From Personal Righteousness to Public Justice (pt. 1): Five Truths from Psalm 101

cloud05On Sunday, with the assistance of one of our elders, I finished a five-part series on justice from Psalms 97–101. So far, I’ve included additional notes on each sermon, minus the one I didn’t preach (Psalm 100). You can find those notes here, here, and here. In what follows, I want to share ten more truths about justice from Psalm 101—five today and five tommorow.

While each Psalm (97–100) has contributed to our understanding of justice, this psalm above all the others gives us instruction for pursuing personal righteousness and public justice. In fact, that is how the psalm breaks down. In verses 1–4, the king pledges himself to personal righteousness. Then in verses 5–8, he pledges himself to spread such righteousness through the land by way of exercising his rule to establish justice.

In these eight verses, we find a wealth of wisdom about seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Let’s consider these in turn and what it means for us to be righteous seekers of justice.

1. Personal righteousness is fueled by passionate worship.

The placement of Psalm 101 is important. Psalm 100 is a “psalm for giving thanks” (see the superscription). And in its five verses, we find an invitation to approach God and worship him in his temple. Importantly, worship in the temple precedes justice in the land. Observing this order does three things.

First, the order of Psalms 100 and 101 prioritizes God above man.

What God does is always more important than what man does. And in the pursuit of justice, where injustices requires incredible effort to overturn and correct injustice, this focus on God can easily be lost. How many lose God because they become all-consumed with the needs around them? The social gospel highway is littered with abandoned vehicles, lives that have jettisoned eternal life to pursue good works in this age. Yet, as Jesus said, going to the cross,the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8). God’s justice is profoundly and even uncomfortably God-centered, and we need to remember that as we seek righteousness and justice.

Second, the order of Psalms 100 and 101 empowers obedience.

The first time I ever preached Psalm 101 (circa 2002), I treated it as a list of New Years Resolutions. But to treat it as a stand alone list of moral commands is to unplug it from its power supply, which is found in the preceding psalms.

Throughout the Bible, we learn that the power to obey God comes from communion with God. The joy of the Lord is our strength (Neh. 8:10), and only when we approach personal righteousness and public justice with hearts filled with thanksgiving for God’s gracious work of justification will we have the strength to endure.

Third, the order of Psalms 100 and 101 teaches that communion with God depends on God’s grace, not man’s works.

When justice-seeking is taken to the extreme, pursuits of justice become ends in themselves. As a result, righteousness is presented as the result of seeking justice. Those who are righteous are the ones who confront racism, oppression, poverty, and so forth.  Yet, such works-based righteousness inverts the gospel.

In Scripture, and in Psalms 97–101, righteousness is the free gift that God gives when he justifies sinners (see Psalm 98 especially). Access to the temple courts is not based upon one’s pursuit of justice. Instead, as Psalm 100–101 order it, doing justice comes as a result of worshiping God and communing with him in his temple. To reiterate the earlier, power to do what is right comes from abiding near the One who is righteous (cf. John 15:1–11).

2. Personal righteousness grows as we delight in what is truly right.

Again, the order of the verses in Psalm 101 is instructive. Verse 1 describes the song that animates the heart of the king. Though he is not in temple courts in Psalm 1, the songs praising God’s steadfast love and justice continue to fill his heart. This inner joy in God, combined with the king’s commitment to “ponder the way that is blameless” (v. 2a) explain how the king will go about seeking righteousness and justice.

Indeed, the promised actions of verses 3–8 flow from the king’s original commitment to praise and ponder the LORD. In order, he will know what is right by meditating on God and his law. And then he will do what is right because the meditations of his heart will form in him a desire for God and his ways.

In the New Testament, Paul says that those who behold the LORD will become like him (2 Cor. 3:18). And the same is true here (cf. Psalm 115). As the king sings of God’s attributes and delights in his Law, he is conformed into the image of God, which will equip to not only do justice, but be righteous. Wonderfully, God’s way of justice does not merely cause (or coerce) people to do good; it actually makes them good (cf. Rom. 15:14). As they are changed through the renewing of their heart and mind (Rom. 12:1–2; Eph. 4:23–24), they become instruments of righteousness and justice.

3. Personal righteousness is personal, not just principial.

Notice what the king’s singing and pondering leads to; it is the heartfelt cry for God to come: “Oh when will you come to me?” (v. 2b). Importantly, the king does not seek to establish his own vision of a righteous kingdom. To borrow the language of Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions, David is not trying to establish an unconstrained vision, which puts his program into place. Rather, David longs for God to come and establish his kingdom.

Israel ran into royal trouble when they sought a king like the nations (1 Samuel 8), instead of seeking God and the king he desired to give them (cf. Deut. 17:14–20). What Israel received when they sought to displace God as king was King Saul, whose insecure selfishness served as God’s judgment on the nation. In time, God mercifully gave Israel a king after God’s own heart. And here in Psalm 101, we find a picture of a king, whose singular aim is to dwell with God (cf. Ps. 27:1–4; 84:10–12).

Such a vision of God protects the king (and anyone of us) from unrighteousness and injustice, because instead of seeking one’s own kingdom and glory, seeking God keeps God’s kingdom front and center (Matt. 6:33). In this way, righteous justice must be more than principial (i.e., based upon principles of justice); it must be personal—meaning that since God alone possesses true righteousness, all earthly righteousness is dependent upon a relationship with God and his ways.

The reason for this relates to human nature. Because men are created with an insatiable need for glory, the only way they can be constrained and not endlessly pursuant of their own kingdom is if they are actively seeking God, his kingdom, and his righteousness. Without this personal relationship with the infinite God, there remains a vacuum in the man’s heart where competing ideas of justice will come to reign. Those competing ideas of justice will be better or worse depending on their similarity to God’s standards, but they will all be substandard until God reigns on the heart.

Practically speaking, the believer who stands in the courts of the Lord should seek wisdom about justice from God, even as they must interact with others in the school board meeting, marketplace, or the senate chamber. Rather, as we sit at God’s feet (see Psalm 99), we are taught what justice is from the One who is perfectly righteous and just, which again proves the point that justice is not only principial (i.e., based on God’s standard of justice revealed in Scripture), it is also personal.

4. Personal righteousness begins with doing right, not just undoing wrong.

In verses 1–4, the king starts identifies what he will do (vv. 1–2) before listing what he will *not* do (vv. 3–4). Importantly, this order suggestions that righteousness is not just the elimination of bad things; it is the proactive doing of good things. In other words, righteousness is a form of creation, not destruction. While there is a place for personally avoiding evil and putting sin to death, and while justice requires undoing injustices, righteousness and justice are positive in nature.

As Paul will say in Ephesians 4:23–24, the goal of putting off the old man is to put on the new man. And wonderfully, this new man is a creature of righteousness and holiness: “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Indeed, righteousness and holiness is what the Spirit does in a someone born from above.

Righteousness is not created by an individual’s elimination of unrighteousness (see Col. 2:20–23), as logical as that would be. Righteousness is what God produces by means of the Spirit. And for that reason, the logic follows that filling up one’s life with Spirit-empowered works is the best way to grow in righteousness. As Galatians 5:16 puts it, “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

Paul is working with the same logic as Psalm 101, namely, that righteousness is constructive. This has applications for personal righteousness and public justice. Concerning the latter, the mere destruction of unjust system is never enough. There are plenty of ideologies whose acids can burn through a civilization rife with errors. Yet, the breaking down of injustice is never enough to declare something just. God’s justice is fundamentally creative, so that even when God and his mediators must tear something down, it is always for the purpose of greater construction (see Eph. 2:14–16).

Failure to recognize this approach to righteousness will always result in one system of injustice being replaced by another. Yet, when we learn righteousness and justice from the LORD, we will be equipped (though imperfectly, this side of glory) to begin to address injustice. And importantly, as we learned before, such passion for justice must include the preaching of the gospel, the only means by which unrighteous sinners may find justification.

5. Personal righteousness precedes public justice.

This is the last point for today. And it is one that has been made implicitly in the previous points, but it needs to be made explicitly. In Psalm 101, the first four verses record the commitments of the king to rule his own house in righteousness. Only after that, in verses 5–8, does he make promises to rule the land with righteousness and justice. Tomorrow, I will consider five more truths about the king’s public justice, but today let me finish by considering the necessity of righteousness for justice to succeed in the public square.

Consider how many attempts at justice have failed, or at least been hindered by personal unrighteousness? Whenever a pastor falls morally, his message of justification by grace through faith—assuming he’s preaching the true gospel—is hindered. (The gospel is not made impotent, but it is obscured by the sin of the preacher). Likewise, whenever a politician or non-profit activist is caught embezzling money or cheating on his wife, all his previous platitudes are undone. While our world is so accustomed to unscrupulous leaders, the ways of the Lord are different. And even the world can see how inconsistency between personal morality can affect public ministry.

In God’s kingdom, the king is perfect in holiness and justice. He does not put his public aims above his personal holiness. Instead, his holiness is the foundation of his throne. We saw this in Psalm 97:2 (“righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne”), and this idea repeats here. Only those who walk in righteousness can successfully secure public justice, whether that comes in God’s perfect kingdom or in some other imperfect entity.

Thankfully, Christ, the righteous one (1 John 2:1), is building his kingdom and justifying his people. This means that even when Christian leaders disqualify themselves from ministry, the work done through them remains—when it is the LORD who is at work. (It would take a whole blog series to talk through the ways God works through sinful humanity). Nevertheless, this does not deny the point that personal righteousness and public justice are related, and when the former suffers so will the latter. By contrast, when works of justice are pursued by men and women whose personal lives are marked by righteousness—especially righteousness in the face of suffering—it supports the work that they were doing.

And this is the point I am making here. When followers of Christ seek do justice, we must not ignore personal righteousness. Any ends-justifies-the-means approach will always compromise justice. In fact, justice is typically not seen in the outcome, but in the process. While many crave certain “just” outcomes today; the process is where justice is found.

To conclude with one controversial example, there may be legitimate reasons to remove the confederate statues that were erected in times associated with Jim Crow laws and resistance to the Civil Rights movement. However, if the process by which these statues are taken down is violent and lawless, the resulting stasis on the other side of public demonstrations will be anything but just. By contrast, when due process is followed, there is a better chance that more individuals will be persuaded to see why these monuments are so problematic. But when they are taken down without that due process, the process complicates and compromises the result.

To be sure, this example still swims in the sea of competing views on history,  justice, public policy, etc. As Christians we must enter these places bringing God’s light to bear on contemporary issues, but we should never expect to find full unity and clarity on matters of public justice, like we do when the church gathers. We should not be overly disheartened by this; this lack of public unity protects us from thinking we can build God’s kingdom on the earth. Likewise, such public disagreements remind us that only when Christ, the Righteous One, is heading up the building program can peace and justice be found.

It is for this reason that we sing of God’s love and justice and look forward to the consummation of God’s kingdom and preach the good news of God’s justifying grace. Only God’s church possesses true righteousness and justice, and this is not because of the body, but because of the head—Jesus Christ, who perfectly fulfills Psalm 101. With eyes fixed on Christ, therefore, we should learn to walk in personal righteousness, so that we can be mediators of God’s justice on the earth, until Christ comes again.

There’s more to be said about these things, and I am only halfway through Psalm 101, but we will have to wait till tomorrow to consider verses 5–8 and what they teach us about public justice.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


2 thoughts on “From Personal Righteousness to Public Justice (pt. 1): Five Truths from Psalm 101

  1. Pingback: From Personal Righteousness to Public Justice (pt. 2): Five More Truths from Psalm 101 | Via Emmaus

  2. Pingback: 25 Exegetical Truths about Justice: A Summary from Psalms 97–101 | Via Emmaus

Comments are closed.