In Christianity, we often distinguish the law from the gospel. This is valid and necessary. The greatest error we can ever make in life is thinking it’s through obedience to God’s commands that we can earn salvation. Only belief in the gospel saves. This does not mean, however, that the law has lost all relevance for the Christian. Actually, when properly understood, God’s law serves a gracious end, drawing us away from works-righteousness to a settled trust in the gospel of Christ. Consider these three “graces” of God’s law.
The Law Gets Me Outside of Myself
God gives his law to empty us of that faulty idea that we could do anything to save ourselves. Paul says as much in Galatians 3:10: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” Why? It has to do with the unattainable demands of the law,which Paul then highlights by quoting from Deuteronomy 27:26. Notice the language of totality in this verse: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the book of the Law.”
No one is exempt. Our law-keeping must be personal—no one can do it for me. The next impossible demand of the law is that it be perpetual (hence the language of “abide”). The law also requires perfect obedience—total and complete obedience. Have you ever assembled a piece of IKEA furniture and, after completing it, you look around the floor and find one more piece, but you can’t figure out where it goes? The thing seems to be holding together just fine—but maybe this is a vital element in the whole operation! Now you can never really be confident in that piece of furniture anymore—maybe it will be just fine, or maybe it will collapse at any moment. So it is with God’s law, removing one command topples the whole system (James 2:10).
This is the unattainable demand of the law: personal, perpetual, and perfect obedience. Who can possibly render that kind of obedience to God? No one! The Reformer John Calvin says, “Scripture denies that men are justified by works, not because the Law itself is imperfect, or does not give instructions for perfect righteousness; but because the promise is made of no effect by our corruption and sin.”
The law was not given so that people would suddenly place their hope in themselves instead of God’s gracious promise. The exact opposite is true. It serves as a sort of window for us to view the gospel promise in a new way. Now we see just how badly we need help, and just how sweet God’s promise really is. The law of God gets me outside of myself. The greatest barrier between me and God is me. The law moves me out of the way—and that’s a gracious thing.
The Law Gets Me Looking to Jesus
The law is also gracious in that it instills in us an admiration, or adoration, for Christ. Knowing we can’t live the life God demands of us, we’re desperate for one who can. Then, in steps Christ. The law paints for us the beautiful picture of Christ in all his perfection so that we can see him—even before we see actually see him. God gave us the law to literally lead us to Christ, to know him, to love him, to adore him. It’s meant to take us by the hand and walk us up to Jesus, saying, “See here. He’s the one you need.”
Before Christ came, we were “held captive under the law” (Gal. 3:23). The law places us in prison and throws away the key. And the violation of the law brings the harshest penalty possible: death. So, we’re not just in jail, we’re on death row. We can’t move; we can’t get out. We’re captive. And Christ came into that same condition. He was born under the law (Gal. 4:4). He was bound by the same restrictions. He didn’t have the freedom to do whatever he wanted. Rather, he was committed to serving God the way God required. And because of that, Paul can make this profound statement in Romans 6: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Because Christ was born under the law, we can live under grace.
The Law Gives Me the Blueprint for Happiness
What’s your reaction to that good news? What’s your response to hearing that Christ has broken that imprisoning power of the law? The Bible tells us what it should be, and surprisingly it’s to look back at the law! Once the law has deprived us of ourselves and pointed us to Jesus, we’re prepared to look at it in a new light. Now we find that it shows us the kind of life that’s pleasing to God, laying out for us what kind of lifestyle will reflect his glory. We love the law because we love our God, and we show our love for him by living for him.
And when we do that, amazing things happens. We’ll be happy. We’ll be whole. We’ll be living our truest, most authentic life imaginable. God’s law is not a list of arbitrary demands, it’s a blueprint for how to live life the way we were always meant to live it—in the enjoyment of God.
People spend all their money and all their life looking for happiness and never find it—a new car, a new partner, a new gender; perhaps a better job or more freedom; maybe more activism and social change. They search and never find. But you can quit your searching. The key to your happiness is right here. God has told you exactly what you need to be fully satisfied so that you don’t need to go looking for it. Sounds like grace to me.