Why is there so much conflict among Christians about law vs. grace?
Some Christians read the Bible and conclude that only by grace can anyone be saved. Others determine that the law must be kept, and still others say that keeping the law leads to the grace which saves. Because this issue has to do with the way of salvation, the conflict over different views can be intense.
It is important to understand "the law" refers to God's rules, His standards. Generally "the law" is a reference to the Mosaic law, starting with the Ten Commandments and including civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. In discussions of law vs. grace today, most use "the law" to refer only to the Mosaic moral law. Others consider "the law" to mean obedience to God or good works in a more general sense, but still with the idea that some type of rule-following is necessary to merit salvation.
God gave the Mosaic law to the people of Israel to set them apart from the nations around them, to define righteousness, and to define sin (Ezra 10:11; Romans 5:13; 7:7). There is no way, just no way, that any person could keep the law perfectly (Romans 3:10–20). That is one reason for God to reveal the law—to show that the righteousness He requires is unobtainable by our efforts, and to show that a Savior is needed.
The law was proven unable to change the heart of people (Romans 8:3). In fact, religious leaders wielded it to expand their power and oppress and overwhelm those who desired to follow it (Luke 11:46; Mark 7:7–9). The book of Hebrews goes into great detail explaining how the sacrificial system of the Mosaic law was intended to expire. It was a shadow of the sacrifice of Jesus. Paul explains the inability of the law to save in Galatians. Galatians 2:16 says, "yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified." Galatians 3:2–3 says, "Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" Salvation is not by works or law, but by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–10).
Remember, God does not change (Numbers 23:19). He's always embodied grace (Psalm 116:5; Joel 2:13). God provided grace by establishing the sacrificial system to cover sin committed by not following the law. He provided Jesus during the time of the law to be the ultimate sacrifice for salvation of all people who call on him (Luke 22:19–20; Romans 10:9). Jesus declared that He came to fulfill the law, not abolish it (Matthew 5:17). God has always saved people through their faith in Him (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1–25). Through Jesus, everyone who calls on Him, who believes, is declared righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 9:15).
Sometimes people dislike the teaching that salvation is by grace because it chips at human pride. We like to think we could be good enough to earn God's favor. It takes humility to understand that we are so dead in sin that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves (Ephesians 2:1–5). Admitting our need for God's grace means we are not in control and we are not as righteous as we'd often like to believe we are.
Sometimes people are concerned that preaching salvation by grace through faith will result in lawlessness. Paul addresses this concern: "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" (Romans 6:1–2). Paul writes that it is God's grace that frees us from the law's bondage (Romans 7:6) and empowers us with not only the ability to live righteous, but the desire to as well. God's grace transforms us (2 Corinthians 5:17), not to lawless living, but to true life experienced by living in obedience to Him (John 15:1–11).
Obeying the law cannot save us (Romans 3:20; Titus 3:5). We can only be saved through grace (Ephesians 2:8–9). Our righteousness is not due to our own efforts to keep the law (Matthew 5:20–48; Luke 18:18–23)—it's just not possible. Grace comes first, then obedience to God results. God's offer of grace through Jesus, coupled with the power of the Holy Spirit, motivates those who are saved to live in obedience (Matthew 3:8; John 15:14–16; James 2:26; 1 John 3:18, 23–24).
"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:8–10).
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