The Message of Jesus: Do Grace and Law Conflict?


God has provided a wonderful plan of salvation, based not on human merit but on his grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). This word “grace” has become shorthand for Christians. Some understand its meaning well, while others seem to view it as being in conflict with the idea of law. “Now that we are under grace, do we have to keep the law?” is a question Christians have asked for nearly 2,000 years. Paul addressed this question in his letter to the churches in Rome:

So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land! (Romans 6:1-3, The Message).

According to Paul, this “new life” in a “new land” is not lawless. It is not “law” or “grace” as though the two are opposed. Instead, the word “grace” should be understood as representing the many parts or aspects of God’s whole plan of redemption. God’s grace has always included within it a call for the response of an obedience that trusts in (has faith in) God’s grace.

It is often stated that the old covenant is “law” while the new covenant is “grace.” Though this shorthand way of thinking is not totally inaccurate, it can lead to the unfortunate idea that law and grace are totally at odds. But what we see in Scripture is that the old covenant was not graceless and the new covenant is certainly not lawless. Instead, what we find are two forms of God’s one gracious covenant with the Old Testament presenting the promise and the New Testament presenting its fulfillment in Christ. Each of these has its particular form of obedience corresponding to its particular form of covenantal grace.

Under the new covenant form of grace, we live by the law of Christ that is written on our hearts. Paul refers to that law as “the law of the Spirit” (Romans 8:2) and “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). These new covenant references equate the law with the will and heart of God, which is shared with us as his children by the Spirit of Christ. As we submit to God’s will and are moved by his heart, we experience the freedom that we have been given from the condemning effect of sin. Note this related comment from Trinitarian theologian Andrew Purves concerning the covenanted way of response to God’s grace found in both the old and new covenants:

God knew that Israel would not be able to be faithful as God required. Thus, God, within the [old] covenant established and maintained unilaterally by God, freely and graciously gave a covenanted way of responding so that the covenant might be fulfilled on their behalf. Israel was given ordinances of worship designed to testify that God alone can expiate guilt, forgive sin and establish communion. This was not just a formal rite to guarantee propitiation between God and Israel, however. By its very nature, the covenanted way of response was to be worked into the flesh and blood of Israel’s existence in such a way that Israel was called to pattern her whole life after it.

Later, in the prophecies of the Isaiah tradition especially, the notions of guilt-bearer and sacrifice for sin were conflated to give the interpretative clue for the vicarious role of the servant of the Lord. It would take the incarnation actually to bring that to pass, however, for Jesus Christ was recognized and presented in the New Testament both as the Servant of the Lord and as the divine Redeemer, not now only of Israel, but of all people. Jesus Christ has fulfilled the covenant from both sides, from God’s side, and from our side (from the paper “I yet not I but Christ: Galatians 2:20 and the Christian Life in the Theology of T. F. Torrance”).

Purves’ insights help us appreciate the age-old Christian axiom: “Jesus did it all,” while also answering Francis Schaeffer’s famous question: “How should we then live? Unfortunately, some think grace means living any way we want. Some, objecting to that conclusion, insist that we obey all 613 laws of the Torah. But neither of these responses to grace is God’s will for us as followers of Jesus. As Paul explained, we are called to die daily, letting Christ live in us through the Holy Spirit. As we yield to Christ, we experience his kingdom reign and share in his obedience to the Father’s will including what he is doing to fulfill the Father’s mission to the world. As noted by Thomas F. Torrance, we live out the obedience of faith in Christ’s fulfillment of the heart and good will of God for us:

It is only through union with Christ that we partake of the blessings of Christ, that is through union with him in his holy and obedient life… Through union with him we share in his faith, in his obedience, in his trust and his appropriation of the Father’s blessing (Theology in Reconstruction, 158-9).

To help us understand the important relationship between law and grace, Dr. Gary Deddo has written an article in which he discusses this topic from an Incarnational, Trinitarian perspective. I think you will find his essay both challenging and informative.

Author: Joseph Tkach

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