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Grace

Series: Psalms Book 4

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 26, 2008

Psalm 103:8-18

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Please open your Bibles to Psalm 103. We've been working our way through the Fourth Book of the Psalms, and this morning and evening we will look at the great 103rd Psalm, one of the most beloved Psalms in all of the Psalter. This morning we’ll look at it especially as a way of preparing for coming to the Lord's Table, and so in doing so we will look only at verses 8-18.

Understanding and experiencing God's grace engenders gratitude in our hearts, and that leads us to thanksgiving and praise. The psalmist here is thankful for God's grace, but he wants to spell that out. He wants to be specific about that, and so if you’ll look at verses 8-18, you’ll notice that he is specific about the way that God has manifested His grace to him by designating seven things in particular. They are as follows: God's sparing us of our sin; His generosity to us in His mercy; the greatness of His love; the comprehensiveness of His forgiveness; the tenderness of His compassion; the familiarity of His understanding of us; and, the durability of His love and faithfulness. And he meditates on each of those seven things (and we’ll come back to them and unpack that a little bit in just a few moments) as a way of driving home to his own heart the grace of God to him.

Now this is a good reminder to us, because it's a healthy practice that we ourselves ought to cultivate. God's grace, as great as it is, is not experienced like we ought to experience it, and that means that one thing we need to do is number God's blessings to us in Jesus Christ, so that we may rightly understand God's grace to us in the gospel. And we must not only number those blessings, but we need to value those blessings more than anything.

Well, we’ll look at this Psalm tonight and get the big picture, but this morning we're going to concentrate on verses 8-18 and see how they help us value God's grace and number God's blessings, so that we will have a heart of gratitude and come with that heart of gratitude for God's grace in the gospel to us as we come to the Lord's Table. So let's pray before we read God's word.

O Lord, this is Your word, and we ask that You would open the eyes of our hearts, that You would open the ears of our hearts, to see and hear that You are good and gracious, and kind and compassionate, and to see this specifically so that we will believe it, so that we will be grateful for it, and so that as we come to commune with You by faith at the Lord's Table our hearts would overflow with gratitude. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of God, beginning in Psalm 103, verse 8:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide;
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
Nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His steadfast love towards those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far does He remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
So the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.
For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
“As for man, his days are like grass;
He flourishes like a flower of the field.
For the wind has passes over it, and it is gone;
And its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting
To everlasting on those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children's children,
To those who keep His covenant,
And who remember to do His commandments.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

When we come to the Lord's Table, when we, trusting in Christ, believing the gospel, come to the Lord's Table to commune with the living God by faith, there ought to be some sort of a grasp, some sort of an understanding of God's grace towards us in Jesus Christ that gives us joy, that gives us hope, that makes us anticipate and long to come and commune with the living God because of God's grace to us in the gospel, and that means that one of the prime ways that we prepare ourselves to come to the Lord's Table is in meditating on God's grace and trying to make sure that our hearts get something of an understanding of the greatness of God's graciousness and compassion to us in Jesus Christ. And here David is providing us with a brief catalog of God's bounty to us in grace so that we can do just that.

He supplies us here with ample material. He could have said more, and we certainly could say more, but we can't say less. He supplies us with material for readying our hearts to commune with God through Christ in the Lord's Supper, and I want to direct your attention to that in verses 8-18.

I. God's grace to us in the gospel.

The prime blessing from which all these blessings flow, especially in verses 11-18, the prime blessing from which our receipt and experience of all these other blessings flow is God's grace to us in the gospel, and David himself draws our attention to that in verse 8. Look at what he says: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious.” Or, we could translate it, “He is merciful and gracious.” He is drawing our attention to the fact that God is inherently gracious, and that He has dealt graciously, He has acted graciously, He has shown grace to you and me.

Now, as we're going to see tonight, when David says that God is merciful and gracious, he is actually echoing the description that God himself gave to Moses to give to the children of Israel in Exodus 34. And you’ll remember that Exodus 34 happened after what? The Law of God has already been given at Mount Sinai in Exodus 20, but what has happened after the giving of the Law? The children of Israel have worshiped idols, and God has come to Moses and said, ‘Moses, I'm going to wipe them out.’ And Moses intercedes for the children of Israel, and God in His compassion forgives the children of Israel, and even though the tablets of The Ten Commandments have been broken, and even though threat of judgment has been made against the people of God. In Exodus 34 what does God do? He forgives the children of Israel and He renews His covenant promises to them. There's a whole covenant renewal ceremony recorded in Exodus 34, and one of the things that God tells Moses to tell the people is, ‘You tell them this: I am the Lord; I am compassionate and gracious.’ Now we’ll try and unpack that some tonight, but here's what I want you to understand. David is telling us at the outset that God is gracious and He has acted graciously towards His people. David, in other words, doesn't just ascribe to God the title of being gracious without bringing to our minds concretely expressions, ways, in which God has been gracious to us.

Why is that so important? And by the way, the Bible is filled with examples of that, isn't it? It doesn't just say that God is gracious, it shows us how God is gracious to us over and over and over as He deals with us, despite our weakness and our sinfulness. Why is this important?

Well, for one reason, did you know that every chapter of the Koran begins with the words “Allah, the merciful and compassionate…”? Did you know that? Mohammed got that right out of the Old Testament. The problem was the god, Allah, that he invented was not merciful and compassionate. He called him merciful and compassionate all the time, but the god Allah, if you read the Koran, deals with his people on the basis of their performance, not according to grace. So you can call him compassionate and gracious until you’re blue in the face, but the Koran itself does not show Allah to be gracious in the way that the Scriptures reveal that the Lord God of Israel and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is merciful and gracious. In other words, the actions of Allah do not bear out the designation of Allah as merciful and gracious. There is no adequate concept of grace in Islam.

But David isn't just whistling in the dark. He's not just applying words without substance. He's talking about God's act of grace to us. Grace of course means God's showing His favor to us despite our undeserving and our sin.

Grace is a gift. It's free to us, but it's costly to God. So Paul will say in Ephesians 2 that “by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,” the point being to stress that our salvation from beginning to end is by the grant of God's grace. It is a gift. It's not based on our deserving. It's not purchased by our earning, but it's given freely in God's love at the cost of Jesus Christ: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” And so the God of Scripture is not simply called gracious, He manifests himself in the way that He deals with us graciously. And, my friends, we need to take that in if we're going to be ready to commune at the Lord's Table.

But I want to say that grace is counter-intuitive. It's one of the hardest things to understand and get down into our hearts that you can possibly imagine, and that's all the more reason why we need to meditate on grace as we come to the Lord's Supper. Understanding the greatness of God's love and grace to us in Jesus Christ is absolutely essential to our being matured in communing with Him as we come to the Lord's Table. That's a lesson we learned when we studied Ephesians 3 together: God's love and grace is actually maturing of us.

I don't know about you, but sometimes when I come to the Lord's Table, I come with my heart empty and cold; and it's not because God is not gracious, and it's not because God hasn't been gracious to me, but it is because I have not adequately contemplated how gracious God has been to me, and specifically how He has manifested His goodness to me in Jesus Christ. Else I would come not with a heart that is empty and cold, but with a heart that is filled and warmed with His grace.

I've told you the story before, but when I was at the University of Edinburgh doing my doctoral work, I was the coach of the University of Edinburgh basketball team. We were a pretty good team. In fact, we won the Scottish Universities Basketball Championship one year. But on one particular week (it was a communion week at my church in Edinburgh) the basketball team went to the University of St. Andrew's in St. Andrew's, Scotland, to play a game…and we experienced the worst refereeing that I ever have experienced in my time as a basketball coach! And when that game was over [and we lost by three points and we should have won by twenty…and it was the referee's fault!] my heart was in such a foul mood that when I got back to Edinburgh…we got back on the bus and got back to Edinburgh, and I had plenty of time to get ready for the Saturday evening preparation service for the Lord's Day services at the church…I didn't want to go, because I was in a foul mood.

Now, in the church that I attended, because it followed the practice that most Presbyterians used for about 300 years, up until probably about a hundred years ago here in the United States, this church had preparation services for the Lord's Supper. They only celebrated the Lord's Supper twice a year, and the Lord's Supper was a big deal at their church. They had week-long services in preparing for the Lord's Supper. On Wednesday night and Thursday night and Saturday night there were preparation services, and then on Monday night there was a celebration service after the Lord's Supper. It was almost like we would do at a Missions Conference or a Bible Conference. It was a very major deal. Well, what would happen is you would attend on Wednesday night and Thursday night, and then on Saturday night the elders would give you a token indicating that you had prepared yourself for the Lord's Supper by going to these preparation services, and when you came to church on Sunday morning you would give them your communion token and you would be ushered into a section of the church where those who were going to take the Lord's Supper would be sitting. Usually there would be white cloths spread over the front of the pews where people would be taking communion, and there would not be white cloths spread over the pews where people were going to be attending but not taking communion.

Well, as I way, I was in a foul mood and I didn't go to the final preparation service. And so that morning as I was leaving to walk to church, I thought, “Well, what I’ll do is I’ll just sneak in unobtrusively and I’ll dart to the back of the sanctuary and sit down in a portion where they’re not going to be serving the Lord's Supper.” But as I walked in, one of my friends, a ruling elder there, John MacDonald, saw me, and he said, “Ligon! Come over and let me give you a visitor's token.” And I thought, “Well, that plan didn't work, did it?” And so he handed me a visitor's token. And I thought, “Well, what I’ll do is I’ll sneak in the back door anyway, and I’ll sit down in the non-communing section.” But my friend, Martin Cameron, who was a deacon at the church, caught me at the door, and he said, “Ligon, let me get you a good seat.” And he walked me right down the center aisle, and sat me right there up front, and right next to Roderick Henelson, the former president of their theological college, right on the front row! And I thought, “Well, that plan didn't go well, either, but when the elements come past, what I’ll do is I’ll just pass them on and I won't take them.” And then the preacher preached the greatest sermon that I've ever heard on the love of God. And not five minutes into that sermon I was pouring tears. I felt so obvious to everyone around me…it was almost embarrassing. And yet, the preaching of God's word readied me to come to the Lord's Table because I realized the greatness of God's love and grace.

Now, my friends, if your hearts are empty and cold, they need to be filled and warmed by a realization of the greatness of God's grace to you, and that's exactly what David is providing for you in Psalm 103:8-18. I wonder if you really believe that God is merciful and gracious, if you know that experientially. Well, how do you see that? How do you know that? How do you experience that? Let me just walk you through verses 8-17 especially, and look at seven ways that we see that we experience God's grace.

II. Evidences of God's grace.

First, we see that we experience God's grace in the reluctance of His anger. God is sparing in His forgiveness, and so we see His grace in the reluctance of His anger. Look at verse 8:

“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever.”

Have you ever been in a relationship or known of a relationship where people were looking for reasons to be angry? You know, they were offended and already so mad at one another that before they saw one another they were looking for reasons to be angry with one another? I've known relationships like that. You know what David's saying? Though God has good reason to deal with you that way, He doesn't. In fact, rather than looking for reasons to be angry with You, He's looking for excuses to be gracious to you. He is reluctant in His anger, David says.

Second, look at verse 10. The generosity of His mercy is one of the ways that we see that we experience God's grace to us in the gospel. He is generous; He is overflowing in His mercy. Verse 10:

“He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.”

Let me ask you a question. What would happen if your sins — all of them, the worst of them, the most embarrassing of them, the ones that you have worked hard to make sure that as few as possible know — what would happen if your sins were revealed today, right now? To your wife, to your husband, to your friends, to your children, to your parents? To your teachers? To your employer? To your clients? As bad as it would be…and it would be pretty bad!...as bad as it would be, here's the thing: it still wouldn't be all that you deserve.

You know, Arthur Conan Doyle sent a telegram, just as a joke, to a group of close friends and associates. The telegram said, “Flee at once. All is discovered.” Many of them left the country! What would happen if your sins were all dis-covered? Well, here's what David's saying: God doesn't give you what you deserve. Thank God. He doesn't deal with you that way. He's generous in His mercy. He's overflowing in the way He shows His mercy to you.

Third, look at verse 11. Have you meditated on the magnitude of God's love today? We see, we experience, God's grace not only in the reluctance of His anger or in the generosity of His mercy, but in the magnitude of His love:

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His steadfast love towards those who fear Him.”

Do you realize that the very last thing that Jesus prayed for for you in His high priestly prayer in John 17...check me on this, John 17:23-26…take it and meditate on it this afternoon. Check me on this. The very last thing He prayed for for you in His high priestly prayer, before He went to the Garden of Gethsemane to begin the final throes of the actions that would lead up to His death, is that you would experience the greatness of God's love. Listen to His words:

“Father, I desire that the world would know that You have loved them…” [that is, ‘My disciples’] “…the way You love Me.”

And, my friends, if that weren't in the Bible, it would be blasphemous to say that Jesus prays to His Father that His Father would let the world know that He loves you the way He loves Jesus. Have you ever seen the commercial…the diamond commercial where the guy is in the Plaza of St. Marcus in Venice and he's giving his wife a diamond anniversary ring? And he gets everybody lined up, and then he just screams out loud, “I love this woman!” and she's kind of embarrassed, and he pulls out the ring and he kneels down and he gives her the ring again.

Well, this is Jesus saying, ‘Heavenly Father, I want You to shout out to the world that You love these blood-bought sinners who are My disciples the way You love Me.’ And He's not done, because He goes on to say,

“…And I desire that the love with which You have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

It's staggering, my friends. He prays that you would experience the grace of God in knowing the magnitude of His love.

Verse 12, a fourth thing: We see and experience God's grace in the comprehensiveness of His forgiveness.

“As far as the east is from the west,
so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12.)

Have you ever been so wounded that you couldn't forgive? And the wound just keeps coming up, and in every moment of conflict that old offense gets trucked out as the trump card: “Yeah, well, you remember that time…?” You know what David's saying? He's saying that though God's memory is perfect and though God is never at fault (you always are), He doesn't do that to you…‘You know that time you let Me down? You know that time you turned your back on Me? You know that time you chose a piece of fruit over Me?’

“As far as the east is from the west,

so far does He remove our transgressions from us.”

And we're told that He puts them behind His back. The comprehensiveness of God's forgiveness leads us to come to the Lord's Table with gratitude in our hearts.

And then look at verse 13. Fifth, we see we experience God's grace to us in the tenderness of His compassion.

“As a father shows compassion to his children,
So the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.”

My friends, even if your father wasn't compassionate to you, even if your earthly father wasn't compassionate to you, your heavenly Father is. And if your earthly father was compassionate to you, it is only a shadow of the compassion of your heavenly Father. We see, we experience God's grace in the tenderness of His compassion to us.

And, verse 14, we see and experience God's grace in the familiarity of God's understanding of us,

“For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.”

Do you sometimes feel as if no one knows you? No one really knows your hopes and your fears and your dreams? No one really understands you; no one listens to you; no one cares about you? Here's what David is saying: He does. He knit you together in your mother's womb. He built your frame. He knows everything about you. He knows your deepest fears and your most desperate hopes. He knows you. He knows your frame, and He knows that you’re but dust because He made you out of the ground. He knows you.

And then, finally, there's the durability of God's love and faithfulness. We see, we experience God's grace in the durability of His love and faithfulness to us. Listen to verses 15ff:

“As for man, his days are like grass;
He flourishes like a flower of the field;
The wind passes over it, and it is gone…
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from
everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him.”

Have your friends let you down? Have you ever been forsaken or betrayed? Do you feel forgotten? People will do that, even when they don't mean to. And you know what David's saying? “He won't. Ever.”

Now, my friends, meditation on the grace of God invokes gratitude and praise. And, my friends, if you’re not praising, then you’re just not thinking about the grace of God. Because if you’ll just think a little bit about the grace of God, you will be a praising and a grateful person.

Let's pray.

O Lord, show us Your grace as You invite us to the Table. In Jesus' name. Amen.

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