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Understanding Law and Grace
by David A.DePra
Law vs. grace is one of the most important contrasts a Christian must grasp. The Bible lays a tremendous emphasis upon it. For example, the gospels are full of the conflict between the Pharisees and our Lord -- showing the conflict between the law and God's grace. Paul devotes at least three of his epistles to the subject alone: Romans, Galatians, and Colossians. Plus we find it cropping up in one form or another in every other book of the New Testament. Make no question, this is a topic I can ill afford to neglect. To do so is to neglect the foundation of Christianity: The grace of God in Jesus Christ.
The Real Problem
It is almost impossible to understand the place of law in God’s plan of grace unless we establish a basic Truth: What is wrong with man is not found in what he DOES. It is found in what he IS. What a man DOES is merely the outward. But what a man IS produces that outward, just as surely as a bad tree produces bad fruit. Thus, the Redemptive plan of God must address what a man IS if there is to be any redemption at all.
Immediately we see that law-keeping has no chance of touching what a man IS. Indeed, what a man IS makes law-keeping impossible. Man must have a new nature through a new life. He must be given – by grace – a righteousness which is impossible any other way. Then, and only then, can man hope to obey God.
We must keep this in mind as we move through this Truth of law and grace. Through the Redemption, God addresses what a man IS. The issue of obedience to God’s law is secondary to that.
To get to the Truth of law vs. grace, we must ask an important question: Are we "under law" or "under grace?"
For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:14)
Paul says we are "under grace." No doubt about it. The New Covenant is a covenant of GRACE. The gospel is the gospel of GRACE.
No one is likely to argue about that. The problem which arises is on another level. It is not whether we are "under grace" or "under law." The question is what those terms really mean. What do the terms "under law," and "under grace," really mean?
"Under the Law"
Let's begin by examining how the Bible uses the term "under the law."
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says it to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight. For by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God which is by the faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe, for there is no difference. (Romans 3:19-22)
Let's glean some important facts from this passage in Romans. Note especially the first sentence. It reads, "Whatever the law says, it is saying it to -- WHO? "To those who are UNDER THE LAW."
Note that: Whatever the law is saying -- it is saying it to those "under the law."
This tells us something about what the term "under the law" means: If I am "under the law" then the law is speaking to ME. And what is it "speaking?" It is presenting to me an impossible standard – and then DEMANDING of me that I meet that standard. If I don’t, the penalty is death.
This is not bad. It is good. There is absolutely nothing wrong, indeed, there is everything RIGHT about the law. The law is a written manifestation of the righteousness of God Himself. And that standard is perfection. Paul says that "the law is holy, just, and good." (Romans 7:12)
The problem is this: I am not holy, just, and good. The law represents everything that is right -- but I am wrong, inside and out. Thus, when I stand face to face with the law, what happens? I am exposed as a dead sinner. I am exposed as one who falls short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23)
But again – this is good? Why? Because the law is telling the Truth about me. I am a sinner and I am dead. I was born that way. And I need to see my need. There is no other way I will embrace the grace of God.
Paul’s description of how the law exposes our sin is profoundly simple:
For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. (Romans 7:9-13)
Paul is clear about what happens if we are "under the law." We are killed by the law. It slays us. The law points out our true condition and leaves us with no options, no hope, and no way to be righteous before God – if left to ourselves.
So let’s pin this down: What does being "under the law" mean? It means that the law is speaking to me. It is taking it‘s holy, just, and good standard, and with it, slaying me. It is, as Paul said, causing every mouth to be shut, and showing the whole world to be guilty before God.
That Every Mouth May be Stopped
We are now seeing two purposes for which God gave the law: First, to give us a written manifestation of His holiness and righteousness. When Paul says that the law is holy, just, and good, he means that the law is that because God is holy, just, and good. Secondly, the law was given so that our mouth might be stopped – from any claim that we are righteous – and that we might be shown as totally guilty before God. When we stand and face the righteousness of God in written form, everything about us which is NOT righteous is exposed. And for this we are condemned – shown unacceptable before God.
Notice how much this purpose for the law clashes with the notion of some Christians: That God actually expected us to be able to KEEP His law. Does it sound like God ever imagined that we would be able to keep His law? No. In fact, God’s expectations were the opposite. He knew no one could ever keep His law, let alone be made righteous by law-keeping.
But notice something else: The fact that we will never be able to keep the law of God does nothing to negate the fact that the law is holy, just, and good. God’s standard for righteousness remains fully in tact. The law was NEVER ABOLISHED. Jesus said so:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-20)
The law is here to stay, just as surely as the righteousness of God is eternal. But because it is here to stay, so is the impossible standard. Therefore, the law condemns us continually. It continually shows up to be helpless, dead sinners.
The effect that God’s law should have upon you, as long as you are "under the law," is that you should stand there, with your mouth shut, with no way to defend yourself against the law. You should feel guilty – simply because you ARE guilty. You should know that you do not have the righteousness you need, and you should know that you have no way of getting it.
Normally, we might think that to face a perfect law and be condemned by it would be bad news. But it is good news. That’s because once we face the law and see we are without hope, we will realize that unless God imparts us with a righteousness which is NOT of us – not by our law-keeping -- we have no hope.
But God HAS imparted to those who embrace Christ with just such a righteousness. We are imparted with a righteousness which has NOTHING whatsoever to do with our works; our law-keeping. It is the righteousness which comes solely by faith.
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God which is by the faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe, for there is no difference. (Romans 3:20-22)
Here we see what it means to be "under grace." It means – among other things – to be made righteous before God, not by our own works, but by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
We must grasp this. It is profoundly simple. Being "under grace" means that we are made right with God by Jesus – as an act which is one-hundred percent independent of anything we do. We are imputed with what might be called a "foreign" righteousness – that is – with a righteousness which has come into us from OUTSIDE of us.
Notice what this really means: God never looks at our works, our sinful condition, or at anything about us – to make us righteous. And He tells us to do the same. He tells us that everything that is wrong with us was placed into the body of His Son. Thus, if we will place our reliance upon what Jesus has done, instead of upon what WE do, the righteousness of Jesus Christ becomes ours.
"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith WITHOUT (independent from) the deeds of the law." (Rom. 3:28)
There is nothing you can do to make yourself righteous enough, holy enough, or good enough, to spend eternity with God. But God has made a way. He has made a way for us to be righteous completely INDEPENDENT of our works. It is by faith in the Redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
This is what it means to be "under grace" – it means to be righteous as the result of a GIFT of righteousness. Not by law-keeping.
There are a number of other ways in which we can describe the difference between being "under the law," and being "under grace." For one thing, being "under the law" means that my works determine EVERYTHING. But to be "under grace" means that my works determine NOTHING. By faith I stand under the finished work of my Savior.
What does it mean to put our faith in the finished work of Christ – in a way that results in salvation, and the reckoning to us of the righteousness of Jesus Christ?
Some of us have the wrong idea about this faith. We think it means that we believe the DOCTRINE which describes this Truth. No. Faith in doctrine – a belief that a doctrine is true – cannot save me. That might be a good start. But it is not the kind of faith necessary for salvation.
Faith means to RELY. It means to LEAN UPON. It means to SURRENDER TO. That is much more than just agreeing that something is true. Thus, to place my faith in Jesus, I must, instead of trusting and relying upon my works for my righteousness -- I must rely upon Jesus Christ.
One good example is that of a chair. Every time we sit in a chair we are trusting it. But notice something. To stand and look at the chair, and say, "I believe that is a chair!, is not the same and trusting it enough to actually sit in it! So it is with faith in Jesus. We can start by saying, "I believe Jesus died for me, and that my faith in Him will result in God imputing me with His righteousness." But we have to go on to actually trust and rely upon Jesus. This is faith.
The fact that God imputes us with the righteousness of His Son through faith is the basis, of course, of the gospel. But so many of us limit this to simply a LEGAL Truth. We take it to mean that God sort of stamps us on the forehead, "righteous" – but knows that we really aren’t. The imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, in that case, is nothing more than a "positional Truth." It somehow is not real.
The fact is, there is no such thing as "positional Truth" vs. "actual Truth." There is just TRUTH! We need to stop taking the living and dynamic reality of the Redemption and forcing it into our little doctrines.
The reality is, God does not merely "dub us righteous" in a legal way. He literally MAKES us righteous with the resurrection life of His Son. In other words, we are not here talking about God calling us something we are not. We are here talking about God MAKING us something we could never be.
God does not merely give us a new legal classification. He gives us a new life – which is a righteous life. It is a life given by grace alone. Thus, God is not lying to Himself by calling us righteous. He is telling the Truth.
If Christianity were not a new birth, with a new nature, then there would be nothing but a new legal classification. But any God who would forgive us for sin, but leave us as sinners, is not a holy God. Any God who would call us righteous, but leave us unrighteous, is kidding Himself. God not only forgives us, but sets us free from the sin He forgives. He not only calls us righteous, He imparts us with a new life which IS – by it’s very nature – righteous.
What this all means is that God never abolished the law. Neither was His standard ever lowered. Instead of lowering His standard, He raised us up – in Christ -- to meet it. Thus, now when we stand face to face with the holy, just, and good law, the law sees the holy, just, and good Jesus Christ in us. Our works never come into play. We are deemed righteous because the life of Jesus in us is a righteous life – and that is where our faith IS.
So what does it mean to be "under the law?" It means to let the law decide, based on my works, whether I am righteous. It means to try to make myself righteous through my own works. But what does it mean to be "under grace?" It means to be put my faith and trust in Jesus Christ – to rely on His righteousness as the basis for my relationship with God. It means to have a righteousness life IN ME solely "by grace, through faith."
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