There are several ways evangelicals go about living the Christian life and setting up the Christian church. At the bottom of these ways is a particular view of how God’s law and God’s grace relate to one another.
Some lean toward law. They promote the Ten Commandments as viable for modern day Christians. They call for strict obedience to the instructions God has revealed in his Word. They also love grace, see it as absolutely necessary to salvation and following Christ, but the emphasis is on law and obedience for Christ-followers.
Others lean towards grace. They don’t hate the law, but they do speak of it as a killer. They emphasize the freedom from the law that comes by way of God’s grace. They preach that sin might stain, and continue staining a person’s heart and life (making them a ragamuffin of sorts), but that God’s grace overshadows and overpowers it all. Obedience is not near as important as acceptance of overwhelming grace for those in this camp.
Keep in mind, these are camps within the umbrella of evangelical Christianity, so both sides believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Both sides love and believe the Bible. And both sides typically speak of being balanced on this issue.
But this issue has divided up many Christians and many churches between the legal-crew and the license-crew. The recent separation between Tullian Tchividjian and the Gospel Coalition is a painful example of this reality. Plenty of other battles have been fought in many churches and denominations that have not been so brightly illumined by the spotlight.
But it is unfortunate that division is occurring on this issue considering Scripture is clear about how we should view the relationship between law and grace. Theologians and pastors have a lot of work to do in this area. So much of how we live and conduct church life depends on our view of this issue.
I’m certainly not a professional theologian, but I nonetheless want to offer a few items for thought they may help in the balancing act between law and grace:
1. Everything is governed by law
I mean, everything. From the movement of stars and planets to the skeletal systems of ducks, law is the governor of it all. The best way of thinking about law from the broadest perspective is that it dictates how everything in reality works.
In other words, law is not merely a moral code, or a civil code, or confined to human interactions. Law is much bigger and broader than that. Without law (in this broad general sense), nothing exists.
2. Law is programmed
This means that law is not an invention of God of people (see the clarification note at the bottom of this article), but rather it is part of the design and fabric of creation as God made it. It does not have to be written out or talked about to be law. Its just there in the stuff of creation.
The Law of the Lung, for example, dictates how a lung works – it exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide. You could express this in the form of a commandment: “Lung, thou shalt exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide,” but even if it is not thus expressed, it is still the law. The law is an unchanging, natural part of the ways things exist and work.
Moral laws work this way too. The law against murder was not invented, it is programmed into reality. To kill another human being without justification is to break a programmed law against the way reality (in this case, human relationships) are meant to work. So there will be natural consequences that flow out of any breach of moral law.
3. Some law is communicated
When moral beings study reality closely, they can actually deduce the laws that govern various phenomenon and communicate these verbally or in writing (as I did with Law of the Lung). Additionally, scientists can study human biological systems (respiratory, skeletal, nervous, reproductive, etc) and write out the various laws that govern how these systems function.
Any attempt to express a programmed law can be termed a communicated law.
On the moral law side of things, the most important communicated laws are the Ten Commandments. These describe how human beings flourish and live successfully in our environment. God is the Communicator of this Law, and they are eternal reflections of His holy character. To obey these laws is to live the way God designed moral agents to live.
But it is important to note that God did not invent these laws and neither did Moses. They did not come into being at Mt Sinai, but were merely communicated there. They are programmed into creation and into the design of human beings. God created people so that when they function according to these commandments they are living up to their creative design.
4. Law precedes grace
Where there is no law, grace does not exist. So law must come before grace. This is because grace can only exist for people who break a law. This does not mean law is better than grace, but that law logically precedes grace.
Grace can only occur when one moral agent (the criminal) breaks a law that offends another moral agent (the victim). But then it only occurs if the victim chooses to grant it to the criminal.
I may have a personal law: “Thou shalt not steal french fries off my plate.” If someone breaks my law, I can choose to forgive them or not to forgive them. But if I had no such law there would be no place for grace if someone stole a fry. No grace is needed when no law is broken.
God provides grace, but only to people who break his law. No law-breakers, no grace needed.
In this way, law and grace are close friends. If God ever did away with his law, his grace would also be gone as well.
5. Grace is commanded by law
Far from being opposed to law, grace is actually commanded by the law. Think of how Jesus in Matt 22:36-40 summarizes all of God’s Law: “Love God,” and “Love your neighbor.” So it is true love for God and others that is the essence of the Ten Commandments. And we know that true love provides grace when it is appropriate.
Now, God needs no grace since he has never broken any of his own laws. So to “love God” does not mean give him grace. But other people do need grace. So the command says “Love your neighbor,” which means we are commanded to give appropriate grace to our neighbor when they break laws.
Do you see the connection? The law commands that we give grace. Which means grace only exists because law exists, and grace is only given when people are actually obeying the law!
6. Law is graceful
In addition to this, God’s law is itself a wonderful expression of his grace. After all, his law is what teaches us to live successful lives in the environment he created for us.
If God had left us to ignorantly commit adultery, without telling us of the consequences of such behavior, that would not be an example of grace. But to clearly communicate to us, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” is truly an act of grace on God’s part.
Of course, it is also true that law condemns. But the problem is not with the law, but with the sinful, hardened hearts who refuse to obey the law, who are indeed bound enough by sin that they are incapable of obeying. So yes, the law condemns, but why blame the law? The fault is ours. Reading Galatians, Romans, and 1 John will make this teaching plain.
7. When God gives grace, it does not free people from the law
Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection allows God to forgive guilty sinners and give grace. They have broken his law, but all of the punishment has been poured out upon Christ instead of upon the guilty. In Christ justifying grace is full and free.
This act of God frees people from the burden of the law and from the condemnation of the law. We are saved, not having to face the consequences law-breakers usually face.
But God’s grace does not free us from the law itself. That is, he doesn’t suddenly toss the law out the door.
God does not say something like this: “There, I’ve saved you by grace, so you no longer have to worry with the Ten Commandments. Have all the gods you want before me, I don’t mind. Commit adultery all you’d like, it doesn’t bother me. Please, murder and steal, it doesn’t matter! You are saved by grace, so forget the law.”
No indeed (Rom 6:1)!
God says something more like this: “There, I’ve saved you by grace, which changes your heart and makes you a new creation. You are not condemned, but free from the wrath of God. Go, therefore and sin no more. You have the Holy Spirit to help you keep the law. Don’t have any other gods before me! That is very important! You will not succeed or be what I want you to be unless you obey this command. Now, remember, you are not saved by attempting to keep this command or any other by your own power. You are saved by grace. But you are saved in order that you can keep my law. I do not want you to take my name in vain, ever. Or commit adultery…”
This teaching is more clear in the inspired words of the Apostle John:
1 John 3:5-6; 24 You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning…Whoever keeps his commandments abides in him.
Indeed, God’s law will remain intact for all of eternity. There will never be a time in heaven when God will say, “Okay, now you can take my name in vain and commit adultery.” Those laws and all of God’s laws will forever be exactly what they are: A moral description of how human beings can glorify God and live successfully in the environment he has created for us.
When Hebrews says the Old Covenant is growing obsolete (Heb 8:13), it is not saying the law itself is growing obsolete. It is saying that using the law as a method of salvation, or as a way of pleasing God and earning his favor, is a method that has never worked and will never work. The New Covenant where salvation occurs by grace is the method that works. But this does not mean we should forget or ignore the law.
So God’s grace frees us from the condemnation of the law, but not from our need to obey the law.
Suppose I get pulled over for going 95 on a two-lane highway. (Note: there is a communicated law against driving this fast that is based in a programmed law that says it is deadly.)
The officer might enforce the law and probably should, or he might give me grace. Suppose he gives me grace, saying, “It is against the law for you to drive this fast. You will eventually crash and cause major damage, maybe even killing other people or yourself. You must slow down. I am not giving you a ticket today, but you must obey this law.”
In this hypothetical, I received grace. It was extremely kind grace because I did not deserve it. Thanks to grace, I did not have to face the condemnation of the law. But the officer also made it clear that his grace did not nullify the law. I still must obey the law.
So it is with God’s law. We are not saved by keeping it, but when we are saved, we should keep it.
Much should be added here about the law not being able to obtain what it demands: obedience. Because we are sinners unable to obey, the law condemns us. Grace, on the other hand, is unique because it grants to the law what the law can’t get on its own. Obedience to the law can actually happen for people who are made alive by God’s grace (I am not asserting any form of perfectionism when I make this statement, just to be clear).
Grace has a resurrecting impact, a born-again type of action, on a person’s heart. This resurrection (not a self-powered will to obey the law) is what allows people to actually obey the law. Again, law and grace are very close friends in this way.
8. Christ purchased grace by keeping the law
The Lord Jesus Christ made it plain that he loved God’s law and sought to live by it (Matt 5:17-19). In fact he never disobeyed, but fulfilled it in every way. He never failed to “Love God” and “Love others.”
Only because he was perfect in obedience, was his sacrificial death sufficient to pay the price of our redemption. If he had not kept the law, his grace would be defunct.
So the life and sacrifice of Christ is a perfect demonstration of full law and full grace working in perfect harmony. He never pit the two against one another and neither should we.
9. God’s law and God’s grace are never at odds
The problem among evangelicals of leaning one way or the other, towards law or towards grace, is our problem, not God’s. In him law and grace work in perfect harmony. They are not to be set against one another in any way.
Christians need to live as though their eternal lives depend both upon God’s law and God’s grace. Without either one, we are dead. Without law, we don’t know God, for his holiness is revealed through his law, and without grace, we are condemned as sinners.
Christians need to love and obey the law of God on the basis of the grace of God. Having the proper understanding of these things leads to a proper celebration of the fullness of God as perfectly just, righteous, and holy (thus, a Lawgiver) and God as utterly merciful and loving towards those who fail to live up to his perfect standard. He is both just and justifier (Rom 3:26).
To the legal-crew: Don’t minimize the reality of God’s grace in justification. The most vile and wicked sinners can be washed cleaned. The drug addicts, the homosexuals, the adulterers, the profane, the thieves, the murders, the haters, the atheists, all of them can be saved by grace.
And don’t expect that people will immediately see their need for obedience right after conversion. Old habits are hard to break and sanctification can be a long, painful process for many. Be careful with church discipline when the heart of a person is leaning towards Christ, even if their behavior isn’t changing at a rapid pace.
To the license-crew: (Tullian and Steve Brown, I love and appreciate you both immensely, but you are both in this group). Yes, grace sets us free. Totally free. I affirm it with you and celebrate it!
But we must make sure we know what we are set free from – not from the law itself, but from the condemnation our law-breaking deserves.
God saves us not to set us free from obedience, but to set us free from condemnation for disobedience.
Don’t tell people that ragamuffin Christianity is acceptable. God indeed saves ragamuffins, but the thought that our continued failures is what pleases God is foreign to the biblical text. He saves us for obedience, so that we will eventually be holy. Look at the clarity of this text:
Eph 2:9-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Grace is all over this text! But we are given grace for something. “Created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” What does it mean to walk in them? Does carrying out God’s good works (which happens when we obey his law) nullify grace? No, it is the result of grace.
God’s law and God’s grace are not at odds. Why in the world are we debating as though they are? God, grant us the grace to love the law. Command what you will giving us the grace to obey. Psalm 1 is just as viable today as it ever has been, but it takes the grace of Christ to make it work:
Psalm 1:1-2 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
Clarification: When I say God did not invent law, I just mean it is not arbitrary. In a sense, when God created, he created the laws that govern creation. But these laws are neither above him (or else he wouldn’t be God), nor are they below him (which would make them arbitrary), but rather they are him. Or better said, they are an expression of his own perfect and holy character. For example, the law, “Thou shalt not kill,” is not arbitrary. God could not have changed this commandment to, “Thou shalt kill,” anymore than he could will himself to stop existing. Why? Because God’s character demands that when people exist they value one another’s life and not kill one another unjustly. So though this law became effective only after people were created, nonetheless the holy character this law is based in never had a beginning. Thus, God did not invent the law, but rather created according to it, and expressed it clearly to the people he made.