Law And Grace

The relationship between the Law of the Old Testament and the operation of grace in the New is a strong Pauline theme in Scripture itself. It became topical in Augustine's time because of his battle with the Pelagians. Pelagius, a society preacher in Rome at the end of the fourth century, had argued that the Christian was responsible for his own actions and not necessarily dependent upon grace to be good. Augustine wrote a good deal on the issues Pelagius' teaching raised, both pastorally and theologically. In De Gratia Christi he tried to clarify the relationship between keeping the Law and depending upon grace. Pelagius was prepared to accept that grace illuminates the mind and shows Christians what to do, but he did not believe that it gives us a power to act well which we would not have without it. Augustine argues that since there is no sin where there is no law (Rom. 4:15), the Law is not only unprofitable, but even prejudicial without the assistance of grace. That would mean that Law was positively undesirable. He identifies the utility of the Law as consisting in the compelling of sinners to ask for grace to help them keep it. Law makes demands, but it does not assist the sinner to meet them; it points to sickness of the soul but it does not heal it; indeed, it makes it worse and the cure grace can give is thereby desired the more. No-one can be justified by keeping the Law. Righteousness comes from God not from the Law, he claims, citing Romans 3:19-21. Nevertheless, the Law cannot be counted for nothing, for it is God's Law. Augustine sees its value as lying in making it clear to us that we need grace.

Thomas Aquinas addressed the question of the place of the Old Testament Law in the context of the various concerns of the thirteenth century. In the Summa Theologiae (II'q. 98-109) he asks whether the Old Law was good, and answers that because it accorded with reason, it was certainly a good thing; nevertheless, it could not confer that grace which only Christ can give. The Law was given by Moses; grace and truth by Christ (John 1:17). Thus the Law was good, but it brought nothing to perfection (Heb. 7:19). The Old Law was given by God through the angels. It was given to the Jews alone and only they were bound to obey it. Aquinas distinguishes moral and ceremonial precepts in the Law, and also judicial precepts; the first are dictated by natural law; the second are to do with patterns of worship; the third settle the rules for the maintenance of justice among men. He argues that the moral precepts remain indispensable, but that the moral precepts of the Old Law did not justify men in the sight of God. The ceremonial precepts also did not justify; they ceased at Christ's coming and it is sin to obey them since. The judicial precepts had to do with man's conduct towards his neighbour, but these too ceased at Christ's coming.

Aquinas then moves on to consider the New Law of the Gospel. The New Law is written in the heart; it is not, like the Old Law, merely a written law. He has to defend its late introduction against the accusation that it ought, if it is the better law, to have been introduced at the beginning. He explains that this New Law consists chiefly in grace, the gift of the Spirit, and it was not proper for grace to abound until Christ had done his redeeming work; that a perfect Law had to be developed through a due succession of events in time, the Old Law coming first to teach mankind and prepare the human heart for the reception of the New. In this way, through experience of sin under the Old Law, mankind might learn his own weakness and need of grace. The New Law is distinct from the Old; it fulfils it; it is less burdensome than the Old. Aquinas completes his treatment of the theme in a series of questions on grace in which he stresses the need for grace to help if the Law is to be kept. He also discusses the relation of the New Testament of grace to the Old Testament of Law.

This theme was of the first importance in the debates of the Reformation. Two aspects of Paul's discussion were given particular prominence: first, the notion that it is the Law which gives sin its power by defining it and making it apparent to the sinner (Gal. 2:17ff.; 1 Cor. 15:56; Rom. 5:20; 5:13 etc.); and second, Paul's stress on Christ's liberation of his people from the implications of the old legal system (Gal. 3:10-13; 5:2-4; 4:8-11; 5:1; 5:134 etc.). Luther's particular concern was with the role in the salvation of the individual of the good works which keeping the Law involves. In his discussion of the Decalogue in the Large Catechism, he explains that the Ten Commandments show what God wills that mankind shall do and not do, in order to please him. But they do not give the means of keeping the Law. Luther holds that the Law is necessary to the Christian life, because it is in Scripture, and because the Commandments can be reduced to the two New Testament commands to love God and one's neighbour. They all, he believes, derive from the first commandment of faith in God, with the other nine amounting to fruits, or effects of justifying faith. These are not, for that reason, necessary to salvation. He makes a distinction between inward and outward obedience, the keeping of the Law by formal observance or even legal tricks; and the obedience of the heart to which the ninth and tenth Commandments point. His position in sum is that the Christian is bound to keep the Law in the same way that a living tree is bound to bring forth good fruit. The Law is at the least a check upon the activities of the unrepentant non-believer who hardens his heart. For those predestined to life it performs the function for which it was designed. It shows them their sinfulness, terrifies the conscience and prepares the heart for the Word of God to work in it.

Not all reforming parties held so positive a view of the value of the works done in observance of the Law, and there were those who said that works done by those without saving faith in Christ were not only of no value for salvation, but so far do they fail to please God that they may be viewed as sins. This is a position reflected in Article Thirteen of the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles. The debate about the place of works in the economy of salvation is only partly concerned with the question of the relationship of Old Testament Law to New Testament grace, however, and not perhaps ultimately dependent on it, so is not our direct concern here.

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