that the King of Glory may come in."
One of the greatest problems that faced the early Church was that of the Judaisers – those people who wanted to force the Gentiles to accept Jewish laws and traditions before they could become Christians. Sadly, two thousand years later, they are still around and still creating problems. They range from the “Sabbath keepers” who insist that the only legitimate day to worship is Saturday to the “Torah observers” who insist that Christians are still bound by the laws of the Old Covenant to the “Hebrew speakers” who insist that anyone who uses an English (or presumably any other language) translation of God’s Name is committing blasphemy. Some even insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the New Testament was written in Hebrew. I’m sure there are other varieties around as well.
They all sound very learned and holy, and it would be easy for an immature Christian, or one who does not know the Word very well, to be carried away with their teachings. Therefore it is very important for Christians to understand the relationship between Law and Grace.
What do we mean by the Law? Many people think that “the Law” refers only to the Ten Commandments, but it is much, much broader than that. Biblicly speaking, the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – are referred to collectively as “the Law.” Bible scholars tell us that those books contain 613 commandments (although I have read those books many times, I have never counted the commandments – I am happy to take the scholars’ word.) In fact, when Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment IN THE LAW?” He did not quote from the Ten Commandments, but from Deuteronomy 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”) (Matt22:36-39)
The first thing we need to understand about the Law is that it was never given to the Gentiles. It was part of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel. It was not the means by which Israel entered into covenant with God – they were in covenant with Him because they were descendants of Abraham. In that sense the Old Covenant, like the New, was a covenant of grace. No Israelite could say that he was an Israelite because of his own goodness or effort or scholarship or anything else he had done: he was an Israelite only because God had caused him to be born into the family of Israel, and because he was an Israelite he was in covenant relationship with the God of Abraham. The Law told him how he was to live in that covenant relationship. Never in the entire Old Testament is a Gentile individual or nation rebuked by God for not keeping the terms of His covenant with Israel, except when they interfered with Israel’s keeping of the covenant.
We should not imagine that the Law was arbitrary, like the rules of a game that might be changed at whim. Rather, every aspect of the Law reflected the character of God. The moral laws reflected His righteousness; the criminal laws reflected His justice; the social laws reflected His mercy; the laws of purity and separation reflected His holiness; the sacrificial laws reflected His redemptive purposes.
As a reflection of God’s character, the Law was good. There was just one problem: the Law could set a standard for man, but it could not give man the ability to live up to that standard. Between the Fall and the Day of Pentecost, people did not have the Holy Spirit living within them. He came upon some people – notably prophets, but also a few others – to enable them to carry out the work to which they were called, but He did not live within them. Without that internal compass of the Spirit’s presence, people needed something external to show them how to live. The Law fulfilled that purpose wonderfully. But an external standard can never change our hearts: that can only come from within. Therefore what the Law really did, for those who had eyes to see, was to expose their sinfulness and show them just how incapable they were of meeting God’s standards, and how much they needed someone to rescue them from their sin. That’s why Paul refers to the Law as a “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24) – but note that in the very next verse he says that when faith has come, we are no longer under the schoolmaster.
He says this even more strongly in Romans 10:4: “For Christ is the end of the Law for everyone who believes.” Again in Galatians 5:18: “But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the Law.”
Does that mean that we can now do as we please – murder, steal, commit adultery, or anything else we like because we are no longer under the Law? As Paul would say, “God forbid!” It is not that we are not subject to any law, but rather that we are subject to a different law: the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:2)
Unlike the people of the Old Covenant, as New Covenant believers in the Lord Jesus Christ we have the Spirit of God living within our renewed human spirits. The Law reflected God’s nature; the Spirit bears God’s nature. The Law showed us how to live; the Spirit enables us to live. It is not that we have a lower standard – in fact, the standard of the Spirit is higher than that of the Law could ever be.
Jesus began to point to this in His “You have heard it said … but I say unto you…” statements in Matthew 5:22ff. In each case, He pointed His followers to a standard that was far higher than that required by the Law. Why? If they couldn’t keep the lower standard of the Law, how did He ever expect them to keep these higher standards? The answer, of course, is that He didn’t. He was trying to cut through the self righteousness that imagined it could live up to God’s standards in its own ability. He was trying to show them that to live God’s kind of life, they needed to have God’s life.
Some will object that the Spirit only enables us to live according to the Law, having the Spirit does not exempt us from the Law. However, Paul’s schoolmaster illustration makes it clear that this is not the case. We do not stay in school forever. Once we have learned the lessons that we need, we move on. The laws that ruled us when we were in school no longer apply. Even when the laws of the adult world are the same as the laws at school – for instance, stealing is not allowed at school, nor is it allowed in the adult world – once we leave school we are not obeying the school’s law not to steal, but the adult world’s law not to steal.
Let’s use another illustration: I was born in Australia and have lived in this country all my life, but let’s pretend I go to live in India. Both India and Australia have a law that says you cannot commit murder. If I were to commit murder whilst I am here in Australia, I would of course be tried under Australian law, which I would have broken. However, if I move to India, I am no longer under Australian law, but under Indian law. If I then commit murder, it is Indian law I have broken, and Indian law under which I will be tried. On the other hand, I have never lived in Brazil. I am sure Brazil also has laws against murder, but I cannot break the Brazilian law against murder no matter how many people I kill in either Australia or India, because I have never been subject to Brazilian law.
Remember, the Law of the Old Testament was part of God’s covenant with Israel. It was never given to the Gentiles. When the Gentiles began to come into the Church and the council was held to decide what should be done with them, the apostles did not tell them to keep the Law, or to observe the Sabbath, or to be circumcised. Rather, they gave them three simple principles: abstain from strangled animals, from blood, and from sexual immorality. Neither was this a matter of man throwing out God’s Law, for they said “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …” (Acts 15:28) This was a matter of much prayer, and the result was directed by the Spirit. Not only was the Law never given to the Gentiles in the Old Testament, it was also never given to the Gentiles in the New. If you are a Gentile, you have never lived in “Law Land!” The laws of Law Land do not apply to you. That does not mean that you did not sin. Sin is more than breaking the commandments – sin is falling short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) If you have repented your sin and accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour, and are trusting in His grace and nothing else, you live in “Spirit Land” and are under the law of the Spirit.
If you are a Jew who has become a Christian, then you have moved from Law Land to Spirit Land. You are no longer under the laws of Law Land, but under the law of the Spirit.
The law of the Spirit is not like the Law of the Old Testament, which set up an external standard but did not give people the ability to meet that standard. The law of the Spirit works by transformation, not by regulation. As we surrender to the rule of the Holy Spirit in our lives, he transforms us into the likeness of Christ “from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) Now we do not kill, not because the Law forbids it, but because the God into whose likeness we are being transformed is a life giver; we do not commit adultery, not because of the Law, but because we are being changed to be like our holy God.
So, what about Jesus’ statement that “not one jot or tittle” would pass from the Law (Matthew 5:18; Luke 16:17)? Firstly, Jesus fulfilled the Law, not only in its letter but in its spirit. He is the only person who has ever lived who has done so. In fact, it was only His perfect fulfilment of the Law that qualified Him to be the Saviour of mankind. His divinity did not qualify Him: to be the Saviour He had to be human, and He had to have no sin of His own against Him. In Him the Law was perfectly fulfilled for all who will come to Him.
However, the Law has not passed away. It is still there, and its penalties are still there, for those who choose to live under it. Paul says, “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;” (Romans 2:12) In other words, those who choose to come under the Law of the Old Testament must fulfil all of it – all 613 laws found in the Pentateuch – for to break any part of it is sin. At the same time, those who were never under the Law are still without excuse: God created us in His likeness, and every time we fall short of that likeness it is sin.
Whether for a Jew who was subject to the Law of the Old Testament, or for a Gentile who was never subject to it, the wages of sin is death. (Roman 6:13) Our choice is simple: receive those wages ourselves, or receive Christ who reaped them on our behalf.
If we accept Christ, He freely extends His righteousness to us. That’s grace. That’s life. That’s Spirit Land.
If we choose to live under the Law, we must provide our own righteousness. That’s bondage. That’s death. That’s Law Land.
We can choose to live in Law Land, or in Spirit Land, but there is no dual citizenship: we cannot do both at the same time.
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