I thought on my ways,
And turned my feet unto thy testimonies (Psa 119.59).
Two great traps keep multitudes from heaven: arrogantly thinking they are good people living a good life, and admitting they are sinners while they continue to do nothing about it. The self-righteous will be shocked to hear their doom on Judgment Day when they thought to have some positive reward; the spiritually-lazy may be shocked by their condemnation because they had wrongly believed Jesus forgives the sins of impenitents, that is, those who simply continue as they were without getting a new heart and practicing new obedience. Many of the sluggards are deluded into thinking that a momentary decision to accept Jesus is enough all by itself for deliverance from the wrath of God. It is not.
The fact is that you and I have a responsibility before God to be righteous and to practice righteousness according to the standard of His righteous law and His righteous Son Jesus Christ. We are responsible because He deems it so and He will hold us accountable for it, not because we have some natural ability in these things. Our natural depravity and bondage to sin has robbed of us innate spiritual ability to be good and to do good. The responsibility for righteousness is universal and abiding, for sinners and saints alike. Our tending to this responsibility is a sure mark of God’s favor toward us through the grace of His Son Jesus Christ. Our natural impotence in spiritual things is no excuse for our sins because it is only the expression our ingrained badness, our native hostility toward God and His law.
In our text a godly man testifies in prayer what he had been enabled to do by the grace of God, and in this, he is an example for us.
I MUST DISCOVER MY SIN
“I thought on my ways.” I thought, considered, evaluated, made a judgment—so the sense of the original Hebrew. His “ways” refer figuratively to his manner of life as an expression of his heart.
This first line of the Psalm couplet is a simple declaration of his careful self-scrutiny. David reflected upon his past thoughts, attitudes, motives, ambitions, fears, loves, beliefs, and disbeliefs, as all these were interwoven with his words, actions, omissions, and evasions. “The way to test yourself, the way to test any man, is to look below the surface” (D. Martin Lloyd-Jones).
A focus on self to the right degree and for the right reasons is not a bad thing at all. Socrates spoke wisely when he said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” We must often be asking ourselves, “What have I done and why did I do it?” along with “What have I neglected to do that I should have done, and why?” First, this will promote our humility before God. “The true cure for self-righteousness is self-knowledge” (J. C. Ryle). Second, this will promote our spiritual transformation by the grace of God, as the saints have found in all ages. “Self-examination is the beaten path to perfection” (William Secker).
The mass of nominal Christians are grossly at fault here because they continue day after day without ever taking serious stock of where they are spiritually. They are perpetually busy with things they consider more necessary and interesting and pleasant. Even in leisure they manufacture alternatives—watching television, surfing the web and checking their email, pursuing some hobby, running here and there to shop and dine and go to a movie or concert—there is no end of their diversions. Ironically, some even use church activities as a distraction from proper introspection! Truly they have no excuse and deserve to perish, as they will.
But the psalmist, along with all sincere Christians, testified that he thought on his ways. When was the last time you pulled yourself away from the always-pressing mundane demands on your time to inquire prayerfully about the state of your soul and the habits of your life? Stop making excuses right now and begin tending to this as a routine spiritual discipline. It is your solemn responsibility before God.
I MUST REFORM MY CONDUCT
Self-examination is not an end in itself. Done aright it is not idolatrous navel-gazing. It springs from the heart of a saint painfully aware of his sins and yearning for intimate fellowship with God Most Holy and usefulness in His service. That is why the psalmist went on to say, “I turned my feet unto thy testimonies.” Using a literal image he describes his spiritual recovery from sin.
This contains an implicit admission that he had been a wanderer from the straight and narrow way, and that “his conversion followed clear, sober reflection” (Plumer).
The Hebrew verb means literally to turn back. Figuratively, it is the classic term for repentance.
Better than any other verb it combines in itself the two requisites of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good. . . . To be sure, there is no systematic spelling out of the doctrine of repentance in the OT. It is illustrated (Psa 51) more than anything else. Yet the fact that people are called “to turn” either “to” or “away from” implies that sin is not an ineradicable stain, but by turning, a God-given power, a sinner can redirect his destiny. There are two sides in understanding conversion, the free sovereign act of God’s mercy and man’s going beyond contrition and sorrow to a conscious decision of turning to God. The latter includes the repudiation of all sin and the affirmation of God’s total will for one’s life (TWOT #2340).
Note also that the new direction he took was that laid out in “thy testimonies,” that is, God’s will for him revealed in Holy Scripture. “He shows that none can embrace the Word of God, except he consider his own imperfections and ways” (1599 Geneva Bible notes). All true and profitable spiritual self-examination must always be done in light of the doctrines and precepts of the Bible. Scripture is a mirror to expose faults that would otherwise go unnoticed. It is a severe scolder to induce in our souls a deep sense of humiliation for the wrong we have done and the good works we have neglected. It is a marked map to guide us into the highway of holiness and out of the by-path meadows. That metaphor is explicit in this verse because he speaks of turning his feet unto (“into,” 1599 Geneva Bible) God’s testimonies. These describe the godly state of mind and way of life pleasing to God. You see, genuine repentance is practical. It is not just remorse and contrition, but it includes a change of habits and conduct. As Calvin said, “Repentance is nothing else but a reformation of the whole life according to the Law of God.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines repentance beautifully and faithfully to the biblical doctrine:
Q87: What is repentance unto life?
A87: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
This kind of saving and sanctifying repentance is everyone’s duty, especially those to whom the Word of God comes (i.e. you and me). Jesus’ representatives “went out, and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6.12). God “now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17.30). Jesus ordered “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24.47). He Himself warned His hearers, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13.3, 5). Spurgeon said, “Sin and hell are married unless repentance proclaims the divorce.”
There is a tension in these further statements but they are both true and we must keep both ideas in mind for balance in the Christian life.
1) To do so no more is the truest repentance.
2) A sincere repentance from the heart does not guarantee that we shall not wander from the straight path and sometimes be bewildered.
The first (Luther) explains how that real believers live better than before their conversion; the second (Calvin), how that we must keep repenting until the end of our lives in this world.
The most spiritually-sensitive can be overwhelmed by doctrines like these. “I know I have a duty to examine myself and repent, and this is what frightens me most.” Thomas Watson’s counsel is sound: “Wouldst thou know when thou has been humbled enough for sin? When thou art willing to let go thy sins.” When you can sincerely pray, “I have turned my feet unto thy testimonies” in this instance and that particular, you ought to rejoice! God is working in you both to will and to do His good pleasure, and He will finish His work. Also, remember that your repentance will always be imperfect in this life, and that not your righteousness, but Christ’s alone, is the whole foundation of your justification before God. Now go do your duty, and the grace of God be with you. Amen.
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