The discussion of “law vs. grace” is a common one among Bible-believing Christ followers. For some reason, we have trouble harmonizing what feels to us like two conflicting ideas. Either Christianity is all about grace, or it’s all about law. The truth is, like many “God-sized” concepts in Scripture, both are integral parts of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Is the Law something relegated to “Old Testament” days, or does it have meaning for us today? What is the Law, and what was (or is) its purpose?
What Is the Law, and Where Do We See It in Scripture?
The first use of the Hebrew word translated as “law” is found in Genesis 26:5, in which God restates the promised blessing given to Abraham to his son, Isaac, blessings which are being passed on to future generations because, God says, “Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.” The word is tôrâ and is used in the Bible to describe teaching or instruction. While the Law (capitalized) generally refers to the Ten Commandments and the sacrificial laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20), God gave instructions to men long before the children of Israel left Egypt as a nation.
The law is God’s perfect standard of obedience and holiness as described in the commands, statutes, and ordinances given to those who would worship and serve Him. The very first “law” was given in the Garden of Eden when God told Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17). God’s commands are His laws.
God gave Adam and Eve the free will to choose to obey the command, or to break the law. They chose disobedience and transgressed, or violated God’s law. As 1 John 3:4 says, “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.” Sin is often referred to in the Bible as a “transgression” or a “trespass.” The Greek word translated “trespasses” in Ephesians 2:1, paraptōma, is a lapse or deviation from truth and uprightness; the word literally means to fall aside. The Hebrew word for transgression, peša, indicates revolt or rebellion.
In the simplest of terms, the Law is the sum total of God’s requirements and expectations for man’s behavior, words, and attitude, and to turn aside from them or rebel against them is sin.
Can We Follow the Law?
God’s laws are a reflection of His character, which is exactly why they are an impossibly high standard that fallen human beings can never meet perfectly. Only God is holy and perfect; He alone is good and righteous. In articulating specific laws to govern man’s behavior, God was revealing Himself. Consider the ten commandments.
The first four commands have to do with man’s relationship to God:
1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. You shall not make or worship any graven images or idols.
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.
4. You shall remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.
The next six commands have to do with man’s relationship to others.
5. You shall honor your father and mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness (lie).
10. You shall not covet.
Such a simple list, yet impossibly difficult to keep perfectly, especially as we view them through the words of Jesus. In His teachings, Jesus both elevated and simplified the Law of God.
Matthew 22:34-40 – “But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him: ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Upon these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.’”
Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind (the first four commandments) and love your neighbor as yourself (the second six commandments). Jesus summed up the entire Law and Prophets in those two statements. Yet, before we conclude we can even attempt to fulfill them, He expands the Law beyond simple outward obedience to the secret attitudes of our heart. Here are just a few examples from His sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7.
“You have heard…You shall not commit murder…but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court.”
“You have heard…You shall not commit adultery…but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
“You have heard…You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord…but I say to you, make no oath at all.”
When God gave the Law to the children of Israel, He included the standard of expected behavior, the punishment when the law was transgressed, and the corresponding atonement needed to restore the sinner back into fellowship with God and His people.
What Can Fulfill the Law?
The Jewish nation was given an intricate and detailed list of sacrifices – offerings by blood – that would provide a temporary covering for their sinful law-breaking and make them acceptable for God’s presence to dwell among them. The entire sacrificial system was built on the premise of atoning blood.
In the Old Testament, the blood sacrifices were provided by lambs and bulls and goats, something which could never permanently atone for sin (Hebrews 10:4). They were simply a representation of the once-for-all perfect sacrifice that God’s perfect and holy Son, Jesus Christ, would make when He offered Himself on the cross.
Hebrews 10:1-3 – “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the form of those things itself, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually every year, make those who approach perfect. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.”
The Law was given to expose man’s sinfulness; it was never intended to make men righteous. By declaring the Law, God was being gracious. He was showing us our need for an imputed righteousness not gained by obedience to the Law – a righteousness that would come as a gift of grace through Jesus, by faith.
Romans 3:19-20 – “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”
The Law Is a Gift of Grace
Paul expresses this same idea in Romans 7, just before describing the lifelong conflict that occurs in believers between walking according to the Spirit who indwells them and their natural, human flesh that is still drawn to sin. He notes that sinful passions are aroused by the Law, and this might lead us to conclude that the Law itself is sinful.
He’s right – there’s something rebellious in our human nature that exerts itself when we are told we can’t, or shouldn’t, do something. And indeed, man’s attempt to govern one another often results in laws and restrictions that are wrong and sinful. But God’s law is perfect; He is the Righteous Judge, and His laws are given not to burden us, but to expose the sin within us so that we understand our desperate need for Christ’s righteousness. The Law is a gift of grace.
Romans 7:7-8 – “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.”
God’s law does not produce sin; it only names it for what it is.
Is the Law Still Valuable Today Since We Are under Grace?
The New Testament clearly teaches that those who have repented of their sin and placed their faith in Jesus Christ are not judged according to the Law. Christ came to fulfill the Law, and in Him, we are presented to God as perfect and holy. All our sin has been forgiven and covered by the sinless, sanctifying blood Jesus shed on the cross.
Salvation is a gift of grace, not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). We cannot obtain it by attempting to keep God’s laws perfectly or by being a good, moral person. Neither can we lose our salvation when we transgress His commands and disobey by sinning. Either the blood of Jesus atoned for all of our sins, or none of them.
But God’s commands are still in effect, only now they are written on our hearts. The Holy Spirit has come to indwell us and produces obedience and good works according to God’s commands in and through us. As Watchman Nee observed in the quote above, through Christ, God is both the Lawgiver and the Lawkeeper. This is the secret of the Christian life as we learn to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh.
Romans 8:1-4 – “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
As Christ-followers, we are still obligated to obey God’s commands, but now we have the Spirit of God in us giving us the ability, the desire, and the power to do so. “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). It pleases God and brings Him glory when we obey His commands. In fact, our desire and willingness to walk in God’s commands are evidence that we belong to Him.
1 John 2:3-5 – “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him.”
The value of teaching God’s commands is not to place a burden of perfection or legalism on believers, but to expose what displeases God and the sin we are to avoid. God’s law is good; it is still our tutor to show us our need for Him, both in salvation and the sanctifying process as we grow in faith and Christlikeness. By all means, let us teach God’s commands to our children so they may know Christ.
This article was written for, and first appeared, on the BibleStudyTools.com website. You can find the original article here. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to write for them.