How Can I Know? (Psalm 15:1–5)

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The question of assurance (of one’s salvation) is one of eternal import. It is also one that carries with it practical, temporal consequences. Assurance, or lack thereof, can lead to great joy or anxiety in the Christian’s life. Any pastor will tell you that one of the most frequent questions he addresses with his church is the question of assurance.

How can someone know whether they are accepted in God’s presence? How can they know if they will eternally abide with God? Psalm 15 addresses this all-important question. It provides the all-encompassing template, and points to the all-sufficient Saviour.

Entire volumes have been written on the subject of assurance, from different perspectives. Those of an Arminian persuasion typically argue that assurance is ultimately not possible. Those of a more Calvinistic persuasion generally argue that assurance is possible: for some by mere intellectual assent; for others (e.g. Lutherans) by direct assurance of the Spirit; and for others by the Spirit and self-examination.

The fact is, there are entire sections of Scripture dedicated to the question of assurance. John’s first epistle, for example, was written so that “you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). John offers there a series of tests of belief, life and love.

Regardless of differences in approaching the question of assurance, Arminians and Calvinists agree that presumption is a problem. In other words, all are agreed that we should never assume the gospel.

The Reformed view, of which I am persuaded, emphasises that those who are born again will manifest marks of the new birth—as a way of life. The Bible teaches the perseverance of the saints. Martin Luther emphasised that the Christian is the person who repents continually. The saved are being continually saved. Yes, they are saved in a moment by grace alone through faith alone, but this faith is manifested in good works, which continually sanctify the believer until they day he or she stands glorified in God’s presence (Ephesians 2:8–10). The work that God started in the believer will be brought to completion (Philippians 1:6), and the believer must work out his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12–16).

But it is not only the New Testament that helps us gain assurance. Indeed, Psalm 15 provides a wonderful template of the true church member. It gives us a wonderful grid on which we can place our profession of faith.

Though it is true that false assurance is a far more serious problem than no assurance, it is undeniable that assurance is a good and healthy thing. As Donald Whitney summarises,

Assurance of salvation is a God-given awareness that he has accepted the death of Christ on your behalf and forgiven you of your sins. It involves confidence that God loves you, that he has chosen you, and that you will go to heaven. Assurance includes a sense of freedom from the guilt of sin, relief from the fear of judgment, and joy in your relationship with God as your Father.

What Christian would not revel in such confidence, freedom, relief and joy? In order to gain some sense of assurance, let’s consider together this short psalm.

The All-Important Question

The psalm opens with an all-important question: “Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?” (v. 1). Assurance is so important for the Christian. The question posed here by David is the question we want everyone to ask. But we also want them to have the right answer.

The Context of the Question

We are not entirely sure of the context of this question. Many commentators believe that David wrote this psalm shortly after Uzzah was killed for touching the ark, when David tried to transport it back to Jerusalem on a new cart instead of having the Levites carry it, as God had instructed (see 2 Samuel 6; 1 Chronicles 13, 15). These interpreters suggest that David was so shaken by that display of Yahweh’s holiness that he started asking the question that we see posed at the beginning of this psalm: “How holy is God? How could I ever approach Him?”

Other interpreters think that this psalm was written as a reflection for the worshipper who was approaching the tabernacle/temple to worship. As they approached the holy place, they would ask the gatekeeper the question, and the gatekeeper would respond with vv. 2–5.

Either suggestion is possible, though we cannot prove it one way or another.

The Concern of the Question

Regardless of the historical context of the question, the concern is clear: It is to help the worshipper to know whether or not he is accepted by God. Those who approach God are haunted by a reverent awareness of who God is. They sense that things are serious. They want to be acceptable. They ask the all-important question, and this psalm serves to answer it.

This concern is important; it takes God seriously. Far too many people approach the things of God with shallow sentimentality. You often hear such sentimentality at funerals, but there is in fact no place for sentimentality when it comes to the things of God. This psalm is devoid of such sentimentality, but it is filled with truth.

Abiding in God’s presence must be our concern. If you are not concerned about that, then you should be! If you are concerned, be comforted that you are asking the right question and that there are right answers to this question. This psalm provides some of them.

The All-Encompassing Template

In vv. 2–5a, David answers the question that he poses in v. 1:

He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart; he who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbour, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but he honours those who fear the LORD; he who swears to his own hurt and does not change; he who does not put out his money at usury, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

(Psalm 15:2–5a)

As you read these words, you may wonder whether this is the definitive, all-descriptive answer to the question posed in v. 1. The answer is, yes and no.

It is not the all-descriptive answer because there is nothing here about justification. Justification is the doctrine upon which the church ultimately stands or falls. The Bible is clear that justification is by grace alone through faith alone apart from works of the law.

And yet, an old covenant worshipper could not come to worship without a sacrifice. Just because the sacrifice is not explicitly mentioned in this psalm does not mean that the worshipper arrived without a sacrifice. Indeed, he would not be granted access to the tabernacle without a sacrifice. The atonement is therefore assumed.

And so it is not an all-descriptive answer because there is no mention of justification by faith. On the other hand, it is an all-descriptive answer because there is no justification apart from sanctification. The mere act of bringing a sacrifice, the mere acknowledgement that a sacrifice was necessary, was insufficient. It must be attended by an appropriate lifestyle. This principle is clearly seen in Scripture.

For example, consider the words of Paul to the Romans:

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

(Romans 8:1–4)

For those who have been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, there is no condemnation. But since Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf, resulting in no condemnation for those who believe, He empowers us to fulfil the law practically. The righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in those who walk according to the Spirit.

Elsewhere, Paul wrote that Jesus has become wisdom from God for us—“and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30–31). Redemption and sanctification go hand in hand. Peter agreed, writing of the “elect” from whom “sanctification” and “obedience” are expected (1 Peter 1:1–2).

The clear, consistent testimony of Scripture is that works always flow from faith. As has often been said, we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone. Faith without works is dead (see James 2:14–26).

Some years ago, a pastor from another church came to see me. He told me that, in a meeting of several different pastors in the city, it had been concluded that they should disfellowship from me. I was accused of preaching a works-based salvation—simply because I affirm that obedience necessarily follow faith. To believers, Jesus said, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Again, He said to His disciples, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (John 15:10). Obedience does not save us, but it always flows from saving faith. The biblical gospel is a gospel that is powerful enough to change lives as well as locations. This psalm highlights this inseparable nature of saving faith—that belief and behaviour are two sides of the same coin.

So, what is this behaviour that flows from belief? What is characteristically true of those who have been accepted by God? Allen Ross suggests that there are ten distinct things that David speaks of here:

  1. Their personal conduct is blameless (2a).
  2. Their whole life is characterized by doing righteous acts (2b).
  3. They speak the truth sincerely (2c)
  4. They do not slander (3a).
  5. They do not cause others pain (3b).
  6. They do not bring reproach on others (3c)
  7. They distinguish between vile people and righteous people (4a).
  8. They hold to the sanctity of the oath (4b).
  9. They do not lend their money with interest (5a).
  10. They cannot be bribed (5b).1

For our purposes, I want to divide these characteristics into four categories, which describe integrity of life, wholeness of walk and talk. These things describe a man who practises what he preaches.

The Walk of God’s Guests

In the first place, we read something of this person’s walk. “He … walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart” (v. 2). This man’s words and works inform his walk.

The person who wishes to abide in God’s tabernacle and dwell in His holy hill must be one “who walks uprightly.” The word translated “uprightly” speaks of wholehearted commitment to God’s standard. Simon the sorcerer made a profession of faith and was baptised. Soon afterward, he saw the Spirit work powerfully through the ministry of the apostles, and he immediately offered money to the apostles to purchase the power of the Spirit. Peter’s rebuke to Simon displays him in the precise opposite light to Psalm 15: “You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:21–22).

The psalmist speaks of “works [of] righteousness.” “Righteousness” translates a word that speaks of moral and ethical rightness according to God’s standard. The accepted worshipper further “speaks the truth in his heart.” He is trustworthy; what he says corresponds to what reality. You can count on what he says; he is a man of his word.

This is someone who is pure in heart. The pure in heart will see God, and those who have seen God—who have been born again—are pure of heart.

The Words of God’s Guest

Verse 3 describes the words of God’s guests: “He who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbour, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend.” This has primarily to do with the worshipper’s words (cf. Ephesians 4:29).

The phrase “does not backbite” literally reads, “does not foot on his tongue.” This person does not go around slandering others. Not only does he not backbite, but he also does not “take up a reproach.” This speaks of picking up something discreditable, in the sense of raking it up unnecessarily. In other words, the accepted worshipper is a good neighbour. He is careful of how he speaks to and about others.

Saving faith saves our mouths. It transforms our view of others. It makes us secure so that there is no need to run others down.

The Worship of God’s Guests

David proceeds to speak of the worship of God’s guests: “In whose eyes a vile person is despised, but he honours those who fear the LORD; he who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (v. 4). The central thought here is “he honours those who fear the LORD.” When God is in our thoughts, there will always be right evaluations and right actions.

Because the Christian worships God, he despises, rather than idolises, the reprobate. He is careful about who he receives as his companions. He is not entertained by that which is reprobate. He honours, and wants to spend time with, those who honour God. After all, “he who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed” (Proverbs 13:20).

Because the Christian worships God, he will keep his promises—like God does. I recently read Boston Strong, the story of the terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon in 2013. The book traces the story of many of the police officers and first responders who assisted the injured after the bombing. One of the responding officers had some years before been offered a highly sought-after position with the Boston Police. He refused it because he had just days earlier accepted a position working as a campus police officer at MIT. When the commissioner heard that he was refusing the position in favour of a campus police job, he somewhat mockingly and disbelievingly asked if he was really giving up a position in the Boston police force to work for a university, the officer replied, “Yes, because I gave them my word.”

As Christians, we are to be people of integrity. We are to keep our word—with or without oaths.

The Wealth of God’s Guests

The final characteristic of the accepted worshipper has to do with his wealth: “He who does not put out his money at usury, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent” (v. 5).

This does not condemn charging interest in a commercial enterprise, but only taking advantage of the poor. The accepted worshipper does not take advantage of the financial plight of others. They are compassionate. This verses, says Boice, concerns greed eclipsing justice. Those who have been born again have a heart for justice.

Not only are the compassionate, but they are also not for sale. They do not take bribes.

Here is the point: No one can pervert justice and expect fellowship with the righteous judge of the earth. Our experience of justification should make us more just. William Wilberforce was driven to spearhead the anti-slavery movement because he grasped the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The doctrine of justification made him just and gave him a heart for others.

Has the doctrine of justification made a difference in your life? How do you treat those who are purer than you? How do you treat those whom you employ? Just treatment of others is a cardinal mark of saving faith.

The All-Sufficient Saviour

David now concludes: “He who does these things shall never be moved” (v. 5). I must admit, I read these words at face value and feel shaken. I fail so often in these things that I hardly feel as if I cannot be moved. But as I realise my own insufficiency in these areas, it helps me to appreciate anew the sacrifice of the one who met all these requirements on my behalf.

We fail all the time, but Jesus never did. He alone could say, “The Father has not left me alone, for I always do those things that please Him” (v. 29). He kept His word to His own hurt so that we would not have to be hurt. He turned away from bribes. He did all righteousness. He satisfied all justice. He loved God and His neighbour. Because of that, He has entered God’s tabernacle and dwells in God’s holy hill, and we can enjoy those benefits in Him.

Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O you gates! Lift up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory.

(Psalm 24:7–10)

Hallelujah, what a Saviour! Do you know Him? If you do, you can know that you are saved. If you are God’s, you may be shaken, but you will never be shaken loose.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on Psalms, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 387).