By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira
When I was a missionary in Uganda, a young African approached me one day with a sincere desire to witness for Christ. “Are you saved?” he asked.
After convincing him that I was a Christian, I returned his question. “Are you saved?”
“Praise the Lord, I am saved!” He replied enthusiastically.
“If you’re saved,” I responded, “how is it that I can smell pombe [a local beer] on your breath?”
Taken aback, he answered in amazement, “Don’t you know that we are saved by grace and not by works?”
So I asked him to explain what he meant.
“Christ did it all,” he answered.
“I see,” I replied. “You mean He lived a perfect life and died the wages of sin instead of you.”
“That’s it; you’ve got it!”
“If that’s true,” I teased, “then did He also go to heaven instead of you?” Naturally, he was not willing to buy that.
Like this young man, many Christians today fail to understand the biblical meaning of salvation by grace. They accept what the German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, aptly described as “cheap grace” — the idea that, because Christ did it all, Christians have the liberty to live as their sinful natures please. The Bible, of course, teaches no such thing.
How, then, are we to understand this wonderful truth of salvation by grace? Did Christ do away with the law when He saved us by grace?
Tension Between Law and Grace
On the surface, law and grace seem to be antagonistic toward each other. The law demands obedience as a condition of salvation see Romans 10:5], while grace offers salvation as a free gift without works [see Ephesians 2:8-9]. The law condemns the sinner [see Galatians 3:10], while grace justifies the ungodly [see Romans 4:5]. The result is that many who accept God’s offer of grace end up rejecting the law. But the Bible — Old Testament and New Testament — does not present grace in opposition to law. Both have their source in God, and God is not self-contradictory.
Many Christians today try to resolve the tension between law and grace through the doctrine of dispensationalism. Dispensationalism divides the Bible into time periods, or dispensations, and teaches that, from Moses until Christ, salvation was based on man’s obedience to the law under the old covenant. But, says dispensationalism, now that Christ has come and obtained eternal redemption for mankind, salvation comes through the new covenant of grace; the law has been done away with.
This teaching not only denies the unity of Scripture but also contradicts the clear teaching of the New Testament. God has always had only one way of saving sinners, and that is by grace through His redemptive activity in Christ. The apostle Paul says clearly in Romans 4 that Abraham, the father of the Jews, was not saved by circumcision or works or by keeping the law, but by faith in God’s promise of salvation in His Son Jesus Christ.
God never gave the law as a means of salvation; that idea is a perversion [see Romans 9:30-33]. Paul goes to great lengths to correct this error in his letter to the Galatians [see Galatians 2:16; 5:4]. God’s main purpose in giving the law was to convict mankind of sin [see Romans 3:20] so that the gift of salvation might become meaningful. “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” [Galatians 3:24].
Because we are self-centered by nature, it doesn’t take much to trap us in legalism, which is the attempt to be saved by our obedience to the law. At the heart of every pagan religion is the idea that man must save himself by his own good works. The Bible, however, teaches that this is impossible, that our only hope lies in salvation by faith in God’s redeeming grace [see Romans 3:20, 22]. “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” [Romans 3:28].
Not Under the Law but Under Grace
Every born-again Christian is no longer under law, but under grace [see Romans 6:14]. But what does it mean to be “under grace,” and how does it affect our lives as Christians? First, we must clearly understand what the Bible means by the terms under law and under grace.
Under Law. The word under means “to be ruled, or dominated, by.” So to be “under law” means to be ruled or dominated by the law. It means that our standing before God is based on our performance in terms of the law, the revelation of God’s express will. Being “under law” means justifying ourselves in God’s presence by our behavior regarding the law. The law always comes to us and says, “Do this, don’t do that, and you shall live” [see Romans 10:5]. Failure to keep the law results in the curse: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” [Galatians 3:10].
In the Garden of Eden, before sin, Adam and Eve were “under law.” God created them with a perfect, sinless nature, and placed them under the law. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die’ ” [Genesis 2:16-17]. When Adam and Eve disobeyed this command, they came under the condemnation of death; they forfeited their lives. This death sentence has passed to all humanity because all mankind was in Adam when he sinned and, therefore, was implicated in his sin [see Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:22].
Being “under law” also means being under the curse or condemnation of the law. This, too, is our plight; we are “by nature deserving of wrath” [Ephesians 2:3]. No matter how good an opinion we may have of ourselves, the fact is that we were born into a lost race. As Paul says, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” [Romans 3:19-20].
Paul is telling us in these verses that not only do we stand condemned under the law, but also that we cannot possibly meet its demands. To save us from this hopeless situation, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” [Galatians 4:4-5]. In redeeming us from being “under law,” Christ has put us “under grace.” This is the position of all who have received Him by faith [see Romans 6:14].
Under Grace. The word grace means a favor done for someone who doesn’t deserve it. In spiritual terms, the New Testament defines grace primarily as God’s loving disposition toward sinners that caused Him to give “his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” [John 3:16]. The apostle Paul describes grace in these words: “In him [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” [Ephesians 1:7]. Since by nature fallen humanity is God’s enemy, what He has done in saving us in His Son becomes more than merely a free gift; it becomes grace. It is by grace that we are saved [see Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 5:6-10]. This is why the gospel is unconditional good news.
What does it mean to be “under grace”?
As we have seen, all mankind was born “in Adam” and is, therefore, born “under law,” and “the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives” [Romans 7:1]. But Christ united Himself with us in the incarnation and on the cross, so that we have become dead to the law’s dominion “through the body of Christ” [Romans 7:4]. In His resurrection, Christ raised us up with Him in His eternal life, born anew “into a living hope” [1 Peter 1:3], married to Christ, the second husband, and, therefore, we are now under His dominion. This is what it means to be “under grace.”
As Christians, then, we are no longer under the law in the sense that our justification or salvation depends on our own self-motivated attempts to obey the law. (Of course, this is precisely the condition of all those who have not received Christ as their personal Saviour). Those who have believed, who by faith have become one with Christ, are no longer under the law but under grace. Christ has become the fulfillment, the completion, of all that the law requires of us for righteousness [see Romans 10:4].
To be “under grace,” then, is the exact opposite of being “under law.” Under grace, we are no longer justified before God on the basis of our actions — the works of the law. We are justified entirely on the basis of what Christ has already done in His life, death, and resurrection. Christ’s perfect righteousness, which He obtained in His humanity as our Substitute, justifies us. By His positive obedience to the law, and by His death, which met the justice of the law, Christ became righteousness forever to all who will accept His saving grace [see Romans 5:17].
Further, to be “under grace” means we have died to the life of sin, that our lives are now hidden in Christ [see Colossians 3:3]. Christ’s death on the cross was a corporate death in which all mankind died in the one Man [see 2 Corinthians 5:14]. Therefore, when we, by faith, identify ourselves with this death, we become dead to sin and the law’s dominion and become alive unto God. This is what our baptism signifies — our union with Christ crucified, buried, and resurrected. The result is that now, under grace, we walk in newness of life [see Romans 6:3-4]. This is what it means o be “under grace,” and all this has important implications for how we live.
Living Under Grace
Being “under grace” delivers us from being “under law,” but this does not at all mean that the law has been done away with. Anyone who believes or teaches so is perverting the gospel. Justification by faith does not abolish the law; it establishes it [see Romans 3:31].
God’s law is as everlasting as Himself, for it is His self-sacrificing love set down in a written legal form [see Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8,10; Galatians 5:13-14]. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Himself declared that He had not come to abolish the law.
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven [Matthew 5:18-19].
When we were “under law,” the problem we faced was not with the law, but with ourselves. The law is holy, just, and good [see Romans 7:12]. The fault lies in us, because by nature we are carnal, sold as slaves under sin [see verse 14]. God’s holy law and our sinful natures are incompatible. “The mind governed by the flesh ... does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” [Romans 8:7]. That is why the first covenant, the old covenant, was faulty.
But God found fault with the people [the Israelites] and said: “...I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant.... This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” [Hebrews 8:8-10, emphasis supplied].
So Christ did not abolish the law on the cross. Instead, He saved us from being under the law. He put an end to our corporate sinful lives that stood condemned under the law. In the resurrection, He raised us from death with a new life, the life of the Spirit, that is in perfect harmony with the law. This is the life He lived in His humanity, a life that perfectly obeyed God’s holy law by the power of the Spirit. The law was never given as a means of salvation, but it will always be the standard of Christian living.
Jesus died once to sin, but He was resurrected to live to God [see Romans 6:10]. In verse 11, Paul applies this same truth to the baptized believer: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
On what basis are we to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God?
On the basis of what God did to us in the humanity of Christ. By sheer grace He put us into Christ at the incarnation when divinity was united to our corporate humanity [see 1 Corinthians 1:30]. That meant that when Christ died to sin, so did we — in Him. Thus the cross becomes God’s power to save from sin [see 1 Corinthians 1:18] as well as salvation from the dominion of the law [see Romans 7:4-6]. Note how Paul applies this truth to his own life:
So far as the Law is concerned, however, I am dead — killed by the Law itself — in order that I might live for God. I have been put to death with Christ on his cross, so that it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. This life that I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me [Galatians 2:19-20, TEV].
So the first thing we need to understand about living under grace is that the law has not been abolished. And the second point is related to the first: Because Christians are “under grace” doesn’t mean that they are free to live as they please. Grace does not give us any such liberty.
While we were under the law, we were subject to its authority. It demanded certain things of us, and we were obliged to meet those demands or suffer the penalty. So now, under grace, we are just as surely subject to the dominion and authority of grace. This means that our relationship is to Christ, the source of grace, and we must live under His authority. Christ is both Saviour and Lord. How does this affect us as far as Christian living is concerned? As Paul would say, “Much in every way.” Here are two examples from Paul:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey — whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness [Romans 6:15-18].
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” [Galatians 5:13-14; cf. 1 Peter 2:15-19].
Clearly then, to live under grace means to allow Christ to live in us through faith. This is what Jesus was talking about in John 15:4-5:
Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
The third important thing we need to understand about living “under grace” concerns motivation.
Our old relationship under the law may be described as a relationship of fear. This is because the law can never sympathize with our weakness and inability to meet its demands. Neither is the law able to help us meet its requirements. It can only demand obedience and condemn us every time we fail. So our situation under the law was to be always in bondage to fear of death [see Hebrews 2:15].
How different is our situation under grace! Unlike the law, Christ understands our weakness and our inability to be truly good. He is able to sympathize with us in our struggles against temptation. He was made like us in all things and was tempted in all points like us; He understands and sympathizes and is able to help us [see Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15].
But even more than this: He has delivered us from it all. He has delivered us from the fear of death because He died for us [see Hebrews 2:14-15]. He has delivered us from the fear of slavery to sin because He condemned sin in the flesh — our flesh [see Romans 6:22, 8:2-3]. He has reconciled us to God so that we have the blessed hope of heaven and eternal life; we can call God “Dear Father” [see Galatians 4:4-6]. All these are our privileges “under grace.” And this means that we no longer serve God according to the letter (out of fear), but according to the spirit (out of a heartfelt gratitude for Christ) [see Romans 7:6).
Under grace, our relationship is one of love and appreciation — not a relationship of fear such as we experience under the law. Fear of punishment no longer motivates our actions; instead, love for God compels us to do right and live for Him [see 2 Corinthians 5:14-15]. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands” [John 14:15, cf. 1 John 5:3].
Being under grace also frees us from the self-centered motivation of trying to do right in order to receive a reward. Neither fear of punishment nor hope of a reward in heaven is a strong enough motivation to enable us to obey the “works of the law.” But when we understand and appreciate the agape love that led the Son of God to the cross for us, we gladly will serve Him and others with no thought of self or reward.
Sinning Under Grace
One of the main concerns haunting Christians is this: If we continue to sin even after we are under grace, how does this affect our relationship with God? Do we lose our justification every time we sin? Do we, therefore, need to be reconverted after each failure or otherwise be eternally lost?
Some believe that the answer is Yes. But those who believe such a “yo-yo” doctrine of salvation have failed to understand God’s unconditional agape love and the biblical meaning of being saved by grace.
According to Paul, it is impossible for someone who truly understands salvation by grace, and who appreciates Christ’s cross, to go on condoning sin [see Romans 6:1-2]. Righteousness is by faith, and if the faith is there, the righteousness is sure to be there as well — and there is no sin in righteousness [see Romans 6:14-18].
When Paul declared in Romans 6:14, “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace,” he didn’t mean that a believer cannot sin, but that sin no longer has authority to condemn or control a believer, because such a person is no longer under the law’s control but under grace. In 1 Corinthians 15:56, Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” He means that sin itself has no power to destroy a person unless the authority of the law is present to condemn. Since a believer is no longer under the law’s authority, sin can no longer bring upon the believer the law’s condemnation of eternal death. The believer is delivered from the power of sin.
Misuse of Grace
“Wait a minute!” you object. “That is a dangerous teaching; it will lead to loose living!”
Your fears, of course, are absolutely correct. Because of our sinful condition, the gospel is not only good news, it is also dangerous news. When faith becomes a counterfeit, it can easily be perverted into a license to sin, as was the case with the Christians to whom James wrote [see James 2:19-26].
Because believers are no longer under the law, and because grace abounds much more than does sin, can Christians condone continuing to sin while under grace? That is the big question Paul presents to his readers in Romans 6. And his answer is an emphatic NO! In fact, Paul spends all of Romans chapter 6 warning Christians against the attitude that because they are under grace it doesn’t matter if they go on sinning.
What reasons does Paul give why Christians under grace must not give place to sin?
First, because in Christ we have died to sin. That is, we have terminated our relationship with it [see verses 2, 11]. Second, by our own choice we have become slaves of God, who is the author of righteousness — not sin [see verse 17]. On these two grounds, the doctrine of salvation by grace will not permit a Christian to continue to cherish sin.
Obviously, this does not mean that we never stumble and fall. As babes in Christ, we know that failure to live up to God’s ideal is a problem in Christian living. Because we have not yet learned to fully understand the gospel or to walk unceasingly by the Spirit, we fall all too often. But how do such failures affect our relationship with God? That question continues to demand an answer.
There is a world of difference between sinning under law and sinning under grace. To understand the difference, let’s look at the contrast between the law as a written code and Christ as a living reality. When we compare them, we will discover that in one sense they are the same, yet in another sense, they are exact opposites.
For instance, the spirit behind the law is love [see Matthew 22:36-40]. So it can be identified with Christ, who is love [see 1 John 4:8; Ephesians 5:1-2]. However, when we look at the law itself as a written code, it becomes a set of rules legally binding on human beings. As such, it cannot sympathize with our weak condition or help us. All it can do is command obedience and condemn every failure [see Galatians 3:10].
On the contrary, Christ is a person who feels and understands our struggles; He is able to help us because He Himself was tempted in all points like us except that He conquered every temptation [see Hebrews 4:15]. In this sense, the law and Christ differ radically.
All this throws an important light on the matter of sinning. When we sinned before accepting God’s redemptive grace in Christ, we recognized only that we had sinned against the law, against a moral code or a set of rules. The result we feared was the punishment specified by the law [see Romans 1:18; Galatians 3:10). But now that we are believers and no longer under the law, but under grace, we do not sin merely against a set of rules. When we sin now, we realize that we sin against a Person “who loved [us], and gave himself for [us]” [Galatians 2:20]. This makes a tremendous difference in our attitude toward sin.
Let’s say you are driving along the highway faster than the speed limit, when a police officer stops you. You plead for mercy, confessing your sorrow for speeding. What is your motivation? If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation, I think you’ll agree with me that your confession and repentance are motivated by selfish concerns and not by love for the speed limit or the police officer who represents the law.
Then you drive home (more slowly, of course), and there you unintentionally do something to offend your husband or wife, whom you love and who loves you dearly. Immediately you are sorry for what you have done; you confess in repentance. What is your motivation now? Not fear of punishment. You are sorry because you have hurt someone dear to you. That is the difference between sinning under law and sinning under grace. Incidentally, this was the difference between the repentance of Judas, who betrayed Christ, and the repentance of Peter, who denied Him. Judas was motivated by self; Peter by love. Those who sin under the law can repent only in terms of a fear of punishment or a desire for reward — both self-centered concerns. Under grace, repentance and confession result from a love relationship with Christ. We are constantly aware of what our sins did to Christ on the cross — they killed Him there! How, then, can a Christian under grace condone sin? That would mean deliberately crucifying Christ, and that is unthinkable to anyone who appreciates God’s “indescribable gift” [2 Corinthians 9:15].
We Christians must learn to hate sin, not because we fear that sinning will deprive us of heaven but because our sins put Christ on the cross and continue to put Him to an open shame [see Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 6:4-6]. A legalist does not hate sin; he hates the punishment for sin. Such a religion is only paganism in Christian dress.
Because God could not save us by simply ignoring the demands of His holy law, salvation from sin is costly. The wages of sin is death [see Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 6:23) and, in order to save us from the condemnation of the law, God had to meet its just demands. He did this when He laid upon Christ, our Substitute, the iniquity of us all and offered Him up on the cross as the only valid sacrifice for our sins [see Isaiah 53:6, 10-11].
So, what about our question? How do our failures and sins, even after we are under grace, affect our relationship with God?
Stumbling under grace, falling into sin, does not deprive us of justification. Neither does it bring condemnation. But if we have begun to appreciate the terrible cost of our salvation, such failures do create a deeper hatred for sin. We realize that every sin we commit was vitally involved in Christ’s death on the cross.