Repentance is what Psalm 51 is all about. Unfortunately, repentance is a doctrine not easily preached. There is the danger of unholy arrogance when it is proclaimed outside the context of humble prayer and precise self-examination. There is the certitude of not being seen as a “jolly good fellow.” Yet, neither this danger nor this certitude should keep us from “Jeremiah’s ministry” if that is the kind of ministry to which we have been called by God.
Because of the twin hurdles mentioned above, the doctrine of repentance has fallen on hard times in the modern evangelical church. Seldom do we hear the call to “break up the fallow ground” (Jeremiah 4:3). It may be that everything is fine and we are all doing splendidly in our spiritual pursuits; therefore repentance is really not necessary. More likely we have fallen into the ancient tendency of creating a god in our own image. With a self-generated god there is no need to repent because we make sure our god has no standards to violate. It is a cozy deal; we give it life and it gives us a religion without the nasty demand of repentance and all its implications.
Fortunately God still reigns and mercifully calls His people to repentance; and present in this call are hard truths for this age. There is the truth of present sin in the believers life; yet people who are seldom mindful of God are in no mood to be mindful of sin. There is the truth of utterly forsaking sin; yet moderns can be surly about forsaking what they have previously embraced as the good life. There is the truth of crying out for pardon; but sophisticates don’t cry, not even for pardon. There is the truth that repentance demands the desire for positive righteousness; yet people are generally satisfied with occasional politeness. Repentance acknowledges a fractured relationship between God and self and demands the restoration of the relationship, but what people typically want is a “pound of God in a bag to go.” Repentance is a difficult truth that only becomes more difficult to proclaim tile more it goes unproclaimed, in this or any other age.
There is a need to return to the doctrine of repentance; and there are few texts in the Old Testament better fit for preaching on repentance than Psalm 51. Here we see David’s prayer of repentance after he had been confronted, by the prophet Nathan, with his sins of murder and adultery. I believe that as we analyze David’s prayer of repentance we will catch a glimpse of what genuine Biblical repentance looks like.
PRAYER FOR INNER RENEWAL
David has spent the first 9 verses of this Psalm pleading God’s pardon for his odious sin. In verse 10 there is a discernible shift in his praying, from the desire for pardon to a desire for purity. This purity consists in a desire for inner renewal, a desire for unbroken relationship, and a desire for assurance. David is not content just to be forgiven from sin; he also desires to be confirmed in this forgiveness by having his heart purified completely. David has no desire to revisit the same sinkhole again. So he prays:
Create in me a clean heart, a God and renew a right spirit within me.
Here we see that genuine repentance always looks to God for inner renewal not yet done. David does not set out on some 10-step recovery plan that promises in 3 months to produce a new and better David. Instead, upon seeing his sin, he flies to God and beseeches God to do a work which he knows he cannot do himself. David’s prayer acknowledges his total inability to deal with his problem solely by moral self-reform. The Hebrew word he uses for “create” is the same verb used in Genesis 1:1 where it is recorded that God created the heavens and the earth. David understands that the renewal he needs can only happen by God’s direct working in his life. David has come to the end of himself and we see a man awash in genuine repentance.
David has much to teach us at this point. We are so adept at identifying our problems and prescribing the proper course of correction that we often forget that self will never cast out self. What we need, before we set out on any methodological approach to dealing with our sin, is time spent falling on our face in prayer, pleading God to create within us a new heart. After all, our sin is not a personality quirk that needs correcting so much as it is an offense against God that needs removing. Only God can remove sin.
We also see here that genuine repentance is always a response to God’s inner renewal already accomplished. David could have no genuine desire for a clean heart unless God had first put this desire into David’s heart. So David’s understanding of his need for a new heart is, in part, evidence of God having answered his prayer. We have a tendency to think we give God repentance and He in turn grants forgiveness. A kind of celestial quid pro quo. This is faulty thinking. Since God is always prior, it is more appropriate to understand that God not only gives forgiveness, but He also gives repentance unto forgiveness. He opens our eyes to our sin; H e causes us to see His righteous standard; He causes us to grieve over sin; and He fills us with a desire for purity and sustained relationship. God gets the glory.
So where are we left if God gives repentance? I believe we are left asking God to give repentance. “God open my eyes to my sin, for I know, left to myself, I will neither see sin nor want to see sin. God, cause me to see Your righteous standard. It may be I see it after a fashion, but I long to see it so I may say with the psalmist, ‘But as for your laws they are perfect.’ God grant me godly sorrow that weeps not only for pardon, but also for purity. God enable me to walk with You in unbroken relationship. God grant me continual repentance that l may walk in continual forgiveness.” God did all this for David; I pray that He may do this for His people today.
We see also in verse 10, that genuine repentance always requests the kind of heart which is resolutely Godward. David desires a heart inclined toward God even before it is instructed by the law. This is what a created clean heart would look like. What David desires is anticipatory of what was later promised by God through the prophets as a future work of salvation:
I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. (Jeremiah 24:7)
I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19) (cp. Ez. 36:26)
What David wants, and what God’s people have today because of Christ, is the reality of a new creation “in which, while personality remains unaffected, and the components of character continue as before, a real new life is bestowed which stamps new directions on affections, gives new aims, impulses, convictions, casts out inverterate evils and gradually changes all but the basis of the soul” (Alexander McClaren).
David’s desire, pure and simple, is to have a heart done with sin. Any repentance not including the passion to be done with the “I” in the middle of sin is only a pretender to the throne.
The application is rather obvious. Does David’s desire to be done with sin describe the reality of your life in Christ? Do you have new affections, aims, impulses and convictions because of your union with Christ? Does there beat within you a heart of flesh passionate for God alone, or is your heart a stone to the things of God (Ez. 11:19)? God give us grace to examine ourselves accurately.
Closely aligned to David’s plea for a clean heart is a plea for a steadfast spirit. Genuine repentance always requests a steadfast spirit. The Hebrew mind often marries the heart and spirit together in its thinking (Compare Ez. 11:19, 36:26, 18:31 and Ps. 51:17). And yet they are not completely synonymous. Perhaps it is accurate Ito say that the heart is the proceeding forth from the spirit. This would be consistent with David’s request, for his I heart could only be maintained by a spirit steadfast in the things of God. One cannot be affected without the other being affected in a like manner. A different nuance which Keil and Delitzsch offer is that a “steadfast spirit is a spirit certain, respecting one’s state of favor (before God) and well-grounded in it.” In this case David’s request is for a confirmation of assurance which will serve to sustain his heart. In either scenario, David’s request centers on the principle of going on in God’s righteous ways once the heart is changed.
PRAYER FOR SUSTAINED RELATIONSHIP
In verse 11 we see David’s repentance prayer for purity changes gears from the desire for inner renewal to the desire for sustained relationship.
David prays: Cast me not away from your presence and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.
Before his fall, David had enjoyed a communion with God which was meat for his soul. He realizes that, by his sin, he has jeopardized this “mystic sweet communion.” His prayer is two-fold. First he asks that he not be removed from God’s presence; and then he asks that God’s presence would not be taken from him. Here we see a man concerned about a sustained relationship with God.
Genuine repentance always desires the continuance of living in the presence of God. David’s prayer reflects a desire not to be removed from the awareness of God’s presence. He is asking that the intimacy God had given him in their relationship would not be permanently forfeited. Perhaps at this point he remembers the story of Cain who, after killing his brother, bore the punishment of “going out from the Lord’s presence” (Genesis 4:16). Here is King David falling on his face, pleading that God would not cast him away from His presence. He loves his Creator and Redeemer, and to go on as a castaway is a thought more than he can bear.
How concerned are we about living in God’s presence? How often do we find ourselves praying, “God make me more aware of Your presence.” This should not be foreign to us. The Reformers spoke often of “Coram Deo.” Where is our passion to live every moment in the presence of God. thus deepening our relationship with Him who loved us and gave Himself for us? Where is the realization David had, that sin may separate us from God’s presence and interrupt our relationship one with another? May I suggest here that it is not just “big sins” like adultery and murder, but little (?) sins like a lack of love for God, which serve to mar our relationship with God? We seldom fear that God would cast us from His presence because we are not living in His presence in the first place. God grant us hearts like David’s, hearts that can first see our sin, and then plead not to be removed from God’s presence, hearts which would do nothing to endanger our unique relationship.
We also see here that genuine repentance does not presume upon God’s grace. There is no presumptuousness here on David’s part. He is not cavalier about this incident, thinking, “Welt I am one of the elect; I don’t need to worry about God casting me off.” No doubt somewhere he remembers he has been chosen by God, but this does not affect either the intensity or the integrity of his prayer. This is a man who realizes that God has every right to cast him from His presence, and as such he prays that this would not happen.
How cavalier have we become about God’s grace? Do we use the doctrine of election as insulation against the seriousness of sin and the ongoing need for repentance? In contrast, we see in David the doctrine of election proven by how serious he takes his sin. I propose that it is precisely because God has secured David in His grace, that David is so overwrought about the fissure in his relationship with God. David would not be praying like this if he were not elect. David’s praying and repentance bear out his election, and it can only make one wonder where this elect-type of praying and repenting is in the church today?
David has a second request similar to the first. He asks that the Holy Spirit not be taken from him. No doubt he remembers Saul about whom the Scriptures said, “The Spirit of the Lord departed from him” (1 Samuel 15:23). David, when he was anointed for kingship, received the Holy Spirit; and now he fears he may have done something to violate his anointing. He pleads: “Withdraw not thy comforts, counsels, assistances, quickenings; else I am a dead man” (Charles Spurgeon). David realizes that without the Holy Spirit, the dynamic relationship he has with God will be surrendered. It is instructive that David is more impassioned about the prospect of the Holy Spirit being taken away than he is about the promise of the sword not leaving his house. How he desired God!
Scripture teaches in verse 11, through David’s experience, that the “summum bonum” of human existence is an ongoing intimate tangible relationship withGod which starts when we put our faith in Christ. This was true of David and it is true of Christians today. We live in God’s presence, and He is present in our lives when we are born again by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and holds the privilege which in the Old Testament economy was reserved only for prophets, priests and kings. Do we hold this relationship precious like David did? Do we despise the thought of anything coming “between me and my Savior”? God give us grace to value this relationship according to the cost by which it was established.
A word of warning to close this section. We would do well to remember David’s agony after he gave in to temptation. Is the satisfying of our lusts worth the lost sense of God’s approbation? David found out the hard way that sin will never bring the pleasure which a continued relationship with God brings?
PRAYER FOR ASSURANCE
In verse 12 there is another shift as David’s prayer looks for the confirmation of these objective truths (inner renewal and sustained relationship), accomplished by the presence of subjective realities restored.
David has been on God’s anvil the past year. He has been exhausted by his sin. Psalm 32 very likely records some of the anguish he experienced. He now desires to move beyond the agony of it all and be granted the evidence of pardon and purity. And so David prays:
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation and uphold me with your generous Spirit.
We would pause briefly here to underscore how logically sequential this request is. David understands that “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Ps.126:5). And also, “Weeping may remain for the night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps.30:5). Tears have been his drink for quite some time, and now with his repentance, he desires to be given again the meat of God’s salvation joy to feast on.
In light of this we can see that genuine repentance requires both a dark night and a bright morning. We often desire the joy of salvation without the mourning over sin. We all want assurance, but very few sign up for tears and ashes. Our sin weighs on us far too lightly. David lost his assurance because of his sin; yet David does not petition for assurance until pardon and purity were honestly sought out. We are desperately wrong if we dispense assurance to seeking souls who have given little inclination of coming to grips with either the majesty of God or the awfulness of their sin. It is not a case of saying, “God wants you good and miserable before He will let you off the hook.” It is simply the recognition that the Godward soul will grieve over grieving God. To have joy without honestly pursuing pardon is vain presumption. To have joy without pursuing purity is idiotic delirium. God grant us genuine assurance based on genuine repentance.
Verse 12 also teaches us that genuine repentance rightfully expects the subjective reality of favor with God. David remembers the salvation joy he used to relish and desires its presence again. Assurance is interrupted by sin, but when sin is interrupted by God’s grace, joy follows. David knows there is no greater joy than a right walk with God!
We too can cherish the full-orbed joy of God’s salvation. As we continue to walk in His ways, our lives can be illuminated by this joy. We also can be assured that God is no despot who withholds His salvation’s joy from the truly penitent. Our God delights in forgiving His people. What rapture to know that God does not treat us as our sins deserve, but constantly offers mercy and grace—mercy in giving us repentance unto forgiveness, and grace in restoring the joy of our salvation.
We need to also mention here that genuine repentance confirms the perseverance of God. David’s repentance and desire for restored joy prove to us that people who have been soundly converted never utterly fall away. There may be periods of declension of the soul, but ultimately, saving grace reveals itself by repentance. This is encouraging for those who are praying for seasons of refreshing. God will grant His people godly repentance precisely because God perseveres. Our confidence rests not in rhetoric or revivalism, but in the God who always revives His people. This should be discouraging to those who do not know the lifestyle of repentance. They need to ask themselves if they are truly in relationship with God.
It would not be fitting to write on repentance without giving a definitive word on the person and work of our Lord Christ. With this in mind, let us briefly retrace the backdrop of Psalm 51.
David has resisted God (see Psalm 32) for approximately one year, and now the word of the Lord comes to David through the prophet Nathan. Nathan nails David to the wall with his inspired allegory and David confesses,“I have sinned against the Lord,” to which Nathan replies: “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.”
How is it that David is forgiven? Why won’t David die? Surely, forgiveness cannot be offered so blindly. David deserves to stay in his sin. David deserves to die. Really, we should be morally outraged at this seemingly casual treatment of such a heinous crime. No amount of repentance is enough to make up for what David did.
However, the giving of forgiveness to David is not based upon his kingship, or his intense repentance, or because he merits it; but rather David’s forgiveness is based upon the work of Jesus Christ. David’s salvation and subsequent restoration rested on his relationship with Jesus Christ. The Old Testament saints were saved in the same way the New Testament saints are. The major difference is that they looked forward to the finished work of the coming Messiah, and we look back to the finished work of Jesus Christ at Calvary for His people.
It is true. David did not get what he deserved for his terrible sins; but then neither do any of God’s people. We do not deserve repentance; we do not deserve forgiveness; we do not deserve an ongoing relationship with God. What we deserve is the damnation that we have labored so hard to earn. Yet for David and for all of the elect, Christ:
took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5–6).
The very idea of repentance demands the idea of a sin-bearer so God can be both just, and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.
Let David and all God’s people raise their voices in a holy chorus thanking God for a repentance so glorious!
Rev. McAtee, a graduate of Columbia Seminary, served the Longtown Independent Presbyterian Church in Ridgeway, SC. He currently pastors a Christian Reformed Church in Charlotte, MI and plans to further his educational in the area in the near future.