Grace Before Law

A book extract from Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?

This beautiful aspect of God’s way with man can be summarized in the phrase: “grace before law.” Now that may sound strange to those of us who are accustomed to thinking of law as
something which condemns, something which must be followed by the good news of saving grace. In that way of thinking, law is, of course, bad news. Furthermore if that is the way I insist on
looking at law and grace, I will never make peace with law; it will always rub me the wrong way. What then does “grace before law” mean? Just this: When God comes to us, his first approach is not law, but grace. Before we ever do anything for him or even in response to him, grace is there as his free gift. The classic New Testament passage in this respect is Romans 5: ”While we were
still weak” (vs. 6), “while we were yet sinners” (vs. 8), “while we were enemies” (vs. 10), ”we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (vs. 10). We did nothing to merit such a gift. While we
were yet shaking our fist in God’s face he did something that could touch our lives and make us whole. Once our lives have thus been touched by his goodness, we are able to recognize that this great God also wants to show us how to live and that his law is part of his plan for our life. But now the sting has been taken out of law because we have first been touched by grace. As the Gospel of John records: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” John 14:15). If we let ourselves be touched by his love, we cannot help but love him and then the natural result is to follow in the path that he has given us for our happiness.

Now since this is a book about the Old Testament, I should hasten to add that the familiar picture of grace before law in the New Testament is paralleled in the Old, and right at the focal point of the Old Testament record, Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The amazing story of God’s deliverance of his people shows that they had not one shred of merit to offer him. Even their faith was very
much smaller than that of a mustard seed. But God delivered them from Egypt. He rolled back the waters of the sea. Then and only then, did he bring them to Sinai and the law. But it was the memory of God’s mighty deliverance that placed that smoking mountain in perspective. Even though the people did not always see the full glory of the law nor recognize God’s gracious purpose in speaking with them, there was at least one man who did. The man who was right at the heart of it all, the man who led Israel out of slavery and through the sea, that man Moses, did see the glory and beauty of the law. His heart had been touched by the grace of God so he could exclaim:

”For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deut. 4:7-8).

Yes, all those strange laws in the Old Testament were still good news. They did not represent God’s ideal, for God was not dealing with ideal people. His great desire for them, as for us, is to be able to inscribe his law on the heart. Then we will no longer face that potential aggravation which is always lurking in the imperative. Then we can revel in the new covenant experience, an experience which enables us to live from the heart and with joy.

In the meantime, whenever I find myself chafing under the divine imperative, I find it so very helpful to retrace the steps from Sinai back to the Red Sea and there catch a fresh vision of the great God who first delivered his people and then brought them to Sinai. Or in terms of the New Testament, I find the sting of the imperative simply vanishing in the knowledge that while I was still his enemy, he died for me.

From Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, pp. 79-81

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