Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Are You Cultivating a Culture of Grace or a Culture of Law?

by David O. Donovan

This past Lord's Day, my church began a Sunday school class that is on the topic of developing a culture of grace in the church. For this class, we are utilizing Paul David Tripp's lectures Your Christian School: A Culture of Grace? In the first lesson, this question was asked, "Are we asking the law to do something that only grace can accomplish?" Behind this question is the truth that the law cannot accomplish what it demands. That is not its purpose. But so often, this is exactly how we approach the law. We think, "If I can just do [ a certain outward behavior] enough, even when I don't want to do it, then eventually there will be an inward positive effect." Or, we think something like this, "If I can just do it for thirty days, then it will become a natural habit that I will do all the time. If I can thank God enough for my difficult trials, then I will truly become thankful." This approach to the Christian walk is a legalistic approach and it just simply won't work.

Jesus says in Luke 6.43-45 that,

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

We cannot transform ourselves at all, let alone through the practice of trying to go from the outside to the inside. When we try to use the law that way, it simply won't work because the law can only point us to what we ought to be or to do, it cannot give us the power to become or accomplish what it requires. Over at In Light of the Gospel, my friend James Grant has posted the following quote by Gerhard Forde (On Being a Theologian of the Cross, p. 107), which summarizes my point well:

“We see that the law simply cannot bring into being what it commands…The law says, ‘Thou shalt love!’ It is right; it is ‘holy, true, good’. Yet it can’t bring about what it demands. It might impel toward the works of the law, the motions of love, but in the end they will become irksome and will all too often lead to hate. If we go up to someone on the street, grab them by the lapels and say, ‘Look here, you’re supposed to love me!’ the person may drudgingly admit that we are right, but it won’t work. The results will likely be just the opposite from what our ‘law’ demands. Law is indeed right, but it simply cannot realize what it points to. So it works wrath. It can curse, but it can’t bless. In commanding love law can only point helplessly to that which it cannot produce.”

This is not to suggest that there is not a proper place for the law in the Christian life. But if that is the question that immediately came to your mind, then I would suggest that prior to asking that question, you first ask the question of yourself that Tripp has asked, "Are we asking the law to do something that only grace can accomplish?". Before we can learn how to properly use the law, we must first make sure we have a proper understanding of the role of grace in our lives, families, churches, etc.

What the law can only point to, grace can and does actually provide. This is what God has promised in the new covenant:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people, (Jeremiah 31.33).

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules, (Ezekiel 36.26-27).

Do you see the connection between the Luke passage and these passages on the new covenant? What we do is a reflection of what is already inside us--the outward is a reflection of the inward. We cannot change the outward to effect the inward, it has to go from the inward to the outward. And this can only be accomplished by God. Left to ourselves we have hearts of stone, which we are powerless to change on our own, and especially through the law. This inability is exhibited by Israel's breaking the old covenant, which is why God provided the new covenant, a covenant whose success is now guaranteed because God will accomplish it. The result of this new covenant is that now, God gives us a new heart (that is grace), he gives us a new spirit (that is grace), he removes our heart of stone (that is grace), he writes his law on our new hearts (that is grace) and he causes us to walk according to his law and be obedient to it (that is grace). By grace, God works on our inside so that, by grace, we can reflect his law in our outward behavior. As Herman Bavinck once said, "Objectively and subjectively, from beginning to end, the work of salvation is a work of God's grace and of his grace alone," (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:486).

Notice, this list is all about what God does. He doesn't say that he gives us a new heart, but then leaves it up to us to write his law on it--he gives and he writes! We cannot use the law to create new hearts within us. We cannot use the law to cause us to walk in obedience. We cannot create changes within us by making changes outside of us. But as he makes changes within us, we can reflect his work on the outside. As John Calvin has said, "For by the transpiration of his power he so breathes divine life into us that we are no longer actuated by ourselves, but are ruled by his action and prompting. Accordingly, whatever good things are in us are the fruits of his grace; and without him our gifts are darkness of mind and perversity of heart, (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III. 1.3, 541).

Now, for some people this is scary and for others this can be upsetting. But this should not be bad news to you--for this is simply the good news of the gospel itself. Life in the new covenant is all about grace. What we cannot accomplish in ourselves, is accomplished for us by Jesus Christ and worked within us through the Holy Spirit:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit, (Romans 8.3-4).

Let the gospel be the good news that it is, and look to it for your Christian walk so that you will not try to use the law for something it is not meant to do or can do. So how about you, your family, your church, are you developing a culture of grace, or a culture of law?

David O. Donovan is the pastor at Reformed Presbyterian Church on Lookout Mountain, Georgia. David attended Florida Bible College and then graduated from Southeastern Bible College in Birmingham, Alabama with a B.A. in Biblical-Theological Studies. He began his studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and then graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando in 2008. He was ordained in April 2010 by the Tennessee Valley Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America, and became Pastor at Reformed Presbyterian Church on Lookout Mountain, Georgia in February of 2010. This article is from the Thursday, February 10, 2011 Pilgrims & Pastors blog site, run by two Christian pilgrims who are the pastors of Reformed Presbyterian Church of Lookout Mountain.

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