grace becomes freedom from biblical constraints, while in the second grace is no longer free.
At issue here is a fundamental question: What is the relationship between law and grace for Christians? While much has been written on this subject in broader evangelical world, Independent Fundamental Baptists have often tried to avoid the question altogether. Sadly, while many evangelical authors do a great job explaining grace, the worldly lives and compromised ministries of many give evidence that they have embraced license in the name of grace. Fundamental Baptists rightly point this out but commit the error of overreaction. To avoid the “slippery slope” of grace, many seek to fortify themselves with law. Statements like the following are common:
“We are saved by grace, but as Christians we are still under the law”
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not under the law.”
“We’re not in bondage to the law, but it is still necessary for our sanctification.”
“Grace is simply the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to keep the law.”
“Christ came not to destroy the law but to fulfill. Therefore, if you follow Christ, He will lead you to fulfill the law as well.”
Or, as I heard in a sermon recently, “Christ IS the law! Christ is the law personified.” Such a statement is a gross error, yet all too common among Fundamental Baptists.
Another preacher once told me that if he were forced to lean towards grace or law, he would choose law because it was the “safer” option. He feared that if he preached grace his people would slip into lawlessness and worldliness. He believed in God’s grace to enable obedience, but to him, the law still applies.
While it may be tempting to “fortify” grace with law, our real concern should be to understand what the Bible has to say on this subject. It is not our job to protect people from grace. Rather, we must rightly explain what the Bible teaches about grace and law and let God’s Word provide the balance.
This is a longer post than normal. Not everything can be reduced to a 140 character Tweet! As concisely as possible in this article I shall attempt to explain and harmonize four Bible-based propositions:
“Christ fulfilled the Law.”
“Christians are no longer under the Law.”
“Grace provides righteousness and produces godliness.”
“The Law still benefits Christians.”
Each of these propositions builds upon and balances the other. May I ask that you please stick with me to the end of this article? Don’t bail out if you think it’s imbalanced. I promise I’ll bring it all together at the end, but each of these propositions must stand on their own and be accepted by faith.
First of all, we must understand a foundational Bible doctrine:
1. Christ fulfilled the law.
The law was not imposed upon Israel as a means of salvation, but rather as a mirror by which they could see their sinful condition and look to God for cleansing and redemption. The Ten Commandments as well as the hundreds of other commands given in the law of Moses were designed to drive them to the sacrificial system, which foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice of Himself for sin. It was intentionally detailed and burdensome so that men’s hearts would bow under the weight of sin and cause them to look to the coming Messiah for salvation. Paul states, “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (20) Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19-20).
The only one to ever fulfill the demands of the law is Jesus Christ. He fulfilled both its commands and its curse. The law talked about righteousness, but Jesus is the very personification of righteousness. The law revealed God’s righteousness in black and white, but Jesus revealed God’s righteousness in living color.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” Christ was often accused of breaking the law of Moses. Of course, He never did, rather He obeyed it as it was originally intended. Though He denied being a destroyer of the law, He asserted that He had come to “fulfill” it. The word fulfill in the original language means to complete, to fill up and bring to conclusion, to satisfy a demand.
Christ fulfilled the law in the same way a criminal must fulfill his term of incarceration or community service. Once completed he has fulfilled his obligation. He is free. The prison guard or probation officer no longer has jurisdiction over him.
The “Law and the Prophets,” were a “shadow of things to come” (Colossians 2:17). If you stare at a shadow on the ground and follow it, watch out, you might run into a tree! The law was a shadow of God’s righteousness, but Jesus is the real thing. He IS righteousness. When Christ came He fulfilled the demands of the law though obedience and through death. The law has been fulfilled, satisfied, completed and put away. On the cross Christ was “blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” (Colossians 2:14).
If you follow the shadow of the law you’ll run into the cross where Jesus cried, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
You may wonder, “What about Christians? Shouldn’t believers fulfill the law as well?”
It is vital that we understand and embrace the following truth:
2. Christians are no longer under the law.
Paul states in Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” The word “end” used here has a similar meaning to “fulfilled.” Christ was the very consummation of the righteousness to which the law pointed. I like that is says “end” because He indeed fulfilled it and put an end to it’s demands, not only for Himself, but so He could grant “righteousness to every one that believeth.”
By faith we receive the grace of salvation and are placed into Christ. His fulfillment of the law counts for me. His righteousness is now my own. The law has no demands on me because I am in Christ. That is why Paul could boldly say, “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). The law cannot save, neither can it sanctify; it can only command and condemn. In fact, according to this verse, being “under the law” is equated with being under the dominion of sin. Look at it carefully: “sin shall not have dominion over you: for (because) ye are not under the law…”
Ironically, those who lean on the law for sanctification do so to ensure they WILL NOT be dominated by sin, when in fact the very opposite will occur.
If you look to the law for assistance in living a righteous life, you can be assured you will experience the rising dominance of sin. That’s why Paul said, “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20).
Christians have graduated from the law to something better: GRACE! When you graduate from high school there is a commencement service. A diploma is given which states that all the demands and requirements for graduation have been fulfilled. High school is over, done, complete! Toss your hat in the air! As you “commence” your new life as an adult, you do not continue under the rules and constraints of high school. You’re free from that law system even though you will forever benefit from what you learned there.
Paul actually uses this analogy when explaining our relationship to the law. He states, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (25) But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Galatians 3:24-25).
Many dear Christians resist this liberty and try to explain it away. They want to obey God’s Word and walk in all the commandments. This is a good goal, yet they resist the clear teaching of the New Testament regarding the law and fall into a merit-based system of sanctification. This could be called Christian legalism. Christians fail to realize the law is a school—a school from which we have graduated. This school was designed to teach us one thing: we are sinners incapable of righteousness. You haven’t graduated until you have come to that humbling conclusion and embraced it as your own. “I am wretched, sinful and in need of a Savior.” This is the moment of salvation when we call on Christ to save us and give us His righteousness.
Sadly, many Christians receive the diploma of their salvation but then refuse to leave the school premises. They are comforted by law’s familiarity, constraints and structure. They are used to being driven by guilt and motivated by fear. They don’t trust themselves (rightly) to live righteously without the law, yet they fail to trust the Righteous One who lives within them: the person of the Holy Spirit.
Christ is not the Law personified; He is Righteousness personified. The law is immaturity; Christ is maturity. The law commands and condemns, but Christ declares us righteous and leads us in “paths of righteousness” (Psalm 23:3) as we “grow in grace” (2 Peter 3:18).
This brings us to the next biblical proposition which, when properly understood, opens the door to true liberty and victory over sin:
3. Grace provides righteousness and produces godliness.
Through grace we are justified—declared righteous (Romans 5:1). This means we are legally and actually righteous in God’s sight. Our hearts have been sprinkled with the precious blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:22). If we were not legally and actually righteous, the Holy Spirit would never be able to indwell us, but He does.
Justification is received by faith as a gift. After all, that is the essence of grace. By definition, it cannot be earned. Anyone who adds law to grace spoils it, as Paul said, “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Romans 11:6).
Grace makes Christ’s righteousness our very own, even while we falter, fail, struggle and grow as Christians. This does not mean that everything we do is righteous, far from it! It means God unflinchingly declares us righteous because we are in Christ by faith.
At salvation God planted our feet firmly in a place called grace. It’s a righteous standing. It’s also an endless resource for Christian living. Paul puts it this way: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: (2) By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-20). We have continual access to the grace that saved us. By faith we may rely upon God and receive His strength, His wisdom, His virtues…whatever we need. No longer must we cling to laws and commands, lists and warnings to somehow produce the righteous living that God demands. Those demands have already been met in Christ. Having received His righteousness I now am set at liberty to grow into the grace of God. His Word, His virtues, His wisdom and all of His eternal principles will be applied to my heart by faith, by the Holy Spirit, step by step, as I access the grace wherein I stand.
In Paul’s letter to Titus he makes it clear that true grace produces godliness, not self indulgence: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, (12) Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world” (Titus 2:11-12). Saving grace is also sanctifying grace. Anyone who glories in grace while indulging the flesh is sadly deluded. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!” (Romans 6:1).
The declared righteousness we received at salvation is also a well-spring of righteousness for daily use. Christ Himself is our righteousness. He is the Well! We draw from Him by faith and He produces a righteous life that law-focus and law-dependence could never do. Grace produces the fruit of the Spirit “against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:23).
It is vitally important to conclude by affirming that every word of God is true, profitable and applicable to the Christian. We must understand this final balancing proposition:
4. The law still benefits Christians.
Although we are no longer enslaved to the law, and though Christ has fulfilled and put away the law system, we do not then “toss out” or discard the righteous wisdom which it contains.
Being no longer “under the law” does not mean that the law has no value. Nothing could be further from the truth!
When we graduate high school, do we throw out everything we learned? Well, algebra, maybe (just kidding!). No, we build on them and incorporate them into our lives. In fact, we continue to learn and grow outside the classroom throughout our adult lives in ways we never could have “under the law” of the schoolmaster.
There are countless commands, principles and biblical precedents—Old Testament and New—that directly or indirectly apply to the Christian. Remember, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (17) That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Also, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
Many Old Testament laws were for the people of Israel, specifically, and are clearly done away in Christ. Laws concerning temple worship, ceremony and civil government were for a different people, time and place, yet even these commands reveal eternal principles of God’s righteousness and wisdom which are beneficial to the Christian.
Most Christians agree that we’re not under obligation to the civil and ceremonial laws but still insist we are under the “moral law,” or the Ten Commandments. However, the Ten Commandments are actually “ten applications” of the two Great Commandments: Love God and Love Others.
Jesus said it clearly when responding to the law-keepers of His day, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. (38) This is the first and great commandment. (39) And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (40) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). These two commandments are actually eternal virtues of God’s righteousness. Grace produces love in the life of the believer. Love fulfills the law. Love is God’s righteousness lived out.
Every command is, in fact, an application of God’s righteous virtues. The Bible reveals these underlying virtues and principles through each command and on every page. The sabbath day, for instance is one command which is fulfilled in Christ. It was designed to picture how God finished the work of salvation and the rest which believers enjoy by faith in Christ (see Hebrews 4:1-10). Yet, there is still a “sabbath principle” which leads Christians to set aside one day each week (Sunday) and call it “the Lord’s day.” We are not bound by the Old Testament sabbath laws, yet we honor the precedent, going all the way back to the creation week, in which one day was set aside for God.
A Christian who is growing in grace does so “through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). How are we to know Him? Through His Word, both Old and New Testaments. It is by gazing into the mirror of God’s Word that we are changed into Christ’s likeness. James called it “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25). I love that! God’s law, when viewed from our standing of grace is not a law of bondage but of liberty. We have been set free from the old tyrant so that we may serve God freely—out of love, not fear.
Every command of God reveals God’s heart, and it is His heart beating within us! Grace causes us to embrace not merely the letter, but the spirit behind the letter. Grace leads us to cherish every word of Scripture and to obey it gladly. Does God have commands for us as Christians? Of course. Should we obey them? Of course! God’s rich grace toward us wells up in our hearts and causes us to respond in obedient love to all of God’s righteous commands—not out of meritorious thinking, but out of a loving desire to please Him in all things. Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Which commandments? Grace leads us to embrace every righteous command and precept, as we discern the context and find the underlying eternal principle.
I remember teaching each of my three oldest kids to ride a bike. We started out with training wheels and a helmet. Why? It was necessary at the time. The training wheels are not meant to be permanent. Those small wheels on each side of the back tire are slightly elevated off the ground in relation to the big tire. This causes the bike to wobble side to side as a child is learning. I remember watching one of my children ride, and noticing less and less wobbling. He began to ride straight, balanced on the main wheels—the training wheels hardly touching the ground! Finally, the day came when I removed the training wheels. I walked alongside my child, assisting and providing balance as needed, until, “Voila!” he was on his own. No turning back!
In the flesh we can try to live a righteous life by adhering determinedly to God’s laws, but we’ll always have a “wobble.” Actually, its worse than that; what we’ll have is a miserable Christian life where sin has dominion over us. As we “wobble” back and forth struggling to obey, Christ stands ready to remove the training wheels. “You’re free from the law,” He says, “I’ll walk beside you. Better yet, I’ll come live within you.” It’s fun to ride a bike. It is pure joy to allow Christ to live His life through you. You may struggle with the old sins and legalistic thinking. He’s there to forgive and get you going straight again. He’s patient and kind. He helps us grow in grace and discover the joy of a balanced, mature, godly life.
How strange and sad it would be to see a grown man riding a bike with training wheels still firmly attached! Yet there are many Christians who still religiously cling to a law-based system of Christian living. Let Christ remove the crutch! You’re a graduate from law school! Let Grace lead you in a maturing walk of faith. Let’s “Redeem Grace” from its counterfeits and allow Christ’s righteousness to be seen in us.