The supposed conflict between “law” and “grace” is based on a misunderstanding. Grace does not only set us free “from” regulations; it sets us free “to” worship and honor God with all our hearts.
Deuteronomy, chapters 25-27; Galatians, chapter 5
Galatians 5:1, 13-15 (NLT):
So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law…
For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.
Today’s readings offer an interesting contrast. Deuteronomy chapters 25-26 set forth a number of commands for Israel to follow. In particular, Moses tells them to be sure to bring their harvest offerings and tithes to God after they’ve entered the Promised Land, in gratitude for God’s blessings. Chapter 27 then ends with a list of curses that the people will pronounce on those who violate certain of God’s commands. Deuteronomy 27 ends with the statement: “’Cursed is anyone who does not affirm and obey the terms of these instructions.’ And all the people will reply: ‘Amen’” (27:26).
In contrast, Paul tells us in Galatians 5:1 that Christ has truly set us free…don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. The supposed tension between “law” and “grace” in the New Testament has caused much confusion through Church history. But is there really tension there? If we stop reading after Galatians 5:1, we might think so. But as we continue reading, a couple of important points emerge.
Galatians 5:2 reads, “If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you.” The confusion that the Galatians were battling dealt specifically with circumcision – the mark of God’s covenant with Abraham. Other teachers had evidently come along after Paul and told the Galatians that they needed to be circumcised. This was an issue that the early Church wrestled with, even after the council meeting in Jerusalem determined that circumcision was not necessary for Gentile believers (Acts 15).
This shouldn’t be shocking to us; even today, people look for some “special” way to gain God’s favor. The thought goes like this: if we pray this particular prayer, or do this or that style of worship, or whatever, then we’ll gain God’s favor. Perhaps some of the Galatians were falling prey to this mindset. But Paul makes it clear that circumcision doesn’t work that way; it’s not a “lucky charm.” He tells them plainly: if you trust in circumcision, you’re committed to obey the entire law of Moses. In that case, “Christ will be of no benefit to you.”
We understand why people perceive a tension between “the law” and “grace.” But that tension is not caused by obedience to the Law; it is caused by trusting in obedience to the Law. Paul’s comments make it clear that he is talking about “every regulation in the whole law of Moses.” In other words, there are parts of “the whole law of Moses” that have been obviated by what God has done in Christ.
As Paul writes in Colossians 2:16-17, “So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.” Worshiping God no longer revolves around ceremonies and regulations; it revolves around what God has done in Christ.
However, there is an important caveat to keep in mind: the freedom that we have in Christ is “freedomto” as well as “freedom from.” We are “free from” all the strictures and regulations of the old covenant; but we are set free to obey God and walk in his ways. Or, as Paul puts it in our passage: “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.”
Apart from Christ, we are unable to truly serve one another in love, because the sinful nature elevates self above all else. Part of the work of the new creation is to purify and transform our hearts. The Holy Spirit’s presence in us enables us to learn to truly love one another – to choose to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we read that how we live doesn’t matter. The crux of the message of grace is that God enables us to live the way He created and called us to live. Apart from Him, we cannot please Him, because no one can fully obey the laws and regulations of the old covenant. In Christ, we are transformed so that our hearts are enabled to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. We are set free to honor God – to live in freedom and to serve one another in love.
Father, thank you for the gift of grace that you have given us through Jesus. Thank you for reminding us that your Holy Spirit cleanses and transforms our hearts so that we are set free to love and serve you, and to love and serve one another. Help us today to recognize the opportunities you give us to love and serve one another. Amen.