Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. JOHN 1:17
Dispensationalists tend to emphasize the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and there is a corresponding tendency among reformed thinkers to minimize or deny them. But in one area even the most rigorous reformed theologians must acknowledge a difference between the Testaments, and that is in the emphasis on law in the Old Testament and the emphasis on grace in the New.
It is the teaching of the New Testament itself. John made the distinction when he wrote, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
Since I am a reformed theologian myself, I do not want to overemphasize this distinction. I know that the Old Testament is also profoundly aware of grace. Even more important, it teaches that the way of salvation is by the grace of God in providing an atoning Savior, who turns out to be Jesus. We saw this in our
opening study of Genesis 3, and it could be proved throughout the Old Testament by many other passages. And by the New Testament! In Romans Paul teaches that Abraham, David, and the other Old Testament saints were saved exactly as God saves people today, that is, through believing on Jesus Christ (Romans 4:1-8). They looked forward to his coming. We look back. But the basis of our salvation and the nature of belief are the same.
I am also aware that the New Testament does not reject the law of God or deny its importance. In Romans, the same book in which Paul teaches that salvation is by grace and that the Old Testament figures were saved by faith, as we are, the apostle asks, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?” and answers, “Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). Later he writes, “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). We must never overstate the difference.
Yet we must not overlook it either. For there clearly is a difference, as our text indicates.
Some Lexical Data
The contrast between the Old Testament emphasis on law and the New Testament emphasis on grace can be seen at least in part by the frequency with which the word grace is used in each Testament.
In the New International Version there are only eight occurrences of the word grace in the Old Testament, none terribly significant. But there are 128 uses of grace in the NIV’s New Testament translation. Moreover, they occur in key passages and with multiple usage. Romans 5 is one example. The word is used seven times in that chapter. Grace is also used extensively in Ephesians 2. It occurs four times in the Greek text of John 1.
Most striking of all are the doxologies. There are thirty that
use the word grace, doxologies such as: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7); “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (Romans 16:20); “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14); “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen” (Philippians 4:23); “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Timothy 1:2); and “Grace be with you” (2 Timothy 4:22).
There are other Old Testament words for grace, of course.
The word gracious is found thirty-nine times in the Old Testament (NIV), seven times as an exact or near repetition of Exodus 34:6 (“the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin”). Those words are repeated more or less in Nehemiah 9:17, Psalms 86:15, 103:8, and 145:8, Joel 2:13, and Jonah 4:2. But even these texts do not add up to the force grace seems to have when it breaks forth freshly with the coming of Jesus Christ.
In the same way, favor is used ninety-eight times in the Old Testament. But many of these are of human favor only, and the double use of the word has the effect of weakening it even when it is applied to God.
So there really is a difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament at this point, and John is not overstating the matter when he writes of grace coming in a special way with Jesus Christ.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth . . . From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law
was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:14, 16-17)
John meant that grace came to us fully with Jesus Christ, because it is through his death and by his resurrection that sinful men and women have been made righteous before God.
Peter’s Revealing Speech
In the fifteenth chapter of Acts there is a revealing statement of how this change must have struck the early Christians. The Council of Jerusalem was in session, and it had been debating whether the ceremonial requirements of the Old Testament should be imposed on Gentile Christians. Paul and his fellow missionaries had been preaching the gospel to Gentiles, Gentiles had been turning to Christ, and churches that were largely Gentile were being established. Paul had not been requiring these Gentile Christians to come under the legal Jewish obligations such as circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, observing Jewish feast days, and kosher cooking. His opponents, known as the legalistic party, were insisting that these were essential, arguing that no one could be saved without observing them.
At last the council decided in favor of Gentile liberty, but not until after Peter had told how God led him to preach to Gentiles in the home of Cornelius and how God had saved Cornelius and his family apart from circumcision or ceremonial purifications (Acts 10). Peter said,
Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are. (Acts 15:10-11)
The revealing statement is Peter’s confession that “neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear” the law’s yoke.
We need to remember that Peter and the other Jews who had gathered for this council were pious people. They were not like the heathen or even the uninstructed and indifferent people of Palestine, who were ignorant of the law and did not care that they were. Peter and his fellow believers knew the law and had been trying to keep it. But here Peter led these pious Jews in a confession that they could not keep it. It may be, as Paul told the Romans, that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). But Peter argued that the law did not seem to have been good. It had been a burden instead, and a heavy one at that. Pious Jews had tried to live by the law, but they had failed to do it. That is why the coming of grace by Jesus Christ was so significant to them. It was a lifting of their burden and a doing away with their profound sense of failure.
Jesus Was Himself Gracious
But let’s start with Jesus himself, for that is what John seems to do in the wonderful prologue to his Gospel. The opening verses tell of Jesus’ deity and preexistence, followed by the appearance of John the Baptist as his forerunner. Then, in John 1:14, John announces the Incarnation, and at once grace is prominent: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” It would seem from that statement that, according to John, the glory of Jesus was seen first in his own personal graciousness.
We live in a very boorish world, of course. So it is easy to think of people who are not gracious. You have probably had contact with some this past week.
Sales people who have ignored you in the store even when you wanted to buy something or had a question about it.
Drivers who blew their horns at you or even cursed you when you slowed down to find a right turn or to locate an obscure street address.
Business associates who have lied about you to get ahead themselves. There are many people like this. In fact, all of us are like that at least some of the time.
But if you think carefully, you can probably also think of people who have been gracious to you. Perhaps a friend, a marriage partner, or your parents were gracious people. Instead of treating you as you deserved, these people have treated you as you want to be treated. They have overlooked your failures and have instead been kind and helpful.
Well, Jesus was like that. In fact, he was like all these gracious people rolled into one, and then he surpassed even that. He was never cross, never selfish, never impatient with people who had problems, never superior or judgmental. He never told people, “It serves you right” or, “I hope you get what’s coming to you” or, “That’s your problem” or, “Don’t bother me about it.” He never disassociated himself from anyone, as if some types or classes of people were below him. Indeed, he moved easily among both the high and the low, and he was so much at home with the lower classes that his enemies used it to attack him, saying that he was a “drunkard” and a “friend of sinners.” People liked Jesus. They found him gracious.
Do you want a good description of Jesus? Here it is:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
Another way of saying this is to say that all the fruit of the Spirit was in Jesus, and the fruit of the Spirit, as Paul tells us, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Jesus was the perfection of these virtues.
But there is more to the meaning of Jesus’ personal graciousness than this. For when John introduces Jesus as “full of grace and truth,” he does so in a verse that is speaking of the Incarnation, that is, in a verse that tells how Jesus is God come down to us in human form. The importance of that is that it means that God is gracious, too, for God is like Jesus.
What would we think of God if we had only the law to go on? We would think of God as a rather demanding, harsh, unbending, and judging deity, which is what most of the Old Testament figures did think. And we would not be entirely wrong. For the law is demanding. It is unbending. That is the very nature of law. Moreover, the law of God is a law with penalties. The law says, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). But if we do not do it, the law says, “The soul who sins … will die” (Ezekiel 18:4), and “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
We cannot fault God for his righteousness or justice. But if law is all we have to go on, we might be at least partially excused if we should think of God as rather insensitive to us or unsympathetic to our failures.
But now Jesus has come, and we see in a dramatic way that the giving of the law is not all there is to say about God. True, God is a lawgiver, and he did give the law through Moses, and the law of the Old Testament is “holy, righteous and good.” But God is also gracious as Jesus Christ. God is not harsh or unforgiving, as we suppose. Moreover, his purpose in sending Jesus was to teach us that he is indeed gracious and to provide a
way for us to be saved from the punishments required by the law, since we cannot either obey the law or save ourselves from condemnation.
Jesus Acted Graciously
When we say that Jesus was himself gracious, we are talking about Jesus’ character. But this inner character of Jesus was also expressed outwardly in the way he dealt with people. Therefore, we have to add to the statement that Jesus was personally gracious the additional statement that Jesus acted graciously to others.
One great example occurs only in John’s Gospel. Jesus’ enemies had been trying to trap him. On one occasion they had sent their temple guards to arrest him. They had been unsuccessful. But here they had finally hit upon a scheme that was literally fiendish. They had managed to catch a young woman in the very act of adultery, and they brought her to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:4-5)
This was despicable. Besides, it was probably dishonest. According to the practice of law in Jesus’ day, it was not possible to secure a conviction in capital cases unless there were multiple witnesses to the very act for which the person was accused. In this case, there would have had to have been two or more witnesses, and they would have had to have seen not merely what we would call a compromising situation, even so compromising a situation as the couple lying together on the same bed, but also to have seen the couple engaged in physical movements that could have no other possible explanation. How could that have been achieved unless the whole case was a setup? To have achieved that
kind of evidence the woman’s accuser would have had to have stationed their witnesses in the room or at the keyhole before-hand and thus have trapped the woman.
These difficult legal demands were intentional, of course. For the aim of the lawyers was to make executions virtually impossible. It is how the people managed to exist under the unyielding standards and harsh penalties of God’s law. One important Jewish document, the Mishnah, declares, “The Sanhedrin, which so often as once in seven years, condemns a man to death, is a slaughter house” (Makkoth, 1, 10).
Besides, where was the man in the relationship? If the witnesses had seen the very act of adultery, as the accusers claimed, they would have had to have seen the man, too. Yet he was not present. Was he in on the plot? The more we think about this attempt to trap Jesus, the more hypocritical, cruel, evil, and demonic it becomes.
But it was shrewd, too! It was shrewd because it was addressing the one truly great problem in the relationship of any sinful human being to God.
The earlier attempts to trap Jesus had not been like this. Earlier his enemies had tried to catch him on the matter of paying taxes. Should a loyal Jew pay taxes to Caesar’s government or not? But that involved only the matter of public hostility to Rome, and Jesus handled it easily. He told them to give Caesar his due but to be sure they gave God his due also (Matthew 22:21). After this the Sadducees had tried to catch Jesus with a sophomoric question about the Resurrection, asking who a woman would be married to in heaven if she had been married to more than one husband here. Jesus handled that by his superior knowledge of the Scriptures, telling the Sadducees that they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God (Matthew 22:29).
This problem was not like those earlier problems, however. In this test three important matters were at stake: (1) the life of
the woman, which was precious, at least to Jesus; (2) Jesus’ teaching about the gracious nature of his kingdom; and (3) the law of Moses, which had been given by God.
The way the question was posed, it seemed to the rulers that Jesus would have to sacrifice at least one and possibly two of these three elements. Jesus was known for being gracious. He taught that God was love, and he seemed himself to love sinners. But if Jesus should show love to the woman who had been caught in adultery and recommend that her life be spared, he would be setting himself against the divinely given law of Moses. How could a teacher do that and still pretend to be a prophet sent by God? No one could both oppose the law of God and also speak for God at the same time. Jesus would be identified as a false teacher.
On the other hand, if Jesus should uphold the law, then he would have to sacrifice both the life of the woman and his teaching about the compassionate nature of his kingdom. “Sure, he tells you that God is love and that we should love one another,” his enemies would scoff. “But what does he do when the chips are down? He turns on you and says you should be killed. Who needs that? Just look what he did to that poor woman.”
That was a real problem, you see. For with demonic insight — this is why I used the words fiendish and demonic earlier — these men had hit upon the real problem, the problem of all problems in the relationship of a sinful man or woman to God. The problem is: How can God show love to the sinner without being unjust? How can he uphold his law, which is “good,” but at the same time also be gracious? Or, as Paul states the problem in Romans 3:26, how can God be both “just and the one who justifies” the ungodly? From a human point of view, the problem is unsolvable. In this the rulers were right. “Jesus cannot show love even if he wants to,” they reasoned. But what these rulers
would not acknowledge is that in Jesus’ case they were not dealing with a mere man, for whom this would have been unsolvable. Rather, they were dealing with God, and “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
We know what Jesus did. Instead of replying to the woman’s accusers directly, he bent down and wrote on the ground.
I must admit that I do not know what he wrote because the story does not tell us. Some commentators suggest that he wrote on the ground to gain time, though why the eternal Son of God should need time to think through the issues of the case I cannot fathom. Other writers suggest that Jesus wrote out the men’s accusations to impress them with the gravity of what they were doing. But they knew how serious their accusations were already; that is why they were making them. Perhaps Jesus wrote out the men’s sins, since he knew their hearts and knew acts of which they themselves were guilty.
This is probably the right explanation, because something got through to them eventually. According to the story, they soon began to fade away one at a time, beginning with the oldest. Yet even this is not entirely clear because, strictly speaking, the story tells us that they began to leave, not while Jesus was writing, but later, when he told them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Whatever Jesus wrote and for whatever reason, the woman’s accusers eventually did go away, and at the end Jesus was left alone with the woman. He could have accused her, because he was without sin. But instead, he was gracious; indeed, he was “full of grace and truth.”
At first he asked her a question. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one,” she answered.
Jesus replied, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (vv. 10-11).
Jesus’ Death Made Grace Possible
It is hard to imagine a more gracious ending to a story. But we have not reached the meat of the story even yet. Jesus was gracious, to be sure. But the question remains: How could he be gracious and at the same time do the right thing? He was the very Son of God. How could he defend the woman and yet uphold the law?
Some writers have explained what Jesus did by a legal technicality. The law required two or more witnesses, and since the accusers left the scene under Jesus’ scorching gaze and question, in the end there was no one left to accuse her. Jesus could have done it himself. He was sinless, and because he knew the hearts of people, he certainly knew the full circumstances of the woman’s guilt, though he had not himself physically witnessed her sin. But Jesus was only one witness even so. Writers who approach the story this way suggest that the legal requirements of the law in regard to witnesses in capital cases freed Jesus from the need to condemn the woman and so permitted him to be gracious. But to reason this way is to miss the true heart of the story, in my judgment.
The question is: Why did Jesus not condemn the woman? Why did he not cast the first stone? We can understand that he wanted to be gracious. We would want to be ourselves. But how could he forgive her and still uphold the law? As soon as we reflect on that, we realize that the reason he did not condemn the woman is surely the same reason he does not condemn us, if we are among those who have believed on him. Why does Jesus not pronounce a sentence of eternal death on those who come to him in faith today? It is because of his atoning work on the cross by which he was, at that time, soon to take upon himself the punishment for the sins of all whom the Father would give to him. Jesus forgave the woman. But he did not do it easily or in
disregard of God’s law. He did it because his death was to make forgiveness possible.
This is the gospel, of course. And it is the only solution to how God can remain just and also save the sinner. To us salvation is free. It is by grace. But it is by grace only because the Son of God took the punishment for sin by dying in our place.
Here are some characteristics of the reign of law versus the reign of grace, which came by Jesus Christ.
1. Under law God demands righteousness from his people; under grace God gives righteousness to them.
2. Under law righteousness is based upon Moses and good works; under grace righteousness is based upon Christ and Christ’s character.
3. Under law blessings accompany obedience; under grace God bestows blessings as a free gift.
4. Under law there is nothing in men or women by which we can achieve what God demands; under grace that power is made available.
“Leave Your Life of Sin”
We must never think that grace, wonderful as it is, either permits or encourages us to go on sinning. For it is not only “grace” that came through Jesus Christ. “Truth” did also (John 1:17). And the truth in this matter is that God still requires holiness of his people. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” asked Paul. He answered, “By no means! We died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2).
This is why the ending of the story of Jesus and the woman trapped in adultery is so important, though it is often overlooked. Jesus did not only forgive her on the basis of his coming death for sin. True, he did forgive her. But having done that, he
added, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” This always follows upon forgiveness. For God is unchanging, and he continues to be righteous and demand righteousness even when he is forgiving. No one can be saved and then continue to do as he or she pleases. If we are saved, we must stop sinning.
At the same time, we can be grateful that Jesus spoke as he did. For we notice that he did not say, “Leave your life of sin, and I will not condemn you.” If he had said that, what hope for us could there be? Our problem is precisely that we do sin. There could be no forgiveness if forgiveness was based upon our ceasing to sin. Instead of that, Jesus actually spoke in the reverse order. First, he granted forgiveness freely, without any conceivable link to our performance. Forgiveness is granted only on the merit of his atoning death. But then, having forgiven us freely, Jesus tells us with equal force to stop sinning.
And here is the greatest wonder. There is nothing that can so motivate us to leave a life of sin as God’s forgiveness.
Did the woman do it? I am sure she did. She had experienced grace in Jesus Christ, and that has always proved to be the most transforming life experience in the universe.
Have you learned that “grace and truth” came with Jesus Christ? Not all people have. I suppose it is fair to say that you are at some point in this story, whether you are aware of it or not. You may be in the position of the rulers, not necessarily in using your knowledge of what is right and wrong to come down hard on other people, though you may, but in merely going away when you are confronted by your need for forgiveness. The men in the story needed forgiveness as much as the woman. That is the meaning of their guilty withdrawal. But they did not find it since they left instead.
Or you may be like the crowd. The people were watching. They were spectators. They saw the rulers’ conviction and Jesus’ compassion. They may even have marveled at both. But they did not
enter into the action. Like many today, they stood at a distance and did not get involved.
Fortunately, there was also the woman. You may be like her. I hope you are. Of all the people who were present that day by far the best one to have been was the woman. For she not only witnessed the events. She experienced them, and that meant that she entered into the reality of Jesus’ great grace.
The crowd did nothing except go home and forget what it had witnessed.
The rulers went from Jesus into increasing spiritual darkness, and six months later they were back again even more hardened than before to demand the death of the sinless Son of God. They had their law, but it did not save them. It hardened them, and they perished by it.
Only the sinful woman was saved, and it was because she had discovered that, although law had come through Moses and condemned her, grace and truth truly had come through Jesus Christ.