WHEN LAW BECOMES GRACE

There are those who will immediately bridle at such a title, who make the distinction that the law of God can never become synonymous with the grace of God. After all, aren’t we told in the gospel of John, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ?” And isn’t that a dialectic statement permanently pitting the two aspects of God’s revelation against one another?

The answer to the first question above is yes, we are told that; the answer to the second question, however, is no, and because of the focus on these issues presently going on within the broader confines of what could be called orthodox evangelicalism (for want of a better term), this negative answer to the second of the two questions posed needs some qualification.

While admitting that there are many extremely gifted men of God within what we have labeled orthodox evangelicalism, it is necessary to see where such a distinction that denies the law any part of the grace of God contained therein comes from, and this we will do quite simply. We do not claim to be as gifted in exegesis as many (if not most) of these men (whom we will not name separately for what should be obvious reasons). Not all of these men in these movements that deny the perpetuity of the moral law of God actually advocate lawlessness in living, and often, quite the opposite. The problem lies in their denial of God’s moral law as an extension of His character which was not abrogated, as were the ceremonial and civil laws of the nation Israel, which, in and of itself, can be referred to as “doctrinal antinomianism.”  Antinomianism simply means “against the law,” and doctrinal antinomianism may not lead to practical (practicing) antinomianism, but often, sadly, does that very thing. It is chiefly in denying the perpetuity of God’s moral law, most especially in the Reformed understanding of the third use of the law, that this error propagates itself, and often, it is more those who come after the teachers of doctrinal antinomianism who advocate a practical antinomianism which focuses on God’s grace to the exclusion of good works (the error Paul refers to in Romans 6:1, 15).

For the purposes of this article, we do claim that the understanding of the three-fold use of the law, as understood within Reformed orthodoxy, is the proper biblical understanding of that border where law, indeed, becomes grace, and that it is within the confines of various other camps which deny the perpetuity of the usefulness of God’s law to the believer from which the unnecessary dichotomy, pitting God’s law against His grace, has come.

It must be understood that the term “law,” as used in both the New Testament and the Old, has reference to various things, which are defined within their context. For instance, sometimes it is referring to what theologians call “the law of nature,” while in other places it refers to the fullness of the expression of the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic Law; in still other places it refers to the Decalogue, which, while written on tablets of stone in the establishment of the Mosaic economy, is said to be written on the hearts of all those who come to know God and Christ savingly. These categorical uses, as already said, are determined largely by context.

There are various schools of thought regarding the abrogation of the law of God as set forth in the Old and New Testaments, where one is pitted against the other, as already mentioned above. Since many great works by many gifted theologians are available to study these matters, it is not the purpose of this article to attempt to go into an in-depth study of these various views, but to promote, in as few words as possible, that which is commonly known, in Reformed theology, as the three-fold use of the law, for it is within such an understanding that the third use of the law is seen as proceeding from grace, rather than being replaced, in any manner, by grace (see, for instance, Romans 3:31).

A few brief definitions will be helpful, at this point.

Since the law, in all its forms, derives from the only true Lawmaker, God, the Scriptures state that in all its forms, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good…the law is spiritual” (Romans 7:12, 14). To gain further confirmation of the character of the law, a reading of Psalm 119 is highly instructive; in shorter form, Psalm 19:7-11 gives us insight into this character of the law.

In Romans, Paul, right before saying “the law…commandment is holy,” has made reference to the Tenth commandment from the Decalogue, and as with all other partial references to the inscripturated form of God’s moral law from the Decalogue that occur in the New Testament, this should be understood as an affirming of the entirety of the moral character of that law (cf. Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 22:37-40), which is to say, it is not subject to fleshly frailties. Again, in Romans 7:14, when Paul states that the law is spiritual, he compares it diametrically to the character of the flesh: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” This comparison establishes that, like God, the law is spiritual, which is to say moral, and not subject to change, as it derives its spiritual character from He who gives it.

Again, because the essence, or character, of the moral law is of God’s character, it does not change, since He does not change. Where further delineation of the moral law of God is given in various ceremonial and civil commandments, these do not limit the nature of the law, as to its essence, but rather, the limitation is specifically pertaining to its application according to those ceremonial and civil laws as they are given in the covenantal context they occur within. This would mean that the application of the moral law under the economy of the Old Covenant was instituted according to the regulations God instituted which particularly pertain to that economy, and in the New Covenant, likewise, which, while the essence of the moral law can be seen not to change, the implementation of it in the required services to God parallel the specific economy. [1]

Paul again shows that the moral law of God is first seen in its natural setting, which natural setting shows the attributes of God, from whom the law derives:

Romans 1:19-20: For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Natural revelation reveals what may be known about God, but due to man’s corrupt nature, this natural revelation is not salvific. Additionally, because what may be known of God is clearly perceived in natural revelation, the moral law of God is likewise clearly perceived, for His attributes are the basis of that moral law. Since God is “holy and good” as well as altogether righteous, merciful, loving, etc. – indeed, since these qualities all derived from God’s very nature – and since the law is defined, throughout Scripture, as having these qualities, every revelation and definition of the law in Scripture may be understood as affirming that which is essential of God’s nature. We already viewed this, above, in Romans 7:12, 14, and Psalm 19.

Simply to view that God is holy and good, in infinite and eternal measure, unchangeably, we can refer to some short statements about God’s nature from Scripture. We have noted, above, that the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good…spiritual, and we may also note that God is spoken of as holy, righteous and good, as well as spiritual, in such Scripture citations as 1 Peter 1:16 (cf. Leviticus 19:2, 20:7), Psalm 145:17, 100:5, and John 4:24.  The references could be multiplied, but these will suffice to show the link between God’s moral law and His character. Both are described as spiritual for a very marked reason, which is that both are invisible, eternal, infinite, and unchangeable, since the moral law proceeds from the very character of God.

In reference to the moral law being that which marks out the character of a Christian as the result of the deposit of God’s grace within them, we will simply mention one Scripture and expand upon the meaning.

In 1 Peter 1:16, we are told, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” This is a restatement of that which was spoken to Israel when the law was given through Moses, as we see in Leviticus 19:2 and 20:7. There is a context for the passages in Leviticus, and that context is the ten words, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, given in Exodus 20:1-17. It is understood that all of the Ten Commandments are the eternal foundation of every temporary ceremonial and civil statute given to the nation Israel, and therefore these ceremonial and civil laws have sometimes been defined as “the holiness code.” The purpose of the temporal, positive extensions[2] of the Decalogue among the people of the nation of Israel was to set them apart as the covenant people of God, therefore the reference and description “holiness code” (Deuteronomy 4:1-8). Although the ceremonial and civil laws were never intended to be eternal, they set apart the nation of Israel from all other nations on the earth as being the covenant people of God.

In like manner, Peter’s restatement that the eternal reality of God’s holiness is to be mirrored in His people has a context. He contrasts the price paid for those in the New Covenant directly with, first, precious metals, in v. 18, and second, indirectly, with the temporal nature of the ceremonial sacrifices of bulls, goats and other animals which prefigured the eternal sacrifice of the Lamb of God, in v. 19. We see this contrast more prominently in Hebrews 10:1-14.

These two Scripture references from 1 Peter and Hebrews give us the context of both God’s wrath and grace, which two attributes are inherent in His holiness.[3] By Christ’s sacrifice of Himself God’s wrath against sin (unholiness) is forever appeased for those He calls to Himself, and Christ’s righteousness is given to those same people who believe by grace given faith. Perfect obedience to God’s law was necessary, and having obeyed that perfectly, Christ offered Himself with the body God prepared for Him for our sins, which sins include our imperfect obedience. God then raised Him for our justification. Again, both these points are brought out simply in Roman 4:25, so we see that the justification which Christ earned for His people is imputed to them after that which offends God has been put to death. When considered in this way, God’s admonition through Moses, the prophets, Peter (indeed, throughout Scripture) to be holy, for I am holy, is contextually relative to our nature as redeemed children of God. We cannot literally be as holy as God, therefore, we must understand such admonitions to be striving towards that perfection of the imago dei that only exists in our Lord glorified, knowing that God will grant to us this full conformity of His command at the time He graciously completes our salvation in glory. In a practical aspect, it means to set one’s self apart for worshipful service to God because He has set one apart to Him in Christ.

It is in this manner that God’s moral law became grace, in that Christ fulfilled it, and imputed that righteousness which He earned as the firstborn of the new creation to those who place their faith in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18). Because our Lord not only paid the penalty for our sins, but fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law of God, we who are joined by faith to Him are also said to fulfill that requirement, and are also constrained to follow after those eternal laws which depend from God’s own being, not for attaining right standing with God, but because in Christ, we have attained right standing with God (Romans 3:31; cf. 2 Peter 1:5-8; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14). Good works, as spoken of in the Scriptures of the New Testament as those works which are to be performed by the Christian, are not a means of attaining right standing with God, but the result of that right standing attained by faith in Christ through God’s grace, and are indeed ordained. To separate the meaning of the moral law from the meaning of good works which are preordained in Christ for those who have been saved by His grace is to separate out that unique character of being God’s children, and indeed, every list in the New Testament which mentions good works may easily be traced to the Decalogue (Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 5:22-23). This may also be observed in negative prohibitions of those sins which are a violation of the law (Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 4:17-32). Any discerning student of the Word of  God will readily acknowledge that both the negative prohibitions and the positive admonitions and commands in such lists harken back to the two tables of the law, respectively.

Therefore, to be holy because God is holy is to behave in a manner consistent with the regenerate life which is being conformed into the image of He who lived perfectly according to that same moral law of God. This is why, in Romans 3:31, the apostle Paul clearly states that our faith upholds or establishes the law. It is an agreement that those who are of the faith of Christ our Lord acknowledge the moral law of God as an accurate expression of His character and a fit meter to measure and further mold our conformity to that character as image bearers being conformed into He who is the ultimate image bearer of God (Colossians 1:15 [4]). Since it (this agreement with and obedience to) stems from grace through God’s decree, it is no more a burden that crushes those who are His in Christ, but a helper which proceeds from that same grace from which the holy character of each believer is being formed into towards that day of completion at the eschaton. Keeping the commandments of God, therefore, is both from that love that God lavished upon us in Christ, and an expression of our reciprocal, grace-dependant love of God (1 John 5:3). Therefore, it could rightly be said that, in the sense of the believer agreeing with the moral law of God, and behaving in accordance with that agreement to His moral law by a new nature imparted (Romans 6:1-4), that that which was before beyond our ability to obey is now a means of measuring our fulfillment of such commands of our God to be holy, as He is holy. That which proceeds from ordained grace is, itself, of that grace, therefore, in this sense, the law (moral) is gracious, and obedience to it is, in itself, a result of and form of that same grace.

Since nature reveals God’s divine attributes, the revelation of nature may be understood to show that which is true of the moral law of God. What can be known about God is clearly perceived; therefore what is properly moral is, likewise, clearly perceived. This representation of God through nature is known as the “natural revelation,” in theology proper (cf. above citation from Romans 1:19-20 with Psalms 19:2-6), and as it reveals the moral law that is consistent with God’s attributes, this natural revelation of the moral law is known as the “law of nature.” [5]

The basic premise of this article is thus established, and that is this: God did not give us to do good works to obtain our salvation, but as the visible fruit, or evidence, of the new nature He alone imparts to those who then exercise faith in Christ, and repentance for their sin.

Rather than being a co-mingling of grace and law, as various opponents of the Reformed definition of the three part use of the law have caricatured it, such living out good works is the  divinely powered outcome of a new life imparted.

The opponents of the Reformed three fold division of the use of the law of God have not, at this point, or at any point in church history, successfully discounted the Scripture which states that good works are ordained by God for those connected by His grace-given faith to Christ, and indwelt by His Spirit to perform, even in part, such good works. Scripture citations which they fail to adequately account for are Matthew 5:17-18, Romans 3:31, Ephesians 2:10, Titus 2:14, and indeed, a plethora of other passages which they either mistranslate, misunderstand, or otherwise seek to explain away. These opponents, although oftentimes well meaning, thus undermine the very expression of the life of Christ within us through teaching that, while not necessarily explicitly maintaining that one live a life of non-conformity to the perpetual moral law of God as revealed throughout Scripture, often results in those who follow their teaching in a manner that ends up, sadly, doing that very thing, and calling it grace (See Romans 6 references above).

God’s grace has, thus, insured that, however haltingly, we abandon lawlessness and live in expression of His perfections in Christ. He has done so by giving us a new nature, and indwelling that new nature with His Spirit to reproduce that conformity to Christ who lived God’s law perfectly. Living in conformity to Christ produces those grace-given good works of His moral law which are a signal evidence of Christ dwelling in us.

SDG –Bill

[1] See Chapter 19, 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (hereafter LBCF). Also helpful is Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, regarding the various uses of the terms for God’s law and the manifestation of the same.

[2] A discussion of the various functions of the law of God in the Scripture is beyond the scope of this article, however, regarding positive extensions in reference to the Decalogue, which represents the Moral Law of God in inscripturated form, such are said to be positive law(s); that is, they are commanded by God based upon the foundation of His Moral Law, but are not themselves intended to last forever, being temporally connected to their respective covenants. Examples would be circumcision, animal sacrifices, baptism, & etc.

[3] Although it may properly be said that God’s wrath is an attribute which may be described separately, as with all God’s attributes, it may also be properly said that this attribute is not one part of God, and another of His attributes is another part of God; rather, He is the infinite, eternal, immutable sum of His attributes, and His attributes are equally who He is in sum, definitionally speaking. That is to say, His holiness is not simply one part of Him, any more than His love is only a part of Him, but as we say that God is love, we may also say that He is wrath, righteousness, etc. We cannot split off parts of God as if He is a temporal being such as ourselves. He is completely who He is, and each attribute is as much of His essence as the other, which is to say, completely, so that holiness is inextricably interconnected with goodness, love, knowledge, wrath, etc. It should be noted, however, that out of all His attributes, that which most defines Him, in relation to His uniqueness of being as the only God (there are none others like HimIsaiah 45:21-22), is His holiness.

[4] The intent of this passage in Colossians is to show that Christ is deity; it is also to show that He is “the firstborn of all creation,” however, meaning the new creation which began at His resurrection, and will culminate at His return. Although “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2), this being like Him has particular reference to His glorified humanity, not His deity, thus, He is “the firstborn” of the new humanity which will inhabit the new creation of God.

[5] Lex naturalls: natural law; also lex naturae: law of nature; the universal moral law either impressed by God upon the mind of all people or immediately discerned by the reason in its encounter with the order of nature. The natural law was therefore available even to those pagans who did not have the advantage of the Sinaitic revelation and the lex Mosaica (q.v.), with the result that they were left without excuse in their sins, convicted by conscientia (q.v.). The scholastics argue the identity of the lex naturalis with the lex Mosaica or lex moralis quoad substantiam, according to substance, and distinguish them quoad formam, according to form. The lex naturalis is inward, written on the heart and therefore obscure, whereas the lex Mosaica is revealed externally and written on tablets and thus of greater clarity.

Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology.

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