The Balance between Grace and Effort

Posted on June 9, 2014 · Posted in Sanctification

Interview with Brian Hedges, author of Active Spirituality and Christ Formed In You. This is the first in a series of posts.
Click here for part two.
Click here for part three.

Many Christians struggle with the balance between faith and works or grace and effort. When we recognize our continuing sins is the answer to just try harder or to believe more? Pastor Brian Hedges’ new book, Active Spirituality, helps to bring some clarity to these concerns. Brian has graciously consented to answer questions about this important topics.

Brian, thanks for you time and insight in responding to these questions. There will be three posts for these answers. Here is the first question and answer.

Shepherd Press: What is the difference between attempting to follow the law and walking by the Spirit?

Brian: First off, we have to define “the law.” While we use this term often, it’s helpful to remember that Scripture uses the word “law” in different ways in different places. For example:

  • It can refer to the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament.
  • It can refer to the Mosaic covenant with all the legal requirements that came along with it, as recorded for example in the book of Leviticus.
  • More narrowly it can refer to the Ten Commandments.
  • Or the law can refer to the moral law of God that is written on every person’s heart, regardless of whether or not they have access to his law as revealed in Scripture (Romans 2:14-15).
  • Some theologians also use “law” as shorthand for anything God ever commands (any indicative in Scripture). I tend to think this is more confusing than helpful, though, because so much of what Paul says about the law refers specifically to the law as given by Moses and not to many New Testament commands or indicatives.

Now to more directly answer your question, allow me to quote a couple of texts and then comment. It’s interesting that in several places the New Testament itself draws contrasts between the “law” and “letter” (or “written code”) and the “Spirit.”

Here are two of the key texts:

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter (grammatos) but of the Spirit. For the letter (gramma) kills, but the Spirit gives life.  (2 Cor. 3:5-6)

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law (nomo) through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law (nomou), were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law (nomou), having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (grammatos). (Romans 7:4-6)

In each of those passages, Paul draws a contrast between the letter and the Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 3, he is showing the superiority of ministry in the new covenant over ministry in the old, and goes on to describe the old as a ministry of death (v. 7) and condemnation (v. 9), that is inferior in glory to the ministry of the Spirit (v. 7-11), and was being brought to an end (v. 11).

Sometimes people have wrongly inferred that the contrast between letter and Spirit was a contrast between word and Spirit. But that would run counter to all the other places where Paul joins the ministry of the Spirit with the word. So, I think the contrast is between the ministry of the law in old covenant, which brought captivity and lead to condemnation, with the ministry of the Spirit in the new covenant, which leads to freedom and transformation (see vv. 17-18).

The overall focus of Romans 7 is slightly different, but the essential point of verses 4-6 are the same: as believers united to Christ, we have been set free from the law, so that we now serve not in the old way of the letter/written code, but in the new way of the Spirit.

To put it simply: Paul shows us that while the law could show all that God required, it was never sufficient to produce righteousness in us. The law showed us what is good, but had no power to produce good. Its ministry was a ministry of condemnation. It brought death, not life.

Like an X-Ray machine, the law can diagnose but not heal. But what the law couldn’t do, God has now done through Christ and the Spirit.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)

This means that Christ has born the condemnation we deserve because of our sins. But more than that, he has also given us his Spirit to inwardly renew us, so that we begin to walk the way of righteousness. But the motivating power for walking in righteousness is not the law as such, but the indwelling Spirit himself.

There’s a little old poem, attributed to John Bunyan, that I find simple yet profound:

Run, John, run, the law demands
But gives us neither feet nor hands
Far better news the gospel brings
It bids us fly and gives us wings!

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Jay Younts
Jay Younts is the Shepherd Press blogger. He is the author of Everyday Talk and other materials on parenting. He has been teaching and speaking on parenting issues for 30 years. Jay and his wife, Ruth, live in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. He serves as a ruling elder at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Moore, South Carolina. He and Ruth have five adult children.