Christians are saved by grace, not by works. The Apostle Paul stresses this more than any other New Testament writer, stating clearly that no one will be saved by the works of the law (Gal. 3:11; Romans 3:20). In other words, no one is going to be declared innocent before God based upon keeping His commandments, because we don’t. We have all broken His commandments. This puts us in the category of lawbreakers who deserve the just penalty of our crime — eternal death. But that’s where the gospel comes in. Part of the gospel is that Jesus kept the law of God perfectly and the Father applies Christ’s perfect obedience to us, as if we have perfectly obeyed the law. That’s what grace is — God giving us what we do not deserve — a salvation that He has provided in Christ.
So, what do we do with the law now? What role does the law play in the life of the Christian?
The mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, who was also a committed and thinking Christian, compared God’s law to a fire. The law of the fire says if you put your hand in the fire, you'll get burned. That law is intrinsic to fire itself, meaning this law of getting burned is contained in the fire itself.
She used this illustration, “Imagine that all of the legislatures of all the nations of the entire world gathered in one great assembly, and they voted unanimously that from here on out fire would no longer burn.” In short, that’s the new law of the land. Now, the first person to leave that assembly and put their hand in the fire would discover that we do not define reality.
The penalty for abusing fire was built into the fire itself. Her analogy says the moral law of God is like the law of the fire. “You never break God's laws; you just break yourself on them. God can't reduce the penalty, because the penalty for breaking the law is bound up in the law itself.”
For example, parents never want divorce to effect their children and as much as parents do to minimize the effects of divorce, the reality is that divorce always effects children. The consequences of divorce are built into the action. We don’t break the teaching of Jesus on divorce; we just break ourselves on it.
None of us escape the consequences of our choices. That's why we need grace.
The book of Deuteronomy is a record of the commandments God gave Israel as part of His covenant with them. One way of looking at the Old Covenant (Testament) is that God brought Israel into the covenant by grace. They didn’t do anything to deserve being chosen as God’s people, as the Lord Himself tells them: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” (Deut. 7:7)
He didn’t chose them because they were worthy. He chose them by grace. Then He gave them the law which allowed them to express their faith in the covenant God made with them. If we remember this pattern, it will keep us from becoming legalists. First, grace, then as a way to express the grace given — the law.
Another way of saying “the law of God” is simply “the will of God.” Any sincere Christian wants to know the will of God and follow it.
We see this pattern of grace then law in Deuteronomy chapter 4.
4 “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.
First grace, then the law. Faith always comes before action. This is vital. Get this wrong and we get the gospel wrong. Faith comes before action. We take action because we have faith to move forward.
And this verse highlights the point already made — “do them, that you may live” — the laws of God are like fire, the penalties for breaking His laws are bound up in the laws themselves.
So, when Moses writes here that if you follow God’s rules you will live, He is not talking about salvation, but about well-being.
Even an unbeliever who lives according to the moral laws of God will have a better life. Someone who doesn’t steal or lie or cheat on their spouse, etc. will experience the benefits of that behavior, because the benefits are built into the laws the same way the penalties are.
and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.
How do you take possession of something that has been given to you? So we see, this land was not won by obedience, it was given by grace. The law comes after grace.
This same pattern is all over the Bible.
The Israelites were saved from Egypt and then given the law. So, salvation came before the giving of the law. Abraham believed God and God declared him righteous (saved) before the law was given. This has always been the pattern.
The law of God displays the character and nature of God and therefore the law shows us our sin. By looking at the law of God we see that we have fallen short of glorifying Him in our lives. In this way, the law leads us to Christ by showing us our need for a Savior. But once we put our faith in Christ and God makes us part of His kingdom, we become citizens of another land, so to speak. So, in an analogous way, the same way the Israelites were given land by grace, we are given land by grace (God's kingdom).
The law still expresses God’s character and nature, so Christians wanting to express and image the divine character of God can look to no better place to do that than the law. Again, not for salvation, but for expression of our love and trust in the Lord.