By Donald A. Nash
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!” It is astounding that the almighty Creator and sustainer of the universe would send his only begotten Son into the world to die on the cruel cross to save humanity from eternal death (John 3:16). Without his grace we would all be lost without hope. No deed of righteousness, act of compassion, gift of charity, accomplishment of technology, or achievement of human fame can merit or earn salvation; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).
However, some theological writers, biblical scholars, and gospel preachers mistakenly make grace antithetical to law, as if one excludes the other. They denounce regulations, commands, and rules of New Testament Scripture, claiming any law binds, enslaves, and destroys our freedom in Christ. “Legalism” is their favorite word of denunciation of any doctrine with which they disagree.
Yet the psalmist David said, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” (Psalm 19:7).* Being a prophet (Acts 2:25), David was speaking of the new covenant in which God would put his laws in our hearts (Hebrews 8:10), because we believe and accept Jesus with all our hearts (Romans 10:9; Acts 8:37). We come under the new covenant by spiritual birth, not physical as under the old covenant.
Though we accept these laws (note plural) at conversion, they do not come into each person’s heart by subjective individual experiences but by the objective revelation of the Scriptures through the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). Otherwise, everyone would be following one’s own opinions and conscience regarding what is right or wrong, which would result in moral and spiritual confusion.
Commandments are expressions of law. That there are such stated commandments is clearly seen in Jesus’ words in John 14:15, “If you love Me, keep [obey] My commandments” (plural). Then Jesus says, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (John 15:10).
Love and Law
Love and law are not mutually exclusive. In this regard, the great Bible student J. W. McGarvey said, “Love without law is power without direction, and law without love is machinery without a motor.”
The apostle John declared that keeping the commandments of Jesus is the way we know we know him (1 John 2:3). He also reaffirmed the statement of Jesus saying that if we love God we will keep his commandments (1 John 5:3). He describes these commandments as “not burdensome” that is, they are for our benefit. So, why do some Christian writers reject “law”?
John also defines sin as “transgression of law,” or more exactly, “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). This would cover both rejecting and breaking God’s laws. Earlier he had said we are liars if we say we have not sinned (1:10). What does that make a teacher who claims there is no law? Without law we would have no knowledge of what sin is, so how could we “live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24)?
This “no law gospel” produced Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics, accepted by some Christian leaders, which in turn resulted in the moral depravity following the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s. This then developed progressively to today’s generally accepted cultural philosophy of no valid standard of right or wrong, no truth or error, everything is relative, pluralism, and everyone does his own thing. Yet many Christian leaders still strongly advocate the “no law” principle.
The late, great Dr. R. M. Bell, past president of Johnson Bible College, once said,
I resent the term “legalism” in a derogatory sense. Legalism simply means acting according to law, and God is the greatest legalist of all. He does everything according to law. Jesus understood better than any man that the whole universe is and must of necessity continue to be operated by law. He came to make men free from superstition, from fear, from hate, from sin and death, but he did not come to establish religious anarchy.
Grace and Law
This brings us to the climactic point of this article. The grace of God motivated the gospel of salvation through Christ; but law necessitated that message of love. Why? Simply stated, if there is no law to delineate or punish sin, there is no need of grace to save from or forgive sin.
God had established the inexorable law that sin had to he punished by death. This was seen in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden of Eden. If they disobeyed God, they would surely die. That law was declared by Ezekiel in 18:4, “The soul who sins shall die.” It was repeated in the New Testament: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
This law was necessary. God is altogether righteous. If he had not condemned sin in this way, he would be condoning iniquity. Yet, in his love and mercy he did not want mankind to die eternally. So, in his wisdom he devised the gospel plan of salvation that through grace he would send his beloved Son to live a perfect life. Thus, not subject to death, Christ could die in our stead (2 Corinthians 5:21) as a propitiation (mercy covering) for our sins (1 John 2:2).
Many Christians do not understand this principle of justification. Until one does, one has not delved to the depths of the mystery of the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:7). Of course, a complete understanding of this scheme of redemption is not necessary for salvation, as long as by “obedience to the faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26) we accept the message of grace revealed in God’s Word. Paul says such an act of obedience frees us from sin to serve righteousness (Romans 6:17, 18), and Hebrews 5:9 indicates it is the way to be saved. See also Peter’s rhetorical question in 1 Peter 4:17 and Paul’s apparent answer in 2 Thessalonians 1:8. Obedience is a response to commands in God’s “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25).
Professor W. A. Fite used to illustrate this wonderful principle of grace based on law with an illustration he witnessed in his own ministry. Two boys grew up together as friends. Jim was intelligent, ambitious, and a hard worker. He became a lawyer and then a judge. Bob was a lazy, no-account rascal. Finally, Bob appeared before Jim who found him guilty of a misdemeanor.
Judge Jim said, “I’m sorry Bob, the law has to be met. A $1,000 fine or six months in jail.”
Bob replied, “I don’t have the money; I’ll have to go to jail.”
Jim took off his judicial robes, came down from the bench, and stood next to his friend. “I had to pronounce the sentence,” he said, “but nothing says I can’t pay the fine for you.” Then he wrote a check for $1,000.
In his historic “Sermon on the Law,” Alexander Campbell clearly showed how Christians were no longer under the Mosaic Law; but thereby did not deny that there were no laws under the new covenant. Elsewhere Campbell indicated Christ would bring a new law and quoted prophecy to prove it—Isaiah 43:4. Lest someone claim this is simply the “law of love,” he said, “Whatever was excellent in their (Jewish) law our Legislator has repromulgated” (Familiar Lectures on the Pentateuch, p. 289). He even illustrated this principle by the British laws that the United States inculcated into our judicial system.
James DeForest Murch, in his excellent historical work, Christians Only, said of Campbell’s “Sermon on the Law,” “The general purpose was to show that Christians are under the law to Christ and not to Moses” (p. 62).
*Scriptures are from the New King James Version.
Donald A. Nash is professor emeritus at Kentucky Christian University, Grayson.