The Blessedness of Sins Forgiven
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit.
When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I have not hidden.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
And You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You. —Psalm 32:1-6 (NKJV)
David contemplates the blessedness of being a forgiven sinner. God justifies us, declaring us righteous for Jesus’ sake, by not imputing our iniquity to us. It has been imputed to Christ, and His righteousness has been imputed to us as a gift of God’s grace. Unbelief and impenitence are characterized by silence: a refusal to acknowledge one’s sin and one’s need for God’s mercy. We waste away spiritually when we refuse to believe what God’s Word says. Faith and repentance are characterized by confession: “I acknowledge my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.” This is the reason why Christians pray: with God there is forgiveness of sins, and all our prayers ascend to God by grace alone on the basis of the merits of our Savior. We hide ourselves in the righteousness of Christ. His mercy instructs us and guides us into all truth. Unbelief is stubborn and headstrong, like a horse or mule, and will not heed the call to confess one’s sin and believe the Gospel. The wicked are those who will not trust in the Lord. The righteous are those whose sins are forgiven. The Lord’s promise is of supreme comfort to the penitent sinner: “He who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him” (vs. 10). “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven.”
Psalms of Individual Laments
The following is a portion of an interview from Issues, Etc. by Todd Wilken (TW) with Pastor Bender (PB) who discussed psalms of individual laments. The interview aired Nov. 23, 2013. The full interview is available online and for download at issuesetc.org.
TW: If the Psalms are the prayer book of the Church, Old and New Testament, what does it tell you that most of them are either community or individual laments to God?
PB: It teaches us the great truth of Luther’s Small Catechism, that the Christian lives in daily contrition and repentance, both individually and corporately. And the first of the 95 Theses said that when our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he willed that the entire life of the Christian be one of repentance. And I think that’s a large part of what Dr. Kleinig was getting at, when he said that really most of the psalms are lament: lamentation for one’s sin, confession of one’s sin, and the fleeing to God’s promise of forgiveness and grace in Christ.
TW: What do we find in Psalm 32? Because it’s not just one of the most well-known, but perhaps one that is best brought forward into the New Testament as the basic message of the Old Testament.
PB: Yes, that’s exactly right. It begins with these wonderful assertions, these truths which are the foundational bedrock of our faith. “Blessed is he,” or “Blessed is the one” whose transgression is forgiven. You can’t get more at the heart of what Christianity is about than the forgiveness of sins, which is centered in Christ. It is the center of the third article [of the Creed]—holy Christian church, communion of saints, forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body, life everlasting. It is the center of the second article of the Creed, that Jesus Christ redeemed us with His holy, precious blood. And blessedness in the scriptures, for us, is always about a gift of God’s grace. And this is centered in Christ.
TW: When it says, “blessed”—that’s a pretty common word there—in all of Scripture, but especially on the Psalms as well, our general tendency is to think of that as a general state of blessedness, but it has to be something stronger here, when it talks about the general state of forgiveness of sins.
PB: The blessedness is from God, and He is the one doing the forgiveness. He’s the source of the blessedness. “Blessed is the one who is forgiven, whose sin is covered” and notice how the present tense puts that in the reality of what it means to be a Christian. We live every moment of every day in the present tense of Christ’s forgiveness, a blessed state which God does for us. We have forgiveness and it’s ongoing in the flood of Jesus’ blood. The apostle John picks up on this in the ongoing state of forgiveness in his first epistle. That God is doing this, “Blessed is the man whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, whose sin is forgiven” and that’s what gives us comfort in these laments. One of the challenging things when you talk about them as “psalms of lament” is so often people think of them as having no resolution, no comfort. And I think these psalms are better termed or classified as “psalms of individual comfort.”
TW: Why is that?
PB: Because to the extent that there is a lament in them, a confession of sin in particular, it always finds its rest in the free grace of God in the Lord Jesus and in his forgiveness for us.
TW: There’s several ways that the Psalmist talks about this. The first is “forgiven” the second is “whose sin is covered,” then finally, “the man against whom the Lord accounts no iniquity.” I know they all amount to forgiveness, but take each one of them apart for us so that we can understand why the Psalmist would repeat this in three different ways.
PB: Yes, it is a lovely thing about the psalms. It teaches us something about meditation for us as Christians. It is never an inward thing as it is in the East; it’s always an external thing that it meditates on: the word of God outside of our selves. Sin that “is forgiven,” that “is covered,” that “the Lord does not impute iniquity” its talking about the same thing, but from different angles. The first, “blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,” we think of the absolution, an act of God. “Todd, in the stead and by the command of Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” I remit it; there is no punishment. I’ve taken the sin away. The second, “whose sin is covered” picks up on so many of these times in the Old Testament, and Paul will speak about it in the New Testament with respect to baptism, of being covered over with the righteousness of Christ, the great robe of Christ’s righteousness, like in Isaiah, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God . . . for He has covered me with a robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10). You see that also in the parable of the prodigal son, where the father wraps this robe of righteousness around his son. And then, the third one, “does not impute iniquity” ties in so well to St. Paul’s forensic justification, that by a declaration, God proclaims us to be righteous, and that is what we are when God makes that declaration. [It is] justification: we are declared righteous by the grace of God through faith in Christ. A lot of people don’t think that forensic justification is very central to the scriptures. Well, it’s all over the scriptures, and it is certainly all over the psalter.
TW: Let’s talk about the two sides of that declaration. The one side you’ve just mentioned, ”being declared righteous.” The other one is “not being declared guilty” in a sense, that sins are not imputed against us. Are both things at work when God declares us righteous?
PB: Both things are true, that God does not impute iniquity to us, is because he has imputed that iniquity to his Son, who in our stead, for us and for our salvation, became the substitute, the sacrificial lamb. And that, Todd, is all over the Old Testament worship life, as the sins of the people were imputed to the lambs, to the oxen, and so forth. You think of the scapegoat to whom was imputed the sin of Israel and then was driven out into the wilderness. In Jesus’ baptism, He becomes the scapegoat. The sin of the world is imputed to Him, and the gospels immediately show Him being driven out into the wilderness. The fact of this blessed status of not having my sin imputed to me or your sin imputed to you, is because it has been imputed to Jesus, who for us and for our salvation offered himself and was offered up by the Father as the sacrifice for sin.
You see this in the book of Genesis, where the son of the promise, Isaac, is offered up by Abraham, and the Lord says to him, “Take now your son, your only son whom you love.” It reminds us of John 3:16 where God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son. Those verbs of doing are not only the gift of a package, but the giving up of His Son into death as our substitute. As Abraham and Isaac are walking to Mount Moriah, “Here’s the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb?” and Abraham speaks those profoundly comforting words of the gospel, “the LORD will provide for himself the lamb for the brunt offering.” It’s not just that the LORD will provide the lamb, but the very payment, the very atonement that God demands, the Lord Himself will provide. That’s what this imputation is all about. The ram is caught in the thicket, Isaac is the son of the promise, but he’s not the real one, i.e. the ultimate one. That’s Jesus. He is the substitute ram who is caught in the thicket and offered up for us, who takes our place, and the imputation of our sin is laid on him.
The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Isa. 53, the great Good Friday Old Testament reading, is soaked with that language of forensic justification, that sin is imputed to Christ and therefore, it is not imputed to us. What a blessed state that is! And that means of course, that forgiveness is absolutely full and free, and it covers not a part of our sin, but all of our sin.
“The Kindled Heart: Luther on Meditation”
Meditation is unique to human beings, for even the animals seem to imagine and think. Therefore the ability to meditate belongs to human reason, There is however a difference between meditating and thinking. To meditate means to think persistently, deeply and diligently. Properly speaking, it means to chew over something in the heart. So to meditate means to engage as it were in the middle, or to be moved in the very middle and center. Whoever therefore thinks, investigates, discusses etc. inwardly and diligently, that person meditates. But no one meditates on the law of the Lord unless his desire has first become fixed on it. For what we desire and love we chew over inwardly and diligently. But what we hate or despise we pass over lightly and do not desire deeply, diligently, or for long.
From Luther’s Works (10:17), translation by John Kleinig in Lutheran Theological Journal 20 (1986): 143.
All Sin is Rooted in Unbelief
In this season of New Year’s resolutions, the desire to be better often expresses itself in firm resolves: “This is year, I’m going to . . . lose weight, quit smoking, stop drinking so much, be kinder, pray more, gossip less.” The turning of the calendar to a new year may prompt a desire to turn over a new leaf, putting behind the weaknesses which ensnare us in the common, garden sins of anxiety, covetousness and lust, envy, impatience, despondency and pride. Weakness manifests itself in misplaced shame, indifference and bitterness, and we desire to be rid of all that weighs us down. We know our sin is a transgression of the Law and offends God who is the source of love and goodness. We know our sin is disobedience, but more specifically, our sinful thoughts and actions stem from unbelief in Christ whom the Father has given in redemptive promise.
Unbelief is man’s fundamental sin and which results in sins which reveal our dissatisfaction with God. Why does anxiety grow in the garden of our heart? Unbelief in God’s providence. Why do we water covetousness? Unbelief in God’s provision. Why fertilize lust? Unbelief in God’s will and desire for you. Why allow the root of bitterness? Unbelief in the wholesale forgiveness given in Christ for sin. Faith confesses God’s goodness, His love for us, His providential care and guardianship by providing for daily needs as well as redemption from death. Yet, unbelief manifests, and often cultivates, a variety of sins, such as those sins for which we make New Year’s resolutions. However, the solution for unbelief, i.e sin, is not resolution, but faith.
Uniquely of the reformers, Martin Luther fleshed out the teaching of scripture that faith provides victory over sin, based upon the writings of John. That faith provides victory over sin is explicitly stated in John’s first letter, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world— our faith” (1 John 5:4 NKJV). Luther further drew from John’s gospel that unbelief is the root sin, the sin of man, (See John 3:18, 5:23, 12:48, and 16:3.) In one of Luther’s sermons on the gospel of John, Luther states: “Unbelief is the chief sin, and the source of all other sins.” And, in a sermon based upon John 3:16-21, the remedy for sin is faith, “for faith makes our stink not to rise up to God.” As Luther writes in his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian, “When the Soul firmly trusts God’s promises, it regards him as truthful and righteous. Nothing more excellent than this can be ascribed to God. . . . When this is done, the soul consents to his will. Then it hallows his name and allows itself to be treated according to God’s good pleasure.”
Similarly, in his “Preface to Romans” Luther writes, “as . . . faith alone makes a person righteous . . . so unbelief alone commits sin.” Therefore, for “good fruits of the heart” to be present, as in the one who resolves on Jan. 1 to “be better,” there must be faith. The beginning of works begins in Christ. “There is no other beginning than that your king comes to you and begins to work in you. . . . your faith comes from him, not from you; everything that faith works in you comes from him, not from you. . . . therefore you should not ask, where to begin to be godly; there is no beginning except where the king enters and is proclaimed.” (“Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent,” §§19-25).
So, don’t be surprised when your New Year’s resolution “to do better” in your own strength fails. The “fight” against sin is the “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3) as Paul describes it, or as Luther describes it, faith and trust in Christ that is implanted by the word of God through the Holy Spirit. Whether privately in Bible study, corporately in the Divine Service or individually through private confession and absolution. “Behold, your King comes to you” (Matt 21:5).