Question: "Law vs. grace—why is there so much conflict among Christians on the issue?"
Answer: One side says, “Salvation is by grace and grace alone.” The other side counters, “That idea leads to lawlessness. God’s righteous standard in the Law must be upheld.” And someone else chimes in with, “Salvation is by grace, but grace only comes to those who obey God’s Law.” At the root of the debate are differing views on the basis of salvation. The importance of the issue helps fuel the intensity of the discussion.
When the Bible speaks of “the law,” it refers to the detailed standard God gave to Moses, beginning in Exodus 20 with the Ten Commandments. God’s Law explained His requirements for a holy people and included three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. The Law was given to separate God’s people from the evil nations around them and to define sin (Ezra 10:11; Romans 5:13; 7:7). The Law also clearly demonstrated that no human being could purify himself enough to please God—i.e., the Law revealed our need for a Savior.
By New Testament times, the religious leaders had hijacked the Law and added to it their own rules and traditions (Mark 7:7–9). While the Law itself was good, it was weak in that it lacked the power to change a sinful heart (Romans 8:3). Keeping the Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, had become an oppressive and overwhelming burden (Luke 11:46).
It was into this legalistic climate that Jesus came, and conflict with the hypocritical arbiters of the Law was inevitable. But Jesus, the Lawgiver, said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The Law was not evil. It served as a mirror to reveal the condition of a person’s heart (Romans 7:7). John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Jesus embodied the perfect balance between grace and the Law (John 1:14).
God has always been full of grace (Psalm 116:5; Joel 2:13), and people have always been saved by faith in God (Genesis 15:6). God did not change between the Old and New Testaments (Numbers 23:19; Psalm 55:19). The same God who gave the Law also gave Jesus (John 3:16). His grace was demonstrated through the Law by providing the sacrificial system to cover sin. Jesus was born “under the law” (Galatians 4:4) and became the final sacrifice to bring the Law to fulfillment and establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20). Now, everyone who comes to God through Christ is declared righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 9:15).
The conflict between Jesus and the self-righteous arose immediately. Many who had lived for so long under the Pharisees’ oppressive system eagerly embraced the mercy of Christ and the freedom He offered (Mark 2:15). Some, however, saw this new demonstration of grace as dangerous: what would keep a person from casting off all moral restraint? Paul dealt with this issue in Romans 6: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (verses 1—2). Paul clarified what Jesus had taught: the Law shows us what God wants (holiness), and grace gives us the desire and power to be holy. Rather than trust in the Law to save us, we trust in Christ. We are freed from the Law’s bondage by His once-for-all sacrifice (Romans 7:6; 1 Peter 3:18).
There is no conflict between grace and the Law, properly understood. Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf and offers the power of the Holy Spirit, who motivates a regenerated heart to live in obedience to Him (Matthew 3:8; Acts 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:14). James 2:26 says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” A grace that has the power to save also has the power to motivate a sinful heart toward godliness. Where there is no impulse to be godly, there is no saving faith.
We are saved by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). The keeping of the Law cannot save anyone (Romans 3:20; Titus 3:5). In fact, those who claim righteousness on the basis of their keeping of the Law only think they’re keeping the Law; this was one of Jesus’ main points in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20–48; see also Luke 18:18–23).
The purpose of the Law was, basically, to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Once we are saved, God desires to glorify Himself through our good works (Matthew 5:16; Ephesians 2:10). Therefore, good works follow salvation; they do not precede it.
Conflict between “grace” and the “Law” can arise when someone 1) misunderstands the purpose of the Law; 2) redefines grace as something other than “God’s benevolence on the undeserving” (see Romans 11:6); 3) tries to earn his own salvation or “supplement” Christ’s sacrifice; 4) follows the error of the Pharisees in tacking manmade rituals and traditions onto his doctrine; or 5) fails to focus on the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
When the Holy Spirit guides our search of Scripture, we can “study to show ourselves approved unto God” (2 Timothy 2:15) and discover the beauty of a grace that produces good works.