What If God Keeps Score?
Psalm 130 (BCP p. 436)
Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O LORD;
Lord, hear my voice.
O let thine ears consider well
the voice of my complaint.
If thou, LORD, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who may abide it?
For there is mercy with thee;
therefore shalt thou be feared.
I look for the LORD; my soul doth wait for him;
in his word is my trust.
My soul fleeth unto the Lord before the morning watch;
I say, before the morning watch.
O Israel, trust in the LORD;
for with the LORD there is mercy,
and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he shall redeem Israel
from all his sins.
In case you don’t keep up with such things, Ashley Madison is a website where people created accounts who wanted to have extramarital affairs. This website got hacked; the hacker is publishing the names of those with accounts. There are only 3 Zip Codes that have no accounts. A Christianity Today writer estimates that today 400 church leaders will resign. Why? They signed up for Ashley Madison accounts and are being outed.
The internet keeps score.
1.1 Desperation. The first three verses of Psalm 130 reveal a desperate man.
You hear that in his voice. He cries, “O Lord,” four times. A child who is danger and afraid, cries, “Daddy, help me! Daddy, I’m scared!” When you’re in trouble, you call to whom you think can help, and hope he can and will. All of us recall times we have called out to the Lord, knowing only he can deliver. You get fired. You can’t pay your bills. The doctor gives you bad news. Your spouse leaves. Your close friend betrays you. “O Lord, help; O Lord, save me.”
You feel the desperation as he says, “Out of the deep have I called unto thee.” When we were with family in July, we swam in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the grandkids liked to go out till they were standing on tiptoes and then jump when a wave came. But you could tell when they were afraid. They clung to the nearest adult. The Psalmist feels he’s drowning in deep, threatening waters.
He calls: “O Lord, hear my voice. O let thine ears consider well voice of my complaint.” Nothing is worse than to feel desperate, and call out for help, but no one is there. When Elijah met the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, they agreed to a contest to determine the true God. He and they would prepare a sacrifice and call for their god to prove himself by sending fire to consume their sacrifice. From morning till noon the prophets of Baal called out, “O Baal, answer us.” Elijah started mocking them, saying perhaps Baal was thinking, or using the bathroom, or taking a trip, or asleep. They called out more frantically and cut themselves to try to get Baal’s attention. Nothing worked. The Scripture observes: “But there was no voice, and no one answered... there was no voice. No one answered, no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:26, 29). The Psalmist feels the desperation of a person who is crying out for deliverance right now, but fears that there is no hope for him.
1.2 Cause At verse 3 we discover the cause of the Psalmist’s desperation. “If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it?” Or, better, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (ESV)
Vester Lee Flanagan (or, Bryce Williams, his TV name), murdered a reporter and her cameraman during a live broadcast Wednesday morning. Two experts in workplace violence describe him as a “grievance collector.” Such people keep score of who did what when. But you don’t have to be deranged to keep score of wrongs. A couple went to see a Christian counselor. The counselor asked about the problems. The wife pulled out a notebook and put it on the desk. She had recorded every wrong done by her husband.
We can be like that wife. Some are quick to list every wrong as it happens. Others say nothing but never forget. Others keep quiet till provoked and then pour out all their grievances, great and small.
What if God were like that? God is present at all times in all places. His vision is perfect. His memory is perfect. Nothing hinders him from keeping a perfect record of everything ever done by everyone of us.
Someone says, “God is not petty. He would never keep score like that.” God is not petty. But, that person often assumes that the things we do are not all that bad - after all we’re not Hitlers or Bryce Williamses - and the things most of us do are so insignificant that God would never be too upset about them.
That view misunderstands God’s nature. God is holy and righteous. As we read from Habakkuk, God’s eyes are too pure ever to look on iniquity with indifference. That view misunderstands the nature of ourselves and our actions. In Romans 1 Paul says Gentiles are sinners. “Amen,” says the Jew. But then he turns to the Jews, and says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Rom. 2:1). He concludes that, “all, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin” (3:9), that, “none is righteous, no not one” (3:10), and that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
Who can stand if God keeps score? Not one human being.
2.1. Forgiveness For only 3 letters, the word “but” is extremely powerful. “I almost failed that class, but I didn’t.”
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness.” God forgives. If he did not, there would be no hope for any human being - not me, not you. He does not hold sins against us. He does not treat us as we deserve. He forgets them, not that there is anything wrong with his memory, but that he chooses to forget our sins. King David well knew what he wrote about the Lord:
(He) forgives all your iniquity.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
He promised through Jeremiah:
For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember
their sin no more. (Jer. 31:34)
No one who knows the holiness of God or the sinfulness of his own heart and life would ever come to God, if he did not believe God is a forgiving God. Like Adam we would hide and try to avoid any dealings with God. If God is not forgiving, going to God would be like a guilty criminal going before a judge who is bound to punish him for his crimes. But, you can go home, no matter what you have done - no matter if you have never believed or you have been a Christian from childhood. God forgives all who with genuine sorrow for their sins come to him and ask pardon.
How do you respond to such forgiveness? You can stand on your pride and reject it. Or you can receive it with gratitude and awe. That’s what the Psalmist means when he says, “With you there is forgiveness that you may be feared.” Forgiveness does not make us more ready to sin or to take advantage of God’s mercy. Forgiveness should not make us take sin less seriously, or make us less inclined to please God. God’s merciful forgiveness creates reverence for God, so that with the prophet Micah we say: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression?”
3. Conclusion What happens when the Psalmist’s consternation about his sins resolves into confidence in God’s forgiveness?
He waits for the Lord like the night watchman waiting for morning. The watchman waits for the first glimmers of dawn that signal the coming a new day. What is the Psalmist waiting for? He is waiting for what we call ‘the “absolution or “the assurance of pardon.”
How will that come? It will come when the priest offers the sacrifice on the altar that will make atonement for his sins. He puts his hope in the word that assures pardon through sacrifice.
We know our sins are forgiven, not because we present an offering to God, but because Christ has presented himself to the Father, as “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction” for our sins. The sacrifices of the Old Testament could never secure forgiveness but only point to the sacrifice of Christ that would. The forgiveness of our sins is not in doubt, because Christ makes forgiveness certain. In his sacrifice we hear the sure word of pardon.
You don’t keep good news to yourself. You share it with others who have your need. Do you know a Christian who fears his sin is so grave he cannot be forgiven? Do you know an unbeliever who feels under condemnation because of his sins? You can say what the Psalmist said:
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
Martin Luther’s conscience troubled him night and day till he found peace in Christ. As he reflected on Psalm 130 he wrote these words:
From depths of woe I raise to Thee
The voice of lamentation;
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me
And hear my supplication;
If Thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?
To wash away the crimson stain,
Grace, grace alone availeth;
Our works, alas! are all in vain;
In much the best life faileth:
No man can glory in Thy sight,
All must alike confess Thy might,
And live alone by mercy.
Therefore my trust is in the Lord,
And not in mine own merit;
On Him my soul shall rest, His Word
Upholds my fainting spirit:
His promised mercy is my fort,
My comfort, and my sweet support;
I wait for it with patience.