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The law is holy, righteous and good

Grace-motivated, love-based Christian living.  Ahh, just listen to those phrases again: ... grace-motivated... love-based...

We all want to talk about a walk that's inspired by gratitude and which touches the heart.

And it is a beautiful, beautiful thing.  But just realise: it's law.  Pure unadulterated law.

The ten commandments begin with the LORD saying "You are my people, I saved you from slavery, now here's a life lived in response to my salvation."  The Israelites are God's son (Exodus 4:22).  He loves his son and so saves him out of darkness.  He then brings Israel to himself apart from any good merit on their part.  And he teaches them some house rules.  Think of the law as "family manners."  It outlines the life of the saved people.  It's a life lived out of gratitude for a gracious salvation.  And it's a life of love.  That's how Moses summarized it.  It's how Jesus summarized it (not to mention the Apostles also).  The law is grace-motivated, love-based living.

"But wait a minute," I hear you say.  "I thought the law was all about duty-driven externalism and now we are immersed in the fresh waters of the gospel.  I thought the new way was about gratitude and heart-felt devotion? Isn't that what makes it different?  Surely the old is about the will and duty and the new is about the heart and gratitude?"


The old was about the heart and gratitude too.  The law has always been grace-motivated and heart-felt.


So... what's the difference?

The difference is not "external versus internal."  The difference is "me versus HIM."

So then.  Dear Preacher, when you speak of the glories of our life as saved people do not imagine you have escaped legalism because now you're talking about a grace-motivated, heart-felt Christian walk.  Describing that life is quite simply "the law."  Now the law is holy, righteous and good!  It's wonderful.  Our hearts should thrill to hear of this outwardly focussed, joy-filled love of God and neighbour.  Yes, that is the good life.

But it's not my life.  It's the life of THE Son of God.  And I need Him given to me from the outside.  Given to me because I can't live out the law.  No matter how grateful I'm told to be or how heart-felt I'm supposed to feel.  I am a sinner and I need Jesus.

So, preacher, tell me of this wonderful life.  But then, when I'm despairing because I know it's not mine, tell me of Jesus.  Who lived it for me and who put my old failures to death.  Tell me He is given to me.  And leave me with gospel hope.

That is the job of the preacher

22 thoughts on “The law is holy, righteous and good

  1. Theo K

    Hi Glen,

    I was wondering, is this what you see apostle Paul doing in the "practical" (second) part of his letters?


  2. Ephrem Hagos

    Even the law is no equal to the one all future generations are to know by the name: "I Am Who I Am", a.k.a., source of life or Jesus Christ, whom the rich man did not yet know personally. (Luke 18:18-30)

  3. Cal

    The Eternal Law of God is Christ, He is our Torah and only in Him are we free.

    The law of Moses pointed to Christ, who was to fulfill it. The second Torah! The perfect law of freedom, of grace, is to live and not to slave.

    Wonderful stuff Glenn!

  4. Steve Martin

    St. Paul called the law, "the ministry of death".

    The law kills, and the gospel makes alive.

    The law is good (however) it helps us live together, as much as sinners can, and it exposes us, and shows us our need of a Savior.


  5. Chris W

    I suppose it depends what you mean by "law". Paul's 'negative' use of the law in the New Testament generally comes under two categories:

    1) The law is bad if divorced from a foundation of Grace.
    2) The law is Old Covenant/creation and the New Creation has now come in Christ.

    Often both of these are employed simultaneously. I suppose that's because the revelation of Christ in the flesh is the greatest manifestation of the Grace of God. I can't help but see Jesus's coming as the ultimate fulfilment of Ezekiel 36 - HE is the new heart of flesh which replaces the stony heart of the Torah. That means we are wedded to him and not to the old law (a la Romans 7). Our salvation lies outside of us. The new birth is the fruit of union with him, not the other way round.

  6. Ephrem Hagos

    @Chris The INCARNATION is only a prelude to Christ's "finished" vision: INGLORY, which is still where he left it on the "tree of life" to be seen by the whole world! (John 19: 30-37)

  7. Ephrem Hagos

    @Steve What Paul refers to as dead end is the written law whether old or new. The latter is recap of the terms in the "new covenant" summarized in Jesus' words: "What gives life is God's Spirit; man's power is of no use at all"; and "finished" on the cross per se. The Spirit is completely independent of anything written. (Jer. 31: 31-34; John 6:63; 2 Cor. 3)

  8. Ephrem Hagos


    The gospel, a.k.a., the "Good News", is eternal life found in personal knowledge of Jesus Christ: defined as consisting of (not anything written); but of the Spirit alone emanating from the seal in his death on the cross, i.e., the "tree of life".

  9. Glen

    Thanks guys.

    Hi Theo, that depends.

    Remember that even "Jesus died for you" could be law in the sense that I mean. Because I could say it to you in the context of a whole guilt trip which concludes with " now, how are you going to die for Him!" Similarly, "Abide in Jesus' love" might sound like law or gospel depending on how it's preached.

    What Paul's doing in the "practical parts" could be read as law and almost always is. I think the revealing test case is Galatians 5. Virtually all the sermons I hear take the fruit of the Spirit to be a new law to be obeyed by the Christian (but they claim not to be preaching a new legalism because *now* we are empowered by gratitude and this impersonal fuel for moral living called "the Spirit"). Yet what is Paul actually doing?

    He's acknowledging that, faced with the practicalities of life, there are ways of living that do honour the gospel and ways that do not. (No-one can deny that!). But he says the ways that don't "are obvious" - they are the "acts" of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21). The ways that do are called the "fruit" of the Spirit. But the Spirit, in Paul's understanding, is not some impersonal fuel for the arduous life of discipleship, but the personal Gift of Christ to the believer. (See Gal 3:2,3,14 where "the Spirit" is synonymous with "receiving Christ in the gospel") This "spiritual" living bears fruit organically and so, obviously, Paul entreats his readers to keep in step with the Spirit. And, unavoidably, that means stepping in some directions and not others.

    I think Paul's practical teaching makes sense when we consider our own letters. I've often written to people on pastoral issues and laid out the gospel that informs my thinking. Then, at some stage, suggestions must be made - recommendations, pleas, directions, commands even (e.g. Euodia and Syntyche - stop fighting!). When faced with certain practicalities, directions must be laid out. But Paul does not so much teach the *empowerment* of the gospel for these practicalities (as though the point of the gospel was to deliver us over to the law), he teaches the *freedom* of the gospel to enter these practicalities in a totally new way.

    It is very possible to read Paul's practical teachings as law in the sense I have described, but that's no bad thing at all. What matters is where it takes you (and therefore where the preacher allows it to take the sermon). The goal is not a redoubling of fleshly resolve but a renunciation of the old man and a fresh dependance on Christ who alone is sufficient.

    Long, garbled answer. Still mulling it over myself...

  10. Ephrem Hagos


    For the record, there is a lot of misconception on saying, “Jesus died for you”. The idea of substitution certainly borders on paganism and idolatry. Does it not? It is sad that the PARADIGM SHIFT from substitutionary sacrifice to comprehensively diacritical death producing knowledge of Jesus Christ and eternal life, as taught by Jesus and testified by the Apostles, is totally ignored in our day.

  11. Theo K

    Hi Glen, thank you for your response. I will try to put in order some thoughts, and please do let me know where you think I am going the wrong way.

    I think the problem with the law is when we try to obey it in order to be justified or even keep our justification (that’s my understanding of what legalism is about) – law as a covenant of works. On the other hand, I think that Jesus wants us to obey His law as a rule of life. Why else would He command the 11: “to teach the disciples to observe all that I have commanded you”, or say : “if you love me, keep my commandments”.

    You say: “as though the point of the gospel was to deliver us over to the law”. If you mean by that that people teach we are to keep the law in order to be accepted by God, then no, I don’t agree with them. But, to say that the gospel does not lead to the obedience of faith, is this scriptural?

    In my mind, Jesus in the gospel deals with both of our problems: the guilt of sin AND the power of sin. By His blood He takes away the guilt, by His resurrection (as we are united with Him through the Spirit) He makes us new creatures, enabling us to live holy lives.
    You say “I am a sinner and I need Jesus and I can’t live out the law”. You certainly can’t keep the law perfectly in order to be justified. But in the gospel we learn that being united to Christ leads both to justification AND sanctification. We learn that we are no longer “mere sinners” but that we are new creatures in Christ. Not completely new, but certainly genuinely new. We learn that we can keep the law, albeit imperfectly, but still in way that is pleasing to our heavenly Father. We learn that sin can no longer reign over us. It can rebel, but not reign. We indeed learn that by the promised Spirit we can overcome our flesh and obey (the new covenant promise – Jer 31).
    In fact, the Holy Spirit is called Holy because He sanctifies us. He works in us so that we work (Phil 2:12-13).

    You said: "The goal is not a redoubling of fleshly resolve but a renunciation of the old man and a fresh dependance on Christ who alone is sufficient. "
    Isn’t it true that we have been predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son? And isn’t this expressed in practice by our inner transformation so that we will more and more be able to keep the law of Christ? (as love is the fulfilling of the law). Isn't the goal, depending solely on Christ, to become more like Him?

    To say otherwise, to only keep the justification part, doesn’t this approach belittle the sanctifying grace of Jesus?

    I haven’t read many of Luther’s works but it seems that he would also agree with the above:

    I do appreciate your effort and hard work, could you perhaps point me to some resources of theologians that adopt your particular views on the matter?

    In Christ,

  12. Steve Martin


    I thought we were talking about the law. I do know what the gospel is. And I do know what the law is.

    The law is so that we can live together as best as possible. And to expose our need for a Savior.

  13. Howard

    The Law does not and cannot save us - Christ saves us, totally and entirely. He gives us the faith to trust, as a gift, clothes us in His righteousness, as a gift, Justifies us, Sanctifies us, Reconciles us and Redeems us - that is all the gift of God. Luther is pretty clear - the only thing we add to this is our hostility... everything of value comes from above - it is all a work of sovereign grace and unmerited mercy in the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world to the moment in which the marriage supper begins on the day when His work is completed. To Him, who is able to keep us, be glory alone!

  14. Glen

    Hi Theo,

    I *love* obedience to Christ, the obedience that comes from faith, the reign of sin broken, being conformed to the image of the Son, the law of Christ (which is love)... love them.

    But I think there's a danger of injecting "if-then" conditionals into them which transform them into something else.

    The obedience of John 15 explicitly comes from abiding in Christ. Romans 1's "obedience of faith" is the obedience coming from *faith". The reign of sin is destroyed precisely because we are "no longer under law" (Rom 6:14). We're conformed to the image of the Son through the free election of the Father in the gospel (Romans 8) and the law of Christ is not, as you say, something we are "more and more able to keep" but something we've been delivered over to whole-sale because the law of Christ is the law of *Christ*.

    I agree that "the gospel deals with both of our problems: the guilt of sin AND the power of sin." And all I'm saying is that the *gospel* deals with both of our problems.

    I'm not at all trying to deny that the Christian belongs to a new way, a new life, a new master. Hallelujah, this is the good news! I'm just saying that this good news can be taken away from believers when it's taught via an "if-then" conditionality.

    Probably my thinking here is revolving around Romans (especially 5-8), Galatians (especially 3) and Hebrews (especially 5-9).

    God bless,

  15. Theo K

    Hi Glen,

    You said "But I think there’s a danger of injecting “if-then” conditionals into them which transform them into something else."

    Could you please elaborate on that? I am sorry, it isn't clear to me what you mean by 'if-then' conditionals?
    Do you discern such a thing in my comments? Is Romans 8:13 in any way related to this thought?

    The law of Christ is love, I agree. But, how could you know what love looks like if you don't study Christ's commandments? (and if you say just study how Christ lived, I would respectfully reply that the N.T. doesn't end with the gospels).
    The N.T. is filled with commandments. In my understanding, sanctification is the process where by God's grace the believer is enabled more and more to obey exactly these commandments (this is what it means to be progressively conformed to the image of the Son from glory to glory)... Do you think Luther would disagree with this statement?

    We are no longer 'under law' indeed. Under the condemnation of the law, the curse of the law, the need to keep the law in order to be justified. Exactly because we are 'under grace' we now can keep the law, even if imperfectly. That's what quite a few commentators take to mean Romans 8:3-4

    Do you disagree with what I have stated so far?

    You also said: "the law of Christ is not, as you say, something we are “more and more able to keep” but something we’ve been delivered over to whole-sale because the law of Christ is the law of *Christ*." I think that 'the law of Christ' is something that we must fulfill (Gal 6:2). But you seem to use the term in a different way. Have you written more on that?

    I have to admit, I am curious, are there any theologians that agree with your views? I do appreciate your insights and I would like to further study your point of view.

    Thank you for the interaction!

  16. Glen

    Hi Theo,

    I don't see myself radically disagreeing with you. But you seem to see me as radically disagreeing with you. I'm all for law. The title of the post is the most emphatic Scriptural support possible.

    Absolutely, the life of love is fleshed out in the law. Let's study that and let's proclaim that and call it "holy, righteous and good." All I'm saying (and I'm not aware of this being in any sense a theological novelty!) is that the law has zero ability to produce the life it describes. This is simply a plea for law-gospel preaching (which not only Luther but also Calvin and even later Calvinists like Beza really insisted upon).

    I think you and I might phrase sanctification a little differently. I think the NT speaks of it in more positional terms than systematicians tend to (see virtually *every* instance of the word in the NT!). And I think I'd want to speak in stronger terms about our new life - we *will* obey Jesus because we *have* been delivered over to a new Master. But really, to ask with incredulity if "any theologians" agree with me seems something of an over-reaction on your part.

    “To suppose that whatever God requireth of us that we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect.” (John Owen)

  17. Theo K

    Hi Glen,

    Let me try to describe what I understand your point of view to be. It seems to me that you consider as legalism the preaching that exhorts believers to grace enabled and Spirit empowered obedience of the law. Is this accurate? If it is, I would think that it is quite novel. If not, I do apologise for misreading you.

    Who disagrees that "the law has zero ability to produce the life it describes"?

    Concerning sanctification, I agree that many times in the bible the word is used with reference to a past event (not always, e.g. Heb 12:14).
    Some explain this by speaking of a positional sanctification in terms of imputation of holiness which doesn't necessarily change the life of the believer. Others would speak of a definitive sanctification that takes place the moment of union with Christ where "there is a decisive and definitive breach with the power and service of sin in the case of every one who has come under the control of the provisions of grace."

    I tend to think that the latter explanation makes more sense of texts like Romans 6.

  18. Glen

    Hi Theo, I think you have misread me. My post is directed at those who imagine they are preaching gospel when all they're doing is preaching a "grace-motivated", "love-based" law. My point was simply that the law has always been "grace-motivated" and "love-based" but for that reason it is no less "law."

    My point is not to cease the preaching of law. Not at all. I thought I had made it very clear that the law is holy, righteous, good and to be preached as an integral part of the word of God. I'm simply pleading for preachers to properly co-ordinate that preaching with the free offer of Christ in the gospel. To preach law (even if you sugar coat it with lots of warm sounding terminology) is still not preaching the true word of God without explicitly relating it to the grace of God freely given in Jesus.

    That's all my point has been. Sorry if it sounded like I was saying "ditch the law", that has never been my intention.

    God bless,

  19. Ephrem Hagos

    Hi Steve,

    The difference between the law and the gospel is one of scope of certifiable presence of God's "life-giving Spirit", without which one kills as much as the other.

    Doesn't it?

  20. Theo K

    Hi Glen,

    I suppose I am fortunate enough not to have heard such preaching (so far anyway!).
    So I do apologise for misreading you. No hard feelings I hope.

    On a more general note, It maybe just me, but sometimes I get this impression: 'the law is holy, righteous, good, we can't keep it, Christ did it on our behalf, why bother with obedience anymore'. Again, maybe it's just me.

    I 'll tell you why I am glad we agree on this. I consider your articles on 'Christ in the OT' as real eye-openers. This understanding literally changes the way one reads the OT. I would really like to see them turned into a book sometime in the future and I would hope that more people become aware of the amazing fact that Jesus is the Lord of Israel. Because of that, I would really hate it if any controversial opinions you might have on other matters would be used as an excuse from others in order to cast a bad light and in the end dismiss without further examination the whole Christ in the OT approach.

    God bless!

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