A few people have contacted me recently and asked if I could share the introduction to my new book ‘God’s Grace Apart From Law’, so I have added the intro below for those interested in reading it. The whole book is a conversational journey through the first 3 chapters of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
Paul’s letter to the Roman Church is, in a nutshell, a testimony of God’s grace: the gospel of God. It brings into focus not only the correct way to understand the New Covenant reality of grace, but also, perhaps more significantly, the correct way to understand the Old Covenant of law. The importance of this clarification cannot be understated; in fact, it was the dominant theme Paul continued to clarify to the church throughout his entire known ministry. To Paul, the Christian life was lived through profound reality of grace.
The New Covenant is the awakening of God’s divine way of the Spirit, established at its appointed time through the finished work of his Son. Paul was convinced of this new era of grace, and, in a way that perhaps only Paul could do, he explained how all things found their reality in grace; and how all things are achieved through the power of grace. Grace was not merely a nice word to Paul; it was the very nature of God. It was to Paul, and remains true for every generation, the all encompassing power of the Almighty.
Some, in Paul’s day, thought ‘grace’ was a word thrown around in Christian circles to excuse someone’s failings; Paul understood it as the very essence of the empowered Christian life. The message he shared, when we search for its foundations in Scripture, is evident. However, in Paul’s day it was, and still is to this day, a revolutionary message that many in the church simply couldn’t bring themselves to accept. They preferred to dismiss Paul, and his understanding of the gospel, as one not worthy to be listened to. That is a sad situation indeed, for God called Paul specifically so the church could and would embrace the message he shared. While it was Jesus’ unique ministry to establish the reality of grace for all of us, it was Paul’s unique ministry to explain the reality of grace in words we, as the church, could grasp.
In fact, at least once after his resurrection, Jesus needed to speak directly to one of his early disciples to clarify that, indeed, it was God himself who had appointed Paul as his ‘chosen instrument’ to bring the reality of the gospel message to the world. The Apostle Paul, as the unique instrument chosen by God, was given the revelation of God’s good news directly into his spirit, as Paul himself testifies about in his letter to the Galatians:
I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12
If Paul received this message of good news that he so passionately preached directly from Jesus, then it’s certainly a good idea to take hold of the gospel that Paul preached and embrace it, love it and live in it. This is, in fact, the very reason Paul was given such an amazing revelation of the gospel in the first place; it was for the benefit of the of the body of Christ. In fact, even the Apostle Peter, who walked with Jesus for three years, and was closer to Jesus in his earthly ministry than anyone else, encouraged the Church to listen to Paul’s message.
Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. 2 Peter 3:15-16
The reason Paul preached the gospel so passionately was so Christ’s body, his church, would be find their promised rest in it. According to Paul’s own testimony, towards the end of the book of Acts, it was his divine mandate to preach this wonderful good news:
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. Acts 20:24
Everything Paul did was, in one way or another, connected to this one goal: to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. We see Paul doing this in all his letters, but nowhere does he lay out the nuts and bolts of gospel of God’s grace as systematically as he does in his letter to the Romans. Why did Paul do such a thing? Was it to prove to the world that he was a wise and learned scholar? I doubt anyone would conclude that. If fact, I don’t think anyone would judge Paul’s motives as self-gratifying. On the contrary, it seems evident that Paul wouldn’t have found any personal satisfaction in being known for his academic credentials. His boast was not in what he knew, but rather, in the profound reality that he was known, and loved, by God. It was this reality that consumed his attention; he found his peace in the grace of our great God. Paul didn’t seek to identify himself as a theologian; rather, he identified himself as a child of God radically set free ‘in Christ’.
Paul doesn’t give us the impression, through his life and letters to the early church, that he was interested in theories of God. To Paul, the gospel wasn’t a theory. He lived his life out of a revelation of Christ. He lived with a foundational belief that the good news of God’s grace was a profound and living reality in his life; a reality so glorious that it made everything else pale by comparison. He didn’t get caught up in side issues. He fought passionately to keep the focus of our faith upon the glorious reality of the person of Jesus and the new creation life that was given through his death and resurrection.
He lived to proclaim the greatness of Christ and the power of his perfect finished work on the cross. He lived to keep the church focused on Jesus, and he knew the only way that would function was when the church was firmly grounded in the good news of God’s grace. This is the same task we endeavor to do today; to keep our hearts focused on Jesus and our spirits founded in his grace. We too can live with the understanding that God’s grace is not a theory or a doctrine; it’s a profound and glorious reality. It’s good to know that our lives are not based on lifeless theological words. They’re based on the living Christ, on his person and on his reality.
Paul’s exemplified how receiving the understanding of God’s way of the Spirit and being able to express it to others has no correlation with one’s intellectual capacity to express theological concepts with large and complicated religious words. Other preachers of Paul’s day purposely slandered him because he refused to speak in academic terminology. Paul didn’t find this an insult, but rather he was pleased that his message could be presented to all people, regardless of their education. Like Paul, we can also be encouraged that we don’t need to get caught up in using big theological words and quoting other academic works. Through the help of the Spirit Paul managed to share the most profound revelation in all of eternity in a way that his listeners, from the farmers to the ruling class, could understand.
Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God’s grace. For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand. 2 Corinthians 1:12-13
Unfortunately, when a Christian tries to fit Paul’s letters into the theology of a mixed covenant of law and grace then it not only becomes difficult to understand Paul’s letters, it actually becomes impossible. Paul often described how other preachers of his day were determined to make Christians submit also to the Jewish law. These preachers taught the importance of specific Old Covenant laws as a continual requirement for Christian living in order to receive God’s covenant blessings. Although Paul makes reference to this group in many of his letters, he addresses them the most pointedly in his letter to the Galatians. He directly challenged their false gospel. According to gospel of God’s grace, that Jesus gave Paul to preach, a Christian is not under the law, nor is God blessing or cursing a Christian depending upon their obedience to a written code.
These other preachers, alternatively, were preaching a contradictory message. They were actually trying to convince the church it was through following certain Old Covenant laws that they would be blessed and considered obedient in God’s eyes. It is important to point out that these preachers were not simply Jewish teachers who had rejected Jesus and were trying to discredit Christianity or seeking to convert believers to Judaism; on the contrary, they were very much part of the body of Christ, or, at the very least, presented themselves publicly as active Christian teachers. However, they had a determined zeal to keep some of the laws found in the Old Covenant part of the New Covenant. They preached about Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection; but when it came to the important foundation of the gospel being grace alone, apart from law, instead of preaching the truth of the New Covenant of grace apart from law, they went on their way and preached their own distorted message of mixture anyway. Because of this, they ended up actually preaching a different gospel than God ever intended to be preached. This resulted in the churches in Galatia, and elsewhere, believing in a different Jesus. No longer the Jesus who was gave to them because of his love for them, but now the Jesus who was even stricter than Moses, watching and waiting for obedience to Old Covenant laws as his motivation to give his blessings. No longer the Jesus they connected directly with through the Spirit, but now a Jesus who expected them to submit to mediators, these mixed covenant preachers, who enforced an unquestionable ‘spiritual authority’ over the church.
For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. 2 Corinthians 11:4
Paul went to extreme measures to highlight just how significant and devastating this false teaching was, going so far as to say that it was actually disabling the grace empowered life within them.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. Galatians 5:1-4
Although Paul specifically mentions circumcision in his example, the same can be said for any Old Covenant law that a Christian tries to religiously follow today. The bottom line is, if you want to follow one of them, then you must be prepared to follow all of them. Of course this is impossible, but that is the point. We should not be religiously holding onto the observance of any Old Covenant laws, nor should we submit ourselves to those determined to yoke us to them.
What we need to remember is that we, in Christ, are new creations who live out of the very DNA of love. We live not by legalistic rules, but by a Spirit radically alive within us. This means that anything that is of love we will naturally desire to walk in. We don’t kill, because we love. We don’t steal, because we love. It is love, and not laws, that motivates our actions as New Covenant believers. This love can be trusted, for it is founded in the Spirit of the divine God living in us. There is a difference, however, between actions of love, and obligations of law. When we fail to understand the difference we live our lives in guilt, instead of in our true inheritance of grace. God doesn’t desire for you to live a mixed life of guilt and grace. He desires you to be truly free, alive and active in his grace alone.
When a Christian sits under a mixed covenant teaching for long enough, and as Paul says, “puts up with it easily enough,” they can, like the Galatians’ churches, truly start living in confusion and never grasp the reality of their God given right to find their rest in his grace. Instead, they find themselves on a religious performance tread mill and end up spending their time striving to receive from God based by what they do, instead of freely receiving everything from him based on his love.7 The foundational truth of the New Covenant is one of grace.
We don’t receive good things from God based on our works; rather, we receive everything based on the perfect work of Jesus, the creator of the universe, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He is the one who created all things, and through whom all things hold together; and he is graceful. The eternal purpose of everything in the heart of God is found, and finished, in the life of Jesus, the sacrifice he made on the cross and the result of new life that comes out of that sacrifice. This is our reality. This is the gospel. This is the good news that could only ever be given through a pure act of God’s grace, for how could man ever earn such a blessing? It is for this reason that we don’t try to earn such a wonderful reality; rather, we rejoice in the gift of this precious good news. It is our inheritance in Christ: the good news of God’s grace.
Paul’s letter helped the early church then, and it continues to help the church today, to understand how God’s grace is more than to enough bring about God’s righteousness, obedience, and the Christ empowered life to every believer. Paul’s intention in writing this letter was to encourage the church in this wonderful reality of grace.
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