edits: 10/2015, 4/2019
The bible topic of grace vs. law is huge, with origins going back to the first humans spoken of in Genesis. I will do my best to share what the Lord has shown me on this important subject, and hope it will bless you and open up new doors in your own relationship with God. To some this article will present a major challenge. It is impossible to delve into this subject without conflicting with teachings from many religious organizations. But to others it will bring life changing joy and freedom. Grace is actually God's greatest gift, while law, at least in some aspects, has been man's oldest curse! Know it or not, your views on this subject as a believer will drastically affect your relationships with God, other people, and profoundly affect your own self-image. As with all articles you read on this website, you should be able to "click" or tap all bible references to see the actual text.
Something basically wrong with law
When you hear preachers telling us how we should all be "good" and obey God's law, it is often very disturbing. Granted, we all have a rebellious nature and tend to shy away from rules and regulations, but there is something much deeper going on here. Even sincere believers who've known God for a long time have good reason to be skeptical when someone interprets Gods laws for them. It is simply a gut instinct. As children, many of us felt the same way when an older brother or sister came to us proclaiming something we had to do because "mommy said so". It's tough enough hearing Mom's rebuke directly, but few of us appreciated those rebukes coming through an interpreter. For all we know, that word our Mom gave that older brother or sister was for them alone, and had nothing to do with us!
When we cringe at "dos and don'ts" preached at us from a pulpit, it illustrates one of the practical problems with law and legalism in general. Even the best and most sensible law, by its very nature, must apply equally to everyone. That's a problem. If a traffic law says the speed limit is 40 MPH on a four lane road to allow for the most incompetent drivers, then all of us become criminals just by driving at a more reasonable speed. On the other hand, an elderly person whose reflexes are failing might be unsafe even below the 40 MPH limit. The unfortunate nature of a rule is that some compromises "one size fits all" law must apply to everyone.
When you think of the phrase "one size fits all" in clothing, we may comically imagine a pair of sweat pants hanging limp and baggy on a skinny person, but whose seams literally scream for mercy on another person who is obviously too big for the garment. But it is not so funny when it comes to the legal system of laws in society, and even less a joking matter when it comes to morality and religious law. No surprise that a major reason people grow up to reject God, even after believing as a child, is the unbearable burden of dos and don'ts loaded upon them. Even young children see that many of those rules, especially from rigid and unwavering parents, preachers, and religious institutions simply do not "fit". But is this what God intended?
That is a fair and important question, so let me set the tone of this article right now with this simple and direct answer: NO! But from that loaded answer you can see that we are headed for an early collision with much of religious teaching! Any casual reading of the bible after all, (particularly the Old Testament) will sooner or later lead the reader to several long lists of laws. Even if you're not very familiar with the bible, you've surely heard of the "Ten Commandments". So if the bible has anything to do with God, it sure seems that God is the maker of many laws. And God seemed awfully demanding to, saying that every bit of that law had be kept 100% perfectly in order to be blessed. (Deut.27:26). But wait! Skip way ahead to the New Testament portion of the bible, and we read that "a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus" (Gal.2:16). This and many other scriptures point out a huge contrast in ideology. What happened between the Old Testament and the new? Just what difference did this Jesus make, and just how and why did all these laws come into being in the first place?
Where it all began
Lot's of questions. To get to the root of this issue, we have to go back to Genesis, the first book of the bible, to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Regardless of what you believe about creation, let's just consider what this tale has to teach us. The bible says God put the man and the woman in a beautiful garden, and there, they were completely free to do just about anything they wanted to do. The bible also says they "were naked and felt no shame" (Gen.2:25). Many people think of this as a wonderful fantasy to dream of, and it would seem God did a pretty splendid job here! But then there were those two trees in the middle of the garden, one called the "tree of life", and the other, the "tree of knowledge of good and evil" (Gen.2:9). The bible records no restrictions given by God to Adam or Eve, so that they were free to do anything they pleased, with the exception of eating from the one "tree of knowledge of good and evil" (Gen.2:16‑17). He went as far as to warn that eating from this tree would kill them!
When we consider God in the role of the ultimate "parent", and look at the wonderful environment and near total freedom God gave his "kids", you'd have to conclude that God would indeed make a pretty awesome Mom or Dad. But like all parents with children that don't really know everything (even though they think they do), sooner or later there was bound to be something to which God had to say "NO". Lets face it: offering a world with absolutely nothing dangerous to avoid or respect doesn't make much sense. Well we all know how the story quickly turned sour when they finally succumbed to temptation and ate of that tree. As a result, God banished them from the garden and was very upset at their choice.
But just why was God so angry? After all, He DID put that tree there to begin with. And what was so bad about this "knowledge" issue anyway? A major clue is found when you consider the first "enlightened" decision the humans made with their new-found "good and evil" knowledge. For their first monumental demonstration of wisdom, they hid their own naked bodies from God in shame! (Gen.3:9‑10). Unbelievable!!! Here we had a happy couple that moments ago were totally free, running through the garden together with no shame at all, suddenly deciding their own bodies were something to be ashamed of. What better example of how this so called "knowledge of good and evil", at least in the hands of humans, was indeed a curse. Obviously these poor folks didn't have the foggiest idea how to use their new knowledge in a positive way. Their incomplete human understanding instantly perverted whatever "knowledge" there was to be gained, and so sin entered the world of humanity. It is worth noting that whenever modern comedians parody the Garden of Eden story they give the impression that a sexual awakening occurred when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, leaving them happier. Yet this is the exact opposite of what the bible said really happened.
Good and Evil... just not our department!
Think about what a "knowledge of good and evil" means. It takes no genius of morality, for example, to discover that romping around naked in the forest can cause you some pain if you don't pay attention to where you put your feet. There certainly is nothing inherently wrong with the process of discovery, where we learn what things are wise or unwise, profitable or unprofitable, smart or just plain dumb. So there must have been something inherently different here, and the essence of that difference is the notion of evil. Certainly if evil exists, it is tempting to think it would be an asset to recognize it. But recognizing it and actually "knowing" it are not the same thing, and the biblical story of the Garden shows that this is so. Judging anyone to be evil, whether ourselves or someone else, is something reserved for God alone. Conversely and equally errant is the egocentric judgment that we (or someone else for that matter) are either totally good, or at least better then someone else. In any case, mankind's decision to take on this knowledge has certainly proved to be the beginning of his downfall.
The history of bad "good and evil" decisions obviously did not stop there. Cain, one of the first children of Adam and Eve wrongly judged his brother as evil, and committed the first murder as recorded in the book of Genesis. Within Generations, humankind's ongoing decision to decide good and evil for themselves had led to a point where there was so much evil in the world, that God actually said he grieved that he had created man on the earth! (Gen.6:5‑6). The result of people continuing to ignore God's council resulted in a world completely full of sickening violence. The bible describes people sacrificing their own children on altars to idols. War and survival of the fittest rather than loving kindness became the order of life. Man who was created in the image of God, with the higher capacity to become just like God, had instead chosen the patterns of the wild beasts of the jungle. An evolutionist would almost have to conclude that humankind was going backwards at that point, and likely has similar thoughts about the present day when they hear a daily news broadcast. Had God not taken several drastic measures to limit the expansion of human evil, it is likely that all human life would have been eradicated long before the present day.
The need for the law.
There is a lot of biblical history that I won't go into for the sake of brevity. But it is important to understand that even though God eventually brought about some clearly written laws for people to follow, it was only in answer to man's choices. You could describe it as the best temporary solution under the circumstances. But as we will see, living by a list of rules was not God's original plan, nor is it His ultimate future plan for His children.
Let's consider a little more about the nature of law, and what a law means. It is a theme I'll return to again and again in this writing. A law details a specific distinction between a right and wrong path or action, and invariably infers association with rewards and penalties. In the case of that first law concerning the tree of knowledge, we can see that God's intent was to forbid something that was ultimately self-destructive. True to that point, the bible says "the wages of sin is death" (Rom.6:23). That sounds pretty severe until you put it in the context that God, once again, is only interested in forbidding what will ultimately kill us! And punishment too is a factor. Consider a parent finding their child up on a rooftop and thinking of trying to fly off. If defied, the law of gravity certainly could lead the child to death! The parent will quickly issue another law as a command to the child to back away from the edge! Should the child ignore this command and jump anyway, he or she may be fortunate enough to have their parent catch or break their fall. But the threat of death was still very real, and you can rest assured the child will be in for some discipline! So in a world of increasing evil, laws do draw a distinction between right and wrong, and should represent an improvement over a world where everyone does any evil they please at any time.
So in the course of time God separated a group of people from the world, and gave them what we all know as the 10 commandments. These were all sensible and simple laws, which had their place in and beyond the Jewish society in which they were given. Few could argue against forbidding people from murdering and stealing from each other. But inevitably and sooner or later, laws require clarifications resulting in more complex laws, and sure enough hundreds more followed. This is the natural process of never ending exceptions and additions that must be made, all of which are subject to human limitations and error. It is an endless process. We can see this today in modern legislature. When someone finds a loophole in a law allowing them to get away with breaking it, additional and more complex laws are then required. Then every new law has unintended negative effects on one or more individuals, and so more amendments are required. And finally, there are always problems associated with interpretation of large bodies of law in which the innocent are sometimes wrongly prosecuted and vise-versa. Law after all simply measures actions, and cannot interpret the intent of the heart. And while man's laws may involve stiff penalties, breaking laws given by God always carried the recurring and dreaded notion of a death penalty!
And what of mercy?
Was there no mercy here? Yes.... Absolutely yes. In fact it is difficult to find instances where people came to God seeking mercy where none was given. In scripture cases where this does not seem to be the case, most biblical experts agree that it is a matter of missing details. The system of laws also included various "sin offerings" and sacrifices, which allowed people a way of demonstrating their willingness to make right their wrongs, and "atone" for their misdeeds. Later in the new testament, we find that the Lord knew that man would not be able to live up to or be justified by law (Gal.3:11), because anyone seeking to be justified by the law would, after all, have to follow all of it perfectly, all the time(James 2:10). But despite man's failings, the Lord did bless his people abundantly, providing them victory over their enemies when threatened, wealth and abundance of resources, and pardoning their errors (Ps.86:5). The Lord's mercy always took priority over justice for anyone that would seek him (Isa.63:9, James 2:13). Students of the bible should take note that the "mercy seat" in the holy temple was placed above the "arc of the covenant" containing the written commandment laws (Ex.25:21). This was no coincidence. God's mercy was always the priority, and it was only when people blatantly started worshiping other gods that the Lord's anger returned.
The curse of the law
Now even with mercy, you can see where the aforementioned "one size fits all" nature of law, together with a growing number of laws carrying severe penalties would make for a very stifling society. Many individuals struggle to this day with some phrase in the bible written over 3000 years ago. When you consider these words were written to a completely different civilization, and whose translation might not even accurately convey the original meaning, people are justifiably skeptical. What a curse to have to worry about all this law. Law with no exceptions. Law with death penalties. Law written on tablets of stone that you cannot reason with. And returning to a key question, what is law after all? Law my friends is the so called "knowledge of good and evil" in written form! This is the very curse that humankind had chosen, and had now been defined in no uncertain terms... on literal tablets of stone! The law was the very fulfillment of our choosing to take on this forbidden knowledge. Mankind wanted it, and indeed it was a curse. Many years later in the New Testament, the bible itself calls the law a burden, which their forefathers were unable to bear (Acts 15:10). If only there were some way to undo it all. Some way to get back to the garden. Back to the time where there was only one simple command to obey. Well my friends, there is! Remember that back in the garden there were two trees, and the second one, the choice not taken, was called the "tree of life".
Forgiveness... the first step
Jesus Christ certainly infuriated the religious people of his day claiming to be the very personification of God on earth. And when teaching on the law, Christ made sure that anyone judging themselves better than another for having followed the law so well was put in their place, by making the law to even more difficult. He mentioned for example that maintaining anger against your brother was the equivalent of murder (Matt.5:21‑22)! And said that anyone divorced who had married again was guilty of adultery (Matt.5:32). Indirectly, Jesus was trying to show everyone that no one can live up to the requirements of the law. In one case, after suggesting that is was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven then for a camel to pass through a needle's eye (Matt.19:23‑24), his disciples wondered and asked whether anyone could be saved. To this Christ replied, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt.19:26). Everyone is less then perfect in some area, and anyone who is honest will admit further that they are much less then perfect in many areas. To everyone who was humble enough to realize this, Christ would demonstrate healing and mercy. Whenever given the opportunity, Jesus would simply forgive people for their sins (Luke 5:20‑21). Naturally, this would infuriate the religious people even more, and sadly this is often still the case today.
Forgiveness! What a concept! One of Christ's followers asked how many times a day he should forgive someone who sins against him. "Seven times?" He asked? But Jesus said no, saying instead that you should forgive someone 70 times 7 times in a day (Matt.18:21‑22)! Obviously the intended meaning was to have no limit on forgiveness, and few of us can imagine being that tolerant of anyone's continued misdeeds. Yet we may be sure from this example that there is indeed no limit on how much forgiveness we can count on from God!
The bible says that Christ offered himself a living sacrifice to atone for all the sins, misdeeds, and even the outright evil that anyone has done, if they simply receive him in humility and believe. (John.3:16). So forgiveness arguably seems to be the best example of mercy the bible has to offer. But no... the best is actually yet to come! In fact it is very sad that the understanding of God's mercy often stops at forgiveness. As wonderful as it is that God is willing to reconcile with us and forgive our sin, there is something even better that God has for those that seek him in this way. That "something better" is called GRACE!
Grace... God's best for us!
Throughout this discussion, I've tried to illustrate how law, even the best law, is an incredible burden to bear. But did you know the bible actually says that the law itself was both "weak and useless", simply by virtue of the fact that no one could keep it? (Heb.7:18). It's true! Forgiveness is a perfect remedy when we know we've done wrong and want to do better. But if we are honest and take note of everything in the law, every requirement ever written, sooner or later we will run into the ultimate conflict. It is the unspeakable conflict which few believers would dare to even tell each other. All of us who are on the journey of following Christ and have been really honest with themselves know exactly what this is. Think about this for a moment...
The problem and conflict comes when we run into a scripture that seems to identify sin for which we know we're really not sorry! What????!!!! Dare we approach God for mercy when we are not willing to change to follow his law? Most people think not. Most religious teachers would preach not! In fact, most would advise you that such rebellion will bring God's wrath and judgment, and will even recite scripture to prove it. Some would ask you to either change your attitude or leave the church! Relentlessly they fill you with guilt, keeping all your attention focused back on your own shortcomings. "Shame shame shame on you!" , they say. Often they even succeed in convincing the believer he/she is no longer even God's child, and cause them to leave the faith! This is the devil's work at it's worst. It demonstrates a huge lack of understanding of what really is the greatest gift of God's mercy, which once again is GRACE!
Paul certainly was very well acquainted with God's emphasis on His grace being all He needed. In 2 Corinthians chapter 12 starting at verse 7, he speaks of a demonic oppression and a "weakness" which he refereed to as a "thorn in the flesh", which he never quite explained. He did however ask God to remove it several times. God's reply? "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2Cor.12:9). As a result, Paul took an entirely different attitude toward the situation saying: "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me". So Paul learned to let go of any shame or feelings of failure over the matter, and in the end concluded "When I am weak, then I am strong" (1Cor.12:10).
So what is the truth? The truth is that because of God's grace, we can come to him with all our faults and with all our weaknesses, and even with areas of our lives where we may not be willing or able to change. As long as we've given over our hearts to our loving Lord, we may rest in the understanding that His grace is certainly sufficient for all of us. What am I saying? What heresy am I trying to propagate? Am I inferring that people can come to the Lord and still go out and willfully commit evil deeds because of grace? No No! Not at all. Let's have some common sense here. I am simply pointing out what the bible already acknowledges, which is that regardless of how much imperfection you may think is in your life, God's grace will simply increase to meet you wherever you are (Rom.5:20‑21), if you simply come to Christ with a humble and contrite heart. It is the condition of the heart, which has always counted most in God's eyes. "For man looks at the external appearances, but God looks upon the heart" (1Sam.16:7). But this is such a radical idea that even as I write this, I know I still have to back up and re-emphasize some key points to help many readers approach this with confidence.