Many of those who earnestly desire to be right with God have the idea that they may earn salvation. What better way of doing this, they reason, than by trying to keep God’s law? After all, the Lord Jesus told the lawyer, after he had summarised the law of God, “This do, and thou shalt live”, Luke 10:28. The Lord Jesus thereby upheld the integrity of the law of God, so is it not our duty to keep the law of God and live?
Such an idea ignores what the Lord Jesus went on to explain, in the form of a parable, that far from being able to keep the law of God, the lawyer was like the man fallen among thieves. The only help for him lay in the Good Samaritan who acted in grace towards Him. The representatives of the ceremonial and the civil law, the priest and the Levite, were unwilling to help him. See Luke 10:30-37.
In this way the Lord Jesus laid the foundation for the teaching of the New Testament epistles. In them we learn that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin”, Romans 3:20. As soon as a person begins to try to live according to the law, he finds himself exposed as a sinner. This is why the apostle also says, “the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression”, Romans 4:15.
The apostle Paul said about the nation of Israel, to whom the Law of Moses had been given, that “they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God”, Romans 10:3. They failed to realise that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth”, Romans 10:4. In other words, “law for righteousness” is ended, whereas “Christ for righteousness” is effective. The apostle Paul, as a former Pharisee, had to learn that “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us”, Titus 3:5.
Since the keeping of the sabbath day was one of the commandments in the law, then some who claim to be Christians feel that they should observe the seventh day of the week. If, therefore, we could come to a decision as to whether the law is binding on Christians, we shall have also decided whether the Sabbath day is binding on Christians, for the two matters are linked. It is sometimes suggested that those in heaven keep the Sabbath, so it cannot be obsolete. The verse used to support this is found in Isaiah 66:22. This verse, and the one following which speaks of keeping the Sabbath, uses a figure of speech to make a truth clear. The prophet is saying that the permanency of the nation of Israel is as sure as the permanency of the new heavens and new earth which God will bring in. The whole of chapter 66 has to do with Christ’s kingdom upon the earth, centred in Jerusalem. That the Sabbath will be kept on earth during Christ’s reign over the earth is evident. But just as sacrifices will be offered in those days, (see Ezekiel 46 for instance), despite the fact that the sacrifice of Christ is final, (see Hebrews 10:25-28; 10:18), so the Sabbath will be kept. These observances will clearly be commemorative, or else the work of Christ at Calvary will be undermined.
The idea of works for salvation has a very strong hold on the hearts of men. We see this in Acts 15 where there were two classes of men in error. There were those who said that unless Gentiles kept the law and submitted to circumcision they could not be saved, Acts 15:1. Then there were those who said that those who were saved were to go on to keep the law of Moses in order to please God, verse 5. A council was held about this, and the apostles were clear that the Gentile believers had no obligation to keep the law.
This is not because the law is faulty in some way. The reverse is the case, as the following verses show:
It is holy, Romans 7:12.
It is spiritual, Romans 7:14.
But whilst not faulty itself, those to whom the law was given were unable to keep it, and hence the following things are true:
It is weak through the flesh, Romans 8:3.
It works wrath, Romans 4:15.
It entered so that the offence might abound, Romans 5:20.
It cannot justify the sinner, Galatians 2:16.
It is the ministration of death, 2 Corinthians 3:7.
It is ended as a way of becoming righteous, by the death of Christ, Romans 10:4.
The epistle to the Galatians was written to make this inability of the law clear. In chapters 3 to 5 the apostle gives seven reasons why grace is superior to law. These are as follows:
1. 3:1-14 Grace results in blessing.
The law brings a curse.
2. 3:15-29 Grace makes believers heirs.
The law makes us transgressors.
3. 4:1-10 Grace makes us sons.
The law is for infants.
4. 4:11-18 Grace makes the apostle like an angel to the Galatians.
The law makes him like an enemy.
5. 4:19-31 Grace makes us sons of free woman, like Isaac.
The law leaves us sons of the slave woman, like Ishmael.
6. 5:1-15 Grace helps us make spiritual progress.
The law only hinders spiritual progress.
7. 5:16-26 Grace results in the fruit of Spirit.
The law results in works of the flesh.
(Further detailed notes on these passages may be found in the sidebar under “GALATIANS”).
By means of these seven reasons the apostle makes it abundantly clear that to put ourselves under law by seeking to earn God’s favour is the way of disaster. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast”, Ephesians 2:8,9.
God is determined to have all the glory when He saves sinners, and the only way this can happen is for salvation to be entirely of His rich and unmerited favour. As soon as we try to earn salvation we deprive Him of that glory. As the apostle wrote, “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God”, Romans 4:2. But God cannot allow man to boast. As soon as Abraham rested in faith on what God said to him, then he was justified without works, Romans 4:3.
This is not to say that the Christian life is a lawless life. In fact, Christians are exhorted to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ”, Galatians 6:2. By the law of Christ is meant the sum total of the gracious principles which governed the Lord Jesus as He lived here amongst men. “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ,” John 1:17. The only way a person can live in any measure like that is to have the Holy Spirit within. And the Holy Spirit is only given to those who are saved by God’s grace. Only they can live a Christ-like life.
So a Christian does not set the Law of Moses before him so as to live in accordance with its commands. Indeed, the Scripture states very clearly that “the law was not made for a righteous man, but for the unrighteous and disobedient”, 1 Timothy 1:9. Rather, he seeks to obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit within, who guides him into paths that please God. The apostle described this in these terms, “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh. but after the Spirit”, Romans 8:3,4. So what the law was unable to do, namely free us from sin and death so that we might live in a righteous way, God has done by not only sending His Son to deal with sin, but also sending His Spirit to empower a righteous life. So all the law demanded as being right, the believer is alone able to fulfil. Instead of relying on self’s works for salvation, we need to rely on Christ’s work at Calvary. And instead of relying on self’s works to live the Christian life, we need to rely on the Spirit’s work in our hearts. It is important to see that it is the righteous principles behind the law that believers are required to fulfil, not the law itself, which was a covenant with the nation of Israel.
It might be argued that since the Lord Jesus was under the law, then those who try to live like Him must be under the law too. It is indeed true that Christ was under the law. Because He was born of a woman, and that woman of the nation of Israel, so He also was of the nation of Israel, to which nation God had given the law in the form of a conditional covenant. He undertook to bless them if they kept His law. If they failed, then they were to receive His curse. The fact is that the only one ever to keep the law as it should have been kept was the Lord Jesus. Isaiah prophesied “He will magnify the law and make it honourable”, Isaiah 42:21, and his prophecy was fulfilled. The Lord Jesus could ask men versed in that law the question, “Which of you convinceth Me of sin”, John 8:46, and they had nothing to say. He could claim that He always pleased His Father, John 8:29, which would not have been true if He had broken any of the commandments of the Law.
Christ was under the law, and perfectly kept it, but He had not only come to live for God, but to die on the cross at Calvary that He might free men from the consequences of their law-breaking, and introduce those who believe into a new relationship with God; a relationship in which they are His sons, not slaves to the law.
During His life and ministry, the Lord Jesus showed that there was a higher principle than law. It was the principle of grace, which is stronger than law. The apostle Paul wrote “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law but under grace”, Romans 6:14. This applies even to those from Israel who believe. Gentiles were never under the law formally, (although the law is written in the hearts of all men, Romans 2:14,15), for it was given to the nation of Israel exclusively, in the form of a covenant with them.
In John 5 the Lord Jesus healed an impotent man on the Sabbath day. When the Jews were angry at this He responded by saying “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work”, John 5:17. Not only did He thereby claim equality with God, but also informed them that God worked on the Sabbath day; and since He was equal with the Father, He worked on the Sabbath day, too. His healing of the impotent man was a display of that in a way they could see and understand. This must have astounded them, as they realised that their God worked on the Sabbath day! But, after all, did He not cause the sun to shine on the Sabbath? Did not the rain come at His command on that day at times? The universe would disintegrate if God did not uphold it every day, including the Sabbath.
The miracle of John 5 so impressed the Jews that they were still marvelling at it several months later, as recorded in John 7:19-24. The Lord pointed out to them that they would be perfectly happy to circumcise a boy born on a Friday. And do it, moreover, because God commanded that circumcision should be done when the child was eight days old- with no exceptions. Did God command work to be done on the Sabbath? Indeed He did. Then His Son was perfectly at liberty to work on the Sabbath. They circumcised their boys with a physical operation, so that they could be counted amongst the nation of Israel naturally. His work had been of a physical nature, too, but it was more, for the man was found in the temple praising God afterwards, so the miracle had a spiritual effect also. They were happy to work a physical work on the Sabbath, whereas they were angry when He did a spiritual work on the same day.
In Matthew chapter 11 the Lord Jesus issued a personal invitation to the men of His day and ours. Said He, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”, Matthew 11:28. Those who laboured were under the law, and seeking to work for salvation. Christ calls away from that vain pursuit, and invites men to come to Him to have rest from law-works. There were those who were heavy laden also. Later on in His ministry the Lord Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers”, Matthew 23:2-4. The scribes loaded men with extra regulations, supposedly to help them to keep the Law of Moses. They had the opposite effect, however, and resulted in men being bowed down so low that they were unable to work for God. The scribes were not willing to lift any of those burdens away from the people, but Christ was, as He invited those who were heavy laden to find rest in Him. He brings true Sabbath-rest into the hearts of those who believe. Every day is a spiritual Sabbath to them, and God is glorified as they rest in His Son. This is far superior to the observance of a particular day.
There immediately follows in Matthew’s gospel the account of what happened when the Lord Jesus was walking through the cornfields with His disciples. The law allowed them to take ears of corn and eat them, Deuteronomy 23:25. But the regulations of the scribes said that they could not do such a thing on the Sabbath day, for that would be gathering in the harvest! The Lord Jesus took the opportunity afforded by this incident to explain that there was a higher and greater principle than law. It was the principle of grace. He referred the critical scribes and Pharisees to what had happened when David was hungry on one occasion, as recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. He and his followers went to the House of God and asked for bread, and the priests gave him some of the show-bread that had been taken off the table that day, and reserved for the use of the priests during the next week. Now this was food normally only for the priests of the tribe of Levi, and David was of the tribe of Judah. Nonetheless the priests sanctioned the use of the bread in this way. They show that grace triumphs over law. But there was more, for the very priests themselves, by changing the loaves on the Sabbath day at God’s command, performed a common task, and in a sense profaned, or made common, the Sabbath, see Leviticus 24:8. So we see that even under the law there was suggested that grace was a greater principle. So it is that the Lord Jesus is able to say that “in this place is one greater than the temple”. The field has become a temple, the corn has become show-bread, the disciples have become priests, and all because the Lord Jesus, grace personified, was there.
David wrote Psalm 34 after he had eaten of the show-bread, (see title of Psalm 34), and in it he exhorts men to “taste and see that the Lord is good”, Psalm 34:8. When the apostle Peter quoted these words, he wrote, “if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious”, 1 Peter 2:3. So the goodness David knew was the goodness of the grace of God.
So it is that the principle of grace is found to be enshrined even in the demands of the law. The Lord Jesus came in grace, and unfolded to men that which even Moses and the Law could not tell us. He is grace personified, and it is folly indeed to try to earn salvation by works of law, when He has come so that, by His death on the cross, those who believe may be indwelt by the Spirit of God, and thereby enabled to live a life well-pleasing to God. To go back from this, and try to keep the law, is to fail, just as the nation of Israel failed. Let us learn from their mistake, and lay hold of the grace of God in Christ.
“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,
teaching us that,
denying ungodliness and worldly lusts,
we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;
looking for that blessed hope,
and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ;
who gave Himself for us,
that He might redeem us from all iniquity,
and purify unto Himself a peculiar people,
zealous of good works”,