Law and Grace
“The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
The giving of the law was a major event in the history of Israel, and in God’s dealings with mankind. It was accompanied by an unparalleled revelation of glory, “The Lord descended upon the mount in fire,” and “The whole mount quaked greatly.” Darkness was God’s pavilion. There was the voice of the trumpet and the voice of words; furthermore, so awesome was the sight that Moses said, “I exceedingly fear and quake.” The people, similarly, removed and stood afar off as they witnessed the thunderings, lightnings, and the voice of the trumpet. They besought Moses to be their mediator lest they should die, so great was their fear. Consequently, it was ordained through angels by the hand of a mediator, and it is spoken of as the “law of the Lord” and the “law of Moses” (Luke 2:22-23).
The term “the law” is used in a variety of ways in the Scriptures. In Luke 24:44, it is associated with the Psalms and the Prophets, and would include all the five books of Moses. This is also seen in Rom. 3:21. In Deut. 31:26 and in Joshua 1:7, it refers rather to the statutes and judgments recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, which book is a rehearsal or a second giving of the law. The majority of the references to the law in Hebrews are to those parts of the law concerning the priesthood and sacrifices, whereas the nearly 100 references to it in the Epistle to the Romans and to the Galatians emphasis is focussed on the law which was engraven in stone, the ten commandments. Nowhere, however, do the Scriptures draw a distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law. All the laws, whether moral or ceremonial, form part of THE LAW. The words, “The law having a shadow of good things to come …” (Heb. 10:1) must not be limited in its interpretation to the superceding of the sacrifices by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. The engraving in stone also has been superceded and substituted by the inward work wrought by the Holy Spirit in the heart (Heb. 10:16).
A study of the relevant passages in the New Testament, and also in the Old, reveal at least a threefold limitation imposed on the ministry of the law.
Limited as to the people: The law was the covenant established between God and the nation of Israel at Sinai (Ex. 19:5; 24:1-8, Rom. 2:17-20); the Gentile nations were not included in it. Its privileges and promises were exclusively for Israel. The Gentiles, says the Apostle, have not the law (Rom. 2-14). Parabolically, Isaiah speaks of Israel as a vineyard which had been fenced about. The statutes and commandments constitute the fence which marked them out and separated them from all the nations. The Apostle Peter stigmatized it as a “yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Provision was made whereby Gentiles could be taken in and reckoned among them, but this privilege was not extended to any nation as such. Paul definitely says that “whatsoever the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law” (Rom. 3:19); The law then was limited in its scope and association to the nation of Israel.
Limited as to its purpose: In the Epistle to the Romans and the Galatians, the Apostle enters into a detailed argument regarding the relationship between the promise made to Abraham and the law given by Moses. The promise of blessing upon Abraham and his seed was unconditional, and was confirmed by an oath. It anteceded the giving of the law by 450 years. Therefore the law cannot disannul it or make it void. Why then was the law given? It was “added because of transgression” (Gal. 5:19). Israel was, as it were, put under the custody of a guardian (Gal. 3:25). The law was not a schoolmaster to lead them to Christ as their Saviour, but it was the appointed tutor until Christ came. The law “entered that sin might abound” (Rom. 5:20). By it sin was to be imputed as transgression (Rom. 4:15, 5:13). By the commandment “sin was to become exceeding sinful” (Rom. 7:13). “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Its ministry in this respect may be illustrated by a mirror revealing outward defilement; or a microscope discovering sin which is undetectable by the naked eye. The keenest razor edge when viewed under a microscope is seen to be uneven as a saw. This is in contrast to the handiwork of God. The magnifying glass reveals its perfection, whether it be a flower or a fly. Moreover, the law may be compared to the X-ray, for the Apostle said, “I had not known lust except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). Hence we are told that the law worketh wrath (Rom. 4:15). Sin like a lurking beast of prey, or a poisonous cobra, takes the commandment as an ambush with a view to doing its deadly work (Rom. 7:11).
In 2 Cor. 3, the Apostle speaks of the ministry of that which was engraven in stones, the ministry of Moses, as a ministry of death. This is aptly illustrated in the sign he performed in Egypt, the turning of the water into blood, in contrast to the act of the Lord Who turned it into wine; and also in the death of the 3000 at the foot of Mount Sinai. It was a ministry of condemnation, and withal a ministry of that which is done away, disannulled. While the Mosaic economy was ushered in with a blaze of glory on the mount, and with the tranfigured face of Moses, yet that glory was only a temporary one. It was a fading glory. Hence Moses covered his face with a veil lest the children of Israel should apprehend its transient character. The veil hid both the glory and its evanescence.
Limited as to its power: “The law is holy, and just, and good.” Absolute holiness, righteousness, and goodness are its requirements. God is holy, God is just, and there is none good but God. Hence the law mirrors the character of Him Who gave it. It has power; it has authority to expose the guilt, to accuse, to condemn, to curse, and to execute the guilty; but it cannot give life (Gal. 3:21); it cannot show mercy. It is “weak on account of the flesh” (Rom. 8:2). Therefore, by its work no sinner can be justified, nor can the fruit of sanctification be produced by submission to its yoke.
Some years ago I heard a speaker relate the story of an attempt to salvage a ship which had sunk in the English Channel. It was undergirded by strong steel cables, and then the necessary power was provided, but to the dismay of the engineers, only the cables came up. The ship had broken in the process of being lifted. The operation only served to discover the weakness of that vessel. How like the law! That on which it operates, the flesh, is “not subject to the law of God neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7).
The Grace Of God
Over against such a dark background, the grace of God is most attractive.
It is universal: Grace recognizes no national or historical privileges, nor any racial or geographical boundaries. By the cross, the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile was broken down. At Pentecost, the grace of God that bringeth salvation to all men had its epiphany (Titus 2:11). Its glory far excelled that of the Mosaic economy. “Whosoever toucheth the mount shall be put to death” was the solemn warning of Sinai, but “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” was the confident proclamation of Pentecost. It was in keeping with the commission of the Lord that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
It is comprehensive: In contrast to the law which was “added until the seed should come” grace is supra-dispensational. No sooner had sin entered than the prophecy regarding the seed of the woman, and the final bruising of the serpent’s head, was uttered. This was entirely of grace. It was unmerited and unsought, and withal absolutely unconditional.
The triplets: promises, faith, and grace referred to in Rom. 4:15 have been operative since the dawn of human history. Even during the Mosaic economy, during Israel’s chequered career, they formed the anchor, the rock and the refuge of the spiritual. Like a bright constellation they shine clearly and constantly, as illustrated in the lives of men such as David and others. When sin abounded, or reached its high-water level in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus, grace overflowed, it super-abounded. In the very place where Christ was killed, an amnesty was proclaimed and salvation offered. Now “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” In Him its precepts were exemplified, its purposes fulfilled, its penalty exacted, and its power terminated. Christ removed the handwriting that was against us taking it out of the way, nailing it to His cross (Col. 2:14). Hence, grace reigns unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is powerful: What may we say of the power of grace? What wonders there are to its credit! Paul, its greatest trophy, says the grace of God was exceeding and abundant toward him, and he delighted to speak of the message he proclaimed as the “gospel of the grace of God,” for it is “by grace we are saved” (Eph. 2:8); and by grace that we are justified (Rom. 3:24). Moreover, we wait for the grace that is being brought to us at the appearing of our Lord (1 Peter 1:13).
Human merit is completely ruled out. It has no place in our salvation, whether past present or future. Along with the triplets: promise, faith, and grace the Apostle speaks of the law of works and of debt. These two sets of words represent two diametrically opposed principles. They must not be confused. To return to the law now is to return to that which is spoken of as “weak and beggarly elements,” a retrogression from sonship and maturity to childhood, it is senility (Gal. 4:1-6).
To be made an overseer by men is to be made a master, but to be created an overseer by the Spirit is to be made a servant.