Tag Archives: salvation

Is the Book of Psalms Obsolete?

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
–Psalm 51:1 ESV

David wrote about his experience with sin and his discovery of important moral truths nearly three thousand years ago. What does his writing have to do with twenty-first century human beings?

The first time I wrote a blog post questioning the use of the word “marriage” for same-sex unions, I received quite a few comments. Among them were several writers who objected strenuously to my position on that moral question. One person, unlike the other objectors, did not try to persuade me that I had misinterpreted the Bible. Instead, he protested the whole idea of using the Bible to learn the right thing to do. He said that he was smart enough to decide for himself what was right and wrong, and he did not need a Bible to tell him. I had never before encountered someone who thought he needed no external standard to guide his moral choices, and I asked him how he knew that he was doing it right. He replied, “When it makes me feel good, then I know it is right.”

If David had subscribed to that moral standard, he never would have written Psalm 51.

I have been blogging for about 10 years, and I have often blogged about the effect of sin in our lives. David wrote about that problem, too, and in Psalm 51 uses the word “sin” more than once:

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
–Psalm 51:2-3

The word “sin” is not a popular word among secular thinkers, and among those who call themselves “progressives,” there are many who believe that it is immoral to call anyone a sinner. They feel so strongly about it that they even accuse parents of child abuse if the parents tell their children that they are born sinners.

If David’s worldview included rejection of the whole concept of sin, he would never have written Psalm 51.

David makes other comments that arouse scorn and pejorative labels in contemporary culture. David speaks to God and says,

Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
–Psalm 51:4

Contemporary culture expresses scornful dismissals and abusive language for God that is unthinkable in polite conversation, let alone public discourse. The intellectual elite think they are being polite when they accuse Christians of serving an “imaginary friend,” and those who believe that nothing in all the universe is more intelligent or powerful than themselves utterly reject the notion of letting God push them around with a bunch rules. They believe that they are quite well able to know what is good for them, and they don’t need an imaginary friend to tell them anything.

If David had agreed with contemporary culture that no power in the universe had any right to tell him what to do, he would never have written Psalm 51.

If you closely examine contemporary cultural mantras, you know that the culture would never send you to a higher power in order to fix what is broken in your life. The culture believes that you must merely “dig deep” within yourself to find the power to do the things that make you feel good. When you do what makes you feel good, the culture says that you won’t be wallowing in self-degradation and begging to be cleansed, because, according to secular thinkers, when you feel good about what you are doing, you won’t feel bad about yourself.

Furthermore, if you do doubt yourself, you can simply take a poll and find out what everyone else thinks, and that should clear up your moral choices. According to the culture, when you are part of a consensus that something is right, whether it is abortion, homosexual behavior, or full frontal nudity, the fact that there is consensus means you are not alone. If you act consistent with the consensus, you do not need to do any research at all to know what is right. If everybody else feels good about doing it, you can do it, too, and feel good about it.

If David had believed that knowing the consensus was the same thing as knowing what was right, he would never have written Psalm 51.

David would not have fitted in with contemporary culture at all, just as confessing Christians do not fit in. Studies of the culture, conducted by Barna and Pew, reveal that the culture regards many central Christian teachings as either irrelevant, detrimental to the culture, or dangerous. The idea of sin is anathema to secular thinkers. The idea of God is anathema to all who consider evolution to be the guiding power in the universe. A man who calls himself a sinner for doing something that made him feel good looks ridiculous to secular thinkers. A man who believes he has broken his relationship with the Creator of the universe by doing something that displease the Creator is to be pitied for his lack of self-esteem. A man who believes he needs to be cleansed because he is a filthy sinner, a man who believes he needs to be born all over again with a new heart because he is out of sync with the will of God will be laughed to scorn by those who say they can plainly see that there is no God.

We can all be grateful that David was not a contemporary secular thinker, because instead of leaving us to contemplate our own sinful human nature and our multiple specific sins against God, David confessed his own experience with sin, and then he showed us how to be healed when we sin:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.          –Psalm 51:10

If you have ever been suddenly brought to attention by the recognition that you committed sin against God, sin you hid from even yourself as you did it, then you know that you cannot heal what is sick, or fix what is broken, by claiming that it made you feel good at the time. You know what David knew—you are a sinner. You have built a wall between yourself and God, a wall  made up of your own will and wishes. Furthermore, the “good” feelings that accompanied your behavior are dissolving in your shame when you realize that your barrier is full of holes, and God can see exactly who you are. Then is a good time to borrow David’s words and pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

The Bible is full of Jesus, from the first page to the last. The day that Jesus rose from the dead, he joined a couple of men walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. As they walked together, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Christ] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). David’s Psalm 51 surely came up that day. When you read David’s words, baptism is vividly referenced in David’s statements, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Psalm 51:2 ESV) David further wrote, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV), obviously pointing forward to the work of Christ on the cross, which Paul would describe by saying, “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV).

The moral values of contemporary culture are not very different from the values in the cultures contemporary with David’s lifetime. In fact, contemporary values are well described as far back as Genesis, where God observed that “every imagination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5 ESV). That is why the work of Jesus on the cross is relevant to every era. In every age it is always necessary to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV).

Advertisements

Everybody Needs a Heart Transplant

Psalm 51 is classified as a penitential psalm. The definition of penitence is sorrow for sin or faults. The psalm certainly lives up to that definition, expressing profound sorrow, but it does a great deal more than wallow in recognition of personal wrong-doing.

The header on this psalm links it to David’s adultery with Bathsheba, a sin that was magnified by the murder of her husband. Jesus spoke of the moment David fell into sin. Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28 ESV). Jesus said that David’s sin originated in his heart. In fact, Jesus said that the heart is the place where our sins are born: “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:10 ESV). Apparently, the problem with the world is sinful hearts.

When David wrote Psalm 51, he recognized his real problem. He confessed his sin and his need of God’s forgiveness and cleansing, and then he said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV). David knew that his heart would continue to be a source of sin if something did not change. His heart needed to be different, and he knew he could not merely decide to be a better man.

Contemporary culture would have us believe that we can simply decide and then become. “If you can dream it, you can be it,” the culture says. Every person who struggles with diet and exercise can testify that dreams simply are not enough. David looked at himself and saw the way his attitude and behavior had been perverted by the lust in his heart, and he recognized that his heart was the problem. He also recognized that imagining himself as a better man would not fix his heart. He said, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5 ESV) David could see what Jesus saw in the heart—the source of his sinful thoughts, words and deeds. His heart needed to be fixed, and he could not fix it himself.

David turned to the One who could fix what was broken in his heart, and I find that I need to do the same thing. David could not fix himself, and I cannot fix myself, either. David cried out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV), and I cry out the same way. My heart is a mess, just as his was, and I turn to the same source for help.

I share meditation on Scripture with an online group, and that means that when I read a text like this with the group, I benefit from the insights God gives to other people. In the group, many people recognized and rejoiced in the cleansing of the heart. That part of David’s cry was thoroughly celebrated, but one person saw the next level of blessing. She recognized that God did not merely cleanse David’s heart, but he “created” a new heart. We don’t simply get washed down. God does not merely paint over the scars of our sin. We get new hearts. She said, “He ‘created’ a new heart in me.”

That is the real blessing. I am not merely clean. I’m all new. I am like the advertising mantra “new and improved.”

Every time I read Genesis 6, I feel a pain in my stomach when I read, “GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5 ESV). Here, too, I am reminded that the heart is the origin of sin, and it boils out of us like an erupting volcano, ultimately destroying everything beautiful in the world God created. Fortunately, the Bible does not stop there. God’s story continues, and instead of despair, there is hope. David looked at himself and saw his own wickedness and evil, but he saw the hope. David knew God as a God who not only forgives us but makes us new. His experience foreshadows the coming of Jesus to work our salvation through Christ. When David asks for a new heart, he exercises the kind of faith that Abraham had, and Paul said that Abraham’s faith made him righteous, just as ours does. The author of Hebrews repeated that assertion that many people who lived before Christ had faith in God’s promise and God counted it as righteousness for them, too. The same faith worked for David.

There is only one way for us to be made clean, righteous, new, and that way is Christ. David’s prayer calls forth the same cleansing power as I experienced when I professed my faith and was baptized. God’s heart was broken by human sin in the Garden of Eden, at the time of Noah, when David took Bathsheba from her husband, and every time anyone chooses evil rather than good. Fortunately, because of the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, every human being can safely and confidently pray with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV)

What is the Best Part of Going to Church?

There have been times in my life when I would have known exactly how to answer this question, but due to some troubling issues in my church, I have been faced with the necessity of deeper thinking on the subject. However, as with most problems, there is a real value in being compelled to think deeply instead of giving a flip answer on a deep subject.

During a visit with family this summer, I saw a headline in the local paper that asked the same question as the title of this post. I was somewhat unnerved by the answers the reporter chose to share. The article originated in the Kansas City Star, but I saw the reprint in Cedar Rapids in The Gazette on August 6, 2016. Two quick answers were featured in the article, and the two pastors who answered were allowed the opportunity to flesh out their answers as the body of the article.

The short answer by Pastor Bob Hill of the Community Christian Church was, “Participants can delight in living in a caring community.” The short answer by Pastor Duke Tufty of Unity Temple on the Plaza was, “Church is an ideal place to keep happy, upright and balanced.” What do you think of these answers?

This post is my response to the question, and I think these answers miss the whole point of going to church. I should make sure that readers know that the phrase, “going to church,” has at least two discrete meanings: 1 – to attend the primary weekly worship service, and 2 – to participate in the life of a church. My immediate reaction to the title was to think of my answer based on the first meaning, but when I read the answers of the two pastors, I felt that they were responding to the second meaning. I don’t feel that they gave a good answer for either meaning.

If the question referred to the first meaning, then the question was about the “best part” of being in a worship service. Some worship services may celebrate a caring community, and some may be about personal happiness and mental health, but in my experience, that is not the focus of a worship service. A worship service is about our human obligation to love God, to praise him and to give thanks for his presence and power in our lives. Our worship obligation is a response to the fact that Christ has set us free from enslavement to Satan, cleansed us from the spiritual harm done by Satan in our lives, and called us to service to him and to every person we meet. Worship is in part our gratefulness for what God has done, but in very large part, worship is a celebration of who God is. It isn’t about making us feel good; it is more about making us into good people.

If the question referred to the second meaning, the answers may have some elements of truth, but something important was missing from both answers: our salvation through Christ and our grateful service to Christ. In regard to our overall participation in the life of a church, the best part is the way the life of the church constantly draws us closer to Christ and helps us to become more like Christ. If any part of church life fails to do those two things, it is irrelevant to the work of the church. Christ must be central to everything the church does. We don’t have therapy to offer to people; we can only offer Christ. We don’t have entertainment to offer; we can only offer Christ. We don’t have a good social life to offer. We don’t have mental challenges to offer. We can only offer Christ. If our church is doing something that is not about Christ, it is worthless.

A few years ago I visited an unfamiliar church. The people were very pleasant and friendly. In the bulletin were announcements of activities that looked like a caring community. There was an Al Anon meeting scheduled for one evening, and I assume that meeting might help people achieve balance in their lives. However, the sermon for the day was a commentary on a recent women’s rights convention, and there was not one mention of Christ or the Bible. The gathering would have qualified on every point as a meeting of women’s rights advocates, not a service to worship Christ.

I have never again visited the church that preached women’s rights, even though it would be much easier to attend than the church where I am now a member. I never will. I do not believe advocacy for women’s rights is “the best part” or even a legitimate part of going to church. Followers of Christ legitimately advocate for various human rights as part of the mission to be salt and light in the world, but the sermon in a worship service must never fail to be Christ-focused. The worship service itself must draw people nearer to Christ, rather than stir up a fever for one or more social or political agendas.

The rights of women and other basic human rights are important issues, and it is certainly legitimate for Christians to want the human world to treat women with the respect due them as God’s creation. To teach what Jesus modeled in his life as evidence of the value he placed on men and women is a proper sermon element, but no element of the sermon should transcend or blot out the presence of Christ.

The best part of going to church, whether you mean attending worship or serving in the life of the church, is the way the church, Christ’s own body, constantly points us to Christ, never permitting any issue or concept or agenda to transcend our call to deny self and follow him.

Have You No Shame?

An important element of the story of Adam and Eve is the moment when they realize that they are naked. They were both created by God, and they needed no clothing, for they were clothed in righteousness. They had nothing to be ashamed of—until they chose to disobey God.

The way the story is told in the Bible, it is clear that they felt no shame in their nakedness as long as Continue reading Have You No Shame?

An Atheist Discovers Sinful Human Nature

In a recent article in the Guardian, Ijeoma Oluo wrote on behalf of her fellow atheists that, “our belief that we are right while everyone else is wrong; our belief that our atheism is more moral; our belief that others are lost: none of it is original. Perhaps this is not religion, but human nature.” Later in the article, she referred to the “atrocities we commit as human beings,” and pointed out that atheists and people of faith are alike in the need to “free ourselves from the racist, sexist, classist, homophobic tendencies of society.”

Ms. Oluo has discovered sinful human nature. It is the most fundamental truth about human beings. She looks around, examines the behavior and attitudes of atheists, people not corrupted by believing that some god actually exists and cares about them, and she observes, “Look through new atheist websites and twitter feeds. You’ll see the same hatred and bigotry that theists have been spouting against other theists for millennia.” Her conclusion that belief in a god (theism) necessarily produces hateful, venomous rhetoric may be questionable, but there is no question that human beings, both theists and atheists, are born with sinful human nature.

The word sin is anathema in contemporary cultural conversations, or in any other context, for that matter. There is widespread cultural scorn for the Christian teaching that everyone is a sinner. Film critics love a film that makes fun of Christian abhorrence of sin. Hardened atheists tell stories of how the hypocrisy of church members drove them out of the church their parents forced them to attend as children Social workers accuse parents of child abuse for telling their children that they are born sinful. Yet Ijeoma Oluo has discovered the fact that being an atheist does not keep that person from a congenital propensity for greed, selfishness and hatred.

Ms. Oluo is fully convinced that her discovery is a truth hidden from others. Whenever we human beings discover truth, it feels so good and seems so unlike the world around us that we are sure we have found something others have missed. I applaud her intellectual honesty, but Ms. Oluo needs to recognize that this truth about human beings has been known for thousands of years. Jeremiah, who lived about 2500 years ago, said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

Atheists often reject the Bible as a source of truth, because they reject the whole notion of any spirit realm. Some atheists do recognize biblical truth in an abstract way and set the Bible on a level equal with the Tao Te Ching or a Hindu Veda. Perhaps Ijeoma Oluo could accept Jeremiah’s statement as truth if she could see it presented in parallel with her own observation. Yet Ms. Oluo still needs to see this truth in the revelation of God’s whole truth. Unfortunately, the isolated observation that human beings are inherently evil could drive anyone, including Ms. Oluo, to utter despair. If everyone is bad and nobody is good, where do we find any hope for the human race?

Christians answer that concern by first accepting the truth about human beings and then pointing to the answer: the risen Christ. The truth about humans is well documented in an ancient letter to Roman Christians written by the apostle Paul. He said, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Fortunately, Paul’s statement does not really end that way, mired in the fall. It continues seamless to the solution–“and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Christians know the solution; people are sinful, and they need to be redeemed. Paul wrote the coherent explanation, “there is no distinction: for 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 3:22-24).

Ijeoma Oluo believes that human beings need to do something to fix the broken elements of human nature that result in evil behavior. In her view, if people start thinking more about themselves, they can evolve into better human beings by willful choice, and she suggests some choices for people—things like service to others and kindness to all. While Ms. Oluo recognizes the universality of sinful human nature, she does not recognize the futility of any attempt to improve on human beings by an act of will. That particular fallacy was revealed as an utter failure during the same era in which the apostle Paul lived. In fact, the apostle Paul subscribed to that theory himself before he became a Christian. He writes about his own experience at length in the book of Romans, saying,

Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin [or sinful human nature] that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? –Romans 7:16-24

Paul could see the good things he ought to do, and he could want to do the good things he ought to do, but he was fundamentally incapable of doing every one of those things every time he needed to do it.

The hypothesis that human beings can improve themselves by simply practicing good moral behavior was the entire underlying thesis of Pharisaism. The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism in the first century AD, and they believed that a person could become perfect if he could obey a set of more than 600 individual laws. The fact that Pharisees took their laws from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures does not invalidate a comparison between Pharisaism and Ijeoma Oluo’s suggestion. God himself was actually no more real to them than he is to Ijeoma Oluo, and Jesus pointed out that fact more than once. One day during a teaching moment on the subject of prayer, Jesus compared the prayers of a Pharisee and a tax collector:

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:10-13)

Jesus praised the tax collector, because the tax collector prayed to God, but Jesus said that God would not even hear the Pharisee’s prayer, because he was praying to himself. Read the Pharisee’s prayer closely, and you will see that he believes he is perfect. He believes he has done every possible good deed, and he believes that he never does anything bad. He is not praying to God; he is telling God that he does not need God. The Pharisee may not have chosen the good deeds Ms. Oluo proposes, but the Pharisee and Ms. Oluo both believe that human beings can perfect themselves.

The whole Bible is evidence that human beings cannot perfect themselves. They are born with sinful human nature, just as Ijeoma Oluo says, but the message of the Bible is that no human being can perfect himself and overcome sinful human nature by simply deciding to do so. Every human who tries it will quickly discover that it is impossible. Promise yourself that, like the Pharisee, you will fast twice a week, and then see how quickly your mind excuses a bite of someone else’s donut—just one bite!

Ijeoma Oluo is a brilliant writer, much to be admired for her skill. She is a deep thinker, willing to face hard truth. Ms. Oluo is admirable in every way, and God loves her very much. He is pleased that she uses his gift of intelligence with such power. There is just one thing she needs to do. Ijeoma Oluo needs to do the same thing Jesus asked the rich young ruler to do: she needs to stop being her own God. Ms. Oluo needs to understand that Jesus Christ died precisely because of her sinful human nature, and she needs to accept his forgiveness. She must recognize that the power that raised Christ from the dead is powerful enough to save her from the evil that is sinful human nature. Then she will discover exactly what she is looking for—the redemption of human beings.

By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, planned for release in the winter of 2016.