With many interruptions, we draw closer to the end of our Psalm 26. The final strophe says:
“But I walk in my innocence;
Redeem me and have mercy on me.
My foot stands on a straight path;
In the congregations I will bless the Lord.”
Now, there is a strange tension here, especially in the first two lines: I walk . . . redeem me. Which one is it? Is it about our works, or God’s? Is salvation by grace, or by works?
In truth, it is both – and indeed, how can we read the Bible without seeing that it’s constantly saying both things: God’s mercy and his justice; our call to righteousness and our need for a Savior; the necessity of our works, our “walk,” and the centrality of his redemption.
“Lord make us turn to you,” the Psalms say elsewhere: God makes us turn – and we turn. This is best thought of not as a shared work. We are not on an equal playing field with God, like two rowers each pulling an oar. Rather, in more abstract language, it is primary and secondary causality.
The real model is creation: God makes us – and we really exist. Creation is entirely God’s work; I contribute absolutely nothing. But when God creates me, I do exist. Indeed, to deny my existence would not uphold God’s strength, but deny it. He actually makes something happen.
So too with salvation: God does everything, I contribute nothing – yet when he restores me, brings me back to health, then I really am healthy. It’s not that God needs me to walk, or that I “contribute” my walk to God’s redemption. Rather, now that God has redeemed me, I can walk. That’s what his redemption does: it makes me able to walk – and, more importantly, makes me, really me, able to “bless the Lord.”
“Redemption” is a fabulous, rich word. The Latin roots of the word are re-, as in restoration – and emptio, which means buying. Properly, it is buying back a slave. When an enemy holds one of the Israelites hostage, his people can “ransom” him, buy back his freedom.
Redemption is restoration. The root idea is that there is a former state that can be restored. A parallel idea is “health” – and indeed, that is the root of the word “salvation,” in both Latin and Greek. Salvation is being salved, being healed. It means being restored to our nature.
That means we have a nature. We have a reality, which sin has deformed and wounded and enslaved. Redemption is the restoration of freedom, the freedom of the glory of the children of God, the freedom to be ourselves again – but our true selves were designed to find their happiness in God. We become human again, which means not randomly doing whatever, but turning again to the Lord, looking back to his face, as is our birthright. Redemption means being bought back from the slavery of sin to the freedom of glory.
Restoration means we have an original design, a way things are supposed to be, not because there are some rules written on high, but because we are discovering our true selves. This is the real meaning of “natural law,” a much abused term. In the Christian context, “natural law” doesn’t mean “what you can do without Christ.” It means, “the nature that Christ restores.” When grace makes us whole again – redeems us, heals us, restores us – then we again act like human beings.
We live marriage: which is natural, but which sin makes impossible. We live neighborliness. We work, and build, and garden. Above all, we worship, and give thanks to God for all the beauty of creation – and now, too, for the beauty of our restoration. We are restored, bought back, made ourselves again.
This is why Christ is true man: because he comes to restore man – not to replace him, not to make us into something else, not to leave our nature in the dust, but to make us human again. Redemption.
And that’s why “redeem me” does not negate “I will walk.” Redemption makes us walk again, makes us able to live again. Even more deeply, in the last line of our Psalm, it restores “the congregations” and lets us “bless the Lord”: Redemption means that the Church is our natural home, the natural place of love of neighbor and love of God.
And finally, “redeem me” is the true meaning of “have mercy on me.” Mercy does not leave us the same, does not merely overlook our faults. Mercy heals our faults. Mercy is not withholding punishment – or, not just withholding punishment. Mercy is God giving us gifts, grace, redemption.
How does Jesus want to make you more human?