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Resting in God: The Difference Between Law & Gospel

Posted May 10, 2022
DoctrineThe Gospel

We all want to belong. We vote for certain political parties, cheer on our favorite teams, rep the colors of our cherished universities, and interview at our dream jobs because we want to belong to them. Only their approval matters. Only their acceptance makes us important. Only their blessing will make us happy. Or so we think.

The sad truth about belonging is that it isn’t easy. It’s hard to get in, and it’s even harder to stay in. But there’s a beautiful exception to this in the community of Jesus’s followers. It plays by a different set of rules. Belonging isn’t created by a performance; it’s donated as a gift. Your value is freely given, not earned. Your worth is permanent because it comes from the performance of Jesus, a performance that God himself recognized as the ideal human achievement.

Put theologically, belonging to the family of God comes through the gospel, not through the law. If your identity is shaped by law, you will never be enough, either to yourself or to God. If your identity is shaped by the gospel, on the other hand, you’re already enough. Not because you’ve proven yourself, but because you embrace your true identity as a beloved child of God. Living by the gospel means you rest in God rather than trying to impress him. That’s why you must know the difference between the law and the gospel.

Law

Acceptance takes work. You must beat the competition to get in. And if you make any wrong moves, you’re pushed out by the person standing behind you who can’t wait to take your place. This is how belonging works under law, because laws create standards and expectations. If you live up to them, you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out.

Standards aren’t always bad, though. In fact, they’re necessary in many situations. Trading a player who isn’t at peak performance makes room for the next generation of athletes. Holding people accountable for crimes they commit keeps society healthy. Letting a doctor go who hasn’t maintained his skills can save lives. In these cases, rejection is a way to uphold good expectations.

God has standards for his people as well. His laws are like boundaries that keep you from the danger zone on the other side. If you step outside the lines, you’ll hurt yourself. If you stay within them, however, you’ll live like an ideal human. Your life will flourish as you experience the fullness of God’s presence and blessing. In this way, God’s law is good. His standards protect your dignity and worth.

The problem with the law, however, is that it’s a high-stakes game. The life and blessing and belonging that are promised in God’s laws come after your performance (Deut. 30:17–18). While a high performance leads to acceptance, a poor performance leads to rejection. Even if you have a good performance, the approval you receive in one moment is not guaranteed in the future. You must prove yourself repeatedly to keep the reward. One wrong move can send you to the back of the line. This is why the law is a double-edged sword. Though its purposes are good, it always put you back on trial. Living by the law can only lead to fatigue, anxiety, and burnout.

Gospel

The gospel doesn’t work in this way. Whereas the law creates a standard that judges you, the gospel creates an identity that comes with the status you need to belong. Think of the gospel as a coronation ceremony. The daughter of a king never has to try out to belong to her family. Her acceptance into the royal line is guaranteed by her noble birth. She simply receives the status, reputation, and accomplishments of her family because they are her inheritance. Her coronation ceremony doesn’t come after she has proven herself worthy as an heir. It’s a public announcement that confirms the royal identity she had at birth.

Biblical authors use similar images and language to describe acceptance into the family of God. In Galatians, for example, Paul contrasts law-belonging with gospel-belonging. Jesus lived under the pressures and demands of law-belonging (Gal. 4:4). His acceptance within Jewish society was determined by how well he lived out the teachings of the Torah. Paul says that Jesus perfectly met these expectations (Gal. 4:5), that he was the ideal Torah-keeper. Like a great king who represents us, his status and reputation are then given to us so that we would be treated like heirs in his kingdom (Gal. 4:5–6). In other words, the gospel is God’s announcement that we are as his children (John 1:12).

This welcome into the family of God comes with generous benefits. Like a daughter who receives her father’s kingdom, our adoption into Jesus’s royal line is the birthright we need to inherit a new creation (Rom. 4:13). The value of gospel-belonging is that our co-ownership of the kingdom of God is guaranteed by the performance of Jesus (Rom. 8:14–17). Put differently, Christians share in the rewards Jesus earned through his Torah-keeping. Which means you have divine approval through his performance, not by your own effort. When you trust that his life, death, and resurrection are for you, you’ll receive his status and inheritance as a gift. You’ll discover what it means to have true freedom when your identity is hidden in Christ (Col. 3:3). Your value will be secure.

Embrace Gospel-Belonging

Whose you are shapes who you are. Don’t be owned by your paycheck, your job title, or your followers. Don’t be someone who always tries to prove yourself to others. You may never make it to the big leagues. You may never get your dream job. You may never get enough likes on Instagram or enough retweets on Twitter to go viral. But that’s okay, because a life built on performances is life-taking. Don’t desire law-belonging, embrace gospel-belonging. Anyone who is in Christ can hide in the safety of God’s love. God doesn’t turn away from you on your worst days. He doesn’t condemn you when you don’t measure up. He continues to love and accept you even when you least deserve it. Belonging to him means setting aside the need to impress. It means finding rest in his constant approval. It means discovering true freedom apart from your performances. It means being welcomed home every time you run away. Gospel-belonging is the most life-giving gift you can receive. In Christ, you are enough.

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Ty Gregory

Ty Gregory is a Latin and Humanities teacher in the classical, Christian education movement. He earned two master's degrees in Biblical and Theological Studies from Westminster Seminary California. He continues to pursue his pastoral calling as an intern of Denver Pres (PCA) in Colorado. He hopes to combine his pastoral and academic training—especially his love of language, history, and theology—to form the next generation of lifelong learners and followers of Jesus. Outside of the classroom, Ty enjoys hiking and coffee connoisseuring with his lovely wife, Karen. The renewing and liberating love of God in Christ Jesus for the outcast and the poor inspires all of his teachings and writings.