There is a tension in Christian doctrine between law and grace. Many look at the law and note that since God gave the law, we should follow it. Those who emphasize this law will focus on the Ten Commandments – gotta make sure that they’re posted publicly – various Old Testament rules, and even some of the modern day interpretations of those rules. Those who emphasize grace point out that Jesus died on the cross to bring us salvation, and that salvation comes because of God’s mercy and grace. If we are saved by grace, then there is no reason to slavishly follow the law. Most of those who emphasize grace would point out that people whose lives honor God have become that way not by slavishly following a set of dos and don’ts, but by being changed by the grace of God.
The tension comes when people living by grace start doing things that those who emphasize the law have problems with. This old joke highlights that tension. An Episcopalian priest and a Baptist minister are sitting next to each other on an airplane. The stewardess comes around to get drink orders. The Baptist orders a coke. The Episcopalian orders a glass of wine. The Baptist mutters something like, “I’d rather commit adultery.” The Episcopalian raises his eyebrows and says, “I didn’t know we had a choice.” Living by the law often categorizes sins as “not too bad, bad, very bad, horrendous.” Sometimes that classification is simpler: “sins I commit (not too bad), sins you commit (horrendous).” Paul was well known for his emphasis on grace. So perhaps these words come as a bit of a surprise: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” (1 Timothy 1:8)
What? The man who proclaims to the Galatians that they are foolish because having begun by grace they’re now trying to be perfected by the law says that the law is good? The key phrase in that verse is “if one uses it properly.” The law is designed to show us that we can’t live on our own, that we can’t do what God wants us to do. The law shows us right and wrong so that we know that we have done wrong. The law shows us right and wrong so that we know we can’t do the right things all the time in our own power and need God’s help – God’s grace. The law isn’t made for those who are right with God. How do we get right with God? He gives us His grace. The law is for those who are in rebellion against God and Paul lists some of the kinds of attitudes and actions that people in rebellion against God exhibit. In short, though, Paul reminds us that the law shows us when we are in rebellion against God and need His grace to establish our relationship with Him and strengthen that relationship.
The law has a purpose: it reveals to us our need for Christ. Following the law will never bring us to Christ or make us good enough because the truth is that in trying to follow the law, we will inevitably slip up. We will fail. All our hard work will be for naught as those who seek to live by the law must keep the whole law without failing in any area. God’s grace is given through the cross because we turn to God when we realize that we can’t be good enough to have fellowship with Him. Grace brings us into fellowship with God not because we were good enough, but because God loved us enough. No one is good enough to make God love them. All of us are loved by God and given the opportunity to receive His grace, because He is good enough. You can strive for perfection according to the law and fail or you can rest in God’s grace and allow Him to work on your life. In the long run, grace does a better job.
Lord God, thank You for Your grace and mercy that allows me to have fellowship with You. Thank You for giving us the law that showed me that my only hope was in Your grace. Let my life reflect Your grace to others as You mold me into the man I should be.
(Disclaimer: I can make that joke about Baptists. I am one. I am also a “teetotaler” who has real problems with Christians who drink alcohol. I am learning to show grace on that issue, though.)