Is grace opposed to law?

image007It is relatively commonplace, in ordinary discussions about Christian discipleship, to hear the idea expressed that grace is the opposite to ‘law’. I think this is intended at a number of different levels: we are forgiven by God’s grace, and not because of (or in fact despite of) how we have lived our lives; our lives should be characterised by grace and not by legalism which makes us concerned about ‘obeying the rules’; we should be gracious to others and not insist on ‘regulations’.

This tends to be based on what is read as Paul’s opposition of grace to law, particularly in Galatians and Romans, and Jesus’ apparent rejection of Pharisaic legalism in the gospels. (It is awkward for us that Jesus appears to think that the Pharisees are praiseworthy in certain ways, and that his disciples should indeed follow the teaching of the Pharisees…but we usually manage to pass over that happily in our common readings.) But, in this kind of popular reading, the questions of God’s acceptance of us and the demands of discipleship are often elided. If, in some sense, it ‘does not matter’ how we lived before we knew him, then, in some sense, it ‘does not matter’ how we live after we come to know him—which then gives us serious problems in thinking about the disciplines of discipleship.

Neither of these assumptions bear scrutiny by a careful reading of the NT. But one passage which contributes disproportionately to this question is John 1.16–17. It is worth comparing in several different versions.

And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. (AV)

For of his fulness we all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (ASV)

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (ESV)

Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (TNIV)

For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. (NET)

There are two key things to note here: the meaning of ‘grace for/upon/after grace’ in v 16; and ‘For…but…’ in v 17.

In relation to the first of these, I think the ESV reflects a common reading of this—that our experience of God’s grace in Jesus is continuous and constantly surprising. The ‘grace upon grace’ expresses this experience of constant and every-increasing grace in our relationship with him. C K Barrett, in his monumental commentary on John, argues for this reading. Such a reading has the effect of separating this verse from the one that follows, since this verse refers only to the Christian life, whereas the verse that follows appears to introduce a comparison or contrast with the former and the current covenant. I don’t think that is justifiable, because of the structure of the two parts; as most translations show, there is a strong parallelism between the two halves, both beginning with ‘For’ (Greek hoti).

The TNIV brings out the connection between the two in its startling translation ‘we have all received grace in place of grace already given.’ This has a radical effect on how we then interpret the contrast or comparison between Moses and the law, and Jesus and his grace and truth.

The translation here in part hinges on what we think the link word anti means between the two words for ‘grace’. The NET translation includes extensive notes, and this is its comment:

The meaning of the phrase charin anti charitos could be: (1) love (grace) under the New Covenant in place of love (grace) under the Sinai Covenant, thus replacement; (2) grace “on top of” grace, thus accumulation; (3) grace corresponding to grace, thus correspondence. The most commonly held view is (2) in one sense or another, and this is probably the best explanation. This sense is supported by a fairly well-known use in Philo, Posterity 43 (145). Morna D. Hooker suggested that Exod 33:13 provides the background for this expression: “Now therefore, I pray you, if I have found charis (LXX) in your sight, let me know your ways, that I may know you, so that I may find charis (LXX) in your sight.” Hooker proposed that it is this idea of favor given to one who has already received favor which lies behind 1:16, and this seems very probable as a good explanation of the meaning of the phrase (“The Johannine Prologue and the Messianic Secret,” NTS 21 [1974/75]: 53).

This brings another dimension into this theologically dense section of John: Moses in Exodus asked to see God, and was refused; he was only allowed to see his back as he passed. By contrast, we have seen the Father in the face of the Son—has has made him known. ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’ (John 14.9). This supports the idea of ‘accumulation’—and what it rules out is the sense of contradiction between what went before and what comes now. This leads us onto the meaning of v 17.

Here, the AV has a lot to answer for by adding ‘but’ between Moses/law and Jesus/grace and truth. It simply is not there, and the parallelism with verse 16 suggests it really should not be there. Here, the NET offers a rather feeble explanation of its following the AV:

“But” is not in the Greek text, but has been supplied to indicate the implied contrast between the Mosaic law and grace through Jesus Christ.

The question is what kind of implied contrast is present. If you read this verse through the lens of a Reformed reading of Paul, then you will see such a contrast. But proper reading of John in his own terms suggests the opposite: grace was given to Moses in the form of the law (which was always understood to be a gracious gift of God to his people as part of the process of redemption); but even more grace has now been added in the person of Jesus, who brings the fullness of God’s grace and truth.

The possibility of an oppositional contrast is also eliminated by noting the use of the terms ‘grace’ and ‘truth’. Whilst ‘truth’ is a repeated theme in John, ‘grace’ only occurs four times in the whole gospel, three here and once in v 14. And the sense of continuity between Jesus and the Jewish law is very powerful in John; Jesus is expressed in his most Jewish sense in John, fulfilling the truth of the Jewish festivals and becoming the temple presence of God amongst his people. Chrysostom assists us in seeing this in his commentary on this passage:

And what have we received? He said, “grace in place of grace.” What kind in place of what kind? The new in place of the old. For, just as there was a righteousness, there is also a righteousness: “According to the righteousness,” he said, “which is in the Law, blameless” (Phil. 3:6). Just as there was a faith, there is also a faith: “from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17). Just as there was an adoption, there is also an adoption: “To whom pertains the adoption” (Rom. 9:4). Just as there was a glory, there is also a glory: “For if that which was done away was glorious, much more that which remains is glorious” (2 Cor. 3:11). Just as there was a law, there is also a law: “For the law of the Spirit of life has made me free…” (Rom. 8:2).

Just as there was a service, there is also a service: “Whose is the service,” he said (Rom. 9:4), and again: “Serving God in the Spirit” (Phil. 3:3). Just as there was a covenant, there is also a covenant: “I will make with you a new covenant, not according to the covenant which I made with your fathers” (Jer. 31:31). Just as there was a sanctification, there is also a sanctification. Just as there was a baptism, there is also a baptism. Just as there was a sacrifice, there is also a sacrifice. Just as there was a temple, there is also a temple. Just as there was a circumcision, there is also a circumcision. And so too there was a grace, and there is also a grace. But the words in the first case are used as types, in the second as realities, preserving a sameness of sound, though not of sense.

Chrysostom helps us in seeing the continuity, though his strong notion of type v reality is less helpful, not least because it led him to express (in his ‘Sermons against the Jews’) what many see as the origins of Christian anti-semitism.

But we are in urgent need of understanding the relation between the two. Someone emailed me following my seminars at New Wine (on sexuality) to comment as follows:

 In criticising Steve Chalke’s views, you said he couldn’t write off the Old Testament because Jesus didn’t.  Andrew Wilson said a similar thing at New Wine a few years back when he was giving a seminar about ‘Can we trust the Bible?’.  Neither of you seem to have noticed that Jesus overturns much of the Old Testament (eg Mark 2, Mark 7), only quotes from largely 4 books and leaves out bits that don’t fit his ‘new world view’ (eg Luke 4:18,19 omitting the ‘day of vengeance of our God’ in the original quote from Isaiah 61:1,2 – which is why  the people were furious and tried to stone him (v28). They hated his new interpretation – they wanted vengeance on their enemies and were desperate for God to do this, which they thought he would through the Messiah. It is amazing that Jesus’ wasn’t killed earlier actually, humanly speaking!

I responded as follows:

I think that is a serious misreading of the NT, and it is one that is very common. Alongside Jesus’ apparent overturning of aspects of OT law, we have this very strong statement in Matt 5.17: ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…’. In all of Paul’s letters, he assumes that this new mixed Jewish Gentile community has adopted what we now call the OT as their authoritative Scriptures. In 2 Tim 3.16 he calls them all ‘God-breathed.’ One of the key distinguishing features of the authentic gospels is that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are ‘according to the [OT] scriptures, in contrast to the false gospels which do away with or ignore the OT. see The C of E reads the OT just as much as the Word of the Lord as the NT.

However we do it, we need to be careful to avoid the modern equivalent of Marcionism.

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20 thoughts on “Is grace opposed to law?”

  1. As so often, the Franciscan Richard Rohr has dealt with this very topic of grace v law in a profound way:

    “Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians are a tour de force on the pure meaning of grace and the serious limitations of morality and religion to lead you to God. “Cursed be the law,” Paul even says (Galatians 3:13). No wonder he has been called a “moral anarchist” by people who are still seeking any well-disguised path of “self-realization.” But it seems Christianity has paid little heed to Paul’s revolutionary message, or even to Jesus who says six times in a row, “The law says, but I say!” (Matthew 5:21-45). Both Jesus and Paul knew that rules and requirements were just to get you seriously engaged with the need for grace and mercy; they were never an end in themselves (read Romans 7:7ff).

    Paul has fallen in love with a God who has loved him “for nothing.” For the rest of his life, Paul is happy to give God all the credit and he stops trying to validate himself by any means whatsoever. This creates a very different kind of person, someone who is utterly free. Paul knows that “the gift far outweighed the fall” (Romans 5:15) and he lives inside the gift all his remaining days. He never looks back to law or religion for his self-validation, but becomes the ultimate reformer of all self-serving religion, not just Judaism and Christianity. At least Judaism has been honest about its dislike of Paul. Christians have pretended we love him while overwhelmingly ignoring his revolutionary and life changing insights.”

    • Andrew, that is a really interesting quotation from Rohr—thanks for passing it on. (What is the reference?)

      For me, there is still a big question as to whether Rohr himself has read Paul’s ‘anarchy’ aright. I completely agree that it is about setting us free from the need to justify ourselves…but I wonder if Rohr confuses this freedom with the demands of holiness.

      For example, just in relation to the texts, the Jesus who says ‘The law says…but I say to you…’ goes on to say something even more stringent! The Paul who talks about freedom in Christ immediately goes on to warn of the abuses of self-indulgence of freedom, and sets out a clear articulation of the kind of disciplined life the Spirit enables. And he always and everywhere calls himself ‘slave’…so it is freedom, but not as we know it. ‘Whose service is perfect freedom…’ comes to mind.

      Yes, rules and regulations are never an end in themselves; they are pointers to the holiness God now works in us by the gift of his Spirit.

      Incidentally, Paul’s religious anarchy means the abolish of all priestly castes. I wonder if we might agree on that particular aspect…

      But thanks again for posting—very interesting.

      • Ian: the Rohr quote comes from his daily meditations, which come by e mall.

        I think when Jesus says “the law says, … but I say to you…” That He isn’t going to say more stringent things, but rather exposing how inadequate the law is at addressing the underlying human condition. The law addresses how we behave, but not our motives and thoughts. So it isn’t a case of more stringent demands, but a category shift isn’t it?

        Not quite sure what you mean by priestly castes and their abolition – I suspect we might find ourselves in agreement on that actually, but you need to explain what you mean first!

        • Andrew,

          You state that: ‘The law addresses how we behave, but not our motives and thoughts. So it isn’t a case of more stringent demands, but a category shift isn’t it?

          Well, it’s case of two categories: motives and actions, Christ showed that motives and thoughts cannot be decoupled from how we behave, by saying: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6:43-45)

          Again in Matt. 15:18-20, he says: But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

          Specifying behavioural vices like these wouldn’t really sit well with the virtue ethicist. Similarly, Paul also goes beyond mere motives, when he contrasts the fruit of the Spirit with the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:13-20)

          • I’m afraid I disagree David. I think what you described is bad news, not good news. Jesus makes it clear that with humans, salvation is impossible: it’s no good relying on right behaviour, obeying the law, for salvation. Grace is what we need. Only by God’s grace is salvation possible. Luke 18 is all about that.

            Again, Richard Rohr puts it so well:

            “We come to God not by doing it right but, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong. We are justified not by good works, but by faith in an Infinite Mercy that we call grace. It has nothing to do with past performance or future plans for an eternal nest egg. All it requires is a deep act of confidence in a loving God. It is so hard to believe that this imperfect, insignificant creature that I am could somehow bear the eternal mystery. God can only grow bigger as we grow smaller, as John the Baptist put it (John 3:30). If we try to grow bigger by any criteria except divine mercy itself we only grow in love with our own image in a self-created mirror. That is normally called narcissism.

            How could God love me so unconditionally, we all ask? This was Paul’s struggle as well, and it led him to his cataclysmic conclusion. God loved Paul in his unworthiness, “while he was yet a sinner” as he puts it (Romans 5:8). Therefore he did not have to waste the rest of his life trying to become worthy or prove his worthiness, to himself or to others.”

          • Unfortunately, that’s a straw man. Since there was no implication in my previous comment that right behaviour, as Christ commends, is in some way partially the means Of salvation.

            Both Jesus and Paul are careful to distinguish ‘works’ from ‘fruit’: the latter being intrinsic to the new nature imparted by the Holy Spirit, as an outcome of one’s encounter with Christ.

            Despite originating from above, as with Jesus, such fruit is still expressed through far more than subscribing to high-minded ideals with nonchalant disregard for how those ideals are lived out.

            Christ Himself declares: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt. 7:21-23)

            He clarified why in Matt. 25Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

            “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

            “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

            “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”(Matt. 25:41-46)

            The distinctive outcome of redemption so lacking in those described here is not causal. The cause is grace, but effect is behavioural.

          • Thanks David. I’m very much with Rohr in seeing what you describe as being narcissism.
            “If we try to grow bigger by any criteria except divine mercy itself we only grow in love with our own image in a self-created mirror. “

          • Andrew – I think David has the right interpretation here. Yours leaves us unable to make any sense of the stringent moral requirements of discipleship set out by Jesus and Paul (and every other NT writer).

            I think you place too much weight on the concept of being unconditional. The NT doesn’t speak of grace or salvation being unconditional, only as being a gift and unmerited, which is not the same thing. Indeed, it implies the opposite when it speaks of needing to stay the course and persevere to the end and not falling away. Of course, even your own account, of seeing salvation conferred by a pure act of psychological confidence, makes it conditional on achieving and sustaining that confidence.

            Paul’s attitude to the law (or rather the laws, as he uses the term in a number of senses) is well-known to be complex – even Peter in the NT basically says as much. But it isn’t a sound interpretation of his theology of law and grace to conclude that he sees no place for moral reform and perseverance in good works in the Christian life, as though it is no better than ‘narcissism’.

          • Andrew,

            Another ‘straw man’: who said anything about being trying to grow.

            The perfect analogy is Chrisrt healing the man with the withered hand. Jesus commanded a natural impossibility by telling him: ‘Stretch out your hand’ (Matt. 12:13) It was by grace through faith that the man’s hand was restored. He didn’t try to grow his hand by self-effort. The command was issued with the divine empowerment for restoration to wholeness.

            Apparently, according to your reading of Rohr, the restored hand was somehow part of that man growing ‘in love with his own image in a self-created mirror’.

            Strange that, according your lights, Christ facilitated the man’s self-idolisation by giving him a direct command, instead of just a generalised platitude about the virtue of faith in all circumstances, wasn’t it?

          • David and Will: of course I accept that the very existence of grace causes us to respond by amending our lives and turning to Christ. I’m certain Richard Rohr accepts that too.
            But the point is that it has nothing to do with salvation.
            Salvation cannot be some kind of meritocracy: “you have earned it but you haven’t”. Which is why “Judge not that you be not judged” has to be taken so seriously, as well as understanding that only with God is anything possible.

            And David, your continual use of the term ‘straw man’ sounds rather like the shout of ‘Mornington Crescent’ from the Radio 4 programme ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a clue’. Conservative evangelicals seem to use this term in a way that has some importance but in fact its use signals that nothing much important is going to be said after it.

          • Andrew,

            There’s a wrong-headed camel-swallowing hypocrisy in you, on two comment threads, copy-pasting the same script excerpt from ‘A Few Good Men’, then repeatedly referencing Rohr. By comparison, you’ve strained at the gnat of me deploying ‘straw man’ twice to point out that your faulty characterisation of the opposing argument.

            Now, instead of addressing the counter-arguments, you simply jump to another assertion that: salvation you claim that: ‘Salvation cannot be some kind of meritocracy: ‘you’ve earned it, but you haven’t’

            Again, way off base, plants don’t earn the fruit they bear. The fruit simply betokens the nature of the plant, and Christ makes this point Himself.

            As Paul explains of suffering for Christ, which betokens salvation: ‘So that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure: which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer: Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.

            But, please, recite Rohr or Kaffee’s lines again and again here ad nauseum, if you must, but I won’t be answering.

            Your recitations are so different from the repetitiousness that you find fault with in Con-Evos, aren’t they?

          • David: I can’t really answer you when you don’t actually address the dialogue. You simply state what (you think) is right. Keep shouting. Im sure it helps you to be more certain you are correct.

  2. Just looking at John 1:17 in the Greek – it is a slightly odd sentence. You have to supply a word otherwise it doesn’t flow properly in English. I don’t think adding a ‘but’ there means that in no way God acted graciously in giving the law – I think it is still possible to see it in an ‘accumulation’ kind of way. And even in the graciousness of Christ, you still have passages like John 14:15, 23-24.

    And I always mention my favourite go-to passage on grace – Titus 2:11-14. The grace of God has appeared which teaches us to say no to ungodly passions… Christ came to purify a people eager to do good.

    • Yes it is odd in Greek, in the sense that it is compressed. I wonder if that lends support to Richard Bauckham’s argument that numerical composition plays a part here: John wanted to say what he had to say within a limited number of words and syllables?

      I think your Titus quotation has a clear parallel in Romans 2.4—the kindness of God leads us to repentance.

  3. Thanks for this Ian. Reminds me of a very similar translation issue in Hebrews 1.1-2a, where “but” makes its way into a surprising number of English translations despite there being nothing in the Greek marking contrast (not even de): “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, BUT in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (NRSV). That leaves the door wide open for Marcionism. Presumably “but” is supplied along the same kind of reasoning as the NET for John 1.17, “to indicate an implied contrast”. A much better translation would be along these lines: “God, who in many and various ways formerly spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us through a Son”. This brings out the continuity – one divine speaker, who has always spoken to his people, now speaking most fully in his Son.

  4. What has increasingly puzzled me about both the New Testament and the early fathers, in light of the law-grace contrast preached in the evangelical circles I have moved in for 45 years since my conversion, and especially in the WAY it is often preached/taught, i.e. that grace rules out demands for specific behaviour (because that would be law):

    Not just Jesus but also Paul and the other writers of the New Testament have a lot to say about exactly how Jesus’ disciples ought to live. That seems to flatly contradict this notion of grace ruling out behavioural standards.

    I have come to the conclusion that Evangelicals have fallen into a very deep rut when it comes to thinking about law: they can only think of it in terms of justification and salvation, and anytime someone talks about what to do or not to do, they think it is about earning our way to heaven.

    NOT SO: rather, the law (both in the OT and in the NT) is not primarily a means of salvation (in fact Paul says it teaches us that we cannot save ourselves), but it provides the principles the Creator knows are best for our lives, for our relationships both with fellow humans and with Himself; we ought to follow and obey it NOT so we will be saved and go to heaven (there’s another discussion, see N.T.Wright and Scot McKnight), but because we love God and trust that his instructions are good for us.

    And realizing that we are unable, in our own strength and perhaps anyway in this life, to obey and keep the law perfectly, always and in its entirety, is a reason to be thankful that salvation comes by grace through faith, rather than by lawkeeping; but it is a gross fallacy to say that therefore we should abandon all efforts to obey and keep the law.

  5. What about the Message translation of this one which underlines both the continuity and the increasing grace:
    We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift. We got the basics from Moses, and then this exuberant giving and receiving, this endless knowing and understanding- all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.

    • That’s really interesting. I think Peterson is spot on in relating law and grace as continuity. I wonder whether ‘the basics from Moses’ quite captures it though!

  6. A lot depends on the right understanding of ‘…until all things come to pass’ (Matthew 5:18). Does this mean that the whole Law applies until Christ returns (Theonomy)? Or does it mean that some parts of the Law cease to apply as they ‘come to pass’ before then. If so which parts? The OT sacrifices (see Hebrews)? The food laws (Peter and Cornelius)? The civil code (why)? the moral Law (definitely not)?
    Phil Almond

  7. A lot also depends on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Romans 8:4. The latter must, in my view, apply to how Christians behave according to the Law, walking not after the flesh but after the Spirit. It is about our obedience to the Law. But which Law – or which parts of the Law (see my comment above).
    Phil Almond


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