STANDING IN INIQUITIES
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-16-79 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, delivering the message entitled Standing in Iniquities. It is an exposition of the first four verses of the one hundred thirtieth Psalm; Psalm 130 [Psalm 130:1-4], a song of degrees, a song of ascents, a song of steps. These fifteen Psalms that are here together [Psalms 120-134]were either sung by the pilgrims on the way up to Jerusalem, or they were sung a step at a time on the fifteen steps that rose between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of Israel in the temple. This is one of the penitential Psalms, and one of the chiefest. The first four verses of Psalm 130:
Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice: let Thine ears be attentive unto my supplications.
If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared.
If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O God, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be reverently loved, adored, and worshipped.
In a section of London located on the Old City Road is the church of John Wesley, recently rebuilt by the government and dedicated by Queen Elizabeth, in front of which is the statue of John Wesley, looking across the street. And across the street is the famous old cemetery called Bunhill Fields.
In that cemetery, among other famous and notable men, are buried two preachers: a Baptist preacher by the name of John Bunyan and a great Puritan divine by the name of John Owens. The Baptist preacher was a traveling tinker. John Owens was, doubtless, the greatest scholastic of his day. He was the vice-chancellor of Oxford University. He declined the presidency of Harvard here in America. He was esteemed alike by the Commonwealth under Cromwell and by the Restoration under Charles II. He was one of the tremendous scholars and preachers of all time.
Those two men knew and loved each other, though they were separated, worlds apart, in scholarly training. John Owens would walk miles and miles through a driving rain to hear John Bunyan preach in a barn. King Charles II chided him about such a preposterous interest.
The king said, “It is astonishing to me, John Owens, that you, the greatest scholar in the realm, would go to hear that tinker prate.”
And John Owens replied, “May it please Your Majesty, I would give all of my learning if I had the ability to preach like that tinker.”
In the works of John Owens, in the sixth volume, you will find two hundred thirty pages written by that great Puritan divine on this text in the one hundred thirtieth Psalm. I copied out of it, but I haven’t time to read it: “The very words,” he says “brought deliverance to my soul.” And in a strange way, those two men, buried together there in Bunhill Fields, John Bunyan wrote in his Grace Abounding a marvelous message from this same text, saying that it brought to him liberty of soul and assurance of salvation. Truly, a marvelous, marvelous text: “If Thou, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee” [Psalm 130:3-4].
There is a common denominator for all mankind. It is found in our lack, and mistake, and sin, and iniquity. We may differ in many other areas, but we are all alike in that. We are sinners before the great, high and Holy God [Romans 3:23].
Oft times am I asked: “When you go down to the Amazon jungle and preach to the Stone Age Indians or to the black, benighted Hottentots in the center of Africa, what do you preach? What do you say? How do you communicate with those people?” And the answer is very easy. I begin with the sin in the human heart. And when I do, I’m on the same level with any man, anywhere, in any place in the earth. We are all sinners alike [Romans 3:23].
“If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” [Psalm 130:3]. The word for “Lord” there is unusual. It is Jah; J-A-H: Jah. Wherever you find the name of God called Jah in the Old Testament Scriptures, it refers to His holiness and His majesty.
For example, you have it untranslated in the sixty-eighth Psalm:
Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered . . .
As smoke is driven away, So drive them away; As wax melteth before the fire, So let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
Extol Him that rideth upon the heavens by His name J-A-H, Jah.
[Psalm 68:1, 2, 4]
And that is the name that is used of the Lord God in this text: “If Thou, Jah—if Thou, Majestic, Holy, and Mighty God, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” [Psalm 130:3]. If the Lord God kept in memory, looked at the black marks in our lives, treasured up the sins and iniquities and mistakes and shortcomings of our lives, O God, who could stand?
There is lack and fault and shortcoming in everything we do. There is nothing perfect about us. Always we fall below the glory and the perfection of God. Even our prayers are not perfect; and our worship is not without fault. Our highest and holiest moments are not in commensuration with the great perfection, and majesty, and sublimity, and holiness of God.
I felt that most pointedly a few Sundays ago when we were worshipping in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It’s one of the great sanctuaries of the earth, built by Sir Christopher Wren, with its vast rising dome and its incomparable aesthetic decorations. Under the great dome, the people gather for worship. And that Lord’s Day, those folding chairs before the high altar. It’s a high church. The service is most liturgical, formal.
And in the midst of that beautiful hour of Anglican worship, right in front of me, to the left, was an older woman, and before her, two rows of empty folding chairs just before the chancel. And when she stood up, at the time to stand up in that Anglican service, she stumbled and fell. And the loud clatter of all of those chairs on the marble floor, falling and scattering, created a din under the reverberating of that great dome. And in her struggling to get up, and scattering other chairs, and a young man trying to help her, it was a marked and livid and stark contrast, between the clatter and the noise of that falling woman and the beauty of the order of that high church worship.
And as though that were not enough, in a part of the service when the priest came down to appear before the high altar, there was a rope, a beautiful velvet-covered rope, between the balustrade there and a post here to separate the people from the chancel. And the priest didn’t notice that rope. It had swung low. It had bowed itself. And when he came up, to my astonishment, he stumbled over that rope. And he pulled the balustrade down on this side, and he broke the rope from moorings on that side, and he lunged forward into the chancel.
I could not help but remember this text, as I sat there in that gorgeous cathedral, one of the greatest in the earth. And followed the beautiful liturgical high church service, and there that poor old woman falling amidst those chairs in a giant clutter on that marble floor, and that priest stumbling over that barrier and lurching forward into the sanctuary. Somehow, we can’t do it right. Somehow, there is always lack, and failure, and fall, and shortcoming in everything that we do; and how much more when we fall in the weakness of the flesh into iniquity and sin. That’s why the Psalm opens with the word: “Out of my deepest sorrow and depths of iniquity have I cried unto Thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice: let Thine ears be attentive unto the cry of my supplications” [Psalm 130:1-2].
And all of us experience that in our lives. We know the depths of sorrow, the mire of sin. We all fall into that dark and dismal pit.
Then, his cry: “If Thou, O God, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” [Psalm 130:3]. Then his wonderful answer: “But there is forgiveness with Thee” [Psalm 130:4].
These do not forgive. The law doesn’t forgive. When the woman taken in adultery was cast at the feet of the Savior, they were correct when they said: “The law says she must be stoned to death” [John 8:5].
That’s correct. The law does not forgive. This is the law: Ezekiel 18:4, “The soul that sins shall die.” This is the law: Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” Law does not forgive. Justice does not forgive. Justice is the opposite of mercy. Justice says: “He is to receive his just deserts.” That is justice. The fiends of hell do not forgive. They cry accusingly, “Cast the sinner down into the deepest flame and fire.”
Nature does not forgive. I could hardly describe how I felt, onetime years ago, when a young woman, a beautiful and precious young woman, took her life and left a note for me. And it was brought to me and placed in my hands by her brother, saying things and asking me to conduct the memorial service.
What had happened was, her boss, the man for whom she worked, somehow misled her, deceived her, took advantage of her, I don’t know. And with syphilis, she was going blind. The disease had attacked the soft tissues of her eyes. And rather than face a life of blindness, she took her own life. Nature doesn’t forgive.
Conscience doesn’t forgive. As long as there is any sensitivity between right and wrong, conscience always points an accusing finger at what we do. And memory doesn’t forgive. In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, it is remarkable that Abraham says to Dives, in the torment of Hades: “Son, remember” [Luke 16:25]. Remembrance, memory, does not forgive.
I think of that farmer who, on his tractor with a big power mower running out from the machine, was harvesting in the field. And unknown to him, his little baby boy had wandered out of the house into that tall grain. And with a tractor and with the mower he cut down his own little boy to pieces. And the memory of that drove that man out of his mind. He said, “To think that, with my own hands, I drove the tractor. And with my own eyes, I guided it through the field.” Ah, memory doesn’t forgive.
“If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O God, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee” [Psalm 130:3-4]. No wonder John Bunyan and John Owens could say this text “brought life and hope and salvation to my soul.” “But there is forgiveness with Thee” [Psalm 130:4]; this is the all-inclusive attribute of God. It includes all of the other characteristics of our great Lord in heaven: pity, mercy, compassion, love, salvation, grace. Every characteristic of God is in this one attribute of forgiveness. That’s why I had you read that marvelous passage in the fifth chapter of Romans: “For where sin did abound, grace did much more abound” [Romans 5:20]. There is forgiveness with God [Psalm 130:4].
The most beautiful life in the Old Testament is the life of Joseph. And he is incomparably beautiful in his life because of his spirit of forgiveness. When those eleven brothers sold him into slavery, sold him to the Ishmaelites, who, in turn, sold him to the Egyptians [Genesis 37:26-28, 36], and they lie prostrate before him, expecting vengeance and vindictive visitation to fall upon their prostrate forms, instead Joseph cries, weeps so loud, he dismisses from him the Egyptian officers of the court that he might embrace his brothers, loving them, forgiving them [Genesis 45:1-5, 50:17-21]. Joseph is a type of Christ.
And Jesus is the great forgiver of our sins. When He sat at meat, a guest in the house of Simon the Pharisee, there came a street woman. She bathed His feet with her tears and washed them with the hairs of her head. And the imperious and self-righteous Pharisee said in his heart: “If this Man were a prophet, He would know what kind of a dirty creature that is who is touching His feet” [Luke 7:36-39]. And it was then that the Lord spoke to Simon the Pharisee one of the great messages of love and compassion and forgiveness [Luke 7:40-48]. That’s Jesus. That’s God. “There is forgiveness with Thee” [Psalm 130:4].
The most beautiful of all of the parables, and I suppose the most precious of all the stories of our Lord, is the story of the prodigal son coming back to a loving and forgiving father: “For this my son was lost, and is found; he was dead, and is alive again” [Luke 15:24]. Isn’t it true that, when our Lord entered into heaven after the resurrection from the dead—isn’t it true that He brought with Him a condemned sinner: the dying thief? [Luke 23:42-43]. Isn’t that true?
And what could be more beautiful than the story in the twenty-first chapter of John of the restoration of that cursing and swearing apostle named Simon Peter, who said, “I never saw Him. I do not know Him. I have no idea who He is” [Matthew 26:69-75].
And the Lord says, “Simon, lovest thou Me? Feed My sheep. Take care of My people” [John 21:15-17].
“O Lord, O God, if Thou shouldest mark iniquities, O God, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee” [Psalm 130:3-4].
And some of the most vivid of all the imageries in the Bible is used to describe what God does with our sins. He places them, casts them, into the deepest sea, the Bible says [Micah 7:19]. He blots them out like a thick cloud, the Book says [Isaiah 44:22]. The Book says, “And He remembers them no more” [Isaiah 43:25; Hebrews 8:12].
I often chide my own self with going to the Lord and asking God to forgive me sins of long ago. And the Lord says: “What sins? I do not remember them. They were confessed. They were forgiven. They were forgotten in the years gone by. And when you come before Me, and speak of them, I do not know what you are saying. They have been blotted out as a thick cloud.”
“There is forgiveness with Thee” [Psalm 130:4]. Every day, in God’s Book of Life, there is a page clean and white on which He writes the good things of His children. And the bad things are all forgiven and washed away. Dear Lord, could such a thing be? It is an amazing grace beyond what my poor heart could ever realize or enter into.
And that’s why the concluding stanza of the song, “that Thou mayest be feared” [Psalm 130:4]. Our word “fear,” though it’s an all right translation of the Hebrew word, but it doesn’t have the same connotation. The Hebrew word “the fear of the Lord”—such as “the beginning of wisdom” [Proverbs 9:10]—“the fear of the Lord” does not refer to abject terror. The fear of the Lord refers to our reverential deference, our deep love and gratitude for the great and Mighty God.
I have never felt comfortable when people are familiar with God; “Oh, buddy, buddy, up there, the Lord God,” or “the man upstairs, the Lord God.” I’ve always felt that there’s such a vast gulf of difference between the great, high and holy and majestic God and me that the place for me is on my face. It’s with bended knees. It’s with confession and contrition.
“Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak unto Thee, I who am but dust and ashes” [Genesis 18:27]. That’s what that means, “That Thou mayest be feared” [Psalm 130:4], that the great Lord God, in His wonderful forgiveness, and grace, and mercy, and pity, and compassion, and forgiveness, that He might be loved and adored and worshipped.
This, of course, carries with it the price of our redemption: that our sins might be washed away in the tears of Jesus our Lord, in the blood and sufferings of the cross [Revelation 1:5]. Who could but stand in loving wonder and amazement at the grace of God that reached down and lifted us?
I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus, the Nazarene,
And wonder how He could love me,
A sinner, condemned, unclean.
O how marvelous!
O how wonderful!
And my song shall ever be;
O how marvelous!
O how wonderful!
Is my Savior’s love for me!
[from “I Stand Amazed In His Presence,” Charles Gabriel]
O Lord God, if Thou shouldest mark sin, if You should treasure them up and remember them, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou might be loved and honored and adored and revered and worshipped.
May we stand together? In the quietness of this moment, with no one leaving, but all of us praying, as the Spirit shall speak to our souls, may God somehow be so real, be so dear, be so precious, that we love Him just all over again.
What God hath done for me.
Oh, oh, oh, what He’s done for me.
Lifted me out of the miry pit,
Set my feet on a rock,
Washed my sins away in His own blood.
Oh, oh, oh, what He’s done for me.
And in a moment, as we shall sing our hymn of appeal, down that stairway, down this aisle, “Pastor, I have decided for God today, and here I come” [Romans 10:8-13]. There will be a faithful deacon at each one of these aisles to welcome you. The sweetest commitment you’ll ever make in your life is the one answering the call of the blessed Spirit of Jesus, “Pastor, today I accept Him as my Savior.” Or, “Pastor, today I put my life in the fellowship of this dear church.” “Pastor, today, I’m bringing my whole family, my wife and children, or my friend,” or just one somebody you. While we pray, while we wait, answer now. Make it now. Come now, while we sing.