Are We Under “Law” or “Grace”?

By Wayne Jackson

“Why do some insist that Christians are ‘under law’ today? We are not under law, but grace. The law came by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus (Jn. 1:17).”

We must respectfully point out that the question recorded above reflects a serious misunderstanding of the nature of both law and grace. And it misrepresents the nature of the religious system to which men are amenable today. It is a tragedy of enormous magnitude that some, waving the banner of “grace,” argue that they are free from the constraints of sacred law, and thus are at liberty to forge their own route along the religious terrain. One cannot but be reminded of Jude’s indictment of certain persons who pervert God’s “grace” to accommodate their own sensual goals (v. 4).

The terms “law” and “grace” are employed in John 1:17 to designate the predominate systems of divine, written revelation—namely the two covenants. The first covenant was that given through Moses at Sinai, commonly known as the “law of Moses.” The second was a universal covenant for mankind that issued from Jesus Christ, and was ratified by the Lord’s death (Mt. 26:28).

Jeremiah referred to these respective systems as “the covenant” that Jehovah made with the “fathers” when he brought them out of Egyptian bondage, and the “new covenant” which later would be world-wide in scope (Jer. 31:31-34). The writer of the book of Hebrews referred to these laws as the “first” and the “second” (Heb. 8:7), or the “old” and the “new” (8:13).

In the text under review (Jn. 1:17), the two covenants are designated respectively as “law” and “grace.” And there is a very logical explanation for these appellations. It has to do with the prevailing themes characteristic of these systems. The function of the Mosaic “law” was as follows: (1) to demonstrate that the violation of divine law separates the perpetrator from God (Isa. 59:1-2). (2) To declare that written law is needed to define sin (Rom. 7:7); and, (3) To show, by recorded precedent, that sacred justice requires that a penalty be paid for law-breaking (Rom. 3:26; 1 Cor. 10:5ff).

On the other hand, the dominate design of the New Covenant is to stress the redemptive mission of Christ as the only remedy for the human sin problem (Mt. 26:28; 1 Cor. 15:3). The wonderful plan of salvation is the result of Heaven’s grace (Eph. 2:8-9), not human merit. No richer term, than that of “grace,” could be employed as a synecdoche (the part put for the whole) for the summation of God’s thrilling scheme of redemption. It is entirely reasonable, therefore, that these two systems should be set forth in a contrasted fashion, such as “law” and “grace.”

It is a baffling mystery as to how anyone, with even a cursory knowledge of Scripture, should not understand that there was an abundant measure of grace under the former regime. Noah found “grace” in the eyes of the Lord long before the Mosaic system was birthed (Gen. 6:8), but it was not the modern sort of cheap grace that disavows obedience (6:22; cf. Heb. 11:7). Scores of Old Testament passages stress the pouring out of Jehovah’s grace in ancient times upon those who responded to his will (cf. Ex. 33:13; Dt. 7:12; Jer. 31:3).

It is no surprise that many today are ready to repudiate the idea that man is responsible to sacred law. Outlaws eschew law! The reality is, this irresponsible suggestion -that folks today are “under grace” as opposed to law- is so trifling that it would scarcely be worthy of a rebuttal were it not for the fact that it is so common. The notion has absolutely no sanction in Scripture.

(1) Were it the case that man is not under law in this era of time, then it would follow necessarily that no such thing as sin would exist today, for sin is a transgression of the law (1 Jn. 3:4). As Paul once noted, where there is no law, there is no sin (Rom. 4:15). By way of contrast, since it obviously is the case that men (even Christians) do sin in this era (1 Jn. 1:8—2:2), the compelling implication is that there is a divine law to which men now are amenable.

(2) The Old Testament prophets, in previewing the coming of the Christian age, spoke of the current dispensation as one where the law of God would be obligatory. Isaiah, for instance, spoke of the days of the new covenant, when Jehovah’s “law” would go forth from Zion (2:2-4). The term “law” renders an original term suggesting “instruction” considered as a “rule of duty” (E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965, I.106). Similarly, when Jeremiah spoke of the “new covenant” (31:31ff), he made it the equivalent of God’s “law,” which would take up residence in man’s heart (v. 33).

(3) When Jesus Christ is repeatedly depicted as a “king” in the biblical record, clearly the concept is set forth that he exercises an authority to which men are expected to comply. If this is not “law,” there is no meaning to such terms as king, rule, reign, submit, obey, etc. (see Mt. 2:2; 28:18; Lk. 19:14,27; Eph. 1:20-23; Phil. 2:9-10; Heb. 5:9; Rev. 1:5; 19:16).

(4) The inspired writers of the New Testament viewed the authority of the regime of Christ as one of law. Our freedom from the condemning effect of sin is the result of our submission to the “law of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:2). The expression “law of the Spirit” is the same as the gospel, the new covenant system. It is “of the Spirit” because it was conveyed by the Spirit’s direction. It is designated as law because it is an “expression of the divine will” and a “rule of conduct” (Moses Lard, Commentary on Romans, Cincinnati: Standard, n.d., 247).

Elsewhere, Paul acknowledged that he was “under law to Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21). Additionally, to the Galatians he gives this admonition: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

Finally, if the inspired James is not referring to the present order of things, when he alluded to the “perfect law” (Jas. 1:25), of what was he speaking?

A consideration of the foregoing facts ought to enable the conscientious Bible student to see John 1:17 in a balanced light. Furthermore, it should forever banish the absurd notion that our modern world is exempt from the restraints of sacred law.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.