The Psalms: A Mentor to Our Spiritual Experience

How do we think about the Old Testament saint’s believing experience in relation to our own?  Perhaps we think better of them than we do of ourselves!  Or maybe we use them as an excuse for our bad behavior.  For instance, how many times has David’s name been invoked as an excuse for unfaithfulness?  But even then David is viewed as someone who had a spiritual experience beyond our own and therefore if he could sin, well then, why should I be different?  What we are really saying is, “If David, who had a great spiritual life, sinned, then I, with a lesser spiritual life, cannot be expected to do any better.”  To put it differently and more generally, we, New Testament saints, treat the experience of the Old Testament saint as if it were beyond our own believing experience.  But is it?  Should we think of ourselves as always trying to reach the spiritual level of an Old Testament saint?  Let me ask an objective question.  What does our theology teach us about this question?

Well, first our theology tells us that Old Testament believers were saved in the same way that a New Testament believer is saved, through the gospel.  Consider, for example, Westminster Confession chapter eight and section six, which says, "Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after His incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types and sacrifices, where He was revealed..." Yes, in the Old Testament the "covenant was differently administered" yet the "promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come..." (WCF 7.5). According to our theology, whether one is under the Old Testament or the New Testament we are saved the same way, which is why Paul says that “the Scripture…preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” and so called him a believer (cf. Galatians 3:7-9).

However, in chapter twenty of the Westminster Confession, we are told that the spiritual experience from the Old Testament to the New Testament is quite different. After listing the benefits of liberty in Christ in section one, the authors of the Confession remind us that all of these gospel benefits "were common also to believers under the law. But under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged..." (20.1). The benefits that are listed are freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and fuller communications of the free Spirit of God "than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of." Thus, the Old Testament and New Testament believer enjoy the same Spirit but a difference in frequency, intimacy, intensity, and extent with regard to the Spirit's communion and thus a different spiritual experience.  Let me put it another way.  Where the experience of the Old Testament believer ends is exactly where the experience of the New Testament believer begins. 

Think for a minute about how amazing it is that God gives the gospel to both Old and New Testament believers and neither group will ever come to the end of the treasures found therein.  The Psalms are the same.  Here is a book given by the inspiration of God to the Old and New Testament saints. It is a book infinitely usable by both no matter the era.  This is why Calvin said,

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.[1]

The Old Testament believer could sing in anticipation of Christ and the New Testament believer sings in light of the Psalm’s fulfillment of promises, sacrifices and types by Christ and yet the Psalms minister to the spiritual experience of both groups no matter their place in the exfoliating plan of redemption. Yet, we might ask how that can be the case since revelation is progressive.  Martin Luther is able to help us at this point. In his preface to the Psalms he said,

But the Psalms are especially dear and valuable from their detailing to us, so clearly and prophetically, the death and resurrection of Christ; and so declaring his kingdom, and the state and spirit of Christianity, that they may be fairly called a little Bible, in which everything that is in the whole Bible is contained in a beautiful and compendious manner; and they may be considered, therefore, a preparatory vade mecum or hand-book to it.[2]

He went on to echo the words of Calvin. 

[the] Psalms are a book for all religious men, and that every reader, under every circumstance of life, meets with words which apply to his own situation, and which seem so adapted to his case that he could neither compose, discover, or desire anything which so little required alteration or improvement.[3]

We ought to praise God for the Psalter.  What is more, we are in desperate need of the Psalms today. We need them as a guide for our spiritual experience.  Our current culture is in a state of disarray and we need a place to stand.  We need a mentor and guide.  The Holy Spirit’s Psalms are just that.  They are a place to begin and we will find that we will not come to the end of their value or usefulness in the Christian life.  Tolle Lege the Psalms!

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth ( an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 

[1] Calvin, J., & Anderson, J. (2010). Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Vol. 1, pp. xxxvi–xxxvii). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[2] the preface to the Psalms begins on page 43.

[3] Ibid.


Jeffrey Stivason