Imagine taking a hike in the wilderness and becoming hopelessly lost. For the last few days, you’ve wandered for miles looking for a trail to lead you back to safety. Your food and water are depleted. You’ve slept miserably. Now you’re at the end of your rope.
Suddenly, a search and rescue volunteer discovers you. “Saved at last!” you cry as he gives you fresh food and water. Your rescuer then says, “Follow me, I know the way back.” As you and he start walking east, you suddenly think to yourself, Why are we going east? I’d rather go west. Since I’ve been rescued, I should be able to go wherever I’d like! With that, you quietly spin on your heel and walk in the opposite direction.
Such an action would cause most of us to wonder whether you’d suffered a concussion or lost a few marbles while you were lost. Yet this little story describes how many Christians view the relationship between the gospel and the Ten Commandments. They claim that God’s saving grace makes obedience to His law unnecessary.
Saved by grace alone
First, let’s establish an unquestionable truth. The Bible clearly teaches that we’re saved by grace alone through faith as a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8). We’re rescued by His mercy. Hopelessly lost in sin, we’re doomed to die. Only by the intervention of God’s kindness can we be saved.
No effort on our part at keeping God’s law can bring us salvation. It’s a gift, not a paycheck. There’s nothing we can do, however self-sacrificing, to take away our sins. Paul explained that salvation does not come “by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5).* Elsewhere he writes, “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20).
The gospel is the good news that, because of Christ’s death for us on the cross, our sins are forgiven. Jesus paid the entire penalty for those sins when He died in our place. “For if, when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10).
So if we aren’t saved by keeping the law, then of what value are God’s Ten Commandments? Did they serve a temporary purpose and then get tossed aside? Let’s look at what the Bible tells us about God’s law.
Eternal nature of God’s law
To begin with, the Bible upholds the eternal nature of God’s commands. Long before the Ten Commandments were spoken from Mount Sinai, God said that Abraham “obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statues, and My laws” (Genesis 26:5). The moral law did not originate with Moses. The principles of the Decalogue are as eternal as God Himself. Each commandment describes His character. Every quality of the law represents the Divine Creator. Just as the Lord is perfect, righteous, and pure, so “the law of the LORD is perfect. . . . The statutes of the LORD are right, . . . [and] the commandment of the LORD is pure” (Psalm 19:7, 8).
God’s law serves many purposes. He gave it for the purpose of revealing His will for our lives. Jesus said, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). The Ten Commandments are the basis of His covenant with us (Deuteronomy 9:9). So also, “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
Rather than restricting our lives, the law gives us liberty. Jesus warned, “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). David explained that true freedom is found in keeping God’s law. He said, “I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts” (Psalm 119:45). And James described God’s law as a “royal law” and “the perfect law of liberty” (James 2:8; 1:25).
It’s true that the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament have passed away. When Jesus died, He fulfilled the purpose of the sacrificial system. The types and ceremonies of the sanctuary system and its many related feasts—all of which pointed to Him—ended when He was crucified. Daniel predicted that the Messiah would “bring an end to sacrifice and offering” (Daniel 9:27).
This temporary ceremonial law passed away when Jesus died, “having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Moses wrote these commandments on parchment, which he then placed beside the ark of the covenant. On the other hand, God’s eternal law was written on stone by His own finger and placed within the ark. The two laws are not the same.
Not under the law
What, then, is the meaning of Paul’s words in verses like this: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14)? And didn’t he also state that “now we have been delivered from the law” (Romans 7:6)?
These questions lead us back to our original question: Does grace mean that we no longer have to keep God’s law? Is this what Paul suggested when he said that we are not “under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14)? What does it mean to be “under” law?
It’s important, in seeking a balanced understanding of the Bible, to consider both the context of a passage and other verses that deal with the same topic. Some people pick out a single phrase from the Bible and base their entire understanding on that one expression.
Paul told us what it means to be “under the law.” In the first part of Romans 6:14 he said, “For sin shall not have dominion over you.” In our battle with sin we find freedom, not by working in our own power to keep God’s law, but through grace. We are not ruled by sin when we put Christ first in our hearts.
He also said that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). To put it another way, Christ is the end of law keeping as a way to attain a righteousness that will make us acceptable to God. We can never hope to become righteous by attempting to keep God’s law in our own strength. When we accept the grace of Jesus, He puts an end to all these fruitless efforts to be holy.
Being “under the law” means to use the law as a means of saving ourselves and overcoming the sins in our lives. But this will never work. We cannot gain a right standing with God on our own. We need help from outside of ourselves.
Grace is God’s hand extended to offer us that help. Because of Jesus’ sacrificial death, our sins can be totally forgiven, and we can be filled with new life. Being “under grace” does not give us the license to “sin [so] that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1). Instead, grace gives us power to walk in obedience to God’s commandments.
It’s always been God’s purpose to place His law within us. “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10).
If we’re seeking to be like Jesus, we’ll agree with David, who wrote, “I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8). Such joy comes only after we accept Jesus as our Savior. When we walk by our own efforts, we’re walking away from God. But “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1).
The result of salvation
When we try to obey God’s law without grace, our righteousness is like “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). True obedience is the result of a saving relationship with Jesus. Through God’s amazing grace, we’re freed from the penalty of sin. Such love awakens in our hearts a desire and the power to keep the law.
Faith in God’s grace does not set aside His law. “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31). True Christians don’t ignore or cover up God’s law. They magnify it in their lives.
Do you love Jesus? He said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). In fact, unless we love Jesus, we cannot keep His laws, for it’s only through Him dwelling in us that we have the power to obey.
If you were lost in the wilderness, and a loving search and rescue person found you, would it make sense to walk away from your guide?