All posts by Logan Almy

As When Prophet Moses Raised

Let me encourage you to use your hymnal in your daily devotions. Along with the joyful songs of praise, the hymnal supplies a much-needed freshness when our prayer life has become stale. It’s full of themes worthy of our spiritual mediation.

One of the hymns I’ve recently pondered is Isaac Watts’ “As When the Prophet Moses Raised.” It’s a reflection on the words of Jesus in John 3:14-15. Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In light of Christ’s precious words, Watts composed these:

“As when prophet Moses raised the brazen serpent high,
the wounded looked and straight were cured, the people ceased to die.
So from the Savior on the cross a healing virtue flows;
Who looks to him with lively faith is saved from endless woes.”

The Old Testament background is found in Numbers 21:4-9. During the wilderness wandering, the children of Israel complain against God and Moses. The Lord sends serpents as an act of judgment. Many are bitten and die. When the people confess their sin and beg Moses for his intercession, the Lord gives Moses a solution. He tells him to make a pole with a fiery serpent on top. Then God says, “Everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” According to Jesus in John 3, this bronze serpent is a type of Christ. As Moses raised the serpent on the pole, so Jesus would be raised up on a cross. As everyone who looked to the serpent pole was healed, so everyone who looks to Jesus on the cross is saved.

The typology fixes our attention on Christ on the cross. This is where our faith looks. We turn away from ourselves and cast our eyes on Christ and his finished sacrifice. This is where “a healing virtue flows”; this is where we are “saved from endless woes.”
The “endless woes” to which Watts refers certainly include hell in the hereafter, but it also refers to the woes we experience as long as we remain in an unconverted state. Such woes include a defiled conscience, a burdened spirit, an enslaved will, and a life devoid of meaning.

The good news is that we are delivered simply by looking to Jesus! Can anything capture the free offer of grace better than to speak of faith as a mere looking? Looking is really doing nothing. It’s simply a matter of opening our eyes and seeing what is already there. It’s turning our attention to the virtue and merit of another. Can we not look? Is it really too much for us to cast our eyes on the One who shouldered the cross for us? All has been done! God has made the perfect provision for sin! We are only told to look and live.

Watts continues:

“For God gave up his Son to death, so gen’rous was his love,
That all the faithful might enjoy eternal life above.
Not to condemn the sons of men the Son of God appeared;
No weapons in his hand are seen, nor voice of terror heard:
He came to raise our fallen state, and our lost hopes restore;
Faith leads us to the mercy seat, and bids us fear no more.”

When we turn our eyes to Jesus, we see God’s generous love. We should never cease to be amazed when we hear those simple words: “God so loved us that he gave us his Son.” We deserve no good thing from God, but he gave us the best he had to give—his only begotten Son. But there’s more—keep looking to Jesus! What do we see? Jesus is not there to accuse or condemn but to lead us to the mercy seat and banish all our fears. The longer we look to Jesus, the more we see; the more we see, the more we enjoy. Let’s continue looking and drawing in the healing streams flowing from this precious fountain!

Can I Sing This Psalm?

Well-intended Christians sometimes object to psalm singing because they incorrectly assume  certain sections are out-of-place for new covenant believers. Generally, the troublesome Psalms are the ones calling for God’s judgment on the wicked (the so-called imprecatory psalms) and those expressing disgust—even hatred—for evil people. So here is the question: are these psalms appropriate for the followers of Jesus to sing?

In order to feel the weight of this objection we must consider some examples. Here are a few instances of the sweet psalmist of Israel calling for God’s judgment on the wicked:

“The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
-Psalm 11:5-6

“O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!” -Psalm 58:6

“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
-Psalm 137:9

And here are a few examples of the psalmist expressing hatred for evildoers:

“Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”
-Psalm 139:23-24

“I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep your commands.”
-Psalm 119:158

We must confess that when we read these verses, they certainly do sound harsh. We sometimes cringe when these verses are read in corporate worship, don’t we? We may even feel a temptation to skip these lines.

Although these feelings are understandable, I believe they are deeply rooted in a common misconception that portions of the Psalms are inappropriate for Christian believers. I want to explain why Christians should sing these sections of the Psalter.

Let’s begin with the imprecatory psalms. Should Christians sing for God’s judgment to come on the wicked? Is it possible to have a righteous desire for God to intervene and bring evil men to justice? The answer is a resounding yes. There is no reason to believe that imprecatory prayers are out of place for new covenant believers.

To begin with, we find examples of imprecations in the New Testament. Paul pronounces a curse on false teachers in Galatians 1. At the end of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle exclaims, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 15:22). When Alexander the coppersmith opposed the ministry of the gospel, Paul said, “The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Timothy 4:14).

Perhaps even more surprising is the discovery of imprecations in heaven! In Revelation 6:9-10 we find martyred saints crying out for the Lord to judge the wicked and avenge their blood. Since these souls are certainly souls of “righteous men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), their prayers for vindication cannot be unacceptable in the eyes of God. If imprecations are appropriate for the saints in heaven, why should we demur that they have no place in the mouths of God’s exiles on earth?

Turning to the Psalms which contain expressions of hatred for the wicked, we need to say a little more. Admittedly, on the surface, it seems like the teaching of Jesus contradicts the attitude found in these sections. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
-Matthew 5:43-45

Some Christians would say, “There you go. That settles it. In the Old Testament believers hated their enemies, but now in the New Testament it is no longer appropriate.” Well, not so fast. We need to bear a few thoughts in mind.

First of all, when David speaks of hating those who hate God in Psalm 139:21, he isn’t speaking about personal vindictiveness. To read a tone of personal vindictiveness into these verses is entirely unwarranted. The entire psalm is a celebration of the Lord’s loving care, knowledge, and concern for David. Instead, David is speaking about his attitude toward the enemies of God. How should he regard them? He answers the question in verse 22: “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” Essentially, David is saying to God, “O Lord, I love you so much that your enemies are my enemies.” But what about the word “hate”? In this context, the word “hate” is best taken as a moral disgust and repugnance for wicked people. It doesn’t mean that David is out to get the wicked or injure them in any way. He is simply asserting what is taught throughout the Bible, even the beginning of the book of Psalms:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers,
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.”
-Psalm 1:1-2

This helps us to understand what Jesus means in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Notice that Jesus is speaking about a different situation. He refers to the personal enemies of his disciples. These “enemies” may or may not be fellow believers. They are “your enemies” but not necessarily God’s enemies. Also, when Jesus explains what it means to “love” them, he speaks of blessing them and praying for them. This refers to practical action. We are supposed to love our enemies and treat them well, not take matters of vengeance into our own hands.

The reason we are supposed to do this is because the Lord loves his enemies. He sends the rain to fall on the good and bad, and he causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust. We should take note of the fact that “love” here refers to the way we treat other people; this passage isn’t speaking about our inner disposition and delight for the people themselves.

Think about it this way. Would it be appropriate to say that God has the same inner disposition and delight in the good and bad, the just and the unjust? Absolutely not! God does not delight in iniquity. He is a righteous and holy God. So then, why should we think that Jesus is teaching us that we should have the same inner disposition and delight in the righteous and the wicked?

Psalm 139:21-22 speaks to the way a righteous man feels about the lifestyle of those who hate God and live in willful rebellion against his law. Psalm 119:158 contains the same truth. But Jesus isn’t speaking to that. He is teaching us how we should respond to those who oppose us. We must not respond tit for tat. As God’s Word tells us, we must overcome evil with good and leave vengeance in the Lord’s hands (Romans 12:19-21).

This recognition ties it all together. If we do good to our enemies and look to the Lord for vindication, then we may both sing the troublesome psalms and obey the commands of Jesus. One day the “wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16) will come, and those who trust in Jesus alone will receive the glorious fruit of salvation through judgment. The wicked will be cast into hell, but the righteous will shine like the stars of heaven. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Degrees of Sin and Punishment

The Bible teaches that there are degrees of sin and punishment. However, your average Christian tends to think, “All sins are equal in the eyes of God.” This is a common misconception about the nature of sin and judgment. If we examine God’s Word, however, we will gain a better understanding of our sin, God’s righteousness, and Christ’s love.

In the Old Testament, God’s Law makes it clear that some sins are more heinous than other offenses. For example, if a person sins knowingly against God, it is more offensive to God than if it was done unintentionally. The Law says, “You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people” (Numbers 15:29-30). We should take note that if a person sins with a high hand, he has committed a greater offense, and he will receive greater punishment. This is because sinning with a high hand is more displeasing to the Lord because of the deliberate nature of the offense.

In the New Testament, Jesus explains that greater degrees of sin will be met with greater degrees of punishment. The Lord says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (Matthew 11:21-22). Although Jesus had given them greater reason to repent by performing many miracles, they had not repented; therefore, their rebellion was greater because it was in the face of greater light. The same is true for the city of Capernaum: “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:23-24). The phrases “more bearable” and “more tolerable” in connection with the final judgment reveal degrees of punishment. In God’s courtroom, the punishment will fit the crime.

In addition, Jesus teaches how God holds us accountable for what we know. If we sin against knowledge, then we will receive greater condemnation. “And the servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:47-48).

None of this should be taken to mean that some sins are not serious. Every sin is a personal offense against a holy God. Every sin breaks God’s law (1 John 3:4) and invites God’s wrath (Romans 2:5). Even a single sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2)! “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). But if all sin is serious and there are degrees of sin and punishment, how do we strike the balance?

The Larger Catechism helps us to understand. How we need to be well-catechized in these days of theological confusion! On the one hand, the Catechism reads: “Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserves his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ” (Q. 152). On the other hand, the Catechism teaches us: “All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (Q. 150). So the Catechism reminds us that all sin deserves God’s judgment, but some sins are more evil in God’s sight than others. This is a much more balanced statement than the common platitude: “All sins are equal in the eyes of God.”

So why does it matter that we affirm degrees of sin and punishment? One reason is that it promotes the righteousness of God. Righteousness calls for the punishment to fit the crime. God will punish the wicked in proportion to their crime. Hell will not be a cosmic overreaction. Although all the wicked will end up in an eternal hell, Scripture indicates that it will be more severe for those who committed greater offenses against God. All those who suffer in hell will receive their justly deserved punishment. If we placed a sign over heaven, it would read, “Grace Unknown,” but if we made one for hell, it would read, “Wrath Deserved.”

This teaching also enhances our pursuit of personal holiness. There is a temptation to excuse some of our more serious sins because we know we have many sins in our lives. Foolishly, we might think, “What difference does one more sin make when I have so many?” After all, we all sin in word, thought, and deed on a daily basis (James 3:2, Larger Catechism 149)! But we must remember that our sins against knowledge are more heinous than our other unintentional sins. We dare not excuse greater offenses because we are always falling short in lesser areas! “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Let us declare war on all our sins! Great or small, we are called to put all our sin to death in the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5)!

Understanding the degrees of sin and punishment should turn our eyes to the greatness of our Savior’s love. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for all the sins of all his elect. Yes, he died for our unintentional sins, but he also bore God’s wrath for all the sins we committed with a high hand. What punishment he must have endured at our expense! We cannot even fathom the depths of his agony as he purchased us with the blood of the everlasting covenant! Although there are degrees of sin and punishment, there is no sin too great for God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice, and the Spirit’s power. “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent” (Westminster Confession 15.4).