Does Jesus contradict himself?

When you think of Jesus' teaching, themes like grace, love, and forgiveness probably pop into your mind. You might think of heart-warming parables like The Prodigal Son or Jesus' promise to give rest to all who come to Him (Mt 11:28). But then you run across passages where Jesus says you cannot follow Him unless you carry a cross and hate your children (Lk 14:26-27).

Uh . . . what?

Read the red letters of your Bible and you will find examples of unprecedented grace. But you'll also find harsh and shocking commands. So, how do we make sense of this? Is Jesus double-minded?

What Moral Law Did Jesus Preach?

Jesus preached the moral law God gave to Moses, which includes the Ten Commandments (Mk 10:3Mt 22:36-40). 

But it's important to note that Jesus drilled deeper into Moses' law to reveal not only outward actions of the body, but inward intentions of the heart (Mt 5:27-48). According to Jesus, you must obey the law and do it with the right motivation. 

What About Grace?

Like every good grace preacher, Jesus loved the law because He understood the purposes for which it was given

Many Christians think the only purpose of the law is to be our guide for right conduct. But that is a woefully incomplete view of the law. 

God didn't just make up some arbitrary rules and hand them to Moses. God's moral law is a reflection of God's own moral nature. And because the law reveals the holy and perfect character of God, like a bright white spotlight, it serves to expose all wickedness in the hearts of men. 

Paul writes in Romans 3:20, "No one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin."

Paul explains further in Romans 7:13, "Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it [law] used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful."

Elsewhere, Paul goes so far as to say that "the power of sin is the law" (1 Cor 15:56) and that the Ten Commandments are "the ministry of death" (2 Cor 3:7).

These verses caused Martin Luther to conclude: “The chief function or power of the law is to make original sin manifest and show man to what utter depths his nature has fallen.”

So, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, Jews had fourteen centuries to learn what the law should have taught them – that they were dreadfully sinful and in desperate need of a Savior. However, the religious teachers had essentially replaced God's law with their own watered down version (Mk 7:6-8). By teaching their rules more than God's law, they robbed the law of its power to expose sin.

As a result, the people did not see their true condition, the menace of sin was not fully recognized, and the mouths of the self-righteous remained open. 

By the time Jesus was born, every Jew should have been saying to themselves what Paul said to himself in Romans 7:23-24:

“Nothing good lives in me. Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Anyone living under the ministry of the law will inevitably ask that question.

But sadly, no Jew was asking it because the Pharisees and other religious teachers had muddied the waters too much. Therefore, Jesus had to do their job before He could do His. He had to return God's standard of morality to its proper level of glorious perfection (Mt 5:48)Before He could preach grace, He had to preach the law in order to make sin truly sinful. Before He could give us Himself as the answer, He had to make sure we were asking the right question: Who will deliver us?!

The Big Mistake

Sadly, lots of churchgoers today are not asking that question. They don't grasp their ever-present need for grace.

Why not?

Many preachers don't know what to do with Jesus' harsh commands. So, to escape their harshness, pastors allegorize or soften them. They'll say, "Well, Jesus doesn't actually want you to love your neighbor equally as much as you love yourself, He just wants you to be nice." Or "Well, Jesus doesn't really want you to give up everything to follow Him (Lk 14:33), He just wants you to love your stuff less."  Or "Well, Jesus doesn't really want you to gouge your eyes out (Mt 5:29), He just wants you to stop watching porn."

Do you see what's happening? These preachers are making the exact same mistake as the Pharisees – they're replacing Jesus' law with their own watered down version.

The biggest problem in the church today is not "cheap grace," but cheap law: believing that God accepts anything less than perfect obedience (Mt 5:48).

And self-righteousness reigns.

Jesus' Two Words: Law and Gospel

When Christians and preachers fail to distinguish between the law and the gospel, they cause great confusion and great damage. Consider these red letters:

"If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Mt 6:14-15).

This is one of the most quoted passages in the Bible. And that's because people don't see what it's really saying. This teaching from Jesus should send cold chills down your spine. Jesus is saying that God's forgiveness toward you hinges completely on your ability to forgive others. 

That's really bad news.

People sin against us all the time. Have we honestly forgiven them all? What if we miss one? And what do we say to those who have been raped or horribly abused? What do you say to a young child who has been molested? 

“Sweetie, Jesus says you have to forgive that evil man or He won’t forgive you.” 

If you don't know how to distinguish between law and gospel, that is exactly what you'll have to say to that child. After all, Jesus was clear: you must forgive everyone, even the unforgiveable. If you can't, you're in big troublethe law condemns you as an unforgiver. 

Thankfully, Jesus did not come only to preach the law, but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17). We cannot forgive the unforgivable, but Jesus can and did in our place. And His blood has removed all our sins, including our sins of unforgiveness (Rm 5:9).

That's really good news. That's the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-5).

How They Work Together

The relationship between law and gospel goes in four steps:

1. Perfect law-keeping is required to enter and stay in God's kingdom (law)

2. None of us can do it (law)

3. But there was One who did it for us (gospel)

4. We are counted as perfect law-keepers through faith in Him (gospel)

God's law drives us to God's grace.

Forgotten Words

This law/gospel distinction was a central element of the Reformation that has sadly been largely forgotten by the modern church. "The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace" (Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, 4th edn., 612).

Reformer Theodore Beza stated, “Ignorance of the distinction between the Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of all the abuses which corrupt and still corrupt Christianity.” 

Being able to distinguish between law and gospel is the key to understanding all of Scripture. Of course, the best place to learn the distinction is with Jesus.

How to Spot Jesus' Law and Gospel

Any time Jesus gives a moral command, it's law. Example: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:34).

Any time you read a conditional statement from Jesus, it's law. Example: “Do not judge and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:37). To avoid something (judgment) you have to do something (don’t judge). This is law – a blessing you have to pay for.

Any time Jesus makes a threat, it's law. Example: “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Mt 5:22). That’s bad news for anyone with a brother!

But any time Jesus gives an unconditional promise, you should interpret that as gospel. It's a blessing He paid for with His own blood. Example: "He said to the paralyzed man, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'" (Mk 2:5).

To those who think they're good, Jesus humbles them with the law (the rich young ruler). To those who know they're sinful, Jesus comforts them with the gospel of grace (the woman caught in adultery). 

Martin Luther explained: "The law humbles, grace exalts. The law effects fear and wrath, grace effects hope and mercy" (LW 31.50-51).


The law is impossible to obey. It is the greatest of all burdens; the heaviest of all yokes (Acts 15:10; Gal 5:1). 

And that's the whole point. 

Christ is not using the law to get us to strive harder; He's using the law to get us to stop striving altogether

"And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Rm 4:5).

Without question, Jesus is overflowing with grace. But our focus on watered-down law-keeping prevents us from walking in it. So, in loving-kindness, Jesus gives us the real law, with all its crushing power, so that He can then give us the word of grace that will raise us to a new life of joy and rest in Him.

For Further Reading

-The Freedom of a Christian

-Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints)