For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
These great words have stood here in John's Gospel for eighteen hundred years, but I am afraid there are millions of Christian people who have not discovered their glorious meaning. They are still under law, and are still surrounded by the unreal shadows of darkness. About the grace and the truth which have come through Jesus Christ, they know almost nothing. I will begin with what is most obvious. We find ourselves living in a world in which the forces of nature are constant, in which what we describe as natural laws are uniform and invariable. There is an iron rigidity in the constitution of things. We have to discover that constitution. We cannot change it. We have to take account of it in the conduct of life. What we call Nature seems to show no mercy to those who disregard her method. She will give us harvests, but we must pay her price, and her full price. We can have health and strength, but only upon her conditions. Now this relentlessness of nature forms men to think of God sometimes as relentless; for nature, they say, is the revelation of God. We are under law — this is the inference — under law throughout every province of life, and we can never escape the natural consequences of our sins. We must exhaust the penalty in this world or other worlds, we must pay the debt to the uttermost farthing. Christ meets us in nature and contradicts that inference. Nature is only the partial and incomplete revelation of God. Christ reveals the actual truth. You believe that there is no release from the natural consequences of ignorance, of folly, of recklessness, of vice, and that in the full and unqualified sense of the words "What a man soweth that shall he also reap." But the whole story of Christ's life contradicts that belief. If natural laws were supreme, men born blind would remain blind to the end of their days. Christ gave them sight. That is not merely part of the evidence of the gospel. It is a very substantial part of the gospel itself, and a part of the gospel exceptionally necessary in our times. If natural laws were supreme, deaf would remain deaf, the dumb would remain dumb. Christ gave them hearing, speech. The laws of nature are not supreme. In Christ, the gracious power of the Eternal revealed, not to one age only but to all ages, that nature is not supreme, but that God is supreme. Nature may be relentless; God is not. And it was in the natural order itself that Christ by His miracles gave us this great discovery. The universe is a great school for the discipline of the intellect and the virtue of mankind, and it could not be an effective discipline if the natural order were not constant. But to infer that the methods of God are bound by the methods of nature is a false inference. Let me take another illustration of how Christ contradicts what may be called our natural belief in law. We are conscious of fault, perhaps of something that ought to be described by a darker name. It lies upon our conscience, and we cannot escape from it. We say, "No, it is impossible that I should ever escape. The guilt is mine, and if I live for a thousand years it will be mine still." Grace came by Jesus Christ. You think that by an eternal law you must suffer for your sins. The Christian gospel declares that Christ suffered for them. His relations to us — you will discover this, I hope, some day if you have not discovered it yet — are of a kind which made it possible for Him, as it was possible for no one else. But does He deliver from the external and natural consequences of wrong-doing? Not obviously. Perhaps not frequently. If He delivered men from these obviously and frequently, the moral discipline which we are to derive from the constancy of the order of nature would be imperilled. Sometimes, indeed — and far more often than we even suppose — I am inclined to believe that Christ does really deliver us even from the natural consequences of wrong-doing. But even when these remain their whole character is changed. As sins they are forgiven. Then they become simply the natural consequences of what we have done, not the penal consequences. We do not see behind them a God that is punishing us for having done wrong, but a God who has pardoned us, and who is standing by us to discipline us by certain hard conditions of life to a higher perfection. Consequences which were penal as long as we were unforgiven, become simply natural and disciplinary as soon as sin has been remitted. Do you say that if the consequences remain it makes no differ. ence whether they are penal or whether they are natural and disciplinary? You would hardly say that if you knew the difference from experience. But even apart from experience you may get some glimpse of the truth. Here is a man who, as the result of his recklessness and his gross vices, is suffering disease for which there is no cure. He is miserably weak, sometimes he is in great pain. His condition is the natural result of his evil life, and since he brought it on himself by his vices, he feels that it is the penal result of his evil life. Here is another man, suffering from weakness equally prostrating, from pain equally severe, but his weakness and pain came upon him from no fault of his own. They are the result of exposure to damp air acting on some original defect of the constitution, or the result of overwork for the sake of his wife and children, or of accident, or they came upon him on the battlefield when fighting for his country. They are natural consequences of certain past events in the man's history; they are not the penal results of the man's vices. Would not the first man give a great deal to exchange the weakness and the suffering which are penal for the weakness and the suffering which are merely natural? That is what Christ reveals. Law came by Moses, grace came by Jesus Christ. Let me take another illustration. Law, moral law, law as we know it — and I am using the word in its popular sense — begins by imposing duty. The law of consequence begins by imposing duty. The law given to the Jewish people so far forth as it was law begins by imposing duty, and it makes the fulfilment of duty the condition of peace with God and of larger power to do well and of eternal blessedness. All this is of the very essence of what we call law. Grace came by Jesus Christ. He begins in altogether a different way. He does not say "Live righteously, and God will be at peace with you,", but "God is at peace with you, therefore bye righteously." He finds us in our sin. Whenever He really finds us we are conscious of our sin, and so we are ready in our strong belief in that form of law which is familiar to us to say, "God can be no friend of mine as yet; I must amend my ways, I must break off my evil habits, I must master my evil passions, I must become pure, devout, earnest about religion, and then God will be at peace with me." That is law. What Christ says is, "God is already at peace with you, is already your Friend. He will not wait till you have amended your ways before He dismisses the remembrance of your sin. He dismisses it at once, and will help you to mend your ways, will help you to break off evil habits, will help you to master evil passions, will help you to become pure, devout, and earnest about religion." That is grace. People do not see the glory of it, do not see what it means. They think that Christ only came to make some things plainer to the world than they were before. It never occurred to them that it would not have been worth while for the eternal Word of God to become flesh in order to do that. Truth — there is an infinite suggestiveness in the way John puts the contrast between what Moses did and what Christ has done. He does not merely say, "The law was given by Moses, grace came by Jesus Christ." What he says is, "The law was given by Moses, grace came — grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." Judaism was evidently wanting in grace; it was wanting in reality too. All its institutions were elementary, visible, material illustrations of the spiritual realities, the very truth of things, which are ours in Christ. Not only grace and truth, reality came by Jesus Christ. And wherever the grace is obscured, the truth, the very reality and substance of the Christian revelation loses its place, and the mere shadows of heavenly things remain. It was so among the Judaising opponents of Paul. You remember how they insisted on the necessity of circumcision if men were to be saved. But, said Paul, circumcision is nothing. It is a shadow, it produces no real change in a man. We Christians have the true thing, of which circumcision is but the shadow, the circumcision of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter, whose praise is not of man but of God. I entreat you to dismiss shadows, all shadows. Recognize the truth, the reality that has come by Jesus Christ, and in the truth you will find grace. There is a real sacrifice for sin, the eternal Son of God. There is a real Priest. While we deal with the shadows of sin, the shadows of sacrifices and the shadows of priests may avail for us; but when the sin comes home to us in its reality, be sure of this, that only the sacrifice that is real and the Priest that is real will give us courage and peace. And the glory of what Christ has achieved, and the revelation of grace which has come by Christ, is this, that while Christ has cancelled the old and infirm form of law, Christ creates a righteousness transcending all that law had demanded. Grace comes, grants us to begin with more than man had ever hoped for by perfect obedience, and grace tells man that, by an obedience he would never have been capable of before, he is to retain this great wealth and constantly to augment it. And so in a higher region grace and law blend. The law is not made void — it is established; the righteousness that law demands grace renders possible; and so man is glorified for ever in the eternal glory of God.
(B. W. Dale, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.