It has been rightly said that the whole Christian life can be summed up in three “G” words: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. We can see these three themes in Psalm 51, written by King David after he repented of his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the slaughter of her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12). When I taught a trilogy of messages on Psalm 51 (one, two, three) I split the passage using those three themes.
As Christians, we don’t hide the fact that our deepest need is for a clean heart before a holy God. Even as Christians, we fail and fall short. However, Psalm 51 is an ideal passage for study and meditation concerning the Biblical way to deal with an unclean heart. In this Psalm we can discern at least eight “steps” for getting our hearts right with God after moral failure.
1. Approach God, focusing on His character. (v. 1)
Notice that David comes to God focusing on His “steadfast love” and His “abundant mercy.” Unless we work to remind ourselves about God’s revealed character, we will either come to Him in the wrong way, or we will be too afraid to come to Him at all.
2. Honestly admit the truth about your sin. (v. 2-6)
David denied his sin for at least nine months. He tried to cover it up. He tried to ignore it. David was miserable during that time. In Psalm 32:3-4 David admitted, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”
Here in Psalm 51, David faced up to his sin. He uses three words for sin. Transgressions means to cross a boundary in rebellion. Iniquity is from words meaning “twist” and “go astray.” It indicated perversity, depravity, and waywardness. Sin means missing the target; failing to do what is right.
David admitted that he really sinned (v. 3). He admitted the serious nature of his sin—that all of his sin is really against God. Yes, David sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but he wrote, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v. 4). All sin is rebellion against God. David also acknowledged the depth of his sin problem—he sins because He was conceived and born as a sinner (v. 5). He admitted that, at the root, his heart is sinful. Sin is so deeply ingrained in us that only God can scrub it out. And unless we acknowledge the truth about our sin that will never happen.
3. Appeal for cleansing, depending on the blood of the Lamb of God. (v. 7)
David asks God for cleansing. Literally, he is asking God to “un-sin” his heart. In fact, in verses 7-12 David asks God to grant twelve distinct requests. This is an example for us. Cleaning is there for the asking but it does not come without asking.
As Christians, we might wonder how David could ask for forgiveness apart from Jesus. However, verse 7 says, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” If you are wondering why David mentioned the hyssop plant, remember that the most famous use of hyssop in the Old Testament was during the original Passover. The Israelites were told to use hyssop to apply the blood of the sacrificed lamb to the doorframe of their houses so they would be spared from the Destroyer. Hyssop points back to the Passover, and the Passover lamb points ahead to the true Lamb of God. When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming he cried, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) If you want cleaning, you must depend on the blood that was spilled in your place by the true Lamb of God.
4. Desire inward renewal and a cleansed heart. (v. 8-12)
It isn’t enough just to be pardoned of our guilt. David knew that his sins of adultery and murder flowed out of his sinful heart. David knew that unless God would change his heart he would be right back at it like an unreformed criminal set free from prison. Genuine heart change is something only God can do.
Genuine repentance means not wanting to have the desire for that sin anymore. You may still struggle with that desire as a temptation, but you don’t want that desire anymore. We don’t pray, “God forgive me of that, but let me keep the love of that sin in my heart.”
5. Promise to teach others the lessons you have learned. (v. 13)
Genuine repentance and forgiveness makes us willing to tell others the stories of our sin and the consequences—so that we can warn them and plead with them not to make the same mistakes. We accept that our sins were seriously bad; and we also accept God’s forgiveness which frees our tongues from being paralyzed by guilt. This puts us in the right position to help others from falling into the same pits.
6. Praise God for His character and compassion. (v. 14-15)
Psalm 51 was written by a man who was forgiven of adultery and murder. Amazing Grace was written by the former captain of a slave ship. The loudest praise comes from the lips of the largest forgiven sinners.
7. Continuously keep contrite heart before God. (v. 16-17)
God would rather have us slaughter the pride in our hearts than slaughter animals for sacrifice. We are not forgiven by being sorry for our sins—even by being genuinely sorry. Forgiveness only comes because Christ died for us. But to accept that, we need a broken and contrite heart.
False repentance is merely being sorry about consequences. Genuine repentance means being deeply grieved about offended the King we realize we should never rebel against. A contrite heart isn’t just something for the start of the Christian life. For all of our Christian life we need to stay humble and contrite before God. It is a part of gratitude.
8. Pray for others. Move your focus outside of yourself—to others and the glory of God. (v. 18-19)
David concludes Psalm 51 by praying for the good of Zion and for God to delight in burnt offerings given to Him. The last “step” of going to God for a clean heart is to move our focus from ourselves to others. This is spiritually and emotionally healthy. A heart bent by sin is twisted back and looks only at itself. A cleaned heart looks outward and upward.
Footnote: My thinking on these steps was spurred by James Boice’s commentary on Psalm 51. I used his wording for what I call step five.