Confession that Pleases God: Part 1
Passage: Psalm 51:1-9
Psalm 51 is the final psalm that we will study in this series. It is the classic example of a penitential psalm. A penitential psalm reflects on the sins of either an individual or the nation of Israel and on the need for God’s forgiveness. Psalm 51 is a fascinating psalm because of the context in which David wrote it. The heading says that David wrote this psalm following his sin with Bathsheba. The details of the psalm support the heading’s accuracy. And so this psalm reflects on probably the darkest series of sins committed by a genuine believer that the Scriptures record. Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, and he was one of David’s 30 mighty men. While Uriah was out fighting for David, David saw his wife bathing, lusted, called her to his house, and committed adultery. But David’s sin couldn’t remain hidden, since Bathsheba was pregnant and her husband was off to war. Rather than owning up to his sin, David conspired to have Uriah killed in battle and married Bathsheba. He committed several grossly evil sins, and he thought he had gotten by with it until the prophet Nathan confronted him. David acknowledged the evil of his actions, and Nathan replied that God had forgiven David but that his family would endure violent consequences for his sin including the death of the child he had fathered. Nathan immediately declared David forgiven, but in agony over his sin and its consequences, David wrote this psalm as a reflection on his need of grace and on his desire for full restoration. As we read the psalm, I hope you will feel the agony and hope in David’s voice.
I’m excited to preach this psalm because it has special significance to my own spiritual journey. During college I was strongly influenced by a professor (who was ultimately let go) who taught that once a Christian is forgiven at salvation, he never again needs to ask for forgiveness. Sadly, this theology is fairly common. Many Christians downplay the significance of sin and claim that for a Christian to feel deep grief over his sin and to cry out for forgiveness is legalistic and a failure to trust the grace of God. Of course, who doesn’t like to be told that their sin is no big deal, and who doesn’t selfishly want to believe in a God that turns a blind eye to our rebellion? But Psalm 51 is a powerful reminder that sin does terrible damage to a Christian’s relationship with God and that when we sin, we cannot simply sweep it under the rug. We must make it right. I’m thankful for how the Lord used this psalm to correct me and for how it continues to challenge me about I should respond when I sin. There are six sections to the psalm that I’d like to summarize with six commands. There’s no way we could do justice to this psalm in one sermon, and so we will only consider the first three commands this morning, and we will study the final three, Lord willing, next Sunday. My first challenge is that when you have sinned…
Plea for mercy while remembering God’s merciful character (vv. 1–2).
In vv. 1–2 David begs God to forgive his sin. He uses rich parallelism as he stacks descriptions of his sin, his prayer, and the basis of his prayer. Notice first, of all how David describes…
The Darkness of Sin
Verses 1–2 use three terms for sin that say a lot about David’s heart. The first term, “transgression” is especially strong. One commentator states that in this context, it describes sin as, “willful, self-assertive defiance of God,” or “rebellion” (Tate). Have you ever been frustrated when listening to someone describe their sin because all they want to do is downplay it or make excuses. You wish that they would just call their sin what it is. But they seem more concerned about avoiding embarrassment or the consequences of their sin than about the wickedness of what they have done. You have to wonder how repentant they truly are. David didn’t beat around the bush. He said that he had rebelled against God. He also describes his sin as “iniquity.” This term means to “depart from the standard” (Ross). Again it indicates a willful decision to reject God’s will. Finally, he uses the term “sin,” which means “to miss the mark.” David acknowledged that he had chosen a different path than God ordained. He didn’t make excuses or hide from what he had done. He was honest before God about his rebellion. And we need to follow David’s example. The first step to dealing correctly with your sin is to call it what it is. I rebelled against God, and it was ugly and wicked. Notice as well, David’s…
Plea for Mercy
In light of the wickedness of David’s sin, he makes a fourfold plea for mercy. He begins with the cry, “have mercy upon me, O God.” It’s a very humble cry isn’t it? When you read that statement, you don’t picture David strutting up to God demanding relief. You think of him coming in humility acknowledging that he deserves nothing, and all he can do is plea for undeserved favor. This humility is again very instructive. When we sin, we must understand that God doesn’t owe me anything. My sin has made me a debtor to his mercy, and I can only come on the basis of grace.
The next three requests beg God to remove the stain of David’s sin, and in so doing they describe what forgiveness is. “Blot out” compares forgiveness to erasing a mark on a scroll or tablet. The last two requests picture sin as a stain or an infection in the body. David asks God to remove this stain and make him clean. These requests assume that even for the justified sinner, our sin stains us and creates a barrier between God and us. Sadly, many people don’t see this. They just want to sweep their sin under the rug. I’ve talked to people who are clearly living in disobedience, but they claim to be spiritual and to enjoy close fellowship with God. But God sees. We can’t sin and just pretend everything is okay. The Lord’s Prayer includes a plea for forgiveness, and every time you come to God in prayer, you ought to consider, is there anything I need to confess. You cannot pray and have the ear of God if sin is in your heart. But praise the Lord that when we plea for mercy, God responds. Notice as well in vv. 1–2…
The Basis for the Plea
Following David’s initial plea for mercy in v. 1, he grounds his plea in two statements regarding the nature of God. First, he begs God for mercy based on his “lovingkindness.” This is the Hebrew term hesed. As we’ve said, it speaks of God’s loyal love. God is committed to us, and he stands behind us even when we fall. What a blessing it is to know that God is faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to him. David also appeals to “the multitude of your mercies.” This statement describes the compassion of God. David knew that God is forgiving and gracious, and he appealed to this grace. I mentioned earlier that sometimes when we sin, we just pretend it didn’t happen, but sometimes we are so ashamed of our sin that we question whether or not God will forgive. David was certainly disgusted by what he had done, but he also forced his mind to believe what he knew to be true about his God. Based on his faith in the mercy of God, he made his appeal. And we need to learn from his example. Your sin is wicked, but it will never be greater than God’s mercy. Have faith in God’s mercy in the midst of your guilt.
And so vv. 1–2 give a quick synopsis of how we should deal with our sin. We must plea for mercy while remembering God’s merciful character. The second challenge we must see from this passage is…
Acknowledge the wickedness of your sin (vv. 3–6).
David has already described the depth of his sin through the terms he uses in vv. 1–2, but in vv. 3–6 he is even more blunt regarding the gravity of his sin. In v. 3 he simply states, “I acknowledge my transgressions” (same word he used in v. 1). David says, “Lord, I admit that I have rebelled against you.” He goes on to say, “My sin is always before me.” The idea is that it is in right in front of my eyes, and I can’t forget it or ignore it. Have you ever done something sinful or maybe just foolish, and you are so ashamed that you just want to forget it ever happened? There certainly is a need to move on at some point, but David had to deal with his sin before God first. His sin was looming over every part of his life. Sadly, many Christians never experience this kind of brokenness over their sin. They never deal with the significance of how they have rebelled against God. I am not saying that we need to somehow earn back the favor of God by going through some awful process of mourning. It is God’s grace that brings forgiveness, not how much I cry or how I hurt myself. But on the flip side, God honors humble honesty, and if we are never honest about our sin, we will probably never work as hard as we should to change. Verses 4–6 continue to describe the depth of David’s sin. I’d like to summarize what they teach in three statements.
Sin violates God’s authority (v. 4).
The point of the first statement is not to say that we never sin against people. The Scriptures condemn many different sins against individuals. Rather, the point is that all that sin is ultimately against God because he is our ultimate authority, and every sin is a violation of his authoritative will. And so David is making a powerful declaration regarding his sin. It wasn’t just that he had committed adultery and conspired in Uriah’s death; he had rebelled against the will of Almighty God. Because of that, he goes on to say that God’s declaration of guilt through the Prophet Nathan was just or true. He also acknowledged that God’s judgment against David was justified. I don’t want us to miss the significance of that statement because God’s judgment would be severe. David’s infant would die. And the conflict that would arise between David and his son Absalom would claim other lives and bring tremendous hurt to David and others. But David wasn’t concerned to avoid consequences; he was only concerned with the fact that he had sinned against God. This verse teaches an important lesson about confession. A true confession is more concerned with how I have rebelled against God than about the consequences of my sin. Have you ever listened to someone make a confession, and it’s obvious that they really aren’t sorry for what they have done; they are only concerned to avoid penalty? This attitude is a major red flag that the person refuses to come to grips with how they have disobeyed God. If you are to deal with your sin appropriately, you must acknowledge that you have violated God’s authority. Second…
Sin is part of our nature (v. 5).
This verse looks back at the very beginning of life. “Brought forth” refers to birth pangs, and the second line goes all the way back to the beginning of life at conception. David’s point is not to say that he had an illegitimate birth because we know he did not. Rather, he is saying that sin has been part of his existence from the very beginning. But why make this point? Is he making excuses? Nothing about this psalm indicates a desire to make excuses; therefore, his purpose is to highlight the distance between him and God. David is saying, “Lord, I sinned because I am a sinner. I am nothing like you.” Again, our confessions often lack that kind of humility. We like to say something like, “I’m a good person, and I mean well. I just messed up.” We blame our sin on other people or our conditions. We claim that our sin is an aberration from who we really are instead of admitting that it is who we are. But a confession that pleases the Lord must acknowledge the depth of our sin problem and that there is nothing in me that deserves mercy. Third…
Sin contradicts God’s will.
If you read this verse in isolation, it is confusing. You have to read it in contrast with verse 5. Verse 5 says that sin has affected my entire existence, but sin is not the only power at work. God is at work in is people to instill truth and wisdom into the core of their hearts. He doesn’t just want to change my behavior; he wants to change who I am. But David’s actions revealed that God’s transforming will had a long ways to go. Again, this verse describes a powerful humility. David didn’t blame his sin on his parents, the stress of his job, or conflict in his family. Instead, he said that his sin revealed the wickedness of his heart and that he had resisted God’s will to instill truth and wisdom.
Application: And so vv. 3–6 acknowledge the wickedness of sin. I think this is an area where most of us need grow. This growth would do us a lot of good because God loves and honors humility. Verse 17 says that he loves a “broken and contrite heart.” But this kind of humility is also very important for doing battle with your sin because as long as you deny the reality of your problem, you will not attack it like you should. What sins do you really battle? Are you viewing them with the same honest humility that David expresses, or are you constantly downplaying your sin and making excuses? Until you acknowledge your problem, you will not honor God, and you probably won’t make much progress. The final challenge, we’ll consider today is…
Plea for purification (vv. 7–9).
These verses build off of the plea for forgiveness in vv. 1–2, and they again highlight the utter dependence of the sinner on God to do what only he can do. Verse 7 tells us that…
Only God can cleanse a black heart (v. 7).
This verse uses language that calls to mind a variety of purification rituals that were prescribed in the law. Hyssop branches were commonly bound together and used in a variety of purification rituals when someone or something became unclean. Therefore, the cleanliness that David desires is a spiritual cleansing that will make him fit to once again appear before God and enjoy fellowship with him. The second line of v. 7 reiterates the same idea, but what really stands out about the second line is the kind of purification that God can produce. Based on everything that we have studied so far, how did David perceive the condition of his heart? He saw it as terribly dark and stained with sin. There was nothing David could do to fix that. He will say in v. 16 that no amount of sacrifices could ever purify his heart. But while there was nothing David could do, he was confident that God could make his heart “whiter than snow.” Fresh snow is incredibly clean and pure. On a sunny day, you can hardly stand its glow. Or when there’s a full moon and fresh blanket of snow, the night is hardly dark. And so David is making an powerful statement of faith and hope. From a human perspective, his heart was hopelessly dark, but God was able to purify it, and so he begged God cleanse his heart.
Application: What a blessing it is to know that God forgives. Psalm 103:12 says that God is able to remove our sin as far as the east is from the west, and 1 John 1:9 says that when we confess our sin he is faithful and just to forgive. And so while we ought to grieve over our sin, a Christian should never despair because God has promised to forgive his people whenever we come to him in true repentance. If you are trying to hide sin in your heart or if you feel too ashamed to talk with God about your sin, then learn from David’s confidence. Plea for purification, and God will forgive.
Only God can restore true joy (v. 8).
The second line of v. 8 is a graphic picture of David’s current condition. Psalm 32 is another penitential psalm that probably reflects on this same experience and notice what David says in vv. 3–4. Most likely during the period of time between David’s sin and Nathan’s confrontation, David’s guilt was overwhelming to the point of taking a physical toll. He probably couldn’t sleep, and he may have even become ill. His guilt was so powerful that it felt as if his bones were being crushed, which is an awful picture. And so in v. 8, David pleads that God will again allow David to hear “joy and gladness.” This is probably a reference to the music that was sung at the temple during the feasts and to the glad spirit that characterized these times of fellowship. David needed God’s forgiveness in order to participate again in the temple worship and ultimately to have his guilt removed and to feel again joy and gladness.
Application: This prayer is again very instructive for us because again, only God could do this for David. Sweeping his sin under the rug or pretending like it never happened couldn’t restore his joy. Even offering elaborate sacrifices couldn’t restore his joy. The only way David’s joy could be restored was if God forgave and by his grace restored David’s joy. Do you have a joyful Christian experience? Is your heart filled with gladness when you worship with the church? If not, it may be because you are harboring sin that you need to address. I think that some of the most miserable people on earth are people like Jonah who are running from God and from their guilt before God. It may be that you need to humble yourself before God today and acknowledge your sin like you have not done in a very long time. That may also require making something right with your spouse, the church, or another individual. You may think that doing so would just be too costly. If I admit what I have done, I could lose my marriage, my job, or endure tremendous shame. It may be true that making things right could be terribly costly. It certainly was for David. The consequences of his sin were severe. But David understood that a clean heart before God and man and the joy and gladness that come with it were worth the cost. Understand that only God can restore your joy and so do what you have to do to obey him and trust him with the consequences because he is merciful and kind.
Only God can cover our sin (v. 9).
The idea of blotting out sin has already come up in v. 1. David again asks God to erase the mark of his sin, and he adds the request that God would turn his face away from his sin. He is asking God to remove David’s sin from his sight. Again, David couldn’t’ do these things for himself; he is again pleading for grace. But we know from the rest of the psalm that he did so with confidence that God is merciful and that he will forgive when we come in humble repentance.
The focus of this psalm and of this sermon has been on the need for confession among those who have already been justified, but this psalm is significant for all people. It might be that someone is here today because they are trying to pay for their sin. You are trying to earn the favor of God. If that’s you, then recognize you can’t cover your sin. You need grace, and Jesus provided that grace when he took the punishment for your sin on the cross. If you come to him today by faith and believe on what Jesus did for salvation, your sins can be forgiven and you can enjoy a new relationship with God. Of course, you may have the opposite problem. Maybe you don’t see why God wouldn’t love you because you think you are a pretty good person. You’ve probably never done anything as bad as David had done, but the Scriptures are clear that all sin is rebellion. It is all a dark stain that destroys fellowship with God and deserves his wrath. It may be that you need to acknowledge your sin to God for the very first time and admit that you can never save yourself. I hope you will do that today and that you will cast yourself on the mercy of God for salvation.
For those who are saved, let’s heed the example of David and make it a daily discipline to search our hearts and to confess our sins to the Lord knowing that he is faithful to forgive.
I’d like to ask everyone to bow your head and close your eyes. Before we go on with our day, I would imagine that some of us need to take a moment and do business with God. Maybe there is a sin you need to confess, or maybe you need to ask for strength to make something right with another individual. Maybe you need to be saved. Of course all of us need to pray that the Lord would help us remain sensitive to our sin. As the piano begins to play, take some time to talk with the Lord.