The following article appeared in The New Millennium, a publication of the Association for Christian Development. To receive a free subscription to The New Millennium, please write to

Association for Christian Development
756 Industry Drive
Tukwila, WA 98188
(206) 575-3365 (Voice)
(206) 575-3148 (Fax)

Law or Grace,
Which Side Are You on?

by Kenneth V. Ryland

For many Christians today the law of God is irrelevant. Luxuriating in the grace of Christ, they see no point in informing themselves of what God's law says we should or should not do. Since Christians are under grace and not under the law, the latter appears to be inconsequential. Once a Christian possesses Christ, why should he return to the weak and beggardly elements of the law?

Is this how you feel about God's law? Perhaps you would never openly voice such thoughts, but your doubts about the importance of God's law may remain.

In this article I would like to make clear the significance of the law of God without diminishing the importance of our focus upon the person of Christ and the grace that came to us through Him. A broad definition of the "law of God" will be applied to mean those instructions given by God (directly or indirectly) which place a demand on all or part of humanity. God's law is His will expressed as an obligation. Misunderstanding our obligations to God (His law) has placed many Christians in direct opposition to His will, and the simple fact is that blessings do not come in an atmosphere of disobedience, even if the disobedience results from ignorance.

How about you; are you obeying God as you know you should, or are you satisfied that any effort you make in the direction of God's will, no matter how meager, is enough to satisfy Him because you are under grace, and He really does not care all that much? Blessings come to those who willingly and wholeheartedly obey God and His law. You must be certain and satisfied that God is pleased with your thoughts and behavior

A defective understanding of certain scriptures concerning the law has lead many Christians into confusion and an ineffective Christian life. For example, you probably hear Romans 6:14 quoted quite often: "You are not under the law but under grace." Or, maybe you have heard, "The law and the prophets were until John, but now is the kingdom of God preached" (Matthew 11:13 and Luke 16:16). But are these and other scriptures about the grace of God really saying that the law of God is less important to the man or woman of faith than it ever was?

For too long Christians have been convinced that somehow law and grace are opposed to each other and that to choose God, they must choose grace over law. But both come from God, and every Christian must learn to be comfortable with both law and grace and understand why the two are inseparable.

An Inseparable Pair

The best way to describe how law and grace relate to each other is to take the terms out of their religious context and apply them to a more modern situation. These two confusing religious words become understandable when we apply them to the founding of the American Republic.

When the founders of the United States met in 1776 to declare the independence of the American colonies from the rule of Great Britain, they pledged "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor." In the ensuing war for independence many of these men who signed the Declaration of Independence gave everything they had pledged in order to bring to birth a free nation. Some shed their blood, most lost their fortunes and went to their graves in poverty and dishonor.

In our day, when such sacrifice is out-of-fashion, we find it difficult to understand their zeal to sacrifice everything for the sake of the principle. Yet, my freedom to write and yours to read these lines is the result of their willing sacrifice. They secured the "blessings of liberty" not just for themselves, but for their posterity.

This is where we see law and grace inseparably linked. The giving of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor was the act of grace that opened the door of freedom to all who followed them. But this act of grace, this sacrifice which blessed its recipients without regard to their worthiness, could never sustain the blessings of liberty bestowed on the American Republic. Rather, it was the enacting of a just constitution and equitable and just laws that provided the framework that has allowed the gracious gift of freedom to continue through the generations.

Nonetheless, there was one more element necessary to guarantee the continuance of the freedom won through that original sacrifice: That was the willingness of the people to live within the legal framework provided by their forebears. The people would have to remain obedient to the founding principles and laws for freedom to continue. Only through the obedience of an orderly and just society can blessings flow to its citizens. And, freedom can be lost altogether when citizens become disobedient and disrespectful of the principles and laws which were given to preserve their hard-won freedoms. No amount of obedience could have produced the acts of grace and sacrifice which brought freedom to the American people. But obedience to law is imperative if freedom is to continue, once gained through sacrifice.

One aspect of this marvelous process which must not be overlooked is the covenant which the shedding of blood produced. After freedom was won, a constitution was presented to the people, and all the freed states ratified it and swore allegiance to its principles. In agreeing (or covenanting, as it was commonly referred to), the people not only accepted the gift of freedom which was handed to them, but they also accepted their obligation to live by all the principles and stipulations contained in the covenant document (the Constitution).

In a biblical context we can see clearly how obedience to God's law cannot force God to do gracious acts for His people. Nonetheless, the benefits of His grace cannot be preserved by anything except obedience.

Graceful Exodus

Think about Israel and its history. What great act was Israel able to do to free itself from slavery in Egypt? Nothing! No amount of obedience could gain them the freedom they desired, but an act of grace by the Lord Himself could break the Egyptian chains forever. "Now the Lord said to Moses, "now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh. For with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.' " (Exodus 6:1) By grace Israel was saved, not of themselves lest anyone of them should boast. Israel's salvation showed the Lord's good works, not those of Israel. "Now the Lord said to Moses, 'Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, so that I may show these signs of Mine before him, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son's son the mighty things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.' " (Exodus 10:1-2)

God intended from the beginning to extend the blessings of liberty not just to that generation of Israel but to their posterity. However, once their liberty was gained, what was necessary to make it secure for succeeding generations? Obedience! Once freed, the Israelites were brought to Mount Sinai to hear and ratify their covenant with God. The covenant document containing the framework for Israel's society was given to the people by God in the form of laws. The people in turn agreed to obey all the terms of the covenant (i.e., contract).

"So Moses came and told the people the words of the Lord and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, 'All the words which the Lord has said we will do.' And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord...There he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, 'All that the Lord has said we will do and be obedient.' " (Exodus 24: 3, 4, and 7)

Israel's obedience to the Lord's commandments and laws did not cause their liberation from Egypt; rather, the laws were given to preserve God's gift of freedom. To put it another way, after freedom was gained, the Israelites were obligated to obey God's law to avoid returning to slavery.

Blessings Tied to Obedience

In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 God spells out in clear terms the blessings which would come to His people if they obeyed and the curses and ultimately slavery which would fall upon them if they disobeyed. God states the conditions as follows: "But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments, and if you despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you do not perform all My commandments, but break My covenant, I will do this to you:" (Leviticus 26:14-16) Then follows a long list of horrible curses which would fall upon the people if they refused to obey God's commandments (which, by the way, came to pass). The culminating curse (assuming that all the other punishments failed to bring the people back to obedience) was to be thrown off the land, back into slavery.

As can be seen in this passage in Leviticus 28, God intended to tie the covenant to the people's obedience to His laws. That is, in order to avoid a return to slavery, the people had to abide by the terms of their contract with God. Is this not the same as it is today? In order for contracting parties to enjoy all the benefits of their contract, each must obey the terms of that contract. God made a contract with the people of Israel at Sinai; it had to do with taking possession of a certain piece of property, the land of Canaan. To retain possession, the people were obligated to meet the owner's (God's) terms.

Now, in Israel's case do we see law or grace? We see both. Like two sides of a coin, one does not exist without the other. God, by a kind act of grace, freed the people from Egypt with the intention of giving them the land of Canaan. To enjoy these benefits, the people were required to enter into an agreement with God which stated that they must live by the terms and conditions which He, being the owner of the land, stipulated. Unfortunately, neither Israel nor Judah (which split off from Israel after Solomon's reign) lived up to their promises, and they were expelled from the land and forced back into slavery.

There are several responses which are often given to those who advocate the necessity of keeping God's laws. One is, "The New Covenant is different. The grace of God through the blood of Jesus will cover all sins, so we should not even think about the law. It's requirements were fulfilled and are now obsolete. They have been superseded by grace."

Then there is the middle-of-the-road response, which goes something like this: "I know that the law is important. The Bible says it is, and I try to keep it, but grace is a lot more important, so when I slip up, I know I'm covered. The law is just not as important as it was in the Old Testament."

The third reaction is the obverse of the first. This view holds that acceptance of Christ places us under God's legal code, and the only way to retain salvation is through strict adherence to all stipulations accepted as being part of that code.

These three points of view are common, and all reveal a misunderstanding of the relationship between law and grace. All show a bias in favor of one or the other. All manifest the attitude that law and grace are somehow opposing or perhaps counterbalancing forces.

However, God is not schizophrenic. He does not have to struggle to keep His thinking in balance. Understanding how law and grace complement each other is more common sense than theology. Grace is like handing a beggar $10.00. If he is a drunk, he will head straight for the liquor store, and the $10.00 will be consumed in an evening (or less). On the otherhand, if the giver attaches certain conditions to the gift, conditions guaranteed to benefit the recipient, both the giver and the recipient will be blessed.

Obedience to God's law is the fertile soil in which the abundant fruit of grace blossoms. Or, to put it another way, grace is the sowing of the seed, and obedience is the working of the soil to keep it free from weeds.

So, you see, it is impossible to separate law from grace. God is the giver of grace, and His law is the structure of His thinking which surrounds His act of giving. The law of God is a description of the behavior which would be normal and natural for God if He were a man (as Jesus vividly displayed, [John 15:10]). That is why He wrote it on tables of stone. He wanted those with whom He covenanted to have a picture of what He is like and to be like Him. "So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone" (Deuteronomy 4:13).

Many will be quick to point out, and rightly so, that our covenant with the Creator has nothing to do with writing on tables of stone. Nonetheless, it should be clear that when God enters into a covenant with human beings, He expects obedience to His conditions. When He refers to the New Covenant in the book of Jeremiah, what does He say about obedience to His law?

"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his brother saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:33,34. See also Hebrews 8:8-13 and 10:16-18).

One of the principal differences between the New Covenant which God makes with us through Christ and the one He made with Israel on Sinai is that now the Lord makes us able through His Spirit to keep His laws and avoid the curses which come through disobedience. His Spirit enables us to have His point of reference, to see things as He sees them. His desire is for obedience to become "natural" for us now that we have His divine nature (II Peter 1:4).

How would you rate your own obedience to God's law? Are you putting forth only enough effort in your walk with the Lord to avoid the fires of hell? Or, do you even have a walk with God? If you see yourself as weak spiritually, it's time to examine yourself and see whether you are obedient to God and His law. God wants you to be like Him, and the degree of your disobedience is the degree to which you are unlike Him. He desires that you have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10), but that blessing can never come to you in the midst of rebellion and disobedience. If your relationship with the Lord is unsatisfactory, do something about it. When all the distractions of this life have been swept away, your relationship with God is all that will remain. Remember, "not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

Back to Top

Back Home

[Email your comments to the author.]