His Rules Are Good

Editor's note: Today marks the start of a new series, written by the luminous mind behind “Leaked Documents: Ichabod to Apollyon,” whose identity has heretofore been kept anonymous: none other than my (Dave’s) main undergraduate mentor and longtime dear friend, the inestimable Dr. Elton Higgs. Our contributor section contains the highlights of his long and impressive career as an English professor and scholar. The new series will feature a new piece from him each Friday, and is to be entitled “Twilight Musings,” as he approaches the end of his eighth decade on this terrestrial ball. (His choice; my guess is he’ll outlive us all!) We have offered him the regular Friday slot at MoralApologetics.com in perpetuity, or at least until either the eschaton arrives or Elton shuffles his mortal coil. In the interim, we are all sure to derive great benefit, edification, and insight from his thoughtful reflections, and it is our distinct pleasure to bring you the first of a great many installments to come. 

Perhaps others, like me, have been puzzled by the contrast between repeated affirmations of the goodness of God’s law in the Psalms (particularly Ps. 119) and Paul’s strong arguments in Romans and Galatians that the Law, though perfect, has been shown to be insufficient for our eternal salvation.  How can we celebrate the goodness and beauty of a moral yardstick that ends up condemning us?  Was it only the unenlightened Jews under the Old Covenant who could delight in the Good Law of the Lord, or is there a basis for doing so under the New Covenant?

In light of this tension, I was struck by a re-reading of Ps. 119:39-40 (ESV): “Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your rules are good.  Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.”  The speaker feels the ambivalence of both dreading God’s reproach and loving the good rules of God, which are the standard by which we are all judged as deserving of reproach.  It’s a little bit like being forced to kiss the paddle that has been the instrument of punishment.  And then the next verse presents a parallel contrast between longing for the precepts of God and at the same time desperately needing a righteousness that goes beyond the letter of these precepts to grant him life as a gift.

The resolving of the tension between the goodness of God’s Law and its salvific insufficiency hinges on making a distinction between the imbued goodness of the Law and the Absolute Goodness of God.  The Psalmist can request that God “turn away the reproach” he dreads and, instead, gift him with life because he recognizes that the goodness of the Law derives from its Absolutely Good Source, which can go beyond the goodness of the Law to grant moral security that can be defined by the Law, but not empowered by it. 

So long, then, as I think that being in communion with God depends on my performing well enough to “feel good about myself,” I will fail to find comfort, for my failures when judged by the Perfect, Good Law of God are palpable.  It thus becomes clear that the question is not, “Do I feel good about myself?”, but rather, “Do I feel good about God?”  To do the latter requires me to understand that any fellowship with Him depends on Him, and not on me.  Only in that frame of mind can I love God’s Law and not feel threatened by it.  From that perspective, I and the Law are bound together by our both sharing a derived Goodness from the Underived and  Absolute Goodness, God Himself.  His reproach then comes to us as loving discipline, not judgment, having passed through the Cross and been sanctified by the One who bore the reproach due to us all.  Only then can I wholeheartedly accept that “His rules are good.”


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)