Law and Grace

by H. Van Dyke Parunak

CoverAbout the time that my book Except for Fornication (Energion, 2011) appeared, a gentleman with a troubled marital history visited our assembly. His wife had left him and married someone else. Then she left her new husband, and our friend joyfully announced one day that she wanted him to remarry her.

If you’ve read my book, you’ll realize that the Lord’s prohibition of divorce and remarriage strongly affirms Moses’ instruction in Deut. 24:1-4. You’ll also understand that Moses is not presenting three laws in this passage, but just one: if a divorce takes place and if it is followed by remarriage, and if something happens to the second marriage, then the original couple is forbidden to remarry. Moses characterizes such remarriage as “abomination before the Lord.” I felt compelled to share this insight with our friend.

His response was interesting. He didn’t challenge my analysis of Deuteronomy 24. He didn’t question my claim that the Lord’s teaching is based on that instruction, and reinforces it. His defense was, “I’m not under the law; I’m under grace.” What he meant is that the commands of Scripture are irrelevant to the daily life of a believer. He felt that the work of the Holy Spirit replaces the role of God’s written revelation, so that we are not bound by the old standards.

Wow! I am certainly acquainted with the distinction that Paul draws between the letter (that is, the OT law) and the Spirit. I recognize the role of the Spirit in guiding the believer. But I’d never met somebody who was willing to jettison the authority of Scripture so directly. I should add that my friend would insist on the truth of the propositional content of the Bible. The point of disagreement was the third of Moses’ principles from Deut. 29:29, that God’s word is practical in the life of the believer today.

Now, most of you would probably not agree with my friend’s bald rejection of God’s written commands. But one consequence of my analysis in the book is that the fornication “exception” isn’t really an exception. It doesn’t give Christians the excuse that many are seeking to get out of a painful relation. Faced with such a stringent instruction, some may be tempted to fall back on my friend’s logic in an attempt to evade our Lord’s plain teaching that marriage is permanent.

I was so exercised by this discussion that I undertook a study on the role of the law in the Christian’s life. You can read it at I’ll summarize for you what I found.

Recall from our discussion of intertextuality the Scriptural principle that new revelation is accepted only if it conforms to what has already been revealed. The Bible describes God’s righteous standard as everlasting:

Ps. 119:142 Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and thy law is the truth.

The standards of right and wrong have not changed over the years. Behavior that was abomination before God in the Old Testament is still abomination before him now. What has changed is how God conforms our lives to his standard. Under the old covenant, the constraint was external, the law of God enforced through a civil structure. Under the new covenant, those same righteous standards are embedded in our hearts by the work of the Spirit (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:25-27).

But that process of embedding takes time. It begins with a new birth, which yields a person that Paul calls a “babe in Christ” (1 Cor 3:1-3). The life of such a person looks like that of an unsaved person: ye … walk as men (1 Cor 3:3). At the other extreme is the spiritual believer, whose life is beyond reproach (1 Cor 2:15). John refines these two extremes into three levels of maturity: little children, young men, and fathers (1 John 2:12-14).

This process of growth is nourished by the Word of God (1 Pet. 2:2), which includes the OT law. As young believers, we have not learned to recognize the Spirit’s guiding voice, and need the explicit instruction of Scripture. So it’s no surprise that when Paul is exhorting immature believers, he frequently gives lists of commands that sound a lot like the Old Testament law (Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:3-5), and sometimes even quotes the law for support (Eph. 6:28-31; 6:1-3; 1 Cor. 9:8-11). As we mature, the Spirit’s voice becomes clearer, and we know what is right and wrong without needing to cite chapter and verse. But the standard itself hasn’t changed, and God’s Spirit will never disagree with God’s Word. In fact, we are to test the spiritual voices we hear by their agreement with written revelation (1 John 4:1-3).

We dare not discard the law of God. Romans 7, which describes a carnal believer (v. 14), shows that we should delight in the law of God (v. 22), even though we are frustrated with how far our lives differ from it (v. 24). The solution is not to discard the law, but (as Romans 8 goes on to show) to learn to recognize and follow the voice of the Holy Spirit, “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (8:4).

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