Law, Grace, Obedience, Sin: Truth and Distortion

For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14).

In the middle of the first century many predominantly Gentile churches were disturbed by “Judaizing” teachers proclaiming that Gentile believers must be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses in order to be saved (Acts 15:1, 5). While the Holy Spirit, the elders of the church of Jerusalem, and the Apostles decreed that the Law of Moses was not binding upon Gentiles (Acts 15:22-29), the Holy Spirit specifically directed the Apostle Paul to explain, in greater detail, the relationship among law, grace, obedience, and sin in his correspondence with the churches in Rome and Galatia. He thus presented a coherent, Scripturally rooted theological argument, in order to confound the arguments of the “Judaizers”.

To this end Paul’s primary premise in both Romans 1:16-8:39 and Galatians 2:15-5:15 is justification by grace through faith and not by the Law of Moses. In Romans 1:16-3:31 and Galatians 3:1-5 Paul demonstrated how the Law of Moses cannot justify: all have sinned and fallen short of what is demanded by the Law, and therefore all are condemned as transgressors according to law. In Romans 4:1-25 and Galatians 3:6-9 Paul proved that Abraham was justified by faith before his circumcision; therefore, neither circumcision nor the law are preconditions for justification by faith. In Galatians 3:10-29 Paul proclaimed Jesus as having taken the curse of the Law upon Himself on behalf of all, granting access to all who trust in Him to receive the blessings of Abraham; the promise given to Abraham was not annulled by the addition of the Law 430 years later, for the Law was given on account of sin and to be as the guardian until Christ came to fully reveal the purposes of God and reconcile believers to God through His blood. Paul also spoke of this reconciliation in Romans 5:1-11: God reconciled believers to Christ not because they deserve it but to commend His love to us. To explain how this could be, Paul compared Adam and the consequences of his sin with Jesus as the “second Adam” and the consequences of what He accomplished for mankind in Romans 5:12-21: Adam sinned, and thus the creation was subjected to sin, death, decay, and corruption (cf. Romans 8:18-25); all were then cursed to die and condemnation, but Jesus gave His life for mankind on the cross, overcoming sin and death, and so through Jesus’ one act all are able to be justified and made righteous. The Law was introduced and it led to an increase in sin, as Paul would go on to explain in Romans 5:20, 7:1-25, not because of some defect in the Law, but because of human corruption on account of sin and thus human predilection to sin. Paul argued that where sin increased, grace would abound, so whereas sin reigned in death, grace could reign through righteousness leading to eternal life in Christ (Romans 5:21).

In making such an argument, Paul recognized that many would think that the best way to obtain more grace would be to sin more. Yet in Romans 6:1-14 Paul argued the opposite, that believers have died to sin through baptism in Christ, and sin should not reign over them any longer. They were no longer “under law,” but “under grace,” and that did not mean that they were given license to do whatever they wanted, but instead were empowered to become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:15-23). There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus because they walk according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-17).

We can see that Paul has much to say about law, grace, obedience, and sin in Romans 1:16-8:39 and Galatians 2:15-5:15; we must remember that he said these things to primarily Gentile Christians in light of the distortions of the Gospel they had been hearing from the “Judaizers.” In this context, “law” was primarily the Law of Moses, the standard to which the “Judaizers” believe all should hold (cf. Acts 15:1, 5). In contrast, “grace” maintained its meaning as unmerited favor and is exemplified in Jesus’ death on the cross: God gave mankind what was not deserved and could not be earned–a gift–and that gift is the basis upon which man can be restored to God (cf. Romans 5:6-11). By extension, those who have taken advantage of the blessing of this gift and have thus been reconciled back to God are now “under grace” since God’s grace is the means by which they have obtained this restoration. By “sin” Paul still primarily referred to conscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors done as contrary to the will of God, yet he perceived sin and its effects in an environmental sense as well.

Paul did make a contrast between being “under law” and “under grace,” yet this is not a contrast between obedience and grace, since Paul defined being “under grace” as “trusting in the Lord Jesus and becoming a slave of righteousness” in Romans 6:1-23. Instead, Paul drew a contrast between the two covenants: the “old” covenant between God and Israel, mediated by the Law of Moses, and the “new” covenant between God and mankind, mediated by Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 3:19, 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 7:1-9:28). It is not as if God showed no grace in the old covenant, or that there is no standard of conduct expected under the new covenant; Paul instead cut to the heart of the issue to the basis upon which the believer might expect to stand before God. They could not stand before God under the law by the law, since they would be condemned as transgressors (Romans 3:20); they can only stand before God under grace by which they have received reconciliation with God to obey Him unto sanctification (Romans 5:6-11, 6:15-23). Therefore, for Christians to submit to the Law of Moses would be a falling from grace, putting on a yoke of slavery, obligated to keep the entire law without having the ability to do so (Galatians 4:21-5:15).

The “Judaizer” threat was as short-lived as it was acutely felt; within generations of the destruction of Jerusalem most Christians were of Gentile origin. Soon Paul’s arguments would be used for purposes beyond anything he would imagine and leading to all sorts of distortions of the Gospel truth he proclaimed.

By the fifth century, Paul’s use of “sin” in Romans 5:12-18 would be distorted to justify original sin and infant baptism. The idea of death passing to all men because “all sinned” in Romans 5:12 thus shifted from “people are born into a sinful environment and will at some point consciously choose evil over good” to “everyone has inherited actual sin from Adam, including babies and small children. Yet Paul had no such idea in mind when originally writing to the Romans: he spoke of sin in the environment to explain why all are subject to sin and death, even those whom Jesus declared as “innocent” in Matthew 18:1-14, Mark 9:36-37, 10:13-16. “Original sin” would morph into total depravity, leading some in the Reformation to teach that in the Fall mankind lost the image of God and took on the image of Satan! To this day many people accept this distortion and believe humans inherit sin from Adam and are incapable of doing anything good even though Paul speaks only of the consequences of the corruption caused by sin.

Over a millennium later Martin Luther would take Paul’s idea of “justification by faith” to an extreme. Reacting against the Roman Catholic church of the day, which functionally did teach salvation through performing a certain set of works, Luther took Paul’s “justification by faith” as “justification by faith alone,” and combined with his distortion of Ephesians 2:8-9 to suggest that faith itself was a gift from God, argued that humans have no role or effort in their own salvation. To Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers, Paul’s condemnation of “works of the law” were made absolute and in regards to any work done at all in any respect; any effort expended unto salvation was deemed as an attempt to be “justified by works,” and thus they pitted grace against obedience.

Since the Law of Moses was not insufficient for its purposes but was good, holy, and righteous (Romans 7:12), it is fair to infer that an attempt to be justified by any other law will fail equally as miserably as the attempt to be justified by the Law of Moses (Romans 3:20). Yet the Reformers missed a crucial distinction: Paul was not condemning those who sought to demonstrate their trust in the Lord Jesus by following what He says, but condemned those who believed that their efforts in observing the law had earned them standing before God independent of faith (Romans 1:16-8:39). To Paul there was no contradiction between grace and obedience: accepting God’s grace through faith empowers a believer to become a slave of righteousness, to become “obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered” (Romans 6:15-17). Man’s response to God’s grace through faith is not based on works but is manifest in actualized trust (faith), which requires effort by necessity; Paul and James are in tension but not opposition (Romans 4:1-25, James 2:14-26).

Christians today are not under law but are under grace (Romans 6:14). To suggest this means that Christians are not amenable to a standard of conduct but are saved without any effort on their behalf is a distortion of Paul’s teaching and cannot be reconciled with Romans 6:15-23. To be “under grace” is to be empowered through Jesus’ act of reconciliation to submit oneself fully to God as an obedient slave of righteousness without coming under the yoke of the slavery of the Law of Moses (Romans 6:15-22, Galatians 4:21-5:15). Paul makes specific arguments in light of “Judaizing” challenge in the middle of the first century; he is not anticipating Augustinianism versus Pelagianism or the Reformation. Let us affirm Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel truth without distortion, trust in God through the free gift of Jesus Christ, empowered to submit fully to God as a slave of righteousness, to His eternal glory and praise!


Law, Grace, Obedience, Sin: Truth and Distortion

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