Law and Grace
Many Christians find it hard to distinguish between God’s law and His grace. In some verses in the New Testament, the perpetuation of the dispensation of the law is forbidden, but in other verses the lofty and timeless principles of God’s law are impressed on us as guidelines for our lives and something to which we should commit ourselves. These two divergent perspectives are clearly evident from Paul’s letters. On the one hand he says that we are not under the law but under grace (Rom. 6:14), and also that by the works of the law no flesh would be justified before God because the law condemns all people as sinners (Rom. 3:19-20). To the Galatians he says that the law has become a curse to us (Gal. 3:13) as no one can be saved by observing the law (Gal. 5:4).
On the other hand, Paul says that the law is holy and just and good (Rom. 7:12), and that its relevance as a guiding principle in our lives is confirmed (Rom. 3:31). The Lord Jesus also said that He did not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfil them, and that nobody should be taught to break these commandments (Matt. 5:17-19). How then should we evaluate the law and what is the relationship between the law and grace?
The law and its NT application
The laws of the Lord are described in the first five books of the Bible and called the Torah in Hebrew. Torah means “to instruct” and comprises God’s divine principles and statutes in terms of which His people must live. There are 613 laws in the Torah, which is also known as the Pentateuch. Some of them are timeless, universal rules which apply to all people, while others only had a preparatory function with a view to the coming of the Messiah. In Him they would be finally fulfilled and could not to be continued in their original form without denying Him. Among these are the sacrifices and many of the feasts. Even the timeless rules were also fulfilled in the Messiah as only He was able to perfectly observe the law. Through His work of grace on the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit He enables believers to live in accordance with the spiritual and moral principles of God’s law, which requires a pure heart, a holy life and dedicated service to the Lord. He makes it possible for us to give practical expression to the high spiritual objectives of the law (Micah 6:8).
How can we know which aspects of God’s law are still applicable in the New Testament? The Lord Jesus summarised them all in the law of love (Matt. 22:36-40). In this summary, Christ quoted Scriptures which divide the law of God in two parts, i.e. love towards God (Deut. 6:5) and love towards our neighbours (Lev. 19:18,34). In observing the law of love we will fulfil all laws aimed at regulating our relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. If we truly love God, we will honour Him by living holy before Him and never serve other gods (2 Cor. 6:14-18). The same principle of love applies to our relationship with other people (Rom. 13:8-10).
Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament, summarised in the law of love and applied to all believers. The first three commandments demand love towards God (Ex. 20:2-7), while the last six determine the nature of our human relations (Ex. 20:12-17). The fourth commandment determines the observance of the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week (Ex. 20:8-11). That is the only one of the Ten Commandments which is not reflected in Christ’s summary of the law. Why not? Because it was only given to Israel as a sign between them and God (Ex. 31:16-17). Observance of the Sabbath was meant to fix Israel’s attention to their exodus from Egypt (Deut. 5:15), and also to remind them of the fact that the Lord saves and sanctifies them (Ezek. 20:12).
The Sabbath (meaning “day of rest”) was the observance of one of the ceremonial laws that was only a shadow of things to come, as it was fulfilled in the Messiah (Col. 2:16-17). We are not subjected to laws about food (except food that has been sacrificed to idols – Acts 15:20), feasts and Sabbaths, as the new life in Christ is not dependent on the observance of these laws. In Christ we have entered the “rest” of the Lord, and every day should be a day of dedication to Him. Whether we have special days of dedication to the Lord, is a matter of personal conviction in the light of our circumstances (Rom. 14:5). We do not have any rigid laws or rules in this regard, only a long Christian tradition of Sunday worship. This tradition originated with the resurrection of Jesus on a Sunday, His preaching to the disciples on the same day (John 20:1,19-20,26), their meeting a week later, again on a Sunday, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the seventh Sunday after the resurrection of Jesus. It coincided with the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which was always celebrated on a Sunday (Acts 2:1-4; cf. Lev. 23:15-16). After that, the Lord’s disciples spontaneously met on Sundays to celebrate His resurrection (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2), thereby clearly dissociating themselves from the legalistic meetings by orthodox Jews on the seventh day.
New Testament believers from the nations should take cognisance of the fact that they were never included in Israel’s covenants and laws – neither are they subjected to these institutions after their salvation. An important part of God’s covenant with the Jews includes the right of occupation of the land of Israel. This right, as well as various other aspects of their covenants with God, have not been transferred to the church and are therefore not applicable to them.
Characteristics of the law
Although the dispensation of the law has expired, it served the following important purposes:
- The law brought knowledge about sin – Rom. 3:20, 4:15; 5:13,20; 7:7; 1 Cor. 15:56.
- The law was an important preparation to the coming and work of grace of the Messiah, but the imperfect had to make way for the perfect – Heb. 7:27-28; 10:1-12.
- Israel was preserved under the law until the coming of the Messiah, when He did for them what the law could not do – Gal. 3:23-24.
- The law had to pave the way to a better covenant – Heb. 7:22; 8:6-7.
The termination of the dispensation of the law
The dispensation of the law, as an integrated system, came to an end with the coming of the Messiah, and more specifically His crucifixion, resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 10:4). The atoning death of the Lord Jesus not only ended the need for sacrificial service and the mediation by imperfect priests, but also the servitude to sin which was identified by the law, thereby placing a heavy yoke on people.
The law of Christ
We are under the law of Christ (John 13:34; Gal. 6:2), in which the timeless principles of the OT law are represented. However, we can never hope to find salvation outside Christ in futile efforts to observe the law, as we will fall from grace if we try to justify ourselves in terms of the law (Gal. 5:4). As far as the timeless principles of love towards God are concerned, the standard has been raised considerably in the NT. As believers we must be filled with the Holy Spirit and endued with His enabling power, thereby putting on the Lord Jesus (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 4:19), walk as He has walked (1 John 2:6) and be co-workers of God in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 3:9). Concerning our relationship with other people, the standard is also raised. It is no longer only a sin to commit the act of adultery, but even to entertain such thoughts (Matt. 5:27-28). Vindictiveness must be replaced by forgivingness and charitableness (Matt. 5:38-42) and hate by love (Matt. 5:43-47). We must rise to higher heights on the ladder of divine perfection (Matt. 5:48) by becoming holy in all our conduct because God who has called us is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16).
When the principles of God’s love have been written in our regenerated hearts (2 Cor. 3:3), we will be able to spread the fragrance of Christ everywhere (2 Cor. 2:14) by proclaiming a message of hope, love and forgiveness to a world in spiritual darkness. It will keep us from being overcome by evil by enabling us to overcome evil by good (Rom. 12:21) and thus exemplify the love, forgivingness and saving grace of Christ. We are also called to arouse the jealousy of orthodox Jews by the way in which we serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through the Messiah (Rom. 11:11). They must be taught to serve the Lord in the newness of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6). When the redeemed of the Lord celebrate feasts, it must be truly Messianic feasts such as Holy Communion or the resurrection feast of the Messiah on Sundays. Pentecost and the feast of Tabernacles can also be celebrated as Messianic festivals in which the first coming the Messiah, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the hope on the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus are explicitly recognised. When that is done, the particular feast is not merely a shadow of things to come, but has completely been fulfilled in the Messiah (Col. 2:16-17). In that way, the participant in the feast will proclaim to Israel and the rest of the world that their celebration is not within the framework of the law but within the framework of the Messiah’s NT plan of salvation for all nations.
I thank the Lord for His inexpressible grace which He revealed to Israel and the whole world through the Messiah. By this grace we are not only saved but its principles of divine love, on which the law is also based, teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, to live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our Saviour, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:12-13). His law of love urges us to proclaim the message of salvation and sanctification to all nations.
1. What is the NT fulfilment of the law of God?
2. In what regard is love the fulfilment of the law?
3. How are the principles of God’s love established in our hearts?
4. Name three characteristics of the OT law.
5. Give examples of moral standards in the NT being higher than those in the OT
Prof. Johan Malan