Reading the Psalms with the doctrine of imputation in mind

Psalm 118 was written by David, who, according to the God-breathed words of its preface (i.e., the preface is part of the original Hebrew text), “addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.”

It’s a psalm that ought to greatly encourage those of us who are united by faith with Christ. David affirms that God is our protector, defender, and place of refuge. He rescues us when we cry out to him in fear. In fact, God becomes angry on our behalf, when we are mistreated. He will avenge us; he will vindicate us.

Why does God do this for us? Because, as verse 19 says, he “delights in us.” In my Christmas Eve sermon this year, I connected the angel’s words to the shepherds, “and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14) to the Father’s words to his Son Jesus during his baptism: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The Greek root underneath the English words “pleased”  and “well pleased” is the same: Therefore, if we are in Christ, our Father is as pleased with us as he is with his own Son, not on the basis of who we are and what we’ve done, but who Jesus is and what he’s done for us.

So when David describes what God has done to rescue him from his enemies, and all the trouble that his enemies caused, everything he says about God’s actions toward him are at least as true for us. He’ll do the same for us but even more so—because God has imputed to us the gift of Christ’s righteousness.

Apart from our understanding the doctrine of imputation, the words that David writes in verses 20-24 ought to depress us:

The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

Why should these words depress us? I wrote the following in my ESV Journaling Bible:

These could be among the most discouraging words in scripture, when we consider our sin. Indeed, the psalmist in Psam 130:3 recognizes the universal problem of sin: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Not to mention Paul’s words about the war within us: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). So if God’s protection, defense, and vindication of us depend on “my righteousness” or “the cleanness of my hands,” then we’re all in trouble!

But here’s where we need the good news of the gospel: the favor that we enjoy in God’s eyes is based not on our righteousness but the righteousness of Christ. For all of David’s words about his personal righteousness, we can substitute “Christ’s righteousness on our behalf”: For us, in other words, Christ has perfectly “kept the ways of the Lord”; Christ has not “wickedly departed from my God”; Christ did not “put away” God’s rules and statutes; Christ was “blameless” and “kept [himself] from guilt”; God has “rewarded [us] according to [Christ’s] righteousness, according to the cleanness of [his] hands in his sight.”

So for those of us who are united with Christ through faith, all of the positive outcomes that David describes are now ours—only better!

Do you see the logic of imputation? There are few doctrines more glorious, more reassuring, than this one.

With this in mind, how can I not heartily endorse a tweet like this from Joel Osteen, with only a small qualification?

We can be confident that what God ordains for us is good. How could it be otherwise, given our new identity in Christ?

2 thoughts on “Reading the Psalms with the doctrine of imputation in mind”

  1. The vine can only produce much fruit if it is pruned by the vine dresser.

    I also love the part about the stone which the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone of our faith (along with the Apostles and the Prophets).

    1. That’s right! I’ve noticed that far too many UMC clergy, especially, think there’s something wrong with pruning. But it’s necessary, and God will do it because he loves us, not in spite of his love for us.

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