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Law and Grace

Today we are living in a unique window of time that will not last forever. We are living in an age of grace where God is performing the ministry of reconciliation (I Cor. 5:18). This age of grace started with the ministry of Jesus Christ and will end when Christ returns to set up a one thousand year kingdom on earth. In this age of grace, Jesus is extending an open invitation to all people to accept His love and forgiveness and to make Him the Lord of their life (John 3:16).

Before Christ, the Law of Moses was the standard for righteousness. However, there were people who were righteous before God because of their faith, not their works! (Romans 4:1 – 8) Abraham trusted God and it was credited to him for righteousness. King David was a man after God’s own heart, not because of keeping the law (he broke it big time), but because of faith in a coming Messiah. However, David loved God’s law – it was his delight! (Psalm 119:174)

The primary issue is righteousness. God is totally righteous (Psalm 71:19). There is no sin or imperfection in Him. God is also consistent and hates unrighteousness (Psalm 45:7). God loves the person in unrighteousness, but he hates the sin. God is also just and must punish unrighteousness. (Psalm 97:2) There is coming a day when God will judge all peoples of the earth in terms of righteousness (Psalm 98:9, Romans 2:5 – 10).

The bad news is that we have all sinned and have fallen short of God’s standard (Romans 3:23). Perfection is the standard and “almost perfect” isn’t close enough!

The good news is that Jesus came, died on the cross and rose on the third day to be the sacrifice for our sin. (Psalm 98:2, John 3:16) Each and every one of our sins are covered by Jesus’ death on the cross – past, present and future. All we have to do is to accept that sacrifice by placing our faith in Jesus for our salvation (Romans 10:9).

Since we are living in a day of grace, where our righteousness is not determined by how completely we keep the law, people are often confused about the role of the law in someone’s life today.

There are questions that people ask regarding the law and its role in the Christian’s life today. We will examine some of the more common questions.

It’s acceptable for a Christian to eat foods such as pork that were at one time considered to be unclean. Why isn’t it acceptable to do other things that were prohibited in the law?

This is a common question that many people ask and some struggle with, especially over particular moral issues.

First, we need to understand the nature of the Mosaic law and what it’s purpose is for Christian believers today.

The law given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai can be seen in the categories of:

Ceremonial law, which specified exactly how the temple was to be built, what the priests were to do, how the sacrifices were to be prepared, etc. These laws are no longer followed by Christians (and many Jews) because Jesus fulfilled the need for a sacrifice. In addition, there is the practical matter of the lack of a temple currently in Jerusalem. However, Old Testament prophecies indicate that before Christ’s return the temple will be rebuilt and the ceremonial law will once again be the guide. One other interesting fact about the ceremonial law is that every detail is significant in the foreshadowing of Jesus. (Hebrews 8:3 – 6)

The feasts of Israel are described in the ceremonial law and are still kept today as a remembrance for the “times of the Lord”. Not only are these feasts given for remembrance and celebration, they also contain an awesome portrait of what Jesus would do during His ministry. It is fascinating to see how Jesus fulfilled The Feasts of Tabernacles, Passover, First Fruits and Pentecost on the exact days they were to be celebrated! The remaining feasts of Trumpets and Day of Atonement are yet to be fulfilled by Christ, but many prophetic scholars believe that Jesus will fulfill those feasts on the exact days, just like He did with the other feasts.

Dietary and hygienic law, which specified the foods that were clean and unclean. There are many reasons why the dietary and hygienic laws were in place, but the two that seem to be most common are 1) for the general health of the Jews and 2) to distinguish them among other nations of the world. The reason that these laws are no longer followed by Christians is because Jesus, God in the flesh, declared all foods clean. Since Jesus is God incarnate, he has all authority to make such a change. This is found in several places in the NT, such as:

Matthew 15, where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and he says that it’s not what enters by the mouth that makes one unclean, but what comes out of the heart. This was such a radical idea that the disciples asked for clarification and Jesus even seemed a little frustrated at their slowness to comprehend.

In the parallel passage in Mark, the text parenthetically adds an interpretation to Jesus’ teaching, “That is saying so Jesus declared all foods clean.”

In Acts 10 – 11, Peter has a vision of a sheet with all types of animals, clean and unclean on it. In this account, God tells Peter in the vision, “Do not declare unclean what God has declared clean.”

Peter’s vision and subsequent visit to Cornelius was a groundbreaking event in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. It is very interesting to see the story unfold in Acts 10 – 12. The disciples and early church leaders were apparently unclear as to the exact role Gentiles had in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This event had the effect of confirming that, yes, grace was extended even to the Gentiles!

Civil law, which specifies how people are to live and relate with each other. Israel during the time of the Moses and at various periods of time until the time of Christ was a theocracy. The government was a religious one, ruled by the Law of Moses, plus many other laws that were added by men. Although many of the laws we follow today have their roots in the Mosaic Law, we no longer live in a theocracy. Therefore, the civil law no longer applies to us.

Moral law, which specifies how we should live with each other and before God. In every other account of Jesus’ teaching on the law, he never indicated he was abolishing any other points of the law. Jesus said that He came to fulfill, not do away with the law (Matthew 5:17). In fact, Jesus actually raised the standards! When teaching about adultery, Jesus said that adultery is more than the physical act of infidelity, but any man who looks upon a woman with lust in his heart has committed adultery already (Matthew 5:27 – 28). Anyone who hates his brother has already committed murder in his heart (Matthew 5:21 – 22).

The reason he had to explain the law in such terms was that the Pharisees were masters at following the letter of the law, yet trampling the law under foot in its intent. This was legalism at its worst!

I believe that Jesus was teaching in His exchange with the Pharisees that it’s not just physically breaking the moral law that constitutes a transgression – it’s what is on a person’s heart. I also believe that this teaching not only applies to divorce and murder, but to all issues of morality. This elevation of the moral law is why murder, lying, adultery, covetousness, and other laws are still regarded as sins today.

Miscellaneous laws, which address a variety of issues are found toward the end of Deuteronomy in Chapters 21 through 25. These laws address a variety of moral and practical living issues. Like the other laws, the context of many of these laws were for a people living in a certain place in a certain time. However, they still convey the heart and mind of God concerning His attitude toward moral behavior. “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man that he should change his mind.” (I Samuel 15:29)

What is the role of the law today?

Paul explains this very well in Romans 6 – 7. We are no longer under law, but grace as far as our righteousness before God is concerned. However, the only way we know we are sinners is to compare our lives to the law. The realization of our sin is what brings us to the cross and to Jesus for forgiveness of our sins. His grace covers all of our sins, when we ask for forgiveness and are born again.

Paul also explains this in I Timothy

8 But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully,

9 knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,

10 for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine,

11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.

(I Timothy 1:8 – 12)

We are to live as slaves to the Spirit and not as slaves of sin. The problem is that if we focus on the laws, we constantly are tempted to sin. It’s like telling someone not to do something – the force to do that thing is irresistible. That’s just our human nature.

It is generally accepted by many Bible students that there are two types of righteousness – positional righteousness, which is our standing before God, and practical righteousness which addresses how we live our lives here on earth. When we trust in Jesus for our salvation, we are righteous before God now and forever. However, we can still do sinful (unrighteous) things in our daily lives.

We still look at the law and regard it as a guide and standard for practical righteousness, but for our position before God, our righteousness is based on grace and faith, not keeping the law. One way we know if something is sin is by the law. However, we have even a higher obedience to Jesus and His commands. He has every right to work in our lives and convict us of sin, even in things that might not be addressed in the law.

There are things that might be sin to me, even though they would be perfectly fine for someone else. Some things that might even be good works for Christ could become sin for me. For example, if I spend so much time in ministry that I neglect my family, that would be sin to me.

I believe that everything is in the Bible for a reason and can be applied at some level in our lives today. As an example, take Leviticus 19:10:

“And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the LORD your God.”

In the original context, this law was to make sure that vineyard owners gave some of their crop to the poor. Today, most of us don’t own vineyards and the poor have other ways to get provision than to pick up the remainder of a crop. However, this law still contains a very important principle of generosity that applies to us today. We don’t have to work and scrape to get the very last bit of use out of something for ourselves. We should be gladly willing to share with those in need. Why? Because we know that God’s heart is concerned with this so much that He made it a point in His law! There are many other examples just like this in the law.

Jesus summed up the law in Matthew 22:37 – 40 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” I believe that Jesus was teaching that if we fail to do these two things, no other laws matter.

The law shows us God’s heart in matters of practical living. God had to spell things out exactly for Israel. For Christians who are no longer under the law, the law provides insight to what God thinks of certain things. For example, there are various practices that God terms an abomination. There may be things that we don’t understand why they are abominations to God, such as remarrying someone whom you were previously married to. Cross-dressing is also listed as a detestable practice to God. There are no explanations as to why such practices are specifically listed as detestable. However, on points such as these, I take the following view:

 

  1. God is ultimately wise
  2. We are not the judge, He is
  3. We all miss the law at some point
  4. Scripture is consistent with itself. We need to consider the New Testament scriptures as a guide as well.

 

“All Things are Lawful, Yet Not All Things are Expedient”

Paul wrote these words to early Christians struggling with eating meat sacrificed to idols. Keep in mind that the only scriptures the early church had were what we refer to as the Old Testament.

Paul was writing to deal with a specific issue, but his words can be applied to anything we do. If our actions cause other brothers and sisters (including our family) to stumble (to be confused or hurt), then we need to refrain in love for them.

There are many issues about which the Bible is totally silent, yet we can gain principles and wisdom on. We need to ask ourselves the following questions about anything that might be a gray area in scripture:

 

  1. "Am I willing to let God deal with me individually on t his issue?"
  2. "Will it damage my testimony?"
  3. "Do I feel guilty when I do it?"
  4. "Would I do it if any of my family, friends, or pastor were with me?"

 

If I don’t have the freedom in an activity such as to pass all of these tests, then there is probably something wrong with it.

There is also a natural law or “Law of Human Nature”, which is an intuitive sense of right and wrong. This is what Paul writes about in Romans 1. C.S. Lewis also wrote,

“It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table." [1]

Lewis goes on to make the point that even though people seem to have a somewhat universal understanding of right and wrong, we still violate the laws of right and wrong.

Grace allows us the freedom to follow Christ without being captive to a list of dos and don’ts.

At the same time, we are also instructed by God’s word not to use grace as a license to sin. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1 – 2)

Some people approach the Bible like a rule book. They look for permission to do something based on the omission of a prohibition, a loop hole, an excuse based on culture, etc. This has to be the highest form of legalism! In fact, this is exactly what the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites.[2]

God exhorts us through His Word to live holy or “set apart” lives. He instructs us throughout the New Testament to make righteous living our desire and goal. When we fail, there is forgiveness. However, the only way we know we have sinned is to look at God’s law. In this respect, the law is a good thing. The main thing that keeps me from repenting is my pride, which itself is a sin.

Repentance is a good thing. That’s how we keep in close relationship with God. The prodigal son was still a son even while he was in a far country in a pig pen. However, his sin had caused him to be separated in relationship to his father. The son’s repentance came when he realized his sin, turned from it and returned to his father. (Luke 15:11-24) Likewise, when we repent we restore fellowship with God.

I like the way that Chuck Swindoll puts it,

“Admittedly, many carnal Christians excuse such [an immoral] lifestyle by saying, ‘It’s all under grace. I can leave my wife and walk away from our children and marry someone who is more attractive and will love me more passionately. It may not be accepted by some in the Christian community, but under grace I’m free to do that. After all, the lady I’m marrying is a Christian, too. We’re both under grace!’ Or ‘My preference is to live with this person, not marry him. I’m not into a long-term commitment and vows. Grace gives me the liberty to do what I please!’ Wrong! That isn’t what grace is about. That is an abuse of grace.

Grace never means that we’re free to live any way we wish, regardless of the consequences. Grace does not mean God will smile on me regardless. It means I am free to choose righteousness or disobedience. If I choose the latter I will have to take the consequences: mental anguish, a guilty conscience, hurting and offending others in the Christian community, and bringing reproach to the name of Christ. If righteousness is spurned, sin can multiply much the same way it did in our unsaved days. The Christian can become temporarily addicted to sin. As I have mentioned before, it is called carnality.[3] 

Swindoll also writes

 “Life is like a menu in the Grace Restaurant. In this new establishment you are free to choose whatever you want. But whatever you choose will be served to you and you must eat it. If you choose the wrong food and realize later just how badly your body reacted to it, don’t think that grace will protect you from getting sick. There is good news, however. God’s grace does hold out the hope of acceptance before the Father. He will welcome you back into His fellowship if you deal with the wrong, repent of it, and get back on track." [4]

So, we see that grace is freedom to choose righteousness, not freedom from righteousness!

Does this change from law to grace means that God changes?

No, however, God has changed his ways throughout history in how He deals with us. Declaring all foods “clean” was not a change of mind – it was symbolic of the openness of the New Covenant.

We know from scripture that God doesn’t change. This can be seen in passages such as I Samuel 15:29, Psalms 110:4, Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 7:21, James 1:17.

Because of this we know that if something is declared by the Lord as being an abomination, it still is an abomination today. We may not understand it or agree with it, but that’s doesn’t change what God’s word says.

One reason that God doesn’t change His mind is because He is outside of our concept of time. This is also indicated in scripture. God’s time is not our time. For God to change His mind would be to imply that God has a past, a present and future. We change our minds because yesterday we believed one way and today we might believe another. God simply is the great I AM.

Isn’t the God portrayed in the Old Testament a “hard” God and the God of the New Testament a loving one? Doesn’t this show that the most important thing is to love our neighbor?

Yes, Jesus and Paul both wrote that loving our neighbor is the summation of the law. (Matthew 22: 37 – 40, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14) However, just because love is the most important point doesn’t mean it is the only thing to be concerned with. God is both mercy and justice. Both attributes were seen in Jesus, but there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament where mercy is seen from God the Father as well! The Lord showed mercy to Joseph (Genesis 39:21) and to the entire nation of Israel.

Exodus 15:13 reads,

You in Your mercy have led forth the people whom You have redeemed; You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation.

Exodus 20:5 – 6 reads,

5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,

6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

There was even a mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant! (Exodus 25:20)

The Basis of Grace and Repentance

Repentance is a “change of mind”. It reflects a turning in direction. Repentance can be associated with coming to Christ for salvation, or after salvation to restore fellowship with Christ.

All of this is good news. It’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to seek and save the lost (John 3:17). Whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life. However, those who do not believe in Jesus for salvation are already condemned. (John 3:18) The word “believe” means more than just intellectual belief, but rather a complete trust in Jesus for salvation.

A Christian is much more than just someone who follows the teachings of Jesus. Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God until he is born again.” (John 3:3) This spiritual birth is so special that we become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

But once again, this is the good news. We are still in the day of grace where God is performing the ministry of reconciling people to Him. He is actively looking for those who are lost.

Jesus was also very clear that there will be those on judgment day who think they are His, but He never knew them. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!” (Matt. 7:21 – 23)

When we look at the law, it is clear that “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

So, how is one saved? Paul writes in Ephesians 2: 8 – 9 “For it is by grace are you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not of works, so that no one can boast.”

There is nothing we can do to earn salvation. It is an act of faith, but doesn’t require a strong faith. You don’t have to change your behavior to come to Christ. He accepts any of us just as we are! There is nothing we can do to lose salvation once we have it. If we don’t get salvation through works, we don’t lose it through works. That’s another topic for another article, however!

All your have to do to receive the free gift of salvation is to ask Jesus to come into your life and to forgive your sins. The Word of God says that “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21) At that moment all of your sins – past, present and future are forgiven. Then, you will have the power through the indwelling Holy Spirit to live the Christian life. Life will not be perfect. You will still have trials. Paul still struggled with sin (Romans 7) after his salvation experience.

Once someone knows the depth of Christ’s love in their heart, they can say with David, “Oh how I love your law! How I meditate on it all day long.” (Ps 119:97)

More information on this subject can be found at Help 4 Families.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
[2] It is interesting to note that the origin of the word “hypocrite” was a male actor in ancient Greece who played the role of a woman in a play. Hypocrites also wore masks that had a smiling face one moment and a sad face the next.
[3]Chuck Swindoll, The Grace Awakening, Pp 138 – 139
[4]ibid, p 141