From the beginning, God has given man laws to follow. The first example of this is seen in Genesis 2:16-17. God commanded Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis 3:6, Adam and Eve defied God’s law and ate the forbidden fruit. Since the fall of man and the temptation of sin, man has continued to disobey the laws of God. God has given many different laws and commandments through time. In all cases man has “sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
While the laws of God serve a variety of important purposes, they were primarily intended to condemn and humble individuals so that they would seek the Savior. The highest demonstration of love occurred two thousand years ago when Christ died on the cross as a substitution for sin. This is the Christian centerpiece for understanding the concept of grace. God provided a means to escape His righteous judgment through his undeserved favor, known as grace. By exploring the requirements of His laws, especially the Ten Commandments, one is better equipped to appreciate the futility of meeting God’s standards. In turn, one can more fully apprehend the wonders of God’s grace. The understanding of the law and its relationship to grace provides a powerful tool for evangelism.
What is the Law?
The law is often thought of as the rules and regulations about personal conduct and worshipping of God in the Old Testament.1 Charles Ryrie explains that an understanding of the law “depends on what period of human history you are thinking about. Law in the Garden of Eden was one thing; law in the time of Abraham consisted of certain specific ordinances and statutes (Gen. 26:5). In the time of Moses, the law was contained in the 613 commandments of the Mosaic code which God gave through him to the Israelites. Today law means the hundreds of specific commandments of the New Testament.”2 Ryrie then goes on to make a summary statement about New Testament commandments and principles in that they “stem from the one all-inclusive principle of 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” and “Sin is coming short of the glory of God.”;3
Function of the Law
Charles Spurgeon, the often quoted preacher of the 1800’s, described five main functions or uses of the law. First, “the law manifests to man his guilt.” Spurgeon expanded on this use: “When God intends to save a man, the first thing he does with him is to send the law to him, to show him how guilty, how vile, how ruined he is, and in how dangerous a position.” This is seen when Paul referred to his preconversion state of unrepentance in Romans 7:9: “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.” Secondly, the law serves to slay all hope of salvation of a reformed life. Spurgeon explained that “most men when they discover themselves to be guilty, avow that they will reform.” He continued to explain that through works men try to “counterbalance” their old sins. Spurgeon then reminded us that “future obedience can be no atonement for past guilt.” Thirdly, “the law is intended to show man the misery which will fall upon him through his sin.” Here Spurgeon was speaking about the realization the sinner makes about his eternal separation from God as punishment for his rebellion. Fourthly, “It (the law) was sent into the world to show the value of a Saviour.” And lastly, the law “was sent into the world to keep Christian men from self-righteousness.”4
John MacArthur explains that the law “gave Israel a law they couldn’t keep to show them how sinful they and all mankind are, and to drive them to come to God by faith. But they didn’t want to come by faith. Content with their self-righteousness, they thought they could merit God’s favor on their own. So they were all under a curse.” 5
According to the perspective of Martin Luther, “The proper office of the Law is to lead us out of our tents, in other words, out of the security of our self-trust, into the presence of God, that we may perceive His anger at our sinfulness.”6 The purpose of the law, including the Ten Commandments, is to show man what sin is. A common analogy is that the law is like a mirror that reflects man’s undisguised sinful nature. Considering the impossibility of meeting the standards of God’s laws, this is a most rational and accurate analysis. The Word of God confirms this: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19).
How Does the Law Apply to Nonbelievers?
Scripture makes it clear than nonbelievers are accountable to the law. Romans 2:12 states, “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.” As MacArthur comments, “The Gentiles who never had the opportunity to know God’s moral law will be judged on their disobedience in relationship to their limited knowledge.”7 God has given each human a conscience, meaning all people have knowledge of what is right and wrong. Thus, humans also have a basic understanding of the Ten Commandments in their hearts. This innate truth is commonly suppressed by nonbelievers and Christians, but it is always present. This concept is addressed in Romans 2:14-15: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves, which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and [their] thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.”
Since nonbelievers have the law of God written on their hearts, it provides a powerful way to go directly to their conscience to open the floodgates of their suppressed sin. This then helps them to realize their guilt, and uses it as a means to appreciate and seek the grace of the living God they have been ignoring.
How Does the Law Apply to Nonbelievers?
The New Testament makes it clear that Christians are no longer under the law. As the Word of God states in Galatians 3:13, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us.” The Christian lives by a new law in the Spirit: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). The Christian is not under the law, since faith in Christ has fulfilled the law (Matt. 5:17). The law was valued in the New Testament and still has a purpose, since those in Christ still have a sinful nature. The law, particularly the Ten Commandments, serves Christians as a moral compass. Although believers are new creations in Christ, believers still have a sin nature, and the law helps to convict of sin. Sin does not eradicate the saving grace of God in a Christian, but it does interfere in the Christian’s relationship with Him. So the law convicts believers of sin so that they can more easily recognize it and confess it. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
During His earthly ministry Jesus magnified and increased the standard of the law. The Sermon on the Mount provides an excellent overview of this higher standard. For example, Jesus proclaimed, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). This higher standard was part of a continuing revelation of God for man to become more desperate for a Savior. For the Christian, it raises the bar for holiness and makes one rely on the Holy Spirit for godliness. It also serves as a reminder of the Christian’s sin nature and the constant need for “walking by the Spirit” and reestablishing fellowship through the repentance of sin. The Christian is also blessed by the presence of God’s grace for the indwelling of the Spirit for proper direction and guidance.
Using the Law for Effective Evangelism
The proper use of the law is a powerful and effective tool in evangelism by the gospel. Pastor Comfort believes the use of the law (the Ten Commandments) is a critical component of effective witnessing and evangelism. He feels that making non-Christians aware of their own sinful state is important so they understand their crimes before God. This is then used as a foundation of preaching the gospel in a manner that makes more sense to the nonbeliever. 8
One can use the Ten Commandments to prepare their hearts for grace. Comfort explains, “This principle is the key to effective, biblical evangelism used by Jesus, Peter, Paul, Spurgeon, Wesley, Whitefield and many others that God has used down through the ages. . .and much of the Church isn’t even aware of what it is!”9 MacArthur points out that this technique was also used by the Puritans, who “preached the law before they preached the gospel to bring people to a point of desperation so they could recognize their need for a Savior.”10 MacArthur recommends each Christian witness to “Be a Bad-News Bearer.” The writer agrees with this concept: “the Bible always presents the bad news about man’s vile nature before it offers the good news of salvation. If people try to keep the law and earn their way to heaven without admitting their sin, they’ll fall deeper into the curse. In getting out from under the law, they must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and recognize their utter moral bankruptcy before a holy God and their inability to save themselves.”11
Pastor Comfort’s evangelism technique uses the law (the Ten Commandments) in the form of a “good person test.” One takes a nonbeliever through the Ten Commandments to humble a person so that they are prepared to receive the gospel and God’s grace. For example, one asks a nonbeliever if he has ever told a lie, committed adultery by looking with lust, stolen anything, used God’s name in vain, and so on. The point is for the non-Christian to realize he has broken God’s laws and then admit guilt.12 One could also ask the most important commandment that really underscores all of the commandments, and that is, “Do you love anything more than God?” Jesus made this clear when he said, “’And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment” (Mark 12:30). Then the gospel’s good news of salvation is presented so one does not base his decision for Christ on emotion, but on truth.
Doug Beaumont, a graduate of Southern Evangelical Seminary and a Bible study teacher, criticizes this evangelical technique. His biggest criticism seems to be that “no one outside of pre-Christ Israel is answerable to the Ten Commandments, which are part of God’s contract with Israel.” He does qualify this by saying all are under moral law, which includes the Ten Commandments.13 This writer disagrees with this criticism: Romans 2:14-15 reveals that Gentiles have the law written on their hearts. And as Beaumont himself admits, the Ten Commandments are a part of the New Testament’s larger moral law. In addition, Jesus said Himself He did not abolish the law (Matt. 5:17); He magnified it in His Sermon on the Mount. The proper use of the law is powerful and effective in bringing people to the knowledge of God’s saving grace. As the psalmist writes, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7). Believers should be thankful for the humbling effect of the law, James 4:6 reads: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Now that this writer has examined the usefulness of the law and the impossibility for man to meet the standard of God’s law, the beauty of God’s grace will now be addressed. For without God’s grace, man would have no hope. As a matter of biblical fact, the mind of the natural man is hostile toward God (Rom. 8:7). Grace is required to become a child of God.
Grace is often theologically defined as unmerited favor. In their book How People Grow, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend state that “many Christians misunderstand grace. Usually people think that grace means forgiveness or the absence of condemnation.”14 They go on to correctly add that “forgiveness is an expression of the grace of God” and that “grace is much bigger than forgiveness.”15
To Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend, grace is unmerited favor that “means God is for us and not against us” and that “His favor cannot be earned. He will freely give us things we cannot provide for ourselves.”16 Interestingly, they also make a connection between grace and the law. They state that “Grace is only effective when there is a need for it” and that “the law does provide awareness of ‘spiritual death,’” which people need in order to find the God who seeks them. The law makes us conscious of our need for God. It shows that all are hopeless to help ourselves. 17
Walvoord has an insightful discussion on the two theological types of grace. Common grace is “the entire work of the Holy Spirit on behalf of the unsaved world.”18 This includes the “resisting of sin” and “making known the way of salvation.”19 Common grace demonstrates God’s love for all people, as His creation is evidence for His existence. Common grace can be described in many ways but, as Grudem states, it “demonstrates God’s goodness and mercy.” An example Grudem gives is God’s delay of punishment, referring to unbelievers having more time to repent and trust in the Savior.20
Even more wondrous to this writer is efficacious grace, which Walvoord defines as “the work of the Holy Spirit in moving men to effective faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.” Grudem, in his book Systematic Theology, adds to this understanding of grace by stating that “God’s grace manifests itself in the world in two different ways.”21 His definitions are similar to Walvoord’s except he refers to the terms common grace and saving grace.
God’s grace was recognized throughout the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 103:8 reads, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” Grace is also found in God’s forgiveness of sin in Psalm 103:10: “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities.” His grace was present from the foundation of the world. The evidence of this grace is seen early in Genesis 3:15, where the plan of the redeeming Savior was already in place.
Without a doubt, the pinnacle of God’s grace is exemplified with Christ nailed to the cross as a substitution for sin. The unimaginable torture, ridicule, and entirety of mankind’s sins burdened onto one Man. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). That God purchased believer’s redemption with His own blood (Acts 20:28) is the ultimate demonstration of grace.
The biblical concept of grace is truly amazing. In his book What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey expands on this by stating, “The many uses of the word in English convinces me that grace is indeed amazing–truly our last best word. It contains the essence of the gospel as a drop of water can contain the image of the sun. The world thirsts for grace in ways it does not even recognize.”22
In conclusion, the laws and commandments of God serve many purposes, chief of which is to drive man to the feet of Jesus Christ for His grace as our Savior. The law is written on the hearts of all people, so unbelievers are without excuse in being judged by the law. In addition, the law serves as a moral compass for the Christian, who is not under the law, to keep from self-righteousness. Proper use of the law is an effective evangelistic tool, often necessary to “humble the proud” so that they recognize their need of repentance and of a Savior to avoid God’s perfect and righteous judgment. This use of the law has its origins in the Bible and has been used by evangelists throughout time. Grace is more valued when one understands the impossibility of meeting God’s standards. Grace is the undeserved or unmerited favor of God. One cannot earn it and this is the love song Christ sings to the reader throughout the New Testament. The willing sacrifice of Christ dying on the cross for every lawbreaking human in history is without a doubt the pinnacle of God’s grace.
1 Brian Moulton, Pneumatology and Christian Life Course Notes (El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary, 2006), 32..
2 Charles C. Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1994), 31..
4 Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Uses of the Law,” Bible Bulletin Board, 2006. Internet. Available: www.biblebb.com/files/spurgeon/0128.HTM. Accessed June 9, 2006.
5John MacArthur, “Freedom from Sin: Sin and the Law,” 3. Bible Bulletin Board, 2006. Internet. Available: www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/sg45-51.htm. Accessed June 9, 2006.
6Martin Luther, “Martin Luther on Galatians,” Didaskalos Ministries, 2006. Available: www.bibleteacher.org/luthercom_2b.htm. Accessed June 9, 2006.
7 The MacArthur Study Bible, Annotated by John MacArthur (Dallas, TX: Word, 1997), 1695.
8 Ray Comfort, “Pastor’s Page,” Living Waters, 2006. Available: www.livingwaters.com/pastor.shtml. Accessed June 9, 2006.
10 MacArthur, 7.
12 Ray Comfort, God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists (Gainesville, TX: Bridge-Logos, 2005), 106.
13 Doug Beaumont, “The Way of the Master,” Soul Device, 2005. Available: www.souldevice.org/crit_wayofthemaster.html. Accessed June 9, 2006.
14 Henry Cloud and John Townsend, How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals about Personal Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 66.
15 Ibid., 66-67.
16 Ibid., 67.
17 Ibid., 71.
18 John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit. A Comprehensive Study of the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 107.
19 Ibid., 108-109.
20 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 664.
21 Ibid., 657.
22 Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 13.
Beaumont, Doug. “The Way of the Master.” Soul Device, 2005. Internet. Available: http://www.souldevice.org/crit_wayofthemaster.html. Accessed June 9, 2006.
Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals about Personal Growth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.
Comfort, Ray. God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists. Gainesville, TX: Bridge-Logos, 2005.
____________. “Pastor’s Page.” Living Waters, 2004. Internet. Available: www.livingwaters.com/pastor.shtml. Accessed June 9, 2006.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.
Luther, Martin. “Martin Luther on Galatians.” Didaskalos Ministries, 2006. Internet. Available: http://www.bibleteacher.org/luthercom_2b.htm. Accessed June 9, 2006.
MacArthur, John. “Freedom from Sin: Sin and the Law.” Bible Bulletin Board, 2006. Internet. Available: http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/sg45-51.htm. Accessed June 9, 2006.
MacArthur Study Bible, The. Annotated by John MacArthur. Dallas, TX: Word, 1997.
Moulton, Brian K. Pneumatology and Christian Life Course Notes. El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary, 2006.
Ryrie, Charles C. Balancing the Christian Life. Chicago, IL: Moody, 1994.
Spurgeon, Charles H. “The Uses of the Law.” Bible Bulletin Board, 2006. Internet. Available: http://www.biblebb.com/files/spurgeon/0128.HTM. Accessed June 9, 2006.
Walvoord, John F. The Holy Spirit. A Comprehensive Study of the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.
Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing about Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997.