Oh boy, here’s a big topic, right? Here we have two major chunks of the foundation of Christianity that have sprung forth countless debates, theories, and religious branches. Can any two words be more different?
Grace – a free gift; unmerited favor
Law – the rules by which one must act
For one of these words, I think of overindulgent Christmas presents piled high under a tree. For the other, I think of a cold, austere, county courthouse. One is open and cheerful, one is confining and foreboding.
So when we think of these terms in a religious context, do we bring in those same images? Do we view grace and law as being two completely unrelated things? Do they strike us as a blatant contradiction to one another? Maybe. But should that be the case? Do these two things go at odds with one another, or can they coexist? Can we view them in a religious context and find that they compliment one another, instead of contradict? Can we have both at the same time – more importantly, can we be bound by both at the same time? I think so.
The Different Testaments
First of all, there’s obviously a difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The OT contains the laws, prophecies, and history of the Israelites – God’s chosen people. The NT tells of Christ’s coming, which was foretold in the OT, gives his teachings and the teachings of his disciples.
The books of Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews all explain why the Old Law, or Law of Moses was given, and they also explain that God’s chosen people today – the Christians – are not bound by that law anymore. Instead, Christians live under grace, or a law of grace – not the physical requirements of the Old Law.
So how does that work?
Good question. That’s really the crux of the whole discussion. How exactly are we under grace today? On the surface, that might sound easy to answer. If the Bible had just left it there, telling us that we are under grace now, instead of law, then things would be pretty simple. Ok, we can pretty much do what we want, because salvation is a free gift. Easy enough.
But the Bible didn’t just leave it there. There’s more to this idea of grace. When the Bible tells us we are no longer under law, does it mean law in general? Does it mean we aren’t bound to follow anything? I think when the Bible makes those statements, it is usually talking about the Law of Moses.
Let’s look at a passage in Colossians. This is a passage that is definitely referring to the Old Law and the fact that Christians are not bound by it.
14 having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.
16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. – Col 2:14-17
From the context, we can see that this passage is talking about the removal, or completion of the Law of Moses. It tells us that “the handwriting of requirements” had been done away, “having been nailed to the cross.” Hebrews (8:4-6) and other passages tell us that that was what Jesus’s sacrifice did – it fulfilled the purpose of the Old Law. Further, the part of Col 2 that says “which were a shadow of things to come” follows perfectly with Hebrews, which tells us that the Law of Moses was meant to bring us to Christ; Gal 3:24 says the same thing.
Think about it. Israelites had been God’s chosen people forever. Now, they’re being told that that system has run its course, and now everyone can be in that group of “God’s chosen people.” It was no longer limited to a physical group of people, but a spiritual group. This point had to be driven home time and time again. For centuries, the Jews had been practicing God’s law, and now they were told not to worry about it anymore. Imagine the sense of disorientation that would cause! So understandably, it was a difficult concept for them to grasp, and it was easy to fall into those old habits of law keeping. Hence, all the passages that tell them, “you are not under law, but under grace.” In other words, drop the Old Law! It’s not necessary anymore.
Ok, so maybe those passages that talk about the law being done away with are talking about the Old Law. But still, how do we know that we really have to follow any law today? I mean, the Bible does say we’re under grace…
Yep. The Bible does tell us we’re under grace. But to best understand how that grace works and is applied, we should look at a few more passages.
3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. – 1 John 5:3
God’s grace springs from his love, wouldn’t you agree? He offers us this free gift, this unmerited favor, because of his immense love for us. And in return, he wants us to love him. Matthew 22:37 makes that very clear. But according to the passage above, the “love of God” means doing what he commands. Well, that sounds an awful lot like law! Is there some mistake? No, there’s not. Let’s look at a few more passages, and I think it will become clear.
Hebrews 10:26-31 is a passage that very clearly tells us that if someone becomes saved, but they turn their back on Jesus, then they lose that salvation. Romans 11:19-24 gives an illustration of the same point. Here, the Jews have been compared to branches on a cultivated olive tree, and Gentiles have been compared to branches of a wild olive tree. Paul makes the point that since so many of the Jews rejected Christ, they were cut off, and the Gentiles were offered the chance of salvation, or “grafted in.” He gives them the warning that if they fall away from serving Christ, they can be cut off too, but then gives them hope in explaining that branches that have been cut off can be grafted back in, if they repent.
So what do those passages teach us? That there are still things required of us to remain pleasing to God. Paul said it this way:
24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. 25 And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. 26 Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. 27 But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. – 1 Cor 9:24-27
Did you see verse 27? I made it bold, so I’m sure you did. 🙂 Paul said he had to keep himself in line, lest he become disqualified. If Paul’s salvation depended on his continuing to serve God, don’t you think the same thing applies to us?
But hey, I know that sounds confusing. I mean, we are told that we’re under grace, right? So how does that work if we still have to keep “laws?”
I think God’s grace works in two main ways. First of all, his grace is evident in that he offers us salvation at all. None of us deserve the eternal reward of living in Heaven, yet he offers us that because of his love for us. That offer is grace.
But his grace is also shown in his care for his people. Are we going to sin? Of course, we are! Just because we’ve been saved doesn’t mean we stop sinning. Our entire lives are filled with conflict as we continue to wage war against the lusts of the flesh. Sometimes, we’re going to succumb to those temptations.
Even though we will continue to sin throughout our lives, the Bible has told us to be confident of our salvation. How can we be confident if we’re constantly terrified of doing, or saying, or thinking something that could put us in danger of Hell? God’s grace covers us. He doesn’t expect perfection from us – that’s the whole reason Christ came to be our sacrifice. He was perfect for us!
But that’s not a free ticket to sin, either. There’s a big difference between falling down and getting back up, and falling down and staying there. When we sin, we must repent and ask God to forgive us; there’s an excellent example of how that works in Acts 8:9-25. We should feel remorseful and want to correct our shortcomings because we love God, if for no other reason. And he’s promised that he will forgive us of those things, if we repent.
But when we sin against God and have no desire to repent of it or ask to be forgiven, then we “no longer have a sacrifice for sins” as Hebrews 10 says. God has sent Christ to be our “sacrifice for sins,” and when we turn our backs on God and his sacrifice, then there’s nothing else left for us. God won’t save us, because we have gone outside the realm of his plan for salvation. When we choose sin over God and Christ, then we reap what we sow.
Even though we are under grace today, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any laws to follow. God has told us that we are to love him and serve him, if for no other reason than the fact that he loved us and gave his son as a sacrifice for our sins. When we turn away from that offering of grace, however, there’s nothing left for us.
We don’t get a free ride in this life to live however we want. There is no “once saved, always saved.” There will be a day of reckoning when we’ll answer for everything we’ve done here. But if we serve God, then his grace will cover the most heinous sins you can think of. If we’re still breathing, we’ve still got a chance to make things right.
13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
14 For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14