Can law and grace easily co-exist?

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

I tend not to frequent the cinema very often, for the simple reason that I don’t have a huge amount of time, and on the occasional evening when I am free I prefer, usually, to spend it with family or friends, or walking and talking with my wife.

However, my older daughter was with us last weekend and as a present she bought me a DVD: Les Miserables. It could be said that only a day or two after the death of my old dad, and me being a little emotionally raw, it might not have been the most appropriate movie to watch, but it was an excellent show, well worth seeing.

When you watch an all-time classic such as this one you realise that writers such as Victor Hugo have a deep understanding of life; it’s easy to see them as simply writers of stories, but there’s much more to it than that.

The story is set in the late 18th century and begins with the central character, Jean Valjean being released from jail. He had been incarcerated for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and perhaps understandably he had become bitter and angry. His bail conditions required him to present himself to the police at regular intervals but he didn’t, and instead, he made his way to a monastery where Bishop Myriel offered him food and wine and a bed for the night.

However, in the wee hours he crept out of the monastery with a sackful of silver goblets and salvers and things.

He was apprehended by the police who returned him to the bishop for punishment, but the bishop said, ‘No, I gave him the silver, here my friend, you forgot to take these candlesticks too...’ And he was set free, and that’s where the story of Les Miserables begins, the story of how an act of kindness and grace can change a wicked and twisted heart, and more importantly how law and grace cannot easily co-exist.

But that comes towards the end of the film, and I won’t spoil the story for you.

There is a widely misunderstood, or overlooked scripture in the book of Galatians that tells us that slavishly following the law separates us from the grace that is available through a relationship with Christ.

Yet you often hear people describe those who for whatever reason have lost their status, their lofty position in society, as having fallen from grace. People like Jonathan Aiken, Jeffrey Archer and Chris Huhne have fallen from grace, but I guess it was Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: The Fall From Grace, depicting Adam and Eve being led astray by Satan that contributed to the misunderstanding.

However, what Paul the apostle was saying to the Galatian Christians was this, ‘If you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.’

So Victor Hugo was right, law and grace cannot co-exist, they are mutually exclusive, and the stark choice we have is to accept the full message of the gospel: ‘... if the Son sets you free, you are truly free,’ or settle for the pale reflection of not completely trusting by adding our wee bit to what has already been accomplished for us.

Adam welcomes comments on his column.

Email or write to him c/o Larne Times,8 Dunluce Street, Larne, BT40 1JG.