Preaching Articles

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.

Andy Stanley is an acclaimed pastor, communicator, author, and the founder of North Point Ministries, Inc. Since its inception in 1995, North Point Ministries has grown from one campus to three in the Atlanta area; each Sunday over 20,000 adults attend worship services at one of them. Andy has written several books on Christian leadership principles, including Seven Practices of Effective Ministry, Communicating for a Change, Making Vision Stick, and The Principle of the Path. Learn more from Andy during his free monthly Leadership Podcast and from his new series, Guardrails.

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James Thompson

commented on Nov 29, 2010

If obedience doesn't matter, then let's go to the house. It's so amazing to me how educated people just look beyond the truth to see the things that they have been indoctrinated with, and I mean that in the kindest way. Let's say a person goes to jail for robbing a bank and later receives a pardon. Upon getting out, he goes straight and robs another bank, will his pardon for the previous bank robbery cover him on this? I think osas is an attempt of some to totally abuse the Grace of God. If you don't have to do anything to get it in the first place, how do you get it then? You can't receive it, because then you are working/earning it. If it is not in anything you can do, then it can't be in anything that you have done. What do so many refuse to be responsible for their actions. The day will come when all will stand before God and give an account of their works, good or bad. There is no more to be added to that.

Greg Gilbreath

commented on Nov 29, 2010

Paul had a different view. He made it clear that the law served the purpose of showing us our lostness. He called it a taskmaster to bring us to Christ. Now that we have accepted Christ, the only law we should concern ourselves with is the heart of all the old laws "love". Paul said it like this, "your faith expressing itself in love". This is our calling in Christ - way bigger than the 10 and better at helping people act like Jesus. Galatians 5 by the way.

Monroe Winston Ginn Jr

commented on Nov 29, 2010

we hear alot about the fire and torment of hell ,but you hardly ever hear about no love being there. since God IS love and God will not be in hell there will be NO love there ,that in it self will be a torment no love ever just torment day after day God i pray for all that are reading and anybody they come in contact with will head the messages of this sermon and repent so they will not have to face any of this place

Bradley Dorsey

commented on Nov 29, 2010

The dog didn't have a choice whether he would go home with his master. The nation of Israels conquest of the PROMISED land depended on their obeying this set of instructions. Deu 30:19 I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; Deu 30:20 that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them."

Vince Flippo

commented on Nov 29, 2010

So, help me understand, when the people of God failed to uphold their share of the covenant even though God was "a husband" to it, did they, then, cease being the people of God through whom God would help all nations know that He is God? Or did they continue being the people of God under discipline of exile to later be reestablished a holy people for God's global redemptive purposes?

Sharyl Pickens

commented on Nov 29, 2010

I believe that the laws help us "get along" better on the earth. When we steal, there are consequences. Maybe legal, maybe our conscience bothers us. Maybe others no longer trust us. God knew what would work best among humans, and following these rules enhances our lives. I know non-Christians who follow most of these rules and lead happy, well-adjusted lives, living in harmony with those around them. The laws can exist and be effective without a relationship with God. And grace is already in place, whether or not we accept it. But a relationship with God is made better by the laws. We trust his leadership and believe what he tells us. He is protecting us from ourselves and from each other. Like an earthly parent does his child. We prevent the child from touching a hot stove, and as the child grows and realizes how we have protected him, he trusts us more. God knew what it would take for his people to survive. He wants us to be "different" than the others. He wants us to be set apart. Obeying these rules not only helps others know we are Christians, but makes our lives better. Have you ever considered doing something (perpetuating gossip, stealing, lying, cheating on your spouse, etc.) and then your conscience kicks in? That's God, nudging you toward the correct decision. Afterward, have you looked back and thought, "I am so glad I didn't do that"? That thought process ultimately draws you closer to God. You trusted him, followed his guidelines, and felt good about your choice. That strengthens a relationship. Trust is a big part of it.

Gerald Graham

commented on Nov 29, 2010

Hmmm, Intriguing and disturbing at the same time that we have not a clear understanding of Grace. We know the law is good. Rules are necessary to have order. It is not that there are no longer consequences for our disobedience. It's that we are no longer condemned to death forever. When God flooded the earth he promised never to do it again. He did not say there would never be any consequences for our sin. So it is with grace. The grace is for the eternal death we would have suffered without Jesus' loving act of sacrifice. But the Bible clearly tells us God disciplines those he loves. There are still consequences. Applying all law with no grace leads to death. Applying all grace with no law is aiding and abetting. God help those who lead His little ones into sin....

Sharyl Pickens

commented on Nov 29, 2010

Gerald - I like your sentiment that all law with no grace is death, and all grace with no law is permissiveness. Sometimes, it appears that we want our cake and to eat it to, so to speak. We should be thrilled that God loves us enough to discipline us. What comfort in knowing that God wants what is best for me, and will help me find the proper path to receiving it!

Doug Engel

commented on Nov 29, 2010

In a nutshell Andy, you are saying along with James, that Grace without works is dead. I like your illustrations and I certainly agree that grace is not a new thing introduced with the new covenant. That being said, I am reminded that Paul calls the law, and specifically the ten commandments, "the ministry of death" (2 Cor. 3:7) and the "ministry of condemnation" (2 Cor. 3:9). Then, in context (2 Cor. 6:1), Paul pleads with his readers to not "receive the grace of God in vain" followed by "cleanse yourselfs from all filthiness" (2 Cor. 7:1). Certainly grace MUST be seen and understood through our inability to keep God's law. Not really a simple topic and, as it always does, brings out those who lean passionately to the left or to the right of where and how grace works. Good effort Andy, on this difficult subject.

Larry Lohr

commented on Nov 29, 2010

You do shed some interseting light on Gods grace as far as you go. Yes, Jesus paid the price to purchase everyone with His sacrifice on the cross. But some, in fact most people are going to hell. Striaght is the way, narrow is the gate, and FEW there be that find it. Though Jesus paid for all, satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy. What you are ignoring is mans free will and satan gets a crack at it. It is our free will that gives us the ability to love and have relationships by choice. Love cannot be forced or it is not love. The divorce rate is proof that most porple are not willing to have loving relationships. So our relationship with God doesn't really exist unless we choose to accept Gods grace and act in faith. And faith without works is dead or does not exist. So though our works can NEVER be good enough to save us, if we are saved and have a real loving relationship with God, it will be demonstrated by our fruit or works because of the grace that flows out of our gratitude for the cross. In Mathew 7 Jesus said we will know them by their fruit and a good tree cannot produce bad fruit or a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. If Jesus made us righteous we will act like it. Also He said: Mat 7:21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Yes that is pretty scarry, but verry true. Any one who is not living to serve God and do His will is not going to heaven no matter how many times they call Jesus Lord. Though we have all sinned and therefore our works can NEVER save us, If we are saved our works or fruit prove it. Jesus died for all and it is not Gods will that any perish. But it is very clear by Gods word that most people put the measure of faith that God gives all of us in their self and other things instead of God and therefore are not saved. We demonstrate by everything we do where we put our faith. So if we are not living to serve and do Gods will, our faith is not in God and we will not enter heaven. As long as our faith is in our self we receive NO grace due to our pride, though it is there and available. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. So the first real step to that relationship with God is humility or brokenness. We can only be saved due to the grace of God. But we decide of our own free will to put our faith in God and surrender to His Lordship or not. Salvation is simply a sucesful or surrendered life. As Pat Someral (Sorry not sure about the spelling) I believe it was would have said, Now you know the rest of the story. Larry Lohr

Tony Mac

commented on Nov 29, 2010

"Putting on the new man" as indicated by Paul, is the important goal, or journey. Maybe we could say this means aligning oneself (all of levels and dimensions of what we are) with the divine reality; or transcending one's ordinary self in order to have Christ - God - living in me, even as me. There is no way this journey can be even started without a basic morality, because not to (try with some success to) follow a basic morality is about the same as saying you strengthen your ordinary self with its tricks and misleading urges and priorities - this is the opposite of "transcending the ordinary self" or "losing your life for My sake". But there is more, much more! Once we start putting on the new man, or aligning the human spirit with the divine depths and heights, a basic aim of our own existence and of the whole creation starts to be fulfilled, man and God are intimate, and man becomes an instrument, a presence, and an expression of the divine. For some of us - all of us? - this will mean helping to sort out some of the mess and suffering on this planet, or helping to built the new and the beautiful, not to mention the loving, the holy and the divine. This, surely, is "works". Rather than looking at "works" as a PAYMENT we make to earn something, surely such a vision requires us to surrender enough to PERMIT "works" to be done through us. To say that salvation IS through "works" really should have that meaning. To say that salvation IS NOT through works really should mean that we ought not to regards "works" as a payment of any sort. "Works", free of hope of reward, free of other egoic motivation, are what God does through us when we finally have enough trust to give God permission to do so!

Jim Locke

commented on Nov 29, 2010

is there really such a thing as good works? if your motive is a reward i suspect you are just doing it for the reward. You are betting your obedience gets you something better (in a Pascal's wager kind of way). No relationship need exist as long as the odds are stacked in your favor. if all you are doing is avoiding punishment of searching for better odds, i question if your relationship exists.

Vince Flippo

commented on Nov 29, 2010

So, again, help me understand, when the people of God failed to uphold their share of the covenant even though God was "a husband" to it, did they, then, cease being the people of God through whom God would help all nations know that He is God? Or did they continue being the people of God under discipline of exile to later be reestablished a holy people for God's global redemptive purposes?

Gary Webb

commented on Nov 29, 2010

Without much in additional flourishes, I'll just share a couple of passages worthy of consideration in the discussion of God's grace. First, Titus 2:11-14 says, "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works." The result of grace is a change of heart, bringing a change of behavior. The Holy Spirit, who indwells everyone who has been born again, is also called the "Spirit of Grace." Christ was said to be "full of grace and truth." Perhaps the real problem is that people discuss grace as a principle of philosophy rather than a Person.

Ron Lowe

commented on Nov 30, 2010

WOW! Grace: that's the greatest news one could imagine! Well, if you are "accepted." Since He does it all... and "our works don't matter,' are there those He does not accept and therefore CANNOT be saved? AND the invitation effectually void for them? Andy, with all due respect, what about them? Is the GOOD NEWS good only for a few... chosen? Please, finish the story, tell us about the other side of this coin; about those NOT CHOSEN. That is the problem with this perspective.

Karl Popke

commented on Nov 30, 2010

When we come to understand who God is, and His grace through the work of Jesus on the cross, and when we have accepted it by faith, we have salvation. But now the training begins. Here's a portion of what I shared in my last sermon. ...Today the sin in people’s lives is growing. People are becoming more proud of themselves, more self-Centered. Hearts are growing colder, harder, and callous. In some Christian circles it‘s preached: "Get rid of the sin in your life, that’s the way to godliness." I would contend -- that the more you focus on sin, the greater your sin struggle will be. I don’t know of anyone who can boast, "When I got rid of the sin in my life, I became godly." But I do know, that as I seek the heart of God, as I yearn, and long, and pursue more of God in my life, the sin in my life is found falling away. The world and it’s passions are becoming less and less attractive and wanting. When a person abandons self and pursues God, one finds a great fulfilling godly life. There are no rules to follow when one's heart is beating with God, for one loves what God loves, and hates what God hates. The more we love something, the more we do it. The more we hate something, the further we move away from it.

Thomas Nite

commented on Dec 1, 2010

With all due respect, Andy, it appears that you are confusing Israel with the Church. And you have ignored Paul's clear teaching that the Law was a school master to bring us to Christ. It's purpose was to show our sinfulness and in turn lead us to Christ who alone can forgive our sins. What you have presented leads to confusion and contradicts clear teaching of Scripture. As believers in Christ our motivation to live for Christ does not come from the Law. It comes as we submit to the control of God's Spirit who lives in us. Romans 8; Galatians 5; Ephesians 5, to identify a few of the key passages. Christ fulfilled the law for us. We are not to try to fulfill it ourselves.

Enwood Nevis

commented on Dec 2, 2010

A helpful resource for all would be CFW Walther's book "The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel." If you can get past the stilted formal language you'll discover a great way to relate God's law to His promises, and learn to avoid making God's promises (fulfilled in Jesus) back into a burden of the law (as Paul accused Peter of doing in Galatians 2:14ff).

Dawson Lindblom

commented on Dec 4, 2010

If we expect to reach heaven by our own actions and belief, we are in for a great disappointment. No, we cannot like a live that will get us to heaven without accepting Jesus Christ. Paul made it clear in Eph. that works will not get the job done. Our works "AFTER" salavation are because our desire to serve our Lord and to please Him. We have salvation by faith through grace. Eph2:Eph 2:4-10 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. NIV Eph 2:4-10 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. NIV

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