a meditation on Psalm 51: our need of God’s grace

Psalm 51 is one of the great passages of the Bible. The NIV‘s translation of the superscription gives its alleged and at least possible setting. Scholars aren’t sure if the superscriptions were added later, or written when the psalms were. And even if added later, they could still be considered a part of scripture itself.

For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

Many times people relegate the Old Covenant to the era of the Law, and fail to see that, while it is indeed preparatory for the fullness of grace (and truth) which came in Jesus, it was actually grace oriented itself. God’s grace, as in undeserved favor and sheer gift is foundational for all human relationships with God, certainly no less true for that time as it is today.

If there is one thing that we need to see when reading Psalm 51 above anything else, we have to see from this psalm the truth of David’s need, and our need today of this grace from God. Of course like the rest of scripture, we need every line, which contributes to the whole toward the understanding God wants to give. But unless we grasp this truth of our need of God’s grace, all the other truth won’t matter, and will be essentially lost, except to condemn us. If we read the psalm carefully and slowly, we will find this to be the case.

Theologians have a term for what I’m getting at here: prevenient grace. We need grace from God even to properly know and have understanding of our sin, and to properly be broken and grieved over it in repentance. The last thing we need to be doing over our sin is to beat ourselves up, and try to make some great sacrifice to God ourselves. Instead we need God’s grace, so that we can properly see and act in the faith which God in that grace gives us in and through Jesus.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

the authenticity we need

Authenticity is very much a staple word nowadays. Being “real” is practically valued above most anything else. And if understood correctly, that thought is helpful. But if not understood correctly, it is not.

What is unhelpful today is a kind of wearing one’s emotions on one’s sleeve approach in which what we ourselves feel and think about something is all that matters. This goes along with the postmodern mood which is a part of our culture. It’s not like what we feel and think doesn’t matter, that’s not the point at all. In fact, before God, and before any good counselor who hopefully is also a true friend, it is good to trust to the point where one can tell all without fear of being condemned, or looked down on and rejected. This is vitally important, and precisely where Job’s friends failed. The kind of authenticity which bears all before God, and appropriately confesses sin to God and to others is highly valued in scripture. “A broken and contrite heart, God does not despise.”

But we in Jesus must not stop with that aspect of authenticity, though neither should we abandon it. The kind of authenticity we need is expressed by James:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1

The kind of authenticity pressed for here is a life that is not only vulnerable by being open before God, and when appropriate, before others. But a heart sincere and set in trying to be true by grace to living in accord with God’s word. An authenticity in being genuine not only in regard to who we actually are, without pretense, but also a genuineness in seeking to see our lives and God’s revealed will in scripture and in Jesus being brought closer and closer together.

Of course that’s a lifelong process, involving an ongoing brokenness and sorrow of heart over too often falling short. Yet also seeing the Spirit help us to actually grow more and more into Jesus’s likeness to a significant extent by taking in the word, and letting it expose us, then doing something about it.

The authenticity in Jesus that is desirable is one that’s committed to being conformed to the truth of God’s word, and the truth that is in Jesus, whatever the cost, without imagining that one will arrive in this life. And so an important part of that authenticity is an ongoing brokenness before God. Even as we find ourselves in some ways, enough to be encouraged, growing closer to heart and life conformity to God’s will in Jesus.

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent

Today on the church calendar is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is the period from this day to Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. It is a time of preparation for remembering Jesus’ suffering and death and celebrating his resurrection. Penitence, meaning a sorrow over our sin, and repentance, which includes confession along with renunciation and forsaking of sin, is to mark this time. This is a time to especially focus on our sins, asking God to search us so that our darkness might be exposed by God’s light, so that we might confess our sins and receive both cleansing and forgiveness. And through that live differently. In doing so, we’re seeking to honor our Lord by responding in whole hearted faith to what he has done for us in his death on the cross. So that we might be enabled to rejoice completely in his resurrection, as we share in his resurrection life even now.

Ash Wednesday is also a day of remembering our mortality. We are dust, and to dust we will return (Genesis 3:19).

The priest or pastor takes ashes which are watered down (perhaps with holy water or olive oil), and marks the sign of the cross on the participants. The ashes are previously blessed by the priest or deacon for the purpose which they serve to draw us to confession of sin and the salvation of the cross of Christ. As well as reminding us of our mortality.