How grace reads the Law—a sample in Psalm 119:1-37

The psalmist celebrates the blessedness of those who observe God’s law, not doing wrong (Ps 119:1-3). God genuinely desires this ideal of full loyalty (119:4). Yet the psalmist is not yet claiming this ideal as his own life: “O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!” (119:5, NRSV/ESV). (Later in the psalm the psalmist will both claim that he keeps the commandments and ask God to help him keep them.)

Nevertheless, once he is wholly right with God, he can read the law not with the shame of failure but with praise: “Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances.” (119:6-7).

He recognizes that he cannot do this by his own effort alone. He seeks God, but asks God to enable him to obey. “With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments” (119:10). “Put false ways far from me; and graciously teach me your law.” (119:29, NRSV). “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end” (119:33, NRSV). “Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight” (119:34-35, NIV). “Turn my heart toward your laws, and not toward selfish gain (119:36). “Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, And revive me in Your ways” (119:37).

It is grace, not self-condemnation, that enables us to do righteousness. For those who are in Christ, we start with the gift of God’s righteousness, both in his sight (no condemnation) and by his power (with his new nature now at work in us). Approaching the law as a means of self-justification is the wrong way to read Scripture; it always leads to condemnation. Reading Scripture as a message of grace, trusting in the heart of the God who gave His Son for us, is the right way to read Scripture, reading not by a law by works but rather by a law by faith (Rom 3:27), a law that subjects us not to sin and death but an experience of God’s word empowered by the Spirit (8:2).

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