Christ's Death and the Law

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the May 10, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson


“Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” Galatians 3:21, NIV

Since the time of Christ, His followers have often been divided into two camps over the relationship of grace to law. Those who are of a more forgiving nature want to see God as made of similar stuff, a being that extends compassion even in those situations where compassion might not seem appropriate. For these individuals, the Parable of the Workers[i] is a perfect allegory for such a God.

 They feel that love is displayed by imparting the blessings of grace even to those who do not deserve such a blessing, just as the vineyard owner paid the same wage to all without respect to the amount of work they did in his vineyard. Those who had worked the longest and hardest felt this was unfair. The owner felt the workers had no right to question his fairness and seemed to feel that his desire to be compassionate overruled their sense of justice. Perhaps those who see God in this way are more likely to be inclusive, welcoming all to the “vineyard” and trusting God to sort it all out at the end of the day. However, those, who feel God is like this, struggle with a God who would destroy all of humanity for their wickedness except for eight people floating over tempestuous seas in a frail wooden craft.[ii]

Those who feel that justice and obedience are primary attributes that define deity would perhaps use the story of the flood as prima facie evidence that justice ultimately overrules compassion, and that God is obligated to make all things fair one day. These look forward to an apocalyptic denouement when an unfair world will be forcibly re-booted and made eternally fair. As part of that scenario, those who have not been obedient enough will be destroyed with fire. For some denominations, the sense of offended justice is so strong that they insist that burning will go on for all of eternity. We might ask, “What sin would be so great that it would demand such harsh justice?” Instead of modeling Christianity this seems to echo a more pagan punishment like that of Prometheus, who was chained to a rock with an eagle eating out his liver each day, only to have it regrow and be eaten by the eagle the next day. A God who possessed any compassion at all would be expected to one day release such a sinner from his eternal torment. At the very least, just as for Prometheus, a Hercules should necessarily arise to free him from his horrible fate. Justice without any sense of compassion may stand in danger of becoming cruel despotism.

Perhaps like the old fable about the blind men who each felt a different part of an elephant’s body and then described the animal differently based on the singular perspective they each had, Christians are doing the same thing with God. This does not mean that those perspectives are wrong or cancel one another out. After all, the blind man who felt the elephant’s tail and determined elephants are like a strand of rope was right about the part of the elephant he felt. But the blind man who felt the elephant’s leg and decided that elephants are like trees was also right based on his encounter with the animal. Perhaps if we go looking for a God of justice, we will find Him, and if we go looking for a God of grace and compassion we will also find Him. But are these concepts exclusive of one another?

Perhaps the God who created the vast universe with its many, many billions of stars and planetary systems transcends such simple characterizations. A God who dwells in such vastness is infinitely more difficult to grasp than an elephant’s tail. We may chuckle at the naiveté of those blind men who were unable to see how truly magnificent an elephant is. Do we also have the ability to see how naïve we may be in presuming to adequately explain the character of God based on a human understanding of either grace or justice? Maybe, being made in God’s image, we have been inappropriately trying to return the favor ever since.

Some might feel that while God is transcendent, the corporeal Jesus was well within the realm of human understanding. They might even wish to make the point that this was the whole purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, to reveal the character of God. However, even though he might be just the Hercules to free our justice-bound Prometheus, the paradoxes appear to continue even with the character that Jesus demonstrated. On the one hand, He told people to stop sinning,[iii] implying a need to be obedient to avoid a just fate for disobedience. Yet on the other hand, He seemed reluctant to judge people for those sins, even healing or forgiving them for the very same events that caused Him to tell them to stop sinning. Perhaps there is a depth of character here that goes far beyond the simplistic and maybe false dichotomy between grace and justice that we continue to perpetuate.

In the first century CE, a Jewish Jesus was initially accepted by Jewish believers within a Jewish culture. That culture venerated obedience and ongoing debates over what character that obedience should take. Whether it was how far one could travel on the Sabbath day, or how one might carry a kerchief without bearing a burden during the Sabbath, many theological discussions centered not so much on what constituted salvation but rather what was transgression. Of course that transgression meant disobedience to law.[iv] But because the law was the foundation for all understanding of the character of God, the only salvation that could be offered to the sinner was to be obedient. To put it simply, the answer to law breaking was more law. This concept is not unfamiliar to us in modern times as we also tend to multiply laws in a vain attempt to promote obedience. In the United States, this has resulted not in more obedience, but less, as our astronomically high incarceration rate shows.[v] Maybe this very focus on obedience and justice kept them from seeing a Messiah instead of simply another law breaker.

Perhaps the reason for Jesus’ visit to our little planet out on the edge of the galaxy was to demonstrate something different about obedience. Perhaps it had something to do with a flaw in our understanding about grace and compassion. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,[vi] He is sorting out those who would be saved (the sheep) from those who would be lost (the goats). The lone criteria that the sorting appears to be based upon is did they show compassion to others. If we take the Jewish perspective that obedience is what saves and disobedience is what destroys God’s people, then in the context of this parable, we might understand that compassion is obedience, and failure to show compassion is sin. If sin is law breaking then perhaps compassion is law keeping. This compassion then may be that love that Paul wrote to the Roman church about when he told them that love is keeping the law.[vii]

Could it be that when we indicate to someone that God’s justice is going to get them for their disobedience that the very same hand that has a finger pointing out such a fate to them also has four fingers pointing back at us indicating how many ways our behavior is failing because of its lack of love and compassion? How can we see this when such darkness colors our attitude toward others? Perhaps a good indicator is when we see ourselves multiplying standards by which to judge others, and then if that were not enough, when we fine tune those standards even further in an attempt to eliminate any possibility of wriggling while under the stern gaze of justice.

The Epistle of James is often quoted by those who focus overly much on obedience for saying “Faith without works is dead.”[viii] But does this in anyway justify the cold legalism of a “God-is-going-to-get-you-for-that” justice? If we look at the context in James, we discover that he also is talking about compassion or mercy[ix] as opposed to a cold, legalistic calling down of justice upon our neighbors. He even goes so far as to say that mercy trumps justice.

In conclusion, perhaps we can say there is no real opposition between the law and grace as grace is the summation of all that the law is. Therefore any justice implied in obedience might simply be a return to us of the very lack of compassion that we have shown to others. It is a universal principle that when you plant something that is what you can expect to get back. If you plant corn in your field, you do not expect to get a harvest of pumpkins. That is not a matter of justice. It is simply a principle active throughout creation. If our lives are lived in an attitude of compassion toward others, we can then perhaps expect to find compassion returning to us. Perhaps the vial we find God offers us on the stereotypical judgment day can only be filled with what we have placed in it over the course of our lives. Perhaps if we find only wrath there, it is not so much God’s wrath as what we ourselves have sent ahead to fill it. Perhaps this is why mercy trumps justice.


[i] Matthew 20:1-16

[ii] Genesis 6:9-22

[iii] John 8:11, cf. John 5:14

[iv] 1 John 3:4

[v] “List of countries by incarceration rate,”

[vi] Matthew 25:31-46

[vii] Romans 13:8-10

[viii] James 2:20

[ix] James 2:13



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