A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
How Sweet it Is!
October 17, 2013
One of the most well-known Psalms is the epic-length 119th – a long hymn of praise to the beauty of God’s law. Say what? I can think of lots of possible descriptors for God’s law, but “beauty”? Ten times it declares “delight” in God’s law, and eleven times the psalmist declares “love” for it. The law is “wondrous,” it causes the psalmist to “rejoice.” Likewise, Psalm 19 calls God’s law “desirable” and “sweet.”
Our own response to the law is usually quite something else, typified by the panicked slamming of brakes when we first see a trooper on the side of the road “taking pictures” as we approach. Our hearts leap into our throat as those flashing lights race up behind us – even if we did nothing wrong. Or how about when we open our mailbox to find a lovely letter with the return address “Internal Revenue Service?”
Of course, we know that the law is good – it stands as our hope for justice in a world far too crooked. But mainly we want to see it applied to others more than to ourselves.
We are amid a series in which we are looking at Reformed worship for markers of church authenticity, since Reformed confessions declare that wherever God is rightly worshiped the church is truly present. So what does the law have to do with Reformed worship?
The preaching of the Word is what comes first to mind. But I am thinking of something else, a little-known artifact of early Reformed worship. John Calvin’s liturgy included an item that has disappeared from nearly all Reformed liturgies today – following the Confession of Sin and the Assurance of Pardon, Calvin’s order of worship included a “reading of the law.” This was typically either a reading of all or part of the Ten Commandments, or of Jesus’ summary of the law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
Paul argues strenuously that we cannot be made right with God by keeping the law – not because the law is insufficient, but because we are incapable of keeping it. But what if we saw the law as something other than a standard designed primarily to condemn its violators? Sure, the law does that. But Calvin declares that it has an entirely different purpose for those who rely on God’s forgiveness offered freely in Jesus. For those already made right with God, it is no longer a bludgeon of condemnation, but a guide for living in a way that is most fulfilling.
In fact, Calvin thinks that when we understand God’s law this way, it is something we should celebrate by singing it, rather than just saying it. It is truly a delight, because it is the recipe for truly abundant life.
In terms of its place in the liturgy, having just been reminded that the One to whom we confessed our sin has already forgiven us on account of Jesus’ saving work, we are set free to live according to God’s law for all the right reasons.
Some have accused Reformed folk of being lax about following God’s law. Perhaps that is true in some cases, but our tradition as a whole takes the law with utmost seriousness – serious joy, that is! We rejoice in having been given God’s roadmap for living well. We don’t have to try to figure out the nature of “the good life” by our own wits.
But oh, how easy it is to get confused about this, as though the keeping of the law is the root of our salvation, when in fact it is its fruit. We need to be ever vigilant to watch that our embrace of God’s law is always one of joy, even relief. As soon as it turns into a wag of the finger or occasions our rejection of a struggling sinner, it ceases to become the thing over which our forebears said we should be singing.
We do not condone lawlessness. We hold fast to the ongoing relevance of God’s law. Loving God and neighbor matters as much as it ever has; the precepts of the Ten Commandments are as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago. We ought to do all we can to live by them, and to encourage our brothers and sisters to do the same. When we do, life becomes truly good. But let us never forget what the liturgy tells us – we are free to live by the law only after we know we have received God’s mercy regardless. When keeping the law is raised up as a condition for receiving God’s mercy, we find it impossible to keep, and we miss entirely the good news of the Gospel.
How sweet it is, indeed!
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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