August 15, 2014

Law and Grace

by Wyatt Graham

Schütte_&_Pöppe_Fabrik_hauswirtschaftlicher_Maschinen_Hannover-Linden_Rechnung_1909-01-16_Rückseite_Detail_IIIIIIIIIIBalancing God’s grace with his commands can overload even the most sincere Christian. And it’s not only lay believers who struggle with this balance. Recently, Christian leaders vigorously debated how to balance law and grace in the Christian’s life. Some argued that Christians should live their life solely by grace, while others advocated that both grace and law should guide a person’s life.

You’ve probably experienced the practical side to the debate in your life. Recall sinful behavior that you struggle with, and which you want to overcome. Perhaps you struggle with pornography, recurring anger, or even slothfulness. Whatever your struggle is, you’ve probably tried many different ways to overcome it. Do you rely on grace and turn to God’s commands in the Bible or create a system of rules that guide your eyes away from your ailing sin? Or, do you turn solely to God’s grace to overcome this sin? Put another way, do try to find some command in the Bible to tell you what to do, or do you rely on God’s grace even if you accidentally do something against God’s will?

I have seen both tactics take place in lives of people around me. I have observed people struggling with bitterness run to Scripture and locate all of the verses that directly apply to that area and hang them around the house, and start to memorize them. These verses often are commands to put off, followed by a command towards the opposite godly trait. After creating these “rules”, grief and remorse can often roll down upon them and refuse to leave—taunting them that they the uttermost sinner who will only ever wallow in this sin and never conquer it. 

Then you have the other side, where a person struggling with reoccurring anger fails again and again, only to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and say “thank the Lord that his grace covers that.” Then this person moves on without worrying about changing more and more into Christ’s likeness.

Both of these “methods” have Biblical merit. But, I would argue, that both miss the point.There is a simpler, and perhaps more encouraging way to overcome sin. Let me show you this by walking you through some Biblical guidelines that have been helpful to me in my walk of sanctification.

These biblical guidelines can throw us a rope to pull us out of this mucky issue, in order to help us overcome sin and temptation. And ultimately, they will help us to live the Christian life without as much confusion.

Walking by the Spirit

The first guideline is that if you received God’s Spirit, you will live and walk by the same Spirit (Gal 5). If we were keeping points, this would be one point for the grace alone team. But if one considers the whole letter to Galatians, Paul gives many commands to the believers there. So the grace alone team has a tentative one point.

Obeying Burdenless Commands

Second, if you love God, his commands will not be burdensome (1 John 5:3). Indeed, because you are born of God, John explains, you will become like God and triumph over the world (5:4). According to John, believers will obey commands, and, miraculously, it will not be burdensome. We will enjoy and love following God’s commands.

Why is that? It is because, when you love somebody, it’s easy to serve that person. Doting parents love to help their children, and a loving husband enjoys assisting his wife. When you love God, obeying his commands is a joy.

Loving God and Others

Third, if you love God and others, you will have fulfilled every command of God. When asked about the greatest command in the Torah, Jesus replied:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.38 This is the greatest and most important command.39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matt 22:37-40).

Consider what Jesus has just said. The two commands, upon which the whole Bible (Law and Prophets) depends, are loving God and loving others. Once you do that, the rest is gravy.

Paul picks up on Jesus’ teaching on love when explains how to live among one another and in the world. He says:

Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments:

Do not commit adultery;
do not murder;
do not steal;
do not covet;

and whatever other commandment—all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself.

10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)

The Biblical testimony is clear: love is the primary command that Christians need worry about. If you embrace a love for God and for others, then the rest of God’s instruction will slowly but surely fall into place. The confusion about how to fight sin dies.

Conclusion

To summarize, you receive God’s Spirit, who leads you to love obeying God’s commands. That is why these commands are not burdensome. Indeed, they become second nature to you, because they are simply an expression of loving God and others.

Consider again that sin that dominates you. Do you overcome it through trying to remember certain commands in the Bible or through setting up boundaries around you? If so, this is good, but it misses the biblical priority. Instead, remember and pray in the Spirit so that he will guide you to a greater love of obedience to God.

And then this greater love and obedience towards God will manifest itself towards people, and those reoccurring temptations that plague us. Focus on the command, which Christ himself proclaimed to be the Bible’s hinge, and the Spirit-given desire to overcome sin, along with the wisdom and strength that enables you to fight sin.

Yes, it may be totally appropriate to create a method to help you fight sin. But that comes after the primary thing. The primary thing is a spirit propelled life that gushes out love for God and others. Because that, friends, is the teaching upon which the whole Bible depends.

 

Wyatt Graham

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Wyatt is a PhD student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. After he finishes there, he plans to return to his home country of Canada to church plant. He also blogs at www.wyattgraham.com. Follow him at @wagraham.
  • Ruben Videira

    Well said, Wyatt. It reminds me of Romans 6, and how partaking of God’s grace demands that we die to sin. Both go hand in hand, and yet it all begins with grace, which as you said, it must motivate us to love God, and those whom God loves.

    PS: I think is time for you to come back home, you have wandered long enough at Southern =) =)

    • Though I wander in lonely exile here, soon faith will become sight, when I return to the promised land of Canada.

      Helpful observation about Rom 6!

  • Tom

    It’s not hard to love God when we remind ourselves what he gave us in the Gospel. When we reflect on what Jesus has done for us and the joy we have in Him what ever pleasure we might find in sinning quickly fades.

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  • tovlogos

    Thanks Wyatt — very relevant.

    “Do you rely on grace and turn to God’s commands in the Bible or create a system of rules that guide your eyes away from your ailing sin?”

    Actually both. “To summarize, you receive God’s Spirit, who leads you to love obeying God’s commands.”

    Exactly.
    In John 3:6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” That where I would start — being born from above, or else it’s all meaningless. I say, Both law and grace because they both serve the same purpose. It is important not to let the law creep up and become your master — reeling in guilt, and condemnation for every passing imperfect thought, thereby cutting oneself of from blessings. A monk who runs to the belfry to flog himself just for the thought of a woman passing-through-his head, should remind himself of the formula James 1:13-15, where (spiritual) death is not fully until verse 15, though the process begins at verse 14.
    Yet, I see the laws as invaluable, articulate reminders of God’s thinking. 1Corinthians 2:10-14 — and God’s thinking becomes within reach if we abide in the Spirit by studying, possessing the Love set forth in 1Corinthians 13, which is the only way whereby we can conform to the image of Messiah Jesus.

    So, I know as I walk the narrow path, and grow in wisdom, with all my shortcomings; yet focused on Him, I cease making distinctions between such concepts as Law and Grace, Covenant and Dispensation, etc. because they fall into the Divine panorama.

    Mark

    • Appreciate the focus on wisdom. I think sometimes it’s helpful to make theological distinctions. For example, Paul says he is not under the law (of Moses) but under the law of the Messiah (1 Cor 9). That seems important.

      • tovlogos

        Amen. Agreed, absolutely. I know if I inadvertently break a law, I don’t panic; I simply dust it off and go forward.
        When I see passages like John 3; 1Corinthians 2 — I see that I don’t have to struggle with rules that no one can do perfectly. Instead, If I stumble over a stone, and I don’t take my eyes off Jesus, the incident is inconsequential. However, If I stumble over a stone and do not look at Jesus I become responsible for the act of stumbling.
        So, for sure I want always to be under the law of Messiah — which is gracious.

  • Jason Xu

    Hey Wyatt,

    This has been something I’ve been thinking about, I’m really glad that you wrote about this. You write, “Second, if you love God, his commands will not be burdensome.” Also, Jesus says that we who are weary can go to him, because his yoke is easy and his burden light.
    At the same time, Jesus says that we are to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. I think we all know that being a Christian isn’t always easy. How do we balance this? How can we rejoice in our suffering all the time?
    – Jason

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