Letters of Grace Part 7

Letters of Grace Part 7

Part 7

As noted in the September issue, this is the second of three sub-issues dealing with how presumption influences grace in the life of the believer. Presumption is an abuse of the freedom found in grace.


Legality and morality are similar to liberty and self-denial in that it is necessary to understand both in order to avoid presuming on God’s grace. A failure to understand and apply legality and morality in the Christian life results in the misuse of liberty, which in turn leads to presuming on the grace of God.

Our forefathers, from the conception of this great nation, knew that the experiment of democracy would work only if there was corporate commitment to a fundamental, transcendent set of absolutes, which form the basis of morality. If legality and morality are confused, this Republic cannot long endure.

Morality, which forms the basis of all society, is commonly agreed upon because of man’s conscience. All men, everywhere, have, as it were, a moral gyroscope that guides and directs them. That this standard, shaped by the conscience, is in harmony with the Scriptures, is the thesis of the Apostle Paul in Romans 2:14-15:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, they are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

The Standards of God, which form the gist of morality, are few in number. They have to be in order for people to absorb and act on them. As we shall see with legality, if they are too numerous, they collapse under their own weight. Nevertheless, this Standard forms the foundation for all behavior.

Government is charged with the task of building upon this commonly agreed upon morality with a set of laws that govern the particulars of society. For example, in the United States we have a set of traffic laws that govern behavior on the road. Such laws would have been unnecessary five hundred years ago. Let us note a couple of things regarding these laws:

First, although they may include morality, they are not the same as morality. For example, if I drive 30 mph in a 25-mph zone, I am breaking the law, but I am not immoral. The law says that I cannot murder my fellow citizen. If I do so, I am not only breaking the law, but I ant also immoral. The law may not prohibit pre-marital sex, but God’s Standards do, and such action is immoral. In this we see that although morality and legality overlap, they are not the same.

I remember watching a movie on television entitled “Criminal Law.” A wise, old attorney, during the last days of life, counseled a younger lawyer regarding the difference between justice and the law. He likened justice to a large statue casting a shadow, which was analogous to the law. The shadow is not the statue. They are entirely different. And yet they are connected. So also justice and law. So also morality and legality.

Second, the laws of government, like the Standards of morality, ought to be few in number. Laws that are too inclusive become counter-productive. For example, the rules and regulations of OSHA require so much red tape and consume so much time and energy that the good they seek to achieve is frequently offset by the hurt which is inflicted through such things as arbitrary enforcement and the added cost of production. Too many laws, like too high taxes, discourage people and breed rebellion.

In light of this, note an exceedingly important but little understood truth expounded by Jesus in His rebuke of the Pharisees:

Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, “Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?” He answered and said unto them, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart it far front me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.” And He said unto them, “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” (Mark 7:5-9)

The Pharisees were bothered by the fact that Jesus and His disciples failed to keep “the tradition of the elders.” These “traditions,” which were extra-Biblical rules and regulations, are similar to, but not the same as, legality. Let’s explore this further.


At Mount Sinai God established the theocratic kingdom, outlining through the hand of Moses the salient ingredients of Israel’s society. For all practical purposes, the distinction between legality and morality was blurred. It was God who gave the Law, and the commandments of God, by definition, are moral in nature.

Theologians, not God, made the distinction between the moral, civil, ceremonial and dietary aspects of the law. Although this fourfold delineation of the law is helpful, to say that it is three parts legal and one part moral and that to break the legal commandments isn’t as serious as breaking the moral commandments can prove disastrous, as seen in the Old Testament. We all remember that God had a man stoned for gathering wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:35), and Uzzah died at the Hand of God when he touched the Ark of the Covenant (II Samuel 6:6).

All of this is to say that in Old Testament Israel God expected the people to keep all the law. It was moral in nature in that it came from Him and influenced their relationship with Him. Legal was moral in the sense that Jews in the theocratic kingdom were free to do whatever the law did not proscribe. Thus, even today, when a person adds to the commands of God we say that he is “pharisaical.”


Before we are too hard on the Pharisees, we should note that they faced a daunting task. After the captivity Israel was obligated to obey secular law, which in many respects conflicted with God’s law, much like we have in the United States today. That is, they were permitted to break many of God’s laws while being required to obey rules and regulations not required by God. For them, the distinction between legal and moral was born.

The Pharisees sought to assist in this transition, first by defining more objectively some of the positive commandments, and then by adding other helpful rules and regulations. For example, Israel’s failure to keep the Sabbath was one of the precipitating issues that brought about their ruin. In captivity the Pharisees asked, “How can we keep the fourth commandment?” This led to a set of rules on what people could and could not do on the Sabbath. These, as Jesus pointed out in Mark 7, were the “traditions of men,” i.e. they were neither legal nor moral laws in that they did not have their origin in the state or in God. They may have been helpful, but they were not obligatory.


The “traditions of men” came about, then, in an endeavor to help people meet the expectations of God–a noble goal indeed! (Or, as seen from the above analogy, the shadow tried to be an accurate replica of the statue.) But as already noted, it resulted in the wrath of God. Why?

Morality, as revealed in Scripture and affirmed by conscience, establishes a litmus by which all conduct is evaluated. When I tamper with it, I do the following:

1) I call into question God’s ability to anticipate all action that He considers wrong and so become co-equal with God in determining what is right and wrong. This is presumption pure and simple. For example, the Bible does not prohibit slavery. Irrespective of my own convictions, I dare not say that it is morally wrong to either be a slave or have slaves. As Jesus says in Mark 7, in so doing I am adding to the commandments of God.

2) I confuse morality, blurring the distinction between it and legality. If I can say that slavery is morally reprehensible, you can also say so of polygamy. Joe can then add gambling and Steve drinking to the list of moral issues. From there it is a short step to pollution, animal rights, nuclear power, etc. The state can rule that any of this is illegal, which is its God-given right. But to say that it is a moral issue is another thing entirely. These issues are no more immoral than going 30 mph in a 25-mph zone.

3) When I confuse morality and legality, I open the door to “laying aside the commandments of God” (Mark 7:8). I feel that it is expedient for me, as a Christian, to divorce my wife and marry one more compatible. The state does not prohibit it, so I feel at liberty to do it. Not only so, but I allow legality to define morality in my business ethics. For example, never mind the fact that I promised a man that I would pay my debt. It was not legally binding under the laws of bankruptcy, and I am therefore not obligated to keep my word. You can see how such an environment produces a proliferation of lawyers.

4) When legality defines morality, I force the state to multiply its rules and regulations (much like OSHA) in order to make up for my lack of morality. The “Keating Five” and the “S & L Scandal” are illustrations. Exactly what laws were broken? Prosecutors are having difficulty determining the answer to this. But there remains the notion, based on our inner sense of right and wrong, that wrong was done. This results in Congress writing more rules to insure that it doesn’t happen again.

5) This in turn, as already noted, adds to the destruction of democracy, simply because the addition of so many rules, and the added personnel needed to enforce them, makes the system unworkable. This is what prompted Lord Acton’s statement that ‘Men will either be governed by God or ruled by tyrants.” Having collapsed under its own weight, the democracy is taken over by a dictator. In a free society it is impossible for government to write sufficient rules to fill the void made by the absence of morality. The refusal to define morality by legality is one of the safeguards of democracy.

Society’s rebuttal is that an issue is moral only when it infringes on the rights of others. Discrimination is wrong because such behavior is felt to be harmful to the object of the discrimination. (We are assuming here that God’s Standards have not been broken.) The truth is, almost everything we do infringes on the rights of others.

For example, in the “SAN DIEGO UNION” there was a feature article in the December 30 issue dealing with the problem of Medi-Cal abusers. In part the article said:

Single and 25 years old, she was working as a waitress in a fashionable bar and grill in downtown San Diego when tragedy struck. After an affair, she became pregnant. The pregnancy did not go well, though, and early this year the child was born prematurely with life threatening complications. She had no health insurance, like tens of thousands of working San Diego. So as medical bills skyrocketed while the child fought for life at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest, she turned to the taxpayer-supported Medi-Cal program to pay the tab. The bill to Medi-Cal now tops $250000, sources say. Medi-Cal reportedly has paid more than $75000, the hospital will write off the difference. But standing somewhere on the sidelines while the taxpayers foot the bill is a father…

This young couple did not ask the taxpayers if they could infringe on their rights when they were promiscuous. They simply did it, and society pays for it. God has created us in such a way that all that we do touches others, for good for bad. Paul says in Romans 8:18-23:

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.

When Adam fell, the whole of the created order was affected. It is the thesis of the Scriptures that immorality of every kind has cosmic consequences!


Tampering with morality” is what we have done in the U.S. I have seen a convoluting of the moral order in less than a lifetime. When I was a child, the movies that I watched usually had a theme or message, but it was always an endeavor to uphold morality. Today the movies usually carry a theme, but almost always in the direction of re-defining morality.

For example, in the delightful movie, “Driving Miss Daisy,” the theme is anti-discrimination. The movie evolves from the beginning when there are clear racial lines drawn between Miss Daisy and her black driver to the end when she says to him, “You are my best friend.” Discrimination, in and of itself, it not wrong. Everyone is discriminate. There are people you and I like more than others, and that for a variety of reasons. It ONLY becomes a matter of morality when the Standards of God are violated.

In many films unrighteousness is exalted. As Malcolm Muggeridge noted, “Sex is materialism’s shabby substitute for religious experience.” It is the fulfillment of Paul’s indictment that “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature” (Romans 1:25). This is the product of failing to maintain a sharp distinction between legality and morality. We can see its devastating effects on society, but in a more subtle manner, it is often at work in its cancerous way in the family unit.

For example, Dad knows that illicit sex is morally wrong. He also knows that watching most modern films exalts sex and can easily lead one into being promiscuous. Moreover, in his heart he knows that he is easily tempted in this area. So he develops a conviction that he will not watch these types of movies. The Bible encourages him to do this.

He is protective of his teenage children, desiring that they remain pure in their relationship with Christ. So, in an endeavor to keep his children from illicit sex, he forbids their watching these kinds of moves. In the ‘government of the home” he is free to do this. But great care must be exercised in avoiding the snare into which both the Pharisees and our society has fallen. Watching an “R” rated movie may be ill-advised, but it is neither a moral nor a legal issue.

When God created us in His image, He firmly placed in each of us a conscience that guides behavior. Sin obscures the conscience; the Bible sharpens it. Under the direction of the Scriptures the conscience is a reliable guide. Personal convictions are developed, in part, to keep sin from doing its work of confusion. But when these personal convictions are turned into moral axioms and imposed on others, great harm results.

Legality plays an important role in society. It can never be confused with or take the place of morality. When it does, great harm results. If I can learn this simple but profound truth, I will be a better servant of Jesus Christ and a better citizen.


For each person, there are three appellate courts in determining right and wrong: the standards of God, the laws of the state and personal convictions in areas not covered by the first two, e.g. deciding not to watch “R” rated movies. Ranked by authority, they are God, the state and personal convictions. God determines morality; the state legality; I the standards of my conduct, and if I choose, those under my authority.

It is easy for the believer to feel secure in his relationship with God and presume on His grace by reversing the order of authority, thereby defining morality by legality and establishing personal convictions as the Supreme Court. The life of grace must distinguish between legal, moral and personal convictions, just as it must wrestle with what self-denial ought to look like. Failure to do so, as pointed out by Jesus in Mark 7, leads to pharisaism and immorality.