The Grace Administration of God’s Moral Absolutes
MERCY: Not giving us what we deserve
GRACE: Giving to us what we don’t deserve
The previous article presented biblical evidence for two major conclusions. First, the Mosaic Law is an indivisible unit; therefore, if a person places himself under the moral aspect of the Mosaic Law, he obligates himself to keep the entire Law (including the civil and ceremonial aspects). Second, the Christian is not under any aspect of the Mosaic Law.
The previous article also noted the following teaching of Dispensational Theology: Although the Christian is not under any aspect of the Mosaic Law, that does not mean that the Christian is lawless or unrelated to the eternal, unchangeable, moral absolutes of God. The Mosaic Law was only one way of God administering His moral absolutes to one group of people (the nation of Israel) during one period of history (from God’s meeting with Israel at Mount Sinai to the cross of Jesus Christ). Today God is administering His moral absolutes in another way which is different from and superior to the Mosaic Law way. The moral absolutes have not changed, but the way of God administering those absolutes has changed. The new, superior way is called “grace.”
It is the purpose of this article to examine matters related to the grace administration of God’s moral absolutes.
Evidence That Christ Established Grace As The New Way of God Administering His Moral Absolutes
Several New Testament passages indicate that Jesus Christ, through His ministry during His first coming, established grace as the new way of God administering His moral absolutes.
The Apostle John wrote the following: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). Several observations should be made concerning John’s statement. First, John was teaching that during His first coming Jesus brought into being a new form of divine grace which had not existed in Old Testament times. Two things indicate that this was the apostle’s teaching. First, in John’s expression “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ,” the verb which is translated “came” means “come to be, become, originate.” 1 Thus, John was saying that some form of grace came into being or originated through Jesus Christ during His first coming. If it originated or came into being during Jesus first coming, then that form of grace did not exist prior to that time of origin.
Second, John also declared that of Jesus’ “fullness have all we received, and grace for grace” (Jn. 1:16). The expression “grace for grace” means “grace after or upon grace (i.e., grace pours forth in ever new streams).” 2 Again the implication seems to be that during His first coming Jesus enlarged grace by adding a new form of it to all those forms of grace which had already existed during Old Testament times.
A second observation which should be made concerning the John 1:17 statement is as follows: The new form of grace to which John referred cannot be that form which brings salvation from the penalty of sin. At least two things indicate that this is so. First, as noted in the first observation, the new form of grace which came into being during Jesus first coming did not exist in Old Testament times. In Romans 4:1-16 Paul taught that both Abraham (who lived before the Mosaic Law was given) and David (who lived under the Law) were justified from the penalty of sin by grace.
Second, John’s statement in John 1:17 seems to imply that the new form of grace which originated through Jesus was intended to serve as the contrasting replacement of the Law which God gave through Moses. In other words, the new form of grace was to have the same basic function as the Law, but it was to fulfill that function in a significantly different way from the Law. In light of this, it is important to note that the Mosaic Law never functioned as a means of eternal salvation. No person has ever been justified through the Law (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16, 21; 3:11). In fact, instead of saving people, the Law was a ministry of condemnation, death and wrath (2 Cor. 3:7, 9; Rom. 4:15) to those who were under it.
Since the Mosaic Law never functioned as a means of eternal salvation, and since the new form of grace which originated through Jesus was to have the same basic function as the Law, then that form of grace was not to function as a means of salvation. It is different from the form of grace which brings salvation from the penalty of sin.
Although the Mosaic Law was never a means of eternal salvation, it did function as one particular way of God administering His eternal, moral absolutes. Since the new form of grace which originated through Christ was to have the same basic function as the Law, and since the Law functioned as a particular way of God administering His moral absolutes, then the new form of grace was also to function as a new, particular way of God administering His moral absolutes.
It would appear, then, that John was teaching the following in John 1:17: God established the Mosaic Law way of administering His eternal, moral absolutes through Moses, but Jesus Christ established grace as the new way of God administering His moral absolutes.
A second passage which indicates that Jesus established grace as the new way of God administering His moral absolutes is Romans 6:14. There Paul declared the following to Christians: “For sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law but under grace.” Several things should be noted concerning Paul’s statement. First, he clearly asserted that the Christian is not under the Law.
Second, Paul implied that the form of grace which he had in mind had the same function as the Law. He did this by making “law” and “grace” the objects of the same preposition “under.” As noted earlier, that function cannot be eternal salvation, because the Law was never a means of salvation. To be “under” law or grace meant to be subject to the “power, rule, sovereignty, command” 3 of law or grace. Thus, to be under law or grace meant to be under the authority of law or grace as rules of life. It can be concluded, then, that Paul was referring to the Law and grace functioning as ways of God administering His moral absolutes over human beings.
Third, Paul taught that being under the grace administration rather than the Law administration of God’s absolutes frees the Christian from mastery by the sin nature. This means, therefore, that it is advantageous to be under the grace administration rather than the Law administration and that the grace administration is superior to the Law administration.
Fourth, in Romans 6:15 Paul asserted that being under the grace administration rather than the Law administration of God’s absolutes does not give the Christian liberty to sin (to be lawless). Thus, it is possible for a person to be free from even the moral aspect of the Mosaic Law without being lawless, and the grace administration does not encourage a sinful lifestyle. Fifth, in Romans 7:1, 4, where Paul explained his teaching in Romans 6:14, he indicated that Jewish Christians were set free from the Law administration of God’s rule through their association with Christ’s death. Paul further asserted that the ultimate purpose of this freedom was a fruitful life for God through association with the resurrected Christ. The implication seems to be that Jesus Christ through His ministry during His first coming ended the Law administration of God’s moral absolutes and established the grace administration of God’s absolutes. 4
The third passage which indicates that Jesus established grace as the new way of God administering His moral absolutes is Titus 2:11-14. Paul wrote.:
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present age, Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ, Who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a people of his own, zealous of good works.
Paul’s statement indicates several things. First, the grace of God has more than one function. One function is that of bringing eternal salvation to human beings, but another function is that of teaching Christians how to live.
Second, the way in which grace teaches Christians how to live is by functioning as a rule of life. The word which is translated “teaching” in Titus 2:12 “denotes the upbringing and handling of the child which is growing up to maturity and which thus needs direction, teaching, instruction and a certain measure of compulsion in the form of discipline or even chastisement.” 5 The term was used of “activity directed to the moral and spiritual nurture and training of the child, to influence conscious will and action,…” 6 In other words, this form of teaching does far more than just impart precepts. It also disciplines in order to bring practice into conformity with the precepts. Thus, it governs lifestyle and molds character. This means, then, that when Paul referred to this teaching activity of grace he was talking about grace functioning as a rule of life.
Third, Paul indicated that as a rule of life grace teaches Christians to reject a godless, worldly lifestyle and to practice a godly, righteous lifestyle. Since such a godly lifestyle would have to involve conformity to God’s eternal, moral absolutes, and since as a rule of life grace works to produce such a lifestyle, then it would seem that this grace rule of life is an administration of God’s eternal, moral absolutes.
Fourth, grace is the particular way of God administering His moral absolutes in this present age. Paul declared that grace is teaching believers to live godly lives “in this present age” (literally, “in the now age,” v. 12). The fact that grace is teaching believers to live godly lives in this present age indicates that this teaching function of grace is also going on in this present age. The implication is that the grace administration of God’s absolutes is distinctive to this present age.
Fifth, this grace administration of God’s absolutes was established through Christ’s first coming ministry. Paul indicated this through two things. First, in Titus 2:11 he declared, “For the grace of God . . . hath appeared.” Many scholars are convinced that Paul used the expression “hath appeared” to refer to Christ’s first coming. The English word “epiphany,” which is used frequently as a reference to Christ’s first coming, is derived from Paul’s word which is translated “hath appeared.” Concerning this, Kent wrote the following; “Our word ‘epiphany’ is a derivative. Thus the epiphany here referred to was Christ’s first coming,…” 7
Second, in Titus 2:14 Paul taught that Jesus gave Himself (through death) for the purpose of obtaining a people whose lives would be characterized by freedom from lawlessness (literal translation of the term translated “iniquity”) and by the kind of godly, righteous lifestyle which grace teaches Christians to have (v. 12). Since Christ died for the purpose of obtaining a people whose lifestyle is the same as that which grace teaches Christians to have, then it would appear that Christ’s death played a key role in establishing that teaching function of grace.
Through these two things, then, Paul indicated that Christ established the grace way of God administering His moral absolutes through His first coming ministry.
The Manner Of The Grace Administration Of God’s Moral Absolutes
The Manner Contrasted and Described
Through the Mosaic Law God administered His eternal, moral absolutes in an external manner. The moral heart of the Law was written on tablets of stone outside the people. Each new generation of Israelites came under the Law administration by virtue of physical birth to Israelite parents and external circumcision, not by virtue of an internal change. The Mosaic Law did emphasize the need for an internal change, but it did not produce that change. The Law stood outside the Israelites and required conformity to the will of God, but it provided neither the will nor the power needed internally to conform. The Law inflicted external punishments, such as physical death, upon those who broke it.
By contrast, through grace God administers His eternal, moral absolutes in an internal manner. This manner involves a combination of two internal things. The first thing is a confirmed, favorable disposition toward God. This disposition consists of the law of God in the heart, and it has been called the “new nature” by many theologians. It is placed in the heart (the inner control center of the Christian) through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. The second internal thing is the indwelling Holy Spirit, who takes permanent residence inside the body of the Christian at the moment of salvation.
The Manner Promised
Through Old Testament prophets, God promised both things which, when combined together, constitute the manner of the grace administration of God’s moral absolutes. For example, in Jeremiah 31:31-34 God pledged to Israel a future New Covenant which would be different from the Mosaic Law Covenant. God promised that in contrast with the Mosaic Law Covenant, which had the law of God written on tablets of stone in the form of external precepts, the New Covenant would have the law of God written within human hearts in the form of an internal, favorable disposition toward God. Concerning this promise, Gray wrote that God was pledging to give the Israelites “a right disposition.” 8 Habel said: “The new covenant, however, will not have an external set of laws, no decalog inscribed in stone, but an innate sensitivity to the will of God. The law will be part of man’s nature.” 9
Bennett declared: “Jehovah no longer seeks to ensure their fidelity by an external law, with its alternate threats and promises: He will rather control the inner life by His grace.” 10
God also promised that all those who would have His law written in their hearts would know Him in a unique sense as a result of His forgiving and forgetting their sins (Jer. 31:34). This cannot be referring to a general, intellectual knowledge of God’s existence and power, because even unsaved Jews whose sins were not forgiven and forgotten possessed such general knowledge. Instead, it refers to the experiential knowledge of God which comes, through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Keil wrote:
The knowledge of Jahweh, of which the prophet speaks, is not the theoretic knowledge which is imparted and acquired by means of religious instruction; it is rather knowledge of divine grace based upon the inward experience of the heart, which knowledge the Holy Spirit works in the heart. 11
Since it would be those who would have God’s law in their hearts who would possess this unique knowledge of God, and since that knowledge would come through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, then it would appear that the law in the heart (the favorable disposition toward God) also would come through regeneration. Calvin recognized this to be so, for he declared that the promise of God’s law in the heart deals with the grace of regeneration.” 12
A second key Old Testament passage which contained promises related to the grace administration of God’s moral absolutes is Ezekiel 36:25-27. There God promises to place both a new human spirit (v. 26) and His Spirit (the Holy Spirit) [v. 27] within Israelites in the future. Concerning the promise of a new human spirit, Ellison stated that the term ”spirit” in verse 26 “tends to mean his dominant disposition…” 13 Snaith declared that the term was used “to denote the dominant impulse or disposition of an individual.” 14 The promise of the new human spirit in Ezekiel 36:26, then, was exactly parallel with the promise of the law of God in the heart in Jeremiah 31:33. Both referred to the same favorable disposition toward God.
In addition to the new, favorable disposition, God promised the indwelling of His Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:27). This would provide the Israelites with a continual source of divine power. Snaith stated:
The idea of a more-than-human power runs through the whole of the use of the phrase [Spirit of the Lord]. As a result of this special endowment of divine power men are able to do that which, in the ordinary way and relying upon purely human resources, they are quite unable to do.15
The result of God placing both the new, favorable disposition plus the Holy Spirit inside future Israelites would be their obedience to His will (Ezek. 36:27). The implication was that the favorable disposition and the Holy Spirit would work together to produce this obedience. The favorable disposition would give the regenerate Israelite “the desire and urge to do God’s will.” 16 The Holy Spirit would give him the power to do God’s will.
The Manner Applied To Church Saints
The promises of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:25-27 were made specifically to Israel. They were to be fulfilled as part of God’s future New Covenant relationship with that nation. However, as noted in an earlier treatment of the New Covenant, although the Church is not Israel and does not partake of the material and national promises of the New Covenant, it does partake of the spiritual promises. Since the law of God in the heart (the favorable disposition) and the indwelling Holy Spirit were part of the spiritual promises of the New Covenant, one would expect the New Testament to indicate that Church saints have both of these factors of the grace administration of God’s moral absolutes.
Several things in the New Testament demonstrate that Church saints have the law of God in the heart. First, in Titus 3:5 Paul taught that Church saints have been regenerated, and, as noted in Jeremiah 31, it is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit which places the law of God in the heart. Second, in 2 Corinthians 3:3 Paul declared that Christ wrote something through the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Church saints. He contrasted this writing in hearts with the writing on tablets of stone of the Mosaic Law Covenant (vv. 3, 7). Paul associated the writing in hearts with New Covenant ministry (v. 6). It seems apparent that Paul was drawing the same contrast between the Mosaic Law Covenant and the New Covenant as was drawn in Jeremiah 31. Since the contrast is the same, then the writing in human hearts of 2 Corinthians 3 must be the same thing as the law of God written in the heart of Jeremiah 31. Thus, Paul was teaching that through the Holy Spirit Christ wrote the law of God in the hearts of Church saints.
Third, as a Church saint Paul indicated that something within him gave him a deep-seated moral sympathy with what God says is right (Rom. 7:22) and prompted him to will to do what God says is right (Rom. 7:18). Since, as noted in the treatment of Ezekiel 36, this was the same kind of activity which was to be performed by the new human spirit or disposition, it would appear that Paul possessed the new, favorable disposition toward God (the law of God in the heart).
Fourth, Peter told Church saints that they are partakers of God’s nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Peter cannot mean that Church saints partake of omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence or the other attributes of God’s nature which determine that He is deity. Man never partakes of God’s nature in that sense, because man can never become deity. Instead, Peter must mean that Church saints partake of God’s holy disposition; they have received a disposition which is an expression of God’s holy nature. That this is so is indicated by the context. The context (vv. 3, 5) is concerned with what produces a godly, moral life. Demarest wrote: “‘Nature,’ then, as here used by the apostle, cannot mean essence or substance, but disposition, moral qualities. And to become partakers of a divine nature, means to become partakers of a disposition like that of God.” 17
A number of things in the New Testament indicate that, in addition to having the new, favorable disposition toward God, Church saints also have the indwelling Holy Spirit. First, Jesus promised that in the future the Holy Spirit would send forth great blessings from within His believers (Jn. 7:38). John indicated that the Holy Spirit did not come to believers to do this until after Jesus was glorified through His death, resurrection and ascension (Jn. 7:39). In other words, the Holy Spirit came to do this to believers during the time of the Church. Second, Jesus drew a distinction between the relationships of the Holy Spirit to believers before the Church and during the Church (Jn.14:17). He indicated that before the Church the Holy Spirit dwelled with believers, but He promised that during the Church the Holy Spirit would be in believers.
Third, in Romans 8:9, 11 Paul talked about the Spirit dwelling in Church saints. Fourth, in 1 Corinthians 6:19 Paul declared that the Church saint’s body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit is in the Church saint. Fifth, Paul prayed that God would grant Church saints to be strengthened with power internally by His Spirit (Eph. 3:16).
The New Testament, then, indicates that Church saints possess both factors which together constitute the manner in which God administers His moral absolutes through grace. They possess the new, favorable disposition toward God (the law of God in the heart), which gives them a deep-seated moral sympathy with God’s will and which prompts them to will to do what God desires. They also possess the indwelling Holy Spirit, who gives them the power to do God’s will. Through these two factors of His grace administration God enables Christians to live a godly life without being under the Mosaic Law administration of His moral absolutes.
*Editor’s note: This completes the series of articles on the differences between Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology and why in our view Dispensationalism is the correct system for biblical interpretation. Because this subject is of such great importance, the articles so well received and Dr. Showers a gracious and articulate writer, the entire series will appear in book form. We believe this will make an invaluable contribution to this important subject.
- William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon Of The New Testament (4th rev. ed.; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 157.
- Ibid., p. 73.
- Ibid., p. 851.
- For a fuller explanation of Paul’s teaching in Romans 6 and 7 see: Renald E. Showers, The New Nature (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1986).
- George Bertram, “paideuo,” Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament, Vol. V, ed. by Gerhard Friedrich, trans. and ed, by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), p. 595.
- Hermann Cremer, Biblico-Theological Lexicon Of New Testament Greek, trans. by William Urwick (4th English ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895), p. 812.
- Homer A. Kent, The Pastoral Epistles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), p. 234.
- James Comper Gray, The Biblical Museum, Vol. IV (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, n.d.), p. 120.
- Norman C. Habel, “Jeremiah, Lamentations,” of Concordia Commentary, ed. by Walter J. Bartling and Albert E. Glock (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), p. 247.
- W. H. Bennett, “The Book of Jeremiah,” of The Expositor’s Bible, ed. by W. Robertson Nicoll (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1900), p. 353.
- C. F. Keil, “The Prophecies of Jeremiah, in Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by David Patrick (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949-50), II, 40.
- John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, trans. and ed. by John Owen (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, l950), IV, 130.
- H.L.Ellison, Ezekiel: The Man and His Message (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), p.128.
- Norman H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (New York: Schocken Books, 1964; London: Epworth Press, 1944 and 1983), p.146.
- Ibid., p. 154.
- Ellison, Ezekiel, p. 128.
- John T. Demarest, A Commentary on the Second Epistle of the Apostle Peter (New York; Sheldon & Co., 1862), p. 89.
- For a fuller study of the Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36 and New Testament passages of this article see: Renald E. Showers, The New Nature (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1986).