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What Are the Social Meanings of Law and Grace?


The Adult Bible Study Guide for Sabbath School discussion on Nov. 13 focuses on the classic questions surrounding law and grace. Central corollary concepts such as righteousness as obedience to God’s legal code and sin as illicit violation appear in the lesson as well. Additionally, faith and works don’t contrast as much as collaborate, depending on when they appear in the salvation story. The good news about grace concludes this moral play as the reason for divine forgiveness and the power that enables both obedience and a divine-human covenantal relationship going forward.

Tuesday’s lesson focuses on Deuteronomy 10 and its use of letov lakI, which is Hebrew for “for your own good.” This offers fresh linguistic fodder for theological thinking and Sabbath School conversation. In addition to individual acts of illicit activity and grace bestowal, are there also community moments of law breaking and grace-full transformation? Are there arguments to be made for corporate acts of forgiveness seeking and giving? Do these impact personal salvation? The Study Guide explains:

All through the Hebrew in these verses the words for “your” and “you” are in singular form. Though God certainly is speaking to the nation as a whole, what good will His words do if the people, each one individually, don’t obey them? The whole is only as good as the sum of the parts. The Lord was speaking one-to-one, individually, to Israel as a nation.

We can’t forget, either, the end of verse 13: keep these things letov lak, that is, “for your good.” In other words, God is commanding the people to obey because it is in their best interest to do so. 

What is the common? What is the good? And how can we construct a common good, a community morality, an ethic for all God’s people that fits with the principles of divine justice? 

In their scintillating conversation in the video below, Yale Divinity School’s Miroslav Volf and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks discuss this idea of goodness and its relationship to the Jewish concept of law. Here are a few excerpts from the transcript

Rabbi Sacks: So how do you bring heaven down on earth? There are some religions which see us here on earth trying to climb to heaven. Judaism is exactly the opposite. For instance, you have these two acts of creation in the Bible, in the Mosaic books God creates the Universe, the Israelites create the Sanctuary, the portable Temple. The Bible allocates something like 20 times as much space to the Israelites building this little portable Sanctuary as it does to God creating the Universe. I tend to think of the Bible which is the formative documented Judaism, not as man’s book of God, but god’s book of man. For a life to go well means following the call of God as articulated in Mosaic Law, which is a way of etching everyday life with the charisma of holiness.

Dr. Volf: That’s a wonderful phrase, etching the everyday life with the charisma of holiness. That means everyday life is given significance, it’s given weight, it’s elevated.

Rabbi Sacks: It’s a very remarkable structure. If you read the Mosaic books eating becomes part of the code of holiness. Here are the foods you can eat. Here are the foods you can’t eat. You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God, so eating is a form of Divine thanksgiving. But it’s a code of holiness. The same applies to the sexual life between man and woman. Again, in Leviticus 18 and 20 a very, very intricate code of investing that love between husband and wife with a discipline, a structure, and turning prose into religious poetry. I think that’s the Jewish genius, take an ordinary life in ordinary circumstances and make that a home for the Divine Presence.

Dr. Volf: The code isn’t about dos and don’ts primarily. It’s about that too. The code is about a kind of focusing this, a kind of discovering this particular activity, the presence of God and therefore what heightening the both significance and enjoyment of that activity. Food becomes more than food. Sex becomes more than sex. Ordinary things of life are more than they are. Right?

Rabbi Sacks: Yeah, exactly so. Exactly so. How do you take an ordinary life and imbue it with the sense of the transcendent?

Dr. Volf: This is so contrary to say. Think of some of the critiques of religion, I think something happening in a trail of Nietzsche where transcendence is not only…that it’s not just that you have this resentment against the world and invoked in transcendence, but also somehow transcendence bleaches out ordinary life of its significance. A typical example that people give, Dante, being led through paradise by Beatrice, and Beatrice finally leads him in the presence of God. Then this great love that motivated the entire epic poem disappears in the love of God. People think those who are oriented toward God somehow devalue the life of this world, including the precious things like our lives. But you’re saying something exactly opposite?

Rabbi Sacks: It is extraordinary. If you read the Bible, this extraordinary library of books, the Hebrew Bible composed over a period minimum of a thousand years from the earliest books to the latest books. You’ll find a deeply religious people that almost doesn’t talk about the afterlife at all. It just talks about life down here, what is it to do, what is it to work, what is it to love, what is it to construct an economy, what is it to build the politics around the presence of God in your midst? It is relentlessly this-worldly. Don’t search for God tomorrow. He’s here today. Don’t search for him up in heaven. He’s down here on earth. Or at least as in Jacob’s dream there’s a ladder that connects heaven and earth.

Dr. Volf: We’ve started with the call of Abraham, a transcendent call upon our lives with the Mosaic Law, and I think we have etched ourselves slowly to not just life being led well, but to fundamental elements of life going well, we’re with food, we’re with sex, we’re building a community here and an economy and so forth. That element of life going well is structurally important to Judaism as well.

Rabbi Sacks: Absolutely. Somehow or other there is this extraordinary passage in Deuteronomy which lists the curses, 98 of them if you don’t obey God. You work out what’s brought all this, what terrible sin have the Israelites committed? The Hebrew says: tachat asher lo-avadeta et-Hashem Elokecha b’simchah uv’tuv layvav meirov kol [meaning], all this is happening because you did not serve God with joy and goodness of heart out of the abundance of all good things (Deut. 28:47). The product of the life well lived is joy.


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor elect of Spectrum

Image credit: Screenshot, Yale Center for Faith and Culture


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