Repentance is a hard word for us to hear because it can strike our hearts to fear of criticism or abandonment. God always has a bigger and better plan for us if we open our hearts to hear. Psalm 51 has been a useful psalm for the community of God’s people as guide to lead in understanding the beauty and glory of God in repentance.
In Psalm 51 David announces to God recognition for his sin. We observe that he cannot get away from seeing it. David can only see his sin because God has revealed it to him. He could not have repented before he saw his sin. The historical context sets the writing of this psalm after Nathan said, “You are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7) and David replied, “I have sinned against the Lord” (verse 13). God took the initiative that turned David’s heart to want to repent as he did in this psalm.
The genuine penitence brought on by the conviction of the Holy Spirit cleared his vision.
Like David’s sin in taking another man’s wife for himself, our sins violates the relationship between God and us, and does harm to others. Our sin always breaks the first two commandments, to love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). The beauty of God’s grace rules over excusing ourselves with alternative thoughts such as, “nobody is perfect,” “it wasn’t that bad,” or “you should have seen what the other guy did.”
God’s covenant with us in Christ, not our fallen condition, is the radiant backdrop that reveals just how sordid and dark our sin is.
We, like David, have people around us God can use to confront our sin. They will be sinful people, just like Nathan was when he confronted David. They are still capable of being a messenger of God’s Word. The word of conviction may come to us through a person, a book, a song, or our own quiet thoughts. We will be called to answer some hard questions. Are we defensive because we believe we are right or because we like you to believe we are right? Do we fear more what other people think of us rather than fear God? May we see it as a loving blessing when someone comes to confront us. When a fellow believer comes to us privately as in Matthew 18:15, may we know they come to us in courageous love, because they know our right relationship with God is so important that they will risk losing their relationship with us to speak up.
God is so much bigger than our sin. He actually intends the results of sin for His glory (Genesis 50:20). The incomprehensible glory of God calls us to a repentance that rejects selfish estimations of ourselves in order to embrace a God-centered understanding of evil.
When we refuse to repent of our sin we ultimately prove how right and just God is when He calls us to judgment. God calls us to repent of our sin, to show how right and just He is, when He pours out His wrath on His own Son, Jesus Christ, in His death on the cross. Our sin and self-centered desires lay behind it. When our sin is shown, in the light of our responsibility, as creatures created to give glory to God with thankful hearts, we see our sin deserving no less. God is proved right by His provision for our sins, acknowledging that is fundamentally belongs to God, to dispose of as He pleases. It pleases Him to glorify Himself in it.
Give Up Assumptions
David’s repentance in Psalm 51 did not stop with acknowledging and confessing sin. God calls him, and us, to trace our sins all the way to the heart. We must give up all wrong assumptions that come naturally about ourselves. We must give up the thought that we are good people and good people do wrong things. God tells us that we are wicked at the heart and our hearts trick us into believing that we are good (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Now we can see, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the detailed features of our lustful hearts.
We can analyze David’s lust profile from 2 Samuel 11. David stayed in Jerusalem when he should have been leading his army into war (v. 1). Does this reveal a love of comfort that had replaced the love of his calling as God’s warrior? David is gazing with lust at Bathsheba bathing (v. 2). Does this reflect a love of self at the center for pleasure? He used his servants to go and bring her to him (vv. 3-4). Does this reveal a perversion of the use of kingly power? He sent for Uriah and attempted to manipulate him, so that Uriah would sin in a way that would hide his own sin (vv. 6-13). Does this point to a desire to look good, vindicate himself before others, a fear of man? We must dig deep, in our repentance, to unearth our sinful hearts with biblical truth that gets to the core of our motivations.
God Changes Hearts
Under our deceitful hearts there is a mystery of new life. David acknowledges his sin to the core of his being and, at the same time, clings to God’s work of renewal in his “inward parts.” As we confess, we have a clearer vision of our deeper “inner man” than before. God is at work. The new man at work it is not us but, Christ-in-us. The reign of sin is being toppled, the old heart is being put to death, and the new heart with the “mind of Christ,” is growing.
In Psalm 51:10 the language suggests that the new heart is a replacement for the old heart and literally a reconstruction of it. Verses 11 and 12 set a pattern for us to follow in prayer. We see the cry of an utterly bankrupt man whose confidence in God is vindicated even as he prays. We can have the same confidence in God as we pray. We deserve nothing from God. Yet when we repent, we show that God in His mercy has refrained from giving us what we deserve. Our feeble repentance rests in God’s faithfulness. David acknowledges this when he asks God to give him a willing spirit.
We can have confidence that God’s heart, the Holy Spirit, is in fact at work in us and on our behalf, as we stumble along weak as we are.
Psalm 51 repentance moves from vertical restoration to horizontal faith worked out in love for others. True repentance will move us outward to those we have wronged, and to those we serve. Our repentance will bear fruit. We are wise to ask what kind of fruit our hearts are producing and search them thoroughly.
In conclusion the process of repentance:
God taking the initiative.
He is the offended party.
God intends the results of our sin for His glory.
God is in the heart changing business.
The antidote Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
God’s glory is the result.