When Paul preached the scandalous gospel of the grace of God, many who heard him must have felt that he presented the law of God as “the bad guy.” He hints at that reaction in Romans 7:7: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin?” In other words, if living by obedience to the law (trying to climb the obedience ladder) does not make me righteous, and, as a matter of fact [1], if it even causes me to sin more the conclusion to which some may arrive is that Paul is saying the law itself must be evil.

But how can the law of God be evil? Of course, it cannot. It reflects and defines the unchanging, immutable character of God Himself. It is holy, righteous and good—if, as Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:8, one uses it lawfully. What does Paul mean by “. . . if one uses it lawfully?” Does that mean that there is an unlawful way to use the law?

Questions like this often pop into the minds of sincere believers and they deserve answers. The answers are based on two important ideas that were at the heart of the Reformation and have been largely forgotten in many evangelical circles since that time. What are they?

Idea #1. There is a very important distinction between obedience to the law and faith in the gospel. These concepts are often not clearly differentiated and distinguished one from the other. Faith and obedience represent the same thing in the minds of many. They see them as interchangeable parts, like “two wings on an airplane,” or “two sides to the same coin.”

These were the illustrations that were used by the Bible teachers who instructed me as a young Christian and subsequently the illustrations I used as a Bible teacher myself. We should “have faith” and “be obedient,” as if they were synonymous terms. I did not know that Martin Luther believed the essence of correct theology is distinguishing between law and gospel [2], or to say the same thing another way, clearly differentiating between obedience and faith.

Idea #2. There is an equally important difference—a clear delineation—between “this age” and “the age to come.” We all know when Christ returns we will receive our glorified bodies and our salvation will be complete. We will then, for the first time, be free from our “bodies of corruption,” as Paul calls these temporary tents in which we now live. We live now in anticipation of this age to come after Christ returns, the eschaton, as it is called, when we will obviously live in a totally different fashion than we are able to live today while we are still encumbered by our sinful flesh.

However, our souls or spirits are already perfected; in a real sense, they are already living in the age to come, already raised from the dead, already seated with Christ in heavenly places, as Paul says in Ephesians 1. What are the implications of the perfected soul—the real you—still living in a sinful body in this age?

These are two crucial and related ideas: law vs. gospel and this age vs. the age to come, and I want to address them in this article.

“This age and the age to come”

First, let’s look at the term “this age and the age to come.” Before the fall, Adam and Eve lived a life of total faith and trust in God. There was no right and wrong, no ladder to climb, no law to consciously try to obey. They just naturally and spontaneously, like little children, did what Daddy said. No questions, no fears, no better ideas. Obedience was not an issue. It was a naturally-occurring result of their dependent relationship with their Creator. Disobeying God never entered their minds.

Their state before the fall was much like ours will be when we shed these sinful bodies in the age to come—with one big exception, of course: while Adam and Eve were not negatively sinful, they were not positively righteous, either. They were what we might call “innocent.” Since they did not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, they did not have within them the only life that is truly righteous, the life of God, as believers do today. But, we can see that they lived totally by faith, and they depicted, to a degree, our lives in the age to come when we will be free from these sinful bodies.

The problem, of course, is this: in this age, since the fall, true believers are only “half-way there,” so to speak, in that our souls or spirits are living as though they were already in “the age to come,” while our sinful flesh is still very much in “this age,” exhibiting all the characteristics of fallen humanity. This dichotomy sets the stage for the internal battle that we all experience and that Paul enunciates so clearly. [3]

In spite of the obvious reality of this battle with which we are all so familiar, we are indeed new creatures, just as one day all creation itself will be new. Our old man has been crucified with Christ and our new man has been raised with Him to newness of life. The old has passed away and all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). If you are a genuine believer, the real “you,” who, though still trapped in a sinful body until the age to come, is as holy and perfect with the righteousness of Christ as you will ever be in all eternity.

So, the age to come has invaded this age here on the earth through all the believers who make up the church. There is now a “foretaste of glory divine,” as the hymn proclaims, in this age. The love, joy, peace and power that are found only in Jesus Christ are a picture for all the world to see of what the kingdom of God will be like in the age to come, though not a perfect one because of our flesh.

An ever-increasing body of believers, the church, with perfect new spirits, are learning increasingly how to “put off the old man” (Ephesians 4:22) by rendering the flesh less and less prevalent and are learning how to “put on the new man” (Ephesians 4:24) by walking by faith alone apart from obedience to the law, just as Adam and Eve did before the fall.

This is what Jesus meant in the Lord’s Prayer when he taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on the earth as it is in heaven.” Or, to word that prayer another way, “May this age in which we now live become increasingly like the age to come, as the church learns to walk more and more by faith.” Learning to walk more and more by faith and less and less by obedience to the law, which is the knowledge of good and evil, is how the Lord’s prayer will be answered.

This “coming of the kingdom,” the invasion of the age to come into our present day time-space age, is what God is doing through His church as we learn how to more consistently “put off the old” and “put on the new.” We can now lay aside the debilitating preoccupation with ourselves and how we are doing in that impossible task of climbing the ladder and trying to be righteous. We can know that we have already arrived; we already ARE righteous with the permanent imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Faith in this permanent possession of absolute goodness leads to the temporal experience of goodness, not the reverse. In other words, I do good works because I know I am already perfectly good—that is living by faith. I do not become good because I do good works, as Aristotle proposed—that is living by obedience to the law.

Since my righteousness is now settled, I am free to move on to the task God gave to man in the Garden of taking care of His creation in this age, including my brothers and sisters around me. The tools God uses to perform this transformation in my life, this experience of putting off the old and putting on the new to prepare me for my dominion task, are the law and the gospel.

Next week we will look at that idea, “Law vs. Gospel.”

[1] Romans 7:5, 13
[2] Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, p. 10.
[3] Galatians 5:16-26

Recommended further reading:

Robert Andrews: The Family-God’s Weapon for Victory
Steven Lawson: Foundations of Grace
John Calvin: Grace and its Fruits