Grace, Law, and the New Covenant
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 9:39pm
QUESTION: What is the connection between the New Covenant and the “grace system,” to which you refer in your book, “Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace” (pp. 50-51)? I have been taught by Restoration Movement teachers that grace is a New Covenant reality, i.e., that the New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant with its legal requirements, and that we are now saved under the New Covenant by grace. In other words, to be under the New Covenant is synonymous with being saved by grace; the New Covenant and the “grace system” in some sense are identical. But you seem to be saying that the New Covenant is a law code and not soteric. How can this be? Because the New Covenant contains information about Jesus, sin, and salvation, I find it intellectually difficult NOT to equate the New Covenant with the grace system, and to assign some “soteric” value to the New Covenant. Can you clarify this issue for me?
ANSWER: My friend, there is quite a bit of confusion here, but I will TRY to clarify the matter! First, let’s divide history into the pre-Christian and the Christian eras. The Christian era began, generally speaking, at Pentecost; that is when the New Covenant [NC] replaced the Old Covenant [OC]. Everything before Pentecost is pre-Christian. Then, let’s divide the pre-Christian era into the pre-Mosaic and the Mosaic eras. In the time before Moses, God dealt with individuals on an ad hoc basis (e.g., Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham). In the time from Moses to Christ’s redemptive work (death, resurrection, ascension, enthronement, outpouring of the Holy Spirit), the Old Covenant was in force.
The OC is the formal arrangement through which God related to and by which he governed his chosen people, the Jews, during the Mosaic era. The NC is the formal arrangement through which God relates to and by which he governs or administers his chosen people, the church, during this Christian era. The instrument by which God exercised this government in the OC era was the canonical Old Testament Scriptures [OT], as they accumulated between Moses and Malachi. The instrument by which God exercises his government in the NC era is the canonical New Testament [NT]. DO NOT equate the Old COVENANT with the Old Testament SCRIPTURES. The OT contains the OC, but also much more. Likewise the New COVENANT must not be equated with the New Testament SCRIPTURES, since it is also much more. Yes, the NT Scriptures contain information about Jesus, sin, and salvation; but so did the OT Scriptures (with Jesus being referenced in prophecy)!
Now, how does all this relate to LAW and GRACE? First, when Paul (especially in Romans) refers to “law,” sometimes he means a law CODE or list of commandments which God the Creator requires his creatures to obey, totally apart from any issues of salvation. Some of these commandments apply to all people in all ages; they are called “the moral law.” Some are unique to the OC, and are the elements of the Law of Moses that applied only to the Jews under that covenant arrangement. Others are unique to the NC era. Thus the Jews were under the Mosaic Law Code, or the Old Covenant Law Code (the moral law plus their unique commandments); we today are under the New Covenant Law Code (the moral law plus our unique commandments). When the NC replaced the OC, the NC Law Code replaced the OC Law Code. This is the sense in which the OC and the Law of Moses (as a Law Code) have been abrogated or set aside.
But sometimes when Paul refers to “law,” he means something quite different from a law code as such. He means instead the law as a SYSTEM OF SALVATION, in contrast with GRACE as a system of salvation. He means this especially in Romans 6:14-15, when he says that “you are not under law but under grace.” Here “law” does NOT refer to ANY law code as such, including the Mosaic Law Code. Here Paul is saying that we are not under law AS A WAY OF SALVATION; rather, we are under grace AS A WAY OF SALVATION. To be under the law system of salvation is to be in a situation where you are counting on your obedience to you law code to make you right with God. The law system (which is quite valid) says you can be right with God by complete obedience to the law code that applies to you (the Mosaic Law Code, if you are a Jew living under the OC; or the NC Law Code, if you are living in this NC era). The problem is that this is only a theoretical possibility, since Paul’s whole point is that NO ONE HAS complete obedience to his law code (Rom. 3:9-20, 23), therefore no one can actually be right with God based on this system of salvation. The difference between law code and law system may be understood thus: everyone is under a law code (even those who are saved by grace); but only some of these are also under the law system (attempting to gain heaven by how well they obey their law code) and are therefore doomed to hell, since the law system cannot save sinners.
The gospel message is that God has provided another way or system of salvation, namely, GRACE. This system of salvation says that we are justified by faith in God’s promises, not by how well we obey our law code (Rom. 3:28). Everyone saved by grace still has a law code to obey; but obedience to this law code is not how we BECOME saved, nor is it how we STAY saved. “You are not under law” does NOT mean “You are not under a law code”; it means “You are not under law as a way of salvation.” Grace as a way of salvation does NOT replace ANY law CODES; it is simply God’s wonderful alternative to trying to be SAVED by obedience to one’s law code. Salvation by grace comes only through Jesus’ redemptive death on the cross; God offers sinners forgiveness of sins (justification) based on that substitutionary death.
Now here is the crucial point: this choice between two ways of salvation—the law system or the grace system—has NOTHING to do with any of the historical or covenantal divisions outlined above! These two salvation systems transcend the historical and covenant distinctions. These two salvation systems—law and grace—existed side by side from the moment sin began in the Garden of Eden. They constitute the only two ways a person may be “right with God,” or enter heaven. The choice between them was available to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, and to the children of Israel; this choice is still available to us living today. The tragic fact, though, is that because of the universality of sin, no one can and will in fact be saved by the law system. Anyone who has ever been saved and who ever will be saved, will be saved by the grace system. Abraham was saved by grace. Moses was saved by grace. Elijah was saved by grace. John the Baptist was saved by grace (etc.). Grace did not begin with the NC; it was being freely bestowed throughout the pre-Christian era to all who accepted God’s offer of forgiveness in faith and repentance. Though Jesus had not yet died, his redemptive death was a foreknown and predetermined event (Acts 2:23); and God was already dispensing its results before the fact (Rom. 3:25).
I hope I have explained as succinctly as possible that there is NO sense in which grace as the only way of salvation for sinners can be equated with or limited to the New Covenant or the NC era.