Thursday, August 20, 2015

Keeping the Cross in Sight

I meet on Thursday mornings at a local coffee house with a group of guys. We’re reading through Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Not always the most exciting reading, but I’ve found it good in my life to always be reading something that’s not easy to read. Kind of like exercise for the brain.

This morning I was driving down the hill from my house toward the highway. We’re at that time of year that I leave before sunrise on Thursdays. A woman was walking up the hill on the sidewalk. I watched as a coyote crossed the road just behind her. She stopped, suddenly realizing that something was behind her. Looking, but not seeing it, she looked back to me and waved. Always good to have company when you suspect something’s stalking you in the twilight. She kept walking. I stopped just past her and watched the coyote for a few moments before heading on to the coffee house. Something ghost-like about a coyote's ability to disappear into the dusk. I thought about the thousands of miles I have run on the trails near our house. I’ve seen several coyotes and snakes and javelina...I wonder what I haven’t seen that has crossed the path just behind me?

This morning we discussed Christ’s atonement for our sins. When we talk about our sin being an offense to a holy God and Christ dying for our sin, sometimes people get the idea that the Father’s an angry old grump and Jesus forced Him to like us. That’s not scriptural.

Berkhof says: “According to Scripture the moving cause of the atonement is found in the good pleasure of God to save sinners by a substitutionary atonement. Christ Himself is the fruit of this good pleasure of God. It was predicted that He would come into the world to carry out the good pleasure of God, ‘and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand,’ Isaiah 53:10. At His birth the angels sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom He is well pleased,’ Luke 2:14. The glorious message of John 3:16 is that ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ Paul says that Christ ‘gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil world, according to the will of our God and Father,’ Galatians 1:4. And again, ‘For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in Him should all the fullness dwell; and through Him to reconcile all things unto Himself, Colossians 1:19,20” (italics original).

All those Scripture verses the old Dutchman mentions show us that God the Father loved us and therefore sent His Son to atone for our sins.

More Berkhof...this time his “proofs” for the necessity of the atonement:
1.      It would seem to be the clear teaching of Scripture that God, in virtue of His divine righteousness and holiness, cannot simply overlook defiance to His infinite majesty, but must needs visit sin with punishment. We are told repeatedly that He will by no means clear the guilty, Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Nahum 1:3. He hates sin with a divine hatred; His whole being reacts against it, Psalm 5:4-6; Nahum 1:2; Romans 1:18...the justice of God should be maintained.
2.      This leads right on to the second argument. The majesty and absolute immutability of the divine law as inherent in the very nature of God made it necessary for Him to demand satisfaction of the sinner. The transgression of the law inevitably carries with it a penalty.
3.      The necessity of the atonement also follows from the veracity of God, who is a God of truth and cannot lie. “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent; hath He said it, and shall He not do it? or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?” Numbers 23:19. “Let God be found true,” says Paul, “but every man a liar.” Romans 3:4. When He entered into the covenant of works with man, He decreed that death would be the penalty of disobedience. That principle finds expression in many other words of Scripture, such as Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 6:23. The veracity of God demanded that the penalty should be executed, and if sinners were to be saved, should be executed in the life of a substitute.
4.      The same conclusion may be drawn from the nature of sin as guilt...negatively, it is lawlessness, and positively, transgression of the law of God, and therefore guilt, 1 John 3:4; Romans 2:25,27, and guilt makes one a debtor to the law and requires either a personal or a vicarious atonement.
5.      The amazing greatness of the sacrifice which God Himself provided also implies the necessity of the atonement. God gave His only-begotten Son, to be subjected to bitter sufferings and to a shameful death.

These are all worthy proofs. Concerning #4, it strikes me if people don’t “feel” like sinners, they don’t think they are sinners. “Sin” is determined by a purely horizontal standard, and the horizon these days is as shifty as a mirage. Berkhof reminds us in his fourth proof that God’s Law (as revealed in Scripture) is the standard, not the culture or mass opinion of humanity.

Proof #5 is the most profound. Who, looking at the Son of God on the cross, can feel self-righteous and pure? Despite the foolish “the cross shows our worthiness,” it shows just the opposite. This is why the Gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ is so offensive. You and I were so sinful and unable to save ourselves that it took the giving of the sinless, glorious, beloved, and eternal Son of God in our place to save us. He Who had done no wrong had to entire into our sinful separation from God, crying out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46//Mark 15:34).

The atonement exalts the Trinity’s great justice and love at the same time.

Berkhof gives this example that highlights both at the same time: “...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness...for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:23-26).

I’ve always preferred a verse a few chapters later to illustrate this same point: “...God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Romans 5:8,9). Love and wrath. Together. No contradiction. No paradox. Both held together in the cross of Christ.

Through the eyes of the Law, the Prophets, and the Apostles, stop and take a good look at the cross. Often. Don’t get so busy in your schedule that the scriptural depths of its meaning become just a whisper of a ghost behind you while you’re about your daily business.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Pick Up the Book

Last night the first debate was held with candidates from the Republican Party for the 2016 presidential primaries. I did my best to not watch it, but ended up seeing the last hour before my bride and I settled down to watch “Alone” on the History Channel. She had an idea I appreciated: drop the candidates alone into the woods, and make them film themselves trying to survive. I might actually pay to watch that.

Anyway, I’ve been working on my contribution to our upcoming 3rd annual Southwest Bible Conference. Our theme this year is “the Sufficiency of Scripture.” The last question of last night’s debate was germane for our conference. One candidate gave a great answer. I won’t tell you who he was because I’m not interested in endorsing any candidate, but I’ll tell you he’s a fellow Southern Baptist and he’s not Mike Huckabee (even if you figure out who he is I’m still not endorsing him). When asked, “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God,” this candidate answered: “Well, I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the Scriptures and reading the Scriptures. And God speaks through the Bible.”

This was the most interesting part of a debate I really didn’t want to watch (I agree with a friend that these things start seeming like Saturday Night Live skits pretty quickly).

My immediate thought was, “I wish most other Southern Baptists could give an answer that spiritually mature and theologically accurate.”

Ah, beloved. Pick up the Book. Read by faith that the Author (God the Holy Spirit, 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21) is present in you as a believer in the risen and glorified Jesus Christ (John 7:39; Acts 2:38). On every page He will teach you of that same Christ Who is your only Savior and Lord (Luke 24:44-49; John 5:39) to the glory of the Father. Even better – get together with some other believers and pick up the Book together. You don’t need impressions, special words, leadings, mystical guidance, curious feelings, horoscopes, inspiring psycho-babble from self-help life-coaches masquerading as preachers on the television or internet or bumper stickers, dreams, movements in your gut or heart or wherever, songs on the radio, faces on tortillas or toast, signs in the heavens or on the earth, advice from friends or celebrities, or anything else to hear from God.

Pick up the Book. This is how He speaks to His people.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Thinking and Posting in Christ

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
For you will heap burning coals on his head,
And the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21,22).

This is from my reading this morning. Whenever I’m reading in the Old Testament, I like to keep my eyes open for places where the text is quoted in the New Testament. These doublets from Proverbs are quoted by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written [in Deuteronomy 32:35], ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. [And, as it says in Proverbs 25:21,22,] ‘But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:17-21). Paul doesn’t quote the last line of Proverbs 25:22, but take note that there’s a promise for obedience: “...the LORD will reward you.” There’s nothing deep or complicated about either the Proverbs passage or how it’s quoted and applied in Romans. I want to draw your attention to what comes immediately after this: Paul’s teaching on living as a Christian and a citizen under the authority of a government (Romans 13:1-7). Sometimes chapter and verse numbering causes us to read sections with more separation between them than the original inspired author intended.

Think about this: Paul’s teaching on living with enemies flows smoothly into his teaching on living as a Christian in an earthly State. I’ve looked at the Greek text – there are no contrastive conjunctions or any hint that Paul intends a separation between Romans 12:21 and 13:1. And, living as Christians in 21st century U.S.A., we would do well not to separate what God has joined together. We need to consider how we treat our political enemies – especially when they are in power. Paul’s teaching on this subject (and that of 1 Peter) was inspired under an Empire which was exceedingly hostile against Christianity. We would do well to listen to the Scriptures more than our own fleshly rage (which we dress up as righteous indignation) or the voices of politicos who are on our side but are sadly Christ-less.

* * * * * * *

I continue to be grieved over how Christians comport themselves in the view of the world (I’m considering primarily social media here). Where is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I’m not talking about your choices of entertainment or habit or even apparent morality. I reference how you speak of your political enemies – not just the people in public office, but by extension the majority that put them into office (despite the conspiracy theories, our leaders did not steal or violently take their offices, but were put there by your neighbors). What are you saying to them? Let’s listen to Paul again - this time to the Corinthian Church: “...I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified...I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 2:2; 15:1-4). There is an absoluteness to Paul’s statements that we need to have in our lives as believers, especially in the sight of the world. Where is that determination or “first importance” in your posts and re-posts? Where is Christ and the salvation that comes through Him alone?

I am a Southern Baptist. Our confession says this about our work in this world on behalf of the Kingdom of God: “All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society. Means and methods used for the improvement of society and the establishment of righteousness among men can be truly and permanently helpful only when they are rooted in the regeneration of the individual by the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography. We should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick. We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love. In order to promote these ends Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and His truth” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, XV). Do you know what’s missing from your words? The “Christ” repeated four times in the above statement on “The Christian and the Social Order.” There are two things I want to say that I’ve said over and over, and will continue saying: 1) If we don’t proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, nobody will. 2) We must not be surprised when lost people act, think, and speak like lost people – it’s the only thing they can do. We should, however, be continually surprised when supposed believers act, think, and speak like lost people. Never cease being surprised by that.

Blood moons, geopolitics, the U.S. Constitution, Senate hearings, political saviors, Confederate flags...none of this will save. If I were “the serpent of old,” though, I would certainly be delighted at your obsession with these things, knowing that only “the blood of the Lamb,” a Christian “testimony,” and “the commandments of God” can successfully resist the ancient adversary (Revelation 12:11,17). It would seem from your speech, though, that these things are not your hope and foundation. But, hypothetically speaking, if the economic system collapses in a few months and you’re right (which I seriously doubt), how does that change the eternal place of the souls of our neighbors and political enemies? If the President resigned tomorrow and the former Secretary of State was thrown in prison the day after that, it wouldn’t change a thing about the reality that hell is waiting for most of the people around us. And some of these things you guys are lifting up as important are barely a step above inflammatory, baseless gossip. Barely. Some of the people you’re touting as worthy of hearing are without Christ, just as godless as the political enemies you seem to hate so much. As is popularly said, only God knows the heart (which ought to break and humble us all), but from what you lift up as important in the sight of all, the only difference between you and your enemy is philosophy. Certainly not Christ and His Father’s Kingdom. It would seem, at least from what you say and don’t say, that you must really hate these people not to give them the only protection from the wrath of God. You must really hate these people to be yelling at them about how stupid they are politically as they are falling headlong into the eternal fires of hell. That’s how it seems. Your posts will only distract from Christ those who already agree with you (and many on your political side need Christ, too!). They will not change the minds of your enemies, who have their own funny pictures mocking your guys, sarcastic statements describing how ignorant you are, and “facts” either interpreting the past or showing that your point of view is dangerous to the future of this country. It’s a stalemate, whether you know it or not.

Christ is the only Person Who can change the equation. Some day, it will be said, “it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the Gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17). Where is the Kingdom priority (not conservative political priority) in all you do and say (Matthew 6:33)? Think about who has your ear. Think about what you’re publishing for the world to see. Where is the truth of Scripture (the only thing that God has promised to use to open the eyes of the blind)? Where is Christ (the only name under heaven by which men may be saved)? Think. It is part of the Bible’s greatest commandment, so this is something a believer must do: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your...mind” (Matthew 22:37//Mark 12:30//Luke 10:27, from Deuteronomy 6:5).

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
For you will heap burning coals on his head,
And the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21,22).
There is only one food and drink our enemies need – the body and blood of Christ, the Savior. Serve Him to them in every way you can.

* * * * * * *

Speaking of thinking, let me strongly commend to you Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ, by Dr. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield (Crown & Covenant Publications, 2015). I have not read Dr. Butterfield’s previous book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, and probably wouldn’t have read this one if I hadn’t seen a few quotes from it. I can’t remember which quotes – there are few pages in my copy that don’t have something highlighted. Here are a few possibilities:
  • “Stepping into God’s story means abandoning a deeply held desire to make meaning of our own lives on our own terms based on the preciousness of our own feelings” (pg. 5).
  • “It is not the absence of sin that makes you a believer. It is the presence of Christ in the midst of your struggle that commends the believer and sets you apart in the world” (pg. 8).
  • “If personal testimony does not reflect the Bible’s account of a life of faith and repentance, then for the sake of your friend and for the sake of Christ’s witness, bring the Word of life to bear upon the claim of conversion” (pg. 9).
  • “If God is the creator of all things, then the Bible has his seal of truth and power, then the Bible has the right to interrogate my life and my culture, and not the other way around” (pg. 17).
  • “...Jesus is the Word made flesh, and...‘knowing Jesus’ demands embracing the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus of someone’s imagination. The whole Bible” (pg. 21).
  • “It is sinful to write people off because they sin in ways that offend you. God holds up the same mirror for us all, and none of us reflects the image of God in righteousness, holiness, and knowledge apart from Christ” (pg. 32).
  • “ personal experience must always be surrendered to what my triune God has done and who my triune God is” (pg. 38).
I’ll stop there, but it was one of those quotes that made me get the book. Dr. Butterfield doesn’t just lift up the Gospel, she thinks carefully about the Gospel and what it means in today’s cultural environment and in our lives as believers. She doesn’t just think “carefully,” but, more importantly, she thinks biblically and confessionally. I did two things with this book I’ve not done in ages: I read it in only two days and shed tears on its pages - the Gospel is a beautiful thing and I can't hear/read it enough. The final chapter on “Community” is one all those interested in evangelism and community outreach need to consider.

We need to have the Gospel in the center of our thoughts and identity. Dr. Butterfield has written a book that leads us in that direction – while writing in a very personal way overflowing with the love of Christ. This is a unique combination in modern Christian books. They’re either all anecdotes and feelings or unreflective theoretical theology. They’re merged here. Read and think. In Christ.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Reading Pluto with Piper

“A sad spectacle. If they be inhabited, what a scope for misery and folly. If they be not inhabited, what a waste of space.”
- Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

While Carl Sagan (1934-1996) paraphrased Carlyle, it is in the movie Contact (Warner Brothers, 1997), based on Sagan’s book, where the quote is most popularly known: “...I guess I’d say if it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

I think of this whenever something significant happens in our exploration and examination of the universe. This week NASA’s New Horizons probe flew by Pluto, giving us a beautifully clear view of this outlying member of our solar system’s neighborhood. Billions of miles away, Pluto and its five moons have long just been a fuzzy dot on the best of our telescopes. To see so clearly something so exceedingly remote is astounding and exciting to me. I am mindful, though, of the fact that Pluto’s massive orbit and distance from us is a pinprick in size compared the vastness of the rest of the created order.

So, is it a waste of space? Only if we’re the reference point.

John Piper helpfully puts Pluto (and all else above us) in a biblical context that I think is appropriate to quote this week. Several years ago, I led a group of men to read through Piper’s Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2004) at a downtown coffee shop. This is what he has to say concerning this remarkable universe (including little Pluto and his moons):

“The created universe is all about glory. The deepest longing of the human heart and the deepest meaning of heaven and earth are summed up in this: the glory of God. The universe was made to show it, and we were made to see it and savor it. Nothing less will do. Which is why the world is as disordered and as dysfunctional as it is. We have exchanged the glory of God for other things (Romans 1:23). ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1). That is why the universe exists. It’s all about glory” (pg. 13).

Piper goes on to give an example of the vastness of the universe as seen through the Hubble telescope. But let’s consider what the little New Horizons probe has allowed us to do. We see details on a globe smaller than our own moon which is over three billion miles away. It takes light from the sun 5.3 hours to get to Pluto at 187,000 miles per second; it only takes light 8 minutes to get to the Earth from the sun. And we now know that Pluto is merely one of perhaps hundreds of similar worlds that make up the Kuiper Belt (the rural backwoods of our solar system). I got to run part of the Cactus to Cloud 50K last May (I say “part” because I had to drop out at mile 19.5). At mile 10, the race went by the National Solar Observatory near Cloudcroft, New Mexico. Starting at the observatory, there were signs on the road showing the scale of the distance of the planets from the sun. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars were fairly close to the observatory. Pluto was a long way out. But that little dwarf planet (still a planet in New Mexico according to House Joint Memorial 54 of the 48th Legislature in March, 2007), which is invisible to the naked eye here on Earth, has now been clearly seen! It’s amazing!

Back to Piper: “Sometimes people stumble over this vastness in relation to the apparent insignificance of man. It does seem to make us infinitesimally small. But the meaning of this magnitude is not mainly about us. It’s about God. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God,’ says the Scripture. The reason for ‘wasting’ so much space on a universe to house a speck of humanity is to make a point about our Maker, not us. ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created [the stars...and Pluto]? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of our might, and because he is strong in power not one of them is missing’ (Isaiah 40:26). The deepest longing of the human soul is to know and enjoy the glory of God. We were made for see it, to savor it, and to show it – that is why we exist. The untracked, unimaginable stretches of the created universe are a parable about the inexhaustible ‘riches of his glory’ (Romans 9:23). The physical eye is meant to say to the spiritual eye, ‘Not this, but the Maker of this, is the Desire of your soul’...the ache in every human heart is an ache for this. But we suppress it and do not see fit to have God in our knowledge (Romans 1:28). Therefore the entire creation has fallen into disorder...we were made to know and treasure the glory of God above all things; and when we trade that treasure for images, everything is disordered...the healing of our soul begins by restoring the glory of God to its flaming, all-attracting place at the center. We are all starved for the glory of God, not self. No one goes to the Grand Canyon to increase self-esteem. Why do we go? Because there is greater healing for the soul in beholding splendor than there is in beholding self. Indeed, what could be more ludicrous in a vast and glorious universe like this than a human being, on the speck called earth, standing in front of a mirror trying to find significance in his own self-image? It is a great sadness that this is the gospel of the modern world. But it is not the Christian Gospel...the Christian Gospel is about ‘the glory of Christ,’ not about me. And when it is – in some measure – about me, it is not about my being made much of by God, but about God mercifully enabling me to enjoy making much of him forever. What was the most loving thing Jesus could do for us? What was the endpoint, the highest good, of the Gospel? Redemption? Forgiveness? Justification? Reconciliation? Sanctification? Adoption? Are not all of these great wonders simply means to something greater? Something final? Something that Jesus asked his Father to give us? ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me’ (John 17:24)” (pgs. 13-16).

Seeing Pluto, Charon, Hydra, Nix, Styx, and Kerberos is just another step in the unending riches of the universe. We’ve discovered 484 planetary systems in other solar systems exponentially further away than distant Pluto. We’ll most likely never see them with the detail the pics of Pluto will have in the upcoming days, weeks, and months. This universe will continue to astound us as long as we keep looking up. Mis-read it, and it is Carlyle’s “sad spectacle” because it refuses to make much of us. May we read this story rightly that the heavens are telling, for “the heavens are telling of the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). It is the glory of the Trinity, the one true God Who is eternally three Persons.

“In the beginning God [the Father] created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said [the Son Who is the creating Word, John 1:1-3; cf. Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:1-3], ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day...then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth’; and it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:1-5,14-18).

We are then meant, with the minds uniquely created for us, to consider the reality to which this universe points. “For God, Who said [in Genesis 1:3], ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One Who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:6,7). This is the message of Pluto: we see we are smaller than we thought, and the Creator-God Who made this tiny, far-flung world in all its beautiful detail is even greater in glory than we could previously imagine. This same God is not merely concerned with making cosmic artwork. He has stooped down to us in His Son to save us from our self-centered foolishness and rebellion against Him. This is Good News, and it is truly glorious.

Did you hear Piper? “...there is greater healing for the soul in beholding splendor than there is in beholding self.” Marvel at what He has done, then look to the greater glory of His Son Jesus for your salvation, and find the wholeness you’ve been seeking all your life.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

According to My Righteousness

Psalm 18 (paralleled in 2 Samuel 22) is introduced with this title: “For the choir director. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song in the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”

“He brought me forth also into a broad place;
He rescued me, because He delighted in me.
The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness;
According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the LORD,
And have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all His ordinances were before me,
And I did not put away His statutes from me.
I was also blameless with Him,
And I kept myself from my iniquity.
Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
According to the cleanness of my hands in His eyes.
With the kind You show Yourself kind;
With the blameless You show Yourself blameless;
With the pure You show Yourself pure,
And with the crooked You show Yourself astute” (Psalm 18:19-26).

Psalm 7, too, is identified as a Psalm of David: A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjamite.”

“The LORD judges the peoples;
Vindicate me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me.
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous;
For the righteous God tries the hearts and minds.
My shield is with God,
Who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
And a God Who has indignation every day” (Psalm 7:8-11).

How are we to understand David’s appeals to God which seem to be based on his own personal righteousness? There are a few options:
  • We take it just as it seems at first read: David is making an appeal for God to act on his behalf with his own personal righteousness as the basis for the appeal. The problem is the testimony of Scripture concerning the righteousness of sinful humanity (including David). “...we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one’” (Romans 3:9,10). It would seem that David’s own righteousness would not account for his statements in Psalms 7 and 18. The Bible explicitly tells us that our personal righteousness (the farce that it is) has no role in our right relationship with God, and therefore our appeals to Him: “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, Whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified [proclaimed righteous] by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
  • David could be prophesying of the Christ, Who alone can make appeals to God based on a perfect righteousness. Psalm 16 is explicitly said to be the work of David the prophet, who “looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ” (Acts 2:30,31). We also know that Jesus Himself said the Psalms spoke of Him (Luke 24:44). Therefore, if we are to understand Psalms 7 and 18 as appeals from the singer to God based on the singer’s righteousness, we would be justified (pun intended) in considering these words of Christ prophetically given by the Holy Spirit to David. Christ, in His perfect righteousness, appeals to God for rescue and justification (Hebrews 5:7). But is there a way to understand Psalm 7 and 22 not just as the words of Christ (based on His own righteousness), but first as the song of David (a man like us who could not make appeals based on his own righteousness)?
  • Since the Psalms were written under the old covenant, we could postulate that under that covenant personal righteousness was a means of standing before God and making an appeal. I’m sure you’re familiar with this caricature of the covenants: the old was based on works, the new is based on faith. However, the two great statements of salvation by faith are from the Old Testament (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4b)!

The writer of Hebrews gives us a way of understanding the statements of Psalm 7 and 18 that integrates the appeals of David with the Gospel of justification (being declared righteous before God) by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

[As it says in Habakkuk 2:3,4] ‘For yet in a very little while, He Who is coming will come, and will not delay. But My righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in Him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it [faith] the men of old gained approval...and without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him...and what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of...David...who by faith...performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises(Hebrews 10:37-11:2,6,32,33).

David lived by the Gospel principle summed up in Habakkuk 2:4b. The “acts of righteousness” by which David made an appeal to God in Psalm 7 and 18 were acts done by faith. In other words, David’s righteousness came by faith, not by his own self-efforts. It’s a Gospel righteousness that comes by faith: “...I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for Whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Philippians 3:7-9).

And, of course, the Psalmist speaks of God’s righteousness many, many more times than he does his own (Psalm 5:8; 31:1; 35:24,28; 36:6,10; 37:6; 40:10; 51:14; 69:27; 71:2,15,16,19,24; 72:1; 88:12; 89:16; 119:40,142; 143:1,11; 145:7). Understanding the smaller light of references to “my righteousness” as it relates to the greater light of references to God’s righteousness is a vital exercise. It is not just a question of hermeneutical approach (though it is, and this is always an important question). It is not just doctrine (though this is also immeasurably important). It is the difference a Gospel that is true, biblical, and can alone save, in contrast with a hopeless reliance on one’s own righteousness before God (the attempt of every non-Christian religion).

Trust in the righteousness of Christ the Son alone both for salvation and every appeal you make to our Father Who is in heaven.