Law and Grace

One of the great tensions felt by anyone who has read St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is that between law and grace. The aim of this post is not to do proper exegesis – the reader is encouraged to seek useful scholarship concerning St Paul’s use of the term nomos and his understanding of torah. Rather this post seeks to consider afresh the paradox of the human condition generally.

The problem of evil is a paradox, and it can be helpful at times to think carefully about why it is a paradox. All but the dullest observers will conclude that there is evil in the world. But what is evil? How do we have a concept of evil?

Evil has traditionally been understood as a privation or perversion of good (or both). Imperfection (for such evil is) can be understood as failure to conform to a blueprint (and here already I am exposing my fondness for both Plato and Kant). A blueprint can be marred in the following ways:

  • An absence of something that ought to be present;
  • The presence of something that ought to be absent;
  • The wrong relation between constituent parts (disorder or chaos).

Evil can only be understood in these terms – in other words, evil presupposes good. But good cannot be inferred from experience – it is imposed upon it. Good is an a priori concept – an ideal not found in this life, but one devoutly desired by the pining heart.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” – St Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

The concept of law is built upon this framework. As James Madison once astutely observed, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Law presupposes a framework to which we ought conform. It is founded on basic moral principles such as:

  • people ought to keep their promises;
  • people ought to promote health and happiness in the lives of others;
  • people ought to respect wisdom and experience in others;
  • etc.

The law is absolute. “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10, KJV). Human life, failing to keep the law is fundamentally a life of guilt. Our condition being such as it is, we might venture to make atonement, but we cannot undo the past. Our sins are, in one sense, permanent: the book of history is a tablet of graven stone.

Grace was therefore needed to transcend our condition: the gift and power of God to change our lives, to change our natures, to change our futures. Grace is often defined as “unmerited favour”. It is also defined as “pure love”, a love that seeks the betterment of others for no ulterior motive.

To return to the problem of evil, good is meaningless if there is no God. But one cannot admit the existence of evil without acknowledge the good that it mars. To believe in the existence of evil is to presuppose God.

The law presupposes the existence of the evil it seeks to curb and punish. In so presupposing, it reveals itself as emanating from God – He who brings order out of chaos.

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