Posted tagged ‘Psalms’

Engelsma on Psalm 73

September 7, 2013

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?”