Earthly joys are like an elevator. They can only go so high. They are intended to leave us longing for the eternal joys found in the presence of the Most High, and the pleasures at His right hand. Sinful man keeps trying to make the trip to the top floor last just a bit longer, but he’s always disappointed when he must return to the lobby. Instead of being content with the fleetingness of the shadow-glories, he tries to live in the elevator. As a result, he has filled it full of his stench and filth.
But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
Summary of the Text
This text is full-proof Gospel. It is high-octane Gospel. It is 24-karat Gospel. Paul, using Abraham as the archetype of all the righteous, argues that faith is the means whereby the saints in all ages are reckoned as righteous. It is not the works of righteousness that justifies you (v5a), rather, by believing on Christ who justifies the ungodly you receive righteousness not your own (v5b).
Paul isn’t innovating some new-fangled doctrine. This doctrine is evident in the Old Testament in both Abraham’s example and in David’s Psalms. Paul summarizes the 32nd Psalm: David is describing the blessing of receiving imputed righteousness through no works of our own (v6). Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2, which extols the blessedness of our sins being forgiven, our guilt being covered, and our ledger being purged by the graciousness of the Lord (vv7-8).
It is worth noting what else is contained in Psalm 32. When we try to hide our sin, the hand of the Lord is heavy upon us (Ps. 32:3-4). But when we confess our sin, and flee to Jehovah we find Him to be a shelter from the flood, and a symphony of redeeming love (Ps. 32:5-7). While the wicked are encompassed by sorrow (Ps. 32:10), those who trust in the Lord are marked by hearty rejoicing (Ps. 32:11). In other words, God clears the guilty by offering them the righteousness of Christ. Those who receive this righteousness by faith enjoy true blessedness.
The Earth is the Lord’s
Mankind has two ways in which he treats earthly joys. The first is by devouring them feverishly, as if eternal life is found in them. The other is the ascetic who tries to float two inches off the ground, lest he be soiled by the ickiness of matter. A mark of the moralist is trying to locate moral righteousness in our relation to the stuff of creation instead of in our relation to the Creator. Put differently, sinful man has discovered many clever ways to play a shell game with his guilt.
One of the primary places this tendency shows up is in regards to food. It’s not uncommon to speak of food in moralistic terms: good for you; junk food; guilty pleasure; clean eating; natural (as opposed to what? Unnatural?); those brownies are just sinful. It might be concluded that if you can have guilt-free Whipped-Cream, maybe you don’t need to confess that simmering malice towards your co-worker.
All of this is the nervous tic of a culture with a guilty conscience. The soul plagued by the guilt of unconfessed sin, and without the assurance of imputed righteousness, will endeavor to find righteousness somewhere. Our culture has refused to come to Christ, and are now endeavoring to find moral righteousness anywhere other than in Christ. Shampoo bottles labeled “no guilt”; clothing made of ethically sourced materials; the mob cajoling everyone to get on “the right side of history.” In regards to this, CS Lewis once stated, “I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text?”
All this sort of thing is an attempt to hide our sin from God and concoct a homemade brew of righteousness. If you eat the right sort of food, in the right amount, wearing the right clothing, from the right places, having washed with the right soaps, all while thinking all the right thoughts and embracing all the Correct Sentiments (handed down to you from I Support the Current Thing, Inc.) you imagine that your guilt is cleansed & righteousness is obtained.
But Scripture teaches us that it isn’t what goes into you that defiles you (Mt. 15:11). Sin isn’t in the stuff. Sin isn’t a disease that needs to be eradicated. Sin isn’t a mental illness that needs therapy & chemicals. Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4). Likewise, righteousness isn’t found in the right clothing, the right sentiments, the right voting record. Righteousness is found in Christ alone.
Understanding that the only ground to stand before God is to be given Another’s righteousness then enables you to say with the Psalmist, “The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Psa 24:1).” You no longer fret about what you eat or drink or wear or where you will go or for how long (Cf. Mt. 6:31-34), not because you’ve turned into an apathetic hippy. Rather, you walk in the knowledge that all these earthly joys are the sampler platter for the eternal joys, which those who are justified by faith in Christ will enjoy in eternity.
Without Malice & Bitterness
We must reject both the asceticism & gluttony of the guilt-riddled, self-righteous world. God’s favor isn’t found by turning up a pietistic nose at the world’s pleasure. Nor is God’s wrath avoided by slurping up every last pleasure without a shred of gratitude. When we come to God, through Christ, we are assured that our sins are covered and the earth is ours.
Paul exhorts us to keep the feast, the Lord’s Supper, without malice or bitterness (1Co 5:8). This spiritual feast should be imitated in our earthly feasting. At the Lord’s table, there isn’t a VIP section that gets special treatment. Your sins are forgiven. But this means that your spouse’s sins against you are forgiven too. The sister who you feel gets all the attention, the friend who is more popular, the family whose Christmas card arrives on December 1st with bright-white smiles staring back at you, if they are Christ’s, their sins are forgiven too. You don’t get to come to this table holding on to the sins of others which God assures them He has forgiven them of.
Much of the time, when things go sideways at family gatherings, it’s due to all manner of rivalries, gripes, unconfessed sins, grievances, and contentions that are tangled up worse than the strands of Christmas lights. This isn’t how Christians should feast. Because of what we celebrate on this table, we can feast at our own tables in peace. Christ has covered your sin. God does not impute your sin to you. So stop bringing up that slight from 14 years ago, cover it.
The Blessing of Being Guiltless
While the world insists that blessedness is found in indulging all our carnal lusts, or in presenting the soiled garments of self-righteousness to God, you must rest in the knowledge that Scripture teaches that blessedness is found in being guiltless. This means, you need to stop looking at yourself. Stop licking your lips, craving only your self-gratification. Stop smugly relishing that sense of moral superiority because your cupboards have no trace of seed-oils. Self-righteousness is like trying to clean yourself up with manure. Self-gratification is like trying to convince yourself that the cardboard you’ve been munching on is actually pretty tasty.
A blessed life is a guilt-free life. How can you be held guiltless? By faith alone, in Christ alone. Not by self-indulgence or self-abnegation. Christ, the only guiltless-one, became guilty in your stead so that you could be righteous. Not only that, but because you are counted righteous and your guilt is forgiven, you can enjoy that extra slab of pecan pie without a moral crisis; you can retell the Pilgrim story without being plunged into a struggle session over white privilege. You are free. You are clean. You are righteous.
All your guilt, both real & imagined is dealt with by the cross of the Lord Jesus. This doctrine doesn’t water down our enjoyment of earth’s joys. It thickens them up. The joys are fleeting. But your sins are forgiven. So pass around the gravy, sing a few loud psalms, toss the football, take a nap, and do it all to the glory of God.