The Suffering and the Glory of Psalm 22

Psalm 22 begins with the most anguished cry in human history: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These are the words that Jesus took on His lips at the depth of His suffering on the cross. His suffering was unique at that point as He offered …

What Does the Church Most Need Today?

What does the church most need today? In answering this important but rather general question, Psalm 81 is uniquely important and helpful. This psalm obviously contains beautiful promises and clear directions to help the people of God. But careful stu…

The Word-less “Church”

Many American churches are in a mess. Theologically they are indifferent, confused, or dangerously wrong. Liturgically they are the captives of superficial fads. Morally they live lives indistinguishable from the world. They often have a lot of people…

A Call to Thoughtful Vigilance

Paul warned the elders of the church in Ephesus about the critical need for them to be vigilant: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtain…

What Is the Gospel?

Many Christians, churches, and organizations regularly use the word gospel to describe their convictions. Theological controversies have occurred and do occur over the meaning of the gospel and who preaches it faithfully. What does that familiar word …

A Letter from Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, Chairman of Ligonier Ministries

Dear Friend of Ligonier,
Our founder, Dr. R.C. Sproul, was called home to glory on Thursday, December 14, 2017. He died peacefully with his family at his side. We are all grieving our loss, but we are comforted by the promises of Christ’s gospel—promi…

God Is Always at Work for Us and for Our Good

Psalm 18 is a psalm of David, a song celebrating “the day when the LORD rescued him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.” This psalm, the longest of Book One, praises God for His deliverance. It is also recorded, with slight di…

Psalm 92: A Song for the Sabbath

Psalm 92 is titled “A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was a central institution in the Old Testament. God had strictly charged Israel to keep the Sabbath day holy. God declared that He had grounded the sanctity of the Sabbath in His creation (Gen. 2:3; Ex. 20:8–11) and in His redemptive work (Deut. 5:12–15). When the prophets warned Israel about her sins, desecration of the Sabbath was listed as a very serious issue (see, for example, Isa. 56; 58). Because of the importance of the Sabbath for Israel, it is surprising that this psalm is the only one in the Psalter that refers to that holy day. Even more surprising, perhaps, is the apparent absence of any clear reference to the Sabbath in the body of the psalm.

We find the key to the meaning of this psalm in its central verse: “You, O Lord, are on high forever” (v. 8). This psalm exalts the Lord who is high and lifted up (Isa. 6:1). The praise of His people does indeed exalt and glorify the Lord. Even though our praise cannot actually make God greater or higher than He is, the Lord is pleased for our praise to exalt Him in our minds and hearts.

How does this psalm exalt the Lord for us? First, and remarkably, this psalm teaches us that God is exalted in the destruction of the wicked. In our sentimental age, we have become squeamish about the terrible judgment that awaits those who reject the Lord, but the Bible is clear from beginning to end that such a judgment is coming. That judgment will be just and will vindicate the holiness of God. The wicked may seem to flourish for a time and be exalted in this world, but in the end they will perish everlastingly. When we praise God on the Sabbath for the coming judgment, we remember the importance of rejecting worldliness to pursue true godliness: “The stupid man cannot know; the fool cannot understand this: that though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever. . . . For behold, your enemies, O LORD, for behold your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered” (vv. 6–7, 9).

Second, the Lord is exalted in the flourishing of the righteous. The psalm compares the righteous to healthy trees: “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God” (vv. 12–13). The righteous are not fleeting grass, but long-lasting trees. They have the beauty of the palm and the strength of the cedar. They are also near to God, growing in the very courts of the temple. God promises that they will stay vital and productive even into old age: “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” (v. 14).

The image of the people of God as a tree is particularly appropriate for the Sabbath day. The tree does not flourish because of its cleverness or hard work or free will. It flourishes because of the work of the gardener who plants it, waters it, nurtures it, and protects it. Surely, God is exalted in the blessings He gives to His people.

Third, the Lord is exalted in the revelation of God’s character. The psalm exalts the Lord by proclaiming “your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night” (v. 2). God has loved His own from eternity and will ever continue to love and care for them. Because He loves them, He is always faithful to His promises. He is completely reliable and worthy of all praise. He is also perfectly holy in all His doings: the righteous will proclaim, “The LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (v. 15). God’s character is a great comfort for His people in all circumstances and trials of life.

Finally, God is exalted in the song of the Sabbath itself. As God is enthroned on the praises of Israel (Ps. 22:3), so He is exalted by the singing of His people. “It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; . . . at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (vv. 1, 4b). Here is a song that God inspired to be used in worshiping Him on the Sabbath. We must remember that God made the Sabbath for worship as well as rest: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, “These are the appointed feasts of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation”’” (Lev. 23:1–3a).

Psalm 92 seems to be set in the mouth of Israel’s king: “You have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil. My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants” (vv. 10–11). While the reference to anointing oil could point to a priest, the combination of oil with the horn of strength and the defeat of enemies surely means the king is speaking. This point is even more clear when we compare these verses with the words about David that we read in Psalm 89: “For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted. . . . I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him. . . . I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted” (Ps. 89:17, 20, 23–24).

At this point, we see that the Sabbath psalm not only answers the crisis of faith of Psalm 89 by reminding us of God’s faithfulness in creation and in the covenant given at Sinai, it also reminds us that it is the king who leads Israel’s praise on the Sabbath day. God will not abandon His king any more than He will abandon His creation, His covenant, or His people. So who is this king? Once again, the only answer to that question is Jesus. He is the son of David and the true King of Israel. On His lips alone is perfect praise offered to God. He is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28).

Many Christians have come to believe that Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath abolished the Sabbath because it was a purely Mosaic institution. We have already seen that the Old Testament saw the Sabbath as a command of creation that was reiterated, not instituted, by Moses. Even in the words of Jesus Himself we see this: the Sabbath was made not for the Jews, but for “man,” that is, for all mankind (Mark 2:27).

As the Sabbath was a moral command of God from the beginning, so it remains a moral command of God. The New Testament passages that are often cited as teaching that all days are alike in the new covenant actually do not reject the Sabbath, but only the elaborate Jewish calendar of holy days. Revelation 1:10 makes clear that in fact there is a holy day in the new covenant: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” The Lord’s Day is a special day belonging to the Lord. In the New Testament, the only day given any special attention is Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath has made the first day rather than the seventh day a holy day for His own. From the beginning of creation to Jesus, we looked forward to the rest that would come in the end. With the coming of Jesus, rest has been won in His resurrection, and so, we as Christians begin our week with rest in Christ and worship of Christ.

The Sabbath psalm does not celebrate the Sabbath itself. It knows that from the beginning the Sabbath was not an end in itself but a means to an end. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath was made for a day of rest so that man could worship and fellowship with his God. It was not a burden, but a blessing. On the Sabbath, man grows in grace and praises his God. The Sabbath was and is a weekly reminder that we serve a reliable God who will destroy His enemies and will prosper His people even if they have to wait a long time to see it happen. Psalm 92 is a perfect Sabbath psalm because it helps us to worship and praise our God.

This excerpt is adapted from Learning to Love the Psalms by W. Robert Godfrey.

Why Was the Reformation Necessary?

The church is always in need of reform. Even in the New Testament, we see Jesus rebuking Peter, and we see Paul correcting the Corinthians. Since Christians are always sinners, the church will always need reform. The question for us, however, is when does the need become an absolute necessity?

The great Reformers of the sixteenth century concluded that reform was urgent and necessary in their day. In pursuing reform for the church, they rejected two extremes. On the one hand, they rejected those who insisted that the church was essentially sound and needed no fundamental changes. On the other hand, they rejected those who believed that they could create a perfect church in every detail. The church needed fundamental reform, but it would also always need to be reforming itself. The Reformers reached these conclusions from their study of the Bible.

In 1543, the Reformer of Strasbourg, Martin Bucer, asked John Calvin to write a defense of the Reformation for presentation to Emperor Charles V at the imperial diet set to meet at Speyer in 1544. Bucer knew that the Roman Catholic emperor was surrounded by counselors who were maligning reform efforts in the church, and he believed that Calvin was the most capable minister to defend the Protestant cause.

Calvin rose to the challenge and wrote one of his best works, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.” This substantial treatise did not convince the emperor, but it has come to be regarded by many as the best presentation of the Reformed cause ever written.

Calvin begins by observing that everyone agreed that the church had “diseases both numerous and grievous.” Calvin argues that matters were so serious that Christians could not abide a “longer delay” for reform or wait for “slow remedies.” He rejects the contention that the Reformers were guilty of “rash and impious innovation.” Rather, he insists that “God raised up Luther and others” to preserve “the truth of our religion.” Calvin saw that the foundations of Christianity were threatened and that only biblical truth would renew the church.

Calvin looks at four great areas in the life of the church that needed reform. These areas form what he calls the soul and the body of the church. The soul of the church is composed of the “pure and legitimate worship of God” and “the salvation of men.” The body of the church is composed of the “use of the sacraments” and “the government of the church.” For Calvin, these matters were at the heart of the Reformation debates. They are essential to the life of the church and can only be rightly understood in light of the teaching of the Scriptures.

We might be surprised that Calvin placed the worship of God as the first of the Reformation issues, but this was a consistent theme of his. Earlier, he had written to Cardinal Sadoleto: “There is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.” Worship is where we meet with God, and that meeting must be conducted by God’s standards. Our worship shows whether we truly accept God’s Word as our authority and submit to it. Self-created worship is both a form of works-righteousness and an expression of idolatry.

Next, Calvin turned to what we often think of as the greatest issue of the Reformation, namely, the doctrine of justification:

We maintain, that of what description so ever any man’s works may be, he is regarded as righteous before God, simply on the footing of gratuitous mercy; because God, without any respect to works, freely adopts him in Christ, by imputing the righteousness of Christ to him, as if it were his own. This we call the righteousness of faith, viz., when a man, made void and empty of all confidence of works, feels convinced that the only ground of his acceptance with God is a righteousness which is wanting to himself, and is borrowed from Christ. The point on which the world always goes astray, (for this error has prevailed in almost every age,) is in imagining that man, however partially defective he may be, still in some degree merits the favor of God by works.

These foundational matters that form the soul of the church are supported by the body of the church: the sacraments and the government of the church. The sacraments must be restored to the pure and simple meaning and use given in the Bible. The government of the church must reject all tyranny that binds the consciences of Christians contrary to the Word of God.

As we look at the church in our day, we may well conclude that reformation is needed—indeed, is necessary—in many of the areas about which Calvin was so concerned. Only the Word and Spirit of God will ultimately reform the church. But we should pray and work faithfully that such reform will come in our time.

This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.

God Works Through His Appointed Means

For Martin Luther, the work of Christ came to sinners outwardly in God’s institutions and inwardly by the Holy Spirit and faith. Both the outward and the inward were necessary. He wrote:

“Now when God sends forth his holy gospel he deals with us in a twofold manner, first outwardly, then inwardly. Outwardly he deals with us through the oral word of the gospel and through material signs, that is, baptism and the sacrament of the altar. Inwardly he deals with us through the Holy Spirit, faith, and other gifts. But whatever their measure or order the outward factors should and must precede. The inward experience follows and is effected by the outward. For he wants to give no one the Spirit or faith outside of the outward Word and sign instituted by him, as he says in Luke 16[:29], “Let them hear Moses and the prophets.” Accordingly Paul can call baptism a “washing of regeneration” wherein God “richly pours out the Holy Spirit” [Titus 3:5]. And the oral gospel “is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Rom. 1[:16]).

The Christian must give priority to the outward institutions of the Word, both in preaching and in the sacraments. As God came to us in the incarnation, so He continues to come through outward means to accomplish His purpose. They are the means that God has appointed and through which He works by His Spirit.

Luther always stressed that we find God in His institutions, His appointed means, not in our creations or our experiences. We must use God’s ways to come to Him. Luther rejected the inventions of Rome and the claims of the Spirit’s revelations among the Anabaptists. Only the institutions established in the Bible connect us to Jesus. Luther boldly declared that he would rather have Jesus present in the preaching of the Word than in person:

Thus He comes to us through the gospel. Yes, it is far better that he comes through the gospel than that he would now enter in through the door; for you would not even know him even though he came in. If you believe then you have; if you do not believe then you do not have.

This excerpt is adapted from W. Robert Godfrey’s contribution in The Legacy of Luther editted by W. R.C. Sproul and Stephen Nichols.