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Understanding grace allows us to see ourselves in proper relation to God as his beloved ‘in Christ.’

Grace versus Law?

Controversy over the relationship between grace and law, as well as faith and works, was one of the issues which dominated the theological landscape of the first century church.1  It was one of the sparks that ignited the Protestant Reformation. It continues to be a major point of dissension among believers to this day. What was, and is, at stake is significant: the Gospel truth that, because of Jesus Christ’s atoning death, humanity can be saved by grace through faith in Jesus, as opposed to the ineffectual alternative of seeking salvation by our own merit.

There are only two ways of salvation: the way of law and the way of grace. These two ways are mutually exclusive.2 Justification by obedience to a system of law – God’s moral law and the Law of Moses being classic examples (Romans 2:12-16) – is possible in theory. In practice, it turns out to be impossible. The simple fact is we all sin (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8).3 And one sin is all it takes to incur guilt and God’s righteous judgement under law (James 2:10). Near enough isn’t good enough. A ledger with more black ink than red ink won’t do. Justification by law requires flawless obedience (Galatians 3:10).

The rules of any system of law are simple: ‘Keep the law and no penalty applies. Break the law and suffer the penalty.’ In relation to justification, the best that law can do is highlight our failure and impress upon us our subsequent need for a Saviour (Romans 7:7-13, 24-25; Galatians 3:19-25). If we’re to have any hope of salvation, we must look to God (faith) rather than ourselves (works).

Justification by grace through faith flips the rules of law on their head: ‘Keep the law but suffer the penalty. Break the law but escape the penalty.’4  Surely, that can’t be right? This seems counter-intuitive and unfair. Exactly so, and this is one reason grace is so often misunderstood. Justice is all about fairness. Grace is inherently unfair.5 

Jesus’ sinlessness means he owed no law-debt of his own, so God could accept his death as payment of our penalty. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is called substitutionary atonement.6  The sacrifice of the innocent Lamb allows God to uphold justice because the demands of law are satisfied. At the same time, it frees God to extend mercy and exonerate the guilty (Romans 3:21-26). Amazing grace! 

How does living under a system of grace rather than a system of law affect how we see ourselves in relation to God? How does it affect the way we relate to one another?

Grace frees us from the curse of law (which is the demand for flawless obedience), but it doesn’t free us from law itself (Romans 6:15-18). God still requires our obedience. Paul calls it the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26). But it’s an obedience motivated by love and gratitude, not fear and compulsion. We undertake good works for which God redeemed and re-created us in Christ to perform – not for our justification but for our growth in holiness (Ephesians 2:8–10; cf. Philippians 2:1–13).

Understanding grace allows us to see ourselves in proper relation to God as his beloved ‘in Christ’.  When we put on Christ in baptism through faith (Galatians 3:26–27), we have God’s assurance of all his promises that are summed up in Christ (Ephesians 1:3–14). We need not be haunted by doubts and fears arising from our flawed obedience because our obedience will always be imperfect, despite our best efforts and intentions to please and honour God (1 John 1:8–2:6; 4:14 –19). However, things like unbelief, arrogance, and a refusal to accept God’s grace can cut us off from God’s mercy.

The way of grace frees us to truly love and serve as God wants us to: ‘For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self- indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself“ (Galatians 5:13–14; cf. Romans 14:1–15:6). 

The way of law keeps us captive to our self-centredness (I have to be right about everything to be saved) and insecurity (am I really good enough?). This often results in strife and division (if my being saved depends on my always being right, I can’t tolerate those who don’t agree with me: Galatians 5:14–15).

Grace brings us peace in our relationship with God and with one another. Grace frees us to live faith-fully out of love instead of fear, out of humility instead of arrogance, out of mercy instead of judgmentalism.


For example, it was a major theme of Paul’s writing and ministry as apostle to the gentiles (cf. Romans, Galatians)
    and it was a key reason for the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

2  Galatians 5:1–6.

3  The only exception being the incarnate Word (Hebrews 4:14–15).

4 This is derived from Jack Cottrell, Set Free: What the Bible Says About Grace (College Press, 2009).

5  Many describe grace as a free gift, but that’s only half of it. Grace is free to the receiver, but it always comes at a cost
    to the one dispensing grace. This element of self-sacrifice/generosity makes grace inequitable (cf. Matthew 20:1-16).

6  See Isaiah 53. There are other possible theories of atonement. What matters is that atonement is found in Christ.

Stephen Wilson is an elder at The Point Church in Brisbane.


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