How do “grace” and “law” relate?

How do “grace” and “law” relate?

Recently, my mom sent my family a large package in the email.  Inside was a gift for our kids, a gift that keeps on giving.  When I opened the box, I was overcome by memories from my childhood.  My mom had sent all the Legos I had accumulated as a boy.

I can remember the thrill of getting a new box of Legos, especially the Space Legos.  On the front was a picture of the spacecraft that you could build, in all its glorious detail and endless possibility to “go where no one has gone before.”

Of course, the key to obtaining this endless possibility was simple:  the directions.  One had to follow the (usually) very straightforward, well-drawn steps for building this spacecraft that would free me to spend hours of play in endless imagination, as I re-lived the truly “fantastic” stories of my childhood and of our culture (e.g., Star Wars).

So for me, a new Space Lego set was a huge gift.  To hear that I was getting Legos for my birthday would have been very good news.  And it was assumed that, in this new gift of a new Lego set, there would be directions.  That was a given.

In fact, if the set didn’t come with directions, it would be, well, disastrous:  I would look at the picture on the front of the box, and I would never know how to make it.  Every last piece had been designed and fashioned to create the exciting craft on the front of the box.  (I remember looking at the cover and thinking:  I could never have designed that on my own!)

So to receive a Lego set without the directions would actually take away from the “good news” of such a gift.

This should be clear, even obvious, to understand.  The relationship between gift and directions is simple:  the directions are part of the gift.  In fact, they are an undeniably crucial part of how the gift is be enjoyed.

And yet within the North American evangelical church the relationship between gift and directions–that is, between what are often called “grace” and “law”–is incredibly ambiguous.  Many (most?) church leaders place these two in an essentially fundamental opposition to each other:  grace is against law.  Why?

Further, preachers speak of the necessity of “preaching grace.”  Our churches are “grace-driven.”  Again, sometimes implicitly, at other times explicitly, “grace” is pitted in nebulous opposition (or, at least, contrast) with “law.”  The words “law” and “legalism” are almost synonyms (or linked conceptually).

The more theologically minded among us make extensive use of an idea that deeply informs (even controls) how they/we read Scripture and conceive of our daily Christian lives:  a “tension” is seen between what is called “antinomianism” (essentially, living however one wants) and “legalism,” a term that can remain nebulously defined  so that means something like “having too high a view of the law.”  In some (once again) nebulous way, “grace” enables us to avoid either of these, keeping us in a “no man’s land” between the two.  Grace, if not against the law, is at the very least other than the law.

Here’s a quick survey of Scripture’s descriptions of the laws and commands that God has given to his people:

“See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me…. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'” – Deuteronomy

“The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart….
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” – Psalm 19

“Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the LORD…
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever they do prospers.”  – Psalm 1

“If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.” – Psalm 119

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount

“…the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good…. The law is Spiritual.”  – Paul

“…whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it…they will be blessed in what they do.”

(It’s worth noting, in passing, that by “law” in all these verses means, at the very least, the Mosaic law.)

According to these verses, the law makes one shrewd, imparts joy, brings human flourishing (“prosperity”), brings great reward, and is crucial in the midst of opposition and suffering (“affliction”).  The law, then, is an expression of God’s grace.

So why has the law gotten such a bad rap?  Surely, there is a sense in which grace and law are “against” each other.

Absolutely.  Here are three ways:

1.  Grace is “against” the curse of the law:  as Paul says in Galatian Christians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a pole.'”  Grace overcomes death.

2.  Grace is “against” the absence of the law:   Paul reminds the Roman Christians of their pre-Christian (presumably pagan) lives–i.e., a time when they would “offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness.”  That is, their pre-Christian lives were marked by both dehumanization and defilement (“impurity”) and disorder (“lawlessness”), a disorder that made their lives chaotic, confusing, tumultuous.  Grace overcomes disorder.

3. Grace is “against” the shadow of the law:  Paul provides a contrast for the Colossian Christians when he speaks of how the law, when given by Moses, served an anticipatory role, “foreshadowing” redemptive realities to come.  Paul speaks of “religious festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths,” which functioned as “a shadow of thing that were to come,” whose “reality is found in Christ.”  Graces overcomes symbolic demonstration.

Much more could be said, and I’ve aimed to keep things simple.  But Scripture, from beginning to end, speaks of the incredibly gracious nature of the law.  Psalm 147, which recounts God’s grace to his people, climaxes with a celebration of the marvelous gift of God’s “laws and decrees” to Israel.

In the age to come, in the new heavens and the new earth, God’s people from every tongue, tribe, people and nation will live in incomprehensible joy, fullness, and flourishing.  And what will they be doing?  Obeying the law.

But how is it that this new heavens and new earth are brought about?  How is it that we are rescued from the present order ruled by sin and death, by evil and the Evil One?  Is it not through Jesus’ obedience to…the Law?  In a sense, Jesus’ strategy was simple:  he came down and obeyed.  As Paul says, he was “obedient to death–even death on a cross.”  (This, we should note, was promised to David and all his descendants:  the more you obey, the more you will reign.)

Jesus went down obeying, and he went all the way.  Why?

Love.  And love, says Jesus, is at the very heart of the law:  “All of the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands,” says the Crucified One:  Love of God and love of our neighbor.  So if we think obedience to the law is lame, if we think obedience is of tertiary importance, then we think love is lame; we think that love is of tertiary importance.  And if we think disobedience is ever an act of love, we are seriously deluding ourselves.

Law is love.

No wonder the law is itself part of the good news.  But where are the preachers today who think of “preaching grace” as preaching the wonder and wisdom, the freedom and flourishing, of the perfect law of God?

2 thoughts on “How do “grace” and “law” relate?

  1. Thanks Bruce for the post. I would love to see a “part 2” post that specifies what “law” you are talking about. That is, are we talking about moral issues present in the NT, like no sex out of marriage, prohibitions against drunkenness, etc. etc.? Are we talking about NT applications of the 10 commandments? More pointedly, what exactly is in view? I ask because the NT (or the majority of the OT) is not written like a book of rules and most of the ethical teaching (given for human flourishing) has to be wisely and exegetically inferred. (is that a contradiction?:)) This is important because even the law/gospel guys or “hyper-grace” guys (that is probably an unfair label on my part) still agree that there are rules/laws to be obeyed and followed—and that the laws matter. Thanks buddy!

    1. Ronnie, yeah, great comment/question. I’d be so bold as to say that when Jesus and Paul speak of “the law”, they refer to the Mosaic Law (or Torah)–that which was given by God to/thru Moses to God’s people, first at Sinai and then again on the doorstep to Canaan. True, mention of “the law” may refer to more than the Mosaic Law but not less. Further, the law must be understood within as given within the wider “story” of God’s people. So I don’t understand Jesus/Paul ever to be referring to some abstraction such as a “moral law.” Both Jesus and Paul see a marvelous fulfillment to this “Mosaic law”, and the nature of that fulfillment is, to say the least, multi-faceted (or enigmatic, even problematic, some would say).

      Not sure this helps. ???

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