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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

Faith and New Perspective

June 2, 2015 •

‘New Perspective’ has become something of a red flag in many Christian circles because of its associations with the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’. But if we allow one dubious doctrine linked to contaminate a phrase – however bad the guilt by association may be – we end up consigning a perfectly good expression to the garbage heap for no good reason. So, as we continue our mini-study of saving faith as it is examined in Psalm 73, let me make the argument that the essence of genuine faith is the fact it gives an altogether ‘new’ perspective on everything for those who exercise it. Or, to refer to the section from the Westminster Confession’s chapter on ‘Saving Faith’ cited in my previous post, faith that is genuine always ‘gets the victory’.[1] But how does this come out in what the psalmist says in this important psalm?

We saw last time that the first half of this psalm is very personal disclosure from

Asaph – a prominent worship leader in Israel’s history – of a major crisis in faith

he experienced at some point in his life. His candour is nothing short of disturbing. But even as he reaches the depths to which his doubts have taken him, he begins to question them and immediately makes a statement that marks the beginning of his spiritual recovery. He says, ‘till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood…’ (Ps 73.17).

Clearly ‘the sanctuary of God’ or, more literally, ‘the sanctuaries’ became the
venue in which his downward spiral was not just arrested but reversed. But what did
he mean when he used this turn of phrase?

The obvious possibilities are either the tabernacle (in which Asaph would have first served), or possibly the temple (if the psalm was a later composition). Whatever the actual best option may be, Calvin sees its metaphorical significance as being its key. What he calls, ‘coming to the school of God’. In other words, seeing his situation from a new [God’s] perspective. And that fits very well with the change in tenor of the psalm from this point on.

James Montgomery Boice brings this out very helpfully in his exposition of this psalm by noting the change in the dominant personal pronouns that pivots around this verse. The first half of the psalm is expressed largely in the first person singular (the psalmist’s own viewpoint), while the second shifts to the second person singular: seeing the same things, but from God’s perspective.

When the psalmist begins to consciously look at life from this very different vantage point, the things that had been so troublesome to him and to his faith up until this point start to take on a very different complexion.

He sees the wicked (who he had confessed to envying just a few verses earlier) no longer in the light of their apparent peace and prosperity in this world, but instead in terms of ‘their final destiny’ (Ps 73.17-20). Even though the beginning of the road these people had begun to travel seemed hugely attractive, its terminus was anything but that. ‘Ruin’, ‘destruction’, ‘terror’ and being despised by God ‘as fantasies’ would be their eternal destiny. Jesus uses exactly the same analogy when he compares and contrasts the broad and narrow roads in the Gospels in terms of where they ultimately end. True faith takes us beyond the misperceptions that are inevitable if we do not allow God and his word to enlighten us as we try to evaluate what is on offer to us in this present age.

The second new angle on life Asaph found through the ‘sanctuary perspective’ was the insight it gave with regard to his own life. He realized he had been ‘grieved’ and ‘embittered’ [against God] and that he had actually been behaving like an ‘ignorant’ and ‘senseless’ ‘brute beast’ before him (Ps 73 21-22).

John Calvin astutely notes in his opening words of the Institutes of the Christian Religion that the ‘sum of all wisdom’ consists not merely in ‘the knowledge of God’, but also in ‘the knowledge of ourselves’. (Though it is interesting to see how often we manage to latch on to the former in our supposed piety at the expense of the latter!) True self-knowledge is vital to a life that is truly pleasing to God and useful in his service. But it can only be found when we see ourselves through God’s eyes. Or, as James puts it, when we realise that God’s word is designed to function as a mirror for those who read it (James 1.23).

The third dimension to this new perspective that emerges in the second half of this psalm is the fact that Asaph began to see God in ways he had never considered him before. But what is so significant is that it is not so much transcendence of God that he sees, as his immanence – his nearness to his people. It leads into one of the most precious expressions of God’s loving care for his children found anywhere in the Bible:

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion for ever. (Ps 73.23-26)

Despite the many ways in which Asaph had betrayed God through his faithlessness and envy of the wicked, God’s covenant faithfulness towards him had never failed. He had dealt with this wayward man in grace and mercy and proved himself true to his gospel promise. Little wonder that Asaph crossed a spiritual Rubicon that day, enabling him to know as never before what really mattered and where he truly belonged.

This brings us to the fourth and final new angle on life the psalmist learned through the bitter struggle he had come through. It takes him from the realm of mere personal reflection on what really mattered for him in life, but what actually matters most for everyone. His verdict in light of God’s revelation on those who are ‘far from God’ (those who featured prominently in the first half of the psalm) is stark: they will ‘perish’ and God will ‘destroy’ them on account of their refusal to trust him (Ps 73.27). The Bible is unambiguous in what it has to say about the fate of the faithless. But, thankfully, this is not the note on which the psalm ends.

Not only does Asaph reaffirm his own faith in ‘the Sovereign LORD’ as his ‘refuge’, he also reasserts his commitment to declaring the good news of God’s ‘deeds’ – his saving works – to the world. We should not minimize that closing note in this musical composition. The rot of privatized faith that has corrupted so much Christianity in our day is all too present in the Reformed community. We are often good at taking refuge in the great gospel truths of the faith for ourselves; but perhaps less so when it comes to broadcasting them to the world that so much needs them.

The ‘victory’ that authentic saving faith ‘gets’ is never merely private and personal; it is a victory in which others will share as they embrace the same Lord Jesus as we bear witness to him among our own generation.

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith 14.3


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