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God’s Word for You

Psalm 119:40 Part 3

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, June 19, 2023

40 How I long for your precepts!
    Preserve my life in your righteousness.

We are exploring how and why one might long for God’s word and precepts.

3. I long to be guided by your word.

The two chief teachings of the word of God are law and gospel. All of the other teachings, which especially include exhortations toward godly living and examples of those who did or did not live godly lives, must be properly seen in respect to God’s law working on our hearts, and the gospel and all of the blessings it offers to us.

What are the Law and the Gospel? Both are the word of God. Both apply to all people. And both are to be taught side by side until the end of time. But they are also opposites, like yes and no. We see that the Law demands perfect obedience (“Be holy,” Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15-16), and we see that the Gospel demands faith: “This is his command, to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23). But the Law only commands and condemns. The Gospel offers and gives. “The letter kills,” Paul explains, “but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). So the Gospel demands faith, and yet the Gospel holds out that very faith to man, for the faith the Gospel demands is not any quality in us or any human accomplishment, but the very opposite of any accomplishment of ours, because the faith that saves is “not by works” (Ephesians 2:9).

What would the Gospel mean to anyone without the Law? The Gospel would lose its glory and its saving message. Why? The Law is like a lion in the arena. When we are left alone with it, it is lethal, and its teeth and claws and its sheer massive weight will mean certain death for us; and in fact, the Law does in fact kill us. It leaves us with no hope and only the terrible certainty of damnation. The Gospel, on the other hand, saves. The Gospel slays the vicious beast of the Law and breathes life back into man’s dead form.

But when man with his reason and his opinions removes the teeth and claws from the Law, then the Law and Gospel become pals in the arena. They become invisible to many people, things to be noticed or not, because man feels that he is the one who did the great Deed of killing the Law, but in doing so, man kills the Gospel, too.

When the Law is preached in its fullness, it condemns us. It shows us and convinces us that we are sinful. Paul says frankly and openly, “I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’” (Roman 7:7). And the Law leaves us hopeless and helpless. “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed” (Galatians 3:23). But unless the Law completes its work, the Gospel cannot heal anything. In the comedy Monty Python the Holy Grail, the Black Knight keeps fighting and resisting his fate as King Arthur effortlessly cuts off first one arm and then another. “Only a flesh wound,” he says, and “’Tis but a scratch!” Then the king cuts off his legs, and he keeps trying to fight. Hidden there in the ridiculous and the profane there is the truth of man’s inability to see his own faults. “Your arm’s off!” “No it isn’t. I’ve had worse.” For the man who refuses to see his true faults, the Law must become like a hard schoolmaster, pointing his long finger down at the paper full of red marks: “This is wrong, and this is wrong, and this is wrong, and all of these are wrong, too.” Otherwise we will be like the rich young man who came to Christ wondering how he could be saved. He was so completely blind that he didn’t notice his complete corruption. “He went away sad” (Matthew 19:22). The Law does not just teach us to despair, it leads us to despair and then it just leaves us there, helpless and friendless. The Law wants us to look inside, so that the whole, complete rottenness of our sins is exposed. In ancient times, Jews who grieved over sin or loss would tear their garments (Genesis 37:34; Joshua 7:6; Matthew 26:65). But the Law exposes the complete loss of righteousness and the complete infection of sin, so that the prophet cries: “Tear open your heart and not your clothes!” (Joel 2:13). The Law has done its full work when it leaves man saying, “How can we be saved?” (Isaiah 64:5), or, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

Here the Gospel steps in, crashing down from on high to save. The Gospel is completely different from the Law. It requires faith, but it gives faith, like the host handing our garments to all of the wedding guests (Matthew 22:10-11). The sinful woman who wept at Jesus’ feet was told by her Lord, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48). God tells the nation about to be ground to dust, “I will restore David’s fallen tent… and build it as it used to be” (Amos 9:11). The thief on the cross is assured: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

The main function of the law is to expose our sins like a mirror, showing everything as it truly is. But the law also serves as a guide for the Christian. After the Law is preached week after week to our sinful hearts, and only after the Gospel has come as saving medicine in the word and sacrament again and again, the Law can be held up as a guide for Christian living. We might only be frightened of our parents, but the Law says, “Honor your father and mother.” Husbands and wives might become obsessed only with the rules and hard edges of being faithful, constantly wondering and trying to judge, “Is this look being unfaithful? Is that thought being unfaithful?” But what God truly wants from us is that husbands love your wives (Ephesians 5:25), and that wives submit to their husbands (Colossians 3:18). These things please the Lord. These things are the way the word of God guides us. This guiding hand in the Law only comes to us after the Gospel has done its work in us.

We praise God he has shown us his holy will, for the law is God accusing and condemning, but the Gospel is God forgiving and justifying. The Gospel requires nothing that man can offer. The Gospel takes away all our terror, all our fear, all our anguish over sin, and it fills us with joy and peace through Christ from the Holy Ghost. The Gospel means salvation for every crippled and grieving heart that hears it. This is why we long for God’s precepts.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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