Grace and Law: What Does the Bible Say?

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Grace and Law

What Does the Bible Say?

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Grace and Law: What Does the Bible Say?

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“They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 3-4, NIV).

If there’s one thing that should be fully evident by now in our look at what the Bible teaches about grace, it is that grace personifies the nature and character of God. Grace is who and what He is. Grace is how He thinks and acts. Grace defines and characterizes Him. And we should be very grateful for that!

How, then, does grace relate to God’s law? Many people get confused in their thinking over this. They may not have critically examined their thinking to realize that they may hold inconsistent and contradictory thoughts about God.

What about you? Are your beliefs about God really rooted in truth, or rooted in wrong ideas that for centuries have masqueraded as truth?

Many people, based on misunderstandings of some of the apostle Paul’s writings, have wrongly been taught or come to believe that God’s law is some kind of curse or punishment. Yet Paul himself clearly stated that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12 Romans 7:12Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
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).

Paul also wrote, “I delight in the law according to the inward man” (Romans 7:22 Romans 7:22For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
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)—or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “I love God’s law with all my heart.”

Grace and law both reflect God’s perfect mind and character

What too many people fail to realize is that just as grace is a perfect reflection of God’s mind and character, so is God’s law a perfect reflection of God’s mind and character (see “God’s Law Reflects His Mind and Character”). This is why King David, a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22 Acts 13:22And when he had removed him, he raised up to them David to be their king; to whom also he gave their testimony, and said, I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after my own heart, which shall fulfill all my will.
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), wrote, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” (Psalms 19:7 Psalms 19:7The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
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).

God’s law reveals His thinking and way of life—a way that leads to great blessings. As He told ancient Israel through Moses: “You shall therefore keep His statutes and His commandments which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord your God is giving you for all time” (Deuteronomy 4:40 Deuteronomy 4:40You shall keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command you this day, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days on the earth, which the LORD your God gives you, for ever.
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).

This promise is repeated in slightly different form in Deuteronomy 12:28 Deuteronomy 12:28Observe and hear all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you for ever, when you do that which is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.
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: “Observe and obey all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.”

Through Moses, God told the Israelites that if they obeyed His law, they would be respected and admired by the nations around them: “Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’

“For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8 Deuteronomy 4:5-8 [5] Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do so in the land where you go to possess it. [6] Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. [7] For what nation is there so great, who has God so near to them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call on him for? [8] And what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
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).

Psalm 119—the Bible’s longest chapter—is a lengthy praise of thanks for God’s law and the blessings it brings to those who live by it. Those who view God’s law negatively would do well to read and carefully consider the words God inspired to be written here!

Longstanding bias against God’s laws

These and many other passages make it clear that God intended His laws to be a blessing for individuals and nations. In two long chapters of the Bible, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God lists many great national blessings that would come on a people for obeying His laws—as well as the consequences (in the form of curses) that would fall on those who rejected and disobeyed those laws.

In light of the fact that God so often promises blessings for obedience to His laws, how did they come to be viewed so negatively—even among churches and denominations that call themselves Christian?

The short answer is found in Romans 8:7 Romans 8:7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
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: “The mindset of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit to God’s law. Indeed, it is unable to do so” (Christian Standard Bible).

Given this ingrained hostility to God’s laws, men and women—including many who view themselves as deeply religious—try to rationalize around the need to live according to God’s laws.

This is nothing new—it goes all the way back to the early decades of the Church. Even though Jesus Christ had plainly told people not to think He“came to destroy the Law or the Prophets” (referring to the portion of the Bible we know as the Old Testament), and that He said, “. . . Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle [small strokes in the Hebrew letters the Old Testament was written with] will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled,” and further, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 Matthew 5:17-19 [17] Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. [18] For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. [19] Whoever 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 whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
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), some people twist even these words to mean the exact opposite of what Christ said.

Abusing God’s gift of grace

One way people have tried to do away with any need to obey God’s law is the argument that grace has made it unnecessary. Since God’s grace has brought forgiveness, they’ve reasoned, one can continue sinning—with God always forgiving.

Jude, the half-brother of Jesus Christ, understood that this makes a mockery of God’s grace. “I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people,” he wrote regarding those who were teaching a very different message. “For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 3-4, NIV).

By viewing God’s grace as permission to continue a life of unrepentant sinning, these false teachers were abusing God’s mercy and forgiveness. Continuing to live a sinful life makes a mockery of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to pay the penalty for sins—effectively denying our Master and Lord who had given His life for them.

The book of Hebrews issues a scathing condemnation of those who would abuse God’s grace on the assumption that it allows us to continue in sin: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

“Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:26-29 Hebrews 10:26-29 [26] For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins, [27] But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. [28] He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: [29] Of how much sorer punishment, suppose you, shall he be thought worthy, who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and has counted the blood of the covenant, with which he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and has done despite to the Spirit of grace?
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, English Standard Version).

Clearly God’s grace does not allow us to continue in sin!

Saved by “faith alone”?

A major theological phrase that emerged from the Protestant Revolution five centuries ago was solo fide—“by faith alone.” The Catholic monk Martin Luther strongly opposed certain unbiblical and corrupt teachings and practices of the Roman church he was part of, particularly the sale of “indulgences” based on the idea that people could, by deeds such as financial payments, gifts or service to the church, lessen their or their loved ones’ punishment in a supposed “purgatory” in the afterlife. He condemned these sales as a deceitful means to filling the coffers of the church and its leaders. 

Luther’s goal was to reform the Catholic Church. However, his protests against Catholic practices and teachings took hold among many other people, and the more the Roman church tried to stamp out dissent, the more dissent grew. Luther’s protests in time spawned the Protestant Reformation—a protest movement that did lead to reform, albeit principally through the rise of many new Protestant churches where previously there had been one major dominant and universal (the meaning of “catholic”) church.

Luther’s catchphrase solo fide, “by faith alone,” summed up his opposition to not only practices such as the sale of indulgences and the notion that people could effectively buy their way into heavenly salvation, but even the idea that any kind of works were required for salvation, including obedience to God’s law.

Luther insisted that faith alone was required for salvation—adding “alone” even though this idea appeared nowhere in the Bible. He read this idea back into the apostle Paul’s writings from 15 centuries earlier, ignoring what Paul’s words had meant to his original first-century audience. In fact, the book of James explicitly states that “a person is justified [made right with God] by works and NOT by faith alone” (James 2:24 James 2:24You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
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, CSB)—and for this Luther called it “an epistle of straw” and argued it should be excised from the Bible! (We’ll see more from James shortly.)

In battling the wrong idea of earning salvation in one of its worst manifestations, Luther and those who took up his cause landed in the opposite ditch. Thus, out of the Protestant Reformation emerged the unbiblical idea that grace is the opposite of law and law is the opposite of grace. In reality, the opposite of law isn’t grace but lawlessness—and the opposite of grace isn’t law but disgrace. We must always read the Bible carefully and not jump to conclusions not supported by Scripture!

Misreading “by grace you have been saved through faith”

Where did these misguided views of Luther and other Protestant Reformers come from? In part they come from misunderstanding Ephesians 2:8-9 Ephesians 2:8-9 [8] For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: [9] Not of works, lest any man should boast.
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, which reads: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

These reformers saw this passage as proof that salvation comes by grace through faith and not by works—thus Luther’s formulation of solo fide, or “faith alone.” But they should have read a little further, as Paul explains in the very next verse: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (verse 10)—that is, as noted earlier, “to be our way of life” (NRSV).

Luther was correct that we are not saved by works. Nothing that we can or might do, including acts of obedience to God’s law, could ever earn God’s gift of salvation. However, as Paul says plainly, we are created “for good works” and “we should walk in them”—making good works a regular and habitual part of our lives!

So rather than saying good works are unnecessary for a Christian, Paul emphatically states that good works are a necessary part of a Christian’s life!

What Paul is telling us here is that “by grace”—by God’s merciful forgiveness of our sins for which we deserved the death penalty (Romans 6:23 Romans 6:23For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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)—we “have been saved through faith . . .” What kind of faith is Paul referring to?

The word “faith,” like “grace,” has a broad range of meaning. The specific intention must be discerned from the context. The faith that Paul refers to in Ephesians 2 is an active, living faith. Our deep trust that God the Father has personally chosen us and called us into a mutually loving relationship with Him and His Son Jesus Christ in which we are to walk in good works with Their help leads us to live as we believe. (This is explained in greater detail in the next chapter, “What Did ‘Grace’ Mean in the First-Century World?”.)

This meaning is evident by what Paul writes a few verses later: “He [Jesus Christ] came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

“In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:17-22 Ephesians 2:17-22 [17] And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were near. [18] For through him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. [19] Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; [20] And are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; [21] In whom all the building fitly framed together grows to an holy temple in the Lord: [22] In whom you also are built together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
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, NIV).

As members of God’s household, in whom God lives by His Holy Spirit, our lives will naturally be characterized by good works, for these reflect the very nature and character of God living in us by His Spirit. In Galatians 5:22-23 Galatians 5:22-23 [22] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, [23] Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
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Paul described the “fruit of the Sprit” being produced in our lives as “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.” These characteristics will be evident in the life of a Christian led by God’s Spirit!

Faith without works is dead

Let’s note more of what’s said in the book of James, which Luther rejected. Here the apostle James, half-brother of Jesus Christ, made it clear that good works will be evident in the life of a believing Christian. He asks: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:14-16 James 2:14-16 [14] What does it profit, my brothers, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith save him? [15] If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, [16] And one of you say to them, Depart in peace, be you warmed and filled; notwithstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit?
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).

James then goes on to answer: “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!

“But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? . . . You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only . . . For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:17-26 James 2:17-26 [17] Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone. [18] Yes, a man may say, You have faith, and I have works: show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. [19] You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble. [20] But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? [21] Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son on the altar? [22] See you how faith worked with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? [23] And the scripture was fulfilled which said, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. [24] You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. [25] Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? [26] For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
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).

Both James and Paul make the same point—that the life of a Christian is transformed by faith and a close relationship with God, and through God’s Spirit at work developing God’s nature and character in him or her. These are the evidence of a person truly becoming converted by God’s grace.

We must exert effort in obeying God

We should note that most of today’s Protestant teachers embrace the book of James with the argument that James is merely stating that good works will be automatically evident in the life of a Christian, not that there is some required effort on our part to be saved. But our ongoing effort is surely required.

Jesus said we are to “strive to enter through the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24 Luke 13:24Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say to you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.
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)—the Greek term agonizomai here giving us the English word agonize. Hebrews 12:4 Hebrews 12:4You have not yet resisted to blood, striving against sin.
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tells us that we are to be “striving against sin,” as Jesus did. Paul further says we must “press toward the goal” (Philippians 3:14 Philippians 3:14I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
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) and truly “fight: not as one who beats the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26 1 Corinthians 9:26I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beats the air:
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)—that is, “not just shadowboxing” (NLT). Jesus, Paul and James were all adamant that we must be doers of God’s law and not hearers only (Matthew 7:21 Matthew 7:21Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven.
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; Romans 2:13 Romans 2:13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
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; James 1:22 James 1:22But be you doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
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).

Again, this does not mean we earn salvation through obedience—for we need God’s freely given grace and mercy for the forgiveness of sins we’ve all committed. No amount of righteous works can buy our way into eternal life in God’s Kingdom. But not striving to continue in righteous works after coming to repentance will keep us out of God’s Kingdom.

This is in no way earning salvation. The strength and even the motivation to obey come from God as another aspect of His grace: “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 Philippians 2:13For it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
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)—that is, He gives you “the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (NLT). Yet we can still turn away from Him and lose salvation, in spite of what many claim, and so we must remain faithful (see “Can Those God Has Forgiven Reject His Grace?”).

It’s vital that we continue to remain yielded to God, cooperating with what He is doing in our life—in real partnership with Him. As Paul said, “I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily” (Colossians 1:29 Colossians 1:29 Whereunto I also labor, striving according to his working, which works in me mightily.
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). We will still sin at times, showing our continuing need for God’s forgiveness through Christ, but we must surely repent and continue to strive in obedience (1 John 1:7 1 John 1:7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleans us from all sin.
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–2:6).

Understand, then, that continuing in the grace that saves us is conditioned on our ongoing striving to live in obedience to God’s law. Yet we are able to meet this condition through continuing to rely on God’s grace.    

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