“The most contentious issue in the Western theological tradition has been the relationship of law and grace. In the second century, Marcionites stressed grace so much that they completely rejected the Old Testament and what they took to be the God of “law.” In the third and fourth centuries, the Roman priest Novatian1 Novatian2 and the British monk Pelagius emphasized law and morality to the point of eliminating grace. In the sixteenth century, nothing was more divisive than Martin Luther’s doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. Luther rejected the Catholic tradition with its supposed emphasis on “works.”
The roots of these conflicts are not hard to find. St. Paul took up the relationship of law and grace in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. The apostles and elders treated the question definitively in the first Church council, described in Acts 15. In these sacred texts, we read about the struggle between Hebrew Christians who adhered to the law and Gentiles who came to Christ without the Mosaic Law. The record of this episode in Scripture guarantees that law and grace will always be a part of the Christian’s theological lexicon.
The first Christian conflicts over law and grace took place in a context far removed from subsequent Church history. The first disciples were mostly Jews from Galilee and Judea. Hellenic Jews from the diaspora quickly joined their ranks, and early Gentile converts came from among the proselytes to Judaism. (The Gentile “God fearers” were those who accepted Jewish belief but did not submit to circumcision or practice the full range of Jewish law.) St. Paul preached mostly in synagogues to Jews and to “God fearing” Gentiles.
The overwhelmingly Jewish character of early Christianity posed a difficulty. Mosaic Law and Jewish tradition demanded the separation of Jews and Gentiles. The Christian gospel aims emphatically at their reconciliation. The key theological question for early Christians was, “Are Jews and Gentiles reconciled by their mutual adherence to the Law of Moses or simply by their mutual faith in Christ?” Paul’s answer was categorical:
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances. (Ephesians 2:13-15)
From context, it is plain that Paul has in mind The Law of Commandments and Ordinances that had created a barrier between Jew and Gentile. In other words, Christ destroyed the Mosaic Law in order to reconcile Jew and Gentile through faith.
In Luther’s day, the question of Gentile circumcision was no longer pressing. As such, Luther operated within a totally different theological context. He misread St. Paul as a result. For Luther, the rejection of law meant the rejection of morality as the path to reconciliation to God. For Paul, however, it is precisely on the path of morality that the way of salvation is open to Jew and Gentile alike. “Is God the God of Jews only,” Paul asks, “or of Gentiles too?” (Romans 3:29) It is when Gentiles “who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires. . . They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts.” (Romans 2:14-15) Thus, God will give eternal life to everyone who does good, first to the Jew but also to the Greek. (Romans 2:7-8)
Where does grace fit into the picture? For St. Paul, the Mosaic Law cannot compel true righteousness. It can prescribe and enforce external ritual and behavior, but law alone does not change the human heart. Real righteousness is a matter of love – the love of God and neighbor (Romans 13:8) – and not simply following a list of ritual prescriptions. And where does love come from? It is the gift of grace. Christ lays down His life for us. We grasp that through faith. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it elicits our loving response.
Shakespeare has a beautiful line: “How can I hold thee but by thy granting?” True love cannot be compelled by law. It can only be elicited by the free gift of oneself. This is the real meaning of the opposition between law and grace. The gospel does not do away with the objective demands of morality. Nor does it rule out morality as the mode of our union with God. (Jesus says that if we love Him and keep His commands, then He will come and dwell with us. — John 14:23) What the gospel promises instead is the gift of love. Through Christ, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts. (Romans 5:5) By faith, therefore, and not by ritual prescription, we receive the grace necessary to live the law of love.”