Law and Grace

ELDER NEIL PHELAN JR.

MARCH 1994 

LAW & GRACE

 "I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." Galatians 2:21 

    You may examine every form of religion, every system of belief, every denomination of people and study every prescription that man has set forth for the salvation of souls and yet find but two ways under heaven in which a person can stand as righteous before a Holy God: one way is by grace and the other is by law.  It is either one or the other; it can't be a mixture for "if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work".  Romans 11:6.  If there are any works involved at all, salvation becomes a legal process; merits are involved and may be claimed; the law is awakened; and it is no more grace.  For "law" is the yardstick by which actions are judged and weighed in the balance. 


     It becomes obvious, by the Apostle's remarks here, and also in his epistle to the Romans, that we are not saved by the law "Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his (God's) sight". Rom 3:20a. The law is a cruel taskmaster and with these textual facts before us we wonder why so many of the Lord's people run to the law to establish their own righteousness  "For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.  For Christ is the "end" of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth."  Romans 10:3-4.  The word "end" implies "conclusion" because Christ has fulfilled the demands of the law for us in his own body, nailing our sins to the cross, ending the eternal demands the law had upon us.  The knowledge of Christ ends the fear of the eternal consequences of the law in our conscience. Every demand the law had on the Elect had its fulfillment in the person of Christ as He blotted out this handwriting of ordinances (LAW) against us.  Our works did not conclude the demands the law had upon us, but the works of Christ did.

     The conflict of these two principles, law and grace, is not new to the minds of men.  How do they harmonize?  Men have debated this very principle for thousands of years.  One of Job's miserable comforters, Bildad the Shuhite, as he endeavored to convince Job of some sin said "Behold, God will not cast away a perfect man, neither will he help the evil doers" Job 8:20.  Job did not disagree with his friend upon this point, that God would not cast away a "perfect" man, but rather questions how man can get into such a position "I know it is so of a truth: but how should man be just with God?" Job agreed with his friend in principle, but just how to become a "perfect man" before a righteous and Holy God, Job knew not;  for Christ was not yet revealed.  Even though Job did not feel that his calamity was a result of any particular sin in his life, Job was wise enough to say "If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse." 9:20.  How man can become just with God has always been a subject of debate among God's people for they all agree that man must be justified to enter the portals of glory and abide with a thrice Holy God. 

     What is the law?  If sinners are not justified by "law" then what can it be?  There are many, many laws taught in the Bible and the Bible refers to "law" hundreds of times. But one scriptural principle that is commonly overlooked is this fact: ALL SCRIPTURE IS LAW;  IN, AND OF, ITSELF.

     The Psalmist writes "Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth." Psalms 78:1.  Here, the Psalmist refers to the scriptures as: 1) God's law and 2) the words of God's mouth.  As we read the scriptures, we are reading God's law and the words from God's mouth for "All scripture is given by inspiration of God" II Tim 3:16a. Men wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.  What we read is not the preachers suggestions or the Church's ideas but rather what God has said through the written word. 

     We read again in the first Psalm "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.  But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night." Psalm 1:1-2.   Again, the Psalmist refers to scripture as "law" and does so numerous times as we read the Psalms.  

     The New Testament is not void of this principle.  The Apostle Paul referred to scripture as "law" as he reminded the Church at Corinth of Isaiah's prophecy concerning the miracles which would attend the coming Kingdom "In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord." I Cor 14:21.  Paul is referring to Old Testament scripture,  Isaiah 28:11,  as "law".  Therefore, by inspiration, we have from the pen of the Psalmist, and the Apostle Paul, sure testimony of God's recognition of scripture as law.   

     God gave the law to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai.  We read this law in our Bible and many times when "the law" is referred to, this is what is under consideration.  But all that we read in the Mosaic law, whether in the decalogue, the book of Leviticus, or other scripture, is in complete harmony with all other law.  There is not one of God's laws which contradicts another; for the law is a reflection of God's mind; the way that God thinks.  Whether God speaks verbally; by His written word; on tables of stone;  or through the mouths of the prophets;  it is all law. 

     From His very mouth, God gave to Adam a law in the very morning of time "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Gen 2:16b-17.  Why was it law?  Because God said it. Why was Adam punished? Because he broke God's law. People died from Adam to Moses, before Moses received the law on the top of the mountain "Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses" which proves that God viewed his commandment to Adam as law because "sin is not imputed when there is no law."  Therefore all of Adam's race has broken God's law through their representative head, Adam, and continue to prove this fallen nature by personal sin (lawbreaking).

     It is by God's law that we can put our finger on sin, that we can identify sin; and that sin can be identified in us "for by the law is the knowledge of sin" -Romans 3:20b. The law magnifies sin and should convict every child of God when they recognize their error. That is the purpose and power of the law.   Sin is against God; against what God has said (for God can not lie); against  God's law for 'Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law." I John 3:4.  If you steal you have broken God's law for "Thou shalt not steal".  If you commit adultery you have broken the law for "Thou shalt not commit adultery."  If you do not respect the sabbath you have broken the law  for "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy" and as we read such passages as Eph 4:25-31 and Heb 10:25 we readily recognize the harmony  of God's law in both the Old and New Testament.  Whether one has broken this commandment or that commandment, the law is awakened.  The law kills "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all."  Just one point; one jot; one tittle; kills and destroys; corrupts the purity of any vessel. 

     Therefore, the law (whether it is that part of it that was given to Moses upon the mount or that part of it in scripture) does not give life but rather condemns and kills. The dead letter of the law reveals sin and slays us "for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." II Cor 3:6b.  Scripture was never intended to give life to the dead but rather reveal sin and the conqueror of sin.  Jesus said it  this way "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me." John 5:39 .  From the very mouth of Jesus Christ, we read his admonishment to the Jews, warning them that their knowing and keeping the scriptures would not give them eternal life, but that they testified of the one who did.  

     How can we bring this lesson into a 20th century setting?  In the days of Christ, keeping the law included circumcision, the offering of the slain beasts upon the alter,  among many other things.  But today,  men have replaced these by other works.  Today, there are those who prescribe baptism as a prerequisite for heaven; some prescribe sprinkling; some confession of sins; some a verbal acknowledgement of Christ; some a mixture of several of the above.  And even though some of these are scriptural duties for the believer, keeping them does not render one as righteous before God for "if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain."  If just one person could have obtained righteousness by keeping the law, any law,  or any form of it, , there would have been no need for Jesus Christ to have died on the cross "then Christ is dead in vain".  The law magnifies our need of a redeemer; our need of a sacrifice for sin; our need for Jesus; "For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law."  Galatians 3:21b.

     Paul referred to the law as "our schoolmaster", teaching the Galatian Churches that the law was for guidance, for instruction, for warning before punishment was incurred and was temporary "Wherefore the law was our schooomaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." Gal 3:24. The schoolmaster warned, rebuked, guided and instructed the Jews.  But when Christ came they graduated to a higher level: to faith in the finished works of the Messiah.  We live not unto the law today, but unto Christ, to fulfill our lives in Him.  

     Before one can fully appreciate grace, there must first be an awakening of the soul unto the law and it's righteous demands. The end must be experienced. God, by his grace, must reveal unto us our sinful condition.  When Sinai thunders and smokes, we stand not before our friends and the world, but before a righteous God who's divine sword of justice has been unsheathed and our lives read "Te-KeL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting." Dan 5:27.  We have been weighed in the balance and we are far short of what we need to present ourselves righteous and Holy before God.  It is at this time we come to the end of ourselves and our flimsy works.  God reveals unto us our lost condition and we become willing to lay the law aside and become married to Christ "Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God." Rom 7:4.       These very words were penned by a once proud Pharisee who once boasted in the law "Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." Phil 3:5-6.  But after one short session with Jesus, Paul's inventory of self became "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief." I Tim 1:15.  What a change of attitude.   Paul had arrived at the end of the law, to Jesus Christ, the savior of sinners.  

     The seventh chapter of the Roman letter gives us a glimpse of Paul's personal experience as he first knew Jesus.  Paul learned from his experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus that "We should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter."  But Paul reminds us that we are not to throw the law away, for by it we are told precisely what sin is for, says Paul,  "I had not known sin, but by the law".  Not only does the written letter of the law tell us what sin is but when we are born of the spirit of God, God writes the law on our hearts; our very soul is awakened to sin "I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts" Heb 8:10.  Sin becomes exceedingly sinful to us; sin loses its attractionand flavor.  The written word becomes the reflection of what is already on the heart.  It is as if we always knew it; the circumcised heart and the written word agree.  Without the  law, whether written on paper or on fleshy tables of the heart, sin is dead to our knowledge "For without the law sin was dead."  Even though Paul had the law, read the law, studied the law, he lived apart from it because he felt he was above it;  he was righteous in his own eyes;  Paul had established his own righteousness. But when Paul was awakened by divine grace, when Jesus was revealed unto him, the fullness of the law came alive unto his soul and he saw he could not, nor had ever lived up to the just demands of the law "for sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me."  Some might say that this is a terrible thing to happen to a person, to be slain as such by the law.  But beloved, we should all rejoice when a sinner comes to the end of their own self righteousness.  This is indeed an experience of grace when our souls are laid bare and we become naked before our maker.  "Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good."  Yes, by understanding our own unrighteousness through the law, we flee to the only one who can raise us above the law, above the grave, above death: Jesus Christ!  By Paul's personal confession we  observe a changed man.  A man who once boasted in his perfection of keeping the law, Paul now confesses "For that which I do I allow not: (That in which I actually accomplish I don't take personal credit nor perceive how I did it) for what I would, that do I not (the things that I know I need to do, I don't do them as I should); but what I hate, that do I (I do some of the things I hate and know I shouldn't do).  What a change of self esteem! From a claim of perfection to an acknowledgement of dependence.  From boasting in the law to "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"  Did Paul  indicate that the law would deliver him from "the body of this death."  Did he thank the scriptures.   No,  "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

     Consider yourself for a few moments, as one of the brothers of Joseph.  You have hated him without a cause.  As you grew up, he tattled on you and got you into trouble.  You resented him.  You were jealous of him for the special love the father had for him.  You hated his coat of many colors.  Finally you conspired with your other brothers against him to either kill him or throw him into a pit.  Not getting a majority vote, you agreed to cast him into a pit as you would have a useless dog and then sold him to a band of Ishmeelite traders.  You took that coat you always hated and dipped it in blood and told your father that your prating, tattling, no good, dreaming brother is dead ( for as far as you were concerned he was as good as dead by now).  After many years you, your father and your whole family is starving to death and your father sends you to Egypt to buy some corn from the only place and the only person who has any.  This person is not overly friendly at first, but does allow you to get the corn.  Suddenly, He begins to weep and right before your eyes is that prating, tattling, no good, hated brother that you conspired against, threw in a pit and sold for silver. You are now looking in the face of Jesus Christ; the one you nailed to the cross with your sins "and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced".  Zech. 12:10.  He knows who you are!  He is in absolute and complete power.  You life is worth nothing if you get what you deserve.  But alas, he weeps for you.  Now, tell me how you feel about law? If this brother looks upon the sacred scroll of records and record keeping, what will happen to you?  Are you frightened? Do you tell him how much you missed him? You have come to the foot of Mt. Sinai; you face the law; the end of yourself.  You have been found out by the law.  But in this story, truly, grace is on display; particular love is on display.  You did not get what you deserved, but rather, for love's sake, for families sake, you received mercy and grace.  Fear is the first experience when we understand our condition when measured by the law.  But then we find rest when we have been owned by our Lord and master.  As the Hymn writer put it many years ago:

"Not the labor of my hands

Can fulfill the law's demands;

Could my zeal no respite know,

Could my tears forever flow

All for sin could not atone-

Thou must save and Thou alone."

-Sonny


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