What You Need to Know about Answering Atheists

Psalm 14:1   |   Sunday, April 15, 2007   |   Code: 2007-04-15-PJ

 By Phil Johnson

      Psalm 14 is our text for tonight. It's a familiar one. This is one of two nearly identical psalms that start out this way: "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'"

     This is a message for atheists.

     Now, the minute I say that, most of you are thinking, This really doesn't apply to me. Here's the disturbing thing about this psalm: it is explicitly applied to each one of us. It's all about the universality of human depravity and unbelief. This is one of the key texts in the Old Testament that talks about the doctrine of depravity and the fallenness of the entire human race. And it makes clear that at the very core of our sin-problem is a rebellious heart of unbelief. There's an element of atheism in every one of our hearts, and this psalm exposes that reality. It condemns us all, and shows in the plainest possible language how thoroughly and completely sinful we are.

     This is a truth we don't often think about, and we don't like to think about it, because it brings us face to face with the reality of our guilt.

     And there is no way to escape the verdict of this psalm. Here we see the awful state of all humanity apart from the grace of God. We learn that if God did not intervene to bestow on us His grace, all of us would be as contemptible in our evil-doings as the most base, degenerate criminal who ever lived. There is atheism in our hearts. This is not an easy truth to confront, much less to embrace the truth of it with a whole heart. Our tendency is to look for excuses; to tell ourselves we're not really as bad as the psalmist is telling us we are; or worst of all, to look at others and tell ourselves we're not as bad as they are. But we are.

     So as we work our way through this text tonight, let yourself be convicted by what it is saying. Embrace the truth of this psalm with a chastened and repentant heart—because any other kind of response to this text simply proves that you are indeed infected with the exact kind of unbelief that is exposed and condemned by the psalm.

     A couple of background comments on this psalm. before we get into the text:

     First, notice the inscription. Depending on what Bible you use, the inscription should be printed as small text just before the actual opening words of the psalm. Or if you are using the ESV, it's printed in small caps at the start of verse 1. Not all the psalms have inscriptions, but many do, and it's is part of the inspired text. The inscription here says: "To the choirmaster. Of David." Psalm 14 is the ninth of 53 psalms in the psalter dedicated "To the choirmaster [or chief Musician.]" I've pointed this out before when we have studied various psalms. The dedication to the minister of music means that this psalm was not intended merely for private use, but it was to be sung in the assembly. It was appointed to be sung by the great choir in public worship.

     Over the years here we have studied Psalm 51 and Psalm 13. Both of those psalms are also dedicated "to the chief musician." Psalm 51, you'll recall, is a penitential psalm, a psalm of repentance. Psalm 13 is both a sigh of despair and a song of triumph. I'm pretty sure I have commented in the past how strange it seems (especially set against the backdrop of 21st-century evangelicalism, with our irrepressibly happy worship music)—how out of step with our concept of worship—that psalms of lament and psalms of complaint were employed in public worship. Psalm 51 is a very personal recounting of David's repentance. It is full of personal shame and deep sorrow—not the kind of thing we would think of making into a congregational hymn or a praise chorus. And Psalm 13 begins with a complaint—deep frustration—about the way God often delays coming to the aid of His people.

     But this psalm strikes me as an even more unlikely candidate for public singing. It is a purely doctrinal psalm, containing little or no praise.    This is a musical lament—a dirge, really—on the themes of fallenness, corruption, and guilt. It's a bitterly sorrowful song teaching an important doctrinal lesson—about the utter, fallen sinfulness of all humanity—not exactly material for making a joyful noise. In other words, the doctrine it deals with is the doctrine of human depravity. It's a distasteful truth, but a necessary one. Remember, the psalms are songs of worship. And the very starting of worship is the confession of our sin—not just reciting a list of specific acts of sin, but the wholehearted confession of our own thorough sinfulness. We aren't just guilty because of things we have done. Our true guilt lies in the awful reality that we are sinful at the very core of our being. To use the common expression of Calvinist teaching, we are totally depraved. And this is a hymn about total depravity. It is a song of humiliation and confession and woe.

     The psalmist is clearly not aiming to write a popular song. There is simply no way to make this doctrine appealing or attractive to the human mind. It is a doctrine that utterly disgraces and abases us. It is not something we celebrate. And yet (as I said) the first confession made by every truly worshiping heart is an affirmation that our own hearts are helplessly fallen and miserable, and we are totally powerless to redeem ourselves. Not the kind of stuff you will typically hear coming from the average praise band.

     Yet here this psalm is in a prominent place in the psalter, put there for singing in public worship. Furthermore, you'll find an almost identical psalm if you look at Psalm 53. The most pronounced difference between these two psalms is that Psalm 14 uses YHWH as the name for God, and Psalm 53 uses Elohim. Other than that, the two psalms are essentially the same (with just slight variations in the wording). Both are addressed to the chief musician. So this psalm, which may seem totally unsuitable for public worship from our postmodern perspective, seems to have been a familiar and frequently-sung elegy in the corporate worship of Israel. And as if to underscore the importance of this psalm, the apostle Paul cited it as the centerpiece and the definitive argument in his exposition of the doctrine of human depravity in Romans 3.

     Now remember that this is an inspired hymn. That suggests to me that didactic hymns—songs that teach doctrine—are just as appropriate in worship as songs of direct praise to God. Augustine taught—and some people to this day believe—that nothing but praise to God should be sung in public worship. But here we see that God himself inspired songs whose sole purpose was to teach doctrine. It's too bad that so much of the hymnology of the past century more or less abdicated that didactic role. Most of the gospel songs that dominated our grandparents' generation were expressions of personal experience and testimony: "I'm standing on the promises"; "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder"; "Since Jesus Came into My heart"—up to and including "He Touched Me." Nothing wrong with songs of testimony, but sometimes the content got pretty thin: "I Come to the Garden Alone, While the Dew Is Still on the Roses." Or, "There's a Church in the Valley by the Wildwood." "Now I am happy all the day." I hesitate to offend the old people in our midst, but some of the songs we grew up with are worse than any of the contemporary stuff.

     More recently we have seen a flood of praise choruses. Many of them are good and biblical, but they tend to rely a little too heavily on simple repetition—and some of them turn out to be songs about me: "Here I am to Worship." "This Is the Air I Breathe." Or that classic song of praise: "I'm special"—which includes these unforgettable lines: "Help me . . . To know deep in my heart / That I'm Your special friend."

     My favorite hymns are the ones with a more didactic purpose. They contain doctrinal content. Their aim is to teach us something or affirm something we know about God: "Immortal, Invisible, God only-wise." There are contemporary examples of this, too: "The Power of the Cross"; "In Christ Alone"; and "Before the Throne of God Above."

     Scripture tells us, in Colossians 3:16, that one of the primary purposes of "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" is for "teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom." Which means our singing should engage the mind and heart as well as feelings.

     And sometimes, as in the case of this psalm, the purpose of our worship is not to make us feel good, but to convict us and make us feel bad about ourselves—and thereby remind us of our desperate need for God's grace. That is a legitimate—even necessary—aspect of true worship.

     So the theme of this psalm is the doctrine of human depravity. It declares not only the loathsome wickedness of sin, but also the absolute universality of human depravity. It's not merely that everyone sins—as if we are fundamentally good, but we all slip up from time to time. No, the condition of fallen humanity is much worse than that: "There is none who does good." The entire psalm is a relentless denunciation of all humanity, ending with a plea for salvation, which can only come from God—because we are incapable of saving ourselves.

     That's why in Romans 3, when Paul was making the point that all of mankind are thoroughly depraved, he quoted this psalm as the cornerstone of his argument—Jews, Gentiles, and religious pagans alike. You are going to see this, because one of the key points of this psalm is that the taint of sin on humanity is universal. "All have sinned." All fall short of God's standard. Worse, it is the nature of each and every person to hate God, and sinners invariably attempt to depose Him and replace Him with gods of their own making. Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, every person is guilty of that. That is the very definition of sin in the first place. It is rebellion against God.

     That is the very message of this psalm. "The fool says in his heart, ' . . . no God.'" That's not merely a description of theoretical atheism; it's an expression that encompasses every kind of practical atheism, including every expression of rebellion against God, and the stance of anyone who tells God no. And the central lesson is that humanity's rejection of God is sheer folly—irrational, defiling, debasing, ultimately self-destructive. And yet all humanity follows precisely the same wrong path. "There is none who does good" (v. 1).

     Now, someone will say, "But I always thought this psalm is describing the folly of atheists—people who deny God's existence." Well, it certainly includes that. Atheism is the ultimate expression of human depravity, as we see in Romans 1. The natural tendency of the human heart to suppress knowledge of God, to deny what we know of Him, to cast him in the form of an image that is something infinitely less than he really is. Paul says of sinful humanity in Romans 1:28, "They did not like to retain God in their knowledge." That's the direction in which our sinfulness draws us. It is often expressed as full-fledged atheism, a denial of the existence of God.

     But what the psalmist describes here covers far more than extreme expressions of philosophical atheism. In fact, I would suggest that what he primarily has in mind is practical atheism. Verse 1 in the Hebrew literally translates to this: "The fool has said in his heart, No, God." If you think about it, you'll see that all forms of disobedience are really a form of practical atheism. If we really believed that God is God and that all He says is true, we would obey Him. Disobedience always has unbelief at its root. That is why it is utterly inane for anyone to teach that a person can become a believer in Christ and never yield Him one act of obedience. The person who consistently, habitually, unrepentantly disobeys Christ like that is still in unbelief, no matter what profession he makes with his lips.

     So the atheism described in this psalm is a kind of practical atheism of which we are all guilty. And lest you think you are exempt, just listen as we work through this psalm. Quite simply, it leaves no room for any of us to think we are above the sort of ungodliness and unbelief described here.

     So with that as background, let's look at the psalm. I'm going to read it, and as I do, pay careful attention to this theme of the universality of human depravity throughout. We're not supposed to read this and think it describes someone else. The great lesson of this psalm is that every one of us is tainted with the corruption described here. Every one of us is guilty of everything this psalm describes:

14:1 To the choirmaster. Of David. The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.

2 The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.

3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the LORD?

5 There they are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous.

6 You would shame the plans of the poor, but the LORD is his refuge.

7 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.

Now let's break down the message of that psalm systematically. It describes the universal corruption of humanity. It shows how the tendency of the entire human race is toward a sort of practical atheism. And it graphically describes four awful fruits of the ungodliness with which we are all infected. Let me enumerate these four wicked traits of ungodliness for you, and we'll deal with them one by one. First is:


1. Folly

     You see this in verses 1-2. All forms of disobedience and unbelief are sheer folly. It is foolish to say there is no God. It is equally foolish to live as if there were no God. It may be the greatest folly of all to profess faith in God and yet live as if He did not exist.

     Note David's words very carefully here. He is speaking about a heart confession, not merely what we say with our lips. Jesus actually condemned people for drawing near to Him with their lips when their heart was far from Him (Matt. 15:8). Jeremiah 12:2 describes Israel in similar terms. Jeremiah told the Lord, "You are near in their mouth and far from their heart."

     That is the very essence of practical atheism: to say in one's heart, "No, God."

     Did you realize that some of the most religious people in the world are practical atheists? In Isaiah 29:13, God condemns the religious Israelites for this very thing: "And the Lord said: "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men." I like the New American Standard Bible's translation of that last phrase: "Their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote." That is practical atheism. Although it wears a religious face, it is the worst kind of unbelief, because it emanates from the heart, saying, "No, God."

     Here David plainly labels it folly—absurdity, senselessness, stupidity—moral and spiritual insanity. Those who live their lives this way, those who in their hearts deny God, the psalmist classifies as "fools." It's an appropriate label, because it is the very height of folly to deny God—especially when we try to gloss it over with lip service. Spurgeon wrote,

To say there is no God is to belie the plainest evidence, which is obstinacy; to oppose the common consent of mankind, which is stupidity; to stifle consciousness, which is madness. If the sinner could by his atheism destroy the God whom he hates there [might be] some sense, although much wickedness, in his infidelity; but as denying the existence of fire does not prevent its burning a man who is in it, so doubting the existence of God will not stop the Judge of all the earth from destroying the rebel who breaks his laws . . .

How does the folly of unbelief and ungodliness manifest itself? David lists several symptoms of this folly here: abominable works, an utter lack of any good works, and a refusal to seek God.

     I want you to see this clearly. God wants us to seek Him. Verse 2 says, "The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God." Scripture is full of commands for humanity to seek God. Isaiah 8:19 says, "Should not a people seek unto their God?" (KJV). Isaiah 55:6-7, one of the most tender appeals of divine grace in all of Scripture, says this:

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;

7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Again and again, God pleads with sinners to seek Him. Do they seek Him?

     Here's the shocking truth this psalm is teaching us: left to themselves, not one single sinner would ever seek God. Despite all His tender pleas, no matter the abundance of His goodness, regardless of what is reasonable and sensible, not one sinner ever seeks God on his own initiative.

     Paul, quoting this psalm in Romans 3:11-12, makes that very point: "No one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." The obstinacy of the human heart against God is universal. That is why Jesus said, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44).

     The corruption of the human heart is so deep, and the unregenerate person's bondage to sin is so thorough that no matter what incentive we are given, no matter how warm the divine appeal, no one seeks God.

     For at least three decades now, we have been hearing about "Seeker sensitive worship." The idea is that there are lots of people out there truly and sincerely seeking God, and if we can be nice enough or persuasive enough, we ought to be able to talk them into the kingdom. So churches tone down the offense of the gospel and try to make unbelievers comfortable with Christianity, thinking that will attract some of these people who are out there seek Christ. But Scripture is clear: there is no one who, on their own initiative, truly seeks God.

     This is such a difficult truth. We all know people who seem to be seeking. What about them? There is certainly an abundance of people today who claim they are seeking God. What about all these people? What are we to think of them? Are they self-deceived, or merely lying about seeking God? And what about the many Christians who are prepared to testify that they sought God, and that is how they came to faith in Christ? Perhaps you even look back in your own life to a time before your salvation when you believe you were seeking God. How do we reconcile those things with Scripture?

     Well, first of all, it is important to see that most people who claim to be seeking God really are not. Some are lying; most are self-deceived. They are seeking a god who exists only in their own imaginations. They want a different god rom the One who reveals Himself in Scripture. They are looking for a less-demanding, more sin-tolerant supreme being. They sense their need for spiritual healing and completeness; but they would prefer to get it by means that don't involve conviction, repentance, and the confession of sin.

     I've spent some time ministering in India, and that nation is filled with people who are seeking alternative gods. They'll follow human gurus of all kinds. They have invented every imaginable kind of religion. Some worship animals, or demonic beings—anything but the God who has revealed himself in Scripture. That is precisely the path the Apostle Paul says unbelief always takes. Romans 1:21-23:

Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,

23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Now just a few verses earlier, Paul says that some knowledge of God is innate in the human heart. God made us to know Him, and He implanted some rudimentary knowledge about Him in our hearts. That's why we have an instinctive sense of things like beauty, and justice, and good and evil—concepts mere animals would never think of or appreciate. When is the last time you saw a dog admire the sky at sunset? The only thing my Beagle has that kind of admiration for is the backs of his own eyelids. He has no sense of awe at the majesty of nature. He has no sense of moral values, no appreciation of the splendor of the night sky; so concept of the glory of God as it is reflected in nature.

     But that very knowledge is built into every sentient human heart. Romans 1:19-20: "what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." And it's right at that very point in the text where Paul says "although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . [They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images. . . . They exchanged the truth about God for a lie. . . . [And] they did not see fit to acknowledge God, [so] God gave them up to a debased mind."

     Notice that Paul, just like the psalmist, labels this rebellion against the knowledge of God folly. And corrupted religion—everything from the worship of birds and fourfooted beasts and creeping things to the most elegant kind of humanistic moralism—all manmade religion is the worst and most deadly kind of folly, because it pretends to be worship, but it opposes the true God at the most fundamental level.

     The closest parallel I can think of would be those insects who hide from the light in the daytime, and then kill themselves trying to fly into an artificial light at night. Did you ever wonder about that? Why is it that these insects that only come out at night are always attracted to sources of light? You'd think if light were what they wanted, they'd be daytime insects. Instead, they stay hidden from the sun all day, and then after dark, they buzz around every source of artificial light they can find, often burning themselves to death by coming too close to a light bulb or something.

     That is exactly the way with people and false religion. People in sin will go to any extreme to avoid the true God. (According to John 3:19, "people [love] the darkness rather than the light because their works [are] evil.") But then they mollify themselves and salve their guilty consciences by following after false religion, even at the price of losing their souls eternally. We all have this tendency. No one truly seeks after God on their own initiative.

     In fact, this is a remarkable thing: if you have come to genuine faith in Christ—even if you thought there was a time when you were seeking Him—the truth is, it was He who was seeking and drawing you. I already read in John 6:44 where Jesus said plainly that we cannot come to Him without being drawn by God. Here's another verse from that same context, John 6:45: "No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father." Why can't they come? Because their hearts are so sinful they will not come. They refuse. Jesus told the Pharisees in John 5:40: "You refuse to come to me that you may have life." That reflects the stubborn refusal that is inherent in every fallen heart. In the words of our text (Psalm 14:2-3), "The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one."

     So how is it that we come to Christ? Those of us who love Him and rust Him—how did we find Him if it was against our nature to seek Him? There's a famous Presbyterian hymn that I know I have quoted before that was written about this very topic. The hymn says it like this:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew

He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me;

It was not I [who] found, O Savior true;

No, I was found of Thee.

So if you sought Christ, you can know with certainty that He sought you first and drew you to Himself. "We love [Him] because he first loved us" (John 4:19). You did not become a Christian because you are a better person, or any less of a fool, than the atheist who still insists there is no God. You didn't come to Jesus because you set out on a quest to find Him. He himself testifies: "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me." That's Romans 10:20, and it is a Reference to a famous prophecy from Isaiah 65. Listen to Isaiah 65:1-5, from the New American Standard Bible. This is God speaking. More accurately, this is Christ, speaking prophetically:

I permitted Myself to be sought by those who did not ask for Me; I permitted Myself to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said, 'Here am I, here am I,' To a nation which did not call on My name.

2 "I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, Who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts,

3 A people who continually provoke Me to My face, Offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on bricks;

4 Who sit among graves and spend the night in secret places; Who eat swine's flesh, And the broth of unclean meat is in their pots.

5 "Who say, 'Keep to yourself, do not come near me, For I am holier than you!' These are smoke in My nostrils, A fire that burns all the day.

And the rebellious tendency described there is by no means unique to Israel. That's the point of our text: Incorrigible rebellion against God is a universal problem, and every person is guilty of it.

     So it is only by the grace of God that you were drawn to Him and given spiritual eyes to see. The folly of atheism—especially practical atheism—is universal. It is the fruit of our fallenness; a natural and inevitable byproduct of ungodliness—folly.

     Here's a second fruit of ungodliness:


2. Filthiness

     You see this in verse 3 (and remember this is talking about each and every one of us in our fallen, unregenerate state): "Together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one." There is no good where there is no God. Behavior is inextricably related to belief; practice always grows out of principles. As we are seeing in every facet of our culture, you cannot reject God without reaping the fruit of wickedness. Verse 3 calls it filthiness. That's the exact word you'll find in the King James Version: "They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy." The Hebrew word translated "filthy" there literally means "stinking." It evokes an image of the worst sort of putrid, rotting, stinking corruption. That is what wickedness is like in the sight of God. It is a stench in His nostrils.

     And make no mistake: Wherever God is scorned and rejected, ungodly behavior will rule. Those who doubt God will inevitably disobey Him. Atheistic thoughts about God will lead to ungodly behavior.

     After all, if there is no God, then there is no basis for the concepts of right and wrong, good and evil. Reject God, and you have rejected every reason for ethical and moral standards. Because if there is no God, how can there be any meaningful guilt attached to sin? There is no accountability. Therefore nothing is really right, and nothing is really wrong. The horrible dangers of that sort of thinking are manifest everywhere you turn.

     Look at how bleak a picture of humanity is painted by these verses: "They are corrupt" (v. 1); "They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good." Verse 3: "They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one." Verse 4: They are "evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the LORD." In other words, they thrive on the most destructive kinds of wickedness, including persecution of those who are redeemed—as if evil were the main staple of their diet.

     Again, Paul makes clear in Romans 3 that these verses do not just describe a certain class of humanity. They apply universally to all of us. This is our natural tendency. The only means we have to escape the folly and the filthiness described here is the grace of God. Only He can lift us up out of the miry clay and set our feet on a rock.

     A third fruit of ungodliness:


3. Fear

     Look at verse 5: "There they are in great terror." The parallel verse in Psalm 53, the psalm that is almost identical to this, says this: "There they are, in great terror, where there is no terror!"

     The ungodly live in fear, even when there is no cause for fear. And ironically, what they ought to fear they do not. Romans 3:18 says, "There is no fear of God before their eyes."

     But one of the fruits of ungodliness is a cowardly, craven fear.

     See, there are two kinds of fear described in Scripture. One is the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom. In Luke 12:4-5, Jesus said,

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.

5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

Psalm 111:10 says this: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding."

     But here in Psalm 14, David has already established that he is describing people who reject God. They have no legitimate fear of Him. They don't keep His commandments or praise Him. Therefore they are left with an irrational, ungodly kind of fear. It is a coward's fear. It seethes with hatred of God rather than reverence for Him.

     Spurgeon wrote this:

Notwithstanding their real cowardice, the wicked put on the lion's skin and lord it over the Lord's poor ones. Though fools themselves, they mock at the truly wise as if the folly were on their side; but this is what might be expected, for how should brutish minds appreciate excellence, and how can those who have owl's eyes admire the sun? The special point and butt of their jest seems to be the confidence of the godly in their Lord. What can your God do for you now? Who is that God who can deliver out of our hand? Where is the reward of all your praying and beseeching? Taunting questions of this sort they thrust into the faces of weak but gracious souls, and tempt them to feel ashamed of their refuge.

That's what verse 6 means, "You would shame the plans of the poor, but the LORD is his refuge." Although the ungodly secretly tremble with craven fear, they mock and heap scorn on the heads of those who find refuge in the Lord. They pretend it is a foolish thing to trust God, when in reality the most foolish thing of all is not trusting Him.

     Sometimes it appears to us from the human perspective that the enemies of God have virtually triumphed. The whole society in which we live is in bondage to the kind of philosophical and practical atheism this psalm describes. There may be times when the people of God are tempted to despair, thinking what if evil ultimately triumphs over the purpose and plan of God?

     But that will never be. No matter how pervasive evil appears to be, it can never triumph over the plan of God. And that fact brings us to the fourth and ultimate fruit of ungodliness:


4. Failure

     Look at verse 7 (and I'm reading from the New American Standard Bible, because I prefer the way this verse is translated there. The ESV says "Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad." It sounds like a wish, a subjunctive. But the New American Standard translates it—properly, I think—as a settled indicative): "When the LORD restores His captive people, Jacob will rejoice, Israel will be glad." There's a note of emphatic triumphalism in the declaration. There is a certainty in those words that cannot be shaken by doubt. God will ultimately deliver His people, and that means that the ungodly will ultimately fail. The sort of atheism described in this Psalm will not be found in hell. A old puritan commentary on this psalm contains this ditty:

"On earth are atheists many,

In hell there is not any.

The ultimate failure of the ungodly is as certain as the ultimate triumph of God. God will redeem His people from their captivity, and that spells ultimate doom for those who hate Him.

     No matter how much it appears to us in this life that the wicked prosper and enjoy success, the ultimate end of all human wickedness is nothing but failure and defeat.

     That is perhaps the main reason why ungodliness is such utter folly. In both Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1, Scripture promises success and spiritual prosperity to those who love the Lord and meditate on His Word. But, Psalm 1 goes on to say:

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6 for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

First Timothy 6:6 says, "There is great gain in godliness with contentment." But there is no gain whatsoever in ungodliness. Its ultimate end is always only failure—abject, eternal failure.


     All right, now it's tempting to read a passage like this and imagine that it applies to someone else. We all tend to think of the most wicked people we know, and say, Yup, that applies to him!

     But I want to stress again that the whole thrust of this passage is designed to teach the universality of humanity's wickedness. Look at verses 2 and 3 again:

The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.

3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

And when Paul cited this passage in Romans 3, that was the very point he stressed. All of us are condemned by this psalm. We are all guilty of the ungodliness described here. We are all in the same sinking boat, and according to Scripture, there is absolutely nothing we can do to change ourselves.

     Our only hope is divine grace. God can change our hearts. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, he says,

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Notice that it is God who makes the change. It is He alone who can transform us. That was the very passage of Scripture Jesus referred to when he spoke to Nicodemus about the new birth. Remember, He said to Nicodemus in John 3:10, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?" Nicodemus should have known about the doctrine of human depravity. He should have known of his need for regeneration. He should have known that only God can implant a new heart, and new, righteous desires in a person. All of that was taught in the law and the psalms and the prophets.

     The gospel simply tells us how God made such salvation possible: Jesus Christ died to pay sin's penalty. Having lived a perfect life of flawless obedience to the law of God, He died the death of a sinner—not for his own sins, because although He was "tempted as we are [put to the test, subjected to every enticement], yet [He was totally] without sin," according to Hebrews 4:15. He is "holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens" (in the words of Hebrews 7:26). He "knew no sin," Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Peter agrees (1 Peter 1:22: "He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. [He was perfect in every way. So why did He die? Why was he crucified? Verse 24 says,] He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree."

     And He offers His perfect life in exchange for our sin. That is the gospel. "Christ . . . suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." That's 1 Peter 1:18.

     We are not to think that we can reform ourselves enough to earn God's favor. The only hope for the person described in this psalm is the grace of God. He alone can give you a new heart, and new, godly desires. "He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior" (Titus 3:5-6).

     That salvation comes simply and freely to those who believe. Atheism—both deliberate philosophical atheism and practical, religious atheism, will damn you and imprison you forever in utter bondage to: folly, filthiness, fear, and failure. The opposite is faith—trust in Christ alone as Lord and Savior. "For by grace [are] you . . . saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." That is the way of salvation, and that is the good news of the gospel of Christ. It is the only remedy for the hopeless corruption and vile depravity that is described in this psalm.