On the Reformation Debate between Jacopo Sadoleto and John Calvin

In 1539, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, bishop of Carpentras and a Jesuit priest, wrote a letter to the Genevese to urge them to return to the Catholic faith. At that time, John Calvin had been exiled from Geneva, and was then a minister at Strasbourg. The city council of Geneva consulted Calvin regarding Sadoleto’s letter, and Calvin agreed to give a reply. Calvin’s reply strongly defended the viewpoint of the Reformed movement. Both Sadoleto and Calvin were highly educated, and their letters are very valuable for understanding the theological debate at the times of Reformation. This debate was very academic, and apparently did not arouse a public discussion. However, it is undoubtedly an invaluable one because the discussion touched the very essence of the Reformation movement. It touched on various doctrines, but ultimately, the key difference is about the ultimate authority, whether it is the Word of God, or the rich ecclesiastical tradition of the Church.

Sadoleto was a very learned man. In his letter, he first pointed out the doctrines that both the Catholics and the Protestants agreed before discussing the differences. Examples including truth shining in darkness, its perspicuity both to the learned and the unlearned, doctrines’ foundation on humility and obedience towards God,[1] Christ’s work on Earth and His example being our role model,[2] His resurrection, His divine nature, His great work of redemption, salvation through Christ,[3] the significance of piety toward God, and the work of the Holy Spirit.[4] Sadoleto said he also agreed on “justification through faith alone,”[5] but it is definitely one of the biggest discrepancies between Catholic and Reformed teachings. Reformers did not initially sought for schism from the Church but to purify the Church in terms of doctrines, spiritual atmosphere, sacraments, and church polity. However, the differences between the Catholics and the Protestants were, and are, so big that the “unity” which Sadoleto begged for was not a true unity. As Calvin stated in his reply, true unity is not the tranquility inside the church without resolving great disputes and controversies.[6] Sadoleto did not use strong words in his letter. However, Calvin accused Sadoleto in his reply Sadoleto’s craft,[7] twisting of words, defaming the Reformers,[8] maintaining the wrong doctrines while knowing they were wrong,[9] and many other faults. Calvin pointed out the essential differences, and defended the Reformed teachings.

Sadoleto first accused the Protestants of “boasting” of some “hidden interpretation of the Scriptures,”[10] and indulging in certain “dialectics and vain philosophies.”[11] Although he rightly pointed out that it was imperative to approach the Scriptures with humility,[12] he later stressed on the role of Church in instructing the Christians “what to think, what to believe, wherein to place our hope,” and how to live a pious life that leads them to heaven.[13] The Church was also guided by the Spirit of Christ,[14] and hence all Christians should maintain her laws and precepts.[15] This is basically affirming the authority of the Catholic Church to interpret the Scriptures, the Word of God. Not surprisingly, Calvin strongly opposed to this teaching. He inveighed against the corruption of the Church, and the greed and avarice of the ecclesiastical staff.[16] He pointed out other problems of the Church, which I will list later. On the other hand, he asserted the ultimate authority of the Word in various places. While it was important that the Church should have been guided by the Holy Spirit, but the Word should be used to examine the guidance.[17] The Church should have built her foundations on the prophets and the apostles,[18] (Eph. 2:20) not on Peter,[19] who also taught that “people are regenerated by that incorruptible seed,”[20] (1 Pet. 1:23) which is clearly the Word of God according to the context in the quoted verses. He also quoted Apostle Paul that the only sword he possessed was the Word of the Lord.[21] (Eph. 6:17) He asserted that whenever the prophets foretold the renewal of the church, they referred to the Word of God, by citing Isa. 2:3.[22] He pointed out the danger of extravagantly boasting the work of the Holy Spirit by “burying” the Word of God, as it made room for the falsehood of the Church.[23] Calvin also asserted through the person in front of the Eternal Judge that “all controversies should be decided by Thy Word.”[24] In various places, Calvin hailed the ultimate authority of the Word of God, rebuking Sadoleto’s attempt to resort the controversies to the laws and precepts of the Church. He even teased Sadoleto that it was the Catholic Church who preyed upon the pious souls with “vain philosophies,” (Col. 2:8) not the Reformers, when discussing about the preaching sermons.[25]

Sadoleto accused the Reformers of their “pride”,[26] of teaching the “heretical doctrines” out of evil intention that they did it for wealth and ambition,[27] and of justifying themselves the liberty from ecclesiastical laws and their own lusts.[28] However, Calvin defended the Reformers strongly. He used himself as an example: “had I wished to consult my own interest, I would never have left your party.”[29] He said, if the Reformers did it for their own ambition, they would stay in the Catholic Church to rise to a prominent position.[30] As a matter of fact, the Reformers maintained that the pastors should keep the wealth that suffice their own need, and the rest should be dispensed, according to the practice of the early churches. If the Reformers did it for making money, as Calvin pointed out, it would be inexpedient for them to teach this.[31] Instead, Calvin also pointed out that many Reformers were in danger because they did not align themselves with the Catholic Church.[32] He wrote that the pastors were restricted to their own duty, not to govern the Church “with a licentious and lawless authority.”[33]

Sadoleto maintained that in order to “find a place with mercy and pardon with God,” Christians should not go beyond the “opinion and authority of the Church,” set by our ancestors, and guided by the Holy Spirit.[34] In other words, in Sadoleto’s viewpoint, the Church enjoyed the ultimate authority regarding the teachings of the Word and everyone’s salvation because of the Holy Spirit in work. The tradition of the Church was so important that it was where people found salvation. However, by upholding the Word of God, Calvin rejected the ultimate authority of the Church, even though Sadoleto claimed his teachings had been approved for 1,500 years or more.[35] Calvin asserted what he said was in more agreement with ancient church than Sadoleto.[36] Calvin affirmed the honor and rank of ancient Fathers and Councils, given the Word of God was their tool of judgement.[37]

Upholding the ultimate authority of the Word of God and playing down the authority of the church, Calvin attacked a number of Catholic practices and doctrines, and stated the corresponding Protestant positions. There are three things that the safety of the Church is founded, namely, doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments. And the Catholic Church added “ceremonies” to the list.[38] Ceremonies were used to exercise the people to piety, but Calvin complained the Catholic Church used it for her glory, and the ceremonies were vitiated by many forms of superstition,[39] defeating the purpose of piety, like Judaism.[40] What the Reformers tried to do with the sacraments was to restore their native purity, which had been abolished by the ceremonies which were superstitious in nature.[41] Catholic doctrines, as Calvin said, were so “twisted, involved, tortuous, and puzzling” that the scholastic theology itself is a “secret magic” as well.[42] He attacked the emptiness of the sermons preached all around the Western Europe that the first half was usually about the “misty questions” of the schools that scared away the rude populace, and the second half contained some “sweet stories” to keep the hearers alert.[43] He pointed out the Catholic preachers hurt the pious believers with “vain philosophies.” (Col. 2:8)

Calvin defended the Protestant position of “justification by faith alone.” Sadoleto maintained that “justification by faith,” which was “the common faith of the Church.” Sins were washed away by “expiations, penances, and satisfaction.”[44] To him, faith did “not only [include] … credulity and confidence.”[45] Calvin’s and the Reformers’ position is radically different: justification was not through works or merits, but through faith in Christ alone. If a man is convinced about his iniquities, he will humble before God and “[cast] away his self-confidence”[46] He pointed out succinctly that “the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete.”[47] He summarized the hopelessness of all humankind as lost sinners and Christ being their only righteousness: “by His obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by His blood, washed away our sins; by His cross, borne our curse; and by His death, made satisfaction for us.”[48] Men are reconciled with God not by merits or works, but by “gratuitous mercy.”[49] Calvin quoted Rom. 4:7 and 2 Cor. 5:19 to further defend the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

In response to the Protestants’ doctrine of justification by faith alone, Catholic theologians accused the Protestants of “[taking] away the desire of well-doing from the Christian life by recommending gratuitous righteousness.”[50] Facing this, Calvin further argued for the doctrine by stating the inseparability of faith and work. Quoting 1 Cor. 1:30, he argued that Christ has been given to us for justification and for sanctification, and wherever there is Christ, there is the Holy Spirit, who regenerates the soul to newness of life.[51] In other words, “Christ regenerates to a blessed life those whom He justifies, and after rescuing them from the dominion of sin, hands them over to the dominion of righteousness, transforms them into the image of God, and so trains them by His Spirit into obedience to His will.”[52] Therefore, responding to Catholics and Sadoleto’s complaints, by this doctrine of justification, “lust is left with loosened reins.”[53] He cited Eph. 1:4 that Christians are elected in Christ before the creation to be holy. In 1 Thess. 4:7, Christians have not been called to impurity but to holiness.[54] These verses are more enough to prove the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which involves regeneration, sanctification, and adoption. The ignorance of this doctrine would lead to the washings of sins by penances and satisfactions, nullifying the utility of the blood of Christ regarding the redemption of man’s sins.[55] Nevertheless, Calvin agreed with Sadoleto that “love is the first and chief cause of our salvation.”[56]

Calvin also defended Reformers’ position of the Eucharist. The Catholics attacked the Protestants for “attempting to confine the Lord of the universe… within the corners of a corporeal nature with its circumscribed boundaries.”[57] Calvin pointed out that Reformers’ position was that the divine power of Christ and His essence is “diffused over all, and defined by no limits.”[58] He insightfully responded that there is a great difference between removing local presence of Christ’s body and restricting His spiritual power within bodily limits. Calvin taught that in the Lord’s Supper, flesh is truly meat and blood is truly drink, but the presence of Christ are not excluded from the Supper. He asserted that there is no transubstantiation, and the bread is not to be worshipped as Christ.[59] He condemned Catholic transubstantiation position of the Eucharist that led to superstition. He referred Sadoleto to Augustine’s Epistle to Dardanus for further elaboration.

Calvin also condemned the Catholic teaching about auricular confession: the law of Innocent, which enjoins every man to pass all his sins in review before his priest annually.[60] He argued that such law has no scriptural proof. While there is an apparent humility, he cited the Apostle Paul’s teaching that “humility only is genuine which is framed in conformity to the Word of God.”[61] (Col. 2:18)

Regarding the intercession of the saints, Calvin urged Sadoleto and other Catholics to neglect this teaching, because superstition had risen from this doctrine that “the intercession of Christ was utterly erased from men’s thoughts, saints were invoked as gods…”[62] leading to the sins of idolatry.[63]

Regarding the teaching of purgatory, Calvin pointed out although ancient churches did mention the dead in their prayers, it was obvious that nothing more is about the passion of the living people felt towards the dead. It is the problem of the Catholic Church that enlarged this to a money-making business that wealth was accumulated by church’s prayer for the dead people.[64]

After disputing all Sadoleto’s accusation and defending the Reformers’ position, Calvin developed his Reformed position to the next step by further denying the ultimate authority of the Church. He accused Sadoleto and the Catholic Church of “overthrowing the ministry.”[65] The Catholic Church was well known to be corrupted in the way that the ecclesiastical staff were “active only in robbing and devouring.”[66] The Lord’s Supper lost its meaning in the mass; the worship of images as a sin of idolatry was prevalent; the sacraments were ruined by weird notions and doctrines; the abusive use of indulgences dishonored the cross of Christ; Christian liberty was crushed by man-made ecclesiastical traditions. With all these listed transgressions, Calvin asserted that the ancient Church was clearly on the Reformers’ side.[67] The Reformers did not initially sought for a revolution, but a reform within the Church. However, the adverse situation within the Catholic Church made them believe that a schism was indeed a necessity. He called the Roman Pontiff “ravening wolves.”[68] Even worse, he semi-directly called the pope the Antichrist, by citing 2 Thess. 2:4 that “the Antichrist would have his seat in no other place than in the midst of God’s sanctuary.”[69] Speaking of the pride and sins of the Catholic Church, he quoted Matt. 14:6: “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.”

According to the Reformers, Calvin yielded respect and honor to the Church, in subordination to Christ the Church’s head, not the pope in Rome.[70] He proclaimed that the Reformed Christians submit to the authority of the Word of God, not the traditions of the Catholic Church.[71] The Church served at the pleasure of the establishment, but a good Christian should “deliver the oracles which they have received at the mouth of the Lord.”[72] In his reply to Sadoleto’s letter to the Genevans, Calvin tore down and condemned the ultimate authority of the Church.

Finally, Calvin discussed about the pastoral office. He agreed with Sadoleto that the pastors should be heard like Christ himself,[73] but he had to perform his own duties as instructed by the Scriptures, according to 1 Thess. 5:21 and 1 John 4:1.[74] They were not to abusively execute their power to govern for their own pleasures.[75] And the pastor holding the office of the teacher should be judged by the congregation, (1 Cor. 14:29) not to let the congregations blindly submit to them.[76] Ultimately, it is not the Church to instruct the believers, but “God alone who enlighten our minds to perceive His truth, who by His Spirit seals it on our hearts, and by His sure attestation to it confirms our conscience.”[77]

At the end of Sadoleto’s letter, he hypothesized two men in front of the dread tribunal of the sovereign Judge, stating whether they believed in Christ (which both would say yes), and what they believed.[78] The man in the Catholic faith said he obeyed the laws and precepts taught by his ancestors.[79] On the other hand, the man in the Protestant faith asserted the Church is “everywhere corrupt,” and he believed he was justified by faith alone, contrary to what the Church proclaimed, because he understood the Scriptures more than the ancient people did.[80] In Calvin’s reply, he “rewrote” the words said by the Protestant man, defending himself against the charges of the Catholics, and upholding the authority of the Word alone, echoing the slogan sola scriptura.[81]

The two letters of Sadoleto and Calvin highlighted the main controversies regarding the doctrines of the Reformation debate. Conclusively speaking, the Catholics maintained the ultimate authority of ecclesiastical tradition that stemmed from antiquity, and the unity of the Church was of utmost importance; the Reformers upheld the ultimate authority of the Word of God, i.e., the Scriptures, and denied the ultimate authority of the ecclesiastical tradition, even though they maintained that the pastors should still be heard like Christ himself, but they were judged by the congregations, with the Word of God as the golden rule. Although the Reformers did not initially intend for the division of the Church, but the corruption of the Church was so severe that they thought a schism was a necessity. Indeed, as they saw it, it was the only way to restore the native purity of the Early Churches.

[1] John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1966), 32.

[2] Ibid., 33.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 36.

[6] Ibid., 93.

[7] Ibid., 50.

[8] Ibid., 51.

[9] Ibid., 64.

[10] Ibid., 31.

[11] Ibid., 41.

[12] Ibid., 32.

[13] Ibid., 37.

[14] Ibid., 37, 41.

[15] Ibid., 37.

[16] Ibid., 56.

[17] Ibid., 60.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 77.

[20] Ibid., 60.

[21] Ibid., 78.

[22] Ibid., 60-61.

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] Ibid., 86.

[25] Ibid., 65.

[26] Ibid., 38.

[27] Ibid., 54.

[28] Ibid., 41-42.

[29] Ibid., 54.

[30] Ibid., 56.

[31] Ibid., 56.

[32] Ibid., 80.

[33] Ibid., 76.

[34] Ibid., 37.

[35] Ibid., 62.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 92.

[38] Ibid., 63.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 64.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 64-65.

[43] Ibid., 65.

[44] Ibid., 37.

[45] Ibid., 36.

[46] Ibid., 66.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid., 66-67.

[49] Ibid., 67.

[50] Ibid., 68.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 68-69.

[54] Ibid., 69.

[55] Ibid., 69-70.

[56] Ibid., 69.

[57] Ibid., 70.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., 71.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid., 72.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid., 73.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid., 74.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid., 75.

[69] Ibid., 76.

[70] Ibid., 75.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid., 77.

[73] Ibid., 77.

[74] Ibid., 76.

[75] Ibid., 77.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid., 79.

[78] Ibid., 42.

[79] Ibid., 43.

[80] Ibid., 44-45.

[81] Ibid., 82-90.

Continue reading “On the Reformation Debate between Jacopo Sadoleto and John Calvin”

God of Psalm 51

1.   Introduction

Psalm 51 has been known as one of the seven “Penitential Psalms,” or Psalms of Confession. This is an accurate classification given to this psalm because the poet, King David, composed it after Nathan the prophet rebuked him as he committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. The emotion expressed by the poet, who was deeply troubled by his iniquity, was immense. Psalm 51 is undoubtedly a model psalm for confession, but the poet expressed a few incommunicable and communicable attributes of God, which I argue that they should have been emphasized more. In particular, God’s mercy is also explicitly demonstrated in this psalm.

God’s names and attributes in Psalm 51 are analyzed using the threefold way, namely negation, eminence, and causation.[1] As the transcendent God, He possesses attributes of infinitude, which can only be named in the way of negation. However, the way of negation alone reveals nothing new about God, and it presupposes the way of eminence, by seeing God as the source of all creaturely perfection. Attributes regarding the mercy and love of God stand out in this psalm, given the poet violated at least two of the Ten Commandments, namely murder (6th, Exod. 20:13), and adultery (7th, Exod. 20:14). His sins can be rephrased as, negatively, “forsaking God,” or positively, “seeking for oneself.”[2] (Jer. 2:13) Thus, the way of eminence is undeniably important to view God in this psalm. Last but not least, as the poet pleaded for God’s forgiveness, we shall see more about the immanence of God from the psalm, hence a lot of attributes exhibited are through the way of causation.

2.   Way of Negation

2.1 Immutability

Because Psalm 51 is a psalm of confession, the divine names indicating His infinitude are not explicitly present. Nevertheless, negative attributes of God are not absent. As a man after God’s heart, the poet knew God. At the moment he was reminded he had sinned, he immediately confessed and repented. (2 Sam. 12:13) It is an indication of God’s immutability in a few ways. First, the poet knew about God’s judgment, (Ps. 51:4) which has been God’s unchanging will.[3] Before King David, God had been judging the earth throughout the ancient times that the Israelites knew about, such as Noah’s flood (Gen. 6-8), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), the death of the Israelites who worshipped the golden calf (Exod. 32), the fall of the Israelites who committed adultery with the Moabites and Midianites, (Num. 25:1-9; 31:16) the repeated decline of Israel due to their national sins at the times of Judges (Judg. 2-21), and most recently, the decline of King Saul. (1 Sam. 15) He knew his act is not right in God’s eyes.

Second, the poet urged for pardoning of his sins. (Ps. 51:4) This presupposes that God forgives if men repent. (1 John 1:9) Although this teaching is more explicit in the New Testament, it is also well known in the Old Testament times. The institution of the feast of atonement (Lev. 16) was a “shadow” of this truth. (Heb. 9:23) The poet knew all these very well. God was willing not to destroy Sodom even if there were only ten righteous men. (Gen. 18:32) Although the Israelites in the desert repeatedly rebelled, God was willing to forgive them, and continued to guide them on the way to the promised land. J. I. Packer said, “God’s way does not change… His aims and principles of actions remain consistent.”[4] In forgiving the king that He chose, the poet was confident that God would forgive him.

Despite the Israelites’ sins, God still kept His promises because of the covenants He made with their father. “I the LORD do not change.” (Mal. 3:6) God, through Malachi, reassured them that they would not be “consumed.” Similarly, the poet knew God that even if he sinned, God kept the covenant with him. “God’s law witnesses His immutable attributes.”[5] He would not be destroyed, but he was deeply distressed by what he had done. His law does not change, so does His policy. This psalm of confession presupposes God’s immutability, which implies His faithfulness. As a man after God’s heart, the poet asked for God’s pardon.

3.   Way of Eminence

The way of eminence concerns the perspective of God as the source of all creaturely perfection. The psalm is full of emotional outpour, the begging of forgiveness, asking for delivery, and seeking for consolations because of the poet’s misery. God definitely has all the things the poet desperately sought. As the poet composed in another psalm: “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” (Ps. 16:2) Unlike the way of negation, divine names and attributes in the way of eminence are mostly God’s communicable attributes.

3.1 Mercy

The first attribute in the way of eminence is mercy, as stated in the first verse of this psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” (Ps. 51:1) “Mercy” is a divine attribute, as stated in Scripture, “a God merciful and gracious” (Exod. 34:6), and “for the LORD your God is a merciful God.” (Deut. 4:31) The word “mercy” in Psalm 51:1 is also translated as “gracious” in NASB.[6] It is known to be one of the God’s communicate attributes,[7] because Christ commanded us to be merciful in His Sermon on the Mount: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful,” (Luke 6:36) and as the mercy was also shown by the good Samaritan to robbed Jewish man. (Luke 10:37) The fact that the poet cried for mercy at the beginning of this psalm indicates that it is the most important attribute of God presented in this psalm.

What is mercy? Or what is being merciful? It was stated by à Brakel that “mercy, being the merciful God Himself, is an essential attribute whereby God is inclined to come to the aid of a creature in his misery.”[8] In other words, mercy is God’s goodness shown to the people in misery.[9] The poet cried for the mercy, because he was deeply distressed by his sins, and saw God’s judgement. (Ps. 51:4) While God actually took away the Holy Spirit from Saul, (1 Sam. 16:14) the poet asked God not to do so. (Ps. 51:11) He was in need of mercy because of the depth of his sins, which seems to be matched by the depth of his confession in this psalm.[10] He cried out for mercy, also because he had always known that God is a merciful God.

It is known that indeed God showed the mercy to the poet. Despite the depth of his sins, God forgave him. (2 Sam. 12:13) Moreover, interestingly, Solomon, his next son with the same woman, was loved, (2 Sam. 12:24) and chosen by God to be the successor to his throne. (1 Kings 1:30) It demonstrated that God’s mercy is indeed great, and beyond imagination.

3.2 Steadfast Love

Another attribute in the way of eminence closely related to God’s mercy is His steadfast love. (Ps. 51:1) “Steadfast love” is the ESV translation, but “lovingkindness” in NASB and KJV, and “unfailing love” in NIV. It is the kind of love that God had been showing to the poet. God has been walking with the poet through all the sufferings before the poet became the King of Judah and Israelites. God made a covenant with the poet. (2 Sam. 7:7-16) The poet knew very well about His steadfast love, which is covenantal in nature. Because of this attribute, God befriended the poet.[11] As the God of the steadfast love, He chose to forgive the poet, showing His mercy. Hence, it is not surprising that some biblical scholars suggest that mercy and steadfast love are virtually synonymous.[12]

3.3 Salvation

The third divine name in the way of eminence is salvation, which appears twice in this psalm. (Ps. 51:12, 14) The poet committed a few big sins, and he needed a deliverance from the punishment. In the psalm, he said, “deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation…” (Ps. 51:14) This salvation was not a literal deliverance from a physically dangerous situation, but the salvation in the theological sense: the salvation of the poet from the eternal wrath of God,[13] followed by the imputation of righteousness[14] to him. Besides the term “salvation,” the poet mentioned a lot about the salvation, for example, the cleaning of his sins using hyssop so that he could be “whiter than snow,” (Ps. 51:7) the creation of a new heart in the poet, (Ps. 51:10) the cancellation of all his iniquities, (Ps. 51:9) and making the poet capable of teaching people and praising God in the right way. (Ps. 51:13, 14) With God’s salvation, not only were his sins forgiven, but also was he able to stand in front of God on the judgement day. With God’s salvation, the poet enjoyed “the joy of salvation.” (Ps. 51:12)

4.   Way of Causation

The attributes of infinitude in the way of negation and that of fullness in the way of eminence account for two important aspects of God. However, without the way of causation which indicates His firstness, God has no dealings with the human being. Our God is an immanent God, who is deeply involved in human history.[15] God is the source of all creaturely perfection, and the poet experienced spirit renewal, (Ps. 51:10) and was taught His wisdom (Ps. 51:6) according to the psalm.

4.1 Renewal of Spirit

Because of his sins, the poet’s inward being had been crooked. The time between his going into Bathsheba and his repentance was, by reasonable estimation, approximately ten months, which is a long period of time. He intentionally committed to the sins until Nathan the Prophet rebuked him. During repentance, his heart needed to be renewed. It is unclear whether this spirit was the substance of soul of a man,[16] or the inner being of a man in general. However, it is clear that “renew a right spirit…” echos “create… a new heart” in Ps. 51:10.[17] This right spirit, renewed by God, restored the poet’s original vocation as a king leading out Israel’s troop.[18] This spirit has also to be a “disciplined” spirit, “of uprightness and integrity, in opposition to dissimulation and hypocrisy,”[19] but “prepared to do every good work.”[20] Even though the poet was a man after God’s heart, as a human being, he was weak as Jesus said to his disciples at Gethsemane, “the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41)

4.2 Wisdom

While the spirit renewal regards the poet’s emotions and will, there is wisdom, (Ps. 51:6) another divine attribute in the way of eminence which regards his rationality and intellect. “Wisdom” in Hebrew literally means simple technical skills,[21] but when it comes to living, it means “following God’s design and thus avoiding moral pitfalls.”[22] Until the poet was rebuked by Nathan the Prophet, he thought everything had been a hidden secret. He might think he was clever in stealing Uriah’s wife, and plotted his death in a “smart” way. However, he was a fool as he obviously violated God’s commandments. The poet prayed that God taught him “wisdom in the secret heart.” These were all struggles in his inner life. But wisdom, as a divine power, changed his understanding.[23] If the poet was able to read the wisdom in Prov. 5 and Prov. 7, he might have more determination to say “no” to adultery, and avoiding being “the simple,” or the “young man lacking sense” in Prov. 7:7.

5. King David’s Plea and God’s Merciful Response

Given the threefold way of naming God, it can be clearly seen that His attributes exhibited in Psalm 51 by the poet. In addition to the verses, the evidences of these attributes can be supported by the historical narratives in the Old Testament. The poet was a man pleasing to God (1 Sam. 13:13-14, 1 Sam. 16:1-13), who was after God’s own heart, and knew who God is. He knew God was the one whom he asked for forgiveness for his iniquity with his “broken spirit” (Ps. 51:17). Hence, he was not “slow, ashamed, or afraid to voice out in prayer [his] own bitterness and lament before God.”[24] Christians should be quick and determined to confess their sins like the poet.

In fact, God did forgive the poet as we have seen from Scripture (2 Sam. 12:13), despite some negative consequences of his sins, including the death of his baby, (2 Sam. 12:14) and the chaos within his royal family. (2 Sam. 13-18) God did “create in [him] a clean heart,” and “renew a right spirit” (Ps. 51:10) and, evidently, did not take away the Holy Spirit, (Ps. 51:11) or the poet could not even compose the psalm.

6.   Conclusion

With the threefold way, the attributes of God are richly demonstrated in Psalm 51 by the poet, King David. As a psalm of confession, the poet poured out his emotion, as God did not despise a broken heart. (Ps. 51:17) It shows God’s mercy in the way of eminence, as God was good towards the poet in a miserable situation. God’s steadfast love, and salvation were also important attributes in the way of eminence too. God also renewed the spirit of the poet, and taught the poet wisdom, as, in the way of causation, God is the source of creaturely perfection. Lastly, what is really comforting is, in the way of negation, His immutability. As one confesses and repents, God forgives as He is faithful. (1 John 1:9)


[1] Timothy Smith, Thomas Aquinas’ Trinitarian Theology: A Study in Theological Method (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 204; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 129.

[2] Timothy Lin, What is the Kingdom of Heaven in the Bible? The Truth of the Kingdom, ed. Karis Hui and Karen Li, trans. George Shen (Hong Kong: China Alliance Press, 2011), 165.

[3] Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications. 1992), 101.

[4] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Madison, WI: Intervarsity Press, 1977), 71.

[5] Zhiyong Wang, Modern Christian Covenantal Worldview (Taipei, Taiwan: Christian Arts Press, 2013), 102.

[6] In other parts of Scripture, “mercy” is also translated as “loving-kindness” or “compassionate” in other English translations. See: W. L. Walker, “Mercy; Merciful,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed March 10, 2016, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/M/mercy-merciful.html.

[7] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity, 1994), 200.

[8] à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, 125; “a’ Brakel on General Mercy,” Calvin and Calvinism (WordPress), September 16, 2007, accessed Jun3 23, 2016, https://calvinandcalvinism.wordpress.com/2007/09/16/a-brakel-on-general-mercy/.

[9] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 213.

[10] Patrick D. Miller Jr., “Trouble and Woe: Interpreting the Biblical Laments,” Interpretation 31, no. 1 (1983): 37.

[11] Kenneth L. Barker, ed., [Pss. 6:4, 51:1] Zondervan NASB Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 746.

[12] W. L. Walker, “Lovingkindness,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed April 26, 2016, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/L/lovingkindness.html.

[13] R. C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: an Introduction to Systematic Theology (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014), 215.

[14] Burston Scott Easton, “Salvation,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed March 30, 2016, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/S/salvation.html.

[15] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: a Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1987), 13-15.

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 473-474.

[17] Stanley D. Walters, “I Talk of My Sin (to God) (and to You): Psalm 51, with David Speaking,” Calvin Theological Journal 50, no. 1 (2015): 102-103.

[18] Ibid., 102.

[19] John Gill, “Psalm 51:10,” John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, accessed April 30, 2016, http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/psalms-51-10.html.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Burston Scott Easton, “Wisdom,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed March 30, 2016, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/W/wisdom.html.

[22] Barker, ed., [Prov. 1:2] Zondervan NASB Study Bible, 894.

[23] Walters, “I Talk of My Sin (to God) (and to You),” 100.

[24] Gabriel Mendy, “The Theological Significance of the Psalms of Lament,” American Theological Inquiry 8, no. 21 (August 2015): 71.

Continue reading “God of Psalm 51”