The Relationship of Law and Grace,
or Is Your God a Grouch?
J. B. Phillips once wrote an excellent little book entitled, Your God Is Too Small. His thesis, as I remember it, was that we fail to appreciate the greatness of God and that our faith is not limited by God’s inadequacies, but by our failure to comprehend His greatness and power. I think I would like to write a similar book on the subject of the grace of God. The title of my book would be, Your God Is a Grouch. If most Christians are anything like the God they serve, then their God must be a grouch.
I see this false perception of God reflected in most of the movies that have ever been produced about the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Frequently He is characterized as austere and cold. We see Him as another John the Baptist, condemning virtually everything and everyone around Him. We remember Jesus scolding His disciples and lashing out at the money-mongers in the temple. It was not until a recent movie on the life of Christ that anyone ever attempted to portray our Lord as a man who loved people, enjoyed life, smiled at little children, laughed at (and with) His disciples, and frequently had a twinkle in His eye. I think this touches a side of our Lord that some don’t seem to believe exists.
But if our Lord is thought of as austere in the Gospels, the God of the Old Testament can be nothing less than a grouch. After all, didn’t He burden the people of old with an unrealistic and impossible system of Laws and codes? And didn’t He command the Israelites to kill all of the Canaanites? How can we possibly square the grace of God with the giving of the Law? And how is the New Testament saint, who is “not under Law but under grace,” to relate to the Law of the Old Testament?
The relationship of the New Testament believer to the Old Testament Law was perhaps the most pressing problem of the early church. Peter’s desire to keep the Jewish food Laws was so strong that it took a dramatic incident to convince him that these Laws had been set aside. This revelation effectively opened the door to evangelizing the Gentiles (Acts 10:1ff.). Later, when Peter failed to apply God’s instruction to his relationships with certain Gentiles, Paul had to rebuke him publicly (Galatians 2:11ff.). The first major council of the church centered around the issue of the relationship of Gentile converts to the Law of the Old Testament (Acts 15:1ff.). The entire epistle to the Galatians was written because of the heresy taught by the Judaizers that one could be saved only by faith in Christ plus law-keeping.
The relationship of Law and grace is one that has troubled the church over the centuries. Even today it continues to perplex and confuse Christians. Some would go to the extreme of making obedience to the Law a requirement for salvation. At the opposite extreme, others would insist that we are under no obligation to any rules or commands and that we may live as we please. Neither of these positions is acceptable so far as the Bible is concerned, and only by a careful study of the relationship of Old Testament Law to New Testament grace can we find the proper balance for Christian living.
When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai holding in his hands the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, he found the people in a state of anarchy. In just a short time they had become engaged in idolatrous worship and revelry (Exodus 32:15ff.). Moses angrily threw down the stone tablets, shattering them at the foot of the mountain (32:19). Had the Old Testament Law been such a terrible thing, I would have thought that Moses would have used those tablets to beat the Israelites over the head. At least he could have crammed the Law down their throats rather than wasting all that valuable gold.
This act of Moses implies what the Bible elsewhere confirms about the Law, that it was given from the hand of a gracious God. I believe Moses threw down the tablets because he felt the Israelites were unworthy of them. He viewed the Law as a manifestation of God’s grace, and in the light of their sin, he did not intend for them to have it. If the Law were as evil as some think today, what more fitting punishment for the nation Israel than the “burden” of the Law? The Law given at Sinai was not intended to be a burden, however, but a blessing. Allow me to briefly mention a few of the reasons why the Old Testament Law was a blessing and not a burden to the people of God.
(1) It was God’s grace that brought Israel out of Egypt, just as His grace would enable them to possess the promised land. If it were works that would merit the redemption of Israel from their bondage in Egypt, why was the Law not given until after their exodus? To underscore the role of grace in the lives of the people of God the Law was given to the Israelites with this reminder:
… Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself?’ (Exodus 19:4).
“The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
“Know therefore today that it is the Lord your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and He will subdue them before you, so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly, just as the Lord has spoken to you. Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people” (Deuteronomy 9:3-6)
It was God who had redeemed His people. They had done nothing to merit His grace in delivering them from bondage. God had been true to Himself and to His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And so He would fulfill His promise by bringing them safely into the land and driving out the Canaanites.
(2) The Old Testament Law was gracious in that it clearly defined the standards a righteous God set for His people. The Law was an integral part of the covenant between God and the nation Israel. It defined the relationship between God as king and the people as His servants, whom He had redeemed out of bondage in Egypt. As a holy and righteous God He could only bless the Israelites as they lived in conformity to His character. As God put it, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). God could not bless sin and disobedience, and so the Law prescribed the kind of behavior which would be blessed. Blessing and obedience were directly related. Obedience to the Law assured the people of God that they would possess the promised land and drive out the Canaanites. Obedience likewise assured them of intimate fellowship with God and an exalted position among the nations.43
‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:5-6a).
“You shall therefore keep every commandment which I am commanding you today, so that you may be strong and go in and possess the land into which you are about to cross to possess it; so that you may prolong your days on the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give to them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 11:8-9).
(3) The Law was given so that future generations might come to trust and obey the God who had redeemed the Israelites. The faith of the fathers must be passed on to succeeding generations. The Law was given as a means of communicating the basis for this faith:
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. … And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:1-2, 6-7).
“When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; and the LORD brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand”’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-21; cf. also verses 22ff.).
The Law was much more than the Ten Commandments, just as it was far more than the commands and prohibitions of God. The Law was the entire Pentateuch (and frequently more than this), which contained the account of the history of God’s dealings with the nation. It contains the call of Abraham and the working of God in his life and in the lives of his descendants. Since salvation has always been by faith and not by Law-keeping, each new generation had to come to know the God of their fathers in a personal way, by faith. The five books of Moses served the same function for the ancient Israelites as the Gospels do for men today. Saving faith is also a historical faith.
(4) While the Law set a standard of righteousness that was impossible to keep, it also contained a provision for sin. An integral part of the Law of the Old Testament was the sacrificial system. It was God’s gracious means of dealing with the sin which the Law defined:
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “If a person acts unfaithfully and sins unintentionally against the LORD’s holy things, then he shall bring his guilt offering to the LORD: a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation in silver by shekels, in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. And he shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it, and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it shall be forgiven him” (Leviticus 5:14-16).
We know from the New Testament that the sacrificial system was only provisional. It did not remove sin; it merely passed over it for a time (cf. Romans 3:25; Hebrews 10:1-4). Nevertheless, this sacrificial system foreshadowed and prophesied concerning that “Lamb of God” who was to come and remove sins once for all (cf. John 1:29). The salvation which was promised in Genesis 3:15 was said to come through the seed of Abraham (Genesis 12:3), and later it was more specifically promised through the offspring of Judah (Genesis 49:8ff.). This salvation was typified by the “sacrifice of Isaac” (Genesis 22) and by the offering of the passover lamb (Exodus 12).
And so the Old Testament Law was gracious in that it revealed the need for a remedy for sin, provided a temporary solution, and promised a permanent deliverance through faith, not works.
(5) Israel’s apostasy was always accompanied by a neglect of God’s Law, while her revival and restoration were accomplished by a return to the Law of God.
Thus says the LORD, “For three transgressions of Judah and for four I will not revoke its punishment, because they rejected the Law of the LORD and have not kept His statutes; their lies also have led them astray, those after which their fathers walked” (Amos 2:4).
Therefore, the Law is ignored and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore, justice comes out perverted (Habakkuk 1:4).
Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan who read it. … Then the king sent, and they gathered to him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. And the king went up to the house of the LORD and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests and the prophets and all the people, both small and great; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant, which was found in the house of the LORD. And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people entered into the covenant (2 Kings 22:8; 23:1-3; cf. also Nehemiah 8:1ff.).
(6) The Law of God was perceived by those who were spiritual as something holy and righteous and good. While some may look upon the Law as a burden, godly men of old regarded it as a great blessing:
Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy, do not be grieved.” And all the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them (Nehemiah 8:9-12).
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the Law of the LORD, And in His Law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1-2).
The Law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Thy servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward (Psalm 19:7-11).
O how I love Thy Law! It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97).
Even in Old Testament times the purpose of the Law was frequently misunderstood. Men perceived it to be a means of earning merit before God. As the Israelites were about to possess the land under the leadership of Joshua, he urged them to determine whether or not they would follow God rather than the pagan gods of their forefathers:
“Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14 -15).
The people enthusiastically (and naively) announced that they would serve the God of Israel (24:16-18), but Joshua realized that they did not really grasp the implications of this nor of the impossibility of keeping the Law of God apart from divine grace. Therefore, he warned them, saying:
“You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.” And Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the LORD, to serve Him.” And they said, “We are witnesses” (Joshua 24:19-22).
Throughout the history of Israel the tendency of the people was to emphasize religious forms as opposed to the essence of their religion that was the heart of the Law:
For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6).
Repeatedly God sent His prophets to instruct the people concerning the real purpose of the Law. Because of the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites and their resistance to the intent of the Law, the prophets were rejected, persecuted, and put to death (Matthew 23:29-31).
To summarize, the Law as represented in the Old Testament was not grace, but it was gracious. It was never intended to establish a works-oriented system of approaching God. It revealed the righteousness of God and the relationship between the covenant people of Israel and Yahweh, their king. As such, the Law was good, inspiring the worship, praise, and service of those who truly knew God. Many did misinterpret and misuse the Law, but such is the nature of sin—to abuse that which is good and to make it an instrument for evil.
Both in the Old Testament and the New, the term “law” had a wide variety of meanings. We cannot simply speak of “the Law” in the New Testament without first saying that the definition and interpretation of “the law” in the New Testament is probably the single most critical issue. This is what turned the scribes and Pharisees against Jesus. This is what constituted the Judaizers to be heretics. We shall begin by defining the “law” as the scribes and Pharisees viewed it and then move to our Lord’s definition as evidenced by His life and teaching. Finally, we shall look at the “law” through the life and teaching of the apostles.
The “law” according to Pharisaism. During the 400 years of silence between the Old Testament and the coming of Christ, God had been silent, but Judaism had not. The scribes and Pharisees had come to equate righteousness with conformity to a prescribed code of conduct. This “code” was not really the Law of the Old Testament, but it was the traditions of the Pharisees which had been wedded to the Old Testament Law. For example, God’s Law had prescribed that a man should keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8). What had been a simple commandment became a complicated system of rules and regulations:
The Law lays it down that the Sabbath Day is to be kept holy, and that on it no work is to be done. That is a great principle. But these Jewish legalists had a passion for definition. So they asked: What is work? All kinds of things were classified as work. For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work. But next a burden has to be defined. So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen”—and so on endlessly. So they spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a brooch or false hair, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day. These things to them were the essence of religion. Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.44
By the third century A.D., a written compilation of these oral traditions was completed. It was known as the Mishnah and contained 63 tractates on various subjects of the Law. In English it makes a book of about 800 pages.45 Later Judaism set itself to the task of interpreting these interpretations. These commentaries on the Mishnah are known as Talmuds. The Jerusalem Talmud consists of 12 printed volumes; the Babylonian Talmud has 60 volumes.46
On the one hand, the meticulous definition of the Old Testament Law by the Pharisees made the Law almost impossible to keep. It seemed, therefore, to set an even higher standard than the Law as given by God. But all of this “red tape” served to hinder only the masses, for the Pharisees also had devised clever ways of avoiding the Laws which they so scrupulously taught:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold?” (Matthew 23:16-17).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
Consequently, the Jewish leaders not only hated the Lord Jesus, but they despised the masses who followed Him:
“No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he? But this multitude which does not know the Law is accursed” (John 7:48-49).
Because of this incredible legal system, a devout Jew could actually claim to be perfect according to the demands of the Law—the Law, that is, according to the Pharisees. The rich young ruler unashamedly made this claim (Matthew 19:20), and so did the apostle Paul (Philippians 3:4-6), but when the apostle came to faith he then referred to himself as “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
It is absolutely crucial for us to understand this Pharisaical view of the Law, for it sets the background for the entire New Testament. Much of the New Testament is devoted to a correction of this misconception of the Law.
The “Law” according to Jesus. Paul reminds us that Jesus was “born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4). He perfectly fulfilled the Law of God, thus being qualified to die for the sins of the world (1 Peter 2:22). Nevertheless, He was continually accused of being a law-breaker. He was guilty, of course, if the “Law” was that devised by the Pharisees. It was here that Jesus’ view of the Law differed so greatly from His opponents. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps more than anything else, is Jesus’ hermeneutical system for interpreting the Old Testament. The difference between Jesus’ approach to the Law and that of the Pharisees can be summarized by three observations:
(1) Jesus did not view the Law as an unbearable burden which men must merely endure, but He saw it as an evidence of the goodness (grace) of the heavenly Father. For example, the Pharisees looked upon the Sabbath as superior to man. Man could only submit to God’s prohibitions, even though they made life miserable. Thus the Pharisaical Law might prohibit a hungry man from eating on the Sabbath or Jesus from healing one who suffered. The Law, according to Jesus, was intended to be for man’s benefit, and so He could heal a man on the Sabbath without violating the Law. Man was not created for the Sabbath, Jesus insisted, but the Sabbath for the benefit of man (Mark 2:27). The spirit of the Law was more important than the letter, Jesus taught, but this was a point of view no self-respecting legalist could ever accept.
As I think back over the Old Testament, I cannot think of one instance in which a person was condemned for some technical violation of the Law, as specific and particular as it was, In every case I can think of, men were judged by God because their motives and attitudes were evil.47 Jesus points this fact out to the legalists of His day, but they cannot grasp it.
(2) Jesus saw the inward motive of a man to be as important as the outward act. According to Pharisaism a Jew could lust after a woman so long as he did not commit adultery with her. A man could hate his brother, but he could not kill him. Jesus said that the inward thoughts of lust and hate are as evil as the outward acts of adultery and murder (cf. Matthew 5:21ff.). Teaching this view of the Law, Jesus raised the standards of the Law far higher than any man could ever hope to meet. He did not come to do away with the Law, as the Pharisees accused, but to fulfill it. And while the Pharisees proudly claimed to uphold the Law and establish their own righteousness by their works Jesus taught that one would have to demonstrate far greater righteousness than they did to ever enter into the kingdom of God:
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
(3) Jesus taught that the Law would not be put away until the heavens and the earth pass away:
“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).
According to our Lord, there is some sense in which the Law has abiding value, even in the age of grace, for He said that it would not pass away until that time when heaven and earth also pass away.
The “Law” according to the apostles. Frequently the term “Law” is employed in the New Testament with reference to the Old Testament Law, the Law as God gave it and as our Lord interpreted it. This Law included not only the Ten Commandments, but the entire Pentateuch—(the first five books of the Bible) and sometimes even the whole Old Testament. Whenever the apostles speak of God’s Law as given in the Old Testament, they do so with the greatest respect. It is never conceived of in any other way than something good:
Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law (Romans 3:31).
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. … So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:7-8, 12).
In Romans 7 Paul taught that the Law is not evil, but good. Just as the beginning of this chapter speaks to Christians, I believe that Paul is speaking as a Christian in the later part of the chapter. He is speaking, then, of his relationship as a Christian to the Law of the Old Testament.
While the Law is used by sin to arouse the desires of the flesh (verse 5), it is not sinful. The Law serves to point out sin by defining it; it does not produce sin (verses 7-8). The Law is no more evil for defining sin than an x-ray is evil for identifying a cancerous tumor. Sin uses the Law to get a handle on men, taking advantage of the weakness of the flesh. Sin’s misuse of the Law for evil purposes only shows how sinful sin is (verse 13). Since we cannot overcome sin by our natural resources (the flesh), sin makes use of the Law to overpower us. The problem is not with God’s perfect Law, and not even with our flesh, but with sin that abuses the Law and overpowers our flesh. In his innermost self, his spiritual man, Paul wanted to do what the Law commanded, just as he desired to cease doing what the Law forbade (verses 14-19).
The solution to Paul’s problem (and every Christian’s) is not the abolition of the Law, but the power to overcome sin and to live righteously as the Law demands. So Paul does not tell us that the Law has died to us, but rather that we have died to the Law (cf. verse 4).48 In Christ we have died to the Law in that the penalty for our sins has been paid. The Law can no longer condemn the one who has paid his debt (cf. Romans 8:1). On the other hand, by walking in the Spirit we have the power to fulfill the requirements, the standards of righteousness, which the Law prescribes. In Christ the requirements of the Law are met—negatively by dying in Christ and positively by living in Him and walking by His Spirit.
Paul never conceived of God’s Law as evil. In fact, he continued to live in accordance with much of the Old Testament Law after his conversion. Paul circumcised Timothy in order that his ministry might be enhanced (Acts 16:3). He made vows in Old Testament fashion (Acts 18:18), and he was anxious to observe the feast of Pentecost. Perhaps most significantly, Paul made an effort to convince his fellow Jews that he still kept the Law. When Paul returned to Jerusalem, he knew by prophetic revelation that he was facing great danger (Acts 21:10-14). James and the other elders were well aware of the charge against Paul that he had set aside the Law of Moses and was instructing other Jews to do likewise (21:18-21). Their advice was that Paul publicly worship in accordance with the Law as a rebuttal to the charges against him, and this he did (21:22-26). Observance of the Law in this situation was neither wrong, nor did it cause Paul to “fall from grace.”
The Jerusalem Council, whose meeting is recorded in Acts 15, distinguished between Judaism and Christianity. They concluded that a Gentile did not need to keep the Law in order to be saved. Neither did the council prohibit Jewish Christians from continuing to practice their Jewish heritage. Continuing to practice that which was a part of the Jewish culture was never considered to be putting oneself “under Law.” Thus the circumcision of Timothy, the observance of the feast of Pentecost, and Paul’s actions in Acts 21 were not a surrender to the Jewish legalists, but a concession to the culture of Judaism for the sake of more effective ministry. This also explains how Paul could come to the Gentiles without his Jewish trappings or to the Jews with them (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Concession can be made in matters of culture, and so Timothy was circumcised. Concession cannot be made in the matter of a doctrine so crucial as that of salvation, and thus Paul refused to circumcise Titus (Galatians 2:3-5).
Paul did not hesitate to appeal to the Old Testament Law as a basis for his teaching and commands. In 1 Corinthians 9:8-10 Paul appealed to the Law to prove that the one who ministers has the right to be supported by those to whom he ministers. In chapter 14 of this same epistle Paul underscored the necessity of women keeping quiet in the public meeting of the church (that is, not taking a public leadership role) with the words “as the Law also says” (verse 34). In Romans 13:8-10 Paul stated that the Law is fulfilled by living according to the principle of love.
James, too, had a high regard for the Law of God. He called it “the royal Law” (2:8) and the “Law of Liberty” (1:25; 2:12). While the “Law” to James might have been broader than just the Old Testament Law, I doubt that his expression excludes it. John certainly held a similar view, for he wrote: “And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments” (1 John 2:3).
I have gone to considerable effort to underscore the biblical fact that the Old Testament Law was never viewed as being evil, but only as good. This is as true in the New Testament as it was in the Old. I have not said all that there is to say about the Law yet, but this must be agreed upon first: God is a gracious God, and the giving of the Law in no way contradicts this aspect of His character. Dispensationalists (with whom I still consider myself to be in basic agreement) have all too frequently ignored this truth, and so I have labored long to fix it in our thinking. Now we must go on to look at what it means when Paul says that we are “not under Law, but under grace.”
While the Old Testament Law was gracious (because God is a God of grace), it was never grace. Grace and truth were personified in Jesus Christ, and grace was accomplished on the cross of Calvary, as we have already shown in our last message. The Law of the Old Testament was gracious in that it defined both sin and righteousness, and it demonstrated the need for salvation. It also made a temporary provision for sin and promised that a greater and final salvation would come. The Law was only able to condemn, but never able to save:
For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. 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 year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4).
But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the Law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to49 Christ, that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:23-26).
The Law is good and not evil. Here is a biblical truth, but there is even greater news: If the Old Testament Law was good, New Testament grace is better. That is the point of the book of Hebrews. The author of this great epistle never sought to undermine or question the greatness of the old covenant, only to underscore the superiority of the new covenant and the grace which it brought to man. The angels were good, but the Son is far better (Hebrews 1:3-4). Moses was a mighty man, but Jesus was far greater (3:1ff.). The rest of the Sabbath was wonderful, but grace brings a greater rest (4:1ff.). The high priest of the old order was powerful, but our great high priest has passed through the heavens (4:14ff.). The old covenant was good; the new covenant is much better. That is the point of the New Testament. The new covenant is not enhanced by discrediting the old (as is often done), but by seeing how it overshadows the old.
Perhaps the relationship of the old covenant and its Law to the new covenant and grace can best be grasped by illustration. Engagement is good, but marriage is far better. I have not yet met a newly-engaged couple who were miserable and unhappy. They are so full of joy they can hardly contain themselves. The bride-to-be does everything possible to display her ring and announce her engagement. The groom-to-be proudly introduces his beloved. Yet once this couple is married, they never wish to go back to the former state of engagement. Those of us who are married can testify to this. Why? Because marriage offers freedoms and privileges which engagement does not.
Now engagement is a wonderful institution. I know of very few pastors who would encourage a couple to get married without a sufficient engagement period. It serves to give the couple time to get to know each other better. It enables them to make decisions and plans for their marriage. It even gives them the opportunity of backing out of a bad marriage. Engagement is intended for primarily one reason: preparation. Once these preparations have been completed, however, engagement has fulfilled its task. From then on it is not a blessing, but a burden.
So it is with the Law of the Old Testament. It established a covenant relationship between men and God. It prepared them for the grace to come by defining sin and declaring the universal need for grace. It even gave promise of grace to come and made temporary provision for sin until that time. But once grace came in the person of our Lord Jesus, who would ever wish to go back to that former covenant?
There is a great dispensational truth here. God was gracious in the giving of the Law, for by the old covenant He prepared us for the new. But those who would wish to go back to that old covenant would be choosing the good over the better. More than this, now that grace has come it is evil to ever consider going back to that system which could only promise salvation but not provide it, which could only condemn but not save. Going back is therefore not only foolish, but evil. It disregards the adequate provision of righteousness and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christians must not be under Law, but under grace.
Beyond the dispensational dimension there is a dangerous doctrinal error which is promoted by some and practiced by many others. The term “Law,” as we have seen, can be defined in a variety of ways. “Law” to our Lord held a vastly different meaning than it did to the Pharisees. Frequently when the New Testament writers use the term “Law” (especially without the article “the” in the original text, e.g., Galatians 2:16; 5:18; Romans 6:14-15) they are not speaking of the Old Testament Law, but of Law as a principle. “Law” becomes a system of works whereby men strive to produce a righteousness of their own as opposed to accepting the righteousness of Christ offered by grace. This I believe to be an essential dimension included in the term “Law” when we are told that we are “not under Law, but under grace.”50
Taken in this sense, Law and grace are not two different dispensations, the one good and the other better, but two ways: the way of death and the way of life. Every unsaved man is under Law in that he is seeking to establish a righteousness of his own rather than to accept God’s righteousness through Christ. To attempt to earn righteousness by the keeping of the Old Testament Law or any other set of standards is to reject the principle of grace and the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. This, Paul says, is not just “another gospel,” it is no gospel at all (cf. Galatians 1:6ff.).
The implications of our study are manifold, but I shall only touch on some of the major areas of application.
To view the Old Testament Law as evil is to see it in a way that is inconsistent with both the Old and New Testaments. The Law is not grace, but it was gracious. It defines both righteousness and sin. It provided temporarily for the sins of those who violated its demands. It promised a Savior who would fulfill its demands and permanently remove sin.
The Law has been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and has been superceded by a new and better covenant. Even though the Law was good, we cannot return to it. Since salvation has come in Christ we cannot “turn back the clock” and live as men once did under the old dispensation.
Law as a system of obtaining righteousness by observing a set of rules, whether they be biblical or not, is completely opposed to grace. We cannot earn righteousness, either to be saved, keep saved, or enhance our standing with God as Christians.
Legalism is a misuse of God’s Law. Legalism places emphasis only upon external acts and ignores the motivation and the means employed to accomplish these acts. It does not consider the spirit of the Law, but only the letter. The remedy for legalism is not the abolition of any and all rules or commands, for the New Testament is full of imperatives and commands, but obedience that stems from gratitude and which is empowered by grace. Grace was never intended to do away with the Law altogether, but to overcome sin and to fulfill the requirements of the Law (Romans 8:4).
The Law of the Old Testament still has great value for the New Testament Christian. It continues to serve as a standard of righteousness. It provides us with both warning and instruction which is profitable in our Christian experience:
Now these things happened to them as an examples, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:11).
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Scripture which Paul refers to in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is first and foremost that contained in the Old Testament. If Paul says that it is profitable, then we had better take heed.
One of the most valuable functions of the Old Testament is that it provides us with principles which relate to our lives. It is true that some things have been set aside, but even here there is much to learn in principle. The principle of faith is illustrated in the lives of the Old Testament saints (cf. Hebrews 11). When Abraham listened to his wife Sarah and had a child by Hagar, we can learn that taking action in unbelief is sin and has far-reaching consequences (cf. Genesis 16). The command not to muzzle the ox while it was threshing (Deuteronomy 25:4) was intended to teach us that a laborer should not be deprived of his wages (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:8ff.). In fact, Paul tells us that the real point of that command had little to do with the ox, but with the principle behind it, for he asks, “God is not concerned with oxen, is He?” (1 Corinthians 9:9). While we need to consult the New Testament to see if the Old Testament Law has been set aside or modified (e.g., the concept of the priesthood—a few, to all Christians), most of the teaching of the Old Testament finds ready application in the life of the Christian.
I fear that in our reaction to the evils of legalism many of us have tended toward the opposite extreme—that of resisting any absolutes or commands, as though this were inconsistent with Christian liberty. James’ “Law of liberty” (2:12) reminds us that liberty is not the absence of rules, but the ability to keep them, for the glory of God and our good. Let us end by taking note of Peter’s warning:
Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God (1 Peter 2:16).
43 This may appear to be inconsistent with what has been said above. If the exodus and the possession of the land of Canaan were a work of God’s grace, then how can they also be conditioned by Israel’s obedience to the Law? The answer is the same as it would be to the question, “How can salvation be totally a matter of God’s grace and yet conditioned upon man’s acceptance?” Even man’s acceptance is ultimately the work of grace (Acts 13:48; 16:14; Philippians 1:29). Grace does not necessitate human inactivity or passivity, only that the activity of grace is achieved by divine power.
47 Uzzah, for example, was not slain just because he touched the ark of God, while this was forbidden, but because of his irreverence which occasioned this act (cf. 2 Samuel 6:7). The sacrifices of the Israelites were not as important to God as the heart attitude of loyalty to God (Hosea 6:6).
48 I am aware of Colossians 2:14, but here it is not the Law which is nailed to the cross, but only the “certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us.” It is thus not the Law, as such, which is nailed to the cross, but only the condemnation which the Law pronounces on our sin.
49 The words “to lead us to” in verse 24, as has been frequently pointed out, are supplied by the translators. It is probably better to translate simply “until,” and thus reading, “Therefore the Law has become our tutor until Christ, that we may be justified by faith.”
50 Murray states: “The assumption on which this argument is based is that ‘under the law’ refers to the Mosaic or Old Testament economy. It is true that sometimes the expression has that signification (cf. Gal. 3:23-4:4). But it is a fallacy that has done prejudice to the interpretation of the Roman epistle at the hands of some of its ablest expositors to suppose that ‘under law’ has this restricted scope.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 1, p. xix.
Murray later has an excellent description of the inadequacies of the Old Testament Law: “(1) Law commands and demands. (2) Law pronounces approval and blessing upon conformity to its demands (cf. 7:10, Gal. 3:12). (3) Law pronounces condemnation upon every infraction of its demand (cf. Gal. 3:10). (4) Law exposes and convicts of sin (cf. 7:7, 14; Heb. 4:12). (5) Law excites and incites sin to more aggravated transgression (cf. 7:8,9,11,13). What Law cannot do is implicit in these limits of its potency. (1) Law can do nothing to justify the person who has violated it. (2) Law can do nothing to relieve the bondage of sin; it accentuates and confirms that bondage.” Ibid., p. 229.