In order to effectively join with God in His task of caring for His creation by “putting off the old man” and “putting on the new,” as we discussed last week, we must learn to distinguish between the law and the gospel and then use each one properly in our lives. They are not like two wings on an airplane or two sides to the same coin. This leads us to the false conclusion that they both have basically the same function—that they both together are the means by which I live my Christian life—and therefore we fail to distinguish between them. The famous old hymn reinforces this failure as it proclaims, “Trust and obey, for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey,” as if they both together, with no distinction between them, are the means to be “happy in Jesus.” Let’s look at each in light of what we have seen about the difference between this age and the age to come.

The law

Since the time of the fall, because of his now-realized knowledge of good and evil, man has recognized that he is not good like God and, even though he knows he falls short, is focused on trying to get as close to perfection as he can. He is no longer satisfied with himself as he is and is obsessed with being good like God is good. He has what he sees as a “holy dissatisfaction” with himself, and he thinks that is a good thing. He refuses to accept the fact that man can have no intrinsic righteousness himself. He will not hear Jesus’ evaluation of man in Luke 18:19: “No one is good but One; that is God.” He is constantly striving to live a more righteous life, to get as close to perfection as he can. He is an obsessive ladder-climber.

This, of course, is at the heart of all the religions of the world—man attempting through various systems of achievement, self denial, even schemes of reincarnation, to somehow become good like God is good. Even though this may not be conscious, all men have partaken of the fruit of the Tree in Adam, and they are striving in some way to measure up to the standard of God’s law, the knowledge of good and evil, that, since the fall, is written on the heart of every man who comes into the world: it is worked into the fabric of our very beings.

Before the fall, God had no human competition for His job as God. Satan had rebelled, so there was angelic competition, but God had a monopoly on being God among his earthly creatures. Adam and Eve were perfectly content with being man, simply doing the task God had given them to do—care for His creation. But now, since Adam and Eve believed Satan’s lie and decided to take up the task of becoming like God just as Satan himself had done, God has human competitors for His job. So, it has been necessary for Him to lay out very clearly the qualifications for the position, i.e., what it means to be holy as God is holy.

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Fallen man can delude himself rather easily into thinking that he is good by rationalizing away the conviction that comes from the knowledge of good and evil written on his heart, so God wrote it down externally on tablets of stone. This is what it means to be good like God, to be holy, the first qualification for the job; there can now be no mistake. Jesus, through His teaching, further clarified God’s law to be more than just external actions but even heart attitudes.

Paul says in Galatians 3 that the law was given “because of transgressions,” not so man would understand what he needed to do to be like God but to see clearly, with no misunderstanding, how little like God he really is! In other words, as long as we live in this age, trapped in sinful bodies, each with an insatiable appetite for the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we need the law clearly defined—not to encourage us to keep it, not to help us keep it or to guide us as we try to keep it, but to show us that we can’t keep it; keeping it is impossible! We must come face to face with the reality that being good by being obedient to God’s law is unattainable—there is only one God; He has no competition. No one is good but God. It is the law of God that shows us that.

Anything that creates for us a system of spiritual achievement or attainment is the law, and the law can never make us righteous before God.

One of the watchwords of the Reformation was Lex semper accusat— the law always accuses. It never vindicates or brings life; it always kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). In this age, the purpose of the law is to kill us, to bring us to despair, to hopelessness as to our own abilities. The law tells us when we lust we have committed adultery, and when we are angry at our brother we have murdered him. We are helpless to keep the law because of the sin that permeates our flesh.

But at the cross an alternate way of life was opened to us, another whole new basis of operation, the same basis of operation of Adam and Eve before the fall and what will be the basis of operation in the age to come—grace through faith alone. Galatians 3:24, 25: “The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come we are no longer under a tutor.” When the age to come invades our lives, the law has no place. We are dead to it. “For by the law, I died to the law that I might live to God” (Galatians 3:19)—which brings us to the gospel.

The gospel

The gospel is that God would not take the sin of Adam and Eve, which in its basic essence was their rejection of His love, mercy and provision—His role of God in their lives—as a final answer. Their autonomous, ambitious reach upward to usurp God’s unique position did not cut off or dampen His love for them. He sent His Son Jesus to give us a model of His love—absolutely unconditional, not dependent on our performance whatsoever. Jesus taught that His Father’s love and mercy are limitless, and then He didn’t just talk about it, He “did it” to us. He showed us exactly what His Father is like. He went about loving the unlovely and healing the sick and broken.

And He forgave sinners. Indiscriminately. Just by doing it. With no strings attached. Before any changed life, before any commitment, before any assurances that we were “sincere” and “really mean it this time.” He forgave absolutely unconditionally those His father had given to Him. He did it totally by grace, with no conditions whatsoever.

But this kind of unconditional love and mercy infuriated the Jews. They would not have it. “What do you mean all my religion and good works don’t matter? I don’t want a forgiveness that is absolutely free, with nothing for me to do. Who are you to say anything to me! Why, Abraham is my Father!”

However, to focus on the Jews as those who rejected their Creator and His gospel of unconditional grace as the ones who ultimately crucified Jesus, is to miss the point. It is to insulate ourselves from allowing the gospel to penetrate our shells of denial and self-protection. The gospel of total grace continues to produce exactly the same reaction, the same anger, in us. “What do you mean I don’t have to do anything, and that God has done it all, that all my religious disciplines and theological orthodoxy are of no value to God? That’s just ‘cheap grace.’ And don’t tell me I am selfish and rebellious. Why, I’m a 5-point Calvinist.”

Everyone knows the Pharisees were the bad guys in the New Testament, but are there Pharisees today? Have you ever known one? One day, if God truly loves you (and He does!) and has mercy upon you (and He will!), you will see with a flash of revelation that you are the Pharisee, and that you crucified Jesus, just as surely as if you had driven the nails. You too hate the gospel that says that Jesus came to save sinners of whom you are chief, that all the thoughts and intents of your heart are only evil continually, and that is not just a theological idea. If Jesus has chosen in His mercy to save you, He will do so with no help from you whatsoever, from the time He foreknew you in eternity past to the time you are glorified in eternity future. His love and mercy are absolutely irresistible. You cannot escape Him. That is the scandalous gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today many will try to pass off the law as the gospel, which, of course, is what the Judaizers were doing to the Galatians. There is much talk about the “principles of the gospel” or “the disciplines of grace” or “the third use of the law.” These are syncretistic attempts to smuggle in the law as a means to bring life, to add the law to the grace of God as a sort of “safety net.” We must be tuned to spot such attempts, because the law always only brings death, as God designed it to do. How can I recognize when that is occurring?

Contrasting law and gospel

1.) Any religious system that tells me there is something to “do,” some  duty to perform in order to please God, is the law. Remember, the law is designed to kill me and drive me to the gospel that always says “done” and brings me life. Jesus has done it all at the cross; there is nothing left for me to do in my relationship with Him. When the law kills me and Jesus brings me to life, I can do nothing but naturally respond to what He has done.

The law is necessary for all fallen creatures of this age, all who still have confidence in the flesh, who have pride in their ability to obey the law—Christian or non-Christian. It matters not whether they think they are successfully keeping the law or see themselves as miserably failing (and some of the most vociferous proponents of striving to keep the law are those who have failed to do so most obviously). When we revert to obedience to the law, to climbing the righteousness ladder, to trying to look spiritual by being the good guy we are creatures of this age, and we again need the law to come and do its work of slaying us. The gospel of the grace of God is intended for creatures of the age to come, as we are when we see our helplessness, genuinely repent and trust in God to continually save us completely in Christ.

2.) The law tells me I am guilty and desperately need a savior. The gospel says I have a Savior who has taken me to death with Him, raised me up with Him, and has hidden me with Him in God.

3.) The law convicts me of my sin; faith in the gospel empowers me not to sin.

4.) The law energizes the flesh leading to resultant pride or its twin brother discouragement, bringing sin and death; faith in the gospel energizes the Spirit, leading to resultant spontaneous love, joy, peace, obedience and life.

Practical applications of law and gospel

After delivering a message recently on the nature of the gospel, I spoke with one of my listeners, who commented to me how much he appreciated the message and then said very naturally and spontaneously, “I’ve just got to discipline myself more.” I wondered if he had heard anything I had said. The law as a ladder was such a part of his way of thinking, still so habitually the lens through which he viewed life, that the gospel had not yet fully penetrated. He was not yet able to think in terms of living by faith alone.

This paradigm shift is something God alone can do. To use the law only for that which God intended in our relationship with Him—to show us our sin and lead us to repentance and not as a goal to strive to keep—is impossible until God opens our eyes. We are all in the process in this life of going through that shift.

As God opens my eyes to the distinction between law and gospel and the proper functioning of each, unmistakable characteristics begin to appear in my life, spontaneously and naturally, without my effort or often even my knowledge:

1) Not blaming others for relational difficulties, but a constant awareness of my own sin and not theirs. “It’s my fault,” is on the tip of my tongue ready to be uttered rather than stuck there with Velcro. (1 John 1:7, 9)

2) Glorying in my weaknesses (my sins) at every turn and not being ashamed of those besetting sins, knowing that God is glorified in the midst of them as He is conforming me to the image of Christ. Ministry flows from me to others, not in spite of my sin, but because of my sin! His strength is demonstrated only in the midst of my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

3) Genuine love, joy, peace, etc.—the fruit of the Spirit—beginning to appear in my life. Just as a good tree bears good fruit, a life lived by faith and not obedience to the law produces fruit naturally without any effort whatsoever (Galatians 5:22-25).

4) Contentment and satisfaction with God’s progress in my life as he changes me. (2 Corinthians 3:18). Can a “holy dissatisfaction” with God’s spiritual maturity timetable for me ever really be “holy”? How can we ever be dissatisfied with what God has done and with the time frame in which He operates? He indeed “does all things well.”

What can you do to bring about this paradigm shift in your life? You can do nothing, but if God has a mark on your heart one day you will cast yourself completely on the mercy of God and ask him to open your eyes that you may see. Once you do begin to see the true gospel of the grace of God, the invasion of the age to come into this age has begun in your life, and you are ready to join with Him in the task given to man to care for God’s creation. You are ready to be a part of the answer to the Lord’s prayer—“Thy kingdom come on the earth (in this age) as it is in heaven (and in the age to come).”

Recommended further reading:

Robert Andrews: The Family-God’s Weapon for Victory
Rousas Rushdoony: The Institutes of Biblical Law
Wilhelmus a Brakel: The Christian’s Reasonable Service