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Grace trumps law

by Dennis Pollock

Human beings are needy creatures. From the moment we draw our first breath until the day we take our last, our lives are filled with needs. In some ways it seems that for most, life is simply an extended effort to satisfy the needs that arise continually from day to day and moment to moment. Our kind and generous Creator is not unaware of this, and has spoken quite clearly on the preferred way we are to go about this.

God ties the satisfaction of our needs to Himself, and links this to the act that we call prayer. Perhaps the most definitive verse in this regard is from Hebrews, where we read: "Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). When we find ourselves in desperate need, we are to go looking for grace, and the place we find it is at the throne of grace. Through prayer we approach this mysterious throne of grace and "find grace to help in the time of need." Grace is where the victory lies; grace is God's provision for all the needs of His children, whether it be the eternal salvation of our souls or food to eat at tonight's dinner table. The knowledge of how to receive the grace of God is the most valuable asset any man or woman can ever possess, and is far more beneficial than education, money, human connections, talent, skills, or looks.

We cannot understand grace without first understanding the nature of law. Law is the alternative to grace; either you are living under the law or under grace. Law is man's default. We are all born under law, take our first steps, speak our first words, and eat our first meals as children of law. Apart from a radical transformation of heart we will live out our days under law, and go to our graves under law. In fact the Scriptures tell us that we are married to the law and no divorce is possible – only through a spiritual death with Christ will we be free from the law's demands upon our lives, and its penalties for not fully complying with those demands.

The Law of God

The apostle Paul's writings were filled with references to the law of God. Again and again he hammers home the idea that none of us can be saved by attempting to keep God's laws, "for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" (Galatians 2:16). To be born again is to renounce all expectation of acceptance before God through our own good works, and to place our hope fully upon the grace of God given us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Any hope of salvation that has even the slightest trace of our own works mixed in is contrary to this view.

Bible teacher Dave Hunt visited Romania and quizzed an orthodox priest about how one can make heaven. Dave asked the priest, "How can I get to heaven?" The priest told him, "You’ve got to pray." Dave inquired, "How much must I pray?" The priest responded, "You’ve got to pray all the time, everywhere." Dave queried, "Can I ever know that I’m going to heaven? The priest told him, "You can never know." This is a perfect example of a law-based plan of salvation. If you can just pray hard enough, if you can just pray long enough, if you can just pray fervently enough, you might get to heaven. So pray, pray, pray. But of course you can never know for sure if you have prayed long enough, hard enough, and fervently enough.

Paul would reject such a scheme out of hand. It reeks of self-effort and is totally devoid of grace. It negates the cross of Christ and makes our salvation fully dependent upon our own efforts to achieve some divine standard known only to God. At the heart of a law-based salvation is an attempt to win divine favor through one's efforts, unaided by God, coupled with a foolish and arrogant confidence in those efforts. Jeremiah writes: "Thus says the Lord: "Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when good comes…" (Jeremiah 17:5).

Focus!

Whether you are operating in grace or under law has to do with focus. To focus on and put your trust in yourself or any other man or woman is to place yourself under the law. Zechariah's words of old are still totally relevant for us today: "Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,' says the LORD of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6). And if our life is to be by God's Spirit, we must continually look to God and to His Son Jesus Christ. To put our eyes on our strengths or weaknesses, on our talents or lack of talent, on our personality, our skill, our training, our wisdom, our intelligence, our history of past successes, or our history of past failures is to bring ourselves under a curse – the curse that always falls upon men and women who "make flesh their strength, and whose hearts depart from the Lord."

Jeremiah goes on to speak a blessing on those who act in the reverse, who focus their faith, their confidence, and their expectation of good squarely upon the Lord: "Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord.  For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters…" (Jeremiah 17:7). God is so big on faith! This is a huge deal to Him. Where do we look, where do we focus, upon whom do we trust? The answer to these questions will determine whether God jumps into our lives and situations and brings His blessings and deliverance, or allows us to struggle vainly on our own and ultimately fail. Paul characterizes the Christian life this way: "For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh" (Philippians 3:3).

Another view of law is that law is simply “the natural course of things.” When a smart, ambitious man is successful in his career, we should not be surprised. And when a man who is obnoxious, not particularly bright, and lazy fails to succeed, again this is no surprise. This is the way life normally works; this is the natural course of things. There are certain diseases which in certain stages are considered terminal. Doctors tell their patients that they probably have only so many days or months to live. Why do they make such dire pronouncements? They have seen these diseases before. They know that they have a natural course.

Grace for King Hezekiah

Hezekiah praysIn Isaiah we read about godly king Hezekiah coming down with such a disease. The Bible tells us: "In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, "Thus says the Lord: `Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.' '' (Isaiah 38:1). According to natural law the result was certain: Hezekiah will soon die. But Hezekiah knew God well enough to know that there was another law, the law of grace that could supersede natural law. We read further:

Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the Lord, and said, "Remember now, O Lord, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what is good in Your sight.'' And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, saying, "Go and say to Hezekiah, `Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; and I will add to your days fifteen years.'"

God intervenes and changes the outcome. This intervention by God is what we mean by grace. Law says Hezekiah will die, but grace says he will live. Law is Hezekiah's situation apart from grace. It is the natural course of the disease he has. But grace is Hezekiah's situation plus God's intervention. And grace always trumps law. It is in reality a higher law. It is God breaking into the laws He has established in this world and overturning them for His own purposes, and is often due to the prayers and petitions of His people. Hezekiah prays, God gives grace, and a sentence of death is overruled. This is the divine pattern.

Not Always Evident

Our need for grace is not always easy to see. Many men and women live out their lives without ever praying or calling on God, and seem to do pretty well. In fact, of the world's wealthiest men, ungodly non-praying, non-Bible-reading, non-church-attending men have always been in the majority. Evangelical billionaires are rare indeed. Many ungodly, wealthy folks seem to have the golden touch. They are smart in business, astute in making dead-on decisions at critical times, and thrive under pressure. They accumulate huge sums of money without ever praying about anything. They write books about how you, too, can be fabulously rich if only you will employ their principles. Do x, y, and z just as they did and you will surely achieve their level of success.

They live by the law, they work by the law, and they will die by the law. What they fail to realize is that while God will allow us to succeed as we labor under the law, and apply His principles for our own goals, there is no true and ultimate success apart from Jesus Christ. Jesus tells us, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). In the end all the business deals you transact, all the money you make, all the people you impress, all the houses you build, and all the magazines that put your face on their cover mean exactly nothing if you have done what you did without a dependence upon and trust in the Lord Jesus. There is no spiritual fruit produced apart from the One who is the True Vine and Source of all life. Apart from His grace, our lives, our successes, our accumulated riches, and all our accomplishments will dissolve into a small pile of ashes when we stand before Jesus and have our life reviewed in His presence.

Through Jesus

John writes, "And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:16). On the cross Jesus became a curse for us that we might live in the favor of our holy God, and experience His grace continually throughout our lives. His greatest intervention is the new birth. The natural course of our lives under the law will always lead to death, judgment, and hell. The evangelist Nicky Cruz was a gang leader in his youth. He was tough, hard, and violent. Once a court-ordered psychiatrist was so disgusted with him that he told him that he held no hope for him in life at all. He said, "You are walking straight to jail, the electric chair, and hell." The judge was right – but he was wrong. While still in the gang Nicky gave his life to Christ and was transformed. He spent his adult years living as a minister of the gospel, and has been responsible for thousands coming to Christ. Through Jesus the natural course of his life was upended. Grace came to Nicky Cruz! Through Jesus and Him alone we do not have to accept the natural course of our lives. We can be forgiven; we can be saved and live eternally. But the grace gifts do not stop there. Because of Jesus, God can intervene in our lives in a million different ways.

And so we "come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need." We pray about our finances and we pray about our marriages. We pray about our jobs, our ministries, our health, our children, our new challenges and our old successes and failures. We work hard but refuse to put our confidence in our work ethic or our abilities. And over the course of our lives we delight to experience thousands upon thousands of divine interventions. Some are small and some are huge. But all are appreciated, for none came without cost. Jesus' cross has opened wide the windows of heaven and made divine intervention a constant friend of all who trust in Jesus.

 

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