Christ and the Law: the triumph of grace over effort


I’ve always loved the book of Galatians.  There are few other books in the bible that demonstrate so clearly the disparity between earned righteousness and gifted righteousness as this letter from the apostle Paul to the church at Galatia.  But in the same way that we continue to desire McDonalds food even after seeing Supersize Mewhy do we so often default back to the treadmill of trying to earn God’s favour when we know we already have it completely through Christ?  Why do we keep trying to earn what is already ours?

It’s quite possible, of course, that one might continue trying to earn grace because they have not yet truly received it,  but Paul is not primarily addressing that group in his letter to the Galatians.  He is writing to a church of men and women who have (presumably) already received and experienced that saving grace, but who are now tempted to go back to law keeping to maintain it (improve on it?).

Paul’s impassioned reminder to them is, “All who rely on the works of the law [for salvation] are under a curse.” (Gal. 3:10, ESV) and, “No one is justified before God by the law.” (Gal. 3:11, ESV)  He bases that statement on the truth that, in order to be justified before God by the law keeping, one must, “abide by all the things written in the book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal. 3:10, ESV)  All of them!  Jesus taught this same truth when He was carrying out His earthly ministry (cf. Matt. 5:19-20).

And if you’ve ever been in that boot camp of trying to earn God’s favour (or perhaps are presently there) you can probably still remember the taste of dirt in your mouth as you fell on your face again and again and again.  It’s the inevitable result of what I’ve now heard a number of preachers refer to as “confusing our justification with our sanctification.”

John Bunyan captured the utter futility of trying to earn God’s favour by keeping the law masterfully in his book Pilgrim’s Progress.  Christian’s friend Faithful recounts to him this interaction:

Now, when I had got above half-way up, I looked behind me, and saw one coming after me, swift as the wind; so he overtook me just about the place where the settle stands … So soon as the man overtook me, it was but a word and a blow; for down he knocked me, and laid me for dead. But when I was a little come to myself again I asked him wherefore he served me so. He said because of my secret inclining to Adam the First. And with that he struck me another deadly blow on the breast, and beat me down backward; so I lay at his foot as dead as before. So when I came to myself again I cried him mercy: but he said, I know not how to show mercy; and with that he knocked me down again. (Bunyan, 1998 p. 93-4)

Christian then tells his friend Faithful, “That man that overtook you was Moses. He spareth none; neither knoweth he how to shew mercy to those that transgress the law.” (Bunyan, 1998)

Man’s effort could never achieve God’s favour.  For since the sin of Adam, even the best of our efforts are tainted with sin the way a tone deaf person taints even the most beautiful of songs.

The gospel way

In the midst of his pummelling by Moses (the law) however, Faithful recounts in his tale this important detail:  he says, “He had doubtless made an end of me, but that one came by and bid him forbear.”  Christian inquires as to who came to his aid, and Faithful replies, “I did not know him at first: but as he went by, I perceived the holes in his hands and in his side: Then I concluded that he was our Lord.”(Bunyan, 1998)

The great hope of the gospel is that in Jesus, grace triumphs over effort.  Paul says in Gal. 3:13, “Christ redeem us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -“.  In 2 Cor. 5:21 he expands on this by saying, “For our sake, God made Him [Jesus] to be sin [the helpless state of lawbreakers before a holy God] who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”  The Scriptures are clear that the penalty for sin is death (Rom. 6:23) and so this, then, is how Jesus freed us from the curse of the law: by becoming a curse.  Paul completes Gal. 3:13 with, “for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'”

In other words – to use Bunayn’s terms – Jesus bids Moses forbear his pummelling of us, and instead, takes that pummelling upon Himself, to the point of death.

The way of the flesh

The favour of God that we could never achieve ourselves, then, has been fully procured by Christ and credited to our account.  To understand this, just imagine setting up a treadmill in the middle of an olympic racetrack.

treadmill on racetrack

The gun goes off and we begin running on the treadmill, while Jesus actually runs on the track and is victorious in the race.  Running on a treadmill in the middle of a racetrack represents all human efforts to win God’s favour – it achieves nothing (Is. 64:6).  Jesus’ running and completion of the race represents Jesus’ single effort – it achieves everything (Heb. 10:14)!  The incomprehensibility of the gospel message, is that Jesus then takes His gold medal and places it over our neck when we come to Him in faith and repentance.  His victory becomes ours (Gal. 4:4-5).

What Paul is trying to communicate in his letter to the Galatians – using that metaphor – is, really, “The race has already been won for you!  Why would you ever try and get back on that same treadmill again?”

Every time we try to climb back on that treadmill, we deny the truth of the gospel.  Paul says earlier in Gal. 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the [keeping of] the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

So how do we keep off that treadmill?  Here are a few suggestions that I have found helpful:

1. Keep yourself daily in the word of God: It is filled, cover to cover, with the same reminder Paul gives to the Galatians, viz. you can’t, but God can.

2. Intimate and honest conversation with the God (prayer): He saved you by His grace alone. He loves to unplug the treadmill for us.

3. Honest and open conversation with other believers (community):  Here is one of many places where the body of Christ can remind us of truths we already know and help us climb off that treadmill to nowhere.

4. Print out J. D. Greear’s gospel prayer and post it somewhere you will see it often:  The first stanza of the prayer is particularly relevant to treadmill running.  He reminds us to pray, “In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I can do that would make You love me less.”  I need that reminder often.

Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke (treadmill?) of slavery (Gal. 5:1).

Jesus echoes, Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

 Grace triumphs over effort.

this Anachronistic Obedience

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines anachronism as, “a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place”, and also as, “a misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other.”  As with the picture above, we understand intuitively (or should) that certain things don’t go together, as well as the idea that things tend to follow a certain order in life.

And yet somehow, when it comes to the subject of obedience to God, Christians can often throw this understanding of the order of things out the window; seemingly oblivious to it. We’ll get to the anachronistic part momentarily, but the first problem we face when it comes to the subject of obedience to God is simply a complete misunderstanding of what that actually is!  It ends up looking like this: we, who have been redeemed by the blood of the spotless Lamb of God through no effort, choice, or even desire of our own, suddenly get the idea that we need to start paying God back.  One of the most obvious ways we try to do this is by “rule keeping” and/or making the ideas of obedience to God and “filling up our account with Him” synonymous.  J.D. Greear says in his excellent book “Gospel” that we often land in this place because we view the gospel as the “diving board” into salvation instead of being the pool itself.  Or, to put it another way, the gospel is the “starting pistol” that begins the race rather than the race itself.  This faulty understanding of the gospel will invariably lead us to the assumption that God has gotten us started in Christ, but we now have the impossible task of earning what Scripture says from start to finish can never be earned.

But the purpose of this post (and my second point) is to suggest that – if we can ever get beyond the idea of obedience to God as somehow earning our salvation – we can just as easily fall victim to a whole new problem viz. an anachronistic understanding of obedience that sees love for God flowing out of obedience to Him rather than our obedience flowing out of love for God.  The main problem with this understanding is that it completely sucks the life out our ability to ever obey God!

So, this is where things start to get kooky.  Has anyone ever been driving past one of those ‘speed traps’ just a little bit too fast and thought to themselves as they’re flagged down, “Man, i love the police department!”  Or been sitting under a mountain of receipts and folders during tax time and felt deeply, “I really love Canada!” How about standing before a counter full of dishes you now have to wash from the Thanksgiving dinner that you just made? Is anyone’s heart overflowing with joy for the gift of family at that moment?  Matt Chandler (Matty C) said it best when he said, “Obedience [he used the word discipline] won’t bring about love, but true love will always include obedience [discipline]”  So, we actually switch the order that God has lovingly laid out for us when we imagine that trying really hard to be obedient will somehow create deeper love for Him, even though we see this nowhere else in life.  

Try something really “radical” then: follow the way God designed things to work, and see if the result is not remarkably different.  You can find innumerable examples of this design in Scripture, but here are two i think illustrate this understanding well:

The first is found in the book of Exodus.  God miraculously frees His chosen people Israel from slavery in Egypt through signs and wonders and plagues and, finally, by parting the Red Sea for them to cross over, while destroying the pursuing Egyptians in the same path.  The thing to see here is that it is only after God has rescued and redeemed His people that He gives them His good laws to obey in Ex. 20.

The second example is seen in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5 ff. where, again, it is only after Jesus describes the blessedness we have as born again children of God (Matt. 5:2-11) that He goes on to define what obedience to the law (and its depths) actually looks like.

Consider your own experience even: who among us, out of gratefulness and love for the cook, doesn’t go into the kitchen after the Thanksgiving feast, role up our sleeves and dig into helping cleaning up for them?  What new parent, out of the joy and love for this new member of their family, does not surrender sleep and sanity to sit up with a screaming baby at 3:00 am?  And what redeemed sinner, staggered under the weight of the heavy price that was paid for them on the cross, does not joyfully offer service to their Saviour and His Bride?  Yet in every case, He is always the initiator.  He, Whom is called ‘Love’ Himself, always gives us the gift first that then elicits the loving response.

He, to Whom we owe all things; the One of Whose love so amazing we sing ‘demands my soul, my life, my all’, demands these, not to repay Him in any way, nor out of any sense of duty, but simply out of the overflow of a grateful heart.  When we get the order right, then, obedience to His commands is not burdensome, but our true delight and the plain evidence of our love for Him (1 Jn.5:2,3).


Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small!