Grace and Law part 1: Simple but Powerful Framework for the Christian Life
By Mike Robinson
I recently heard a preacher discuss the relationship between grace and the law. He wasn’t able to make proper biblical distinctions and his sermon may have left some Christians confused. I have been blessed to pastor churches which aim to preach a clear message concerning the distinctions and interrelations between the law and gospel; duty and grace. Many churches unwittingly confuse the law and the gospel. Some churches fall into legalism. Others may affirm the opposite by stating that teaching moral duties is legalism.1 I have found that a teaching summary designated the “Three Gs” helps many Christians make the right distinctions between law and gospel; sanctification and justification. Most preachers, apologists, and average Christians often find it difficult to explain how salvation by grace alone properly relates to the Christian duty of moral obedience to God’s commandments. Understanding Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude should help the reader comprehend the distinctions and applications.
Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude
- Guilt: All men sin and are guilty before God (John 3 & Romans 3).
- Grace: God extends His grace to men by sending His Son to die a vicarious death on the cross. God’s grace through the Gospel by the power of the Spirit saves a person who trusts in Christ (Titus 3:4-7).
- Gratitude: The one who trusts in Christ is forgiven of all of his guilt and sin; he now serves God out of gratitude and love for saving him (John 14 & Titus 3:8).
The Holy God
The Bible does not reveal a controllable god—a god who is only there to meet the believer’s needs. At times it seems that much of the Christian world seems to be embarrassed by the true God, and they try to change Him into a more user-friendly deity. An almighty sovereign God, full of awe and righteousness, is not what the world wants. But He is the God all people need. The Bible reveals that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). The Bible teaches that one is saved by grace alone, through faith alone because of Christ alone. Yes, one is saved through faith alone, but not a faith that remains alone (Phil. 2:8-10). When Jesus saves someone, a real Christian loves Jesus and wants to follow Him. The Christian follows the Lord and obeys His law. He doesn’t do this to find a way to make it to heaven by his works, but because he loves Jesus. We obey God out of gratitude forasmuch as He saved us. Obedience is a fruit of salvation, but our works in no way get us to heaven.
Universal Binding Laws Presuppose God
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them (Romans 2:14-15).
Carl Henry observes: “The moral law was written on the human conscience by nature. This writing has been defaced, but not obliterated. A clear and correct knowledge of the moral law requires the republication of the commandments, summarized in the Decalogue as the permanent and unalterable rule of man’s duty on earth.”2 Moral laws are immaterial immutable realities that presuppose an immaterial immutable God who has the wisdom and authority to decree and enact them. Without God, as the moral lawgiver, there cannot be invariant moral laws. A holy, wise, and good God is the essential truth condition for true, invariant, immaterial, and irreducible realities called moral laws. The Decalogue provides apodictic (established by God as immutable commandments) moral duties since they are universal and unconditional; they are laws for all cultures and people in all time periods— they are not part of a relativistic ethical schema. A distinction is made regarding case law. Case laws are specific applications for particular people and definite applications of these apodictic commandments.
Materialistic atheism cannot account for irreducible immaterial invariant entities that are to govern human behavior. Without an omnipotent sovereign God, issuing laws that are based on His perfect character, one has no motivation to obey the law when no human is looking. Leave God out of the picture and one only obeys the law because of the fear of possible penal sanction and civil punishment from an earthly government. When the civil authorities aren’t looking, one can steal, lie, cheat, and rape with impunity. There must be a sovereign God, as the sufficient and universal condition, to obey because He is always observing us. And the believer obeys out of gratitude and love. We have strong motivation to follow laws when no one is looking, if the laws are intrinsically good and come from a good all-seeing God. A God one loves, who commands humanity to love Him by obeying His commandments. When you take away the character and authority of God to enact law, one is not obliged to obey them out of mere love and gratitude.
Without postulating the existence of God it would be impossible to link the moral order to the natural order: the two realms would remain separate. How could the moral laws confront me with the kind of demands they do, how could they come to me with the kind of force they do, unless they have their source in a Being who exists objectively that is, independently of me and is essentially good? … There is something in every man, it may seem, that demands God as a postulate.3
The law of God is entire. Lex Est Copulative [the law is connected]. The first and second tables are knit together; piety to God, and equity to our neighbor. Those two tablets which are joined together must not be put asunder… God wrote both tables, and our obedience must set a seal to both.4
Churches are to teach their members the commandments of God. They are to instruct their members in the ways of the Lord and exhort them to teach their family God’s moral code. Preachers are to make the clear distinction between justification (Rom. 4) and sanctification (Heb. 10) as well as grace and law. All Christians must understand that keeping God’s law doesn’t save their soul, but grace through faith in Christ alone saves them. And the Christian is to follow God’s law out of gratitude and love.
If you love Me, you will keep My commandments (John 14:15).
I … believe that I am, by Christ, freely and fully justified and acquitted from all my sins … yet, methinks, I find my heart more willing and desirous to do what the Lord commands … than ever it was before I did thus believe (Edward Fisher; notes by Thomas Boston: Marrow of Modern Divinity: Covenant of works & Grace: The Ten Commandments).
This love cannot exist until we have tasted the goodness of God. For as long as we conceive of God as being opposed to us, of necessity we will flee from Him… we must realize that he is our Father and Savior, that he only wants to be favorable to us. Thus once we have tasted his mutual love which he reserves for us, then we will be motivated to love him as our Father. For if this love is in us, then there will be no doubt that we will obey him and that this law will rule in our thoughts, affections, and in our members.5
The Christian is to be taught that obedience is to be motivated by gratitude and love. The believer is to follow God’s law because he loves God and his fellow man. God is good and loving. This truth infuses obedient love into the believer’s heart, by the power and person of the Holy Spirit, through faith. If you love Jesus, you are called to follow His moral law. If a church loves Jesus, it is going to instruct and admonish its members to follow God’s law.
Avoid Legalism and Antinomianism
But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully
(1 Timothy 1:8).
How to avoid legalism and antinomianism:
- Do not erect manmade laws and rules to govern your life that supplant God’s Word.
God has issued commandments; He doesn’t need you or a church leader contradicting them.
A legalist is one who believes that he is saved or partially saved by works; otherwise he invents church rules that contradict the commandments of God.
An antinomian is one who forsakes God’s commandments and only follows his own way; he seeks to do what’s right in his own eyes.
These are two sides of the same coin and Christians are to avoid both.
- Learn, ponder, teach, ruminate over, and practice the Ten Commandments. Follow God’s Word.
- Remember the Cross is a radical thing.
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; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it (Colossians 2:14-15).
3. Seek to be a doer of God’s Word and aim to remain unspotted from the world.
In the Book of Titus, Paul reminds believers that we are already justified so we must earnestly strive to do good works.
But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men (Titus 3:4-8, italics mine).
The two main forms of legalism: A. Teaching that man-made commands are divine commandments
and morally obligate Christians to perform that which is not found in scripture and its
application. B. Teaching that one is saved or preserved in one’s salvation by following
the law or moral obligations.
Carl Henry, Editor, Wycliff Dictionary of Ethics (Peabody, MA: 2000), p. 432.
Geddees McGregor, Introduction to Religious Philosophy (Boston, MA: Mifflin, 1959), pp. 117-119.
Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1692), p. 46.
John Calvin, Sermons on the Ten Commandments, p. 76
For more see my eBook (also in PB) The Sure Existence of Moral Absolutes HERE
The second installment will appear later in the week. Have you heard sermons or teachings that seem confused regarding this topic??