The American Church has fallen under the error of Pelagianism. Law and Grace do not represent two plans of God, but two phases of the same plan of redemption: preparation and fulfillment.
“For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” (John 1: 17, NASB)
A young college student once told me that a pastor’s son argued with him that no religion—and especially not Christianity—was about faith in any God, but rather the good works that we do for others. Christianity, so the preacher’s boy said, concerned doing to others what we would have done to us; it does not even matter if God exists or not, only the good we do for people counts—philanthropy, morality and being a good person matters most, not faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
What the young theologian argued was that all religions are basically the same. They are moralistic, which means they inspire people to do good works and that any metaphysical aspect, such as who God is or what he may have done for humanity is irrelevant. Similarly, we often hear that people choose to do evil and that they are not born that way, it is the environment that makes us corrupt—that we are not corrupt by nature.
This all sounds like common sense, but amounts to a denial of the central Christian belief in salvation by grace through faith alone. If we are not sinners by nature but only by choice than we can conceivably make more good choices than evil ones in order to redeem ourselves and then there would be no need for faith or a savior. Good works and keeping either the internal law of conscience or the old Mosaic Law would suffice.
Salvation by Grace Through Faith Alone
Salvation by grace through faith provides the great distinctive of the Christian faith compared to the other world religions. In contrast, the monotheistic religions Islam and Judaism both present a path of works salvation through obeying either the Torah or the Qur’an. The pantheistic religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism, believe in a rigorous path of enlightenment. While they subscribe to a unique theological heritage and may even be saved, many within the Christian sphere tend to under–appreciate and even unintentionally deny God’s free and eternal gift of salvation through a well–meaning but misdirected emphasis on the Mosaic Code, also called the Law (or the Ten Commandments) or other moral and legal codes that operate in a similar fashion, as measuring sticks for salvation.
Christians continually misunderstand and misuse the Law, thus placing themselves and others in bondage to a de facto works salvation mentality. The Apostle Paul argued that we did not begin with the Spirit in our salvation only to be perfected by “the flesh” in the works of the Law (Galatians 3: 3). Paul repeatedly identified legalism as a work of the flesh or sinful human nature and worldliness. He spoke of “the elemental principles of the world” (Galatians. 4: 3 and Col. 2: 8, 20) not as secularism, or so called “worldly” practices such as dancing, smoking or movie attendance, as Christians do today. Rather, worldliness according to these passages was the religiosity of the Judaizing heresy that imposed legal restrictions on believers such as circumcision (as seen in Galatians) or dietary restrictions, festivals and Sabbath observance or angel worship (in Colossians). Paul rejected his great religious inheritance, status and fame as a Pharisee, considering it all a work of the flesh, so that his righteousness would not derive from the Law, but from Christ (Philippians 3: 1–9). Religious legalism represents as great a threat to grace in the New Testament than any libertine license for sin.
Works salvation indicates a profound insecurity concerning individual freedom in the world’s religions and a desire to impose an authoritarian structure. Christians are not guiltless either, as they harbor the same tendencies to impose the Mosaic Code or some form of it on Christians and non–Christians alike. For example, Torah Observant Christians, Reconstructionism, Theonomy, and Covenant Theology all hold to a continuity between law and grace that brings Christians back under the legal and moral requirements of the Mosaic Code. The persistence of Christians who want to commit themselves to the Law, even after 2000 years of Christian history, indicates the Church’s misunderstanding of the role of the Law after Christ and the Church’s uneasiness with its own belief in grace.
The Role of the Law Today: Instructive, not Operative
Preachers and theologians are known to say “We are still under the 10 Commandments” or “The moral law is still in effect, but the rest has been fulfilled by Christ.” Although, these explanations offer some guidance on what to do with the 800 pound gorilla in the room— with the theology of grace—they ultimately cannot avoid inconsistencies either with the Law or with the New Testament principle of grace, God’s unconditional love.
The Mosaic Law was given to Israel on Mount Sinai as their Constitution and guide to holiness; it was never capable of bringing eternal salvation, but served as a teacher to the preservation of Israel in the Promised Land while demonstrating God’s righteous character. It was a temporary operating system, so to speak, that was necessary in order to display human sinfulness and point to humanity’s need for grace. But, crucially, it was destined to pass away or be retired once the plan of God came to fruition in the Life of Christ (Galatians 3). It showed only humanity’s guilt, yet foreshadowed in its practices the promise of God’s ultimate work of grace (Hebrews 8: 5; 10: 1). Once grace arrived in the work of Christ, the Law was no longer necessary (Hebrews 8: 6). The Law only pointed to human need for grace or the presence of sin. The Law shows people their unrighteousness. God demonstrates his mercy only after explaining and portraying his righteousness. God gives the Law first to demonstrate sin and then sends his Son to reveal His love and grace.
The Mosaic Law functions similarly to natural law or general revelation in demonstrating humanity’s need for God, the absence of God from the human heart (Romans 1 & 2). The Law and general revelation both perform a preparatory role: either telling humanity it does not know God, as with general revelation, or revealing humanity’s sin, as with the Law (Romans 3). They give no saving knowledge, but function only to condemn and never to save. Law and Grace do not represent two plans of God, but two phases of the same plan of redemption: preparation and fulfillment.
One Law, Indivisible, With Grace for All
There is only one Law, which must be accepted as a whole. The unity of the Law applies equally to either its total fulfillment in Christ or to the possibility that the Law remains operative after Christ. The Law cannot be subdivided into different sections such as moral, ceremonial and civil that were applicable before Christ and those sections still applicable after Christ. Any theological approach to the Law that states its partial effectiveness misunderstands the unity of the Law and the work of Christ that has already fulfilled the Law in its entirety. One either keeps the whole Law or does not (Galatians 3: 10; James 2: 10; Matthew 5: 19; Deuteronomy 27: 1; 28: 1; 30: 8). Likewise, either Christ fulfilled the Law or he did not. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say the Law was partially fulfilled in Christ, leaving the Church to fulfill the rest. A change in one aspect of the Law, such as the Old Testament Priesthood, necessitates the inauguration of a new law and not merely a partial change in the old law (Hebrews 7: 12). Paul argued against the Judaizers, who imposed legal restrictions on Christians, that if they accepted one part of the Law they were “under obligation to keep the whole Law” (Galatians 5: 3).
Any return to the Law rejects faith in Christ and even creates a hindrance to the progression of the plan of God in history. The Book of Hebrews gives a dire warning to all who return to these former elements: “For if we go on sinning willfully after we receive the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment.… Anyone who set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severe punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified and has insulted the spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10: 26–29).
Does Retirement of the Law Mean God Changed?
The problem many express with notion of the Law’s retirement is based on this conclusion: God cannot change, so how can He, in effect, repeal his own law? The Law was given in order to maintain Israel as a separate people who would act as a conduit through whom God would send his Messiah to reach the whole world. “When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law” (Galatians 4: 4). The Law was by its very nature temporary and conditional to Israel as an operative system in the history of God’s plan of universal redemption. Once the Law and Israel achieved their purposes, or were “fulfilled” in Christ they became obsolete (Hebrews 8: 13). The Law had an expiration date, a shelf life that only lasted until Messiah arrived. The Law played a preparatory role for the coming of Christ; it never had the power to save, but only to condemn in identifying and demonstrating human sin and inadequacies. Its function was to ready mankind for salvation. The Law is good and holy, but it is also obsolete and incomplete (Romans 7; Galatians 3).
Good News! The Law is Fulfilled in Christ
The Law was not abolished, repealed or revamped in any way in the new age of grace. Jesus himself says that he did not come to destroy [katalyō] or subvert the Law, but to fulfill [plēroō] it (Matthew 5: 17), which means to complete, to finish, accomplish or expire. Paul repeats Jesus’ declaration by stating that “Christ is the end [telos] of the law,” meaning he is the termination or conclusion of it (Romans 10: 4). Jesus does not change the Law nor add to it which he himself admonishes against (Matthew 5: 17–19). The Law was fulfilled in Christ, meaning he met all of its requirements and standards as well as the subsequent punishments for failure. He lived the Law for humanity, keeping it perfectly as our representative before God, and died for all of us, meeting its requisite punishment for sin. Jesus’ last words on the cross “It is finished [teleō]” (John 19: 30), marks the completion and fulfillment of the Law and effectively completes all of its requirements, obligations or demands for us. Any attempt to place believers back under the Law, even partially, amounts to a rejection of the work of Christ. “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5: 4).
The Law is no longer operative because all its demands were satisfied. Its expiration date has matured and it is no longer in effect since the death of Christ. The Law then has no direct application in the new age of grace. The Law is to the Church what the Articles of Confederation is to the United States. They serve great historical value in providing a history that led to the creation of the U.S. Constitution and contain pertinent principles of government decentralization to learn from—but no one is obligated to abide by them any longer. As a system of government it has been retired. The Mosaic Law, like the Articles of Confederation, today serves a strictly instructive role; it retains an honorary position as system emeritus.
Although, the Law as a binding system has been retired in the plan of God’s redemption, it serves an important role in the advice and instruction readers learn from it. The Law offers examples of righteousness and models of holiness. Paul noted that “whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction” (Romans 15: 4). He adds that the history of Israel serves as an example of learning for the Church today (I Corinthians 10: 6) and that “All Scripture is …profitable for teaching … and for training in righteousness” (I Timothy 3: 16). The Church looks back to the Law for guidance and for the meaning of holiness and righteousness, but never applies the Law in the same way as Israel did as a civil nation. The New Testament writers use the Law as examples of righteousness in the reiteration of the Ten Commandments (Romans 13: 8–10; James 2: 8–11). The Law must be used “lawfully” (I Timothy 1: 8) as instruction and not as a binding operating system.
To argue for subdivision in the Law such as ceremonial, dietary, moral, sacrificial, etc., in essence denies the Law’s instructive capacities today. The Law is either obsolete in its entirety or it is operative in its entirety and if it is obsolete yet still instructive, it is instructive in its entirety today. The Law has not been abrogated, as if God somehow made a mistake. Again it was fulfilled, and hence has accomplished its purpose; its telos and reason for existence has been realized. The Law was then retired; it serves now only to instruct in righteousness and to demonstrate sinfulness.
The Law never comes to the Church today unmodified from its original context in ancient Israel. If the so–called “moral law” was binding, then its enforcement and punishment must also be binding. Partial Law advocates must change the meaning of the Law to make it palatable. Every system that adopts an operative role for the Law modifies it to some extent through illegitimately subdividing the Law into convenient sections, in a clear case of selective morality, where only some principles from a given system are conveniently chosen and partially applied through abandoning its original meaning and context to fit a contemporary understanding. For example, Sabbath observance is now on Sunday instead of Saturday or the commandment against adultery applying to a monogamous Christian context instead of its original Hebrew polygamous one.
Without enforcement of the Law there is, in reality, no Law. The Church cannot honestly say it is somehow under the obligations of the Law if also does not keep its enforcement. This is where the entire operative approach to the Law breaks apart into utter incoherence in relation to the New Testament principle of grace. The penalty for most infractions against the Law was death by stoning and was often administrated by a civil and religious authority (Deuteronomy 17). Since the Church does not inherit Israel’s civil authority, enforcement of the Mosaic Law becomes impossible. (See my article on the prophetic voice of the Church here.)
As the premiere Law of all time, greater than the Code of Hammurabi, greater than the Qur’an, greater than Roman law (Galatians 3:21), the Mosaic Law offers itself as instruction and example for individual morality and civil society, but requires no uncontestable obligation regarding its adoption and enforcement. The Law ceases to be a legalistic code that must be enforced to the letter upon pain of death. Instead, it speaks as the Word of God. It now brings life instead of death. In Christ “the ministry of death” transforms into “the ministry of the Spirit” and life” (2 Corinthians 3).
A New Commandment
Though the Law was fulfilled, accomplished and expired in Christ, and its requirements and penalties no longer directly apply today. This does not mean the Church lives lawlessly and without moral standards. The fulfillment of the Law in Christ means the fulfillment of the Law in his Body, the Church. Jesus and both the Apostles Paul and James stated that the commandment of love fulfills the Law (Matthew 22: 37–40; Mark 12: 29–31; Romans 13: 8–10; Galatians 5: 14; James 2: 8). “Love … is the fulfillment [plērōma] of the Law” (Romans 13: 10) The Church, as well as Christ, bring a completion and conclusion to the Law. Jesus left the Church with a new commandment of love that fulfills the old Law. Just as the old Law marked the distinction of Israel as a holy people from the rest of the pagan nations (Deuteronomy 28: 1–2), so the new commandant of love distinguishes the Church from a hostile world system: “A new commandant I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 14: 34, 35).
The old Law was not a failure, so that God had to begin again with a New Commandment of Love. The Law was as Paul said, “weak … through the flesh,” (Romans 8: 3), meaning it was simply incapable of producing anything other than the recognition of sin and condemnation (Romans 7: 7–13). It could never save and transform humanity. For that purpose God sent his Son and “condemned sin …in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled [plēroō, completed, finished or accomplished] in us who do not walk according to the flesh [sinful human nature] but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8: 4).
Because believers now have the Holy Spirit, they are new creations (2 Corinthians 5: 17) and the Law is accomplished in them. This does not mean Christians live perfectly as Christ did, but that there are no moral or legal requirements that they must meet as a sign of their acceptance by God; instead of living up to a standard, they live out of the sufficiency of Christ. They are guided by the Holy Spirit to accomplish the New Commandment of Love, also called “the law of the Spirit” (Romans 8: 2), “the law of faith” (Romans 3: 27), “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6: 2) and “the royal law” (James 2: 8), reflecting the image of God in Christ. Jesus did not leave a legal code to regulate every aspect of life, like Moses; instead he gave the Church an orientation of love and freedom. Law compels obedience through fear of punishment. It dominates the individual’s will so that his choices are not his own. Grace inspires obedience through the revelation of God’s love; “the goodness of God leads to repentance” (Romans 2: 4). Law is for the immature or those who cannot act responsibly without it. They need to be told what to do in external and institutional codes. Grace is for the mature who act according to the Law of the Spirit or the spirit of the Law residing internally in every believer. They live by the Spirit at a higher standard of personal accountability to God and not according to the letter of the Law (Matthew 19). Law is for the lawless, not the righteous (I Tim 5: 5-10).
The Internal Law of the Spirit
The Law of the Spirit expresses the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise that the Law will be written on the hearts of God’s people in a new covenant after God fills them with his Spirit and forgives their sin (Jeremiah 31: 31–34; Ezekiel 36: 24–27; Hebrews 8: 7–13; 12: 24). Believers are not accountable to the Law, but may approach God through Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest and Mediator between God and man (I Timothy 2: 5; Hebrews 4: 14; 7: 18-19). Grace supplies believers with a greater righteousness and accessibility directly to God, in contrast to the Law of Moses, because as grace fulfills all the requirements of the Law, it also provides both personal transformation and purity of heart through faith. It is not enough to simply not commit murder or adultery. One must not harbor hate or lust also (Matthew 5). The Law—is now internalized in believers through the Holy Spirit.
The new Law of the Spirit (i.e., the Law of Love) continues where the old Law left off. But this new law is different from the old because it can only be accepted by faith, a committed trust in the unseen Word of God (2 Corinthians 4: 16–5:7; Hebrews 11: 1–12: 3) as a gift of God’s grace, which makes the old Law a law of works, not a law of faith (Romans 3: 27). Abraham understood that “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). Anyone living righteously knew it even when they were under the Law—that keeping the Law was impossible, requiring grace (Romans 4). The Law required moral and legal perfection, complete and total obedience or works, requiring human effort in order to achieve acceptance with God. Any attempt to work one’s way back to God on the basis of keeping the Law disqualifies one from salvation by grace through faith (Romans 3–5). “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Galatians 2: 21).
Christians are not justified by grace through faith, only to be sanctified by works either the works of the Law or any other code of conduct. Theologically, Evangelicals typically divide the term salvation into three stages: justification, a positional salvation that can never be revoked; sanctification, a lifestyle that reflects justification, and glorification, the end result of salvation when believers are restored to the complete image of God in the eschaton. The Church often struggles the most with the middle stage of sanctification, asserting the need for a code of conduct as many Evangelicals do or even a sacramental merit system as Roman Catholics accept that measures the believer’s progress and growth towards Christlikeness. Although most Evangelicals will hotly deny that they are setting up a new works salvation system in their codes, the practical effects are the same: justification is by faith and sanctification is by works.
The Ontology of Salvation
Grace represents a temporal discontinuity in the plan of God within an overall eternal continuity. The coming of Christ was a radical disruption in the nature of things (ontology) and punctuated history with grace. The new age of grace, only foreshadowed and hoped for in the previous time, was always in view in God’s plan of redemption. But until the coming of Christ there was no tangible mechanism to dispense Grace to humanity. Law never acts as a means of salvation, even if there was someone who kept it perfectly, such as Saul of Tarsus (Philippians 3: 6) .
Good behavior does not eradicate the guilt of original sin, simply doing more good works to outweigh our evil ones will do nothing to accomplish salvation, which is the whole substance of the ancient debate between law and grace from Jesus and the Pharisees, to Paul and the Judaizers, to Augustine and Pelagius to the Reformers and the Catholics. It manifests today in the Free Grace Gospel versus Lordship Salvation position as well as the numerous attempts to reassert the principle of law in the Church to act as a hedge against antinomianism and moral libertinism.
The human condition remains so stricken with sin that only a divine intervention will save people from condemnation. No amount of good deeds—even if they were perfect—could erase the curse of sin inherited from the First Adam (Romans 5: 12–21 ). Salvation must be ontological and not simply moral. There must be a change in being and not merely a change in doing. This means there must be a change in the spiritual condition of people and not simply a moral or behavioral change. God does not forgive sin without compensation for sin. Salvation requires more than just a divine act of will to rescue humanity, which then translates to morality and law (or contemporary manifestations of moralism and legalism). This bears out in the New Testament in the struggle between law and grace or works and faith. One position focuses on ontology (the transformation of the spiritual condition or essence) and the other on morality (human effort or works). Salvation focuses on either God or man; either God saves humanity by grace or humanity contributes through its merits to its own forgiveness and restoration.
Human nature tends to self–righteousness and belief in its own ability to earn the grace of God expressed in morality and law, or what Paul called “works.” Morality means the choices people make based on what they think is right or wrong. Law, that is “Policy” in human terms, is the morality of a few people enforced on the majority, through institutional and legally binding codes of behavior. The modern world has adopted a humanistic perspective that sees humanity as preeminent, not God; it has abandoned ontology and metaphysics. In lieu of metaphysics, the modern world uses morality and law as a guide to life; it creates an understanding of God in its own moral image as glorified law–giver and not the Spirit who changes hearts, minds and lives. Thus Christianity and all religion are reduced to morality as opposed to faith, which is irrelevant to the modern world.
Christianity appears increasingly moralistic and legalistic where a code of behavior replaces living faith in God. This manifests in everything from health and eating rules and dress codes, to Prohibition and club or church membership; middle class family values become identical with Christianity: ideals such as a high work ethic, patriotism, and belief in Christian America. Voting becomes a sacred duty, keeping the Ten Commandments becomes emphasized, along with political activism, and so forth. None of these are bad, but they are never a replacement for faith. Yet, they often are made the test of faith and their presence is often mistaken for a vital life in Christ. These things represent morality and even Christian morality, but morality should never be confused with faith and salvation. Salvation is not morality, it is an ontological change in the condition of the human heart and its relationship with God through the Spirit that is freely given and accepted by faith alone. Morality does not constitute the elements of faith, it follows faith as a natural consequence (Ephesians 2: 8–10), and must never be the measure of faith (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8; 10: 12–33).
Moralism: The American Heresy
The common sense approach to religion in America argues that people are responsible for their own actions and therefore can make amends for their misdeeds with good deeds. Although, this position is not false, we need to seek to correct and learn from our mistakes, it makes no difference to one’s spiritual condition, which can only change by faith in the person and work of Christ.
Theologically speaking, most of the American Church has followed the classic heresy known as Pelagianism, a belief that denies the inherent sinful condition. Pelagius the fourth century monk and arch opponent of St. Augustine argued that original sin does not exist as the guilt humanity inherits from the First Adam and that Adam’s sin was his own. The human race cannot be held accountable for a sin they did not commit. People are born innocent into a corrupt environment and only become sinful after they have sinned. On the surface this doctrine appears rational and fair, but cuts the heart out of the principle of grace and throws all religion back into a legalist and moralist mode. Without a notion of original sin, today called “radical evil,” or “total depravity,” or simply the “sinful human nature,” it makes perfect sense that the way back to God is through being a good person or moral reformation. As theologian Paul Tillich noted “[Pelagianism] … is always effective in us when we try to force God down to ourselves. This is what we usually call ‘moralism,’…. Pelagius said that good and evil are performed by us; they are not given [or an ontic condition, meaning we are not born into a state of sin; rather we become sinners through our own misdeeds or sins]. If this is true then religion is in danger of being transformed into morality.”
The principle of grace advocated by the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine and the Reformers radically opposes moralism and makes salvation a matter of a divine intervention in the human condition that can be received only by faith. Works do nothing to alter the human condition of sin and condemnation. No moral or legal remedy exists that will change our basic sinful selves. Moral transformation (works) follows faith, but has no causal effect on salvation or loss of salvation. What God gives in grace he will not revoke (Rom 8: 26-39; 11: 29). Grace is not an excuse or license for sin. Those who argue that way simply do not understand grace and its transforming effects on moral character, nor have they ever participated in it (Rom 6). “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom 6: 14)!
1. For an article on how Millennial generation Americans display, among other traits, a tendency to be what sociologist Christian Smith dubs moralistic therapeutic deists, see: www.probe.org/is-this-the-last-christian-generation/
2. Lawrence Terlizzese, Romney vs. Obama and Beyond: The Church’s Prophetic Role in Politics, Probe Ministries, 2012, www.probe.org/romney-vs-obama-and-beyond-the-churchs-prophetic-role-in-politics/.
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