Volume Seven — Article 5, Part II Volume 7 | Home

Law and the Christian
Geoffrey J. Paxton  

Part II

The Harmony of Law and Grace

Legalism is the enemy of grace because of a faulty view of the law, and antinomianism is the enemy of law because of its false view of grace. Legalism neglects the "grace basis" of law, and antinomianism neglects the "law basis" of grace. We must now expound what these expressions signify.

Law has a "grace basis." Law, as that authority under which man has his existence, is a loving provision of God. As far as the Bible is concerned, man is free when he is under God's authority. The law of God is the order of man's existence, and man is free when he lives in conformity to that order. One of the first steps to good health is to be in tune with reality. The prodigal illustrates this point. He thought he would be free once he was outside the authority of his father, so he set out on his "trip of emancipation." However, he came to himself when he started to reflect upon the condition of his father's servants. He made his way back to request that he become a servant, for he knew that freedom consisted in being committed to his father. The law of God is not a harsh, alien law which destroys man's personhood, as some have wrongly imagined. It is that law which allows man to be his "true" self. Man was created free because man was created subject to the authority (law) of God.

It is not surprising, therefore, to see grace as the basis of the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . . " (R.S.V.). This statement of fact prefaces the demands which Jehovah makes upon His people. They are to behave in a certain way because Jehovah has rescued them. In terms of concrete realities, the Ten Commands expound what being rescued means.

The situation is not different when we come to the New Testament. Let Romans 12:1 act as a typical text: "Therefore, my brothers, I implore you by God's mercy . . . " (N.E.B.). The "therefore" and the "by God's mercy" root and ground the demand in the unmerited and undeserved rescue activity of God in saving His people from the pigpen.

The legalist misses this order and therefore fails to understand the true nature of law. He seeks to make the kindness and favor of God dependent upon his keeping the law, instead of seeing that the obligation to keep the law rests upon the favor of God. Law is based on grace.

What is meant when we say that grace has a law basis? Let us seek to answer the question by asking another: On what basis does God accept the believer? Two quite wrong answers have been given to this question: first, the legalist's answer, which puts the emphasis upon the obedience of man; and second, the antinomian's answer, which says that the angry judge (God) was placated (or won over) by the merciful mediator, Jesus Christ.

The only answer which will do justice to the Bible is that the love of God was demonstrated in His saving activity in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ met the demands of the law of God by that perfect and perpetual obedience seen in His life and death. The incarnation of the Son of God honored the law of God. Such honoring of God's law (obedience, active and passive) is the ground on which God accepts us. This is what we mean when we speak of the "legal basis" of grace.

The antinomian fails to see the true harmony between law and grace, and conceives grace as the negation of the law. He not only dishonors the law, but grace also.

The failure to perceive this harmony of law and grace has led to a sad misrepresentation of the character of God. When the love of God is spoken of apart from the law, then God is seen as One who does not care for justice. This is not the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When the justice of God is spoken of apart from His loving activity in Christ, then God is seen as an angry judge mercilessly exacting payment for the failures of men and women. The God and Father of Jesus Christ our Rescuer, is neither unjust (for He has honored the law) nor unloving (for He has honored the law for us). He is the Just and Loving One.

In summary: We must guard grace from distortion by a wrong view of the law. We must also guard law from a misconception of grace. The legalist expresses a misconception of law and thereby degrades grace, and the antinomian voices a false view of grace and thereby does damage to law. The law must be viewed in the light of grace (the grace basis of law), and grace must be seen in the light of law (the law basis of grace).