The question comes:
I once heard someone say (or write) that the Law was also “graceful” because at least in this God’s case, He was letting His subjects know what was expected and wanted from them.
I appreciate the intent of the sentiment. There are two problems here. First is the semantic problem. The English language is a little limited here. We use gift, grace, and favor, as synonyms. If we could distinguish “gift” from “grace” and “favor,” then we might be able to speak that way. What we need is a word that connotes something freely given that is isn’t necessarily saving and, in some cases is beneficial but not all. The word “benefit” does this.
The second problem is the pervasive and persistent problem that some Reformed and would-be Reformed folk have, in reacting to antinomianism, of conflating grace and law. This is the more serious
Rather than speaking of the grace of the law, it would be better to speak as the Westminster Confession does. The Westminster divines (theologians) did not confess that the covenant of works was “a covenant of grace,” or “a covenant of favor,” nor did they say that God “graciously” instituted the covenant of works. Rather they said (7:1) that God established the covenant of works by “voluntary condescension.” In other words, rather than appealing to the nature of the law they appealed to God’s exercise of his free will.
WCF ch. 16 summarizes the Reformed doctrine of good works and there we do not find the law called a grace or gracious. Chapter 19 is devoted the the Law of God. If the confession is going to speak of the grace of the law anywhere, it would be there. Yet, in WCF 19.3, it says that God “was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age….” As in chapter 7, they appealed to traditional Reformed language concerning the will of God.
WCF 20.7 is a model for relating grace and law when it says,
Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.
Here grace and law are related closely and carefully without being identified. The law isn’t called a “grace” or even “gift.” It does say that the law is complementary to the gospel. There’s no doubt that the moral law is a benefit to Christians inasmuch as it is that Word God the Spirit uses, in its first or pedagogical use, to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery and to drive us to Christ. It does this before we come to faith and it does it after we come to faith (HC 2-3, 115). In its civil use, it is a benefit inasmuch as it reveals, in the second table, God’s moral will for civil, public life. It is a benefit to believers in the third use as it guides our new lives in Christ. To deny the third use of the law is antinomianism. To conflate the law with the gospel is moralism. If we read God’s Word with the Reformed churches it isn’t that difficult to avoid both of these pitfalls.
Since Christ has delivered us believers from the curse of the law it no longer terrifies us relative to our righteousness before God. Since we are free from the curse and condemnation we are free to delight in God’s law and to see its wisdom and perfections.
Nevertheless, in this life we still sin and suffer the consequences and subjective effects of sin. We rightly feel guilty and ashamed of our continuing sins and sinfulness and the law offers us no remedy for sin, its guilt, or its consequences nor does it sanctify. Only the gospel provides those remedies. Only the gospel sanctifies.
Thus, as much as we might be tempted to react to antinomianism by speaking of the “grace of the law,” we should not. It’s better to speak of the benefits of the law. It is notable that the Westminster Divines, who also faced a significant threat of antinomianism in their day, did not react by conflating “grace” and “law,” not even to make a rhetorical point. In that case we should follow the example of the divines and exercise the same degree of self-control and continue to make the same distinctions.
[This first version of this post first appeared on the HB in 2007]