My Scripture reading program recently brought me again to Psalm 119. At one hundred seventy-six verses, it is by far the longest of the psalms. Each of its twenty-two stanzas, consisting of eight verses each, begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In fact, our word, "alphabet", comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha, beta, which in turn come from the Semitic languages, including Hebrew, where the first two letters are aleph and beth. We don't know why the psalm is organized this way but perhaps it was to make it easier to memorize. It is indeed a psalm worthy of remembering, and pondering.
It is a psalm of praise to God for His law. Can you imagine a Christian song today that would extol God's law? God's law has been getting pretty bad press for a long time among Christians. This is due, in part, to a misunderstanding of Paul's teaching on justification by grace rather than by the Law, particularly in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. Martin Luther, along with many of the Protestant Reformers, objected to the way the Roman Catholic Church of their day made righteousness before God a matter of earning merit through what are known as "works of supererogation". Works of supererogation are deeds which supposedly earn "extra credit" to be placed in one's heavenly account to offset the "temporal punishment" meted out in Purgatory before a Christian can gain entrance to heaven. Even escape from eternal punishment in hell was presented as the result of a combination of Christ's merits, mediated through the sacraments of baptism, communion and confession, plus one's personal merits gained through obedience to the law of God. This way of looking at God's law and personal salvation led to a practice which even Catholics today consider to have been improper: selling "indulgences", that is, time off one's sentence in Purgatory by virtue of the Pope's dispensation from a supposed "treasury of merit" under his stewardship. Luther and the other Reformers strenuously objected to the practice but also went on to oppose the whole idea of salvation through human accumulation of "merit" before God.
It is no wonder, then, that Protestant Christians have found in Paul's objections to a similar system of salvation through human merit, a ready source of ammunition against this idea, and rightly so. But such stress has been laid upon the truth that we are saved through God's unmerited favor obtained solely through faith in Christ that the impression is left in many minds that God's law is no longer relevant to the believer. Such is far from the case! While we are not declared righteous before God by keeping God's law and that part of His law in the Old Testament which is "ceremonial" has passed away because Christ has fulfilled it through His death on the cross, nevertheless, the enduring "moral" element of God's law is still "in force" for the simple reason that violations of it can never be good for us or anyone else. If one violates the Sixth of the Ten Commandments, a life is unjustly ended. If one violates the Seventh, hearts are broken as well as a sacred covenant. Even violations of the Tenth Commandment, "You shall not covet", which prohibits the desire to take what rightfully belongs to another: their life, their property, their spouse, etc., do profound damage to the soul.
God's law is, quite simply, the most direct and expedient route to the highest good of God and His creation. Heaven and earth may pass away but His law will not (Matthew 5:17-20). God seeks the highest good with all His infinite being. That is because He is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love seeks the highest good of another. Each of the members of the Holy Trinity seeks the highest good of the others. All of them, in turn, seek the highest good of their creation. God would have to cease to be God to do away with His law. Under the dispensation of grace, the penalty of the law is suspended, to be sure, but the natural consequences of violating it remain in place. In that sense, we cannot be saved without entering into a process that will eventually completely cure us of our willingness to violate God's law.God's mercy was never meant to encourage license in those who have received it. Quite the contrary is the case. Those who have truly obtained forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ have a powerful incentive to do the will of God. To put it simply, they have repented. They have gained a glimpse of sin's true ugliness and they hate it. Likewise, they have caught a sight of the beauty of holiness in the character of Christ and have come to love it. A good covetousness has been born in them and they want to be "holy, as God is holy". When you read Psalm 119, you are reading the song and prayer of one who has been forgiven by God's grace and therefore loves His law. My favorite stanza is the thirteenth, which begins with the Hebrew letter, mem. (verses 97-104) I will close by quoting it. As you read it, ask God to give you even a small portion of the love for His law as this believer had. "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts. I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I may obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate ever wrong path."