Mercy and justice (Psalm 85)

Justice is something we typically want for others; mercy is something we typically want for ourselves.  If you’re married, you probably see this played out on a daily basis.  When faced with your spouse’s shortcomings—sometimes as simple as an unfinished task—the “law” comes out.  “The dishes aren’t done,” you might insist, or, “the lawn needs mowed.”  But when the shoe’s on the other foot, you expect leniency.  A friend of mine told me that he’d come to realize that “law for you, grace for me” had become one of the defining features of his marriage.  And it hurt.

Earlier this week we’ve observed that God gives blessings to his people, and we’ve also seen that it’s only natural for us to desire justice for wrongdoing.  How these two traits fit together is a thing of beauty, so much so that it’s been sung even in the ancient worship songs of Israel:

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
and righteousness looks down from the sky.
12 Yes, the Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him
and make his footsteps a way. (Psalm 85:10-13)

The unnamed writer tells us that “righteousness and peace kiss each other.”  This same righteousness that demands justice for sin is unified with the peace of God’s salvation.

Nowhere do we find that more clearly demonstrated than in the cross itself, where God’s love and God’s fierce justice intersect on a hillside just outside the city.

John Stott writes:

“It is the Judge himself who in holy love assumed the role of innocent victim, for in and through the person of his Son he himself bore the penalty that he himself inflicted. As Dale put it, “The mysterious unity of the Father and the Son rendered it possible for God at once to endure and to inflict penal suffering.” There is neither harsh injustice nor unprincipled love nor Christological heresy in that; there is only unfathomable mercy. For in order to save us in such a way as to satisfy himself, God through Christ substituted himself for us. Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice. The cross was an act simultaneously of punishment and amnesty, severity and grace, justice and mercy.”[1]

At the cross we find both mercy and justice.  Justice, because Jesus paid the debt of human wickedness, and mercy, because this payment wipes our slates clean.  We therefore are released from the weight of our own shame, but we are also released from the weight of our social outrage.  That is, when we are confronted with radical evil—whether in the headlines or our own households—we look to the cross and recognize that true justice is found there, that when we demand blood God offers his own.

No matter the headline, no matter the circumstance, justice is ultimately found in the righteousness of God.  And so is mercy.  I don’t mean to say that there are no earthly consequences—as if God does not use such events even to discipline his own children.  But as Christians we extend mercy and grace to our brothers and sisters knowing their debts have been paid the same as ours.

 

[1] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 158-9.

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“I can’t forgive myself” (Psalm 85)

Disqualified.  Few impacts sting like a fall from grace, and fewer still are the men who rise from them.  So it’s no wonder that we spend so much time under guilt’s haunting shadow.  As we observed earlier this week, popular psychology has divorced the subjects of guilt and shame.  If there are no moral absolutes, then what’s to feel guilty over?  I’m left only to deal with my shame.  There’s just one problem: it’ll never work.  Shame comes back to us, in pangs and waves of memory.  Reflecting on his experience before meeting Jesus, Christian author Lee Strobel writes:

“I know what it’s like to live a life of moral relativism, where every day I make fresh ethical choices based on self-interest and expediency….Yet [many] are beginning to conclude that moral anarchy isn’t all that Hugh Hefner once painted it to be….Often, there’s a free-floating sense of guilt, and inevitably there’s harm caused to oneself and others.”  (Lee Strobel, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Marry, p. 47-49)

But what about those who follow Jesus?  I often hear—from myself as much as others—that it’s hard to feel forgiven.   “I know God forgives me,” you might even be thinking.  “But I can’t forgive myself.”

You’re not alone.  None of ever truly are.  Paul—the man responsible for much of our New Testament—was simultaneously the most religious man who ever lived, yet also the most sinful.  In his letter to the Romans Paul writes:

“…I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out….I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing….Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18-25)

SalvationThe Christian life is indeed a journey, and our desired destination doesn’t always match the label reading “You are here.”  This is why we must understand that the Bible never defines salvation as a one-time event.  The language of “getting saved” is wholly absent from the pages of the New Testament.  Granted, I’m not suggesting that it’s less than that—such language has often been helpful when speaking to first-time believers.  But I am suggesting it’s more than that—and I believe scripture tells such a story.  Scripture tells us that salvation has both a past, present, and future component—all of which are helpful in dealing with lingering feelings of guilt.

We can actually see this in the eighty-fifth psalm.  Perhaps it’s fitting that this psalm has no specified author—it might just as well have been written by any one of us.  And ultimately, these words point us toward the salvation found in Jesus—graciously applied to all generations who seek Him.

JUSTIFICATION: “Restored, forgiven, covered”

First, salvation has a past component.

1 Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.

2 You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin. Selah

3  You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.

The psalmist tells us that God was “favorable” to His people.  Look at the verbs he uses to unpack this: “restored, forgave, covered.”  There is great confidence in a God who covers over sin.

Christian theology calls this “justification,” a courtroom term that means being “declared righteous” before a judge.  The basis for this?  When Jesus died on the cross, He paid the just penalty for your sins—and my sins.  Elsewhere in Romans, Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).  And in exchange, we received His righteous reputation.  So when a holy and just God looks down at us, He no longer sees our sin, but Christ’s righteousness.

SANCTIFICATION: “Restore us again”

Second, salvation has a present component.  Listen to what the psalmist asks of God in the next collection of verses:

4  Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us!

5  Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?

6  Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?

7  Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.

The psalmist asks that God “restore us again.”  Why?  Justification is a past event, yet as we move forward in the present we’ll experience the very sort of life Paul described above—doing what we hate, avoiding what we love.  Christian theology teaches that over time, through the Spirit’s leading, we become more like Jesus.  This is called “sanctification.”  The gospel says that I am accepted not by good works, but by Christ’s sacrifice.  If I am saved by grace, then surely I am also sanctified by grace.  How?  It’s simple: Christianity teaches that we are not loved because we are beautiful; we are beautiful because we are loved.  Because I already have God’s acceptance in Christ, I am set free to follow after Him in a lifelong pursuit of His goodness.  Will I succeed?  No—at least never entirely.  But like a young child chasing his earthly daddy, so too can we find joy in striving to be like our heavenly Father.

In Romans, Paul writes that “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5).  The Christian life is about learning to walk in step with this Spirit.

GLORIFICATION: “righteousness and peace kiss each other”

Finally, there is a greater future for all of God’s people.  I love how the psalmist phrases it—that in God’s presence “righteousness and peace kiss each other.”  Israel looked forward to a time when God’s people would experience on earth the very blessings of heaven:

8  Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly.

9  Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.

10  Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.

11  Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.

12  Yes,  the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

13  Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.

 

We see a glimpse of this in John’s gospel.  When calling His first disciples, Jesus says that “I tell all of you the solemn truth– you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)  In his commentary on John, N.T. Wright says that it’s as if Jesus is saying, “follow me and you’ll see what it’s like when heaven and earth are open to each other.”  Heaven and earth intersect in the person of Jesus.  But heaven and earth will not become one until Christ’s future return:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:2-4)

What does this mean?  It means the struggle I experience today won’t be the struggle I experience for eternity.  Christian history is full of stories of men and women who struggled against sin in this life because they were confident that in the next life they would be “glorified”—free from all earthly suffering.  This is why eternity is so important; if this life is all we have, then the suggestion that we suppress our natural desires must seem unnatural—even cruel.  But if Christianity is true, then our present struggles will one day melt away in the presence of Jesus.

WHO’S REALLY MY SAVIOR?

Still, the guilt persists.  “I can’t forgive myself.”  But stop and examine the question.  Do we really need our own forgiveness?  When we struggle to forgive ourselves, it reveals that our truest savior is not God, but our own moral record.  Let it go.  Only when we begin to live in the light of the gospel and in step with the Spirit will we experience true and lasting freedom.  The reason the psalms become a vital part of our worship is because these things don’t happen to us over the course of a single Sunday, but a lifetime of Sundays.  But through God’s grace, this joyous song carries on into eternity.