“The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
Imagine a young man who has undergone the rigors of basic training and boot camp in the military. His drill sergeant has told him when to wake up, where to go, what to do, how to act, and—at his whim—when do drop down and give him 50 pushups. Now imagine the young man has been discharged, received his papers to go home, and is on his way off the base. He runs into his drill sergeant who, displeased with his appearance, gets in his face and, screaming, commands him: “drop down and give me 50!” Although by force of habit the young man almost obeys, he suddenly realizes that he is no longer under the authority of this officer and so instead he looks him in the eye and says, “No.” And even though the sergeant turns every shade of purple and hurls every word of abuse he can think of, the young man is able to walk away from him without ever fearing him again.
This is what John says Jesus has done for you! Christ’s death set you free from the authority of sin because it set your free from bondage to the law. So now, even though your temptation by habit is to give in to sin’s demanding and railing, you no longer have to obey sin’s desire, since Christ has given you a new heart and increasingly gives you new desires for Himself.
Grace and Truth, and Why It Matters
This passage from John’s Gospel is more like a well-rounded, nutritious meal than a cup of coffee or sugar high which is immediate but short-lived. But I encourage you to let the bigness of God, the depths and breadth of his purposes, and the sureness of His promises feed your soul not just for a feel-good moment of worship but for a lifetime of living by faith.
I’m going to admit to you at the outset, that there is nothing about “grace and truth” coming “by Jesus Christ” that will tell you immediately how to make more money or manage your money, or heal your marriage, or raise your kids, or stop worrying, or even to read your Bible and pray more. So Satan will whisper to you that mid-term exams, project deadlines, social engagements, TV sitcoms or the morning news, or anything else is more interesting, relevant, and pressing than this theoretical, theological article — so you’d be better off daydreaming or worrying about those things than paying careful and focused attention to what you’re reading.
Later today, or this week, Satan will be screaming to you that you might as well give up because you’re not good enough for God, or he’ll be singing you the lullaby that tells you you’re fine because you don’t kill or steal or lie (too much). And it’s then that we are meant to see that the most practical thing in the Bible is the Christian gospel — that grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
The Law Is Either a Dead End or a Signpost to Christ
It is important to realize that in insisting that the grace and truth of Jesus Christ are superior to the law of Moses, John is not suggesting that the law was bad. God is the one who gave the law to Moses, to give to the people! And, in fact, the Bible tells us plainly that there are several good and appropriate—even necessary—uses of the law.
There is no one who will not be improved by conforming him or her self to the perfect standard of God’s perfect character, reflected in His perfect law. As Proverbs 14:34 reminds us, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” Also, the law declares God’s justice to the unbelieving world: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). And herein lies one of the law’s greatest uses, when it shows us our guilt and therefore becomes a personal tutor, to bring us to Christ.
Paul spoke to young Timothy about those who desired to be “teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:7). I’m sure you know some of the very kind of people Paul was describing. While we may not be interacting with Jewish law teachers anymore, there are many who desire to teach the law, without understanding its purpose to bring us to Christ or its motivation which is to be love of Christ.
In reality, every self-help (that’s the essence of the law!), fix-your-marriage, budget-your-money, raise-your-child-well, get-your-weight-under-control book or video or presentation out there—that isn’t centered on the gospel of Christ first and foremost—is yet another law-teacher. It is either teaching you to depend on yourself and your own efforts for joy, fulfillment, or salvation, or it is teaching you to depend on Christ for all these things. If you peruse the shelves of the “Religion and Inspiration” section in almost any bookstore in the West, you will find everything from the Quran to Look Great, Feel Great-10 Keys to Enjoying a Healthy Life. But trying to obtain God’s pleasure, or personal success—apart from Christ’s sufficient and redeeming work on the cross—is blind bondage to law-service as an an end in itself.
The law, properly understood, points us to utter dependence on Christ. When the Spirit of God works on an individual, convicting them of sin, then the law is used to convince them of their inability to save themselves and then to point them to Christ as the only way of salvation. The law serves as our personal tutor, pointing its uncompromising finger at our particular sins and shortcomings, and reminding us that we can’t do this! We need someone to obey it for us and work in us to give us a love of obedience and sorrow for failures.
Falling In Love with Christ
Let me take you back to your earliest days in school, after the novelty of it had worn off. As you stared out the window at the playground and sunshine outside, it seemed like your school was a cruel prison and your teacher was the prison guard.
However, looking back you perhaps can now see that the teacher was good for you, that the discipline of study was for later and greater enjoyment — that in 2nd grade, if the teacher had let you go out and play all day instead of studying it would have actually been bad for you! Similarly, the law (e.g. the Ten Commandments) was a tutor, a strict teacher, to bring us to Christ!
The law gave you assignments because assignments were necessary — but when school works the way it is supposed to, you eventually fall in love with the subject matter and your favorite subject requires no assignment or test. You do it then for the pure pleasure of it — whether literature, shop class, home economics, mathematics, or art. I actually new of one boy in my school whose parents eventually grounded him with “no reading” because he came to enjoy literature so much! When the schoolmaster has done the job right, and the student has responded appropriately, discipline becomes freedom (you love the subject matter so much) and freedom becomes discipline (instead of being required to do it, you are sorrowful if you can’t do it)!
Similarly, when the law points us to faith in Jesus Christ for our salvation, we fall so much in love with Christ as our salvation that for him to withdraw his felt presence is discipline enough! We want to be immersed in the study of Him! Yes, objectively Jesus brought grace and truth through his cross 2,000 years ago and launched the New Testament out of the Old. But the way that you and I can know that this has happened personally in our own hearts, and that we have been converted from law to grace, is that we have fallen in love with the law’s ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).