Sin and Shin–Motivations to Obey

There are several possible motivations for obeying a command, whether a positive command (“do this”) or a negative one (“don’t do that”). First, we might be motivated by fear of punishment. Now clearly we would prefer if someone obeyed the “thou shalt not murder” command for nobler reasons than simply to stay out of jail, but nonetheless, it is both logical and appropriate to fear judgment, especially the judgment of God. Though the believer need not fear final condemnation, there are plenty of New Testament passages reminding us that the fear of the Lord remains just as important in the new covenant era (e.g. 1 Pet 2:17, Acts 9:31).

A second possible motivation is desire for reward. This is the inverse of fear of punishment. A person can be persuaded to obey a command they might otherwise ignore if sufficient incentive is offered. Like fear of punishment, this is hardly the most noble of all motives for obedience. And yet Jesus doesn’t seem to see a problem with holding out rewards as encouragements for us (e.g. Matt 6:4,6,18).

A third possible motivation is a sense of duty. It may be that you do not particularly want to obey a command, but you do so out of a sense of obligation, because of the authority of the one who gave it. But a sense of duty is not a bad thing; and obeying God because it is your duty finds scriptural support (e.g. Luke 17:10). In fact, one of the main ways the New Testament presents the believer’s relationship with Christ is that of a slave and master. We belong to Jesus, and it is our duty to obey him.

So all three of these motivations are in one sense appropriate and biblical. Yet they fall short of being the highest and most noble motivations for obedience. I want to consider two final motivations, both of which crop up in Psalm 119.

The first of these is that we sometimes obey because we are in agreement with the command. If someone commands you to do something you already want to do anyway, or forbids you to do something you don’t want to do, obedience is effortless. In fact, we hardly perceive it as being obedience. If our goals are perfectly aligned with the one we need to submit to, then submission is not a burden, but a delight. The Psalmist expresses this in several places. For example in Ps 119:128 he says “I consider all your precepts right”. In other words, he has become fully convinced of the rightness of God’s commands. He has reached the place where he genuinely wants to do what God commands, not because he is being told to do it, but because he is convinced it is the right thing to do.

However, I would say that the highest and greatest motivation for obedience is love (in fact, I have previously blogged that obedience is one of Jesus’ “love languages”). Ultimately, the Psalmist obeys God because he loves God. It is this love for God that has led him to love God’s commands. He delights in obeying God because he desires to please God. This theme crops up a few times in the delightfully named “Sin and Shin” section of Ps 119, but most notably in verse 167:

I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly.

All five of the motivations I have listed are valid, but it seems to me that love must come right at the top of the list. The believer should be able to agree with all five of the following statements, and not just stop after the first few:

I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who lovingly disciplines me when I disobey
I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who graciously rewards me when I obey
I obey your statutes, for I know that you are my Master and I am your servant
I obey your statutes, for I am convinced that they are the best and most blessed way to live
I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly, because I love you greatly

Resh–The Word of Salvation

As my series on Psalm 119 draws to a close, I want to return to a theme that crops up repeatedly throughout the Psalm, and that is of salvation. The psalm is filled with petitions for rescue, deliverance, salvation. Here’s a few from the Resh strophe (Ps 119:153-160)

  • “deliver me” (v153)
  • “defend me” (v154)
  • “redeem me” (v154)
  • “preserve my life” (v154, 156, 159)
  • “salvation”(v155)

Holistic Redemption

As I pointed out under the Lamedh section, the salvation he is seeking is a holistic salvation – body and soul. He wants to be rescued from his persecutors and delivered from physical harm, as well as to be saved from God’s final judgment on the wicked.

Chris Wright makes a similar point in his superb book, “The Mission of God”, where he notes that Israel’s “redemption” from Egypt through the exodus was primarily being them delivered from the sins of others, rather than from bondage to their own sins (the return from exile is a better example of that). He goes on to argue that this should inform our understanding of mission – without in any way wanting to minimise the spiritual aspect of salvation (being forgiven from our sins), there are political, economic and social implications to God’s redemption that cannot be overlooked.

The Word of Salvation

As we would expect in a Psalm that never leaves the theme of the Word of God for a moment, the Psalmist forges a strong link between God’s words and his saving activity. Ultimately, of course, the Psalmist is looking to God himself for salvation, but his confidence that God will save him comes as he meditates on the saving God he sees revealed in Scripture.

In fact, we can say that God always saves by means of his Word. It is his Word that contains the message of salvation and the promise of salvation. It is when his Word is preached that we hear the call of salvation that brings about faith (Rom 10:17). But it is deeper than that. God’s word actually effects our salvation. When he says “you are forgiven”, a real change of status takes place – our guilt is removed and we are justified. When he says “you are my beloved son”, we acquire a new status as children of God. When he sees us kicking about in our blood and says “live” (Ez 16:6), new life enters into us and we are born again. God’s words are “declarative speech acts” – when he speaks, things happen.

Book Review–The Message of Obadiah, Nahum & Zephaniah (Gordon Bridger)

This is the most recent addition to the Bible Speaks Today series, which is slowly approaching completion, filling in the few remaining gaps in the Old Testament. Bridger’s task is to cover three of the least well known of the minor prophets, whose short books are largely dominated by pronouncements of judgment.

The first thing that stands out is the length. Bridger has written over 300 pages on just 7 chapters of prophecy. This is both a strength and a weakness. It allows him plenty of space to highlight New Testament parallels and explore various areas for application. But at the same time I wonder whether it makes this less accessible than other BST volumes – this is longer than the commentaries on Isaiah and Jeremiah.

In the introduction, Bridger is keen to underscore the contemporary relevance of these books, by reminding us that all Scripture is God’s word to us. These books teach us the importance of facing up to sin and judgement and the importance of responding in repentance and faith.

Obadiah is divided into three sections – the sovereignty of God, the judgments of God and the triumph of God. Bridger has an interest in applying his teaching not just to individual Christians or churches, but also to the political arena and society in general. This is particularly true in the comments on Nahum, which he says has a particular message to super-powers. He tackles themes such as the legitimacy of war, climate change, and self-indulgent addiction to alcohol, sex and money. In his commentary on Zephaniah he draws several parallels between Baalism and the failings of our own society. Bridger writes from a British perspective, and illustrates his points with various recent events from the UK.

Although the general outlook of each of the three books is one of judgment, Bridger reminds us that the justice of God is a positive thing, and that a message of judgment is an implicit call to repentance. The day of the Lord is not just a day of destruction but also a day of deliverance. He defends the unity of Zephaniah against those who claim 3:9-20 is a later addition, and brings out an interesting alternative interpretation of the one well-known verse in these books (Zeph 3:17), in which he suggests that it may be God, rather than us, who is silent – he delights in us not just by singing, but by looking on in silence like a mother with her baby.

Overall, this is a thorough and solidly evangelical commentary on these three books. This shines through in the way Bridger makes several connections to other parts of Scripture, and New Testament teaching in particular. He demonstrates how these books point forward to Christ. The fact that the tone of the biblical material he covers is more gloomy than cheerful makes this a fairly sobering read in places, and by drawing out warnings for believers and the church Bridger himself takes on the mantle of a modern day prophet, calling God’s people and society as a whole to repentance.

Book Review – Spirit of Truth and Power

This collection of papers from the Ninth Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, published by Rutherford House, who kindly sent me a copy for review, features 12 papers on the subject of the Holy Spirit.

1. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament – David C Searle
One of the key arguments in this is that ministries of the Spirit did not change as dramatically as some have suggested from Old to New Testament. In other words, the types of thing the Spirit is said to do in the NT he also does in the OT. The basic idea seems plausible, but it seemed more an assertion that this is the case rather than a successful proof.

2. Trinity of Life and Power: The Relevance of Trinitarian Theology in the Contemporary Age – Bruce McCormack
McCormack starts by arguing that we must come to grips with the Reality of God as he really is, and resist attempts of our own to define him (particularly from a political or pastoral perspective). We must start with the Bible, not councils. He starts to examine the Biblical evidence for the relationship between Father and Son, particularly noting the theme of the Son’s subordination to the Father, which he argues is not limited to the economy of salvation. He is concerned that, in fear of subordinationism, some have attempted to eliminate this element of subordination from their definition of the Trinity. But the Trinity is not a democracy of persons. Another interesting point he makes is that the fact that the Holy Spirit has been called the “anonymous person” of the Godhead is not necessarily a problem. In fact, the Holy Spirit wills this to be so, since he has a very self-effacing ministry, and thus “we make a mistake if we try to make the Holy Spirit an independent interest in his own right.” The discussion does get quite technical in a couple of places (e.g. on “perichoresis”), but there is some interesting stuff in here.

3. ‘And from the Son’: The Filioque Clause in East and West – Nick Needham
This paper is essentially a historical overview of the controversy between East and West over the ‘Filioque’ clause. He explains the varying positions and emphases of those in the early church, moving on to deal with the controversy over the addition of the clause itself, before an interesting section examining the diversity of opinions amongst modern protestants. Overall it is a well explained paper, but the fine details of the point under discussion can get quite confusing.

4. ‘The Spirit Moved Over the Face of the Waters’: The Holy Spirit and the Created Order – Colin Gunton
Explores various passages linking the Spirit with creation, and laments that the early church Fathers did not give us much help on the role of the Spirit in creation. He quotes Luther who says “it is the office of the Holy Spirit to make alive”. He has an interesting section on the eschatological significance of the Spirit in creation: “Wherever the Spirit is, there the true end of creation is anticipated”. Again a very learned paper which was hard to follow in places for a  theological novice such as myself. The most interesting part for me was his discussion of the Spirit and culture, and whether cultural artefacts (whether works of art or methods of farming) can be considered in some way as inspired by the Spirit.

5. The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus – Donald Macleod
Starting by affirming the uniqueness of Christ, Macleod then asks whether it was simply due to his divine nature supporting his human nature. He gives five good reasons why this is not the case, arguing there is overwhelming biblical evidence for the Spirit’s constant presence in the life of Jesus. He draws a helpful connection between the Spirit and the Father – it is through the Spirit that the Father ministers. He argues (as does Hawthorne in the Presence and the Power) that Jesus must have been filled with the Spirit from the womb if John was (Luke 1:15).

He goes on to discuss how Jesus was led by the Spirit, and how the Spirit gifted him for ministry and empowered him to perform miracles. He is particularly emphatic about the role of the Spirit at the cross: “[Jesus] owed his triumph entirely to the ministry of the Holy Spirit”, and points out that it was the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11). A helpful paper that is essentially going over the same ground that Hawthorne does at greater length.

6. The Spirit and Biblical Hermeneutics – Francis Watson
Watson sets out by outlining two popular conceptions of the relationship between the Spirit and the Scriptures, both of which he rejects. The first view is that “the Holy Spirit bridges the gulf between the text and ourselves, causing what was written then to become divine speech now, addressed to us”. In other words, according to this view, you don’t worry so much about what it originally meant, you just pray for the Spirit to illuminate the text for you.
The second view he rejects is that the Spirit is associated above all with the church, and so we look to the church to lead us into an interpretation of the meaning of the Bible, and that means our understanding may change – the Spirit will again and again cause the Bible to be read differently.
The issue with both views is that they view the Spirit as a solution to some problem with the text. He turns to Acts 2 to show the inextricable link between the words of Scripture and the events of Pentecost – “The Pentecost event is interpreted by Scripture, but Scripture in turn is interpreted by the event.”

7. Proclamation in the Power of the Spirit – Timothy Ward
We have been taught to be suspicious of discourses of power, and the sermon is a prime example. Some preachers seek to avoid this by avoiding any kind of proclamations or exhortations, preferring to share, reflect and imagine. “Preaching goes as tragically astray when it muses and reflects on those matters which it should be proclaiming, as it does when it confidently proclaims what the preacher cannot know”. Ward emphasises the role of the Spirit at work on both the preacher and the congregation. The faithful biblical preacher’s task is best described as “a contemporary re-enactment of the speech act which was performed in the original authoring of the text”. It is vital that the preacher has allowed the Spirit to apply the message to their own life before preaching it.

8. Word and Spirit in Conversion – Paul Helm.
Helm begins by exploring two incompatible answers to what secures our acceptance before God – a moral justification (through infused or personally acquired righteousness), versus a forensic justification (classic Reformation doctrine). He examines the charge that forensic justification logically leads to the justification of antinomianism. He counters this with some interesting arguments from Turretin to help show that while faith alone justifies, that does not mean that faith can exist alone, apart from other virtues such as love. He argues that “faith does not contribute causally to justification, any more than does obedience. Faith is essentially receptive…”. He concludes by observing that the first view of acceptance leads to obedience motivated by fear, while the second has obedience motivated by love.

9. The Holy Spirit in the Life of the People of God – Bob Fyall
Fyall begins with the interesting observation that although Calvary and Pentecost cannot be repeated, they must be reappropriated. He discusses the role of the Spirit in various aspects of church life, and generally rejects the charismatic approaches to meeting structure and spiritual gifts. He uses Eph 5:18 to show how Spirit-filled worship entails singing and teaching. He concludes the essay with reflections on the Spirit’s role in preaching and mission.

10. Acknowledging the Paraclete: Tertullian on the Spirit – David F Wright
Wright begins by telling us that Tertullian espoused ‘New Prophecy’ (Montanism). Then follows a discussion of Tertullian’s theology of the Spirit that goes largely over my head. It is not made any easier by the fact that Wright himself concedes that Tertullian’s arguments can be complex. Of interest was the discussion of Tertullian’s belief that the Spirit could reveal new (and typically much stricter) standards of morality, and how he felt they could be protected from being duped by an evil spirit.

11. ‘God has framed unto us wings of his Spirit and Word’ Peter Martyr Vermigli on Word and Sprit – Peter Ackroyd
The Reformers generally believed that “the primary vehicle of the Spirit’s work, the normal dispensation of the grace of God, was the Word of God.” Peter Martyr was a Reformation-era pastor-scholar, well known at the time, and the first half of this paper recounts his story. Martyr had an emphasis on the Spirit in his writings. He explains the Spirit’s role in union with Christ as “The Spirit grafts the believer into Christ, and grafts his dispositions, property, sense and ‘motions’ into us.” Like Calvin and Bucer, he emphasised the Spirit as teacher. On the relationship between Word and Spirit, Martyr believed that it is the Spirit who is Christ’s agent of regeneration; but the word is the instrument of his work. He believed that study of the Scripture was not possible without the help of the Holy Spirit.

12. The Work of the Holy Spirit in Revival and Renewal – David Smith
Smith starts off by noting the postmillennial optimism of early evangelicalism. He moves on to question some of the assumptions even in Reformed circles about what the Bible teaches on revival. He points out that even in the NT we see the revival fires of Pentecost cooling somewhat. He challenges those who are optimistic about revival as to whether this prevents them facing up to the challenges of discipleship and mission in a post-Christian culture. “The confident announcement that revival is breaking out around us obviously reassures Christians who are deeply troubled by the loss of a Christian culture, and enables them to hang a ‘Business as Usual’ notice on the door of the church.” He goes on to argue that “Whatever the prospects for revival may be, the greatest priority of the churches in the Western world is surely missiological in nature, and this will involve a process of biblical reformation…” He also questions whether all that we call revival is indeed to be considered a genuine advance, citing the tragic story of Rwanda as an example. However he concludes on a more positive note, noting the rapid growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere.

There is plenty in here that I found stimulating and interesting. However, some of the essays are quite technical and theologically dense, meaning that this will not be a particularly accessible book to those who have not already done some college level studies. Having said that, despite getting lost in a few places, I did glean a number of useful insights along the way. It is currently available for half-price – £5 on the Rutherford House website.

Reading the Bible with your children

I posted a while back about Don’t Wimp Out of Family Devotions. It can be a struggle to find the time to pray and read the Bible together as a family and we need to keep persevering. But in this post I want to talk about reading the Bible with your children as part of a daily routine.

One of the challenges is knowing what to do with them, and finding things that are appropriate for their age. Here’s a list of some of the things I’ve used:

  • Children’s Bibles – this is perhaps the easiest option. We have several different children’s Bibles that we make use of. Not all of them are of the same quality. The Jesus Storybook Bible stands out as one of the best, but variety is good, and we have some others by Lion, Christian Focus, and Crossway.
  • We made our own children’s edition of the book of Matthew, where I summarised each story in a sentence, and the children drew a picture to represent it.
  • I also started to make a “Girl’s Story Bible” for my daughter Lily which attempted to trace through the story of the gospel through the stories of the women in the Bible. It was great fun, and I really should dig it out and finish it off as I only got as far as Rahab.
  • Good News Bible – quite often I just get my 10 year old to read a chapter of the Good News Bible out loud to me. He gets to choose what he reads. He usually picks either a random Psalm or the next bit of Acts which we are working through, having finished Luke last year.
  • Memorisation – I know I’ve blogged about this before, but I want to underscore that your children are capable of memorising short passages of scripture without too much time commitment. Just get them to repeat the passage out loud every night for a month and they will pick it up.
    • I also tried teaching them Martin Luther’s catechism for children. That one didn’t work out too well.
  • Children’s Bible Reading Notes – We’ve used Pens and Topz from CWR. Sometimes I feel these can be a little over-simplified, but the children really enjoy them.
  • I’ve read a few story books with Christian themes – the Narnia series being the obvious example. I’d like to try some of the Patricia M St.John books on them at some time. Sadly, I don’t know of many up to date examples of Christian authors writing similar books. Do let me know in the comments if you know of any.
    • I also want to get hold of some of the Christian “graphic novels” I have seen advertised recently (e.g. this one on Martin Luther or the Action Bible) as I think my 10 year old will love them. Has anyone given these a go?

Please don’t interpret this as me saying I heroically do some amazing devotional time every night with every child individually without fail. Sometimes it falls by the wayside. Sometimes we do it but it is horribly rushed. Sometimes they pay no attention at all.

But ultimately, I think that, as with family devotions, the important thing is just to ‘do something’ and ‘stick at it’, (as Gary Boal wisely pointed out in the comments last time). Find what works for you, and be on the lookout for creative ideas. When you miss a day (or a week or a month), don’t feel guilty or discouraged, just get going again. And tell me in the comments what you’ve found that works.

Training Women Teachers

Krish Kandiah asked on facebook recently, “what good women teachers do you know?

My answers were:

  • Amy Orr-Ewing, who has a sharp mind, is an excellent communicator, loves God and knows her Bible well – all the ingredients for a great preacher.
  • I also added Karen Jobes. I have no idea how good she is as a speaker, but both the commentaries (on Esther and 1 Peter) I have read by her have been first class.
  • Had I thought of it at the time, I would have included Heidi Baker in that list too, a remarkable woman of faith and courage.

Normally this is a subject I steer well clear of on my blog, since even the mention of the word “complementarian” is guaranteed to generate plenty of comments (unlike the cyber-tumbleweed that greeted my recent 22 part series on Ps 119!). But since I’m planning to study (and possibly blog) my way through the pastorals in the very near future, the challenge of explaining 1 Tim 2:12 will soon be upon me, so I need to start thinking again about this whole debate.

In this post I don’t intend to present any arguments for a complementarian position, but I do want to dispel three myths about what we think concerning women teachers, and consider one of the key challenges faced by complementarian churches. So first, let me briefly make my three points:

1. Being complementarian does not mean you believe women are not capable of being good teachers. I have a friend who thinks that Joyce Meyer is reason enough to accept women preachers. Given my theological differences with her, its fair to say I don’t find that a particularly compelling argument. But my answers to Krish’s question above, and answers provided by several other of my complementarian friends reveal that we are not in denial about the existence of women who are very good at teaching the Bible. And I personally do not have a problem with benefiting from their ministry.

2. Being complementarian does not mean you believe it to be a sin to learn something from a woman. This one keeps on cropping up as a kind of reductio ad absurdum rebuttal of the complementarian position. But there is no logical step from having male only preaching, or male only eldership to the belief that it is wrong to learn from a woman. Whatever it was Paul intended to prohibit, it is abundantly clear that he expected all believers, women included, to participate in the “edification” of the body through the exercise of (spoken) spiritual gifts.

3. There are plenty of good women teachers in complementarian churches. Egalitarians often perpetuate the idea that there are no good women teachers in complementarian circles. I beg to differ. Several of the names given as answers to Krish’s question should suffice as examples. Whilst it may be true that there are not as many as there might be, or that those that exist may not enjoy the prominence they might get elsewhere, it is not fair to deny their existence altogether. Many author books, speak at conferences (and not just at women’s conferences), and use their gift in a wide variety of contexts. Two women who have managed to establish international ministries within a very conservative evangelical context are Joni Tada and Elizabeth Elliot. Within my own group of churches, several women gave excellent seminars at last year’s leadership and youth summer conferences.

So it may be that a woman with a remarkable teaching gift can indeed make use of it in a complementarian context, but I want to move on consider a different question, and that is whether we are doing enough to encourage women to develop such a gift in the first place. Last time I raised this question it generated plenty of discussion in the comments. Let me phrase the question like this:

Do complementarian churches hinder women from reaching their full potential in teaching?

This is criticism from egalitarians deserves careful consideration. In one sense, we would have to honestly admit the answer is yes. Suppose someone desperately wanted to be a pilot, yet had a medical condition that meant they would never be awarded a pilot’s licence. You would probably discourage such a person from spending time and money studying to be a pilot. As much as they might enjoy the training, it would ultimately be an exercise in futility. Likewise some might assume that if a church does not allow women to preach on a Sunday there would be no point in training them to be able to teach.

But it would be a big mistake to think like that about training young women in complementarian churches. In fact, I would say that the basic training given to men who seem to have a potential gift for teaching is completely appropriate also for women, irrespective of whether they will get asked to preach on Sundays or not. Let me illustrate by outlining four ways in which I think potential Bible teachers should be developed in their gifting:

1. Encourage going deep in the Scriptures. If anyone wants to be a teacher of God’s Word, they must first be a student of it. I want to see as many people as possible, male and female, going really deep with God’s Word, studying it in detail, learning the principles of hermeneutics, and allowing it to shape their thinking.

2. Encourage teaching in small group settings. I am not a fan of the “let anyone have a go” approach to preaching in some churches. It is much more appropriate for people to develop their gifting by teaching in small group settings. When you ask someone to teach in a small group it becomes immediately apparent how much effort they have put in to studying the passage they are teaching, and how effective they are at helping the group understand and apply it.

Teaching small groups is also important for developing and detecting humility. Someone who wants to preach merely because they wish to show off their skill, or because they want impose their own opinions on others is not ready to be a preacher. Those God has graced to teach should be those who do not despise ministering to just a few people, or “just” the children, or “just” the women. Instead they should be characterised by a sense of love for those they serve through teaching and count it a privilege to do so.

3. Encourage the spiritual gift of the “word of instruction”. As a card-carrying charismatic, I love the fact that the Holy Spirit is an “equal opportunity empowerer”. If anything, I have always felt that it is Joel 2:28-29, and not Gal 3:28 (whose context seems to me to be to do with salvation not church order) that should be the egalitarian trump card.

The “word of instruction” is 1 Cor 14:6 is only mentioned in passing by Paul, but seems to describe someone bringing a brief contribution that is in effect a teaching or an exhortation. Those desiring to teach should be people who always have something on their heart they are burning to share with others, however briefly. Blogging might be one way of sharing it, but much better to do so in a church gathering (whether in small group or large). And there is no reason to think from 1 Cor 14 that Paul restricts this gift to men only.

4. Create contexts for them to grow in their gifts. Often there can be an unhelpful “all or nothing” approach to using a gift of preaching. I think it is important, particularly in a large church, to be creative about finding contexts where people can develop a teaching gift that is less daunting (and risky) than addressing everyone on a Sunday morning. I have often invited friends round to my house to preach to me and my wife in our living room (highly recommended, it’s great fun to do). I also organized some Saturday morning theology training sessions at my church and asked some friends who I felt had potential to grow in a teaching gift to help me out by taking some of the sessions (and they all did brilliantly). It is often in these smaller contexts that a person’s level of gifting becomes apparent. Not all of us are called and gifted to preach before audiences of thousands.

So in summary, though a complementarian church may, out of a genuine desire to be faithful to Scripture, not use women to preach to the gathered congregation, it does not follow that they should not train women in the skills necessary to teach. In fact, I am convinced that our churches will benefit tremendously if we actively seek to include them in such training. Doubtless there will still be tension concerning those who feel they can only be fulfilled in their gifting through addressing the whole church, but better a church full of people bubbling over to share what they have discovered in the Scriptures with others, than one where only a few have a passion to teach.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ve said more than enough to get my head blown off. Fire away in the comments.

Qoph–Day and Night

In the Qoph section of Ps 119 (v145-152) I want to pick out another recurring theme, and that is that the Psalmist focuses his attention on God’s Word all the way through the night (see for example Ps 119:55,62). So for example in verses 147 and 148 he says:

147 I rise before dawn and cry for help;
   I have put my hope in your word.
148 My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
   that I may meditate on your promises.

Through the night

Both of these verses suggest he is foregoing sleep to meditate on God’s Word. This may be due to his great personal discipline – he is making time to be with God alone by waking in the night. But verse 148 suggests a sleepless night, perhaps because of fear of those who are out to get him. Verse 147 implies that he is in some kind of trouble and is rising early to cry out for help from God at the start of a day he is not eagerly anticipating.

There is something about the night that can make us feel more vulnerable, and fears that we might suppress in the light of day can prey upon our minds when the lights are out. But the Psalmist knows that the word of God is a refuge he can turn to for hope and encouragement. This again highlights the importance of having key promises of God’s Word memorised, in order that we can draw on them to fill us with faith when we are tempted to fear.

All the time

He may also be using the contrast of “early in the morning” and “late at night” as a poetic technique (a “merism”) to simply mean “all the time”. In other words, all day long, from breakfast to bedtime, he wants God’s Word to be filling his thoughts, guiding his actions and inspiring praise:

164 Seven times a day I praise you
   for your righteous laws.

97 Oh, how I love your law!
   I meditate on it all day long.

Again, I don’t see how that is possible unless we are people who know God’s Word really well. In some ways, I think this is why it doesn’t necessarily matter if you felt you “got something” out of your daily Bible reading. It might have seemed quite dry. But the more we simply read the Word of God, the more familiar with its contents we become, and the greater the chances that its teaching will shape the way think, inform our decision making and govern our emotions. It is often pointed out that the Holy Spirit is said to “remind” us of what Jesus said (Jn 14:26), but unless we know what he said in the first place, we are not going to be able to “remember” it. We need to fill up on both the Word and the Spirit in order to maximally benefit from the transformative power of God’s Word.

Book Review–A Praying Life (Paul Miller)

I must confess that after seeing that the endorsements for this book were all from Reformed theology professors, I feared that this book would be a rather dry but theologically precise exploration of the subject of prayer. I was completely wrong. This is a book about developing an intimate relationship with God through prayer.

It is organised into 32 short chapters, making it an ideal format to work your way through in small chunks while you attempt to apply the insights to your own prayer life. Miller is very honest about the difficulties and struggles we find with prayer, which are largely because we have a dysfunctional relationship with our father, not intimate but distant. We struggle because we are focusing on praying, not on God.

He emphasises being real in prayer, coming “messy”, without pretence. He encourages us that it is OK to pray like a child – wander all over the place and ask for what you want.

Miller argues that Jesus was the most dependent person that ever lived. Because he can’t do life on his own, he prays. When Jesus prays, he is not performing  a duty; he is getting close to his Father.

He devotes some chapters to issues of disappointment and cynicism. Throughout the book he tells stories of his own prayer life, particularly relating to his mute daughter Kim. It is full of very practical examples and advice for how to pray for others, culminating in some examples of his own system of “prayer cards” and journaling.

He has a lot of helpful material on living in your Father’s story, as we recognise that God is retelling the story of his Son in our lives. Gospel stories involve suffering; they are neither comedies (fun but not real) or tragedies (not fun but real), but are stories of hope.

Overall I would say this is an extremely refreshing and inspiring book on prayer. It is theologically sound, very real and honest, and has been very helpful for me as I am well aware I need to learn to pray better.

Tsadhe–Righteousness of the Law

The key word in the Tsadhe section of Ps 119 (verses 137-144) is “righteous”. Twice God is called righteous and three times God’s laws are called right or righteous:

137 You are righteous, LORD,
   and your laws are right.
138 The statutes you have laid down are righteous;
   they are fully trustworthy.

142 Your righteousness is everlasting
   and your law is true.

144 Your statutes are always righteous;
   give me understanding that I may live.

This theme of God’s laws being righteous regularly surfaces throughout the Psalm (see also verses 7, 62, 75, 106, 123, 160, 164, 172). But while it may make sense for us to speak of God being righteous, or of a person being righteous, what does it mean to call God’s law righteous? I’ll consider two possibilities briefly:

Law as the standard of righteousness

First, we could say that the law is righteous in that it defines a standard of righteousness. It reflects the nature and character of the righteous God. This fits in with the general observation that in this Psalm, the writer more or less conflates God with his law – the things he says about God’s law are also true of God. For example, when he says he delights in God’s law, he is also delighting in God. When he says God’s law is righteous, he is saying that every word that proceeds from a righteous God must by nature be righteous.

It poses an interesting question. Is something right because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is right? Similarly, is something wrong because God forbids it, or is it forbidden because it is inherently wrong? The fact that some of the Old Testament laws have been explicitly abrogated under the new covenant suggests the former is the case. God himself is the standard of what is right. If he forbids something, then doing it is not right. If later he permits the same thing (e.g. eating pork), the moral status of that action has changed.

Law as a means of attaining righteousness?

The relationship between the law and righteousness is something that Paul reflects on at length in Romans. If the law is the standard of righteousness, does it not follow logically that law-keeping is a means of attaining righteousness?

In some places Paul seems to suggest that this might be at least a theoretical possibility. For example:

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Rom 2:13)

But he goes on to make it abundantly clear that this never happens. In reality, the law simply reveals how far short we have fallen, highlighting our sin, and effectively condemning us.

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20)

We might expect that the gospel would make us righteous by enabling us to keep the law. But that isn’t how Paul explains it. We have a righteousness that is by faith, completely disconnected from our personal success at law-keeping.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom 3:28)

So though we agree with the Psalmist that the law is righteous, because it is the words of the righteous God, we cannot look to it as our source of righteousness. Simon Ponsonby says that the function of the law is “SOS” – “Shows our sins” and “Shows our Saviour”. And this surely is the most valuable facet of the law of God – it points us to Christ (through the symbols and types of the ceremonial law), an it drives us to Christ (by revealing the full extent of our own shortcomings). In the New Covenant, delighting in God’s law means delighting in Christ.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:4)

Pe–Streams of Tears

I’ll just focus in on a single verse in the “Pe” section of Ps 119 (verses 129-136), the final one:

136 Streams of tears flow from my eyes,
   for your law is not obeyed.

The reason this verse is important is that it puts all the “hate” verses of the Psalm into a fresh light. The Psalmist has said in v104 and v128 that he hates every wrong path, then in v113 that he hates double-minded people, and later on declares that he hates falsehood. We might be tempted to think that he has a judgemental, bigoted outlook. But his tears tell another story. They reveal a deep love for God and a compassion for both the sinner and those sinned against.

Of course it is Jesus who sets the example for us in how it is possible to love the sinner while hating sin. Ps 45:6-7 (c.f. Heb 1:8-9) prophesies that Jesus will both “love righteousness” and “hate wickedness”. There is nothing wrong when the evil and injustice in the world causes godly anger to rise within us. But if there are no tears, it reveals that the love of God has not taken root in our hearts, and what we attempt to pass off as a passion for righteousness is more likely a symptom of self-righteousness.

Check out a recent post from John Piper applying this verse to a recent gay pride celebration in his city.