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On Loving God’s Law

Feb 1, 2012

As I near the end of reading through the Psalms – as part of my read-the-Bible-in-a-year regime – a few things are worth highlighting. One is how differently the psalmists seem to regard God’s law than we do. While the writers of the Psalms exalt in the law of God, we seem to take a quite different approach to it.

Now before I go any further, let me make a few necessary qualifications. I am not here writing about the law and grace dichotomy as such, nor about which aspects of the Old Testament law carry into the New. Nor am I at all suggesting that we somehow can get saved by keeping the law.

In both Testaments, God’s people have always been saved by grace through faith. For example, Israel was first saved, delivered, rescued by God out of Egypt, and only after the exodus (as we read about in the opening chapters of Exodus) did he give them the law (Exodus 20 and onwards) as an expression of how he wanted his redeemed people to live.

Keeping God’s law did not save them – they were already saved. Keeping the law was an expression of loving gratitude for this salvation, and the appropriate way to interact with God in this covenant relationship. And as Yahweh informed Moses, he gave the law to his people for their good (Deut 10:12-13).

So the law was always to be viewed as a wonderful gift of God, not as an odious burden. It was to be the delight of God’s people, and it was something they were to cling to, adhere to, rejoice in, and happily affirm. That differs markedly from today’s believers who often take an antinomian approach to God’s law.

The Psalms throughout extol the law. In the very first Psalm we read these words: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).

Or consider how the 19th Psalm speaks to the beauties of God’s law: “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (Psalm 19:7-8).

Or as the psalmist continues in vv. 10-11: “They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” Wow, that sure stands in marked contrast to the way most Christians think about the law of God today.

But it is of course in Psalm 119 that we read the most magnificent and sustained celebration of God’s law. As Derek Kidner comments, “This giant among the Psalms shows the full flowering of that ‘delight . . . in the law of the Lord’ which is described in Psalm 1, and gives its personal witness to the many-sided qualities of Scripture praised in Psalm 19:7ff.”

Psalm 119 uses a number of terms to refer to Yahweh’s covenant instructions with his people. The term ‘law’ is perhaps most often used (torah in Hebrew), along with other terms such as precept, commandment, judgement, word, instruction, way, testimony, statute, rule, and so on. Some eight or nine different Hebrew terms are translated in various ways into English. They are found in all but several of the 176 verses in this acrostic psalm.

As James Montgomery Boice remarks in his exposition of this wondrous Psalm, when the Bible speaks of ‘law’ it has something much bigger in mind than mere prohibitions and restrictions. “It is referring to the whole of God’s spoken and written revelation, containing all the various elements that the other words for law in this psalm suggest.”

The psalmists are telling us that “we are to understand that this keeping of the law is a practical matter, a way of life and not merely a course of academic study”. We are to know and obey God’s law, as it is the path of life, and the way of blessedness.

But let me here just highlight a few lines from this great Psalm:
Psalm 119:113: I hate double-minded people, but I love your law.
Psalm 119:136: Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.
Psalm 119:139: My zeal wears me out, for my enemies ignore your words.
Psalm 119:158: I look on the faithless with loathing, for they do not obey your word.

Of course all throughout this Psalm there is a very clear love of, and delight in, the law, and a real disgust with those who spurn God’s laws. But these four lines certainly show us the heart of the psalmist. In these verses we see that the law is not only deeply loved and treasured, but those who do not know it and obey it are the cause of great concern.

So deeply revered is the law of God that the tears pour like a faucet when the psalmist reflects on the ungodly who reject the law and disobey it. We need to deeply ponder this passage. Just what brings tears into our life? When our favourite sports team loses a major game? When we don’t get that new plasma TV? When we miss out on an overseas vacation?

The psalmist had his priorities right. He intimately shared the Father’s broken heart. Do we? Do we shed tears when God is rejected, his laws are spat upon, and his ways are dismissed? Does it grieve our heart when the name of Christ is mentioned merely as a swear word, and the holy nature and character of God is mocked and ridiculed?

Do we delight in the law of the Lord? Is it a source of great comfort, joy and rejoicing? Or have we bought into the spurious notion that being in relationship with Christ means we have absolutely nothing to do with law, or regulations, as so many in the emerging church movement teach?

That is not the understanding of the biblical writers in either Testament. Keeping God’s law is always seen as one with loving God. Consider just a few words of Jesus for example as found in the Fourth Gospel:
John 14:15: If you love me, you will obey what I command.
John 14:21: Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
John 15:10: If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
John 15:14: You are my friends if you do what I command.

All devout Christians have recognised the wonder and beauty of God’s law. C.S. Lewis, in his book Reflections on the Psalms speaks about Psalm 119. He notes that the attempt to please God and keep his law, while never perfect in this life, “does not spring from servile fear. The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life? His ‘delight’ is in those statutes (16); to study them is like finding treasure (14); they affect him like music, are his ‘songs’ (54); they taste like honey (103); they are better than silver and gold (72). As one’s eyes are more and more opened, one sees more and more in them, and it excites wonder (18). This is not priggery nor even scrupulosity; it is the language of a man ravished by a moral beauty. If we cannot at all share his experience, we shall be the losers.”

In his recently released systematic theology, The Christian Faith, Michael Horton puts it this way: “God’s law is nothing more than a stipulation of the proper exercise of love toward God and neighbor (Mt 22:37-40). Law and love are typically contrasted in contemporary theology and in popular thought. But the theology of covenant brings these together. . . . [L]aw and love are synonymous. Law prescribes the dictates of love.”

But let me conclude with three quotes from an important volume by Ernest Kevan, Moral Law:

“But the bestowal of the power for a holy life needs to be accompanied by instruction in the pattern of it. In what does sanctified behaviour consist? It consists in pleasing God. What is it that pleases God? The doing of His will. Where is His will to be discerned? In His holy Law. The Law, then, is the Christian’s rule of life, and the believer finds that he delights in the Law of God after the inward man (Rom. 7:22). The Christian is not lawless, ‘but under the law to Christ’ (1 Cor 9:21).”

“To insist upon this function of the Law of God in the life of the believer is not to become legalistic. Legalism is an abuse of the Law: it is a reliance on Law-keeping for acceptance with God, and the proud or the servile observance of laws is no part of the grace of God. The joyfully rendered obedience of love, however, is a quite different thing and is of the very essence of Christian life. For a man to obey God because he loves to do so is not legalism; it is liberty: but, let it be remembered, it is still obedience.”

“A sovereign is no less a sovereign because his subjects love him. God does not cease to be God as soon as His people are reconciled to Him; He does not forfeit all rights to command as soon as people come to love Him. There is, therefore, nothing incompatible between love and obedience; for in the truly sanctified life there is loving obedience and obedient love.”

The psalmists loved God’s law. So should we. If we find this difficult to do, I suggest that we go back to Psalm 119 and read it and keep reading it until God’s Spirit grabs us and enables us to hear what is being said in this jewel amongst the Psalter.

[1740 words]

19 Responses to On Loving God’s Law

  • A wonderful article Bill!
    Annette Nestor

  • I have struggled to understand what “faith” is since I first started to investigate the Christian claims.

    If you ask atheists, they’ll tell you that “faith is believing things without any evidence at all—just because someone told you so”. Well, should I trust an atheist?

    If you ask a Christian, they’ll tell you that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for”. But that doesn’t tell me anything. If I have faith in God, does that mean that God hopes that I have faith in him, and I assure him of that by having faith in him? Or what?

    So I looked up the Greek word for “faith” while I was reading through the psalms. And I saw that the word is “pistis” and it also means “trust”. And I also saw the in the psalms the same point that you make, Bill, about the psalmists loving God’s law.

    And I realised: If I trust God, and if God created the whole universe for us, and he’s talked to us, then surely when he’s said that something’s wrong, he isn’t just arbitrarily forbidding something: He knows it’s best if we don’t do that.

    I don’t have to know why looking lustfully after a girl is just as bad as adultery—a crime so bad it warranted death in the Israelite theocracy, and a frame of mind so distorted that you can’t be an adulterer and still inherit the kingdom of God. But God told me that “a man who lustfully looks at a women has already commited adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28), and told the Israelites that the must not “covet [their] neighbor’s wife” (Ex. 20:17), and caused Job’s “covenant with [his] eyes not to look lustfully at a girl” was recorded in the Scripture (Job 31:1).

    So I trust God on that. God designed the universe, he said it’s wrong, surely it’s wrong. Time would more fruitfully be spent trying to uncover why it’s wrong, then the more common practice of trying to prove so many of the moral commandments are wrong because apparently it’s natural for this or that person to do this or that. If I were a moral philosopher, I’d love to spend my time finding out why God’s law is best.

    Now, I struggle continuously to obey the Lord. It doesn’t come naturally to me yet. But I also try not to justify by sinfulness, but admit it to myself and to God and—when I can control my pride—to others. I make no claim to being perfect, but I trust that God knows what’s best.

    So of course I’ll follow God’s law if I love him. I’m not better than him; I don’t come close to equalling him. I wasn’t there when he laid the earth on its foundations, and I don’t understand it’s whole breadth. But I love him, and I trust him, and I love that he’s told me the best way to live my life, and given me so many lessons to learn in a collection of books so full of wisdom.

    Felix Alexander, Melbourne.

  • Quite so Felix.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks, Bill, for this blog. Wittingly or unwittingly, you have expressed nothing more or less than the theonomic position as espoused by writers such as R J Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Gary DeMar and David Chilton. Blessings on you!
    Steve Swartz

  • Thanks Steve

    Yes I guess it is a case of unwittingly. To be honest, I don’t actually care if my position faithfully reflects the theonomists so much as I care that my position faithfully reflects God’s revealed will to us! If I can accurately reflect God’s position on all this I will be most grateful.

    But as stated earlier, I hope to be writing more about the theonomists in the near future.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks for an excellent article Bill – a timely reminder of the rightful place of the law of God in the life of the Christian. I enjoyed also Felix’s reflection on what you wrote and hope he will not mind my expanding upon his thoughts a little. While I heartily agree that God has told us the best way to live our lives in a collection of books so full of wisdom, we must not overlook the fact that God’s law has a useful application beyond personal piety. It is also the best foundation for the organisation of societies, states and nations for exactly the same reasons.
    Graeme Mitchell, Sydney

  • Graeme, I’m pleased you enjoyed my reflection. Naturally my view extends to societies, states and nations. But as one of the millions of co-rulers of this country, I’m still struggling to work out how to make wise decisions on these subjects. How can we persuade people who refuse to be persuaded by the gospel that these laws are just? And which ones should be the state’s business?—surely covetousness and anger are off limits, but abortion and marriage, I think, are important. Where do I draw the line?

    Felix Alexander, Melbourne.

  • Graeme
    Could I add: “….and one’s own life…” to your last sentence, please?
    Dunstan Hartley

  • Bill, wonderfully expressed. God bless you.

    Lance A Box

  • Felix, recently I had been wondering the same thing. So I sent an email to Creation Ministries International, and received a very well thought-out reply by CMI’s Lita Cosner. Here it is:

    “Where biblical morality and a country’s legal system intersect is a complicated question. In countries like the US and Australia, it is forbidden for the government to “establish” religion, which in context means that there is no *established* Church of America or Church of Australia. But the laws of most Western nations are heavily influenced by biblical morality.

    But the purposes behind biblical commands and federal laws are different. Biblical commands tell us about God’s character and what He requires of us, while a country’s laws are formulated along lines which allow society to function. So some things are unbiblical which should not be illegal—like worshipping Allah, for instance. While we would say that worshipping Allah as god would be a sin, it shouldn’t be illegal, because it’s not the state’s job to decide what is and isn’t proper worship. The government is biblically ordained to restrain evil (Romans 13), so should protect life and property.

    So when state and biblical law intersect, they usually do so for very different reasons. For instance, both the Bible and the laws of most countries forbid murder. The Bible does so because we are created in the image of God, who alone has the right to take life. Most state laws against murder are also largely motivate by the notion that murder is just wrong, sometimes because of explicit appeal to the Bible, and other times, “society regards murder as wrong”. In one sense, all laws “impose morality”; the only question is *whose* morality is imposed (see creation.com/questions-regarding-abortion-and-ethics).

    There are also social reasons: if murder were allowed, then chaos would quickly result if people were free to go around killing each other without consequences. The same applies to crimes like rape and theft. So the biblical command is based on theology, and the state’s law is based on what it perceives to be good for society as a whole.

    I hope these few thoughts are helpful.

    Sincerely,

    Lita Cosner”

    Also, Bill has written a couple of articles on a similar subject:
    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/10/god-government-and-the-state-part-one/
    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/10/god-government-and-the-state-part-two/

    Hope this helps,
    Justin Nowland

  • Thank you for your thoughts here Bill reflecting the beauty of the psalms and the love of the law. I particularly liked the 19th psalm “the law of the Lord is perfect refreshing the soul”. The words came to me like manna from heaven, easing my worried mind! I think we could all do with more of this. The entire article was a timely inspiration just as I was about to collapse under the weight of the previous article about the encroaching moonbattery! By no means a criticism of the previous article, we need to be aware.
    Rachel Smith

  • Thanks for the article Bill, as you state in your response to Steve, it is about lining up with God’s Word. That’s all any Christian could ask.

    Thank you also Felix, your comments reflected this beautiful heart of submission in the heart of one who is on the path of sanctification. The fact is, submission comes before understanding. We love God, trust Him, and know that His wisdom and ways are best. But as you say, gaining understanding of why His ways are best is an exciting enterprise! Sympathetic with Steve’s comments, I think theonomists in particular have done a good deal of work in this area.

    In relation to your second comment – couple of reflections – particularly where you said: “How can we persuade people who refuse to be persuaded by the gospel that these laws are just?”

    Well, I believe that this occurs in a few important ways.

    1. We need to preach the gospel and rely upon the work of the Spirit to open hearts and minds – it is as Bill said in the article, the Laws are given in the context of restored covenant relationship with God. It is only truly through restoration in Christ that our eyes can be opened to understand the greatness of God’s law and we can then live in them – which is His holiness expressed on a creaturely level.

    2. Christ said that ‘By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another’. Living in love is the testimony of the rightness of God’s laws, and by living in love we demonstrate the rightness of the law to all and they see it. But what is it to live in love? In John 14:15 and other places, God affirms that keeping the His laws and obeying Him is intrinsic to love. People may reject God, but when they see love operative amongst His people and in the way they love everyone else – they may be softened to repentance or they will ultimately be judged for rejecting what they saw the reality of in life.

    3. A good pursausion is also when something works it is proven in the results, and keeping God’s law works! Simple example – ‘Thou shalt not lie’. If everyone doesn’t lie, then relationships are functional in life. If everyone lies consistently, relationships (on a family and societal level) ultimately break down. God commanded it and we should obey on that alone, but it’s goodness is also proven by the result. This principle can be applied to all God’s laws. In obeying, life will certainly flourish, in disobeying death inevitably ensues and can be witnessed. We see much corruption in society at large due to disobedience to God’s commands, and ultimately this is a path that will lead to death. As they say, the truth will out, and the truth is that disobedience is destructive, and obedience (to the gospel and laws of God) is where life is. The evidence is spelt out in our lives and the lives of the disobedient because the reality is that God’s ways work and are the way that the creation is designed to function; disobedience is destructive and runs counter to the design. It’s like putting petrol in a car – it was designed for it and it makes the car function. Put orange juice – contrary to the design – and it will not work! So too with all of God’s laws. We see destruction on an individual, family and societal level because of this disobedience. The witness is when the Church – which is a city on a hill – testifies to the truth in word and deed and true life in Jesus is witnessed.

    Anyway, a few ramblings for consideration!

    Thanks again, and looking forward to your next article on Theonomy Bill.

    Blessings,
    Isaac Overton
    ACT

  • We Lutherans often talk about the Christian being ‘simul iustus et peccator’: righteous/justified and yet still sinners. In that we are being daily renewed by the Holy Spirit we delight in God’s Law according to our new nature, but in as much as ‘the old Adam’ still clings to us we also find ourselves still rebelling against it. This struggle continues until we are finally delivered from this body of death and fully renewed at the resurrection. Cf Romans 7. Pax!
    Pr Mark Henderson

  • I have just listened to an excellent sermon on the Law – this would have to be the very best sermon I’ve ever heard preached on God’s Law; Christian Freedom: The Logic of Law by Warren Wiersbe. For the sake of other readers, Wiersbe wrote 50 People Every Christian Should Know: Learning From Spiritual Giants Of The Faith which Bill has highly recommended in another article.

    Here’s the sermon …

    media.sermonindex.net/17/SID17587.mp3

    Annette Nestor

  • Thanks for the tip Annette. I will try to find some time to give it a listen.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • In fact Wiersbe has 3 more sermons on Law (at sermonindex) in a series called Christian Freedom. Have just listened to another one. Wiersbe explains the law so beautifully – and he speaks with simple clarity and amazing insight. Simply brilliant!

    www.sermonindex.net/modules/mydownloads/viewcat.php?cid=19

    Annette Nestor

  • One characteristic of the law of God is that obeying brings certainty. The first epistle of John speaks of this blessed assurance and uses the word “know” 43 times.
    For example, 1 John3:19-24 says: “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask; because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”
    By contrast, today’s society, that is no longer self-governing according to an internalised conscience informed by the Bible, without any fixed, Biblical point of reference, drifts in a sea of relativity. Here it changes its attitudes and values according to a constantly changing political correctness: the average consensus at any particular moment, all guided by highly motivated, organised, vociferous and powerful, gay and Islamic minority groups. No one cares where society is headed, just so long as everything is running smoothly and everyone has that feel-good factor. In the end justice and law mean simply refereeing a meaningless existence that has become little more than a game or a machine to be kept running on the tracks.
    Because our laws are changing and multiplying so rapidly there is increasing doubt as to what is legal and what is not. At a very profound level, this causes anxiety and the individual, fearful of being publically humiliated, losing his or her livelihood, of being arrested, fined or even imprisoned, through breaking laws that are both unknown and unintelligible, is not prepared to go anywhere near the edge, The individual, thus paralysed, is easily controlled through fear and uncertainty This is Pax Romana.
    But perhaps the best way to control society is to dehumanise it entirely through eliminating all feelings of anxiety, phobia, antipathy or hatred. Drugs, brain surgery, genetic modifications, coupled with intensive indoctrination and blessing from an apostate Church, will all produce a perfect piece of evolutionary engineering.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Felix, I wish that more people were like you, your comment has blessed me immensely
    As to where the line of government authority is drawn, I see it a little this way: anger and covetousness are problems of the heart that only God through faith in Jesus can fix, if we present our faulty hearts to Him in order for Him to restore them to what they were created to be. Only God can do that in cooperation with our free will. However, the state has, I believe the authority to punish acts that result out of these faulty motivations of the heart. If anger and hatred lead to murder, the state’s responsibility is to punish the murderer. This is a very limited, but important function, for if executed correctly it will always point to our need of forgiveness and reformation through the Lord Himself. Paul calls the law the schoolmaster that leads us to Christ. Civil government plays a small but important part in this role of the greater law of God. The Holy spirit was sent to the world to convict of righteousness, sin and judgement and thereby lead the unsaved to the cross of Christ. If government exercises its role in biblical parameters and biblical ways, then the way of the gospel will always be open in our nation. In all areas of life, God has ascribed us a part in the fulfillment of His plan, which should be a great privilege to us, rather than a burden.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • Well said Ursula.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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