Law versus Grace

One of the most important aspects of the Passover event was God’s self revelation of His character. God had brought Israel out of Egypt and promised He would be with them as Moses led them into Promised Land.  But Moses wanted more. He wanted the assurance of God’s presence throughout the journey.  He wanted to see God’s glory!  (Exodus 33) God graciously agreed to Moses’ demand with the caveat:

 Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”  But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” And the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock.  So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.  Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:19-23)

So God revealed His memorial name to Moses and also His character.   Moses asked God to show him His glory and God showed Moses His goodness.  Then He proclaimed His character.  Sadly over the years people have tried to redefine  Him, but God’s self-description has proved to be true through His actions.

Law versus Grace

“We’re not under “law” but under “grace.”  How often have you heard-or even said-that? But is that true? If so, that means that God has changed over the years.  It means that God revealed Himself to Adam, Eve, David, and Isaiah as being vengeful, angry, and without mercy.  I doubt you believe that. The Bible assures us that God never changes.  He cannot change.  The theological word for God’s change-less-ness is “immutable.” So where does this lie against God’s character come from?  Perhaps from this verse:

For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)

At first glance, this verse appears to be a comparison between “law” and “grace and truth.”  It’s as if there were a scale to measure God’s character, putting Law on one plate and Grace on the other.  How ridiculous! What is being compared?  The comparison is between the methods of mediation. God transmitted “the law” through the hand of Moses, but God BECAME grace and truth in Jesus. Consider this: wasn’t the “law” an act of God’s grace?  Look again what the “law” has done for us:

  • Revealed our sinful nature
  • Convicted us of our sin
  • Proved our need for forgiveness
  • Provided for our atonement by God’s grace through faith.

Look again at that list and ask yourself, “Wasn’t the law an act of God’s grace to allow sinful men to stand in His presence?” The answer must be a resounding “YES!” Thus I contend that the God who gave the law to Moses on Mt Sinai is the same changeless God who gave His life on Mt Calvary. Maybe at this point we need to consider what God says about Himself? To answer that question, we can simply turn to Exodus 34:5-7 which records God’s self-revelation to Moses.

Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”

To correct this false understanding of God’s character we need to understand the Hebrew phrase: וֶאֱמֶֽת רַב־חֶסֶד [rav hesed v’emet] which is translated as ‘abounding in goodness and truth.’ This phrase used often throughout Scripture will prove to us that the character of God never changes.  

Truth: אֱמֶֽת

Did you know that you speak Hebrew? Every time you say “Amen” [אָמַן] are speaking Hebrew! We end our prayers with this precious word as an exclamation point showing our approval or our faith that God has heard us. Amen carries the meaning of certainty, solidarity, firmness regardless of circumstance, constant, or consistent. It evokes the picture of the strong arms of a parent holding a helpless infant:

The eternal God is your refuge. (Deut. 33:27)

The word in our passage is אֱמֶֽת [emet] which is a derivative of ‘amen’ meaning ‘truth.’   Another derivative is אֱמוּנָה [emunah] which is translated as ‘faith’ or ‘faithful.’ In the letter to the Laodiceans, the same word is used three times.

These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness.  (Revelation 3:14)

I think God is trying to tell us something! Regardless of which word is are it describes the trustworthy, changelessness of God.  

Grace: חֶסֶד

The word translated as “goodness” in our passage is the Hebrew word is חֶסֶד [hesed].  This is, without doubt, my favorite word to describe God.  The word is translated many ways ‘kindness,’ ‘mercy,’ and ‘love.’  None of these definitions really captures the word’s depth and breadth. Even our Hebrew lexicons have difficulty in defining this incredible word. In my opinion, the best definition is ‘faithful, covenant-keeping love.’  Hesed is best seen in God’s everlasting relationship with Israel. I AM bound Himself in covenant relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knowing the faithlessness of the people in their loins! Aren’t you glad that God’s grace is based on His character and not on ours?! Consider these verses which all use our word חֶסֶד:

My mercy I will keep for him forever, and My covenant shall stand firm with him. Psalm 89:28 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.  Psalm 23:6 Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?  He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. Micah 7:18

John 1:17

So now let’s look again at that troublesome verse in John’s Gospel.  The core of the issue is that simple conjunction “but” so let’s look at various translations:

For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. (NASB)

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. (KJV & NKJV)

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (NIV)

You can see the how the translators tried to deal with “but.”  The King James and the New King James versions put the word in italics that says to the reader, “inserted to by editors” while the other translations were able to omit it.  Probably the best translation is the New American Standard Bible. An even better translation would be, “For the law was given through Moses and grace and truth BECAME Jesus Christ” or “Grace and truth were incarnated in Jesus Christ.”

God’s character never changes.

The God of Sinai is the same as the God of Calvary.


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