“Not Under Law, But Grace”
Concomitant with the culture-wide propensity to celebrate subjectivity, diversity, and antinomianism is the inclination within Christendom to juxtapose law and grace, denigrating the former and extoling the latter. Inherent within this tendency is the distorted definitions that accompany each term. “Law” is depicted as any restrictive, dictatorial restraint placed on human beings. “Grace” is consequently represented as the opposite of law, i.e., the freedom to be unrestrained by strictures, requirements, or commandments. This sinister ideology has permeated Western civilization, resulting in a dramatic upsurge in lawlessness in society and disrespect for law enforcement. This cultural inclination has cut a wide swath across Christendom, opening an avenue by which skeptics can charge the Bible with contradiction since the same God Who authored the biblical law they vilify also authored the “grace” to which they cling. It has dramatically influenced many Christians to sever themselves from a sense of obligation to conform to the external forms of worship characterized in the New Testament in exchange for an endless variety of manmade innovations and inventions that are deemed sincere human expressions that arise from the heart unfettered by a sense of moral obligation.
This mentality insists that, while the central components of the Christian religion (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) are to remain intact, beyond those few “essentials,” worshippers are free to express themselves in accordance with their own heartfelt motions. Indeed, the worshipper is completely free in this regard, as long as no Scripture expressly forbids the motion. One of, if not the primary, justification for this antinomian spirit are those Bible passages that seem on the surface to denigrate law, speaking of it in negative terms as if it is to be treated suspiciously, if not brushed aside altogether. For example, Paul declared to Christians in Rome: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (6:14). This statement is interpreted by “grace only” advocates as: “Since God’s grace covers you, you must not worry about law-keeping!” But, in context, Paul was saying that since Christians have (1) renounced living a lifestyle of sinning without compunction, and (2) have obeyed the Gospel, they have placed themselves under a grace system (that provides forgiveness), rather than a strictly legal system that, by its very purpose, can only condemn. Verses 15-16 explains that just because we are under a grace system that provides forgiveness, we should not continue to live a life of sin like we did before we obeyed. To continue to live a life of sin, like we did before we obeyed the Gospel, would be to return to slavery—when we were slaves to sin.
A similar verse that is used to bolster the “no law” viewpoint is found among Paul’s remarks to the Galatian churches: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18). Keep in mind that Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians address some of the same subject matter. In both letters, he makes the point that laws from God—whether those given to the Jews through Moses or those given by God to non-Jews from the Garden forward—result in condemnation when they are violated. God’s laws are intended to provide spiritual life (Romans 7:10; 10:5; Leviticus 18:5; Ezekiel 20:11,13). But once God’s law is violated, the law does not contain within itself the means by which the lawbreaker may be exonerated. All law can do is condemn you and state the punishment due for breaking law. But that does not mean that God’s laws are bad or negative! All of God’s laws are positive and good since they usher forth from God’s perfect nature. It took God stepping in to provide something in addition to law in order for the sinner to be rescued. So when Paul says we are not under law, he means we are not under law alone. Embracing the Gospel and the grace/forgiveness available via Christ enables us to be rescued—not from law—but from “the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13). That is, He took our sins on Himself. He absorbed and made provision for satisfying the penalty of the law by dying in our behalf: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Another misapplied passage is the statement that John set forth in his gospel account: “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). This verse is often misinterpreted to mean we are not under law, since grace and truth exclude or eliminate law. This view is incorrect on three counts: (1) the law of Moses did not exclude truth. The psalmist declared concerning the law of Moses: “Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your law is truth…. The entirety of Your word is truth” (Psalm 119:142,160); (2) God’s grace was available throughout the Old Testament: “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). Moses found grace in God’s sight (Exodus 33:17). Ezra explained to the returning exiles that “now for a little while grace has been shown from the LORD our God” (Ezra 9:8). And the psalmist insisted that the LORD gives grace to those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11). (3) Christianity does not exclude law. Paul referred to the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2) and the “law towards Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21). James alluded to the “law of liberty” (James 1:25) and “the royal law” (James 6:2). Hence, the meaning of John 1:17 lies in the fact that, though God’s law through Moses was intended for the good of its recipients (Deuteronomy 6:24; 10:13), nevertheless, that law was never intended to be the solution to sin. From eternity, God intended for the forgiveness of sin, i.e., “grace,” to be available only via the atoning sacrifice of Christ, i.e., the Gospel.
What, precisely, is the meaning of the word “grace”? The underlying Greek term charis has as its essential meaning “favor.” Danker identifies the following shades of meaning for the word—keeping in mind that the italicized words in the following delineations are intended to be the actual definitions (sample verses are included for each shade):
- “a winning quality or attractiveness that invites a favorable reaction, graciousness, attractiveness, charm, winsomeness.” Luke 4:22—“gracious words”; Colossians 4:6—“Let your speech always be with grace.”
- “a beneficent disposition toward someone, favor, grace, gracious care/help, goodwill.” Luke 2:40—“the grace of God was upon Him”; Acts 11:26—“they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed.”
- “practical application of goodwill, (a sign of) favor, gracious deed/gift, benefaction.” (a) by humans (Acts 24:27; 25:9—“wanting to do the Jews a favor”; 1 Corinthians 16:3; 2 Corinthians 8:4—“gift”; (b) by God (James 4:6b/1 Peter 5:5—“gives grace to the humble”).
- “exceptional effect produced by generosity, favor.” 2 Corinthians 8:1—“the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia”; 2 Corinthians 12:9—“My grace is sufficient for you.”
- “response to generosity or beneficence, thanks, gratitude.” Luke 17:9—“Does he thank that servant?”; 2 Timothy 1:3—“I thank God”; Hebrews 12:28—“let us have grace.”
To repeat, the essential meaning of charis as reflected in all five of these shades of meaning is “favor.”
God has given all human beings His law. All human beings are under divine obligation to obey that law. However, all human beings have broken that law. Hence, they are all rightly condemned. They have no means within themselves to achieve their own forgiveness. But God in His infinite goodness predetermined before He ever even created human beings to devise a plan for them to be forgiven. That plan consisted of sending Himself in the person of His Son to die and atone for sin. This redemptive scheme is, in fact, the grace of the New Testament and it has been presented to the world via the Gospel. This incredible provision in no way minimizes or eliminates the necessity of human beings devoting themselves to strict obedience to the laws of God. We are under divine obligation to (1) obey the Gospel (through faith, repentance, oral confession, and water immersion—Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Romans 10:9-10; Galatians 3:27) and (2) live a life of devoted conformity/obedience to the directives God has given for faithful living.
The “grace not law” mentality has misconstrued these concepts by advocating the notion that grace eliminates law, and that those who “live by grace” do not consider themselves under compulsion to give close attention to legal detail or to be concerned about law. They have been self-deluded into thinking that if they were to be concerned about law/legal restrictions, they would be guilty of “legalism” and failing to appreciate and live by “grace.” This sinister ideology is, in fact, dangerous and ultimately deadly to spiritual life. For example, a person may violate God’s laws governing marriage, divorce, and remarriage (Genesis 2:24; Malachi 2:16; Matthew 19:1-2; et al.) and entangle himself in an unscriptural, i.e., adulterous, marriage. The person who has embraced the “grace not law” theology will soothe and comfort himself by believing that “grace” enables him to remain in the marriage and God will simply forgive and brush aside his adultery. Never mind the fact that the law states plainly: “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which [include] adultery…which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-22) and the “sexually immoral…shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone” (Revelation 21:8). Grace does not excuse or accommodate a person in his violations of law; it merely enables him to be forgiven of his violations of law—if he repents. The “grace not law” viewpoint insists that one may continue to ignore law since we are under grace and law is no longer a relevant issue.
If “grace” is defined as “freedom from law,” it naturally follows that attention to legal detail becomes at the very least inappropriate and at most superfluous. Solomon well described the inevitable outcome of such thinking: “Where there is no revelation (i.e., law from God), the people cast off restraint; but happy is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18). The “grace not law” mindset would reword Solomon’s words: “Where there is no law, the people are freed from oppressive restriction to do what feels good, enjoying grace and relief from legalism.”
The hostility toward law that the “grace only” viewpoint engenders robs a person of the tremendous blessings afforded to those who respect and strive to conform to law: “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:7-8). Psalm 119 extols the grandeur and indispensability of law, standing as a marvelous reminder of the abundant blessings and positive contributions to human life available only via God’s laws, commandments, statutes, testimonies, and precepts. Indeed, the law was specifically intended by God to provide life (Deuteronomy 30:15-16; Leviticus 18:5; Psalm 119:50; Romans 7:10).
Grace in Romans
The book of Romans provides the New Testament canon with a clear thesis statement of God’s scheme of redemption: the Gospel is God’s powerful means for saving people (1:16). The term for “grace” (charis) occurs 25 times in the book. Twice it is used by Paul to refer to his apostleship that was bestowed upon him by God—“the grace given to me” (12:3;15:15). Four times the word is used in its generic sense of “favor” with Paul expressing his desire that the grace of Jesus and God would be with the Romans (1:7; 16:20,24; cf. Galatians 2:9; Ephesians 3:7-8) and God extending His “favor” by bestowing spiritual gifts on the Roman Christians (12:6). The other 19 occurrences of the word in Romans—the vast majority—refer specifically to the Gospel. Consider the following chart that catalogs the meanings of charis in the book of Romans:
As Greek lexicographer Joseph Thayer explained: “the N.T. writers use xa/ri$ pre-eminently of that kindness by which God bestows favors even upon the ill-deserving, and grants to sinners the pardon of their offences, and bids them accept of eternal salvation through Christ.”1
To repeat: the grace of the Bible is God making it possible for people to be forgiven of their sin. But they must meet the pre-conditions of that forgiveness by conforming to the instructions/prescriptions God has given to receive that forgiveness. And people must maintain a sincere, attentive desire to comply with God’s laws, and to regularly repent and seek forgiveness when they make mistakes along the way. Herein lies the definition of what it means to “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7).
Perhaps the worst feature of the “grace only” doctrine is its blatant, inherent manifestation of disrespect for God Himself. After all, who gives us spiritual law? Who authored the Law of Moses? Who provides us with the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)? Any denigration of law—any negative representation of biblical law—is an aspersion directed against God. No wonder Paul declared in no uncertain terms that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). Indeed, we would not even know what offends God—what sin is—if He had not given us law (Romans 3:20). Law is never depicted in Scripture as somehow “bad,” or negative, or undesirable, or oppressive. God’s commands are not “burdensome” (1 John 5:3)—they are not too hard for us. Indeed, they are like sweet honey to our mouths and far more precious than pure gold (Psalm 19:10). May we join wholeheartedly and genuinely with the psalmist in his exclamation: “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97).
1 Joseph Thayer (1901), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint), p. 666.
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