HAVE YOU KEPT THE LAW?
T. PIERCE BROWN
I have been amazed in the past few years to hear from a large number of gospel preachers who seem to have discovered for the first time the doctrine of salvation by grace. I can understand how a person who has been studying the Bible even for half a century can read some passage and almost gasp with delight as a new depth of it becomes apparent to him, for I feel sure that this has happened frequently to all of us who love the study of God’s Word. It is one of the great joys of studying the Bible in depth. But in trying to discover the reason for this apparent confusion about salvation by grace, it occurred to me that part of the problem may be a semantic, rather than a doctrinal one.
For example, if a person reads that the Bible says, “Repent and be baptized — for the remission of your sins” (Acts2:38) and he does that, has he obeyed the law or not? If you answer, “Yes,” then you must logically conclude that he got remission of his sins (was saved from them) by the law, and obedience thereto. If you answer “No,” then you seem to be in a strange and contradictory position of admitting that here was a law (commandment) of God, and you obeyed it, yet you did not obey the law, or at least that obedience to the law had nothing to do with your salvation!
Many of us have tried to discuss that from the standpoint of differentiating between meritorious works and works of faith. Probably most of us have reasoned properly in that discussion. But a different truth needs to be understood at this point.
Notice carefully: If a person says, “I am justified or saved on the principle of obedience to law” (whether he is talking about the Law of Moses or any law), this implies that he has kept the whole law — has broken none, and therefore is not a sinner. Simply put: he is justified because he has kept the law. If he kept the law, he did not break it. But is any one of us justified on that basis? Whoever claims to be is a liar and the truth is not in him (1 John 1:8-10). Whether we are a Calvinist or a Christian, we surely know that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom.3:23). That simply means that no matter what we may do, say or think at a later time, we cannot be justified on the principle of law-keeping, for we have not kept it!
Then suppose we look again at our obedience to the commandment (law) of Acts 2:38. We repented and were baptized. We may say, “I kept the law.” This is where the problem of semantics comes in. We kept the law which says, “Repent and be baptized” (that is, we kept a part of the whole law). But the statement, “I kept the law,” which refers to any specific part of the whole, and “I kept the law,” which refers to the whole law are plainly two different things, though the same words are used to describe both actions.
This is a part of the problem of confusion and misunderstanding. It is true that none of us can be justified from sin (saved) on the principle of keeping the law, for none of us has kept it! Yet it is equally true that no one is now or was ever saved by the grace of God without keeping the law that related to how to accept that grace!
God has what most of us who have preached the gospel for very long have been accustomed to call “the law of pardon” for the alien sinner and “the law of pardon” for the erring child of God. The first involves repentance and baptism for the remission of sins (Acts2:38); the second involves repentance and prayer (Acts8:22). But notice very carefully: When we obey either one of these “laws” it simply means that we are accepting God’s gracious offer to forgive us in accordance with His directive (law).
This is totally, completely, and absolutely salvation by grace. This must now include (and always has included) obedience to the directive by which the grace is to be accepted. The gospel is the gospel of grace. We are saved by the gospel, not because we have kept the law (and this involves any system of law), but in spite of the fact that we have broken the law. Notice again carefully the point I am now making: You and I have no more kept the law of Christ (in its entirety) than the Jews kept the Law of Moses (in its entirety). We can therefore no more be saved on the principle of law keeping than they could. “Saved by the principle of law-keeping” means saved because we have kept the (whole) law. If we have broken the law, we have not kept it! And we have all broken it.
But the thing that many of my brethren seem to be saying in their “new” discovery of grace would make it sound as if salvation by grace, and salvation totally by grace, means that no act of obedience is necessary! That is not true, and was never true from Adam down! Noah was not saved on the principle of law keeping — no matter what law he lived under. He broke it. So if he was ever saved (whether we are thinking of physical salvation from the flood, or salvation from sin, or eternal salvation), it was totally by grace. (That does not mean by grace alone.) It means that whatever means God provided for his salvation was totally undeserved. When God said, “Build an ark,” that was by grace. When God specified gopher wood, that was because of His grace. None of it was because of any merit in Adam. And when Adam got the specified wood, built the ark in accordance with God’s gracious requirements (Gen. 6:22), we may correctly say, “He was saved by obeying the law,” if we mean by that “the law which told him how to accept the grace of God”. We are not correct if we say, “He was saved by obeying the law” if we mean “He was saved because he obeyed the law (in its entirety).” In that case he would have been saved by the principle of law keeping, but he must never have disobeyed any of God’s commandments. In this case, he was saved by grace, which involved his accepting the gracious offer on God’s terms.
So, when we discuss salvation by grace, apart from the works of the law, we do not always need to discuss the difference between meritorious work and works of obedient faith. If you want to do some interesting study, list on a sheet of paper on one side some works of merit and on the other side, some of obedient faith. Which was circumcision? Which was Abraham’s offering His son on the altar? Which was Joseph’s refusal to commit adultery? As a Christian, when you visit the sick, do you consider that an work of merit for which God owes you something, or simply an act of obedient faith in response to God’s grace? The truth is that no action we perform has the merit necessary to save us.
To summarize, if you ever make the statement that you are saved by law-keeping, or that you are not saved by law-keeping, make sure you understand, and that you specify so others may understand, whether you mean keeping the whole law (by which no ordinary human being has ever been justified), or merely keeping the instructions (law) by which God offered the means of accepting His grace. Salvation by grace cannot exist (logically or theologically) without God specifying, by His grace, the means of accepting that salvation. Nor can it exist without the person for whom it exists accepting it according to the terms God graciously specified (obeying the gospel).
T. Pierce Brown
1068 Mitchell Ave.
Cookeville, TN. 38501
Phone: (615) 528-3600