Does Psalm 119 Teach Salvation Comes By Keeping the Law?

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Editors’ note: 

Taken from 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law © 2010 by Thomas R. Schreiner.  Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI.  Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

If you’re following the TGC Bible Reading Plan put together by Stephen Witmer, then today you landed on Psalm 119, a massively significant passage on the doctrine of Scripture. But Christians have sometime struggled with how Psalm 119 seems to talk quite differently about the law than the apostle Paul does.

For example, Psalm 119:93 says, “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life.” Paul says the law puts to death, but this verse says the law grants life. The psalmist assigns life here to the precepts of the law, whereas Paul sees the law as multiplying transgressions.

We find a very similar statement in Psalm 119:25: “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word.” It is possible, however, that in this last example that God’s word should be understood as his promise, so that the psalmist is not asking the Lord to grant life via the commandment but by means of a word of promise. Other verses in the psalm support such an interpretation: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” (Ps. 119:50); and, “Plead my cause and redeem me; give me life according to your promise” (Ps. 119:154).

Harder to assess is Psalm 119:156: “Great is your mercy, O Lord; give me life according to your rules.” This verse seems closer to Psalm 19:7 and Psalm 119:93, where the law is said to grant life, and the law seems to refer in these instances to God’s commands.

Despite initial appearance to the contrary, the psalmist does not contradict what we find in Paul. The writer of Psalm 119 recognizes that the power to keep God’s precepts comes from God. Autonomous human beings are unable to please God or keep his law (cf. Rom. 8:7). For instance, we read in Psalm 119:159, “Give me life according to your steadfast love.” Life comes from God’s steadfast love, that is, from his grace and mercy. Human beings do not merit or gain life by observing the law. Psalm 119:88 is even clearer: “In your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth.” Life comes only from the grace of God, and the consequence of such life is the keeping of God’s testimonies and precepts. The psalmist does not teach that life is gained by obedience. Life finds its origin in God’s gracious work. Surely this sentiment is very Pauline.

Desire Does Not Match Practice

In some texts the psalmist emphasizes his obedience. For instance, he says, “My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly” (Ps. 119:167; cf. vv. 22, 101, 102, 110, 121, 129). Such comments could be misunderstood as meaning the psalmist was virtually perfect. On the contrary, he is keenly aware of his failures. The psalm ends with the words, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments” (Ps. 119:176). Apparently, the author is guilty of sin, and yet he does not conceive of himself as forgetting God’s commands, even though he has gone astray.

The psalmist’s desire does not match his practice. Hence, the psalm is filled with petition in which the author asks God to grant him strength to keep the law. “Let me not wander from your commandments” (Ps. 119:10), he says, and, “I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart” (Ps. 119:32; cf. vv. 36, 37). The situation envisioned in Psalm 119 is complex. On the one hand, the psalmist keeps God’s rules in contrast to the wicked. On the other hand, he is aware of his moral failings and entreats God to give him the desire to obey him. Any obedience carried out is traced to the grace of God.

But how does the psalmist’s claim that “God grants life through his laws and precepts” fit with Paul’s declaration that “the law kills”? The best solution recognizes an important distinction between the psalmist and Paul. When Paul says that the law kills and puts to death, he thinks of those in the flesh (Rom. 7:5)—those who are unregenerate (Rom. 8:7). The psalmist is not saying that the law grants life to those who are dead in their sins. The notion that the law actually can grant life to sinners is taught nowhere in the OT or the NT. Hence, it seems most likely that the psalmist reflects on the role of the commands in those who already know God. The law can “revive” their affection for God and promote a desire to do his will when the Spirit uses the written word to convict and illumine those who already have new life. The commands of the law remind believers of their moral poverty—of their utter inability to do what God demands—and thus believers are revived through the gospel of Christ, which is the only source of life.

Casting Believers onto God’s Grace

Paul’s negative statements on the law do not contradict Psalm 119. Paul emphasizes that the law puts human beings to death and never grants life to those who are unregenerate. Psalm 119 considers the situation of those who are regenerate. In that case God’s commands by the work of his Spirit cast believers onto the grace of God, and God uses the commands in conjunction with his Spirit to strengthen believers so that they rely upon God’s grace to please him.