This evening I want to read six verses from the beginning of Job 42, the last chapter of the book, and deal theme of biblical teaching I think is very poorly understood in the evangelical and the Reformed church. If I were to tell you in Luther’s famous words, that a Christian is simul justus et peccator,at one and the same time righteous and a sinner, you would have no particular difficulty with that because you would contrast our perfect justification in Jesus Christ with our continuing sinfulness as Christians living in the world. What’s so terribly difficult to understand about that? That, however, is only part of the biblical picture of sin and righteous in the Christian life and perhaps in no book of the Bible is this other half, the unconsidered half of the Bible’s teaching regarding sin and righteousness, so clearly revealed, illustrated and taught.
The dialectic, the juxtaposition of contrasting emphases, of opposites, that I want us to consider this evening is the fact that Job is regarded in the book from the beginning to the end as a righteous and a blameless man and yet that he repents in dust and ashes.
We have considered over two Lord’s Day evenings the “problem of suffering” as it is introduced in the book of Job. There are many deep disappointments, punishing sorrows, and inexplicable miseries that befall human beings and that befall the children of God in this life and this world. The problem of such suffering is precisely that it takes place in God’s world, under God’s eye, and with God’s active permission and according to his own plan and purpose. How can a good God visit such terrible trials on his own children? The problem of suffering is the problem of theodicy, the defense of God from the charge of wrongdoing, given the fact that the Almighty is responsible for what happens in this world of sorrow, trouble and trial.
We argued that there can be no problem of suffering if there is no God. Without God we cannot justify any standard of justice or goodness against which we might compare the actions of men or events that happen in the world. We are left with nature and nature has no morality. Lions kill wildebeests; too bad for the wildebeest but that’s the way it is. All we can do with the miseries of life is to accept them as best we can and get on with our short and meaningless existence. It will be over soon enough and then what will we care about the so-called evil that men do or the catastrophes that befall them? There is only a problem because we believe in God and in God’s justice and goodness!
We then went on to consider Job’s part of the Bible’s answer to the problem of human suffering, not the whole answer, to be sure, but an important part of the Bible’s whole answer. And we concluded that while God’s ways are always just and right, his ways are also far beyond our ways and past finding out. We do not and cannot understand why God does what he does. We must accept our profound limitations and take comfort in the fact that God knows what he is doing and why. Surely it is an interesting observation that Job never got any of his specific questions about his own calamities answered, but took his comfort from being reminded how little he knew or understood about God’s plans and purposes and how unlikely it would be that Almighty God should explain his ways to a mere mortal. In nothing so often does man display his vaunted arrogance as when he presumes to pass judgment on the plans and purposes of the Almighty and in nothing do we find so much comfort as believers as in the knowledge of the greatness, the majesty, and the transcendence and the sovereignty of the living God.
But if there is a problem of human suffering in Job we find in the book as well a problem of human righteousness. Most honest, careful readers of the book have struggled with this as well. What do I mean? Well, think about how the book reads. The book begins with this description of Job:
“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
Noah was described similarly in Gen. 6:9 as righteous, blameless, and as a man who walked with God. In other words, Job was a man who lived a righteous, godly life. That is what the opening words of the book mean. Job was a man who did what was right. He characteristically did what was right, so much so that he could fairly be described as a blameless man. The Hebrew word translated “blameless” in your ESVs (תּם tam) was translated “perfect” in the KJV. Job was a “perfect” man. But “perfect” suggests to us moderns something more than blameless and the Hebrew word itself, when applied to men, certainly does not mean “sinless.” But it can mean “sinless,” and that gives us some sense of the strength of the term. While the word is never used of God himself in the Old Testament, it is used of his work. In Deut. 32:4 we read in the ESV’s translation:
“The Rock, his work is perfect (that is our word tam), for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”
In reference to the ways of God the word does mean “perfect.” Job 1:1 is hardly the only place in the Bible where such a thing is said of a believing man. “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” we read in Lev. 19:2, as if God expects us to be holy like himself. Or, in Greek, in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matt. 5:48]
We find tam used to describe other men in the Bible. Sometimes the term means innocence in the sense that men were unknowing of the evil planned or done by others. In this sense Abimelech, in Gen. 20:5, 6, was tam or innocent of any wrongdoing in taking Sarah into his Harem because Abraham had lied to him about who she was and Abimelech did not know she was a married woman.
But rather often it is used to describe men in the Bible whose character and way of life is deserving of high praise. What is more interesting for our purposes tonight is that from time to time men in Holy Scripture themselves claim to be “blameless” or “beyond reproach,” or “upright” or “righteous” or “perfect.” Job made that claim on a number of occasions as we will see. But so others. In Psalm 7:8 David prays:
“The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.” [That word “integrity” is our word tam.]
And more famously still, David again in the first verse of Psalm 26 prays:
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity [tam], and I have trusted the Lord without wavering.”
And in 2 Sam. 22:21:
“The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.”
Lest we dismiss that as overpraise on David’s part because we remember his terrible crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah her husband, his failures as a parent, and so on, the Lord himself describes David as tam, a man of integrity or blamelessness, in several different places. In speaking to Solomon in 1 Kings 9:4 the Lord said,
“…if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne…forever…”
So we have no reason to quibble over the Bible speaking as it does when Caleb described himself as a man who followed the Lord wholeheartedly (Josh. 14:8) or Paul claimed before the Council in Jerusalem that “I have lived my life in all good conscience up to this day (Acts 23:1), or when Paul teaches us that officers of the church should be blameless men (1 Tim. 3:2). Nor should we consider it vanity or improper boasting when Paul, for example, should say that he has run the race, kept the faith, and fought the fight and that, accordingly, there is a reward waiting for him in heaven or when any Christian aspires to hear the Savior’s “Well done!” on the last day. There is, in fact, throughout the Bible, a very great deal of this. Again and again we are reminded that there is such a thing as a righteous life, an obedient life, and that many men and women have lived it.
To be sure, no one is claiming to have lived a sinless life. There is still much sin in every godly life, to be sure. There was in David’s but it was after David’s life was over and his sins were well known that God said of David that he walked with him in integrity of heart and uprightness and that he did what God had commanded him.
The fact is, when biblical writers claim to be blameless or upright or righteous they are not ignoring their sins. These were all men who willingly and consciously and repeatedly confessed their sins to God and man. David can be found confessing his sins in Samuel and in the Psalms. He knew himself a great sinner. We don’t know who wrote Psalm 130, but we know enough of David to know that he would have agreed completely with its great affirmation:
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” [130:3-4]
But his sin notwithstanding David spoke of his blameless life. These were men who participated in the worship of the temple and that worship presupposed the sinfulness of every worshipper who those who approached the Lord with sacrifice. The entire system of temple worship was predicated on the need to remove sin and guilt!
The terms used to describe a faithful believer — blameless, upright, righteous, above reproach, a good conscience — sound proud to us or plainly untrue given the measure of sin that remains in the life of the best believer, but these godly men applied such terms to themselves as a matter of course. How could they do that? We don’t, do we? When was the last time you said to anyone, “I am a blameless man.”? Why then did these men speak as they did? Because they were using the terms, we would nowadays say, “covenantally.” The key to understanding this way of speaking about still sinful men and women is the observation that in the Bible there are always and only but two alternatives: a man is righteous or he is not. The position of a person in this sense is black or white. One is either within God’s covenant community or outside of it, righteous or wicked. [cf. von Rad, OT Theology, i, 380-382] The Hebrew word tam originally meant “whole” or “complete” and it refers to what is true of a person in the entirety of his or her life, his life taken as a whole. [Waltke, OT Theology, 289]
Now many readers of the Bible are inclined to think, familiar as they are with the teaching of Paul in Romans and Galatians, that these men must have used these terms — blameless, righteous, upright — in reference to Christ’s righteousness imputed to us when we believe in him. They must have meant that they were blameless because they were standing before God not in their own righteousness, imperfect, foul, unworthy as it is, but in Christ’s righteousness, perfect, complete, entire as it is. That is how we have been taught to think of how men and women can be righteous before God and say they are righteous before God. We don’t speak of ourselves or other Christians the way the Bible speaks of Job or Paul, but if we did we would mean it in terms of justification by faith. And we often think that these claims to be righteous are of that kind: a man is righteous because it is not his righteousness he is talking about; it is Christ’s given to him. We either have his righteousness or we do not; it is an absolute distinction. In that sense a believer in Christ can call himself blameless or perfect because Christ has been blameless or perfect for him.
All of that is true, of course, gloriously true and we know it from the teaching of the Apostle Paul. But it is not in fact what these statements mean and any honest reader of the Bible should immediately realize that. Clearly in Job 1:1 and in the other texts I have quoted to you, the description being given is of a man’s behavior, his way of life, his obedience, his walking in the way of the Lord. It is not a way of talking about the fact that he has been given Christ’s righteousness as a gift. The righteousness here is not righteousness outside the man, but righteousness within him, the righteousness of his life and conduct, his way of life. In other words, even when talking not about justification but about sanctification , the Bible still speaks usually in terms of a man being upright, blameless and righteous, on the one hand, or wicked on the other.
Great sinners can still be blameless, righteous, upright, and beyond reproach, because, however imperfectly, their fundamental commitment, the deepest aspiration of their heart, and the true direction of their lives and conduct is Godward, toward keeping his commandments, and toward honoring him with their thoughts, words, and deeds. All of this, to be sure, is the result of God’s work in and for the man or woman, there can be no doubt about that. We are still talking about God’s grace working itself out in our lives. But take my point: this is a part of the Bible’s teaching most believing readers of the Bible do not really trade with; that the Bible does not scruple to call a man blameless or upright or holy because of the way he lives. That is how seriously the Bible takes the difference it makes when a man truly believes in God. His life changes and becomes righteous; no longer wicked.
A perfect statement of this way of thinking is found in the prayer of Psalm 119:176:
“I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.”
Lord help me in my sinfulness because I am a righteous man! Is that a contradiction? No, it is biblical theology!
So it is in this larger context that we come to the description of Job as blameless. The Hebrew word tam occurs several times in Job. Throughout the central argument of the book, the back and forth between Job and his three friends, Job maintains his blamelessness, his uprightness. When we get to chapter 31, Job’s long self-malediction — that is, a passage in which he says, “Let me be cursed if I have done the things you accuse me of!” — we read the specifics of this claim. You remember the famous opening verse of that chapter: “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin.” But he goes on from there. He says that he was an honest man, faithful to his wife, just in his treatment of those who worked for him, generous to the poor, and a man who would not and had not dabbled in idolatry. Actually Job protests his blamelessness throughout the book. Twice in 9:20-21 he says, “I am blameless.” His conscience did not accuse him but acquitted him; as Paul might have said, he had a clear conscience before God.
Again, there is no claim intended or implied that Job thought that he was a sinless man, as if he were denying the Bible’s doctrine of the comprehensive and universal sinfulness of every human being including the renewed and regenerated human beings of the people of God. Job knew himself a sinner and admits that he is in the book. Indeed, in 14:16-17 Job’s hope is that God would “cover over my iniquity.” But he was a blameless, upright, righteous, and holy man in the fundamental character of his life. The Bible always goes down to the bottom of things and at the bottom Job was God’s man and wanted to be God’s man; he was committed to obedience to God’s commandments and to honoring the Lord with his life whatever sacrifices might be entailed in doing so.
And, lest we forget, the Lord himself confirms Job’s own account of himself. He does that in Job 1:1, he does it again at the end of the book when he tells the three friends that Job was right and they were wrong and he rewards Job for his righteousness. God himself described Job as a blameless man! This is very important, brothers and sisters. If you are to understand the Bible and the Christian life correctly, if you are to have an accurate view of yourself in Christ, you must understand this pervasive way of speaking about believing men and women as blameless, holy, and upright and be able to reconcile this with the Bible’s teaching of the continuing sinfulness of even the best of Christian men and women and its teaching of our absolute dependence upon that righteousness which is not our behavior but the righteousness of Christ given to us a free gift, the righteousness of our standing before God, which is perfect because it is Christ’s.
Now let’s think about all of this together. If we were suffering through some trial and a Christian friend of ours suggested that the Lord was punishing us for some sin we had committed, we would almost certainly not respond as Job did. We would hang our heads and admit that we deserved everything we got. Any other response we would consider highly improper. We certainly would not assert our blamelessness and defy our friend to show us what sin it was that had brought this punishment upon us. We could think of far too many sins for which we might be punished! If we said what Job said, our friend would very likely think and say that we really didn’t understand sin or the gospel. Isn’t that right?
And, to be sure, we probably could not assert our blameless as Job did. Job, after all, is divine revelation, a book of the Bible. It is not possible for us to place ourselves precisely in Job’s situation. It is not possible for us to have the same certainty that Job had that he was not being punished for his sins. The book of Job is written to make a theological statement. We are not in the same position. Our lives are not being taken up into Holy Scripture and being made into the revelation of the truth of God.
Still David could pray that the Lord would vindicate him because he had lived in integrity and Paul could speak of his having a clear conscience in looking back upon his service of the Lord Jesus. You never hear our Protestant heroes saying such things! And that must be a mistake for Paul also made an open confession of his continuing sinfulness and he said a church officer has to be a blameless man. Obviously it’s possible to be a blameless man and it’s obviously possible to know that you are and for the church to know that you are. So how can we say about ourselves what Job or David or Paul say about themselves? Let me suggest several answers to that question.
- The Bible, as we said, measures a man or woman’s life by its fundamental commitments more than by a summation of its credits and debits. Indeed, insofar as that way of thinking about righteousness — precisely how much you have accumulated, your merits versus your demerits, and so on — was common in the world at that time and, of course, became very common in rabbinic Judaism, it is really striking that there is nothing remotely like this anywhere in the Bible. The Bible never once, anywhere, gives us leave to think of our lives as 37% or 51% or 66 2/3% righteous. Whether in regard to justification or sanctification, one is either righteous or he is not. Real sinners can be righteous and people who have never done notorious things but have no faith in Jesus Christ can be sinners. The real issues are the commitment of the heart to God and to Christ and the real demonstration, however imperfect, of that commitment in one’s way of life. As our Savior put it, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Real commitment will always demonstrate itself in life to some degree.
- Salvation is by grace in more ways than one. It is by grace, of course, in our justification. But it is equally by grace in our sanctification. God takes our little for a lot. That too is grace. When Rabbi Duncan admitted that he had never done a sinless deed in his life — he had done righteous deeds, but never a sinless deed — he was admitting that God looks at the sins of his children in a different way than he looks at the sins of those who do not love and trust him. In the latter case their sins are the true measure of their hearts. In the former case — that of believers — their sins are the dregs of their former selves, baggage left over from that nature in which they were conceived, baggage that they have to drag like a ball and chain through the rest of their lives in this world. As the Apostle Paul put it, when he sinned it was not he who did it, but the sin that was still in him. A daring way of speaking, to be sure, but completely in keeping with everything we read in the Bible and with all of these claims to blamelessness or uprightness that we find in the Bible.
- Because the Bible goes to the bottom of things and measures a person by the fundamental commitments of the heart, it is willing to bring the future into the present. In the same way in which we can be said to be already seated with Christ in the heavenly places, in which we can be called “saints” or “holy ones,” in the same sense in which Paul can describe Christians as new creations and new men, in that same sense what we shall one day be in perfection and completeness becomes by principle and by anticipation what we are said to be already in this world. When John in his First Letter says that a Christian does not sin he is speaking in this same way. The fundamental change has taken place, the power of sin has been broken, the way to sinless perfection has been opened and that certain future beckons. In the famous illustration of Oscar Cullman, looking back on events as they unfolded, we can say that the war was won on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Once the invasion armies were safely ashore the war was over. But there was a lot of desperate fighting still to do! Complete victory over sin is not here yet, but it is certain and so we can already be said to be glorified, as Paul says we are in Romans 8:29 in the past tense, even though “glorification” in biblical usage refers to that perfection upon which no believer, past, present or future, has yet experienced nor will he or she until the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is typical of biblical writing and expressive of the biblical view of things that events that are absolutely certain to come to pass can be described in the past tense even if it may be thousands of years before they come to pass. In other words, we are already what we will someday be! You remember C.S. Lewis’ beautiful way of making that point: were you somehow able to see what that Christian sitting next to you will one day become when he or she is made perfect in holiness, you would be sorely tempted to fall down before him or her and worship. So great will be the man or woman who has been completely remade in perfect manhood and in Christlikeness. Well that is who and what they are now in principle, if not entirely in fact.
- As we are also reminded time and time again throughout Holy Scripture, there must be evidence of the new creation. Christians are not like everyone else. They are new creations. Even in their imperfection they are demonstrably new men and women; even in their failures they are the children and servants of God; even in their continuing sinfulness they have died and risen with Christ to new life. So while a great deal of sin can still exist in a real Christian’s life — and the Bible teaches us that and shows us that with dismal regularity and great emphasis — there must as well be that fundamental covenant loyalty that makes it possible to say that he or she is upright or righteous. God saves us the Bible says to make us holy, zealous for good works. That must be present in a person’s life, even if the presence of it is demonstrated more in the fundamental commitments of the heart than in the perfection of the behavior. It is this righteousness of life — not our judicial standing in justification – and virtually everybody makes this mistake of interpretation – of which Jesus spoke in his Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matt. 5:20] The Lord was not talking there about justification; he was talking about a person’s life, his conduct. The whole Sermon on the Mount is about our way of life. That greater righteousness does not consist in our keeping a few more commandments than the Pharisees managed to keep, but consists in a different kind of righteousness altogether: a loyalty to God that goes down into the heart and the motives, righteousness that is an expression of faith, love, and gratitude. [Cf. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture, 74-75]
- And fifth and finally, the Bible does not entirely avoid making distinctions between believers. In the matter of one’s life there can be more or less righteousness. You may be righteous and not wicked, but you can be more or less righteous. Paul speaks of the man who is saved though as through fire, but his work is burned up. The Lord spoke of those whose reward would be great, of those who would bear fruit by the 30, 60, or 100 fold, and of those who would rule over five cities and those who would rule over ten. We will, on the great day, even we believers in Christ, receive what is due us Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:10. As among the wicked some will be beaten with few stripes and some with many, so among the righteous, some will receive a greater reward for the greater holiness of their lives in this world. That is how real the righteousness of our conduct is! It’s something that God can measure. It’s something that God can reward in various measures. It can be measured. There can be more or less of it among the righteous.
This whole complicated picture is the biblical doctrine of the believer’s righteousness: a man or woman in Christ is in his or her daily living to be considered still comprehensively sinful, on the one hand, and, on the other. righteous, upright, godly, holy, even blameless. He is to aspire and work for moral perfection — to be perfect even as his heavenly Father is perfect — even as he must admit his still great sinfulness until the day he dies. In this life she is a righteous woman in her way of life, but especially in the fundamental commitment and direction of her heart; that is, in her loyalty to God and Christ; in her aspirations after those things that please him. The day will come when he or she is perfectly righteous in heart and behavior, because the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable, but that is never a reason to relax or to take the future for granted, because the measure of one’s righteous living in this life determines the measure of his reward in the next.
It is complicated, I’ll grant you. But there is something obvious and inevitable about it at the same time. Obviously salvation is and must be entirely by grace. We cannot please God by our own efforts. Our sins defeat us at every turn. But God is not interested merely in rescuing us from our guilt but in restoring us to perfect humanity. Insofar as he has chosen not to do this immediately and at one fell swoop, it was inevitable that we should live in the now but not yet: a real, fundamental, irrevocable change in our way of life that still remains imperfect until we are with the Lord. And since the Lord cares about the lives his children lead and because he is perfectly just, it was only to be expected that he would reward lesser and greater faithfulness in different measures. Add all of that together and you get Job: an upright and blameless man who, after hearing God speak in chapters 38-41, despises himself for his sinful thoughts and words and repents in dust and ashes.
Is that you? It is I believe most of you: righteous and blameless men and women who are always finding reasons to despise yourselves and repent in dust and ashes. Not one or the other, but both together; always both together. Righteous men and women who are always repenting of their unrighteousness! Job is every believer as a sufferer; but he is also every believer in his righteousness and his repentance.