My brother and I had a childhood ritual of asking one another forgiveness for a laundry list of vague sins from our beds each night. I would lie there after the lights were out, look across the hall to his own open door, and let my voice carry my contrition to his sleepy hearing.
Having been warned not to let the sun go down on our anger, we made sure to cover all possibilities of sins we may have committed during the day. “Aaron, I’m sorry for yelling at you, hitting you, being selfish with the Nintendo, and tattling on you today. Will you forgive me?” His answer, along with his confession of the typical older-sibling sins counter to my own (pestering, bossing, manipulating) came back to my room in return. Thus we slept in the peace of the slightly remorseful.
When I read Psalm 51 (written by David after his sin with Bathsheba), I realize how lacking my childhood confessions were. Actually, even many of my confessions in adulthood leave much to be desired.
Often we treat repentance as a statement—an “I’m sorry, please forgive me” that checks a box and (hopefully) alleviates our guilt. But if we look closely at Psalm 51 we see that real repentance is a turning away from sin and a turning toward God—a process that doesn’t merely alleviate guilt but cultivates deep joy.
And that’s not the only pay-off. I wrote my book, Real: the surprising secret to deeper relationships, to show that repenting and receiving forgiveness from God leads to real relationships with others, because it leaves us with nothing left to hide.
So how do we grow in a joy-giving habit of real repentance? Here’s how.
The first step to meaningful confession is understanding what sin is. David uses three different words for it in Psalm 51: “Iniquity,” “sin,” and “transgressions” (v 1-3). Each term has been deliberately chosen for its unique meaning in Hebrew. “Transgressions” implies a rebellion against God’s authority and law, “Iniquity” means a distortion of what should be and “Sin” is a missing of the mark. David is making it clear that his sin is deep—there is no minimizing or excusing it.
Rule 2. Appeal to God’s mercy
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love” (v 1). Here, David appeals for forgiveness based on what he knows about God’s character: that God is merciful. David knows that God is committed to him in a relationship (or covenant) of “unfailing love”—and when we come before God in repentance, we do so on the basis of his covenant with us through Christ.
Rule 3. Avoid defensiveness and see God rightly
David’s sin hurt multiple people. He committed adultery, orchestrated a murder, and tried to cover it all up. And yet he says to God that “against you, you only, have I sinned” (v 4). How can that be?
Well, if we think of sin as failing to hit the mark, then we have to ask, “Whose mark are we missing?” The answer, of course, is that it’s God’s mark. So although our sin does hurt others, and repenting to those people is important, sin is ultimately against God, since it’s his ways that we have failed to live up to, and his image-bearers whom we hurt.
Rule 4. Look to Jesus
David’s reference to hyssop in verse 7 is not accidental—”Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean”. He knows hyssop signifies purification (see Exodus 24) with blood, and he knows that blood alone can make him whiter than snow. What he doesn’t know is how this will be done fully.
But we do. Instead of relying on an animal sacrifice, we look to Jesus, who “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9 v 26). His blood is enough to make us “whiter than snow” (Psalm 51 v 7).
Rule 5. Ask God to break you and heal you
David prays, “Let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (v 8). When God reveals our sin to us, it’s painful. David was already a sin-broken man; he just didn’t fully realize it until God sent the prophet Nathan to show him his sin and break him all the way. Like a doctor resetting a fractured bone, it is God who breaks, God who sets, and God who heals.
And this is all mercy: 19th-century British pastor Charles Spurgeon wrote that seeing our weakness, and experiencing God’s power to save, teaches us “a heart-music which only broken bones [can] learn …”
Rule 6. Be comforted by the Spirit
Next David prays, “Do not … take your Holy Spirit from me” (v 11). But the very fact that David is grieved over his sin is a sign that God’s Spirit is at work in him. This is true for you as well. Have you ever been so discouraged by your sin that you’ve wondered, “How can God love me? Surely I’m not really a Christian.” Take comfort in knowing that the very grief you’re experiencing is a sign that you have the Spirit of God working in you, causing you to hate what God hates.
In verses 12-15, David is asking God to make him so joyful about his salvation that he can’t help but teach other sinners the forgiving ways of God—”Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise”. This is important, because so often we do the opposite—we’re inclined to wallow in our sin and draw back from serving others, whether in church or in our communities, because we think we’re unworthy. But here David says the joy of forgiveness for sin should compel us to speak of that good news with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.
Rule 8. Resolve to obey
We can check all the boxes, do all the steps above, and say all the right words, but if in the back of our minds we’re planning to sin in the same way again, then grace isn’t truly taking root. What God desires is the mark of true repentance—a heart that is “broken” by sin and truly “contrite”.
As Puritan pastor and writer Thomas Watson wrote, “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet” (The Doctrine of Repentance, p 63). If we come to God with a heart like that, he “will not despise” it; he will accept it, and accept us, because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf (v 17).
Time to respond
What sins are weighing on your heart? What guilt have you been trying to cover with distraction? Or are you submerging yourself under the weight of it as a form of penance, rather than taking your sin to the cross, where it’s already been paid for?
Take some time now to work through the steps above, and rejoice in the incomparable grace offered to you in Christ!
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