One of the most misunderstood relationships in all of Christianity is the relationship between God’s law and God’s grace. At first glance it’s easy to see where there may be tension between the two. After all, if God’s law instructs us not to do something and we do it, can we really expect him to overlook out indiscretion because of grace? If he’s going to give us what we don’t deserve every time, what’s the point of giving us any laws?
But the debate between law and grace goes beyond the practical and very quickly becomes part of a debate about salvation. There are those who argue that the Law was given to provide us with a way of earning our way into God’s good favor, and maybe even earning heaven. Most world religions ascribe to some form of earn-your-way theology. But as I’m sure you are aware, there are a great many Christians who argue that salvation is by faith and grace alone. According to this view, keeping God’s law is not a means of earning salvation. But even within the faith-alone camp, I’ve heard plenty of preachers and evangelists argue that if a person isn’t consistently keeping God’s law, he isn’t really a Christian! This take on law and grace implies that keeping the law is proof of salvation by grace. In other words, real Christians will obey God’s law (at least most of the time). They usually don’t consider breaking the speed limit a make-or-break infraction, in spite of what the New Testament says about obeying laws instituted by government. Oh well.
So where does that leave us? The Bible has its share of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots. But at the same time, the Bible talks an awful lot about grace. So which is it? Or if it’s both, how do they fit together?
Grace and the Big Ten
Good news. This is not as confusing as people in my profession make it. The easiest way to understand the relationship between God’s law and God’s grace is to take a look at the most famous list of laws in the history of mankind and the story behind where they came from. The list I’m referring to is, of course, the Ten Commandments.
Almost everybody’s heard of the Ten Commandments. In fact, most people would agree that we should abide by them. But almost nobody can name them. When I was in graduate school, the dry cleaner I used was operated by a middle-aged woman named Agnes. From time to time I would try to engage Agnes in a conversation about religion. She was quick to remind me that she kept the Ten Commandments. That was her default response to all things religious. And that was also her way of saying that the conversation was officially over! So one day I asked Agnes if she actually knew all ten of the commandments. Without even looking up she said, “No. But I keep ’em.”
Agnes is not alone. Just for fun, our church conducted a man-on-the-street type interview to find out what people actually knew about the big ten. Armed with a camera and a microphone, they hit the pavement and asked people to name as many of the Ten Commandments as they could. No one could name them all. Most could only name two. The most astute commandment-keepers could recall only these four:
- Do not kill.
- Do not steal.
- Do not commit adultery.
- Do not lie.
No one could remember the first four commandments. Everyone jumped straight to the thou-shalt-not rules of conduct. And that’s sad. It’s sad because our predisposition toward the thou-shalt-nots supports a universal myth regarding God and his feelings toward the human race. Simply stated, obedience gets you in, and disobedience keeps you out. Or another way of saying the same thing is, God’s approval is reserved for the rule-followers. But nothing could be further from the truth.
As rare as it is to find someone who can recite all Ten Commandments, it is even rarer to find someone who knows the story of how they came to be in the first place. The story is just as important as the commandments themselves. The context surrounding the giving of these commandments resolves the tension we feel between God’s law and his grace. As we are about to discover, the Ten Commandments do not stand in contrast to grace; they are introduced within the story of God’s grace.God’s law is featured heavily in the Old Testament, but only as the subtext of a grander narrative that highlights his grace toward a helpless, undeserving group of people.
The Story Behind the Law
You can tell a lot about a person or a government by the rules they establish, and even more by the rules they enforce. For example, you can learn a lot about who I am from the number one rule that I have established and strictly enforce in the Stanley household: “Thou shalt respect thy mama.” There’s a lot of freedom and grace in our home, but if one of my children violates that simple rule, things get more than a bit unpleasant. I let my children know that I will overreact. My discipline will not be fair, but it will be thorough! While I think it would be a good idea if every family made that rule a part of their domestic policy, that’s not really my point. My point is that particular rule reveals something about my values. We protect best what we value most.
The same is true of God. His rules reflect his values. God’s display of power over the Egyptians revealed his ability but very little of his nature. Egyptian mythology described gods that were capricious and cruel. What kind of deity was the God of Abraham? The people needed to know. The Ten Commandments reassured the Israelites that their God was not only powerful but good.
Before issuing the first rule, God said something that must have stunned as well as reassured Moses. He said, “I am the LORD your God …” (Exod. 20:2). Moses must have thought, Wait! Did you say the Lord your God? Don’t you mean the Lord the God?
Today, we have more than three millennia of information (and misinformation) about God, but Moses and the Israelites knew almost nothing about him. All they knew was that God had freed them from slavery and that he intended to settle them in the Promised Land. The simple, seemingly insignificant pronoun your implied something profoundly new to Moses and the Israelites. After so many years of oppression in Egypt, the idea of a personal God having a personal relationship with people had long faded from memory.
Your God implies a relationship, but the Israelites hadn’t done anything to deserve or establish a relationship. As slaves on the run, they had nothing to offer. They didn’t even know how to please him! Nevertheless, the phrase “your God” affirmed the fact that the Israelites already had a relationship with God. He said, in so many words, “You’re in. You are my people.”
First Relationship, Then Rules
Then the Lord took Moses down memory lane. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2), which immediately called to mind the events of the Exodus. God’s message to Moses could not have been any clearer: “You’re not here to get in with me; you’re already in. We’re not here to establish a relationship; I did that three months ago by supernaturally delivering you from your captors.” It was in the context of this pre-existing relationship—a relationship that began more than six hundred years earlier with a promise to another undeserving man, Abraham—that God gave his people the Law. God initiated a relationship with his people before he even told them what the rules were.
Having established the relationship, having sealed the relationship, and having proven the security of the relationship, God then gave the people rules to live by. God knew something that every parent eventually discovers. Rules without a relationship lead to rebellion. God understands human nature. So he gave the Israelites rules after they shared a relationship.
God’s law is never given to establish a relationship; God’s law is given to confirm an existing relationship. Pause for a moment and let that sink in. The story of the Exodus and the Ten Commandments reveals something important about God’s character. If we miss this, we will never understand the role of God’s law in our relationship with him. Worse, if we misunderstand the purpose of God’s law, his grace will forever remain a mystery.
Redeemed by Grace
The law of God is an expression of his grace. Think about your pet. Don’t have a pet? Then think about my pet. We have a black Lab named Shadow. And we have an invisible fence that works about half the time. But that’s beside the point. Now, based on what you know about pets, when do you suppose we took Shadow home and trained her to stay inside our yard? Before or after we bought her?
Exactly: after. Once she became ours, we taught her to live within certain boundaries. Imagine the absurdity of stealing her from her previous owner, rushing to our house, putting her in the backyard, and then making the argument that she was our dog because she was in our backyard. She didn’t become our pet when we placed her inside our fence. She’s inside our fence because she’s our pet. She became our dog when we purchased her. Similarly, God doesn’t throw fences around people to make them his. God gives rules of conduct to those who already belong to him.
Now, from time to time, Shadow figures out that the fence isn’t working and she takes off to visit the adjoining neighborhood. When that happens, we usually get a call. And never once have I made the case that Shadow is not our dog because she is no longer in our yard, abiding by our rules. Nope. She’s our dog whether she’s in or out of the yard. Why? Because obedience does not determine ownership.
In the same way our family made a choice to purchase Shadow, God chose to purchase us from sin through the sacrifice of his Son. Okay, maybe not in exactly the same way. But you get my point. Shadow didn’t earn her way into our possession (or into our backyard), and we don’t earn our way into God’s backyard, either. He made a choice to make us his own by grace. We enter that relationship through faith, accepting his offer of forgiveness for our sins. And then and only then do we become accountable to his prescription for living.
If you find yourself measuring your own behavior against these ancient yet relevant instructions for life called the Ten Commandments, remember that what was true of Israel is true of you, as well. These divinely inspired instructions stand not as a gateway into a relationship with God, but as a confirmation that you already belong to him.
This article was excerpted from The Grace of God (2010) by Andy Stanley. Used by permission.