Think of heaven (just for the purpose of this illustration) as a gigantic city enclosed by an impenetrable and unscalable wall. You can see this city from afar, and you desperately want to enter into it. Your life is a journey toward it.
As you begin to get closer to this heavenly city, you can see that there are two gates that allow entry through the wall. Soon you can see that each gate has a large sign above it. Over one gate the sign says “LAW,” and over the other the sign says “GRACE.” And then you understand. Theoretically at least, there are two ways of getting into heaven: the LAW way, and the GRACE way. You can enter through the law gate, or through the grace gate.
You get a little closer to the city, and you see a large group of people lined up at each gate—and you are in one of those lines! Every human being, including yourself, is either in the law line, or in the grace line. What difference does it make? The fact is that it makes an eternal difference, as will now be explained.
When you get close enough to the heavenly city and its two gates, you can see that each gate has a sign posted on it, explaining the conditions for passing through that gate into heaven. The sign on the law gate says in big letters, “KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS; ESCAPE THE PENALTY. BREAK THE COMMANDMENTS; SUFFER THE PENALTY.” What does this mean?
Here is the explanation. It means that every human being lives under a law code revealed by the Creator God. One’s applicable law code is composed of commandments he or she is obligated to obey, and it also contains a penalty that will be applied if we break even one of these commandments (James 2:10; Galatians 3:10). The penalty is eternity in hell.
There are three main law codes; they apply as follows. All human beings, by virtue of being created in the image of God, have been equipped with an intuitive law code “written on the heart” (Romans 2:15); every person is obligated to live by this law code. Also, God gave the Israelite nation a special law code—the Mosaic Law—that applied to them from Sinai (Exodus 19) to Pentecost (Acts 2). By the Jews’ calculation, this OT law code contained 613 commands. After Pentecost God gave new revelation (the New Testament) containing a different law code that now applies to all now living, including Christians. This New Covenant law code has over a thousand commands we are all now obligated to obey (in addition to the law written on the heart). These are the commandments to which the sign on the law gate refers.
So what does this sign mean? It means you can enter into heaven through the law gate IF you have kept ALL – 100% — of the commandments of the law code you are living under. If you have sinned even once, i.e., broken even one of these commandments, you must pay the penalty of eternity in hell. It’s that simple: you can enter here (through the law gate) by keeping all the commands that apply to you—perfectly, all your life. You must have a lifetime of sinlessness or perfect obedience.
At this point the terrifying truth strikes us: though there is a law gate into heaven, no one will actually enter heaven through it! That is simply because no one meets the qualifications posted thereon. As Romans 3:23 sadly says, “All have sinned.” Thus the law gate into heaven is closed, locked, and permanently sealed shut by the universality of sin. What makes this even sadder is the fact that so many human beings are actually lining up at this gate, futilely hoping to enter heaven thereby, because they are unaware that there is another gate—the one over which is written the word GRACE.
When we turn our attention to the grace gate, we see the sign posted on it, which explains the terms of entering heaven under the grace system. The grace sign says, in large letters, “KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS, BUT SUFFER THE PENALTY. BREAK THE COMMANDMENTS, BUT ESCAPE THE PENALTY.” This startles us at first, because it seems so odd; in fact, it seems unfair. But then we remember that grace by nature is the opposite of fair. What exactly does it mean, then?
The grace formula means that you do not enter the grace gate into heaven based on the record of what YOU have done, but based on what Jesus Christ has done. You see, the first line of the formula—“Keep the commandments, but suffer the penalty”—does not apply to you or to any other sinner; it applies only to Jesus Christ. Grace begins with Jesus. As a human being he kept his law-code commands perfectly (he was sinless), BUT he also suffered a penalty equivalent to eternity in hell in our place! The one who knew no sin was made to be sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21).
But that’s not all. The second part of the grace formula DOES apply to us law-breakers who are in Jesus Christ: “Break the commandments, but escape the penalty.” We have sinned, but God is not holding our sins against us! We enter heaven through the grace gate not because of our own righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness (i.e., his payment of the law’s penalty for us).
So here is the essence of grace. We are not under law; i.e., under the law system of salvation (Rom. 6:14, 15). We are not in the law line, thinking we will enter the law gate into heaven. That is hopeless and futile anyway, since the law gate is sealed by sin and NO ONE will enter through it. But we do not despair. In fact, we rejoice, because we as believers are under grace, i.e., under the grace system of salvation. We are in the grace line, knowing we will enter the grace gate into heaven because of Jesus Christ.