The goal of this short essay is simple: to reflect on how I understand the relationship between grace (forgiveness) and law (obedience). My hope is that in answering this question I will also cover important ground in exploring other pivotal questions: What is the proper correlation between belief and action? How should we present the offer and demands of the gospel to someone desiring to become a follower of Jesus (or “get saved” as some of us like to say)?
Since this is to some degree a personal reflection paper, a brief introduction may shed light on my approach. I come with vested interests, not only because I wrestle personally with how to be a faithful follower of Jesus, but also because my official title at the church where I serve happens to be “associate of belief formation.” As a church body, we have centered our life together around six core beliefs and six core practices, and my job is quite simply to help people comprehend, remember, and live out the vital connection between the two.
In tackling such a crucial issue as the relationship between God’s free gift of salvation and his “ethical demands” on our lives, it is necessary to establish a framework for an acceptable explanation. We must recognize from the outset that certain things must be true of our answer if it is to make sufficient sense of the material we possess.
First of all, our answer must make sense of Jesus’ life and ministry. Law vs. grace arguments usually consist of rival explanations of Pauline concepts and terms, failing to pay proper attention to Jesus’ earthly ministry. Yet we cannot assume that Jesus would have acted radically different towards his followers during his life than he does after his resurrection. I will mention three of the many possible points that are important for our present discussion.
One thing is clear: Jesus made real demands on anyone who wanted to follow him. His invitation to the Twelve, for example, required the willingness to turn their backs on their entire way of life. In very concrete terms, they had to leave their nets behind and follow Jesus wherever he might go (in order to be a part of the “salvation” that he was bringing). But it wasn’t just for a special few that Jesus’ reserved this call to complete commitment. He said to a whole crowd of potential disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8.34; cf. Matt 10.37-39).1
Closely related to this is the fact that Jesus turned away those who weren’t willing to meet his terms. The most prominent example is the story of the “rich young ruler” recorded in Mark 10. This man came to Jesus expressing deep desire to be faithful to God, and his track record proved his level of commitment. However, Jesus wasn’t content to respond as many of us might, “Sure, come join us, and we’ll work out the details as we go.” Instead, Jesus lovingly and yet firmly demanded that he give away all of his possessions first (Cf. Luke 9.57-62).
In addition to all this, we must never forget that Jesus claimed to fully reveal, not contradict, YHWH, the God of Israel (John 1.1,18; 14.9-10). Few positions grapple appropriately with the fact that Jesus didn’t view God’s previous self-revelation as being in need of serious correction. Therefore, just as God interacted with Israel on a gracious basis without nullifying ethical demands (Exodus 20.1-17), Jesus found a way to do the same.
Secondly, our answer must make sense of Paul’s ethical teachings. Paul assumed his gospel did not lead toward, but away from, more sinning (Rom 6.1-4). We must acknowledge that his understanding of grace and forgiveness and salvation were in no way separated from obedience to God’s laws (Rom 6.15ff; Gal 5.13-15). Furthermore, Paul unmistakably taught that human behavior has eternal consequences. He writes that we will all (in some sense) be judged on the basis of what we do (Rom 2.6,16; 14.10-12; 1 Cor 4.4-5; 2 Cor 5.10; cf. Matt 7.21-23). While I admit that each of these passages needs to be teased out in context, their cumulative force demands our serious consideration.
Thirdly, our answer must not neglect the post-New Testament exploration of this question. I don’t have space for much comment, but I do want to note that proper discussion of forgiveness and obedience, or faith and works, must be informed by the important conversations that have taken place throughout the history of the church (for example, between Augustine and Pelagius, or Luther and Erasmus, as well as the more recent “new perspective on Paul” debates).
Finally, having mentioned the various historical developments, our answer must explain key terms and texts in their original settings.2 When discussing a Pauline text concerning the law, interpreters simply must understand that in most cases, if not all, he is speaking specifically of the Torah. Moreover, he is probably discussing the Torah in connection with very practical concerns in the early churches. To state another example, Paul’s conception of faith is vastly different from many of the later debates that employ the same language. To say that one is justified by faith does not necessarily mean that one does nothing in order to be saved. Because we often assume that “works” means doing something in general, we conclude that “faith” must be separated from doing anything at all. Yet if Paul can include the same word (pistis) as a fruit of the Spirit, he clearly understands faith as implying some type of behavior.
In sum, any sufficient explanation of the relationship between free grace and necessary obedience must (1) pay close attention to Jesus’ life and ministry, (2) fully appreciate the scope of Paul’s ethical teachings, (3) be informed by the historical discussions that have taken place since the writing of the New Testament, and (4) explain key terms in their original contexts. In the space I have left, I will attempt to put forth an answer that meets all of these criteria.
Both the question and the answer begin with grace. Indeed, Paul speaks of his life mission as “testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20.24). But what is God’s grace? Rather than define grace statically as “unmerited favor”, I prefer a more dynamic, relational definition that takes into account God’s preference for dynamic, personal interaction with human beings. Grace is a word that describes God’s empowering presence and action, specifically toward those who have done nothing to deserve it. Taken this way Jesus’ very presence is grace, for in Jesus God personally and actively blesses undeserving people.3 Jesus’ embodiment of God’s grace climaxes in his death and resurrection, in and through which God offers salvation not only to Israel, but to the whole world.
However, contrary to what many positions assume, God’s grace—him personally and actively blessing those who don’t deserve it—does not end when Jesus ascends back into God’s dimension of reality.4 On the contrary, God’s grace now happens through “the promised Holy Spirit,” the gift of his personal empowering presence that dwells among his people (Eph 1.13; Gal 3.14; 1Cor 3.16). Among the many significant implications of his Presence is the real possibility of living as God intended (a.k.a. obeying God’s Law; Rom 8.1-4; Gal 5.16-18).
Thus, the salvation wrought by Jesus and proclaimed by the apostles and teachers of the early Christian movement naturally included the holistic transformation of the people of God. To talk about acceptance by God (grace, forgiveness) as antithetical to holy behavior (law, obedience) misses one of the gospel’s principal blessings; namely, that Jesus’ faithfulness makes possible the fulfillment of our call “to the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom 1.5).5
Now, taking this doctrine of salvation as our test case, let’s briefly examine how to connect belief with action. How might a group of Jesus’ disciples live out the truth of this gospel? First and foremost, church leaders must proclaim and make clear the nature of this good news, not shying away from its transformative implications. We must also train people to actually do the things Jesus commanded (Matt 28.20). Clearly, this job is too large for a select few, so some type of smaller group meetings is imperative.6 Among other things, these groups must be marked by vulnerability and creativity, as we open our hearts to one another and find fresh ways to live out and articulate the faith in each of our specific life situations (Heb 10.24-25). Once again, because God is constantly gracing us through the Holy Spirit, on each step of this journey of faith we simultaneously exert real moral effort and depend on the Spirit’s power, which enables us to faithfully fulfill the heart of God’s Torah (Gal 5.13-26).
In conclusion, there are three things I would say about all of this to a person thinking about becoming a Christian. First, we cannot separate Jesus’ offer from his demand. They are one and the same; the offer is the demand and the demand is the offer. Second, God always interacts graciously with us; therefore, we never need be scared that he will abandon us. In the words of the Apostle John, “Perfect love drives out fear” (1Jn 4.18). Third, God expects us to exert effort in being faithful to him; we cannot just stop trying to please him. In fact, I would say that to do so voluntarily places us outside the bounds of “being saved.” In short, Law is not opposed to grace. Both are of God, and when properly understood, both are exceedingly good.
[This essay was originally written for a class on Discipleship in Secular Society at Fuller Theological Seminary in Winter 2006.]
1 Another important fact to remember is that when Jesus discussed “Old Testament” laws, he not only affirmed their importance, he intensified them (Matt 5.17-48).
2 To do so is necessary in order to fulfill my third criterion, for part of respecting the historical debates is acknowledging the potentially harmful ways they have influenced our attempts to understand Paul (as the “new perspective” reminds us). Also, our class discussions have helped me see that all I am basically doing here is reasoning from specific aspects of the “story” of God’s interaction with humanity.
3 This thought is very similar to Nouwen’s comments about Jesus embodying God’s compassion.
4 I emphasize assume because while in theory everyone agrees that the Holy Spirit continues God’s blessing in our lives, this fact often fails to make a difference in our discussions of law and grace, or forgiveness and obedience.
5 A point that Dallas Willard has made convincingly in many places, most notably the first chapter of The Divine Conspiracy, where he helps us see historically how we have come to be so confused.
6 By which I do not have in mind some of the anemic programs currently popular in our churches, but the historic Christian practice of meeting together for prayer and the many forms of encouragement necessary to keep us faithful (and sane).