So which is it?
Is God all about law or all about grace?
Is God the heavenly tyrant who insists that we follow his rules, or else? Who constantly chases the kids off his lawn?
Or is he the kindly old gentleman who always has candy in his pockets for the children?
There are some who see law and grace as enemies—so much so that the God of the Old Testament must be different from the God of the New. And of course they like the latter better.
Even among less reactionary people, there’s the assumption that law and grace are at odds: you have to choose one or the other. The old-timers choose law, because you know, and the hipsters choose grace, because, well, it’s obvious.
But there’s no dichotomy—in fact, there can’t possibly be. The God of the Old Testament is also the God of the New, and he isn’t at odds with himself (Num 23.19; 2Tim 2.13), and he doesn’t change (Mal 3.6; Jam 1.17).
Law and grace are one.
When I was a child in Sunday school, I occasionally heard a teacher say that the Old Testament saints were saved by keeping the Law, and we’re saved by grace.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a wonder I didn’t grow up to be a flaming heretic.
So how are they one? Paul makes that clear in his two sister epistles Romans and Galatians. Abraham, he tells us, lived long before the Law even existed (Gal 3.17), and he was justified—counted righteous, though he was not righteous—by trusting God (Rom 4.2-3). By faith.
That’s grace. It couldn’t be Law, since there wasn’t any.
So if grace was working fine before the Law, why did God complicate the system by ordering Israel to keep the Law?
I’m glad you asked. Paul tells us why. The Law, he says, is designed to lead us to Christ (Gal 3.24).
All of us are really good at justifying ourselves. My case is different, you see; I have good reasons for my, um, idiosyncrasies. I’m a good person. I live by my own set of rules, and I conform to them very nicely, thanks.
God knows that if he doesn’t set the rules for us, we’ll never come to him. We’ll consider ourselves just fine—better than that other guy over there—and he knows that we’ll never be pure, never be fulfilled, never be joyous, unless we come to him. He can’t abide that; he loves us too much.
So he gives us a Law, and it’s impossible. You can try all you want, but you’ll never keep it. He’s not trying to frustrate us, to rub our faces in our own failure; he’s holding out his hands, waiting for us to come to him for forgiveness and cleansing, having realized that we can’t do It without him.
The Law brings us to Christ.
So guess what?
The Law isn’t in conflict with grace; it is grace. It’s the way God leads us stubborn horses to water, where we can drink all we want for free (Is 55.1-2).
The Law is grace. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Ten Commandments, where God, as he is setting up the rules, reminds us of who he is, and what he has done:
I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Ex 20.2).
I’ve already delivered you, he says. That’s the kind of person I am; I rescue people who don’t deserve to be rescued.
And then he says something that sounds harsh:
I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments (Ex 20.5b-6).
But it’s not harsh. Look more closely.
How far does sin reach? To the third and fourth generation.
How far do mercy and grace reach?
Thousands of what?
Thousands of generations, of course.
How long is a generation?
Well, let’s say 20 years. These days couples are having their first child later than that, and in West Virginia they have them a lot earlier ( 🙂 ), but 20 should be close enough, conservatively.
How long is a thousand generations?
I’m a young-earth creationist. I don’t think we’ve been here that long.
So what’s his point?
Sin has its day, but grace lasts for as long as you need it. It’ll never run out.
And that’s right there in the Ten Commandments.