Some people today believe that the apostle Paul’s teaching on law and grace changed what Christ taught. Is it Jesus vs. Paul? What does the Bible say?
Part of the reason some believe Paul changed what Jesus taught is the perception that Paul’s teaching on grace means that obeying God’s law is no longer required. Before addressing this commonly held teaching, let’s consider what Jesus Christ taught on these important subjects.
Jesus’ teaching about law and grace
One of the sections of Scripture that clearly reveals Jesus’ teaching on law and grace is the one in which an adulteress was dragged before Him to see if He would pronounce the penalty upon her demanded by the law—death by stoning (John 8:1-11). Silent at first, He only wrote something in the dust with His finger. Pressed by the accusers to make a judgment, He told them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (verse 7).
No one stepped forward. Instead, they slowly dissolved into the crowd within the temple. When all the accusers had left without condemning the woman, Jesus, the only One who truly was sinless, did not condemn her either. “Go and sin no more,” He told her (John 8:11).
Because of grace, God’s benevolent kindness, Jesus pardoned the woman from death for something of which she was certainly guilty. Expressed in today’s language, God’s grace was His not giving the woman what she deserved for the way she had behaved.
What did Jesus teach about law? This, too, is revealed in the above account. He did not say to the woman that she was free to carry on as before, as if she hadn’t been pardoned. He wanted her to change her way of living—to repent. Essentially, He said, “Now, go behave yourself.”
The 10 Commandments
Was she to behave by the evolving norms of what society accepts as tolerable behavior? Or was she to behave by what she felt was an acceptable way to live? The answer is no to both of these questions.
The word “sin” reveals the answer. Sin means an action or thought contrary to the law of God (1 John 3:4; 2 Corinthians 10:4-6), not to some human standard. Jesus told her to live from then on by the 10 Commandments. This teaching is confirmed by other examples in the Gospel accounts.
Jesus told the wealthy young ruler that the way to salvation required keeping the 10 Commandments (Matthew 19:16-21). Jesus Himself kept all the 10 Commandments, including the seventh-day Sabbath (Luke 4:16). Obviously, Jesus wasn’t intimating that anyone could earn salvation by keeping the 10 Commandments. Yet He taught and showed by example that God has set a reasonable standard of behavior for His children. That standard is the 10 Commandments.
When the Pharisees tried to trick Christ into saying something against the law, He did not deny the law its place. “Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’
“Jesus said to him, ‘“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”’” (Matthew 22:35-39). Here Jesus quoted Old Testament scriptures that summarized the message of the 10 Commandments.
This confrontation presented Jesus Christ with the perfect opportunity to clarify that His death would shortly bring an end for the need of the commandments altogether. But He did not say any such thing, because it would not have been true. Putting these scriptures together leaves no doubt. Christ kept the 10 Commandments, and He taught others to do the same. And that leaves people who have a bias against the law in a difficult position. How do they reconcile Christ’s teaching to abide by the law with the notion that Paul taught that grace does away with the law?
The theological reasoning to explain why Paul would teach something different from what Christ taught is called progressive revelation. Essentially, it means, as its wording implies, that through later writings, God added to and progressively updated the doctrines Jesus taught during His human ministry. Supposedly, this was done primarily through Paul, whose letters comprise most of the New Testament. The theory maintains that Christians need to follow Paul’s updates rather than purely what Christ said and did.
This flawed theory has caused many to mistakenly assume the apostle Paul modified and changed Christ’s teachings. Yet Paul was quite clear on this subject.
Paul’s teaching on law and grace
Paul couldn’t have been plainer about seeing himself as echoing the teachings and practices of Christ. “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ,” he told the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:1). This statement allows no conclusion other than that Paul saw himself as perpetuating, not contradicting, Christ’s doctrines.
In even stronger language, Paul wrote to the Church in Galatia, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-9).
In verses 8-9 Paul pronounces a curse on anyone who dared teach a message other than what Christ taught! In repeating this curse for emphasis, Paul sternly warned against changes to Christ’s teaching.
Since Paul used such strong language, we would expect his teaching on law and grace to be the same as Christ’s, and this is what the Bible reflects. Paul deeply appreciated God’s grace and he respected God’s law.
A good example of Paul’s teaching is found in his letter to the Romans where he writes: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). A few verses later Paul emphasizes this teaching once more, saying, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” (verses 14-15).
Paul’s teaching on law and grace was clearly the same as Christ’s. Paul appreciated God’s grace and respected His law.
Law and grace
Unfortunately, the teaching of Christ and Paul on this subject was largely forgotten. At some point over the centuries, a notion that pits law against grace took hold in the Christian world. Some attempt to justify this mistaken belief by wrongly teaching that God gave the 10 Commandments solely to ancient Israel as part of the Old Covenant, and that the New Covenant does not include all of the 10 Commandments. This is a destructive error, for the Bible teaches a continuation of the 10 Commandments under the New Covenant and harmony between law and grace, as will be documented in closely related articles about law and grace.
The truth regarding God’s law and His grace is illustrated in the way human families operate. A human father sets reasonable standards of behavior for His children, both for their protection and for their training. God did the same for His family through the 10 Commandments.
Further, a human father forgives a child who realizes and owns up to his or her mistakes—not so the child can then go wild to live as he or she pleases, but rather so that the child can get back on track with the family standards. God’s grace does the same for His family, forgiving the children who have a change of heart about their sin, so that they can get back on track and live according to His expectations. This understanding is sensible and, even more importantly, it is biblical.
For further study on the difference between law and grace, read the articles in the section: “Law and Grace: What Does the Bible Really Say?”