David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.’
Paul has asked the question, “What does the Scripture say?” (v.3).There has been a fascinating discussion going on in the Times in the last two weeks. It was provoked by a radio programme called In Our Time which discusses events, people and movements in history and is chaired by Melvyn Bragg. It is generally worth listening to, but one technical characteristic of the presentation has raised the ire of certain listeners. It is the use of the present historic tense in talking of events hundreds if not thousands of years ago. In other words Melvyn Bragg could say something like this, “Now what can Henry VIII do? He wants a male heir but his wife has given him daughters.” He is talking of the king as if Henry were still alive and reigning in England and Wales at the present time. John Humphrys of the Today radio programme – the champion of the correct use of the English language – is one of those who has opposed this usage; Melvyn Bragg has defended it. There were letters in the Times about it yesterday. It is all very civilized and fascinating.
A preacher once said to me that I was constantly preaching in the present tense, and I hadn’t realized that and I was glad to be told and tried to rectify that. But the present tense is used very often in the New Testament when it quotes the Scriptures of the Old Testament. In this passage Paul doesn’t ask, “What did Scripture say?” He says, “What does it say today, and now, to the question about how you get right with God?” Scripture is living and vital now as to what we believe and how we’re to live. Then see how Paul says in our text, “David says the same thing when he speaks . . .” As if David were reigning at that moment in Jerusalem and had just made a pronouncement about true blessedness. The New Testament will quote a prophet, but the writer will go behind the scripture to the inspirer of the prophet and he will say, “The Holy Spirit says!” I am thinking of Hebrews 3 where five verses from Psalm 95 are quoted and this is how the writer introduces them, “As the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today if you will hear his voice . . .’” The Spirit is speaking today through the Bible, and that is why we have to be so careful in seeking to know what the Scripture says.
What is the Scripture speaking about today? A subject that is dear to everybody in the world. Blessedness! In other words deep lasting joy and thanksgiving. What everyone is searching for. “Where can I find happiness?” And the world seeks for it constantly and desperately. The clues for that are seen in such things as people needing perpetual entertainment, or constantly sending little messages to other people on line, or faithfully newspapers to learn what other people are saying and doing, or watching and listening to people on TV, or sitting with them in the pub or the club, or turning to drugs and alcohol, or relationships with those of the opposite sex. It is all a desperate search for blessedness. They have an emptiness and they try to fill it with many or all of those things, but none of them can succeed in filling the inward void. God has made us for himself and without him there is a vacuum of non-blessedness in our hearts. In the verses before us Paul can tell the world the present, searching reason why this is so, and then he goes on to tells us where we may find blessedness.
1. WHY WE DO NOT EXPERIENCE BLESSEDNESS.
Paul gives three reasons for the futility of finding blessedness in other people.
i] Our transgressions are unforgiven. That is what David says; “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven” (v.7) – only they. To transgress mean to go beyond the boundary line, the trespass into a no-go area, into forbidden territory. There are ten boundary posts and all our lives have to be lived within their limits. The first boundary post is this, You shall have no other gods but me. But we do. We make a god of our families and our homes and our country and our language and our job and our hobbies. We trespass. The second boundary post says we are to make no idols and serve them, but we do, all those things I’ve just mentioned can become our idols. We have no time for God and we worship the idols of our choice – our money and our spouse, and children, our culture and our nation. We trespass. Thirdly we are not to take the Lord’s name in vain, but we do. We lace our speech with the name of the Lord to show how funny we are. We solemnly sign documents that our expenses applications are absolutely honest. We swear that it is so. We trespass. Fourthly we are to give a day of our time to God, to God’s people, to God’s praise, to God’s Word, to God’s Spirit, to God’s Son. We fail; we take that day for our own pleasure. We trespass. Fifthly, we are to honour and respect and love our parents even though they’re not a perfect father and mother. Again we fail, crying out when Mum or Dad say, “No,” “Oh it’s not fair,” and they pull on Mum’s skirt and cry, “Gimmee, gimmee . . .” We trespass. The sixth boundary post that marks out the border of forbidden territory is the commandment forbidding any violence by action or by word and threat or even by thought. We trespass. The seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth forbid sexual sin (rather requiring purity before marriage and faithfulness in it), stealing, lying and coveting, and those again are boundary posts we crash through times without notice. We trespass. Those are our transgressions, and they have brought such pain into our own lives and the lives of others. Little wonder we enjoy little peace and happiness when our guilt and shame is a heavy burden on our souls. We must receive mercy and pardon and forgiveness if we are to know blessedness.
ii] Our sins are uncovered. Sins are something that defile and stink. It is the vomit that dogs return to and eat. It’s those displeasing sores that cover the skin of someone with a severe disease than cry out to be hidden by clothing. It is the dead and rotting body that needs to be buried. It is something repugnant to the eye, to the touch, and to the nostrils. It is repulsive. It is the BBC announcement before the News programme showing pictures from a war zone warning the viewers that they might be distressed at some of the images that are about to be shown – wounded people, screaming children and dead bodies. It is a passenger plane with 300 people on board, families going off on holiday, being blown out of the sky by a missile and falling and falling for two minutes to their deaths. You cover them in body bags and place them in a coffin and cover them. That is sin. It is not exciting. It is not an alternative to bourgeois conformity. It is not creative, or dynamic, or bold. It is cruel, and deviant, and never normal. It is a Christian woman being sentenced to 100 lashes and then to being stoned to death for being a follower of the Lord Jesus. It is the drunk lying prone in the gutter. It is two men fighting in the street. It is a nine year old getting raped.
It is David taking another man’s wife and having her brave young husband killed. It is Saul of Tarsus forcing young people and women and teenagers to blaspheme the name of Jesus Christ and then throwing them into prison. It is the ripping and writhing of a body which has been nailed to a cross. Sin is a heart of stone and a stiff neck and a cold eye. It’s words shouted out in which every second word is an expletive. Sin is simply heart-breaking. It is the blackest of depressions. It is the burden of guilt. It is shame, and all of it needs to be covered. When God made the world it was not like that at the first. God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good.
There is a film I’ve read about called Grand Canyon and there is a scene in it that has occurred in real life too often. The traffic on the motorway around a city is snarled up; cars are crawling at snail’s pace, and so at the first opportunity the driver goes up a ramp on an exit road that he’s never taken before. Soon he is going along streets that seem progressively darker, covered in graffiti, and very deserted. Then in the middle of this dark, lonely area his expensive car stalls; it stops and it will not start. He manages to call for a tow truck and describe where he is, but before it arrives five young criminals surround the disabled vehicle and begin to threaten him and the car. Then, just in time the tow truck arrives and its driver carries on as if the five men were curious and harmless bystanders. He hooks up the car to his truck and the five start to get angry and protest. He is interrupting their meal. So he turns to their leader who is the same race as himself and he speaks quietly to him. “Man,” he says, “the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without asking you if I can. And the dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off. Everything is supposed to be different from what it is here.” And he turns away and continues hooking the car to the truck and winching it up the ramp and driving away as they look on.
The world isn’t supposed to be full of pain and suffering and death. This isn’t how God made it, and yet in every child’s school day, and on every holiday, and in every office, and every hospital, and in every noisy pub human wrongdoing mars how things are. The unborn child was meant to be safe in its mother’s womb. The bedridden old lady was meant to be cared for in the last months of her life not given a drug to kill her. Christian Book Shop windows are not meant to have rocks thrown through them. In the beginning it was not so; man and woman worked and loved one another and were intimate with God. And after the fall of man the prophets began to speak, and they longed for a day when human crookedness would be straightened out and rough places made smooth. The bullies would become thoughtful, and the intelligent would be humble. The prophets spoke of days when deserts would flower, and mountains would run with wine and people could go to sleep with their windows open and their doors unlocked. A child could put his hand in a viper’s den and not be hurt. Everyone would look to God, and walk with God, and lean towards God and delight in God. Man and woman at the beginning didn’t need to cover themselves with clothes; they felt no shame. Now everything needs to be covered because of our omnipresent sins. Rolf Harris could cover his crimes for many years, but this year they were uncovered. So there are our transgressions that need to be forgiven, and our sins that need to be covered. Then another reason why we are not blessed.
iii] The Lord counts our sin against us (v.8). You see that now David turns from the plural to the singular, from ‘sins’ (v.7) to ‘sin’ (v.8). He is now talking about the principle of sin rather than individual actions. He is talking about our despoiled nature, the diseased root out of which the thorns and thistles of our sins grow. He is talking about the contaminated spring which means the water that flows from it is brackish or even poisonous. A bad strain has got into the stock, so it becomes natural for children to sin, and shout, and whine, and stamp their feet, and deceive. We do it as people born to the manner. We all seem to emerge into the world as sinners as some others appear to be born musicians or athletes. David talks about ‘sin,’ singular, the disposition and inclination to sin, the historical momentum to sin which Peter later says we’ve received by tradition from our fathers. ‘Sin’ is the generic doctrine of corruption; it means we men and women are not safe, and we’re not sound. That covers everyone, politicians, preachers, medical men and women, academics. There is no class of people exempt of whom we can say, “If only that class ran the country what a heaven on earth it would be,” because the disposition of every single class is marred by sin.
So what does the Lord think of sin? He counts our sin against us. Actual sin, concrete sins, sins of omission, sins of thought, sins of word and sins of deed. What David says here is that God holds us responsible for our actions. God hates our sin. His wrath does not stay in his heart far away in heaven bubbling and seething up there in holy heaven, displaying his righteous indignation there at how mankind down here behaves. The Father does not grumble to the Son at how we’re doing. The Son does not sigh to the archangel Michael about mankind and say, “Did you see that? Wasn’t that terrible?” God’s holy anger at wickedness is revealed from heaven against every form of sin. Imagine a black halo of judgment visible to God, and it is there suspended over our heads as an expression of holy divine displeasure at our lives. God holds us responsible for what we do. That is the dignity which God gives to every human being. “I made you in my image and likeness, and when you behave in this un-godlike way then I react in a god-like way towards those I have made and sustained and cared for. They are behaving contrary to all I desire. I could not remain being the living God if I did not hate evil. I count your sin against you.” So we all die. The wages of sin is death.
So we are told those three things about our sin that our transgressions are unforgiven, our sins are uncovered and the Lord counts our sin against us. That is why we experience no blessedness
2. HOW WE CAN EXPERIENCE BLESSEDNESS.
How does God bring this righteousness to men and women? There are many like Abraham who have believed God and God has credited to them also that same divine righteousness, and David knew it too. What blessedness! See what David says here; “he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (v.6). Here is a person and he’s got it. What does he have? He’s got this blessedness that all the world is longing to have. He’s found it! He has it! He is a blessed man. She is a blessed woman. David is speaking of this particular lasting blessedness, not of the person who gets everything he wants in life – money, and health, and power, not those benefits at all, because all those things we know are going to be taken away from us one day when our bodies lie dead in a coffin. But this blessedness comes from God and it consists of a righteousness credited to us by God and it will be ours for ever.
Let’s understand this phrase about something being ‘credited to us.’ It’s a simple lawful action. There was a runaway slave named Onesimus. He’d become a Christian and helped Paul. Now he has to return to his owner because Paul and the others tell him that that is his duty. Then the apostle tells Philemon his owner that if the slave owes him anything (if he has taken some money from the home to help him in his flight to liberty) then Philemon must credit that amount to Paul’s account. “Impute the debt that you’re in because of Onesimus’ theft, to me,” he tells his master. “I credit that sum of money to you to cover Onesimus’ debt, while the total sum Onesimus has stolen is credited to me to freely cover.” That is all it is. God credits to those sinners who believe in the Lord righteousness. He lays to their account a full pardon for their sins; he justifies them, declaring them to be righteous. And that righteousness that is credited to us has nothing at all to do with some goodness that we have accumulated because of our works. It is not something we have done community service to obtain. We have not worked for a year to have righteousness imputed to us. Paul says categorically these three magisterial words, “apart from works” (v.6). We have not worked to earn this righteousness. We did not sweat and toil and cross mountains and ford rivers and give all we had away and feed the poor and went to church every Sunday and gave generously to the congregation and so, because of that, God credited to us righteousness. No! It is apart from our works.
Then what is this righteousness that is credited to us and makes us eternally blessed? It is the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Think of what Paul said to the Philippians; “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phils 3:7-9). Or again what Paul wrote to the Corinthians; “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cors. 5:21).
Let’s think of this righteousness and start at the most basic level, that this is the real day-to-day righteous life of a human being, Jesus the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. It was often a sweaty, painful, tough achieving of righteousness. For Christ to obtain it wasn’t a breeze. It is rather the kind of righteousness you can only obtain by sacrifice – a plucking out the right eye type of righteousness. The righteousness of this one true and good man Christ Jesus is his measureless accumulation of trillions of thoughts and feelings and words and deeds over 33 years. This righteousness is not an attribute of God that Jesus brought into the world with him from heaven – the righteousness that had been eternally displayed up there, in his love to his Father and to the Holy Spirit, or in his graciousness towards the angels. Not that at all! Such righteousness was a reality but we are not first of all talking about that, we are considering real human righteousness.
Consider how Paul tells us that Jesus was born of a woman – just like us, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. His birth gave his mother pangs and pains; he came painfully into the world like every baby, and the world he entered was a world of pain. The first Adam had been asked to fulfil righteousness in paradise; the last Adam was asked to fulfil it in a groaning creation. It was a world of human cruelty, and human weakness, and hunger and thirst. There was scourging in this world where Jesus was required to live a righteous life; there was torture, and mockery, and ridicule. They stoned women to death, and they crucified men. There were nails and hammers and gambling; demon possessed men were bound with chains and left to survive for themselves in a graveyard, and into one such cemetery Jesus went to fulfil all righteousness. Into that kind of world, in the concreteness of a human body, and in his flesh and blood reality, God the Son came, and he came to love God totally and to love man as himself. God did not build into the body of Jesus any immunity to pain. He was not sheltered from overwhelming grief. Pain came seeking him once his ministry began and it never left him. It was very taxing for him to fulfil all righteousness. There were times he needed to get away from it all if he were to keep sane. It cost him everything; he could hold back nothing.
I am insisting on this, do you see, that Christ fulfilled all righteousness with a human brain, and human arms, and human legs, and human physical energy. Day by day he presented his body as a living sacrifice to God. That was his reasonable service, and alongside that body was an inseparable human psychology. A human mind, a human soul, a human way of knowing and at times of not knowing, that was how the righteousness of Christ increased over his lifetime from one month old to thirty-three years of age. It was in his human body and mind that he maintained and created this righteousness, and I am saying that this human righteousness grew and developed by the whole range of human emotions and fears and sorrows and amazement and joy that he experienced. This righteousness was not ethereal like a shadow or a cobweb; it grew tough and strong as Satan came to him and tempted him without any restraints. It was a smelted and refined, a proved and tested righteousness. At every point Jesus was tempted not to live a righteous life, and yet he did live it day after day. So Paul reminds us that Christ was born of a woman.
Then he adds this, that Christ was born under the law. That constraint also structured his righteousness. First there was the moral law and he kept the ten commandments each day. The law is of course inward in its demands, and Jesus kept it inwardly, from his heart, not reluctantly but lovingly; he desired no law breaking ever. Then secondly there is the Old Testament ceremonial law, in other words the Son of God submitted himself to circumcision, to the feasts in Jerusalem, to keeping the Sabbath day and going to the synagogue, to paying temple tax. He did all that throughout his life. Then thirdly there was the civil law, to keep the civil requirements of the books of Moses, to bury excretion, to safeguards on your roof, to pay to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, to carry a legionnaire’s bag for a mile – all the civil legislation and Jesus kept it. The God of Sinai became incarnate and he fulfilled all righteousness by keeping the law which he himself had given. That is the active obedience of Christ.
So when the Bible says that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to every man or woman who believes in him it is the righteousness of a human being that is being referred to, bone of our bones. An angel’s righteousness would not fit. It is the righteousness of someone born under the law who fulfilled all righteousness by keeping the law just as any other man must. However, he was not just like any other man, even though he was the best of men and the perfect man. Jesus, the Word made flesh, was not only human he was divine. The Word was in the beginning, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Whatever constituted God Jesus had that. Whatever is the essence of God Jesus had that. Whatever God is then Jesus was that too. He had every single perfection of God and every attribute of God. He was infinite, eternal, unchangeable; he was omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and omnicompetent. Jesus had the glory of God, the likeness of God, the nature of God, the being of God, the names of God and the prerogatives of God. So his righteousness also had all those qualities too. Remember it was a true human righteousness achieved by living in the same fallen world under the same pressures that we all live under. It was a tempted and tested righteousness, but it was also divine, an infinite, eternal, enduring and unchangeable righteousness because it was the righteousness of the God-man.
This righteousness is immeasurably vast. It is enough to cover every atom and electron and neutron in the cosmos. In the Old Testament there were holy pots and pans; holy garments; holy places; a holy city. That is those things were set apart to God. In the world to come everything will be set apart to God. The righteousness of the God-man could cover every grain of sand, every blade of grass, every drop of rain, every insect, bird and animal, ever planet, star, and galaxy. I am saying, that there is nothing in all creation that the righteousness of Christ could not come upon and transform into a righteous status, and one day it will do just that, when there will be a new heaven and new earth in which righteousness shall dwell – all the cosmos redolent with the righteousness of Christ. But even after it has done all that there will still be an infinite and endless righteousness in all the fullness of Christ that could cover another million fallen universes and then there will be yet more infinite righteousness to spare. Infinite righteousness, yet Jesus’ own righteousness, the carpenter’s from Nazareth, a real human righteousness, one we can identify with, one familiar to us, not the righteousness of spirits in heaven but of men and women who have to keep the law of God in this world. This is the divine-human righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Where is it today? It is where Christ himself is. That is a wonderfully safe place to be. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress was tormented with uncertainty about his relationship with God until the truth of the imputed righteousness of Christ broke in on his soul, but when he saw it, it changed everything. Bunyan described it in these words:
“One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. ‘Thy righteousness is in heaven.’ And me thought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I am, or whatever I am doing, God could not say of me, ‘he lacks my righteousness,’ for that was there in front of him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “The same yesterday, today and, and forever.” . . . Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.”
3. THE BENEFITS OF THIS BLESSEDNESS FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVE.
They are the three-fold blessings of this passage:
i] All their transgressions are forgiven (v.7). For every occasion when they have crossed the boundary into forbidden territory God has forgiven them. Every single trespass, even the one you are most ashamed of. “Forgiven,” says God. He has gone on record. He says so. He declares, “I will not remember your sins” (Isa.43:25). When he forgives he lets us know that our sins are pardoned. He makes a promise that if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all our iniquities. Every transgression is remembered no more. That is the first blessing that comes to all who believe. Don’t you long that your sins can be forgiven? Confess them to God. Go to God and tell him about them. And then there is another blessing.
ii] All their sins are covered (v.7). They can be covered by the depths of the sea and they can be covered by being cast into the lake of fire, but here is a remarkable way in which they are covered. God takes the robe of righteousness of Jesus Christ – his Son’s holiness and obedience to the law of God – and hewraps us from head to toe in that. What a stunning covering! It is breathtakingly beautiful. It is a super comfort blanket. It makes angels take a second look for it is far superior to the white raiment that they are often portrayed as wearing. On the inside we are forgiven and on the outside our sins are all covered by the righteousness of Christ. What blessedness!
iii] Their sin the Lord will never count against them (v.8). How is that possible? Does God turn a blind eye to our sin? Does he pretend that we don’t have that sinful nature? Doesn’t a man’s cruel atrocities count before God? How can he never count our sins against us? Maybe we have sinned like David. Does God simply say, “OK, that doesn’t count.” Does he shrug in indifference? I will tell you how God can be a just God and yet for our sins not to count against us. God has counted them against his son the Lord Jesus Christ. He has reckoned our sins to his account and he has condemned them in him. It is as if they were written down on a piece of paper in their grievous details and this paper charge was laid down on the hand of Christ and then they were pinned to Christ by a nail and pinned to the cross. The charge for our sins was attached to him; he took responsibility for their condemnation and then he was punished for that sin in his crucifixion. The power of sin was given a deadly blow. Our sin was counted against Christ and nailed to his cross and in the darkness and condemnation of the holy Jesus that sin was also dealt with. So God can never count that sin against us because it has been counted against Jesus and condemned in him. Payment God will not demand again for what Christ has already paid.
That is the eternal blessedness that’s the gift of God because of what Jesus Christ has done, and it is the privilege of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. I am here today to tell you that if you trust in the Saviour and turn away from your unbelief then God will not hold your sin against you, he will cover your sin and put you in Christ for evermore. This is a glorious reality. Don’t you want this blessedness that has been a reality for so many of us for many years? It’s real and it is being offered to you today. If God’s today is too soon for your faith in him, your tomorrow may be too late for him to accept you. Take him today! Receive him who is the Saviour. Give him no rest until you know that he is yours for evermore. “Lord, save me. Lord, help me. Lord, forgive me.”
3rd August 2014 GEOFF THOMAS