It 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 http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/are-the-apocryphal-gospels-true/ 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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