Houston, we have a problem! No, Western Church we have a problem! What’s the problem, you ask? It’s a post-Reformation mindset that had good intentions but ultimately led to a distorted view of law and grace that has left God’s people anemic in their faith and devotion.
Last night we launched a new study in our new Lifegroup. My amazing wife is hosting and leading us through Matt Chandler’s study of Psalm 119. After a zesty meal prepared by Keri, we opened our Bible’s to feast on the longest psalm and chapter in all of Scripture — 172 verses total!
But I’m not sure Christians have the pallet to stomach what God is serving up. Again, back to a BIG problem facing Christian Bible readers today. Are you ready for it?
Many Christians have been taught that Judaism became a religion of burdensome law keeping. We’ve been taught that Jewish groups such as the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were trying to earn God’s favor and blessings by legalistic rule-keeping. Thankfully, that Old Covenant era of Law has given way to the New Covenant of Jesus who replaces “salvation by works” with “salvation by grace through faith.” Jesus perfectly kept the Law and transferred his righteous standing over to us, so now we’re justified and no longer “under law.”
Well, there’s a lot of truth in this last paragraph but too much distortion for me to swallow whole. (A more crude youth pastor way of putting it is to say, “Would you eat from a pan of freshly baked brownies that had just a tiny bit of dog poop mixed in?”)
The fact is, the Jews did not see the Law as bad or burdensome. They did not keep the law of the Lord in order to earn God’s blessing and favor (or “salvation” which is a misleading term with too much later ideas read back into the OT). God’s people were given the Law of Moses only after God had redeemed them from slavery in Egypt and established his covenant with them. The people of God received the gift of God’s Law, or Torah, with great delight and longed to abide by his commands out of gratitude for saving them and establishing an everlasting covenant with them.
Back to a room full of Christians with full stomachs and curious minds staring at what we labeled the “Mount Everest of the Psalms.” Probably written over the course of David’s entire life, this is not a mountain to try to climb in one evening. We started our climb up the first two stanzas, or 16 verses. We didn’t get very far before our distorted lenses started to make our protestant, grace-saturated butts squirm in our seats.
Quickly skim the first 8 verses and just read the lines in bold:
Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the Lord.
2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
3 they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
4 You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
6 Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
8 I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.
The entire thing is about keeping God’s law and obeying his statutes! And if we’ll “seek him with all our heart” and “fully obey” his decrees, then we’ll be blessed! “Heresy!” many Christians want to cry out. Uhhhh….sound like “works righteousness”?
Matt Chandler quickly came to our rescue with a heavy dose of half-truth by emphasizing that we could obviously never attain the “blessed life” by our devotion to God and certainly none of us are “blameless” in our obedience. Thankfully, Jesus kept the Law on our behalf and lived the blameless life on our behalf, so now we’re declared blameless insofar as we’re clothed with Christ’s righteousness and obedience.
Okay, again, a lot of truth in there…but still driving some aspects of this understanding of Jesus and the Law is a Reformation-Era view of the Jewish Law as “bad” and the belief that all efforts at keeping the law tend to lead to legalism, a denial of Christ’s finished work, and trying to earn God’s favor by our own obedience.
Here’s the problem. When we pay attention to the attitude of Jews toward God’s Law, in this case David, we don’t see them struggling under a heavy yoke of legalism and trying to earn God’s love. Likewise, we don’t see David crying out to be released from the burden of the Law to be ushered into the sweet and savory realm of grace. (A huge clue we miss is that Paul himself, a Pharisee before his conversion, considered himself “blameless” in regards to obeying the Law – Phil. 3:6).
Rather, we see what we should expect to see if we understand the Jewish faith as it really was, and not as the Reformers repainted it to be in light of the legalism and “works righteousness” of the 16th C Roman Catholicism they were confronting. (I’m getting to the heart of the so-called New Perspective on Paul and Judaism. Here’s a 1 minute video explanation by my professor Scot McKnight.)
Listen to how David delights in God’s commands and rejoices in the opportunity to dive into his decrees like Scrooge McDuck diving headfirst into the golden riches of his money bin!
9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
By living according to your word.
10 I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.
11 I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.
12 Praise be to you, Lord;
teach me your decrees.
13 With my lips I recount
all the laws that come from your mouth.
14 I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.
15 I meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.
16 I delight in your decrees;
I will not neglect your word.
Christians, we need to hear this today! David doesn’t want to “neglect” God’s word, NOT because he fears he’ll be rejected by God or fail to earn his favor. No, rather, an enthusiastic and positive hunger for God’s ways keeps us close to God’s heart, and on the path that leads to purity and the blessed life!
We’re saved into the family of God and his covenant people by grace through faith alone, but this doesn’t mean we throw off a life of robust obedience and devotion to God’s commands and decrees, statutes and precepts. Now, for sure, we must heed the New Testament’s signposts that give us Christ as the fulfillment and perfect embodiment of the Law’s entire purpose and essence. We must devote ourselves first and foremost to obeying Christ’s royal Law of Love and anchoring all our obedience in the Jesus Creed (“Love God, Love Others”) that Jesus claimed to sum up the entire Law. But obey, we must!
Why does this matter?
Our churches are filled with anemic Christians devoid of a healthy appetite for and commitment to living by God’s Word. We’re not saturated with the Scriptures. We’re not “meditating on his law day and night” (Psalm 1:2).
More disturbingly, we don’t think attaining “the blessed life” has any correlation with faithful obedience and diligent devotion! If Jesus was obedient on our behalf, then we can lazily float away our days on a inflatable lounger in the pool of cheap grace. All “effort” is suspect, even though Paul commands us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and Jesus clearly states,”He who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves Me” (John 14:21).
I will give the rest of my days of ministry to this one main task: Trying to stir up in believers the kind of hunger and thirst for God’s Word that characterizes the author of this magnificent psalm! Only when Christians today begin to give themselves to the teachings of Jesus, the Law of Christ, with the same intense, rigorous EFFORT as the ancient Jews, will we begin to get a taste of the “blessed life” that comes not only in Heaven as a pure gift, but even now as the natural outflowing of living in alignment with God’s Ways!
Look, if you want to climb a mountain, its going to take a lot of effort. Likewise, if you want to reach the apex of Christian faith, taste the blessings and see all of reality from the majestic vista of God’s revealed Truth, then you need to put in some effort. Ask God to begin stirring up a hunger for His Word, and get out of the kitty pool of cheap grace and dive into the deep end of God’s Word!
So, join us every other Thursday night as we climb one peak at a time up this Mount Everest of a Psalm!