Is the law gracious? Like many important questions, this one is thorny. There are lots of ways to prick yourself if you’re not careful.

First of all, it’s beyond dispute that God is gracious and that the law is an expression of his character—as well as the norm for what it means to have loving relationships to him and to each other. In other words, the God whose law it is, is gracious.

Second, God uses the law for gracious purposes. Even pagan cultures are indebted to God’s common grace in writing his law on the conscience, so that even where his written law is not known his moral law is enshrined (in varying degrees) in human constitutions. However these laws are distorted, much less unenforced, at least in theory they secure the vulnerable from injustice. In saving grace, God uses his law graciously to drive sinners to Christ and to guide them in Christ. It is essential to know God’s moral will, first to become guilty before God and so recognize our need for a Savior but also to live in a way that glorifies God and serves the needs of our neighbors. Love and law go hand-in-hand. In fact, the whole law is summarized in the sentence, “Love God and your neighbor.” So not only is the God who gives the law gracious; the law is loving and it stipulates what it means to love.

Third, it’s crucial to distinguish the nuda lex (the bare law summarized in the Ten Commandments) from the totus lex (the law in its totality as a covenant of works). Obligations and commands for loving God and neighbor are given in the new covenant as well as the old, in the Sinai covenant as well as the Abrahamic covenant that we enjoy in Abraham’s seed (Christ). The difference is how “law” functions. In a covenant based on law, the law functions as the basis for the continuing relationship: “Do this and you shall live.”

This is how law functioned in Paradise. Adam and Eve did not deserve their existence; it was a pure gift of God’s love—but not a gift of grace or mercy, since they were not yet fallen. Furthermore, Adam was given a promise of life, for himself and his posterity, on the condition of full, perpetual, and personal obedience as the covenant head. Israel did not merit the land; it was a gift—in this case, a gift of grace, as we see in Deuteronomy 6-8. However, it was a gift to win or lost. Flourishing in the land—long life, temporal security and peace, national righteousness and blessing—depended on Israel’s obedience: “Do this and you shall live.” The promise was temporal blessing rather than everlasting life, but this national prosperity depended strictly on faithfulness to the stipulations of the law.

In a covenant of works, personal fulfillment of the law’s commands is the condition for inheritance; in a covenant of grace, Christ’s personal fulfillment merits our right-standing and now the only role the law can have is to direct—it cannot condemn us. If law were intrinsically antithetical to grace, it would be exempt from the covenant of grace. Nevertheless, the New Testament repeatedly reasserts and extrapolates the moral law for the life of believers. The gospel does not remove the obligation to obedience. Far from it! It is only because we are justified and given a new heart, with the law written on it by the finger of God, that we are able to love God’s moral will and follow it. Yes, and follow it. We fall and fail. Nevertheless, we do follow Christ—and anyone who doesn’t is not a believer. There is that great wisdom in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. But can those converted to God obey these commands perfectly? A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Neverthelesss, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some of God’s commandments.

In other words, just as we believe the whole gospel, we embrace the whole law—all of the commands that Jesus summarized as loving God and neighbor. Even when we fail to keep them, we don’t pick and choose which have authority to direct us. Even though we do not trust in them to save us, we embrace them to guide us.

But is the law itself gracious? Though subtle, there is a world of difference between saying, on one hand, that the Law-giver is gracious and uses the law for gracious purposes and saying, on the other, that the law itself is gracious. Our parents may have been gracious in giving us a curfew, but at least in my home the curfew was not gracious. It was “be home at 10—no ifs, ands, or buts.”

In order for the law itself to be gracious, it would have to offer promises to sinners apart from their personal performance. In other words, it would have to give relief to those who stand in a condition of violating it. This the law manifestly does not and cannot do. The law tells us God’s demands; it simply does not have anything to give as far as assistance and leniency. The law does not budge or bend. If God relaxed his moral law at a single point, he would himself be unlawful; he would violate his own character, which his law manifests.

The law isn’t intrinsically judgmental; it’s simply just. It “calls ‘em as it sees ‘em.” We’re the unjust ones, whom God must size up as such simply because of who he is. The law is God’s revelation of his unchanging moral character and will. The law is not gracious even in a covenant of grace, but it is also not ungracious. It is simply not the character of the law to extend mercy, because that is not its job description. The law can only stipulate what obedience is, issuing approval or disapproval. It stops and goes no further. The God who speaks his law is gracious to his people in revealing his moral will, but only his word of promise in Christ delivers God’s grace and mercy.

The law and the gospel therefore do different things. Or better, God does different things with his law and his gospel. Neither is bad. Both are necessary. However, they have different job descriptions. The law is not gracious. It commands, “Do this and you shall live.” It promises reward for obedience and threatens judgment for disobedience. It tells us what God requires of us. If we seek our life in the law, it kills us—it’s “the ministry of death” (2 Cor 3:7). If we seek our life in Christ, the law is not the ministry of death. In any case, it never becomes the ministry of life (Gal 3:21-22; cf. 2:21), but the ministry of direction for that life that we have in Christ alone.

We need this measure of God’s holy will—not only so we will give up on our own righteousness and flee to Christ, but so that we will know what we are to do as those who have been justified and released from the dominion of sin and death. However, the law never bleeds into the gospel’s job description. Where the law pronounces us all “guilty before God” (Rom 3:19-20), the gospel announces “God’s gift of righteousness through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (vv 21-31). The law is unyielding. It commands, but doesn’t give. The law says, “Do!”, but the gospel says, “Done!” At the same time, Jesus fulfills rather than abolishing the law. In fact, if Jesus had set the law aside or downplayed its authority, then his active obedience and self-offering in fulfillment of the law would not have been necessary.

Opposing the law to Christ in an abstract way is just another way of justifying ourselves: I’m good—the problem is laws and rules. Set those aside and have a grace-based freedom! But this fatally misses the point.

That’s the problem when people say “I’m spiritual, not religious”; “Jesus came preaching love, not a bunch of rules.” Actually, Jesus summarized the whole law as love, so the two are actually identical. The law merely stipulates what it means to love. No, the gospel is opposed to legalism, the attempt to justify ourselves by our obedience—including our love. If it’s self-righteous to say we’ve kept the whole law, then are we any less so when we say that we’ve set aside the law but have loved God and our neighbor? If I set the law aside, I don’t realize that crucial fact and I will trust in my own righteousness because I don’t know what God’s righteousness really means. Many professing Christians today sound like antinomians (rejecting “religion” and “rules”), while nevertheless trusting in their own righteousness (love and graciousness).

The gospel is only opposed to the law when we are seeking life by the latter. The problem is not the law. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14). So I’m the problem. I need to be saved from the law’s condemnation, not from the law’s prescriptions. It is right to say that the law, in the hands of its Triune giver, is employed to gracious ends. However, it is dangerously wrong to say that the law itself is gracious. Its terms are anything but. That is why we need—always need—the gospel.