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Truth in Tension: Law or Grace? Part 1

One of the great theological debates in Christianity is summed up in the question, “Do we live under Law or under grace?” Those who argue for the Law point to the Ten Commandments and the Old and New Testament Scriptures that define God’s moral code and the call for believers to live in holy obedience.

One of the great theological debates in Christianity is summed up in the question, “Do we live under Law or under grace?”

Those who argue for the Law point to the Ten Commandments and the Old and New Testament Scriptures that define God’s moral code and the call for believers to live in holy obedience. They suggest that those who argue for freedom under grace are likely justifying undisciplined lives and sinful behavior.

Those who argue for grace point to the New Testament Scriptures that declare freedom from the Law through Jesus Christ. They suggest that those who argue for the Law are justifying holier-than-thou attitudes and prideful legalism and religiosity.

It is not a new debate. Paul and Peter wrestled over Law and grace, especially when it came to the topic of circumcision. Just read Galatians 5, and you get a sense of just how contentious the debate got.

It is an important discussion. God’s Word clearly calls us to obedient holiness, but it also calls us to glorious freedom. So, which one is it? Law or grace?
The Purpose of the Law

The law has one overarching purpose: to clearly communicate guilt and condemnation. I know that sounds awful, but it’s true. Here’s an example of what I mean.

In medicine, before a doctor can provide healing for a disease, they must first provide a diagnosis. The word diagnosis means “through knowledge.” Through examination and testing, the doctor seeks to know what is wrong with their patient.

After a diagnosis, the doctor also provides a prognosis. A prognosis is a “foreknowledge” of where and how the disease will progress and the damage it will do. Doctors do not enjoy delivering a difficult diagnosis and prognosis to a patient, but they understand that healing requires the knowledge of the truth.

As a patient, once a diagnosis and a prognosis have been given, treatment decisions must be made. Let me emphasize that point: before a treatment can be determined, the doctor and patient must understand the diagnosis and the prognosis.

The Law provides a dire diagnosis for all of humanity: we are guilty of sin and separated from God. This separation is so significant that the Bible refers to it as death. Romans 3:9-20 declares,

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law, we become conscious of our sin.

The Law also provides the prognosis: if we physically die while we remain condemned in sin, then we will be separated from God forever. This final separation is so significant that the Bible refers to it as hell.

To lay aside any doubts concerning the Law’s effectiveness to condemn us, Jesus amped it up to a level humanly impossible to maintain. Read Matthew 5:17-48.

Maybe you’re not guilty of murder, but according to Jesus, if you’ve ever been angry at someone or called them a fool, you’re already guilty of murder in your heart.

Maybe you’re not guilty of adultery, but according to Jesus, if you’ve ever had a lustful thought, then you’re already guilty of adultery in your heart.

Ultimately, Jesus commands us to be as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. It cannot be done. The Law is perfect in its ability to confirm our universal guilt.

Why would Jesus set the bar so high? Why would He want us to be certain of our guilt and condemnation? The answer is clear – like a good doctor, the Great Physician offers healing, but only to those who understand their terminal condition. In Matthew 9:9-13, we read,

And as Jesus reclined at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

By following the law of Moses, the Pharisees had convinced themselves they were righteous and they didn’t need what Jesus was offering. However, the tax collectors and sinners knew something was wrong – and they were turning to the Great Physician for healing.

The Law makes us aware of our guilt and condemnation. No one will ever be justified by trying to obey it. In fact, those who try to secure eternal life by following the Law will be constantly disappointed. Frankly, it is the dead-end road called religion.

The Law provides the diagnosis and the prognosis; grace provides the cure. And grace is what we’ll talk about in next week’s article.