Psalm 51 | What Repentance Is and Does

Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God

51 To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

  1    Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

       according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

  2    Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin!

  3    For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me.

  4    Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight,

       so that you may be justified in your words

and blameless in your judgment.

  5    Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,

and in sin did my mother conceive me.

  6    Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,

and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

  7    Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

  8    Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones that you have broken rejoice.

  9    Hide your face from my sins,

and blot out all my iniquities.

10    Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

11    Cast me not away from your presence,

and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

12    Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and uphold me with a willing spirit.

13    Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

and sinners will return to you.

14    Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,

O God of my salvation,

and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.

15    O Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will declare your praise.

16    For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;

you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

17    The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18    Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;

build up the walls of Jerusalem;

19    then will you delight in right sacrifices,

in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;

then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Introduction

It all started with a parable.

“There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very large flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised her, and she grew up with him and with his children. From his meager food she would eat, from his cup she would drink, and in his arms she would sleep. She was like a daughter to him. 4 Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man could not bring himself to take one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guest.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

Nathan, the prophet, shared that parable with King David. The injustice outraged David, and rightly so, but it’s nothing compared to what David did.

He sent his armies into battle but stayed home. One day, as he was taking a walk, he saw his friend Uriah’s wife bathing. He sent for her, committed adultery, and she became pregnant. David called Uriah home from the battle and tried to cover his sin by sending him to his wife. But Uriah's loyalty to his brothers in combat kept him away. So, David wrote a letter to his commander and sent it back with Uriah. Inside the letter, which Uriah never opened, were David’s instructions to set Uriah in the front line, draw back, and let him die. David committed adultery, committed murder, and went on about life. But God saw, and God knew.

Almost a year later, God sent Nathan with a parable to confront David about his sin. David was struck to the heart and cried out, “I have sinned against the Lord.” As a result, David didn’t die, but his son with Bathsheba did.

What do you do when you know you’ve done something wrong but you don’t know the path forward. You feel helpless and lost. You can’t undo what you’ve done but you can’t live with it either. What do you do? You repent.

Psalm 51 is David’s prayer of repentance. And it tells us two things: What repentance is and what repentance does.

First, what repentance is.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines repentance as “a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.”

Repentance is not only turning from your sin. It is turning to God. It’s not just feeling sorry. It’s being convicted, becoming inwardly humbled and visibly reformed. It’s a directional change in your life from sin to God.

It’s one of the foundations of Christianity. It’s mentioned over 60 times in the NT. Jesus’ first words in his ministry were “Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). You can’t understand Christianity without it.

For those of you who trust Christ for salvation, this isn’t new. But as the Reformer, Martin Luther said, the whole of the Christian’s life is to be one of repentance.

For those who don’t yet trust Jesus for salvation, let me ask you, what do you do with your guilt? What do you do with the bad things you’ve done and thought? How are you going to change? The Christian gospel has the answer. I’m pleading with you, listen to David’s story, David’s words, and David’s Lord.

So, what repentance is. Repentance is three things.

First, repentance is turning from sin.

Look at verses 1-5.

  1    Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

       according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

  2    Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin!

  3    For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me.

  4    Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight,

       so that you may be justified in your words

and blameless in your judgment.

  5    Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,

and in sin did my mother conceive me.

It’s not just adultery and murder that separate us from God. Every sin is treason against our Creator. So, lest we think we are better than David, let us see that our sin is just as wicked in God’s eyes.

Seeing the sins of others is easy. But seeing our own sin is hard. It took David nearly a year and a prophet from God to see it. When he does, he uses strong words about himself. He turns. He refuses to blame-shift, or make excuses. He owns up. In verses 1-5 he admits his sin: “my transgressions,” “my sin,” “my iniquity.” In transgressing, he knowingly steps over the law. In sin, he misses the mark of righteousness. In iniquity, he twists what God has made straight. He calls these acts what they are: evil. In verse 5, he admits he’s always been a sinner. He was born with it.

Repentance begins when we start using I and my. Personalizing our sin creates sorrow over it. And we start hating our sin when we see what it does to our relationship with God. You’ll never turn from a sin you don’t hate.

So, we need to see that sin is always first against God. Every sin you’ve committed is because you loved something else more than God. That’s why in verse 4 David says his sin is against God alone. God is right to judge him. Notice what he’s saying. David committed adultery with Bathsheba, but the first sin of adultery he committed was against God.

David didn’t go from perfection to murder. It never happens that way. We sin step by step, smaller to greater. The first step is always cheating on God. What if David repented of his lust before he sent for Bathsheba? What if he repented of his self-assurance before he stayed home alone? What if he repented of his pride before he overlooked the city he ruled? The earlier we repent, the safer we will be.

Second, repentance is turning to God.

If we think of repentance as only turning from sin, we won’t ever do it. We can’t. It’s too ingrained. What we need is a power greater than our sin. 19th-century pastor, Thomas Chalmers said we need the expulsive power of a new affection. We need a greater love to drive out our love of sin. And there is no greater love than God’s love.

We need to understand God’s heart toward sinners. David understood. That’s why he could come to God in this moment of brokenness and plead, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love and abundant mercy.” He’s not demanding something from God but pleading something from God. He pleads God’s own promises using covenant language, God’s “steadfast love”—the love he promised to have for his people for all time. He pleads for God’s abundant mercy, the kind of tenderness a mother has with her child.

The lower we go in repentance, the clearer we see God. Sin clouds our vision. Repentance cleans the window. In repentance, we position ourselves under the grace of God, waiting on him to pour it out. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke comments, “Standing in the deep, dark hole of his sin, David looks up and sees stars of God’s grace that those who stand in the noonday sunlight of their own self-righteousness never see.”

Verses 6-12:

   6    Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,

and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

  7    Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

  8    Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones that you have broken rejoice.

  9    Hide your face from my sins,

and blot out all my iniquities.

10    Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

11    Cast me not away from your presence,

and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

12    Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and uphold me with a willing spirit.

In repentance, God doesn’t abandon. He heals. But it’s not painless. In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a selfish boy named Eustace. He loved his treasures more than anything else, and one night he falls asleep with a gold bracelet on his arm, so happy to have it. He transforms into a dragon, becoming an outward manifestation of his inward self. He’s driven from humanity and in a moment of loneliness begins to cry. Aslan, a great lion, the Jesus figure, arrives. He offers to help Eustace remove his dragon-ness by removing the dragon skin. Eustace tries himself but to no avail. Aslan offers to help.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off...

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again...

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me...in new clothes.”

To repent is to be de-dragoned, to be de-sinned. In repentance, we’re not asking God to be anything he isn’t. Aslan wasn’t unwilling to clean. It was Eustace who wanted to do things on his own. When Eustace finally asked for help, it flooded in. In repentance, we’re asking God to be all that he promises to be to us: heart-cleanser, spirit-renewer, Holy Spirit-giver, joy-restorer, life-upholder, sin-remover. When God washes us in his grace, we’re whiter than snow. He blots out our iniquities, cutting it out of the official record book and throwing it away. He keeps us and recreates us. The bones that are broken don’t just mend, they dance. As soon as we admit to ourselves who we are and what we’ve done, we feel God drawing near. We see his truth coming down to us, teaching us things that we could not otherwise know.

Repentance itself is a grace. God came as unexpectedly to David as David did to Bathsheba. Both encounters held serious consequences. But whereas David’s actions led to death, God’s actions led to life. That’s how he always works. You may not see what you need to repent of right now. But in God’s timing, he will reveal it. The prime mover in your relationship with God is God, and he loves you too much to let you remain unrepentant. God created you; he loves you; he’ll bring you back to himself.

Third, repentance is believing the gospel.

Repentance always moves us close to God. That’s why we must do it constantly. The gospel alone compels us to repent and has the power to change us. Only in the gospel do we have a message that says, “I know you’ve sinned, but your sin can’t keep my love from you because I paid the penalty for it.” We can deny our sin, we can beat ourselves up over our sin, or we can believe the gospel that God’s love has covered our sin. The greatest power for change is always love. So, here’s the goal. Let’s be a church staring at the love of God. As we hear the word of God in scripture and from one another, he’ll call us to repentance, and we’ll have to think it through, and we’ll have to change, but we’ll have a power to change because the gospel never changes.

Second, what repentance does.

Verses 13-19.

            13       Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

      and sinners will return to you.

            14       Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,

      O God of my salvation,

      and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.

            15       O Lord, open my lips,

      and my mouth will declare your praise.

            16       For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;

      you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

            17       The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;

      a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

            18       Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;

      build up the walls of Jerusalem;

            19       then will you delight in right sacrifices,

      in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;

      then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Repentance does two things.

First, repentance changes us.

I left something out of the story at the beginning. Immediately after David said, “I have sinned against the Lord,” Nathan replied, “The Lord has put away your sin.”

That’s a problem. What kind of God puts away the sin of adultery and murder? Surely, a righteous God wouldn’t put that sin away without penalty. We know God’s wrath burns hot against sin. So, what gives? Why wasn’t David killed? God forgave him. How?

David had no idea what it would cost God to forgive him, but a thousand years later, Jesus entered the world, lived the life David should have lived, and died the death he should have died. God didn’t demand payment from David because he planned before the foundation of the world to pay it himself in Jesus Christ. The only way to escape the wrath of God is to accept the free gift of grace in Jesus Christ.

So, how did Jesus pay the penalty?

Jesus was perfect in his life. He didn’t look upon a woman and see something he could take. He looked upon a woman and saw something he could give. We see Jesus, in John 4, with the woman at the well. She was married five times, and the man she was living with was not her husband. She was not a sexually closed woman. But Jesus asked nothing but a drink of water that he could use it as an opportunity to give her living waters that would never dry.

Jesus was sacrificial in his death. He didn’t send a letter to the commander in the field, demanding the army to shrink back so that we would be killed. Jesus is a letter from God, going into the field and standing on the front lines to give his life, making his enemies his friends.

Jesus didn’t lay down in the bed of sin to gratify his desires but bore the wrath of sin upon the cross to grant forgiveness. He became what David was, and what we are, so that David, and we, could become what he is.

The problem is solved in the person and work of Jesus Christ! God passed over David’s sins because he planned to lay them upon Jesus at the cross. In the end, he didn’t pass over any sins at all. By faith, David was joined to Christ, and on the cross, he died with him, and in the resurrection, he rose with him. By faith, we do the same! If David was forgiven, we can be too!

Now we have a new problem. What kind of love is this? What category do we put this in? That God himself would pay the penalty for David’s sin—for our sin? Oh, how great the love of God! He cares! He saves! He justifies! He forgives! He unites! The joy that sin robbed you of is restored by the hand of God! Why? Because he delights in you! Jesus did not do this begrudgingly. He did it in love. For the joy set before him he endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). The Joy!

Now let me talk to my Christian brothers and sisters for a moment. You may think you are unlovable, and maybe you’ve done things that only confirm that thought. But listen to me, look at me—God delights in you because he delights in Jesus, and you are in Jesus. He has paid for every single sin and you are completely free. God delights in you.

Now, to my non-Christian friends. You may think you’re unlovable as well. And maybe you’ve done things to confirm that thought. But God created you. All you have to do to get your joy back is humble yourself beneath his saving hand. He is not unwilling to save you. You are unwilling to be saved. You don’t have to do a thing to find salvation in Christ but accept the free gift of grace. Accept it! Please, for the sake of Jesus, accept it! You won’t find a better love if you search the universe a million times over.

We can turn from our sin because the God we turn to is so much better than the sin we’re leaving behind.  Jesus showed how far God’s love will go on the cross. Jesus was separated from the Father—the punishment you deserve—so you never would be. And in his resurrection, he has newness of life for you.

We will always find new layers of sin to repent of, but when we come to God with our repentant heart, we find not an angry judge but a happy Father because our sin has been paid—all of it: past, present, and future. When we come to him in repentance, he runs toward us in forgiveness. He’ll not only accept us; he’ll throw a party for us. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15:7). Don’t be too good to repent. Come to the party!

But repentance isn’t easy. Even though forgiveness from God comes instantly, it may take a while for healing to come. That's ok. If you are in a season of repentance, you might be quiet. David was. Look at verse 15, "O Lord, open my lips." His lips were closed. He lost credibility. He was so ashamed that he couldn’t speak. When the Holy God confronts us with our sin, that's the appropriate response.

We expect God to despise us. But if we will be honest with him about who we really are, and plead with him for mercy and grace, we find that he doesn’t shame us. He redeems us. He does the opposite of what we expect because God is not like us. The heart God loves is the broken heart, the contrite heart, the honest heart. You can’t make up for your sin through sacrifices. Stop trying to save yourself. Offer yourself to God. Let Jesus save you!

A broken and contrite heart is the posture of a Christian. It sounds frightening until you realize that the one before whom you are broken is the one who was broken for you. You’re not falling into a pit of despair. You’re falling into an ocean of God’s love. And in those deep waters, we change from one degree of glory to another. The yoke of our sin is heavy. The yoke of Jesus is easy, and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30).

In a gospel culture, like we're asking God to build among us here at Refuge, we give each other lots of space to repent. Everyone needs time to just be before God. We don’t change quickly. But we can change! The Lord will heal us in his timing, and he’ll use us in due course, but we can’t rush it. If you need to be here and heal, that’s perfect. You don’t have to have it together. Just hear the gospel and be with the Lord.

Second, repentance changes our community.

The kingdom of God is built through repentance. Psalm 51 is proof. Can you imagine having your greatest sins recorded and read forever? But can you imagine the Bible without Psalm 51?

Through repentance, we become experts in the mercy and grace of God. Through repentance, God builds up the walls of Jerusalem where penitent sinners find refuge. Being forgiven individually creates an environment of life in Christ. A forgiven sinner is contagious. They’re like oxygen. In a gospel culture, God’s people unite with God to extend grace to penitent sinners. To do otherwise is to separate gospel culture from gospel doctrine. In the end, both suffer. But when sinners come into a gospel culture with a foundation of gospel doctrine, the inevitable result is praise. Sin always ends in sorrow, but repentance always ends in praise. How could it not? God has saved us!

A gospel culture believes in grace for all—especially the most undeserving. Here at Refuge Church, your sin is not something you have to hide but something you can bring into the light. You can’t scare God with your sin, and you can’t scare us with your sin. We are a church filled with sinners of all kinds. Bring it out into the light. Confess it away. Repent it to death. The Lord has put away your sin!

By grace, he will create us into a refuge for other sinners. By grace, we become arrows in his quiver piercing through the darkness, establishing a beachhead of refuge for the beat-up world coming in from the seas. The very sin that you feel takes you furthest from God and others is the very sin that God will forgive to bring you near to his heart and comfort to the hearts of others. God uses our repentance to change the world!

Conclusion

One final thought. What did David do to get this grace? He didn’t work his way into it. He couldn’t bring Uriah back from the dead. He couldn’t bring his son back from the dead. He couldn’t undo the adultery he had committed with Bathsheba. He couldn’t change anything in his past. He couldn’t do anything in the future to make up for it. All he could do was go low enough before God to be forgiven by him. And that’s exactly what happened.

What that means for us is that there is never a point in which we have sinned our way so far from God that we can’t return to him. We are never so far or so bad to be saved by Christ. Because that's what he does. He saves sinners. And so, what we must do to be saved by God is admit that we’re sinners, and plead for his grace. If we’re willing to do that—if we’re willing to go to the low place, to call ourselves evil, to identify in the first person with David, that we have sinned—then we can receive with David the same grace that David received from God, and we can have the joy of salvation. Jesus always meets sinners with grace. The only sinners he ever turns away are those who have no need for him. Through repentance, God will create us into a refuge for other sinners just like us that can come to God. We will bring the word of God to others who may or may not know him, but need him.