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Has the Gospel-Centered Pendulum Swung Too Far?

The American evangelical church likes to ride pendulum swings. I’m not talking about the revolving door of theologically vapid church marketing gimmicks. I mean things that you and I do. You know, us: the kind of people who read Bible software blogs, who take biblical study and doctrine seriously.

In the most recent issue of Themelios—a theological journal you can get for free in Logos—Dane Ortlund helps us arrest one particularly powerful pendulum swing. His article, “Reflections on Handling the Old Testament as Jesus Would Have Us: Psalm 15 as a Case Study,” addresses the “remarkable resurgence of Christocentric interpretation,” an “impulse to resist moralistic and graceless readings” of Scripture. The relatively recent popularity of biblical theology and of “gospel-centeredness” are also part of this particular pendulum swing.

I think the swing has done great good: American Christianity has indeed suffered under man-centered readings of the Bible which offer all law and no gospel, all duty and no delight, all rules and no relationship. And yet the ease with which I just tossed off those three slogans points to the pendulum problem: any time a movement reaches the slogan-generating stage, people will go trampling over necessary nuances to grab their party’s banners and wave them at their enemies. Pretty soon the pendulum picks up so much speed that it whooshes way past plumb.

That’s why we need Dane Ortlund to sit us down and put our noses into Psalm 15, a small poem which is “at first sight…a straightforwardly gospel-vacuous Old Testament text.” If someone today were to write a hymn with these words, the “Moralism” banner would get whipped out instantly on Twitter:

O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?

He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;

who does not slander with his tongue
and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;

in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honors those who fear the LORD;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.

This psalm says nothing about Jesus, and little (if anything?) about divine grace. It basically tells us to do good stuff and not do bad stuff. And this yields two opposite pendulum-swing interpretations of this psalm, Ortlund says: “crass moralizing” and “strict Lutheranizing.”

Pendulum Swing Interpretations

On the one hand, an interpreter may crassly ignore human depravity and the necessity of Christ’s saving work, reading the moral demands in this psalm as an indication that people are capable of obedience if they’ll just put their minds to it, no grace needed.

On the other hand—and this is so insightful—a “strict Lutheranizing” may produce:

a hyper-focus on one’s inability to perfectly discharge the summons of the text. This is the hermeneutical tunnel-vision that reads every imperative in terms of the second use of the law, the law as a mirror in which one sees one’s own moral inability. It functions out of a dour anthropological pessimism. It is the refusal to maintain a distinction between meaningful if imperfect obedience, on the one hand, and perfect obedience on the other hand. Instead, sinful depravity and sinless perfection are the only two moral categories in play. This approach has difficulty retaining a category for, say, Noah in the Old Testament, or Simeon in the New: each of whom, while sharing in humanity’s fallenness more generally, is described as a righteous, godly man (Gen 6:9; Luke 2:25). (79–80)

That’s Bible study gold. We read the Bible because we want to apply Scripture to our lives; we all want to come away changed. We shouldn’t swing over and high-five Pelagius, assuming we can all change ourselves; neither should we swing over into a hard determinism in which our original sin makes “meaningful if imperfect obedience” (gold! gold!) impossible. Noah and Simeon were not sinless, but they still received “praise from God” (1 Cor 4:5) for their moral uprightness.

A Way Back to Plumb

We’re never—in this life, at least—going to figure out the complete and final answer to the indicative-versus-imperative problem, because it’s just a variation on the sovereignty versus free will debate. (I won’t say there’s nothing to be said, no scriptural guard rails for our theology here. I just don’t think we’ll achieve complete and final answers when, arguably, Paul’s answer to that hardest of all theological questions is “Who are you to ask this?” [Rom 9:20].)

But Ortlund offers as good a way back to plumb as I’ve seen: five wise steps you should follow when interpreting Psalm 15 and other OT passages, particularly wisdom literature. I’ll summarize them (the headings are copied verbatim).

1. Let It Land

Ortlund first instructs us to “let the full hortatory weight of this psalm land on us.” He fingers the gospel-centered movement for sometimes finding ways to “squirrel out from under the moral instruction” of psalms like Psalm 15. We should not, he says, “prematurely apply comfort to our own hearts or the hearts of others for the many ways we do not live out this summons.” Let your own heart, and the heart of anyone you’re teaching, bend under the pressure of the high moral vision here. “If the immediate application in reading or preaching this psalm is to say, ‘Well, none of us can do any of this—but thank God for Jesus who did it in our stead,’” then we’re not really letting God speak before we pipe up with our “helpful” clarifications. Explore the ramifications of these words. Describe the world we’d all enjoy if people lived this way. Describe the world we have because people don’t.

2. Remember the Original Audience

But then, Ortlund says, remember that “this is a psalm, an ancient hymn from Israel’s songbook for their own worship. It belongs (to use contemporary categories) to the realm of discipleship, not evangelism. It is something ancient Israelites would say to one another, not something they would say to neighboring nations.”

Psalm 15 isn’t a pamphlet sitting in an airport book carousel offering self-help advice. “It is a summons for those already redeemed, not a strategy for getting redeemed.” As Ortlund points out, the psalm does not actually talk about entering God’s holy precincts, but “dwelling” there. That’s a key difference. Psalm 15 is a covenant document inside a collection of covenant documents.

3. Clarify What Verse 1 Is, and Is Not, Asking

Ortlund explores this point about the word “dwelling” in verse one a little more. One of the most important ways to avoid making every Bible study or sermon sound the same is to pay very close attention to what the texts are actually saying. “Dwell” is a loaded word. And so are all the other key terms: “sojourn,” “tent,” “holy hill.” The original audience knew the allusions these words were making. Psalm 15 is asking,

Who enjoys true fellowship with God under his covenant blessings? Who is on a path to enjoy Eden restored? Who will receive God’s promised inheritance? Who will be included in that final vision of which the physical temple is an echo, a glimpse, a shadow?

4. Take a Closer Look at Verses 2–5

The rest of the psalm is also worth a close look. All our best philological and literary and exegetical skills need to be applied. I’ll just give you one point Ortlund makes: that “while on first reading this may sound like an arid list of virtues to execute, these verses in fact focus on the inner state of the heart.”

The Psalm calls not only for speaking truth, but for doing so “in one’s heart.” It calls for certain emotions like fear and even loathing (of a “vile person”) that crass moralizing can never alter.

5. Say What Would Never Be Said in a Jewish Synagogue about Psalm 15

Only after one has paid close attention to the psalm in its own words and in its own literary and historical context does one have the right to go to Jesus, to view him as the ultimate exemplar of Psalm 15 integrity and blamelessness. But this step toward Christ isn’t only a blessed right; it’s a solemn responsibility.

“Is Psalm 15 Christ-centered?” Ortlund asks. And his answer is a bracing and direct, “No.” But, he says, “The Bible is Christ-centered, and Psalm 15 plots onto a unified whole-Bible trajectory that culminates in Christ.” (87, emphasis mine)

We can’t read Psalm 15 “like an entry in a dictionary, in which context is irrelevant.” We must read it “like a paragraph in a novel, in which context is everything.”

Christians get to read the Old Testament in a slightly different—or should I say a greater—light than did our Jewish brethren before Christ’s birth. We get to communicate a hope they couldn’t see as clearly, a hope in a Christ who died to save us from our failures to obey Psalm 15 and lived—and lived again—to give us grace to obey.

Go and Read Likewise by Grace

You should read Ortlund’s whole article (it’s free, remember?). It’s a model for “crass moralizers” and “strict Lutheranizers.” Good exegesis and interpretation is caught as much as taught, and in this valuable article you get both an example and accompanying explanation teaching you how to go and read likewise. By grace. And effort. And grace.

Paul himself seems to struggle to communicate where “plumb” is:

By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Cor 15:10)

I’ve always found it instructive that he begins and ends with grace. But he’s not afraid to claim that he made every effort (to borrow now from Peter) to add virtue to his faith.

Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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Written by Mark Ward