How do we handle this conundrum?

August 15, 2013

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

As Christians – and those who stand in the Reformed tradition – we have always had a bit of a struggle between the law and the gospel.  

If you need evidence of this tension, read one of Paul’s letters to any number of his churches – in Rome, Galatia, or Corinth.  For disciples of Jesus, salvation does not come from an adherence to the law but by the grace and glory of the cross.  

However, Jesus still has a high regard for the place of the law in the lives of those who are his disciples.  What are we to do with this apparent conundrum?  

John Calvin is of help here.  Calvin – one of the forefathers in our Reformed tradition – described three uses for the law for those whose identity and salvation are secured by the grace of Jesus Christ.

The first use of the law is to convict us of our sin.  Knowing the law – even if we cannot perfectly keep the law – reminds us of the fact that, as humans, we fall short.  It also reminds us of the utter dependence we have on God’s grace. 

The second use of the law is to restrain our passion.  God’s law, again, even if we cannot fully abide by it, curtails our tendency toward behavior that is driven purely by our desire for pleasure.  In this way, the law functions the way that civil law does in our society – it sets boundaries for our behavior that create order.

 Calvin’s third use of the law is to show us how to live.  Here is the connection to grace.  It is when we understand ourselves as redeemed by God’s grace that we are motivated – not out of fear, but out of gratitude – to walk in paths of righteousness.