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.

grace strengthens our hearts (but the law doesn’t)

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Hebrews 13

The language of grace is different than what we’re accustomed to, in fact I would say it’s largely foreign to us. We tend to fall into one extreme or another: into living an obligatory life in trying to please God (law), or less likely for myself and people I know, simply believing that we can’t not sin in this life, so we might as well get on with it. But if we’re to learn the language of Paul, we’ll have to learn another tune altogether than either one of these.

It’s true that someone other than Paul most likely wrote the letter to the Hebrews. But that person was certainly in sync with Paul and the message of grace found in Paul’s letters. It’s a message that is radically simple, and simply radical. What we could never do ourselves, Christ did for us through his appearing (the Incarnation), his teaching (pointing us to the kingdom come in him, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel for the world), and his death and resurrection.

Particularly through Christ’s death, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, our sins are forgiven, and we live in a new realm, the realm of grace. This might be a hard one to wrap our heads around, since most all of our lives we’ve been accustomed to living in the default of law, or obligation. Where we’ve lived is tricky. We believe and feel that we’re obliged to do something for the one who gave his all for us.

That’s tricky and even a bit deceptive since in reality we certainly can’t add a thing to what Christ has done for us. Nor can we delete a thing from it, either, by what we do or fail to do. Of course we can sin against that sacrifice, even as Hebrews itself warns us (see Hebrews chapters 6 and 10). We can treat it in a contemptuous or careless way.

The heart is not strengthened when it is under the constraint and obligation of law. See Romans 7 for the clearest indication of that. There Paul is referring to life under the law apart from grace (Romans 6) and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8). Our only hope for beginning to live the new life is the very same grace through which we entered into that life in the first place. Our own effort, or prescribed works (or proscribed as in forbidden, for that matter) will not carry us into that new life, in fact cannot be a part of it. But on the basis of God’s grace to us in Jesus, we indeed are put into a realm in which there is a new life to be lived, but a life never dependent even on our own faithfulness, but only on that of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20; see the CEB and context).

That is what I’m working on now. To better understand so as to begin to more fully live in the grace of God in Jesus. And by that live a life in which the heart is strengthened to carry on well in and through Christ himself from the Father by the Spirit.

when who judge others we condemn themselves

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

Romans 2

It is interesting how often it is apparent that the very thing we see wrong in another is something we practice ourselves. We need insight from God to be able to see that. Jesus doesn’t tell us to quit judging as in having discernment in the Matthew passage quoted above. Rather he tells us to make sure we are scrupulous to take care of the sin in our own lives,  before we think we can help someone else with the sin in their lives. The crux of the matter is that we’re not to condemn others in a kind of final judgment which only God can make.

I think Paul is saying much the same thing in the Romans passage quoted above. He is challenging Jews who think that just because they had the Law/Torah, they were a cut (circumcision) above the rest. But Paul makes it clear in that letter that just like the rest of humankind, they too were under the power of sin. So that again, an emphasis is made on judging one’s self with reference to that Torah, and becoming obedient to the Law’s requirement, which is love for God and for our neighbor from the heart by the Spirit.

James has some good words for us related to this:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

James 4

Simply put, we’re not to put ourselves in the place of God. And here:

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2

Finally, in a sense bringing this to full circle, back to our Lord’s words:

Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.

John 7

I am very wary of topical studies such as this one, because they too often don’t do justice to the context of each passage, and are summarily slapped together in a way which ultimately often fails to support the main point, or at least is simplistic, failing to take into account the whole. Of course we should compare scripture with scripture, no doubt, while letting each passage and book within scripture have its own voice to be appreciated within the mix of the whole.

Today the point is that we must beware and at least be wary of judging others, since only God can see and judge, and since we are sinners, too. But as by grace we do judge ourselves, God will give us insight to help others judge themselves by God’s grace on the path of righteousness. And in the end, we should apply mercy, remembering that mercy ultimately triumphs over judgment. In other words, God’s salvation in Jesus overcomes the judgment and brings mercy in and through Jesus. So that we should learn to see both ourselves and others in light of that great reality and hope.

 

Christ is the center

There is an Antiochian (Eastern) Orthodox church in our area which has a fitting mural on its domed ceiling of Christ with apostles and prophets and perhaps other people of the church surrounding Christ as witnesses to him. I think this is quite apt. We don’t really preach the word, as Paul charges Timothy to do, unless we’re preaching Christ.

Jesus himself pointed out to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection that scripture, the Law and the Prophets taught that he must suffer and die and be raised on the third day. That was certainly a revelation to them, and it should be instructive to us. But I’m afraid that many times in our evangelical churches, Christ gets lost in the details of our message on a given passage and passages from scripture. Which is ironic since evangelical means pertaining to the gospel. Scripture is not meant to be read as it was originally received. We are to read it now with Christ and gospel centered eyes, with that lens in place. Christ and the gospel is the point and end of every passage of scripture, the point of the Story of scripture.

If we don’t do this, then we’re not preaching the word, period. Of course to some extent every evangelical church will preach the word to the extent that Christ is proclaimed. But the message can all too easily become geared toward the individual hearers helping themselves with the truth of the word. And there’s no doubt that all kinds of wisdom can be found in the words of scripture, even at the most obscure places. But Christ himself is wisdom from God, in him are all the treasures of wisdom, so that ultimately we don’t find true wisdom apart from him.

It may well be true that some find true wisdom through Christ, even if they don’t know of Christ and the gospel message. That God might be giving them that light insofar as that’s possible apart from the message of Christ and the faith that comes with that message, as C. S. Lewis might suggest, if I’m understanding him right. But the true light that comes into the world, enlightening everyone (John 1) is fully revealed in the Word who became flesh, and dwelled among us, and gave his flesh (and blood) for the life of the world.

It is also true, as one of the faithful pointed out to me, that we don’t preach Christ apart from living out the love by the Spirit, which is the fulfillment of the law, that is the torah of scripture. If we don’t live out that love, we are not showing Christ to the world. And it’s also true that this unique love comes only from Christ as the source. God in Christ the human, of course himself being God-in-the-flesh, fully human and fully God.

Christ is the center by whom we find through faith and baptism the life of the Trinity in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Apart from that Word, the written word has lost its way, falling short of the truth, and therefore having no life. If we don’t believe that, then we are missing reality, we are more or less missing the center, who is Christ.

 

 

Romans 7, and the case for two natures

Yesterday I suggested that the sinful nature teaching among evangelicals is questionable. Today I want to touch lightly on a most challenging passage, which has different interpretations, though by and large, I think one should prevail, with some possible overlap into the Christian life.

Romans 7 is often understood as teaching that the believer in Christ has two natures. And I’ve heard the teaching repeatedly, we probably all have, that it depends on which nature one feeds as to which one survives, or thrives and grows. At the same time it’s taught that the believer will have an inevitable struggle with the two natures, even a tug of war (it has even been inaptly called I think, a civil war), and the struggle won’t end in this life; it will always be present.

Romans 7 needs to be read and studied in the context of at least Romans chapters 6 and 8. What is noticeable in Romans 7 in contrast to the previous and following material is that both grace and the Spirit are absent. Romans 7 depicts life under the law, we might capitalize Law, life under the Torah. At least at this point when the transition has taken place and the first/old covenant is of the past, the final/new covenant present, grace and the Spirit are no longer present with what is now the old covenant, as important as that covenant being first, was. Paul would have surely argued that only in the new/final covenant was God’s grace and the Spirit to be dominant, the old/first covenant having laid the groundwork for that.

One might argue that Paul’s use of the first person “I” indicates he’s talking about his own experience as a Christian. I think along with some interpreters (at least one of the early church era) that he is using a rhetorical device which was especially common, or at least known when he wrote it, and is simply identifying what life is like under the law in the graphic terms of one living there. However insofar as we who are in Christ, no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit (Romans 8) and under grace, not under the law (Romans 6), insofar as we live like those who are under the law, something of the experience of Romans 7 will be experienced. But in reality we are not under the law, but under grace, and not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, so that the thought is a deception.

People refer to Paul calling himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1), as if he sins right up to the present, contradictory of the teaching of Romans 6 and 8. But Paul is surely thinking of his past life of persecuting Christians, and not to his present life. At the same time, it’s true that we don’t arrive in this life. We still have both indwelling sin, and sin to confess. So there might be some case to make for two natures. As Galatians 5 makes clear, if we don’t walk/live according to the Spirit, we will live according to the flesh.

There is little doubt that at least at times we can and will falter. And we don’t arrive in this life to any kind of sinless perfection, but do sin in thought, word and deed daily in both what we do and fail to do to love God with all of our being and doing, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. So that we are always in need of God’s mercy to us as sinners. But at the same time, our lives are to be characterized as those who are led by the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body, and living as those enslaved to God and to righteousness in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

toward a more just society

In many nations in the world, the idea that people can have any influence in what government there is, is no more than a dream. Although in western-styled of influenced countries, there ordinarily is some element of demoocracy.

Israel was a theocratic nation, the church following under the rule of Christ. So that the society within each can’t exactly be compared in terms of other societies in the world. Israel of old, when one looks at the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) has laws to bring about a more just society, with an emphasis of providing for the poor beyond what the poor can provide for themselves. The church is different in that it is scattered throughout the world, but in its enclaves, it too is to have an emphasis on helping the poor, especially its own poor. The law (Torah) given to Israel and fulfilled now in the church is to be a light to the nations, pointing them to Christ, and to God’s will in Christ, a light to help them, but which in the end will judge them.

For too many Christians, the short passage on the state in Romans 13 is the sum total of what the state should be doing. That idea works well in an individualistic framework which is the heritage of the Enlightenment as in individual liberty, so that whatever good done within a nation, they suppose, should be done only out of the goodness of one’s own heart, and not something imposed by the state, forcing people to do what they don’t want to do, so that whatever good is done is actually not even accepted by God, they think.

Such a notion is far from the vision we find in the Bible even for this present life. The state should encourage and make room for the help from individuals, which should include allowing them to do so in terms of their faith. The state itself (and I think Miroslav Volf is right on in this if I understand him correctly, and a great gift in his thinking for the church and for the world) should not sanction any one faith, at least not as the faith people must embrace, even if the state is more influenced in its actions by some particular faith. It should make room for everyone, precisely because it is not a Theocracy, not a state directly ruled by God. Imagine if all the countries in the world thought they were states ruled by God. The vision in the Revelation sees that day coming under Christ’s rule, but not so now. Already there is and has been a big problem toward justifying state actions on the basis of that kind of thinking.

So the goal of nation states now should be to arrive at a consensus as to what is good not only for the indivividual, but also for society as a whole. In the case of America, I think the foundations of the Enlightenment along with scripture, that odd mix, actually have some value in the make up of this nation, which was the first and in its way, the only nation to go precisely that direction. The problem comes when we lionize any such state. We can appreciate the unique contribution America has made without thinking that it is the only way a nation state can do well in this world.

What we have to hold on to as Christians is the light given to us in scripture and the gospel, and carried out in the tradition of the church on how under God we are to live with each other. In that context it is not at all about individual liberty, even though each one is to follow Christ. But to do so in the context of one body, or the whole. Instead it is about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, in the context of loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. And there is present in the church the dynamic of the Spirit in Christ to make this work, especially in terms of the fruit of the Spirit in helping us to live well in community, along with the gifts meant to help each other grow toward the flourishing of true humanity in Christ.

Nation states in the world can’t have that same dynamic, but they can learn from the church, and incorporate something of that in just laws which hold people accountable, and punish evil, while encouraging good. Nations will be judged on how they took care of the poor and helpless in their societies. Consider the sin of Sodom.

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:49-50

Of course how a better society is achieved is hotly debated here in the United States. But make no mistake about it, there does need to be work done towad a better society, which has to include not only the possibility for some prospering, but help for those who do not, to the point of not even surviving, or lacking what is necessary for the basics of life.

We long for true justice to come in the coming of King Jesus, andd we seek to live out more and more of that same justice in our own midst as God’s people in him. And we long for something of that to be inculcated in the societies in which we live, as we pray for those in positions of governmental authority, that a peace might be in place in which we can live as a witness to the one through whom the lasting peace in shalom will come. A peace which necessarily in biblical terms includes justice, what is right in God’s eyes. Even as we await the day when that justice will forever be the rule of the day in God’s love in and through King Jesus.

 

Christmastide and the coming of the Savior

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

By creation we are God’s children, but we also need that distinction through the new creation. The law holds us as prisoners to sin, and acted as a guardian, or disciplinarian (NRSV) until Christ came. From that time we are justified by faith, simple faith in Christ Jesus. He came to redeem us from the curse of sin under the law through his crucifixion and death (Galatians 3:13).

Therefore we are God’s children and heirs of all God’s promises in Christ Jesus, since we are children of God in and through the Son of God and again, by his redemptive work for us. We are set free to live in faith and by the Spirit, and not under the law, which ultimately in and of itself would condemn us. Even though it also had its useful place in a formative period for God’s people. We are taught our need for God’s grace, our entry into that coming through faith and baptism in and through the faithfulness of Christ, in and through Jesus Christ himself. Whose coming was timely, according to God’s time and working.