Law and Grace, Moses and Paul

law&graceIs there a conflict between law and grace? Does Paul contradict Moses?

Grace alone. Alternate perspectives and counter comments have previously been bantered about, but I thought it good to articulate in one article the (Reformed) perspective that best expresses my understanding and my faith. The key is that only the grace of God (never man’s merit) leads to redemption and blessing, both in the OT and NT.

What Moses and Paul says. Moses declares what is called the Deuteronomic principle (Dt 4:1, 40), which says that obedience to the Lord’s commands (Law/Torah) brings life and blessing, while disobedience brings curse and destruction. On the other hand, Paul states that the law brings curse and death (since no one is able to keep the law), in contrast to the life that comes by the Spirit (Rom 2:12-13; 4:15; 7:8-9; 8:2-4; 10:4-5; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 3:12-13, 21-24; 5:18). Does Paul (NT) contradict Moses (OT)?

Grace before obedience. Moses did not view obedience to the law as the basis of covenantal relationship. The Israelites were God’s people entirely because of God’s grace and initiative in saving them from bondage (Ex 19:4; 20:2; Dt 5:6, 15; 6:21-23; 15:15; 24:18), independent of any merit on their part (Dt 9:5-6). God chose Israel as his people before revealing to them his law.

Obedience is the evidence of faith. To Moses a relationship with God happens with obedience to God’s commands. When acts of obedience arise out of genuine faith, God accepts them as proof of righteousness and responds with blessing and life. Jesus says likewise (Jn 14:15, 21, 23). Conversely, with disobedience, faith may be lacking, to which God responds with curse and death. We reap what we sow (Gal 6:7). Flesh begets flesh and the Spirit begets the spirit (Jn 3:6; Rom 8:5).

No acts of human righteousness ever merits God’s salvation. OT and NT consistently assert that no one may perform works of righteousness sufficient to merit the saving favor of God (Ps 14:1, 4; 51:4-5; 53:1, 3; Isa 64:6; Rom 3:23), which is entirely God’s grace and initiative.

Why was the Law given? God reveals his standard of righteousness by which his people, already saved by grace, may live and confidently depend on God for their approval. Thus, the Law is a gift of grace (Jn 1:16-17) through which God provided his people with an ever-present reminder of his deliverance, his power, his presence, his covenant faithfulness and the way of life and prosperity.

To reconcile Paul and Moses, later revelation cannot correct earlier revelation, as if there were some defect in it. Later revelation may be more precise, more nuanced, “more clear,” but it cannot be more true. Paul cannot be interpreted as correcting Moses, as if Moses’ teaching were erroneous. If Moses attributed a life-giving/sustaining function to the law (Lev 18:5), and Paul appears to have declared the opposite as a dogmatic assertion, then Paul would have failed the traditional and primary test of a true prophet–agreement with Moses (cf. Dt 18:15-22). Paul’s statements must be interpreted not only in light of Moses, but also as rhetorical assertions made in the context of particular arguments.

In Romans and Galatians, Paul responds to those who insist that salvation comes by the works of the law, as represented by circumcision. Paul’s reply to them is that if one looks to the law as a way of salvation, it leads to death, but if one looks to the law as a guide for those already saved, it yields life (Gal 5:13-25). In Rom 2:13 Paul sounds like Moses, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” “The obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5)–a faith demonstrated through acts of obedience–is common to both the OT and NT. James says likewise in Jas 2:17, 24, 26.

This paradigm applies in both the OT and NT, and in both Moses and Paul:

  1. God’s gracious (unmerited) saving actions yield the fruit of a redeemed people.
  2. A redeemed people produces the fruit of righteous deeds.
  3. Righteous deeds yield the fruit of divine approval and blessing.

Law lacking grace; grace lacking law. Some churches are driven by the law while claiming the grace of God. This results in legalism, phariseeism and burn out. Others emphasize grace while eschewing the law. This results in antinomianism, a moral looseness and a lack of holiness. A sad result is when “both sides” accuse the “other side” of being the problem.

Please write a post regarding law and grace. I love both doctrines. My desire is to emphasize grace (by the Spirit) without diminishing or imposing the law, both of which obscures grace.

(Reference: Block, Daniel I. Deuteronomy: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2012. 197-199.)


  1. Ben, this is perhaps your best article, not because of any answers but because of your questions and your logical, critical thinking. This post hits to the heart of what I’ve been wrestling with. Here is where I’m at.

    We really need to ask the right questions and not settle for anything short of the new wine joy. Where I’m at right now is that love for humanity resolves any tension between Law and Grace. And I’ll take any label anyone wants to give me.

    So here are the possibilities I’ve discovered. Are there any other possibilities?

    Law disappears:
    1. Was the law replaced by a higher law?
    2. Was the law replaced with no law?
    3. Was the law replaced by a partial law?

    Law stays:
    4. Did the law stay the same law but now no penalty?
    5. Did the law stay the same but now we can obey better?
    6. Did the law stay but foreshadow something new, like a pointer?

    For the Law, it either it remains or it disappeared. We know the Law did not and will not just disappear. That makes options 1, 2 and 3 invalid. I can safely say that the Christ-like attitude was that the Law and the Prophets were not replaced by something else.

    So then did the Law stay the same? It seems clear that God does not change. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. Would His word change? I am not convinced God would change or renege His word. So I think Scripture is clear that the answers must lie on the option 4, 5 and 6 side of things (or some other possibility).

    According to Ephesians, Colossians, Romans and Galatains (and Hebrews too), the Law seems to consist of 1) the unseen Law of God that never changes and 2) various visible expressions of that Law

    The 10 commandments, the 613 mizvot, the 7 Noah laws, etc. all are written expressions of God’s Law for us to understand and obey. When I examine Scripture, it is blatantly clear that the written code has been fully:

    -abolished in the flesh of Jesus
    -nailed to the cross
    -canceled and ended
    -replaced by the Holy Spirit as the believer’s supervisor

    One key word that helps me understand what happened to the Law and the Prophets is “fulfillment”.

    Indeed, as Jesus said, neither the Law nor the Prophets were abolished by Jesus’ actions or words. But in order to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, the written code of the Law was abolished, canceled, nailed to the cross and is no longer the supervisor of God’s people (Ephesians 2:13-16, Colossians 2:13-14, Romans 10:4, Galatians 3:25).

    So I’ve discovered the following:

    a) The Law of God is more comprehensive than the written codices
    b) The written codex we call the “10 words” came into being after the promises
    c) The written codex is not my life supervisor as a Christ-follower
    d) Christ lives inside me, instructing me how to live
    e) My expression of love to God is expressed best by love for humanity
    f) The work of the cross took the “bite” out of the 10 words codex

    This is all a mystery best explained, not by our limited labels, but by Christ living in you, especially the fact that God chooses to live inside non-Jews who do not live by a written codex:

    To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Colossians 1:27

    • Joe Schafer

      Brian, you wrote: “For the Law, it either it remains or it disappeared.”

      There is a third possibility. The Law may be in the process of disappearing.

      I believe that in the world to come, there will be no law, because it will be superfluous. No need to have rules to reveal God to us or to regulate our interaction with him because we will be fully in his presence.

      The good news of the gospel is that this end-times kingdom is now breaking into our present reality. It is already and not yet. We are living in a liminal state, in the time between the times. The Law has not disappeared from our view and experience. But if we are living in Christ and interacting with our fellow Christians in a gospel-centered community, the law’s power over our thinking and behavior should be diminishing in tangible ways.

    • I appreciate your third-option thoughts here Joe.

      I can understand your words in some sense. You wrote: “The Law may be in the process of disappearing.”

      In the social sense, I would agree with what you say. I see evidence that the kingdom of God is indeed penetrating our lives here on earth, perhaps more than any other generation, and such a thing is confusing to some. The promise of modernistic, fundamentalistic thinking was a sort of utopia on earth. If we all would just reason the same way and come to the same ideological conclusions about biblical teaching, the promise and hope was that society would be better and our lives would be pleasing to God and God’s blessing would be bestowed upon any nation that implements such obedience the the codex. But that promise fell short, and fell hard and quickly. And yet it has ushered in a love-based Christianity that is growing up before our eyes. Perhaps the fundamentalists wove a cocoon and we are now emerging as new creatures.

      But one nuance that needs to be made is that I don’t believe the codex of the Law is gone or vaporized. I see the “law” as a sword. God sheathed that sword. Does that sword have any rust or decay? I don’t think so, but maybe it does. I believe that sword is just as sharp now as when Moses and others upheld it. That sword of the law (codex) can and does cut deep, and we become wounding machines when we try to use that sword. Uganda is going to experience that cutting more deeply.

      So I can accept that the law (codex) is disappearing in the “look at the staff not the snakes” sense, that the law is disappearing from our sight as we look to the law of love and surrender to grace and look at Jesus who lives inside us. But that sword/law/codex still exists and is just as sharp as ever. John Macarthur is correct on that point actually:

      “It is a serious mistake to imagine that we improve Scripture or enhance its effectiveness by blunting its sharp edges. Scripture is a sword, not a cotton swab, and it needs to be fully unsheathed before it can be put to its intended use.”

      That “intended use”, I contend, is now to sheath the law.

      The moral of my ramblings is this: God will sheath the sword of the law and forgive his enemies. God asks us to do the same. Today’s prophets call people to obey the gospel, to surrender to grace, to sheath the sword of the law, and to love each other, smashing the unknown, invisible caricature so many of us call “God”. God comes to you in the form of strangers, friends, family, neighbors and the human beings we encounter.

      The cross work disarms the religious authorities. The gospel message is then simply, will you sheath the sword and visit someone in need?

  2. Ben, we are seeing this tension between Law and Grace played out in Africa. Certain Christians have helped pave the way for Uganda to pass laws against homosexuals, making it illegal to be gay with penalties of imprisonment or in some cases death. Why? A root cause is a shallow understanding of the Law’s purpose and a misguided notion of God’s kingdom. Some have given up on America and now see Africa as the “New Zion”. I’m convinced that “even the elect” are in danger of being deceived.

    But any Christ-follower should be able to see that it is against God’s Law to imprison or kill someone for being homosexual or for practicing homosexuality. Christ-followers will certainly be against promiscuity of any kind and may or may not be able to accept same-sex marriage. But Christ-followers should not want to kill gays. If so, then they misunderstand God’s Law completely and ignore the work finished on the cross.

    • Joe Schafer

      Yes. Yes. Yes.

    • It is sad/horrendous/tragic that anyone should be executed for being gay. Is it different from the brutal slanderous character assassination experienced by countless people when they express disagreement with enforcing mandatory testimony writing, 1:1, “marriage by faith,” “humbleness/obedience training,” and being treated like a sheep for life, etc.?

    • Yes, it is different, very different. But I won’t take the bait :)

  3. Ok one more thought for right now, from my personal experience.

    I used to feel good when I obeyed the law (written codex). For example, the Law says “keep the Sabbath holy”. I thought that by absolutely attending worship service meant I was obeying this law and thus God was pleased with me.

    So even though my relationship with my wife was not healthy, I was estranged from my parents, didn’t know my own brothers and had almost no close friends, I convinced myself that by breaking all other commitments to attend worship service on Sundays for 52 Sundays a year for over 20 years (I only missed 3 times in 24 years), that I was good and pleasing to God.

    Then one day I woke up and realized this was bulls–t. I didn’t even know my own wife!!! I was a pathetic human being who was no where near pleasing to God. I was not obeying God’s law in the slightest by doing such a thing. I was cowardly hiding behind my own facade of fake obedience.

    • Joe Schafer

      Sounds like someone else I know. Except that guy did it for almost 30 years.

    • Yes indeed :) Many of us did this. The thoughts here apply across many generations and many parts of Christendom.

  4. Brian, Joe, I agree with the thought/idea/process that a mature Christian does not operate on the basis of the law (nor are they bound by rules, or imposing rules/expectation on others), but function on a higher law of love and grace, gentleness and compassion, meekness and humility that happens through the gospel and the Spirit.

    These OT verses resonate with me:

    * Dt 30:6 – God is the one that changes our heart.
    * Jer 31:33 – God writes his law on our hearts and minds.
    * Eze 36:25-27 – God cleanses us, gives us a new heart, and puts his Spirit in us.

    They are fulfilled through Christ (not by imposing the law), who ushers in his kingdom with his first coming and will bring it to fruition in his second coming.

    • Yes indeed. We can certainly see God’s perfect law of love shining brightly in the OT codices and narratives. This perspective (Jesus’ perspective actually) will be essential Ben if you intend to deliver sermons on all 34 chapters of Deuteronomy.

    • In my conscious thought and mind, this is my primary predominant perspective. Perhaps, it doesn’t come through in what I write.

  5. Brian, I like this statement: “God will sheath the sword of the law and forgive his enemies.” – See more at: Thus we should do likewise.

    I might add that God is able to do so because God did not sheath the sword of the law on his Son, who took the full brunt of punishment for us breaking the law. Only because of this is God able to forgive his enemies (Rom 5:10). Only when we realize what God has done for us through his Son are we able to then love and forgive our enemies.

    • This point is the core theme of my narratives in my book. I am asking and processing the question: What does it mean to forgive your enemies? What does it mean if God forgives his enemies? Would God do such a thing on Judgment Day?

  6. forestsfailyou

    How does the book of James factor into this. I am told that martin Luther believed that the book was a forgery because its teachings are opposed to Paul in galatians. Maybe we can get another article?