In chapter 8 of his Gospel, John tells us about the incident of the woman the scribes and Pharisees caught in the act of adultery and brought to Jesus. Most people who have read John 8 likely remember that Jesus ended His encounter with the woman by telling her that He didn’t condemn her, and, “Go your way. From now on, sin no more.” We see forgiveness, but we also see a command to stop sinning. This leaves a question: Was Jesus’ forgiveness dependent on the woman’s obedience? The answer to this question teaches us much about the relationship between grace and works.
Of the Galatians, who were beginning to believe that they needed to perfect themselves through the law, Paul wrote, “I just want to learn this from you. Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now completed in the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3). The legalist Judaizers who were tempting them might well be called law mongers. They were purveying a method of salvation that said, Sure Jesus took care of our past sins, but now we must keep the law to remain moral. Too many people assert that the only issue among the Galatians was that they were being falsely taught to be circumcised. But this wasn’t the only issue.
“For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be!” (Romans 6:14-15). Many people read this, and then they tag on this assumption: Paul is saying that just because you are under grace doesn’t mean that you should not strive to keep the law to avoid sin. But nothing could be further from the truth! If Paul were saying this, he would be contradicting himself. He would be saying, you are not under the law, but you must keep the law to avoid sin. This would be putting us back under the law. It would give us freedom from the law with one hand while taking it away with the other. It would be saying, you are not under the law, but you are under the law. This would be nonsense.
Many of us are familiar with such passages as Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” And it is most certainly true that our salvation is entirely gracious. God gives it to us as a free gift. We cannot earn it; God never owes it to us.