Believing Grace, Practicing Law

Saved by Grace; Function by Law. I know that I am saved by Grace (Eph 2:8-9), but somehow I functionally and practically operate as if I am saved by keeping the Law: by reading my Bible, praying, preparing sermons and Bible study, discipling and mentoring others, blogging, repenting of my sins, loving, serving and praying for others and for ways to advance the kingdom of God, attending prayer meetings, Bible conferences, weekly worship services, etc. Though I believe in Grace, I functionally default to the Law daily. I wake up every morning as a Pharisee. Though I want to extend Grace to others, my default is to give them some Law, such as work harder, read your Bible daily, participate more, have a specific goal for your life, don’t be selfish and self-centered, overcome yourself, don’t go see Breaking Dawn Part 2, etc. What exactly am I doing?

Asking the Law to do what only Grace can do. It is quite interesting what Paul Tripp said in Extend The Same Grace You Preach: “I knew (grace) well and could articulate them clearly, but at ground level something else was going on. In the duties, processes, and relationships of pastoral ministry I actively devalued the same grace I theologically defended. My ministry lacked rest in grace. So I attempted to do in people what only God can do, and I consistently asked the law to do what only divine grace will ever accomplish.”

We think we keep the Law; we correct others by the Law. Why do we do this? “The heart of every believer, still being delivered from sin, (gravitates toward) some form of legalism. Even after we’ve been saved by grace, we think ourselves to be keeping the law. So we bring the law to law breakers, hoping they will see the error of their ways and (improve). No one preaches the law more than one who thinks he’s keeping it. The temptation to revert to legalism greets us all.”

We control and manage others. “When you devalue this grace, you think it is your job as a pastor to manage people’s lives. You simply become too present in their lives and too controlling of their thinking and decisions. Your ministry begins to migrate from being focused on telling people what God has done for them to being dominated by telling people what to do.”

We expect behavioral and cultural uniformity and conformity. “Maturity in the body of Christ is never the fruit of such (Law based) pastoring. No, the fruit is behavioral and cultural uniformity masquerading as maturity. Only when a pastor rests in the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit is he freed from managing people’s lives.”

Law emphasizes church programs that others are expected to participate in. “You emphasize formal programmatic ministry while neglecting the call to informal member-to-member ministry. The fruit of this is a passive (dependent) congregation, who thinks ministry is never official unless a pastor (announces it), who thinks of ministry as a weekly schedule of meetings led by the pastoral staff. When a pastor holds a theology of grace but functionally devalues God’s grace in the life of the believer, he will be too present and controlling in ministry, and the fruit of his ministry will be uniformity and passivity (dependency) in the body of Christ. Again and again our self-righteous hearts migrate toward ministry legalism and control.”

Do you functionally operate by the Law? Do you extend Grace or Law to others?


  1. Here’s a nice poem of contrasts:


    The law supposing I have all,
    Does ever for perfection call;
    The gospel suits my total want,
    And all the law can seek does grant.

    The law could promise life to me,
    If my obedience perfect be;
    But grace does promise life upon
    My Lord’s obedience alone.

    The law says, Do, and life you’ll win;
    But grace says, Live, for all is done;
    The former cannot ease my grief,
    The latter yields me full relief.

    The law will not abate a mite,
    The gospel all the sum will quit;
    There God in thret’nings is array’d
    But here in promises display’d.

    The law excludes not boasting vain,
    But rather feeds it to my bane;
    But gospel grace allows no boasts,
    Save in the King, the Lord of Hosts.

    The law brings terror to molest,
    The gospel gives the weary rest;
    The one does flags of death display,
    The other shows the living way.

    The law’s a house of bondage sore,
    The gospel opens prison doors;
    The first me hamer’d in its net,
    The last at freedom kindly set.

    An angry God the law reveal’d
    The gospel shows him reconciled;
    By that I know he was displeased,
    By this I see his wrath appeased.

    The law still shows a fiery face,
    The gospel shows a throne of grace;
    There justice rides alone in state,
    But here she takes the mercy-seat.

    Lo! in the law Jehovah dwells,
    But Jesus is conceal’d;
    Whereas the gospel’s nothing else
    But Jesus Christ reveal’d.

    — Ralph Erskine

  2. Hi Dr. Toh,
    Your description of your Pharisee activities sounds quite reasonable to me. I am not seeing where the problem is. People *SHOULD* help others to lead a life that is pleasing to God. People *SHOULD* encourage others to avoid activities which defile one’s spirit.

    These are good deeds. It only becomes a problem when you think that the more of these things you do the better your chances of being saved. So I think we can both personally agree that the aformentioned formula is a problem. But what is wrong with knowing quite well that we are saved by Grace and yet feel that we *SHOULD* help others lead a life that is pleasing to God when we wake up. Where is the inconsistency here?

  3. Thanks, Gerardo, for chiming in after a hiatus, perhaps on account of being a new dad, in addition to all the daily chores/fun stuff of life.

    Yes, a Christian should want to help others in all ways possible. But what is the motivation behind doing so?

    * Fear and guilt. If I don’t, God may not be pleased; he may punish me. If I don’t, others will think I am no good. I should do it to show others how good a Christian I am. I better do that so that my pastor will bless me to marry. We can do all the right things for all the wrong (selfish) reasons.

    * God’s Grace in the Gospel (Acts 20:24). We do so only because of what Jesus has done for us (on the Cross) and continues to do for us (through His Spirit). That’s all. This is not a Christian’s natural default, since sin, though forgiven in Christ, is still in us, until the parousia.

    Paul Zahl said, “Grace alone accomplishes what the Law demands.”

    • I like the distinction you made. Personally, I dont typically feel moved by either. I neither think, I should do So and So because God will otherwise take away this blessing. Nor do I tell myself, I should do so so since God did so many good things for me. Or, I should do so and so because my spirit is on fire with God’s grace and this is the only way I can share that fire.

      Rather, I typically just operate based on what my conscious tells me is correct. As Jesus pointed out, the greater the relationship with God, the more clearer it will be what you need to do. but that seems like a different formula from the conscious process which you seem to be describing in your later point.

  4. I agree with Gerardo that conscience is what should move me and I always try to follow that. So I think the role of the conscience is an important topic that should be discussed in a separate thread. When I once discussed this with my Korean UBF shepherd, he told me that conscience is not important and not a Biblical concept, all that counts is obedience. This is also what I was taught indirectly when decisions I made according to my conscience where not respected, and I was even heavily rebuked for that. In one such case even my marriage was canceled by our dear leader. I think everybody in UBF knows such situations where your conscience tells your visiting your parents who need help is more important than visiting the UBF Sunday service or conference, and then you are heavily rebuked. Through such experiences you learn that your conscience is not a reliable advisor and you should rather follow your leaders. So in the course of time, the conscience get numbed. If you have leaders who tell you the direction, and if obedience is the highest principle, if you are taught to obey “absolutely” and “even if you don’t understand the motives of your leader”, you neither need a conscience, nor the Holy Spirit as guides. You don’t need a backbone either.

    • Joe Schafer

      Chris, I am so sorry that these things happened to you. I experienced them too, though not nearly as acutely as you did. I hope and pray that the time will finally come when leaders will stop defending such practices, stop trying to minimize their impact, stop being too fearful to speak openly about such things and admit that they actually happened and continue to happen, and stop pretending that this kind of rubbish is good for raising disciples. Virtually everyone who has been in the ministry has experienced these things to varying degrees, and we have all been hurt and numbed by them.

      I’ve heard so many Bible studies and messages in which sin is compared to leprosy. Leprosy makes the body numb to pain, and the victim can no longer detect his injuries or bind up his wounds.
      Sin does that individually, and it also does that corporately. When the community no longer senses that individual parts have been hurt, when it allows parts of its body to fall off or be amputated and then marches on with a smile on its face as though nothing is wrong, that’s when you know the disease has reached an advanced stage. This body needs to begin to feel the pain again from all its wounds. Then it might start to heal.

    • Wow, I am sorry as well Chris. This obey God’s command rather than your conscious is something I have self inflected. I think there is not enough clarity on this issue. Certainly the devil speaks to us in a way that he fools us into thinking it is our conscious. But at the same time, God formed out conscious and nurtures it so that we may be attune to his voice in our lives.

      Your right, this is an important topic that might need to be discussed in it’s own thread.

  5. Thanks, guys. UBF’s (over)emphasis on enforcing obedience (by the human leader), though well intentioned, has led to:

    * spiritual abuse,
    * oppression,
    * legalism,
    * lording over by the shepherd/leader,
    * the fear of man (the church leader),
    * overemphasizing Law at the expanse of Grace, and
    * an unbalanced, unhealthy, skewed view of the Bible and of God.

    These complaints have dated way back to the 1970s, which was even before any of us came to UBF.

    Yes, we should not cheat or numb our conscience, but live with a clear conscience before God. Yet Paul said, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3-4).

    We can’t entirely live by our conscience because of the evil inclination of our own deceitful hearts (Gen 6:5; Jer 17:9). Only faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit delivers us from bondage and enables us to live in freedom.

    • “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of the good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurection of Jesus Christ” (1Peter3:21). “Paul looked at the Sanhedrin and said, ‘My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day'” (Acts 23:1)
      I think that conscience is absolutely important for the “absolute honesty” and for sincere life with God. I am sure that it was God who through the conscience has led many from ubf. The OT quotes are also true but we live in the NT time with the Holy Spirit who makes our conscience good and our life truly free. Comparing conscience with the obedience to “a ubf servant of God”, surely the obedience in not important at all, and no Christian actually needs any korean “servant of God”. “I will make a new covenant… No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord” (Jer.31:31-34) God promised to give us the good conscience in Jesus and to lead us through it.

    • I think we need to take both of your comments together, Ben and Vitaly. I’m glad you added those additional verses and thoughts, Vitaly, which help make a more complete concept.

      I’ve come believe there are some things that we Christians do not and should not “crucify” — our “self”, our “conscience”, our “noble dream”. We are to crucify what belongs to our “earthly nature” (Colossians 3) and our “misdeeds of the body” (Romans 8).

      This is a topic that I believe should be a priority to discuss among UBF people.

      I’m convinced God needs “who we are” and our “conscience” and our “noble dream” in order to transform them and shape and mold them like clay. When we cut off these things we find that we have become bloody butchers, damaging ourselves and deeply wounding others.

      Some people desperately seek forgiveness from others because they have not forgiven themselves. Instead, they try to crucify their “self”, going beyond the “sinful self” and cutting too deep, ignoring God’s call to Abram to stop before cutting Isaac. Some try to cut out their conscience and replace it with Scripture, ignoring God’s desire to wash them and make them clean and to reason with them. Others slice up their dreams and live with a gnawing sense of hopelessness, not realizing that God has a plan, a purpose and a hope for them, a reason for what they’ve gone through.

      The common theme of those in UBF who have reached out to me these last 2 years is this: The UBF people are so sorrowful! Their words portray such hopelessness! They think that I must be so wounded and that I was so hurt in UBF! But I am more joyful, peaceful and hopeful than ever. The Spirit healed me the instant I forgave myself. The Spirit is transforming my life to be an instrument of reconciliation, which is going on even as we blog here.

      It is when we come to forgive our “self”, love our “self” and let God shape our “dream” that we find the abundant joy of Jesus! This is the new wine that only comes by grace– by accepting the 0/100 reality that forgiveness of sin cost us 0% and cost God 100%. The 0/100 reality doesn’t change from first to last– when we stand before God in the end, this gospel is all we have.

    • And although I’ve not figured out all the connections, I believe a healthy, Christian view of self is tied together with the Trinity, and relates to how a community behaves. The “self” and the “community” seem to be mutually tied together so that a collection of many with an unhealthy “self” lead to what Joe mentions above, a community that allows “parts of its body to fall off or be amputated and then marches on with a smile on its face as though nothing is wrong.”

      And all these things tie into Gerardo’s recent comment about our view of the Body of Christ. (By the way Gerardo, any more comments like this and I might just embrace my Catholicism fully :)