In December 2008, I turned seventy-three. Invited by Tabletalk to address younger generations “on matters pertinent to the faith,” I thought of Psalm 71, the prayer of an elderly man. Says verse 18: “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” I seek to do so now.
Wisdom: “O God, from my youth you have taught me” (Ps. 71:17a). “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (90:12). For an ancient Hebrew, heart had rational, emotional, and volitional dimensions. So one way to love God with all one’s heart was to love him with all one’s mind (Matt. 22:37). I urge you, whatever your calling, to commit yourself to the serious study of the Holy Scriptures. When I taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), reading an assigned exposition sometimes left me wondering: “If this student believes the Bible is God’s infallible Word, why has he expended so little effort to mine its treasures?” While writing a commentary on the gospel of Matthew in recent years, I was acutely aware of the need for both utter dependence on God and unrelenting discipline: these are like the two wings of an aircraft, both essential for flight (Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace, chap. 8).
The crucial dimension of the heart is the will. Failure to do the truth shows that I have not grasped the truth (James 1:22; 1 John 3:18). Colossians 1:9–10 teaches that believers are given “spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord”; and that by “bearing fruit in every good work” they will be “increasing in the knowledge of God.” “All right knowledge of God is born of obedience” (John Calvin, Institutes, 1.6.2).
Warfare: “O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me!” (Ps. 71:12). Galatians 5:16–26 describes conflict between “the flesh” and “the Spirit.” “Flesh” here is not a part of the person, but the whole person viewed in a certain way — in rebellion against God. “The Spirit” is not the human spirit (which itself produces “works of the flesh”) but the Holy Spirit of God.
By means of the fifteen “works of the flesh” (vv. 19–21), sin (the power behind the flesh) assaults God’s people. The eight traits at the heart of the list — “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy” — all spring from competitive pride, the foremost of the seven deadly sins (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, chap. 8). Pride and its offspring rob me of love, joy, and peace (Gal. 5:22). I can now see that pride assailed me throughout my teaching career. At Belhaven College and at RTS, I always taught with people who were better at doing what I did best! In face of their superior gifts and attainments there was always the threat of jealousy, rivalry, and envy.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (v. 16). Over the years I have come to see that the nine qualities of 5:22–23 are weapons from the Spirit to combat the flesh. Especially potent against pride is love (Greek agapē) — love that “does not envy or boast” (1 Cor. 13:4), that esteems others more highly than oneself (Phil. 2:1–3). In the face of pride, the Spirit also granted me joy — in praying with colleagues, in valuing all that they taught me, in knowing them to be skilled comrades-in-arms against a common foe (Eph. 6:10–20), in recalling how they discouraged me from taking myself too seriously.
Worship: “My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all the day” (Ps. 71:8). I give thanks to God the Father. He fashioned me in His own image, and surrounded me with the wonders of His creation. He has granted me seventy-three years of life. He disclosed the glory of His Son to me. He drew me out of darkness into light, out of death into life. When I willfully disobey, He disciplines me — as gently as possible, as sternly as necessary! I shudder to think what course my life would have taken had it not been for the heavenly Father’s patience, mercy, and love to His stubborn and wayward child.
I give thanks to God the Son. He loved me, and He went to the cross to save me from the sins that enslaved me, to crucify the record of guilt that the demonic powers used against me (Col. 2:13–15). He is my wisdom, my righteousness, my holiness and my redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). I now have a far more radical view of human wickedness and personal sin than before. For this very reason, I have a far more radical view of grace: what was long an important concept is now a preeminent reality.
I give thanks to God the Holy Spirit. He has enlightened me to understand the Bible and has enabled me to teach. He has armed me for battle against the flesh; and He has slowly been cultivating in my life such qualities as love, joy, peace, and patience. I well know my natural bent to selfishness, gloom, anxiety, and impatience; so when my heart is moved to love God or another person, I know the Holy Spirit has been at work.
For your own worship, I recommend a 30-day notebook. For each day, include (besides names of persons for whom to pray) a biblical psalm and a hymn of praise. You have a Bible. You may need a hymnbook: buy one, don’t take it from the church pew!
“My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed” (Ps. 71:23).