At least since Luther, and probably long before that, self-described Christians have been debating whether the law of Christ or the grace of Christ is more important. However, any scheme of religious thought that emphasizes law at the expense of grace, or grace at the expense of law, is logically incoherent. Law and grace aren’t opposites, such that one declines in importance as the other increases. Instead, the more we care about either one, the more we should care about the other.
Let’s start with the logical problems on the grace side of things. It is certainly true that everybody who is saved is saved by grace through faith. However, that statement carries many implications with it. Saved from what? Sin, of course. What’s sin? According to 1 John 3:4, sin is a violation of God’s law.
Let’s say that we believe that God’s grace is magnificent, spectacular, incredible (which happens to be true). It follows from that first of all that sin is an awful, terrible thing. If sin is insignificant, God’s solution to the problem—grace through the sacrifice of Christ—is also insignificant. If, on the other hand, we exalt the cross, we are also acknowledging that sin is the worst problem that the human race can have. The greater grace is, the greater sin must be.
What makes sin so significant? It can only be the fact that God’s law is also extremely significant. If God’s law is unimportant, such that we can gesture vaguely in the direction of its essentials while ignoring the tithing of mint and dill and cumin altogether, sin will also not be very important.
It would be more like my son neglecting to pick up his room every evening. Would it be nice if he did that? Sure. However, as long as the path to his bed is Lego-free (so that I don’t cripple myself when I come in to wake him up in the morning), I don’t care too much. He knows that and acts accordingly.
However, I have a different standard when it comes to him disrespecting his mother. Every instance of disrespect will end in a tearful apology and sincere promise to do better, regardless of what correction must be undergone before that point is reached. He knows that too. Once again, he acts accordingly.
What, then, can we say of the importance of a standard if the punishment for violating it is eternal death in hell? God’s law is extraordinarily significant, and we need to treat it as extraordinarily significant, searching out every nuance of every command so that we can obey. Our object in this is not to justify ourselves, which is impossible. It is to show our love for God by our reverence for His commandments. A proper understanding of grace will inevitably lead us to a zeal for law.
The logic works in the other direction too. Let’s say that we believe that God’s law is extremely important (which also happens to be true). If that is our conviction, we can’t hand-wave in the direction of obedience or attempt to substitute in our own Pharisaical checklist. We have to devote ourselves to studying and honoring that law. No tithe, no matter how insignificant, is unworthy of scrutiny! This is, of course, to say nothing of the weightier matters.
However, there’s a problem. The law of liberty, though it is a perfect mirror, is not a flattering one. The better we come to know it, the more we see our own shortcomings. If we don’t see them, we aren’t looking in the mirror. Nobody who truly cares about God’s law can avoid being convicted, and deeply convicted, of sin.
Thus, our shortcomings are written in letters of fire. Here God has given us this amazing, wonderful law, and we have utterly blown it by violating that law six ways to Sunday! God is not being tyrannical when He condemns the sinner to spend eternity apart from Him. That’s a fitting punishment for so awful a crime.
Here we are, then: in awe of God’s law, in despair at our sin. How great is the grace that offers us salvation! How sublime is the sacrifice of God’s own Son! The more we know the law, the better we see our need for grace, and the more we will celebrate that we have received it.
These things must always move in tandem. If we shout God’s grace to the skies while showing indifference toward His law, we reveal that we truly don’t care much about grace either. If we talk loudly about how important it is to submit to God’s authority, but we never mention grace, we show that our reverence for His law is only a sham.
Law and grace are not opposed to one another. Indeed, they can’t be. Both proceed from God, and His house is not divided against itself. If we want to glorify one, we necessarily must exalt the other. If we glorify one while diminishing the other, we prove that we care about neither.