Holy, Righteous, and Good (5)
Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Romans 7.12
Let’s be clear
As believers in Jesus Christ, we have been redeemed and saved to do good works, which God beforehand ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2.8-10). We are making the point that Scripture insists that the standard which is to guide us in doing good works of love is none other than the Law of God, given to Moses, appealed to throughout the Old Testament, fulfilled and commended by Jesus Christ, and embraced and taught by the apostles.
But what do we mean by “the Law of God”? Which aspects of the Mosaic corpus come under that rubric? How should we regard them? And what is this Law of God directing us to do?
The Law of God consists of three parts: The Ten Commandments, the civil laws and statutes, and the religious or ceremonial laws. The Ten Commandments are given twice in the Old Testament, once in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5 – the first time, immediately after Israel had been delivered from Egypt, and the second time just prior to their beginning to conquer and settle the land of Canaan. The New Testament, either directly or indirectly, reaffirms all those Ten Commandments as the abiding standard for loving God and loving our neighbors (Matt. 22.34-40, etc.).
The civil laws of ancient Israel are given to elaborate and illustrate how the Ten Commandments should be applied in particular situations. They are the Old Testament equivalent of what is today referred to as “case law.” These statutes and judgments were to be obeyed explicitly where they applied directly to a situation. More often, as in Ruth 4, they served to guide the people of Israel in making sound judgments in situations not explicitly spoken to in the civil statutes. Both Paul and James appealed to the civil statutes of Israel as relevant to situations facing the churches in their day (cf. 1 Cor. 9.8-11; Jms. 5.4 [cf. Lev. 19.13]). Because we live in the age of grace and the Spirit, some adjustments of these statutes is necessary, and we will talk more about this in subsequent installments in this series.
The religious laws governed the spiritual lives of the people of ancient Israel, and revolved around the work of the priests and Levites at the tabernacle first, and then later, the temple. These laws especially find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, as the writer of Hebrews argues (Heb. 7-10), and therefore no longer have binding application to the followers of Christ. Nevertheless, embedded in these religious laws are principles relating to worship and the life of the church which remain useful for us in discerning and following God’s will (cf. 1 Cor. 9.12-14).
The Law in Psalm 119
The longest chapter in the Bible is devoted entirely to the benefits that derive from and the obligations attached to obeying the Law of God. In Psalm 119, the psalmist uses a variety of terms to refer to the Law: Law, statutes, precepts, testimonies, judgment, and Word, primarily. The purpose in using all these terms, interchangeably, is to catch up all three aspects of the Law of God, and to commend the practice of them all.
The verbs used to describe the psalmist’s relationship to the Law are instructive. We are to “walk” in the Law; that is, the Law directs our steps and marks the boundaries of our path. We are to “keep” or even “guard” the Law, as a cherished treasure. The psalmist exhorts us to “learn” the Law, to “take heed” of it, hide it in our heart, declare it, remember it, long for and desire and delight in it, even to love the Law of God. The Law contains “wondrous things” to guide us in the paths of covenant blessedness. So we must meditate on the Law, turn to it for revival, call on God to help us understand it, choose it, run the course of it, observe it, and find it good in all its parts. We must trust the Law as truth; have it at the ready in our mouths; seek it diligently; find the life it holds in store for us; let it be a light on our paths; believe in the Law; hope in it; live by it; be found blameless in obeying it; seek it; consider it; find wisdom from it; be careful neither to wander nor stray from it; embrace it as our great heritage; rejoice in it; find safety in it; consider it to be right; and let our steps be directed by it.
Do we dare suggest that these words, so many and so carefully combined, no longer have any significance for us? And if we do, by what standard or criteria or mode of preference do we set aside that which this psalmist has so plainly, copiously, urgently, and comprehensively recommended?
It's about love
Why are we so reluctant to nurture the attitudes toward and relationship with the Law of God which Psalm 119 commends? Jesus told us that the Law – in all its forms and aspects – boils down to loving God and our neighbors. Surely, we would not suggest that we know better than Moses or David or the prophets about how to fulfill these two greatest of commandments? That somehow we may set aside all that has been so carefully and thoroughly set forth in Scripture and trust our feeble instincts, the social winds of the moment, or some kind of mere gut feeling in order to fulfill the mandate to love?
The world suffers from an acute dearth of love. We see it in a thousand different forms: indifference to God, racial tensions, corruption and squalor, poverty and greed, senseless crimes of passion, ridiculous and tyrannical laws designed to bridle free speech or increase some politician’s sense of power. Everywhere it is evident that love has grown cold. And there is but one explanation for why this is so: “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24.12).
If we want to love God and our neighbors, which is our very reason for being, then we must look to God to empower us for such love. We have neither the inclination, aptitude, nor ability to gin up love out of the finite and fallen resources of our puny souls. We need God to be at work within us, willing and doing according to His good pleasure – His holy and righteous good pleasure (Phil. 2.13; Rom. 7.12). And this He is pleased to do by giving to us who have been saved, His Spirit to dwell within us to teach and enable us to live in love according to His Law (Ezek. 36.26, 27).
Why do we kick against the goads, when our Good Shepherd seeks only to lead us into green pastures and still waters of love?
1. If we will not love according to the Law of God, by what standard will we love?
2. What should we conclude about the writer of Psalm 119 and his view and practice of the Law?
3. Why does lawlessness necessarily lead to love growing cold?
Next steps – Preparation: Try reading one section (of twenty-two) of Psalm 119 each day. How could this help you grow in your understanding and use of God’s Law?
T. M. Moore
One way to add reading and meditation in the Law to your daily devotional life is to download A Kingdom Catechism, which contains 135 questions and answers to help you make better lawful use of God’s Law in your daily life (click here).
For additional insight to the contemporary relevance of God’s Law, download the three studies in our Scriptorium series, “The Law of God: Miscellanies” by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.