'Amazing Grace' is more than the title of a grand old hymn that has been given a facelift and even reached the pop charts. For many of us, once steeped in the 'do’s and don’ts' of evangelical tradition, it has become a glorious, liberating secret. We have at last heard the unqualified statement of our absolute freedom from law which is the very heart of the gospel. The temptation to reduce our Christian experience to the mere observance of external regulations has yielded to the authority of God’s word. 'For under the Law I ‘died’ and I am dead to the Law’s demands so that I may live for God' (Galatians 2:19, J. B. Phillips).
Nothing has hindered the growth of the kingdom more than the ugly face of legalism. The devil realizes that undermining the very character of the gospel is far more effective than opposing it blatantly because he then reduces it to the level of an irrelevant religion. A piety consisting of 'Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch!' may have the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion (the NASB margin says: 'delight in religiousness'), but Paul tells the Colossians it is of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:21–23). It is at least comforting to know that Paul faced the same kind of problem in the first century. He was amazed that his followers had so quickly deserted 'Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who... want to distort the gospel of Christ' (Galatians 1:6–7). John Stott has said: 'You cannot touch the gospel and leave the church untouched, because the church is created and lives by the gospel.' (John Stott, The Message of Galatians, The Bible Speaks Today, IVP, 1986).
Having told the Romans that they are freely justified and declared righteous as a gift 'apart from the law', Paul replies to the obvious question that such a statement raises – namely, 'What about the law, then?'. In Romans 7 Paul explains that at one time we were married to the law. He is a hard, unrelenting husband. We were totally under his authority and he constantly points out our errors and shortcomings. Not only does he show us our faults and remind us of his standards, he never lifts a finger to help us. He is impotent to help. One further thing about this overbearing husband is that he is always right. What a husband! We are married to him for life and there is, according to Romans 7, no freedom to marry another since this would be a form of adultery.
Just to quench any last glimmer of hope on the horizon, Jesus quite plainly taught that the law would never pass away (Matthew 5:17–20). We seem to be permanently trapped into a marriage with a fault-finding, overbearing, meticulously correct husband who cannot actually help us and who also prevents us from marrying a new husband. Condemnation looms large.
Is there no escape? Having painted the blackest possible picture, Paul goes on to show us the way out. The law will never die but –glorious truth! – we were made to die to the law through the body of Christ, that we might be joined to another, to Him who is raised from the dead (Romans 7:4).
God reckons that those who are in Christ have died with Him, and the law cannot touch a dead man. We have been released or discharged from the law so that we can serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. Laws cannot produce life; they only draw lines of right and wrong. Paul argues that if a law had been given that was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on the law (Galatians 3:21), but the law is an impotent husband. He cannot impart life.
Now we have died to the law so that we might be married to a new husband, Christ, and bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4). Jesus is full of life. He is no impotent husband. He wants me to abide in Him and He in me, and I shall bear much fruit. A completely different arrangement! He removes my condemnation by actually removing my guilt and then He imparts life through our love relationship so that I can actually bear fruit for God. The tragedy comes when the new convert, having discovered free grace through the gospel, returns to the old husband of law in order to live out his new life. This always leads to bondage and despair. After a period of heaviness of soul, he comes back to Jesus to receive free pardon again and shake off his guilt. But all too often he fails to understand what he is doing and again imposes new laws on himself in order never to fail Jesus again. What a tangle! No wonder many Christians testify to being 'up and down'. I suggest they are more 'husband to husband'.
We are discharged from the law. Imagine a soldier who had enlisted in Her Majesty’s Forces for an agreed period. During this time he is subjected to all the rigours and discipline of military training. He is under authority. Orders must be obeyed meticulously. But the day comes when his agreed term is completed. He is discharged. On that very day he strolls carelessly across the parade ground – a free man. Suddenly, the sergeant major turns the corner and sees him.
Horrified at the sight of this slovenly soldier, he orders him to return, head up, shoulders back, and stand before him at attention.
At first the ex-soldier cringes at the familiar cry, but then remembers he is discharged. 'Cheerio, sarge,' he waves. Let the sergeant-major become ever so red in the face, let the veins stand out ever so prominently on his neck, it’s of no consequence. He cannot command the discharged soldier any more!
We are discharged from the law.
It is essential for us constantly to recognize our death to law. It is no longer the basis for our relationship with God and never will be. We are married to Christ and our fulfilment as Christians is bound up in our love relationship with him.
All evangelicals know that they can never be justified by the law, but what they often fail to realize is that they cannot be sanctified by it either. The law always condemns. Its purpose is to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). The tragedy for many believers is that they get caught in a trap. They reach a crisis when they feel deeply challenged by a word from God concerning their sanctification and they deplore their recent history. With new-found zeal they determine to do better in the future. But at that very moment they make the fatal error that will lead them to certain failure and distress. At the time when they most need to break the snare, they choose the wrong course. They begin to impose certain laws upon themselves in order to help them reign in life. They perhaps adjust their alarm clock for half an hour earlier. They determine to read the whole Bible in the coming year, and so on. These steps may have real worth in and of themselves, but they do not provide us with the keys to 'reign in life'. The mistake is in thinking that in order to reign in life we must do something, while the New Testament does not teach that. It says that we reign in life by receiving the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness (Romans 5:17).
The problem for many Christians is that they always feel condemned. But the answer to condemnation is never simply to improve our performance. It is to reckon on our position through grace. God has justified us freely as a gift. Condemnation is to do with guilt, not with feelings or improved performance. If we, through grace, are declared 'not guilty' by God, then we cannot be condemned. Only the guilty man stands condemned. It is God who justifies, and if God has declared us 'not guilty', Satan cannot take us to a higher court. There is none. There is no condemnation for us, not because we have been doing well lately, or because we have set ourselves a new standard, but because we are in Christ Jesus. He has carried our guilt on the cross. The more we come to enjoy that truth, the more we will know how to refuse Satan’s constant barrage of accusations aimed at getting us down.
If Satan can get us off our ground in Christ Jesus and onto the ground of our effort, he knows he has us in his grip. We may succeed for a while with New Year resolutions but even before the chill winds of February, condemnation looms large all over again. The law always kills in the end.
Not only are we free from law, we are also accounted righteous as a gift. Paul tells us that Adam was a type of Christ (Romans 5:14). We often think of other Old Testament characters as types of Christ – such heroes as David and Moses help us to see aspects of Jesus the King, or Jesus the Shepherd – but how does Adam typify him?
Adam is a type of Christ in that when he sinned he did so as head of the human race. He thus made us all sinners. We were 'in Adam' and therefore blighted by his sin and guilt. No amount of human activity could make us righteous and get us out of Adam. Even our righteousness was as filthy rags. Countless acts of kindness clocked up nothing on our account. As Thomas Brooks said, 'Till men have faith in Christ their best services are but glorious sins.' While still in Adam we remain unrighteous and guilty. We can do nothing to be released.
When we are born again we enter a new family with Jesus at the head. Just as Adam’s sin and shame were put on our account and all our endeavours at righteousness could not free us from guilt, so now all Jesus’ righteousness is credited to us. We are accepted as righteous in Him. Our shortcomings do not disqualify us – we are not relegated to a middle ground somewhere between Jesus and Adam. We are either in Adam and therefore guilty sinners, or in Christ and therefore righteous. Jesus Christ is our righteousness and He is the same yesterday, today and for ever, whether we feel spiritually high or low. A real grasp of this truth frees God’s people from a constant round of condemnation and heaviness.
We are in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6). God has a dear Son who delights His heart and we are in Him. Isaac had a son in whom he delighted named Esau. One day, Isaac’s other son 'clothed himself' with Esau and drew near to his father. Isaac felt Esau’s clothing and smelled his smell. He blessed Jacob 'in Esau' (Genesis 27). Jacob hid in his big brother as a trick and received his father’s blessing, but we have been placed in Christ by a loving Father, who now blesses us for Christ’s sake with every spiritual blessing. He is not, like Isaac, alarmed to find us hiding there. He has placed us there and is pleased to bless us for Christ’s sake.
Just as some early Christians under Jewish influence were tempted to be circumcised to make sure they were acceptable to God, many modern Christians develop external religious habits to try to be worthy of the grace that God wants to give them freely. This problem is not unique to English churches. The wife of an elder in a church in Washington DC told me she had listened ten times to my tape on the grace of God in order to find freedom from past legalism. In Cape Town a lady approached me at the end of a meeting where I had been handling a similar theme. 'Is it really true?' she asked me, with tears pouring down her face. She then told me about her church background with its legalistic practices which had completely robbed her of the joy of her salvation. Many, therefore, find themselves taken up with the details of externalism, preoccupied with lists of places to which they should not go, clothes they should not wear, things they should not do.
This, in turn, tragically affects the gathering of the saints. Preoccupied with the rules and regulations, we find ourselves watching to see if others are keeping them properly and fail to discover one another as true friends. When I realize I am 'accepted in the Beloved' I find myself free to receive you who are also accepted. Now we are free to relate on a new basis altogether. Relationships within churches that are seeking restoration have been greatly affected by this truth.
Isn’t this a dangerous doctrine, to say that Christians are righteous without reference to the law? Aren’t we in danger of running riot – or doing whatever we like and still regarding ourselves as righteous? Paul anticipates that bone of contention in Romans 6:1 when he asks, 'Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?' His reply is unyielding: 'May it never be!' He then goes on to show that we who have been placed in Christ have been united with Him in His death and burial and that, having thus died, we are freed from sin.
When Jesus was taken from the cross He was buried in the tomb, burial being the final act declaring death to be past. At conversion we are commanded to be baptized in the name of Jesus and there our burial takes place – not as an effort to kill the old man, but as a declaration that our old man has died together with Christ. We do not bury people in order to kill them, but bury them because they have died. We are not told to seek after a 'death to sin' experience but to acknowledge that by virtue of being joined to Jesus we are partakers of His death (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12). In the New Testament this is as much a statement of fact as the declaration that two men were crucified with Christ, one on the right and the other on the left. We believe that two men were crucified with Christ. We must similarly receive the truth that we were crucified with him (Galatians 2:20).
I do not remember sinning in Adam in the Garden of Eden, nor do I remember dying on the cross with Christ. However, the Bible says that both have happened as a matter of fact (Romans 5:17–21). Now I am to live in the awareness of that fact.
Paul goes on from the foundation of knowing it to be truth with the command that we should therefore reckon it to be true in our daily lives (Romans 6:11). We do not reckon it as true in order to make it true, but because it is true. I was helped in this matter when I once arrived at Barcelona airport to be told that the time was four o’clock in the afternoon. My own watch told me that it was actually three o’clock. As an Englishman I had now to pretend that the time was four o’clock when I knew perfectly well that it was actually three. Strangely, I did not find that I had to screw up my willpower to make myself believe that it was four o’clock. The truth of the matter was that when I was in Spain it was four. So it is with us as we step out of Adam into Christ. I do not have to reckon, concentrating my willpower to believe that I am now dead to sin. The Bible teaches that when you are in Christ you are dead to sin, just as when I was in Spain it was four o’clock. Therefore, reckon it to be so!
The gospel sets us free from sin. It is good news indeed. First, it delivers us from condemnation and makes us righteous as a gift. Then it releases us from the power of sin and makes us slaves of righteousness.
Having understood our clear ground of victory, the Christian life becomes a walk of faith. We fight the good fight of faith. When Abraham was promised that he would father a son, he could have strongly contested it. All his previous experience argued against that possibility, but instead he became fully convinced that what God had promised He was also able to perform (Romans 4:21). He grew strong in faith, giving glory to God. When the Scripture promises us freedom from sin we are prone immediately to consider our previous track record and we fail to listen to the life-giving word. Faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. If God has promised it, He is able to perform it in us and through us and to write His laws on our hearts, thus freeing us from the power of temptation. The righteous man shall live by faith.
Any delay in a full realization of this promise in daily life does not negate the promise any more than the delay in Isaac’s birth did. Either the promise is true or it is not. When Abraham fell short in his early experience it did not disqualify him from total fulfilment later. He was restored to the promise. So we too must learn to confess and receive forgiveness for failure but not abandon the goal of promised freedom. Many come to regard failure as inevitable and settle for constant confession as the Christian way. It is essential to let the word of faith work in us, telling us what the truth of the matter really is. We must go on believing until full realization is our experience. Although the Good News Bible translates Romans 6:14 as 'sin must not rule over you', happily the gospel is even better news than that and actually says, 'sin shall not be master over you' (see, for example, AV, RV, RSV, NASB, NIV), 'for you are not under law but under grace'.
Terry Virgo is a Bible teacher and conference speaker. He founded the New Frontiers family of churches.