Law or Grace?

In living in light of the coming Kingdom, there is a great deal of misunderstanding as to whether we are expected to keep the Law of Moses, or at least the Ten Commandments.  Part of the misunderstanding comes from the fact that Jesus told people at times to keep the commandments (such as the young man in Matthew 19:17). A number of things that Jesus said have been misinterpreted as saying that we should still follow the Old Testament laws. Two different conclusions have been drawn from this misunderstanding. On the one hand, there are those who hold to Dispensationalism who believe that his teachings were addressed to a "different administration" and are not addressed or relevant to us as Christians. On the other hand, some believers (who may have formerly held to Dispensationalism) realize that there is but one gospel and one plan of salvation throughout the Bible, and have concluded that we should follow the Law of Moses, especially with regard to keeping the Sabbath.

There is a third alternative, however. Jesus said he did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. This means more than just living perfectly and then dying for our sins so we could be guilt-free, although that is part of it.  His teachings were about how love fulfills the Law.  He did not simply reiterate the Law of Moses, he raised it to a new standard, and established a New Covenant, which he ratified with his own blood. The terms of this covenant are laid out in the words of his teachings and the words he spoke through Paul and the other New Testament writers.  These are the commandments we are expected to keep.  (See the Closer Look article, New Covenant Commandments.)

As we saw in the article on Righteousness, Jesus taught that God is more interested in our having the right heart, than in our obeying the letter of the law.  He said he didnít come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Did that mean he simply obeyed the Law perfectly as Moses had commanded so we wouldn't have to? That is true in a sense, but there is more to it than that.  He describes the fulfilling of the Law a few verses later, when he said, "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). The righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees is more than just following the letter of the Law in minute detail. It is having a perfect heart of love.

Jesus introduced a higher standard than the Law, that of genuine love from the heart. When a man came to him in Matthew 19:16-26 and asked, "What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" (verse 16) he was starting with the assumption that doing good things was what was required. Jesus told him to keep the commandments, but that wasn't the end of it. The man replied, "All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?" (verse 20).   Jesus told him, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me." (verse 21). This is not a blanket command for everyone. He was addressing the specific need of this individual. The man had great possessions (verse 22) and that is what was keeping him from a right relationship with God. He had to get rid of what was hindering him, and follow Jesus.

But keeping all the commandments is not the "standard formula" for salvation. When a lawyer came to him in Luke 10:25-37 and asked what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded by asking him what the Law said. The man replied, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself" (verse 27). Jesus said, "Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live" (verse 28).  This reflects an attitude of heart more than obedience to rules.

When another lawyer (in Matthew 22:35-40) asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, he responded with the same two: love God and love your neighbor. "On these two hang all the law and the Prophets," he said. (verses 37-40). When he declared the same two commandments in Mark 12:28-34, the scribe to whom he was speaking agreed. Jesus replied, "Thou art not far from the kingdom of God" (verse 34)

The lawyer in Luke had responded "And who is my neighbor?" and we are told that he said this because he wanted to justify himself (Luke 10:29). Jesus' response was the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The point Jesus frequently made was that the heart of love was more important than the letter of the Law. This is the higher standard that the Lord introduced. 

Paul declared that no one can be justified by the works of the Law (Galatians 2:16), and that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works (Ephesians 2:8).  Does this mean, then, that our works are irrelevant? Some groups teach that as long as we are born again, it doesn't matter what we do. But while the Ten Commandments are not addressed to us, the New Covenant words of Jesus are the higher standard we must adhere to. And in adhering to those commandments, we will be automatically fulfilling the Law, and more, as we walk in love. If you truly love God you wonít worship idols, take his name in vain, etc.  And if you truly love your neighbor, you wonít steal, kill, lie, covet, etc.

Sabbatarians will often use similar logic to say that if you truly love God, you will keep His Sabbath.  But the true heart of the Sabbath was to cease from oneís own works to enter into His rest (see New Covenant Commandments).  For Israel it involved observing the weekly Sabbath and remembering how God led them out of slavery in Egypt, which set them apart from the other nations.  For us as Christians, it involves looking to Jesus every day, and remembering what he has done for us.  There is no longer separation between Jews and Gentiles, for we are all one Body in Christ.

Paul made it clear that those who continue to practice sin will not inherit the Kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5). Jesus established a higher standard, but it is one of love, not license to sin. We are being prepared for our ultimate destiny of ruling with Christ. We are commanded to be holy (I Peter 1:15-16). We are to be developing Christ-like character during this life, in preparation for the next. We are "kings in training." This is what is meant by the "law of liberty" and the "royal law" in James.

At the same time we must avoid trying to interpret the words of Jesus as if they were a new law, with wooden, legalistic application. For example, Jesus said that divorce should not be permitted except for cases of fornication. Does this mean that once someone is divorced, he can never be in the Kingdom of God? Some churches have refused to allow people to participate in their communion or worship if they have ever been divorced. But while divorce is wrong in God's eyes, there is no sin that He cannot forgive if a person turns his heart back to God.

Another example that has actually caused great division in the church is the Lord's command to "resist not evil" and to "turn the other cheek." There are those who say that if I am attacked I should not even defend myself or my family, and allow myself or them to be beaten or even killed, rather than to resist. This is how it would be interpreted if strict wooden adherence to the letter of Christ's words is held to. But he taught his disciples that the heart is what is important. The overall message of his command (in Matthew 5:38-41 and Luke 6:27-35) is that rather than retaliate against wrongs done to me, I am to reach out and do good to someone who would want to hurt me. I must not have it in my heart to do any harm to another. But is it not possible to just defend myself or my loved ones, without retaliating in anger? There are ways of avoiding, blocking and/or disarming an attacker that can be done without the intent to harm. Trying to take a literal interpretation of Jesus' words without understanding the heart is as wrong as the Pharisees' legalistic approach to the Mosaic law. God is concerned with the heart.

Grace is the perfect balance between legalism on one side and license to sin on the other. We are to hold fast to the words of our Lord and allow them to permeate our hearts to the end that they produce genuine fruit in us. They will do this as we abide in him, as John 15 describes, for the Word is powerful and by God's spirit we grow into the kind of people that God wants us to be.

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This page last updated September 28, 2017

Mark Clarke