God is a God of justice. When people try to worship him while continuing to practice injustice, he utterly rejects their worship. This is the consistent truth communicated in scripture from its beginning to its end. That’s one reason why the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship emphasized the decisive importance of justice for Christian worship in its recent symposium. And rightly so. We cannot seek the kingdom of God without also seeking its justice/righteousness.
And yet, as the speakers at the symposium reminded us, worship is not enough. This morning this truth struck me afresh in a new place: Psalm 50.
Psalm 50 is situated in an interesting place, coming right before King David’s famous confession of sin in Psalm 51. Israel’s greatest king had committed a series of acts that we would associate with the most corrupt and tyrannical of kings. He had used his power to steal (seduce? rape?) the wife of one of his best officers, and then he had that officer murdered and the whole affair covered up.
Psalm 50 reminds us that when people act religiously while practicing injustice the result is merely their own condemnation. God is a “God of justice” who “will not be silent.” He gathers those consecrated to him by covenant, “that he may judge his people.”
The psalm pictures God coming down from the heavens and arraigning his people in court. Yet God’s first words are surprising: “I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings which are ever before me.” Surprisingly, God has no problem with his people’s worship. They are doing all the right things on the outside. They are acting piously, by all appearances putting God first in their lives and observing the first table of the law.
But then the other shoe drops:
What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you. When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers. You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. You sit and testify against your brother and slander your own mother’s son. When you did these things and I kept silent, you thought I was exactly like you. But I now arraign you and set my accusations before you (Psalm 50:16-21).
These words served as a perfect accusation of King David. He recognized in his own way that he was guilty as charged. But I wonder how many of us have come to grips with the ways in which our own churches fall into the same sorts of hypocrisy. Far too often we preach and sing the grace of justification by faith alone through the cross of Christ one day of the week while downplaying its implications for the rest of our lives. We celebrate the first and second marks of the church – preaching and the sacraments – while ignoring the third, gospel-driven discipline.
Sure, we usually do this selectively. Liberals and progressives, conservatives and traditionalists each have their own favorite sins that they like to denounce, while ignoring those that seem to painful to confront. In the meantime, adultery and complicity in oppression are far too prevalent among us, as we live our comfortable, non-confrontational lives. We are so used to slander and deceit – or even practicing it ourselves – that we stand by as it crashes like a wave through the highest places of the land. We would rather be secure in our salvation, and possess power in the land, than be known as those who stand and suffer with the God of justice.
Psalm 50 reminds us that this form of religion will not stand. God is not like us, as we like we to imagine, and he will not be silent. Christ came to save us from our sins but he also came to defeat the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15). He preached the kingdom of God, but he also proclaimed its justice/righteousness. We must continue to repent of our own complicity in injustice/unrighteousness, but not simply to go on living and speaking in the ways we did before. Rather, as individuals and churches we must continually be working out the full expression of our salvation, for justice and righteousness, in fear and in trembling, as the Spirit of God works in us, both to will and to do (Philippians 2:12-13).
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).