by Christopher VanDusen
(Note: unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the American Standard Version)
There is much confusion in the thinking of many evangelicals on the subjects of God’s law and God’s grace, as well as what relationship Christians have to the writings of Moses, and to the Lord Jesus Christ. Some believe that the law which God gave to Israel is partially binding upon Christians today, such as those who hold to Covenant Theology, or who are truly Reformed. Some also believe that, in order for grace and truth to come to Christ’s enemies, so as to save them, they first must be given the law of Moses to convict them of their sins, and to lead them to Christ like a “schoolmaster”.
However, some evangelicals see clearly that the New Testament teaches that Christians have no obligations to obey any part of the law for Israel, as if they are under it. Some also see that the New Testament teaches that it is only through Jesus Christ that sinners can receive grace and truth, and that the application of the law of Moses to them is unnecessary. So, what exactly does the New Testament teach on these issues?
There is a single verse in the New Testament that summarizes the whole apostolic teaching regarding the relationship between the law of Moses and the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. This verse is verse 17 of the first chapter of the Gospel of the apostle John, which says this:
“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Clearly, John is here drawing a contrast between the law and grace and truth, and between Moses and Jesus Christ. What is the contrast that he’s drawing? What differences between these 3 things, and these 2 people, does John wish to draw our attention to?
In order to find out, we need to look at the preceding context of this verse, especially since it begins with the word, “for”, showing us that John is providing evidence or a reason for what he has just asserted. This verse really is a continuation of what John began to say in verse 14, which begins this whole section.
Verses 14 to 17 say this:
“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth. John beareth witness of him, and crieth, saying, This was he of whom I said, He that cometh after me is become before me: for he was before me. For of his fulness we all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
In this section, John is describing the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ while He was on earth, and explaining how the first disciples beheld His glory.
So, why does John write verse 17? To explain verse 16, which says,
“For of his fulness we all received, and grace for grace.”
In this verse, John is saying that the first disciples of Christ, who had Christ dwell among them, and who beheld His glory, received from Christ’s fullness of Deity in bodily form (Col. 2:9), which was manifested in His grace and truth (v. 14); and they received “grace for grace”, or “grace upon grace” (NASB). So, when he gets to verse 17, he is explaining why it was from Christ that they received from His divine fullness, and grace upon grace:
“For of his fulness we all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
So, what reasons does John give us for why it was from Christ that the disciples received from His fullness, and grace upon grace?
- The law was given through Moses
Before we look at how this is a reason that the disciples received from Christ’s fullness and grace upon grace, let’s answer the question of what John means by “the law”.
- The law was given through Moses
First, this is the law, not just any law. John has a specific law in mind, which his original audience would have been able to identify just by reading or hearing “the law”.
Second, this is the law that was given through Moses. So, what law was given through Moses?
John includes a reference to this law at least one time in his Gospel:
“If a man receiveth circumcision on the sabbath, that the law of Moses may not be broken; are ye wroth with me, because I made a man every whit whole on the sabbath?” (Jn. 7:23)
Here, Jesus says that the law of Moses commanded that men were to be circumcised on the Sabbath. Therefore, the law that was given through Moses must be more than the Ten Commandments, which make no mention of circumcision.
So, what is the content of the law given through Moses? There is a rough idea of it given in Exodus 34:10-28 (since I would have to quote too much Scripture to show you the entire law):
“And he [God] said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth, nor in any nation; and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of Jehovah; for it is a terrible thing that I do with thee. Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: but ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and ye shall cut down their Asherim (for thou shalt worship no other god: for Jehovah, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God); lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot after their gods, and sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee and thou eat of his sacrifice; and thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters play the harlot after their gods, and make thy sons play the harlot after their gods. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib; for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt. All that openeth the womb is mine; and all thy cattle that is male, the firstlings of cow and sheep. And the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break its neck. All the first-born of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.
Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in plowing time and in harvest thou shalt rest. And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year’s end. Three times in the year shall all thy males appear before the Lord Jehovah, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou goest up to appear before Jehovah thy God three times in the year.
Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning. The first of the first-fruits of thy ground thou shalt bring unto the house of Jehovah thy God. Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of [in accordance with (NASB)] these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with Jehovah forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables [tablets] the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”
In this passage, we see that God calls His law for Israel a covenant, or an agreement, which He has made with Israel. God promised the nation temporal blessings for their obedience to this law, and temporal curses for their disobedience to this law, which can be found near the end of Deuteronomy. These particular laws in this passage are not all of the laws in the whole law of Moses, but they are representative of the types of laws that are included in it. Clearly, there are various types of laws, but they all make up the one law of Moses.
Now that we have seen what John means by “the law” in John 1:17, how is the fact that that law was given to Israel through Moses a reason that the disciples received from Christ’s fullness and grace upon grace?
- John is implying that the disciples were under the law until they received from Christ’s fullness and grace.
The disciples to whom John refers as the “we” who received from Christ’s fullness and grace, were, of course, religious Jews. As such, they observed the law of Moses, and thus, were not able to receive from Christ’s fullness and grace until Christ came to them.
The apostle Paul teaches this in Galatians 3:13-14, 23-24:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that upon the Gentiles might come the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith . . . But before faith came, we were kept in ward under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. So that the law is become our tutor . . . unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”
First, Paul begins speaking of those who were redeemed from the curse of the law. Then, he gets specific, and says that, rather than us, the Gentiles were able to get the blessing of Abraham. Next, he goes back to we, saying that the reason for this blessing was so that “we” would receive the promise of the Spirit by faith. Paul continues his argument from verse 14 to verse 23, and then again speaks of “we”, who are the same “we” that were redeemed from the curse of the law, so the blessing would come to the Gentiles, so that the “we” would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Hence, the “we” must refer to Jews, including Paul, since it cannot refer to “the Gentiles”.
Thus, when Paul says “we were kept in ward under the law”, he means that the Jews were kept “in custody” (NASB) under the law, and were shut up to the faith that was later going to be revealed. However, he then says that the law was their tutor, or guardian, “unto” or “until” Christ (ESV, NIV, HCSB, and CSB), so that they would be justified by faith. Therefore, Paul is implying that the Jews were under the law, and shut up to the faith of Christianity, until Christ came to them. Once Christ came and founded Christianity, the Jews were able to receive from His fullness, and grace upon grace.
But why were the Jews unable to receive from God’s fullness and grace upon grace while under the law?
- Law, by its very nature, demands, and doesn’t give, especially the fullness of God, and grace upon grace.
- The law brought about God’s wrath and condemnation, not God’s grace, since it could not be obeyed by unbelievers, who made up most of the Jewish population (Ro. 4:15).
- The law was not God, who alone can give from His fullness.
- The law was given through Moses
The second reason that the disciples received from Christ’s fullness and grace was that the law was given through Moses. What does this mean? Primarily, John is pointing out the fact that Moses was not essential to the law, but only the instrument through whom God gave the law to Israel. And since the law was only given to Israel, it was up to them to obey it, not God, nor Moses; but they could not obey it the way it was supposed to be obeyed — out of love for God and love for neighbor.
III. The law was given through Moses
The third reason that the disciples received from Christ’s fullness and grace was that the law they were previously under was given through Moses. Besides the fact that the law could not allow people to receive from God’s fullness and grace upon grace, it was also given through an ordinary man — Moses. He was the man appointed by God to be the mediator of the covenant that He made with the nation of Israel. As the mediator, Moses was to represent the nation of Israel before God, and serve as the go-between for Israel and God. However, he could not provide Israel, nor the disciples before Christ came to them, with God’s fullness and grace. It is significant that John here says that the law was given through Moses, considering how we have seen that the law could not allow anyone to receive from God’s fullness or grace. Thus, if Moses was the one who was used by God to give the law, then he made no contribution to the Jews in helping them to receive anything of God’s fullness, or grace upon grace.
Having considered how the fact of the law being given through Moses was a reason for the necessity of the disciples receiving from Christ’s fullness and grace, we have seen that it was impossible for this law, its delivery, or its deliverer to allow anyone to receive from Christ’s fullness and grace.
After telling us this, John goes on to the second main reason that the disciples received from Christ’s fullness and grace.
- Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ
This is the second main reason for the reception of Christ’s fullness and grace by the disciples. It is integrally connected to the first part of the sentence in verse 17 with a semicolon (in the ASV and NASB), indicating that it is expanding on the idea that the law was given through Moses. In fact, as I noted, it shows that John is contrasting the law and grace and truth, as well as the giving of the law, and the coming of grace and truth.
So, what are the differences between the law and grace, or undeserved favor, and truth?
- The law demands from people obedience to God that is impossible to give; grace and truth enable people to be obedient to God, and make it inevitable:
“For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace.” (Ro. 6:14).
- The law condemns you for your disobedience to it, while grace and truth forgives you for your disobedience to the law that you are under:
“The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more . . .” (Ro. 5:20).
III. The law was given, while grace and truth were realized:
“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17).
The New American Standard Bible renders the Greek word for “came”, as “realized”, which is more accurate. Now, what does it mean, first of all, that grace was realized through Jesus Christ? We have seen that John has already said that Jesus Christ was full of grace. So, what does that mean? It means that Jesus Christ abounded in graciousness, in granting undeserved favor to people. All that He did, all that He was, was a manifestation of God’s grace. The apostle Paul sums it up in Titus 2:11, “For the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men….” And how was salvation brought to all men? Through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross because of our sins, and through His resurrection from the dead.
Now, how was truth realized through Jesus Christ? Well, before we can consider that, we first must make sure we understand what John means by “truth”. Of course, he understood it as Scripture teaches it. And how does Scripture define “truth”? Well, it tells us that Jesus defined it as God’s Word. Speaking to the Father, He said: “. . . thy [the Father’s] word is truth” (Jn. 17:17b). In other words, Scripture is truth. Therefore, when John says that truth was realized through Jesus Christ, he is saying that Scripture was realized, fulfilled, or brought into being, through Jesus Christ. So, how did Jesus Christ realize truth? He realized truth by fulfilling the entire Old Testament, the only Scripture that believers had at the time. Many passages in Scripture prove this, and here are some:
- “Think not that I [Jesus] came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfill” (Mt. 5:17).
- “Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me [Jesus] . . .” (Jn. 5:39).
- “And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27).
Not only does Scripture say that Jesus Christ fulfills the Old Testament, but it also says that He is the embodiment of truth:
- “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, and the truth . . .” (Jn. 14:6a)
- “. . . if so be that ye heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus . . .” (Eph. 4:21).
- “God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners, hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in his Son . . .” (Heb. 1:1-2a).
To summarize, every Old Testament prophecy, institution, type, and picture is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the embodiment of truth. Do you want to know what truth is? Then study Jesus Christ by studying His Word, which is all about Him.
Now that we have seen what it means that Jesus Christ realized grace and truth, let us ask the question: why grace and truth? Why not just grace, or just truth?
- God is not just the God of undeserved favor toward people, but is also the God who reveals Himself to us in truth.
- Scripture says that God not only saves us by grace, but through faith. And what is our faith in? Truth. Salvation is not possible with one of these elements missing. We must have God’s grace, and His truth.
So, going back to the fact that the law of Moses was given, while grace and truth were realized, what are the differences between these two actions?
- The law was given to Israel, but it could not be realized, or kept, by Israel. On the other hand, grace and truth were realized, or came into being, and were not just given.
- Only a law was given to Israel, but both grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.
- The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.
The fourth difference between the law and grace and truth is that Moses was the man through whom the law was given, while Jesus Christ was the Man through whom grace and truth were realized.
Clearly, there is an infinite difference between Moses and Jesus Christ. So, what are some of the differences between them?
- Moses was only the one through whom the law was given; he was not the giver himself. The Giver was God. On the other hand, Jesus Christ was the One through whom grace and truth were realized. He Himself realized grace and truth.
- Moses, of course, was just a man. But Jesus Christ is both God and man.
- Moses has no title like Christ, while Jesus has the title of Christ, christos in Greek, or mashiach in Hebrew, which both literally mean “Anointed One”. Christ was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be the ultimate Prophet, High Priest, and King of the true Israel, the church, while Moses was only a prophet.
- Moses was only a type of the Christ, while Jesus is the Christ Himself. Moses foreshadows Christ in the Old Testament by leading Israel out of Egypt, and through the wilderness. Christ fulfills all of this imagery by leading His people out of bondage to sin, and through the wilderness of this world.
So, why did grace and truth even have to be realized in the first place? The answer is clear — because the law could not realize them. Was God being gracious in giving the law to Israel? Yes. Did the law contain truth? Yes. But it could not bring these blessings into being, or bring them into their fullness. No one was ever saved by keeping the law; no one ever received grace by keeping the law. And the whole truth of God’s self-revelation was not realized in the law; people did not see all that God was in the law. They knew part of the truth, but not all of it.
Because of these weaknesses of the law, God had to eventually realize grace and truth through Jesus Christ — and He has.
The author of Hebrews put this whole issue of the failure of the law, and the necessity for grace and truth to be realized in some other way, perfectly in Hebrews 8:6-13:
“But now hath he [Jesus Christ] obtained a ministry the more excellent, by so much as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which hath been enacted upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then would no place have been sought for a second. For finding fault with them [Israel], he saith,
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord,
That I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah;
Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers
In the day that I took them by the hand to lead them forth out of the land of Egypt;
For they continued not in my covenant,
And I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
After those days, saith the Lord;
I will put my laws into their mind,
And on their heart also will I write them:
And I will be to them a God,
And they shall be to me a people:
And they shall not teach every man his fellow-citizen,
And every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord:
For all shall know me,
From the least to the greatest of them.
For I will be merciful to their iniquities,
And their sins will I remember no more.
In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. But that which is becoming old and waxeth aged is nigh unto vanishing away.”
And the Old Covenant, or the law of Moses, has vanished away. Not in Scripture, nor in its usefulness, but in it being in effect. Why? Because grace and truth have been realized through Jesus Christ. Are you depending on Jesus Christ alone for God’s undeserved favor and truth?
So, what are some practical implications of what John 1:17 teaches us?
- We should not look to the law of Moses to see grace and truth realized, but to Jesus Christ. Do you want to know that you have received the grace and truth of God? Look only to Jesus Christ. All grace and all truth is in Jesus Christ. There is no grace or truth realized in any other person.
- We should not look to the law of Moses for the law we ought to obey, but to Jesus Christ. Do you want to know how to live? Then listen to what Jesus Christ tells you to do through His teaching, and the teaching of His apostles, and look at how He lived when He was on this earth.
- We should rest in the fact that God’s undeserved favor and truth have indeed been realized through Jesus Christ. All the grace we need, and all the truth we need, is in Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, His resurrection from the dead, His intercession for the saints in heaven, and His consummation of all things when He comes again and makes the new heavens and the new earth. We need only to seek Jesus Christ, and depend on Him, for the grace and truth that we need. He is perfectly gracious, so He will freely give it to us if we seek it from Him.
 Christopher VanDusen is part of an independent fundamentalist Baptist church, a receiver for a food distribution center, a blogger, and a Bible teacher. He graduated from SUNY Broome Community College with an Associate in Arts degree, of which he concentrated on philosophy and world history, and where he was a member of a club called Campus Bible Fellowship. He also studied for a short time through The Master’s University Online, but was prevented from continuing. He has gotten most of his Bible knowledge from intense personal study and sermons and lectures by some of the greatest Reformed, Calvinistic, and New Covenant Theology preachers of recent history.