God’s Word for You
Psalm 119:35 The third use of the law
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, June 3, 2023
35 Make me walk in the path of your commandments,
for there I find delight.
The law or commandments of God are described in the Bible as having three uses. One is for all people but especially for unbelievers. The law works in the conscience of all people so that they will know that certain crass and terrible actions are not to be done, such as murder, adultery, slave trading, lying and perjury (1 Timothy 1:10). This is the law as a curb. For although a curb or low wall can be stepped over, it is still there and still acknowledged by human beings as serving a purpose. God’s law helps to preserve order in the world by keeping the wicked actions of all people within bounds. This use of the law often makes its way into the laws of the world’s nations.
Another use of the law is once again for all people, and this is the law showing each person his own sins. We often call this the law as a mirror. Paul says, “I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’” (Romans 7:7). The law exposes things we too often miss. As Luther says, “Everything that stands before a mirror is in it.” So God’s law also shows people their sin and the need for a Savior.
Our Confession, the Formula of Concord, describes these two uses in this way: “The law of God serves (1) not only to maintain external discipline and decency against dissolute and disobedient people, (2) and to bring people to a knowledge of their sin through the law” (SD VI:1).
A natural question to ask, then, is: How does a passage like the one before us, Psalm 119:35, fall? Under which use should we take it? Is this the law keeping society in check, or is this the law showing me my sinfulness? The answer is that there must be a third use of the law, for the poet here is not crushed by his sins, but shows “delight” in the commandments of God. This is the Bible’s own explanation: After a Christian is reborn through baptism the sinful flesh still sticks to us. For that reason, the commandments of God serve as a definite rule according to which we should pattern and regulate our whole lives. We will want to exercise ourselves in the law and meditate on the law “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). Therefore the law was not given only for the wicked and unregenerate, but also for believers who are truly converted and justified through faith. The righteous man, no matter how well he understands and believes the gospel, must still, like Paul, “beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:27). And again: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (Romans 6:12).
So for all people, believers and unbelievers alike, the law and commandments of God remain as they always have been: the unchangeable will of God. For the believer, the law is a path to delight in, just as our poet says: “for there I find delight.” For the unbeliever follows the will of God only by coercion, and he does it unwillingly. But the believer, insofar as he is reborn, does what no threat of the law could ever have wrung from him, and his life’s footsteps take the path that God’s law puts on display.
We can say this another way, if someone wants to think about it more deeply: “Although believers are never without the law, they are not under but in the law, they live and walk in the law of the Lord, and yet do nothing by the compulsion of the law. As far as the Old Adam is concerned, he must be coerced not only with the law but also with miseries, for he does everything against his will and by coercion, just as the unconverted are driven into obedience by the threats of the law.” (Formula of Concord). We see this many times in the Great Psalm, where it was already said about the believer: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it with your word” (119:9), and will say again: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (119:105). Only one who loves Jesus and knows what the Savior has done can truly respond: “Your law is my delight.”
Pastor Timothy Smith