“The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? Have you suffered so many things for nothing? – if indeed it was for nothing. Does God then give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2-5)
You have a great foundation now, knowing what Christ has done on the cross for you and how his resurrection provides the means for you to receive a brand new life with a new identity. Praise God for his indescribable gift! But, as seen in the Galatians 3 scripture quoted above, many Christians start out accepting the gift of salvation but then are thrown into a works-related way of living out this brand new life in order to maintain acceptance before a holy God. The issue is broadly called “Law and Grace.” Understanding the difference between these two concepts is the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the basis for experiencing a joyful Christian life.
Understanding the difference between Law and Grace answers important biblical questions:
1. What is the difference between the Old and New Testaments? What Old Testament promises can be claimed by New Testament believers?
2. What must we do to be saved or to even stay saved?
3. Where do we fit in God's plan of history? What should we expect from God and from life in this phase?
4. How are we to live to please God?
Probably the simplest way to understand Law & Grace is to see it as the issue of God’s acceptance: “On what basis is a person made acceptable before a holy God?” Based upon what you’ve learned so far in this study, how would you answer that question?
[Note: This lesson is longer than usual, containing more teaching to clearly communicate the topic.]
Reading through the New Testament, you will often see this phrase mentioned—”the Law.” Generally, the New Testament writers mean “the Mosaic Law” by this phrase. The Law is, “The covenant between God and the nation of Israel instituted at Mt. Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt.” Let’s gain some perspective on this.
In Genesis 12:1-3, God promised to Abraham that he would make Abraham into a great nation and that all the peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham. Abraham’s descendants multiplied greatly while living in Egypt, and God delivered them out of Egypt to form the nation he had promised to Abraham. At Mt. Sinai, God proposed a contractual agreement (the Law) to the new nation (Exodus 19:3-6). After God spoke the outline of the Law (the Ten Commandments) and the provisions of the Law to the people (Exodus 20-23), the nation agreed to keep the contract (Exodus 24:3-8).
From the simplest, big-picture point of view, the Law of Moses [Mosaic Law, hereafter designated as the Law] described the conditions under which: 1) Israel would be allowed to dwell in the land; and 2) the people of Israel would enjoy the presence of God dwelling in their midst. The Law was bilateral (two-sided), meaning that God offered earthly blessings for obedience and earthly curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28). The Law was not a means of salvation. The Law was primarily national in scope and earthly in application.
1. Read Deuteronomy 4:5-8. What was the purpose of the Law? See also 1 Timothy 1:8-10.
2. Read Galatians 3:19-26. What was the intended duration for the Law?
The nation of Israel was to be a holy nation as God was a holy God. “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). For a person to be holy required separation from sin. So, much of the Law includes animal sacrifices for the sin of the people so God could remove their sins from them (Leviticus 16:20-22), making them holy again.
God promised to redeem human beings from their sin based on his grace (to Eve and to Abraham) earlier than the Law was given to Israel (diagram below). That promise of grace was not nullified or changed. The Law—a separate arrangement for a temporary purpose—was for managing sinful people until fulfillment in Christ.
The purpose of the Law was to teach central truths about God. There had to be a nation on earth that knew something about God to teach the rest of the world (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). The purpose of the Law was also protective to preserve Israel as a distinct people through whom the promised Messiah would come to bless the whole world. And, the Law would lead people to a trust relationship with the Lord by showing them their sin and leaving faith—trusting in the mercy and grace of God alone to forgive one’s guilt—as the only way to be right with God (Romans 3:19-20), preparing the way for the work of Christ. Salvation for Old Testament believers came through faith in a merciful God (Habakkuk 3:17).
3. Because the Law had limitations, God promised a New Covenant. Read Hebrews 8:6-13. Examine the following chart. Notice the contrast between the old and the new. Comment on the differences in the right column of the chart.
Contrasting the Old & New Covenants (Hebrews 8:8-12)
Old Covenant (the Law)
Why the New Covenant Is Better
External/reward & punishment
See Deuteronomy 28.
Internal / change of heart
“I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.” (v.10b)
Conditioned on obedience
“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” (Exodus 19:5)
“I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (v.10c)
Access to God
Open to the High Priest alone
"But only the High Priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year…” (Hebrews 9/7)
"...anyone else who approaches the sanctuary must be put to death.” (Numbers 3:10)
Open and equal access to all believers
“No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. (v.11)
Conditional and incomplete
“For the Law...can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near.” (Hebrews 10:1)
Unconditional and complete
"For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (v.12)
Under the Law (Old Covenant), blessings were conditional and the burden of performance was on man. Under the New Covenant, the promised blessings are unconditional and the burden of performance is upon God. Man’s sole responsibility toward the fulfillment of the New Covenant is to enter into that relationship through faith in Jesus Christ. God then commits himself to complete the work he began in us (Philippians 1:6) until we are conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). This doesn’t mean that Christians have no responsibilities at all! We are called to follow Jesus Christ diligently and live worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1).
God’s plan is too easy for many to accept. And, old habits of performance-based religion are hard to die. Enter Galatianism…
The term “Galatianism” developed because of issues addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians—believers in several churches in the area of what is now central Turkey. As recorded in Acts 13-14, Paul and Barnabas spread the gospel in this area on their first missionary journey about 15 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Galatian churches were composed of mostly Gentile (non-Jewish) believers. Many of the Jews in the region rejected the preaching of Paul about Christ’s death and resurrection. They did not respond with faith in Jesus Christ in order to receive eternal life (Acts 13:46). The Gentiles, however, were “glad and honored the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:47-48). After Paul left the area, some unnamed teachers (usually called “Judaizers”) followed in his wake, contradicting his teachings. Eventually the controversy grew so heated that it was brought to Jerusalem to be decided by the apostles (Acts 15:1-6).
4. Read Acts 15:1-5. What are the Judaizers teaching? [Note: though not capitalized in most translations, “the law” is referring to the Law of Moses.]
The diagram above (left) illustrates the Judaizers’ message, which was basically: “We have the promises, Christ, and salvation. If you want them, you must come over to our side.”
It is important to remember that the Mosaic Law was a covenant between God and the nation Israel only. At no time was it imposed on other nations of the world. While the Old Testament frequently describes prophetically the blessings the whole world will receive through the Messiah (Christ) and his kingdom, there was a great secret (a “mystery”) held in the heart of God: that the Gentiles, who were held separate from the Jews by the Law, would be included in God’s promises through the gospel.
5. Read Ephesians 2:11-22 and answer the following questions.
6. According to Colossians 2:13-14, what happened to the Law (written code)?
7. According to Romans 6:14; 7:6 and Galatians 2:19, what is the Christian’s relation to the Law now?
8. After open debate, the apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit gave an answer to the Judaizers’ position. Read Acts 15:6-11. What did the apostles conclude?
9. Although the book of Galatians as a whole was written to address the panic created by the Judaizers’ teaching, what is Paul’s response specifically in these verses to the Galatian believers (and us) who thought they had to follow the Law to be true Christians?
10. So, is the Christian under the Mosaic Law in any way, shape or form? Why not?
So, if Christians are not under the Law of Moses, why read and study the Old Testament? Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17,
“Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.”
When Paul wrote those words under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, ALL Scripture at that time was the whole Old Testament. God has revealed himself through what is written—his holiness, goodness, sovereignty, omniscience, omnipotence, love and more. For the people of Israel (and for Gentile converts who voluntarily took on the yoke of the Law), the Law served as their rule of life—learning to approach life God’s way. The Law God gave to Israel included 3 sections: civil (how to govern the nation), religious (how to worship a holy God), and moral (how to treat one another). Though Christians are not under the civil or religious laws, God’s moral law has not changed and is reinforced in New Testament writings. So…
11. The Law can be properly used:
12. The Law is improperly used as a ladder on which to climb up to try to earn the acceptance of God.
By the time of Jesus, rabbis taught that the whole law could be summed up with two sentences,
“…Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and, love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
That hasn’t changed. And, the rest of the New Testament describes how to live that way.
13. Graceful Living: Based upon what you just learned, what kind of message does a Christian’s insistence on propagating “The Ten Commandments” from Exodus 20 give to other believers or to the unbelieving world? Give some New Testament verses that would be far more effective in communicating God’s grace to an unbelieving world than posting the “Ten Commandments” (the Law).
14. Deeper Discoveries (optional): Which of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17)…
You may be thinking, “What does this have to do with me?” Be aware that Galatianism is still present in the modern church. We call it “legalism” (legal = relating to the law). Legalism has both a technical and a practical definition:
Legalism has seriously damaged the church through the centuries. It leads to a dramatically different experience of Christian living. Many groups or individuals begin with a clear presentation of the gospel of grace to receive salvation, then proceed to live by works, trying to earn or maintain God’s acceptance by performance.
At this point, we move our attention from the Law as referring to the Law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments, and all the statutes and ordinances (found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) to law as a principle. Living by law can be any man-made system of works by which a person attempts to approach God on her own merits or performance. That’s what legalism does.
[Note: This discussion of legalism is not about what is clearly taught as right and wrong from God’s perspective in Scripture. That which God calls “sin” will be covered more in lesson 9.]
Whether a person is trying to live by the God-given Mosaic Law (particularly the 10 Commandments), by human laws imposed by others (standards of what they consider spiritual and necessary to please God and/or prove you are saved), or even by self-imposed laws, the effects on the individual are the same: fear, guilt, and condemnation.
A person is “living according to law” (legalism) whenever she tries to approach God on the basis of her own merits or performance. Though the outward effects are often subtle, a believer trying to live by legalism will actually be drifting her focus away from the Person of Jesus Christ. She is straying from enjoying a relationship to practicing a religion.
15. Give examples of modern legalism.
16. Read Colossians 2:20-23. Rather than producing righteousness, what can legalism produce? See also Ephesians 2:9.
Out of God’s mercy comes his grace. Remember that grace is unmerited favor. It is a gift that is undeserved. Grace is a gift God chooses to give because of his great mercy, apart from the Law (Romans 3:21). The Law (Mosaic or man-imposed religious standards) is incompatible with “Grace!” Like Jesus’ example of pouring new wine into new wineskins rather than into old ones (Matthew 9:14-17), grace cannot be added to the Law. It is one or the other. You cannot accept both. Which one would you rather guide the course of your life?
17. What examples does Paul give to show why law and grace are incompatible in the verses below?
18. Remember how we started this lesson with Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Read Galatians 5:1-6.
19. Graceful Living: Think back to your Christian life so far and try to recognize the influence of legalism on what you’ve been taught. List any “faith plus ______” teaching that has influenced your life and manmade rules you’ve been taught to obey to remain acceptable to God. If you have been taught any faith plus any other condition in order to maintain acceptance to God, get to heaven, or get any other blessing (which you already have in Christ!), how has this affected your life, your emotions, your thinking, your relationship with God and others?
The issue of “Law and Grace” often arises in practice because of two reasons: 1) the tendency to think you can control sin through lots of rules and 2) the persistent tendency to interpret events. Let’s explore the second reason some more.
Everyone must deal with disappointments, problems, and tragedies in life. The human tendency is to try to interpret events as signs of God’s anger or favor, asking questions such as: “Why did this happen? What does it mean? What is God trying to tell me?” Through this tendency, people (even Christians) lapse into the patterns of paganism, the natural religion of the human race. The underlying assumptions of paganism are: 1) When things go well, the gods are happy with us. 2) When things go wrong, the gods are angry with us. Therefore, the essence of paganism is this: how to stay on the good side of the gods so bad things won’t happen.
Professing Christians may acknowledge grace as true but live as though their own performance of religious standards determines their fate in life. They live in fear of God, not a healthy fear, but an unhealthy one—a fear of what God will do to them every time they fail. That becomes the motivation for their Christian living. Why do some believers succumb to this thinking? The answer is that we probably don’t understand the difference between punishment and discipline.
Punishment and discipline sometimes look alike (especially to the one on the receiving end), but the difference can be seen in both the attitude and the goal of the one applying them.
You can probably think of a time or two when you have confused these two concepts in your life.
20. What does the New Testament adamantly declare to you, as a believer, about freedom from punishment in Romans 5:9 and Romans 8:1-2?
Scriptural Insight: The Bible teaches that every believer will be judged at the “Judgment Seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). This, however, is not a criminal trial where the fate of the defendant is in question, nor his guilt or innocence. It is an evaluation for the purpose of rewards (1Corinthians 3:11-15). Believers are already declared not guilty of sin…in Christ…forever!
21. What further confidence do we gain from 1 John 4:17-19?
Under the grace of the New Covenant, believers are disciplined (trained), not punished. God’s discipline stems from his love (Revelation 3:19). Confidence in his love for you should cast out any fear of punishment you may have.
22. Read Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-25 and 2 Timothy 3:16. What does God use to discipline his children?
23. For what purpose does God discipline his children?
Because we live under the grace of God in Jesus Christ, believers can rest in the fact that all of God’s purposes for us are good. We have a loving Father who teaches, trains, and corrects. Even when evil occurs (because we still live in a fallen world), we can rest confidently in the promise of Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” Our God is good all the time to us—even in the tough times, in different ways to each of his children, and by what he allows and doesn’t allow into our lives.
24. Graceful Living: What has God used to train (discipline) you to trust him more? To depend upon him more? To say “no” to selfishness and “yes” to selflessness? Are you grateful for those lessons that overflowed from his grace and love towards you even if they hurt?
So why do some Christians so easily stray away from grace into legalism? Why would someone want to retain the Law or create additional laws for Christians to follow? Often, it is because of the fear of lawlessness. All agree that lawlessness is wrong and is to be opposed. Yet, there is the tendency to think sin can be controlled through lots of rules. We all know how much that does not work! (See Romans 7:7-13.) The answer, however, is not that we should keep believers under law. It is teaching and exhorting believers to “live by the Spirit”—the better way.
Through our adoption as sons and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have received a status as spiritual adults. Adults live on the basis of mature character with freedom and responsibility. Knowing and understanding your new status in Christ, based on all that Christ has done for you and what you have in him, helps to answer the question, “Why should I live a godly life, if I’m not under law?”
25. Read Galatians 5:13-16. In contrast to living by law, how are Christians exhorted to live with our Grace-Based Freedom, and why would this be a better way? [Note: we’ll cover this more in the next lesson.]
26. According to Romans 5:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, what should motivate us to obey God with our lives if not legalism?
Historical Insight: “A preacher of the Law comes down on men with threats and punishments; a preacher of divine grace coaxes and urges men by reminding them of the goodness and mercy which God has shown them. For He [God] would have no unwilling workers nor cheerless service; He wants men to be glad and cheerful in the service of God.” (Martin Luther, comments on Romans 12)
27. What are the benefits of living by grace rather than by law?
Think About It: “What God wants is for us to trust him and His Word—the Word that tells us that Christ has done it all—and to act on it by approaching ‘the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need’ (Hebrews 4:16)…But if you don’t trust that you have been made totally acceptable in God’s sight, you will never have the boldness to approach him. You will linger outside His throne room, trying to find a way to get ‘worthy’ enough to go in. The end result is that you will avoid going to your only source of help (God) when you need him the most!” (Bob George, Classic Christianity, page 102)
28. Graceful Living: Read Philippians 3:3-10 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17. Paul understood the plight of those who had been relating to God through outward performance under the Law for years. He had been there! Those who have been freed from the Law (both Jews and non-Jews since Christ) can now have a relationship with God on the basis of his grace, as Paul describes about his own life (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Grace motivates us to obedience by love and gratitude for what Christ has done.
God wants you to relate to him on the basis of his grace, so that your motivation to obey him is based on his love for you, your love for him, and gratitude for what Christ has done for you. Relax! Thank him that you have FREEDOM to relate to your God on the basis of his Grace to you. And, enjoy your Grace-filled relationship with your God today, tomorrow, and forever! Paul responded to God’s grace call on his life with a statement of praise in 1 Timothy 1:17. How will you respond? Feel free to use any creative means including drawing a diagram of your freedom in Christ now.