Engelsma on Psalm 73

Prosperous Wicked and Plagued Saints: An exposition of Psalm 73, by David Engelsma (Reformed Free Presbyterian, 2007)

It’s a good book, well argued, and I am going to find it perhaps even more useful to give to people than Engelsma’s Common Grace Revisited debate with Mouw, because it starts with the biblical text and stays with it in detail. Of course it’s a polemic, but not in reaction to the passing ideas of one or two preachers.

The thesis is clearly stated: If the prosperity of the non-elect is some kind of “grace”, then the troubles of the elect must be not-grace. This antithesis is carefully argued again and again.

My favorite paragraph in the book is the second one on p 9. Here Engelsma writes about God’s justice in the gospel. God is both sovereign and just. God is not only just to the non-elect. God is also just in saving the ungodly elect, because God in Christ has a righteousness for these elect. “God blesses the elect on the ground of the righteousness of the atoning death of Christ.” Since Christ did not die for the non-elect, God has no righteous basis for blessing the non-elect.

Engelsma asks: “On what basis would God bless the ungodly, who are outside the elect church of Christ by God’s own decree of reprobation? The only explanation by those who confess the biblical doctrine that Christ died only for the elect church is that God’s grace ignores and conflicts with His righteousness….If God can bless guilty sinners apart from the cross of Christ in earthly things, why cannnot God also extend …eternal life to them apart from the righteousness of the death of Christ?”

I think this is the very heart of the issue, of the problem with most who profess to be “Calvinists”. First, many of them want to say that God has “multiple-purposes” (many intents) for the cross, and thus they say one of the reasons for the cross was to obtain “common grace” for the non-elect. In fact, God has one purpose in Christ. Everything Christ does is for the glory of Christ, and we need to be more simple about that.. We need antithesis. God’s love is not nearly “difficult” and complicated as most would have it.

Second, and even more importantly, these folks don’t see the justice of the cross—they see only sovereignty, they see only many purposes. It’s not only that they don’t see the effectiveness, the success of the cross. They don’t see the nature of the cross as a substitutionary satisfaction of divine law. Righteousness obtained and imputed demands life. Where there has been no righteousness, no satisfaction of the law, then God has no basis to give life (or any grace). Christ has not satisfied justice for the non-elect. Therefore God has no kind of salvation or blessing for the non-elect.

I was glad to see Engelsma come back to this theme on p 30. God despises the non-elect. “The Bible is clear that, apart from the basis of righteousness, there is no blessing of sinful humans.” Romans 1 teaches that the wrath of God is already being revealed to the non-elect, as sinner is being “handed over” to sinner. The non-elect are not being handed over to the elect (no theocracy for those who are not elect, no Christendom where the supposed elect govern the non-elect). But God is not only always in control, but also already in some intermediate ways, displaying His wrath to the non-elect.

4 For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are;

And as Engelsma makes clear (p 20), this prosperity of the non-elect is not random. Their prosperity is God’s doing. Sometimes (not always, since non-elect Syrians are starving and being killed every day) the non-elect have no pangs of conscience, and then die without much trouble–often an “easy death”. On one level, we can say that they are deeply unhappy on the inside, and that they know enough by ‘general revelation” to know that God exists and that they are in trouble (and will be). But on another level, some of these non-elect boldly ask: How can God know?

In other words, they think there is no god, or if there is a god, then this god “has no clue”. On the one hand, many of these non-elect are Kantians who claim that being moral should never be contaminated by any thought of blessing or reward. The only way to be completely self-less, they say, is to be atheist and to deny any future beatitude ((or condemnation). But on the other hand, they say, well those who believe the gospel are not getting paid for it. Like Satan’s comment to God about Job, these atheists say—nobody really is moral, because everybody does what they do to get paid, so take away Job’s blessing and he won’t be moral anymore. Thus the atheist conclusion: nobody really is moral. But some of us are getting paid, and it’s not those who are trying to be moral!

They have not considered the idea that God is on purpose INCREASING THEIR PROSPERITY ON ACCOUNT OF THEIR SIN, which is the opposite of what you would expect. Less sin, more prosperity, we tend to think, when we are not trusting God. But Psalm 73 teaches a “double bind”. God increases the prosperity of the non-elect not only because of their sin but also in order to make them more sinful and hard. What a fearful thing this is. As Engelsma points out on p 31, “God uses the “no troubles” as a means to increase their sin.

Engelsma rightly asks— what kind of “grace” is this, that is used as means to increase sin? It’s not a “strange grace” (p 32) it’s NOT grace at all! I think of Romans 6, which teaches that the justified elect are not under the dominion of sin BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT UNDER LAW BUT UNDER GRACE. Nobody understands this who does not believe the gospel. All who are not justified are still under law, and this means that God has no grace for them (unless they are elect, in which case they will be placed into Christ’s death and justified). This means that all the not-justified do is nothing but sin. It also means that that there is no kind of grace for the non-justified. They are still “under law”. Therefore sin has dominion over them. Therefore, God uses prosperity as a means to increase their sin.

I don’t think Engelsma directly referenced Job. But as I was reading his book, I kept thinking of Job. p 39–“God sent the troubles which plagued the psalmist, but the troubles were not direct judgments upon specific sins. If that were the case, the psalmist would not have had a problem with the troubles.”

I also like very much his discussion of the “wakening of God” (p 66, also with a reference to Psalm 44:23) It looks that way to us when we are not trusting God. But God is not slumbering. God is controlling every detail in the lives of the non-elect. God is not “allowing” or “permitting” anything. Thus Engelsma quotes the misguided approach of Martin Lloyd Jones (p 58) who wrote: “We have to remember God’s permissive will..He has allowed sin to develop and reveal itself for what it is.” As Engelsma very firmly points out, God’s purpose is that they slide into destruction.

18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.

I also think Engelsma is correct to see the being “pricked in heart” of verse 21 as being about the godly sorrow that the psalmist experiences (when he understands again the truth, when he comes to the sanctuary). This pricking of heart is NOT the sinful thinking he was doing before, because it is not that envy but rather it is his present repentance about that envy. He confesses: “I was like an animal”. It’s important for us to see that he doesn’t dismiss knowledge and rationalism as so many do today. He doesn’t excuse his ignorance, or blame it on other people (his preachers, his parents etc). As Engelsma concludes on p 73, foolish thinking is sin. And it’s a sin for humans to think like an animal.

One point I would stress here. I guess it depends on a distinction between indicative and imperative. If we say– well real Christians don’t ever think like that, what we mean is—Christians should not think like that. Neither Engelsma nor the psalmist is denying that Christians do sometimes think like that. But the point is that we should not think like that. We can sin, we should not sin. But our hope is not that we keep ourselves from sinning, or that we keep holding on. Our hope is that when we do sin in this way, with foolish thinking, with lack of trust, God is continually with us, holding us, keeping us from falling.

And then Engelsma writes about the “afterward”, the glory to come. Kant was wrong about the idea of future blessing contaminating morality. To the extent we Christian sinners are moral, our motive is gratitude for both the past and for the future which is come. Since that future glory is certain for the elect, the “thankful” category is not out of order. Faith is not something else than assurance, and therefore faith is not something else than gratitude for all that will be given in Christ. Romans 8:32 “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

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9 Comments on “Engelsma on Psalm 73”

  1. MARK MCCULLEY Says:

    I am not asking that evangelists explain to the lost what Arminianism is. Rather, I am asking us to not proclaim an Arminian gospel.

    The Bible talks about “us” and “our” sins, but it never sounds Arminian or resorts to an Arminian logic. Let us try to do the same thing.

    When we tell people that God saves “as many as” (whosoever) has faith in Jesus, let us make sure that we tell them for whom Jesus died. Let’s NOT merely say: “there is no other qualification, and faith is not a work. Faith is not what makes Christ’s death effective for us: the Holy Spirit is not the One who makes the atonement work.

    Faith is not a qualification, but a result of Christ’s death, a benefit of Christ’s righteousness. (II Peter 1:1) It is true to say that “without faith we will not be saved” but it not the whole truth, and it becomes a lie when we do not rule out he idea that trust is what makes the death work.

    And we cannot exclude faith as what makes the death work, unless we teach that faith is a result given to the elect as a result of Christ’s death for the elect.

    God has a non-elect. My worry is not that some of the non-elect will be saved. But neither should these pastors worry that the elect will not be saved if they told the truth that God has a non-elect and that God does not love all sinners.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    Psalm 17: deliver me from sinners WHO ARE YOUR SWORD

    14 From men WHO ARE YOUR HAND

    save me from men…

    whose portion is in this life:
    You fill their bellies with treasure;
    their sons are SATISFIED,
    and they leave their surplus to their children.
    15 But I will see Your face in righteousness;
    when I awake, I will be SATISFIED with Your presence

    satisfied is not an even-steven “balanced” kind of thing—more than enough

    I know that my Redeemer lives and that in this flesh I shall behold God” (Job 19:25)

    For the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear his voice and come forth” (John 5:28)

    Psalm 16:10 For You will not abandon me to Sheol;
    You will not allow Your Faithful One to see decay https://markmcculley.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/the-belly-problem-philippians-3/

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Malachi 3: 2 But who can endure the day of His coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears?

    Malachi 3: 5 “I will come to you in judgment… against those who THRUST ASIDE THE REFUGEE. They do not fear Me,” says the Lord of Hosts. 6 “Because I, Yahweh, have not changed, you descendants of Jacob have not been CONSUMED.

    Malachi 3:14 You have said: “It is useless to serve God. What have we PROFITED by keeping His requirements and walking MOURNFULLY before the Lord of Hosts? 15 So now we consider the arrogant to be blessed. Not only do those who commit wickedness prosper, they even test God and escape.

    Malachi 1: 9 “And now ask for God’s favor. Will He be gracious to us? Since this has come from your hands, WILL HE SHOW ANY OF YOU FAVOR?” asks the Lord of Hosts. 10 “I wish one of you would shut the temple doors, so you would no longer kindle a useless fire on My altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord of Hosts, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.

    Malachi 1: 13 “You BRING WHAT HAS BEEN TAKEN BY VIOLENCE lame, or sick animals. You bring this as an offering! Am I to accept that from your hands?” asks the Lord.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    “re-gifting”—can we give a gift that has not been given to us?

    Luke 22:25But He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles dominate them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’

    Romans 11: 35 Or who has ever first given to Him,
    and has to be repaid?

    http://www.sharonherald.com/news/local_news/man-s-generous-intention-backfires/article_3d1fbc5f-fd2d-58df-b26f-18da6c4cb534.html

    • markmcculley Says:

      Psalm 90: 3 You return mankind to the dust,
      saying, “Return, descendants of Adam.”
      4 For in Your sight a thousand years
      are like yesterday that passes by,
      like a few hours of the night.
      5 You end their lives;they sleep.
      They are like grass that grows in the morning—
      6 in the morning it sprouts and grows;
      by evening it withers and dries up.
      7 For we are consumed by Your anger;
      we are terrified by Your wrath.
      8 You have set our unjust ways before You,
      our secret sins in the light of Your presence.
      9 For all our days ebb away under Your wrath;
      we end our years like a sigh.
      10 Our lives last seventy years
      or, if we are strong, eighty years.
      Even the best of them are struggle and sorrow;
      indeed, they pass quickly and we fly away.
      11 Who understands the power of Your anger?
      Your wrath matches the fear that is due You.
      12 Teach us to number our days carefully
      so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts


  5. If someone is innocent, then perhaps they can earn a reward. However, if they are not innocent, if they have a guilt that must be paid, then they cannot earn anything until that guilt is paid. So they can’t earn anything to pay the debt until the debt is paid !

    But Leviticus 18:5 says that the Mosaic Covenant, which is made with fallen sinners, operates upon the principle of “if you do this, then you will get this.”
    The problem is not only that fallen sinners are unable to earn anything, but also that fallen sinners deserve only God’s wrath and death. Yet somehow they continue to eat and breathe and live. it looks like God is willing and able, while maintaining his justice, to give them gifts they do not deserve.

    God blesses the elect on the ground of the righteousness of the atoning death of Christ. Since Christ did not die for the non-elect, God has no righteous basis for blessing the non-elect.

    On what basis would God bless the ungodly, who are reprobate by God’s own decree? SinceChrist died only for the elect, is this a case in which God’s “grace” ignores and does not depend on Christ’s righteousness?

    Psalm 73 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are.

    Providence cannot be explained only in terms of God’s law. Job. God sent the troubles , but the problems are not direct judgments upon specific sins. If there were some obvious correlation (poetic justice), we would not have the same problem with the troubles.

    Psalm 44:23) God is not slumbering. God is controlling every detail in the lives of the non-elect. God is not “allowing” or “permitting” anything. God has not merely “allowed or permitted” sin to develop and reveal itself for what it is.” God’s purpose is that some slide into destruction.

    Psalm 73: 18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    Romans 6: 23 For the WAGES of sin is death, but the GIFT of God is lasting life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Equal ultimacy does NOT mean that the death of the non-elect is a different kind of lasting life. Equal ultimacy does not mean that the wages of sin are God’s gift. Equal ultimacy does not mean that the gift of life is God’s wages for our works.

  7. markmcculley Says:

    Daniel 12:2-10 Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase.” Then I, Daniel, looked and behold, two others were standing, one on this bank of the river and the other on that bank of the river. And one said to the man dressed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, “How long will it be until the end of these wonders?” I heard the man dressed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, as he raised his right hand and his left toward heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever that it would be for a time, times, and half a time; and as soon as they finish shattering the power of the holy people, all these events will be completed. As for me, I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what will be the outcome of these events?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time. Many will be purged, purified and refined, but the wicked will act wickedly; and none of the wicked will understand, but those who have insight will understand.

    Isaiah 29:11-14 The entire vision will be to you like the words of a sealed book, which when they give it to the one who is literate, saying, “Please read this,” he will say, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” Then the book will be given to the one who is illiterate, saying, “Please read this.” And he will say, “I cannot read.” Then the Lord said,“Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, therefore behold: I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous, and the wisdom of their wise men will perish, and the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.”

    Isaiah 48:1-7 “Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are named Israel and who came forth from the loins of Judah, who swear by the name of the Lord and invoke the God of Israel but not in truth nor in righteousness. “For they call themselves after the holy city and lean on the God of Israel; The Lord of hosts is His name. “I declared the former things long ago and they went forth from My mouth, and I proclaimed them. Suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. “Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead bronze, therefore I declared them to you long ago, before they took place I proclaimed them to you, so that you would not say, ‘My idol has done them, and my graven image and my molten image have commanded them.’ “You have heard; look at all this. And you will you not declare it? I proclaim to you new things from this time, even hidden things which you have not known. “They are created now and not long ago; And before today you have not heard them, So that you will not say, ‘Behold, I knew them.’


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