A Study of True Repentance

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What does true repentance look like? That's our question for this evening as we consider the majestic words of Psalm 51 - one of the classic passages in the whole Bible for showing us what repenting and trusting in the Lord looks like.

The background to this Psalm is that while out for an afternoon stroll King David noticed a woman called Bathsheba bathing. One look became several and his lust got the better of him. He summoned her to him and committed adultery with her and she became pregnant. Disaster. As things spiralled out of control he failed with various attempts to cover up his sin by trying to get Bathsheba's husband Uriah to sleep with her. So eventually David had him murdered and took Bathsheba as his wife. But as our reading from 2 Samuel showed, through God's message from the prophet Nathan, all of this was exposed and David was brought to feel the terrible weight of his sin resulting in him writing Psalm 51.

This Psalm isn't just an account of a king's response to his terrible decisions. It's much more than that – it's a warning to us of just how damaging our sin is and how deep it runs in us all. And it's more than just David's personal cry to God. It's a model of true repentance for us with powerful lessons. So let's have page 474 open in front of us and unpack this Psalm together.

How does David respond to his sin? 

1. Cry for Forgiveness (Psalm 51.1-6)

Let me read Psalm 51.1-3:

"Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me."

Here we see our first point, true repentance is to: Cry for Forgiveness.

David uses three distinct words to describe his wrongdoing.

1. Transgressions i.e. a wilful uprising against a King – God himself.
2. Iniquity i.e. something which is twisted or warped, like a piece of timber bent beyond use.
3. And sin i.e. missing God's standard.

So add that all up and David is coming to God and saying: "God, I am perverse, crooked, misled rebel who cannot begin to meet your standard".

And David continues in verse 4…

"Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgement."

David isn't excusing the effects of his sin on Bathsheba and Uriah. But sin is, ultimately and most significantly, an affront against God.

For us, there's a big difference between remorse and repentance. Remorse, very rightly, regrets how sin affects us and others but it stops there. Repentance includes remorse but it recognises that above all God is the most dishonoured and affronted party, so the repentant acknowledge this and turn back to God, desperate to change the way they live. David acknowledged that the worst thing about his sin was how it exposed how he utterly rejected God. How often do we? Are we liable to mistake feeling sorry for ourselves with true repentance?

David continues, in verse 4, saying that his sin happened so that (I've read an even better translation would be "in order that") God would be "justified" when he speaks and "blameless" when he judges. David messed up big time, yet God used that sin to teach David more of his righteousness and justice.

Friends, no event in our lives, even a sinful one, is wasted by God. I can think of situations in my life where I deeply regret my sin, yet despite the wretched nature of it God used my foolish decisions to teach me things about himself, and myself, that I needed to learn. Maybe I should have learnt those lessons another way, if I'd only listened, trusted and obeyed. But God uses multiple ways to teach us and it's better to learn the hard way than not at all.

And one thing to learn is just how deep sin runs. Let me read verses 5…

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me."

My sister is famous in my family for saying to my mum "it's my life and I'll do what I want with it" when she was three years old! It somewhat sums up her independent spirit! But we all want to rule our own lives - right from the beginning, which this verse shows so clearly is at conception.

Like David, we need to repent not only of what we've done but of who we are. We may struggle to relate to Psalm 51 because we think: "I couldn't possibly do what David did". Well, imagine somehow this DVD contained everything you'd ever done, said and thought. How long could you stick watching it? Wouldn't it show just what you're capable of? We're all capable of anything. In the life of David, we see the dire consequences of sexual sin. It is a warning to us. But a particular sin is just a symptom of the disease which affects all of our hearts.

What a bleak situation. How does the desperate, helpless David respond? He cries God for forgiveness, Psalm 51.1-3: "blot out my transgressions", "wash me thoroughly from my iniquity" and "cleanse me from my sin".

The penalty for David's sin should have been death – both adultery and murder were capital offences. Yet in 2 Samuel 12 Nathan tells David that "the Lord put away your sin". God is a God of "steadfast love" and of "abundant mercy". Desperately clinging to this promise of God's merciful character David cries out for undeserved forgiveness.

Aren't there are moments in our Christian lives when we feel totally wretched about sin? Even those of us who have been going years in the faith, it's no different is it?

Where do we place our hope when our sin is empathically exposed? Our God of "great compassion". The cross is the definitive, complete, once and for all "yes" of the assurance of forgiveness.

Here's what to do with sin: cry out to God for forgiveness! Often we know the theory but we struggle with the reality of doing it. Maybe this evening you could trust in Jesus to forgive you for the first time. Or maybe you've cried to the Lord with your sin so many times you've lost count. Maybe today, or this week, you know you've blown it and things are out of hand. Well, cry for forgiveness! Whoever we are and whatever we've done Jesus will forgive us if we genuinely come to him.

When we cry to him God forgives, and he desires something better for us. Psalm 51.6:

"Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart."

David realises that he can't consistently make the right moral choices unless God helps him. That is true for us, we need the truth and wisdom that God is delighted to teach us. But we cannot do this on our own. To live by God's truth at all we need to be made new.

2. Plead for Renewal (vv 7-12)

And that's why, secondly, we need to plead for renewal.

Psalm 51.7-9:

"Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities."

The word "purge" is the best available translation of what David is saying in verse 7, but more literally it means "de-sin me"! Hyssop was used in cleansing rituals for temple worship and was the plant used to apply blood to the door lintel of Israelite homes at the time of the Passover. Hyssop symbolises renewal. But there is an uncleanliness which affects the unrepentant sinner to the core and David longs to be free from the shackles of it

In verse 8 David is convinced that to continue a life characterised by sin is dangerous. He knows sin is crushing and destructive and ultimately results in God's judgement. And he simultaneously feared the impact living a life gripped by sin would have on the Spirit's work in his life and that's what verse 11 is all about:

"Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me."

What does this mean? How can the Holy Spirit depart someone's life? Whatever despair we feel over sin God will not abandon the true believer. The Holy Spirit will be with the believer "forever" (John 14.16). But the New Testament also warns us not to "quench the spirit" (1 Thessalonians 5.19) by living a life pushing God into the periphery and persistently failing in the battle against sin. This doesn't involve the loss of the Holy Spirit living inside us, but it does involve the loss of enjoyment of the benefits of his presence and it frustrates his work of renewing us.

It seems that David fears losing the benefits and blessings that God's Spirit brings – so he begs God not to abandon him and he pleads for renewal in Psalm 51.10-12:

"Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit."

True repentance is longing to have a clean heart – verse 10. That means a heart from which everything negatively affecting the relationship with God is removed. Having a right spirit is referring to the 'get up and go' aspects of our nature – what drives us, our energies, ambitions, passions and zest for life. David longs that his whole life is driven and directed by God and his ways. And he knows that only God's work in his life will give him the willing spirit to keep going. He knows that he needs God to restore the joy of salvation to him to truly redefine what joy is.

When we become Christians this is the work that God begins in us. We are reborn and the Spirit makes us more like Jesus every day. Yet we remain inconsistent. We don't consistently have a right or willing spirit. We don't consistently obey his law, we don't consistently speak his truth and we don't consistently long to be holy. How do we make progress?

I don't know if you've ever made a new year's resolution only to see it go out the window by about midday on January 3rd. Resolutions are difficult because we try to will ourselves to start or stop something where, if it were easy, we'd have started/stopped long ago! We treat pursuing holiness like a new year's resolution – 'I resolve to try hard'. Is it any wonder we fail? Aren't we missing the point? God helps us make progress. Often our prayers stop short at asking for forgiveness but don't go on to ask for a clean heart and a right and willing spirit to keep going and a heart that knows what true joy, the joy of salvation, is. So often in our prayers we fail to plead for renewal.

Tonight we are all in different situations. Maybe you've grown weary struggling with the same sin again and again. Maybe you're aware of a big failure. Maybe you feel lethargic in your faith and you need a right spirit. Whatever our struggles are the best prayer is not, 'God help me to try harder'. It's not even, 'God would you change my attitudes or my actions'. It's 'God through the power of your spirit renew me so that all of who I am would be in your likeness and I would desire that life above all'. Pray like this Psalm shows you and plead for renewal.

3. Share the Good News of Grace (vv.13-15)

Thirdly we see repentance is a commitment to share the good news of grace.

Psalm 51.13-15:

"Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise."

David's awareness of his sin and his longing for repentance isn't just something that affects him and God – it's something that affects his view of the world around him which means he sees people and their spiritual need in a new way.

David speaks here as a sinner who has repented and earnestly seeks after God. He cries to God "save me from bloodguilt and I'll tell everyone around me what you've done for me". David's testimony comes from one who is himself a guilty but saved sinner - a man who had it all but became a hopeless moral failure and yet was forgiven and accepted by God.

If you're anything like me, you'll often think to yourself, 'Why can't I be bolder and more courageous in sharing the gospel?' We have a lot to learn from David here. Because David longs to speak first and foremost simply about how God has saved him. It's nothing less than David longing to tell his testimony to all.

Much evangelism can start with our own experience of God's work in us. That's not being inward-looking, that's not what David's doing in verse 14, it's looking inward to what God has done for us and sharing that with others.

David has made a mess of his life. And yet he longed to share God's salvation with people even though it exposed his sin. Are we?

People may object to a gospel outline. But they'll find it harder to object to our experience. We should tell people about our guilt and how we deserve God's judgement but instead, we received his graceful, undeserved, forgiveness. This doesn't mean detailed confessions of our biggest failures to everyone. Rather it challenges us to ask: are we prepared to let people see parts of our lives that expose weak, foolish sinfulness so that they see Jesus' saving grace and we might praise his name? Because true repentance shares the good news of grace.

4. Pursue True Worship (vv.16-19)

Lastly, true repentance means we will Pursue True Worship. Reading from Psalm 51.16-19:

"For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar."

What mattered most to God was the manner in which sacrifices were given. Sacrifices were only meant to be a pointer – an outward sign of an inward reality. In and of themselves the rituals didn't mean anything because sacrifices couldn't solve the problem of sin. David response to his sin couldn't be 'I'll go off and kill a bull and all will be well'.

Instea,d David needed to come to the Lord with a "broken spirit" and with a "broken and contrite (deeply remorseful) heart". Those sacrifices would not be despised because David would have come as a hopeless sinner repenting before a loving Father.

God wants our hearts. He doesn't want false or hypocritical performance, or attempts to 'make it up' to him – like convincing ourselves we're ok if we come to church or are stuck in serving. That's not what true repentance of the heart is, it's true worship – begging for mercy and trusting in the cross.

We need to come to God trusting that the ultimate sacrifice for our sin has been made in the Lord Jesus – and trust in him. He is our only hope, no other form of worship will suffice.

And if we don't? David knew as a king that his sin was a rotting virus which had affected more than just himself. If as God's king he was sinfully living for himself, what would others do? What effect would it have on God's people? So David begs God to protect and restore his people. God was patient, but in the long run, it was the people who didn't listen and over the centuries to come they would routinely reject him.

We aren't kings or queens. But like David, we don't live in isolation. Our individual sin can blight the whole body of believers. Your individual sin could destroy this whole church, so let's be prepared to deal ruthlessly with it.


We've seen this evening a model of true repentance.

We've unpacking together deeply challenging words which draw us into the depth of David's experience and then into the depths of our own hearts. But more than that, these words show us the deep love and commitment God in Christ has to the repentant sinner - God loves us despite our sin.

We've seen a model of crying for forgiveness, pleading for renewal, sharing the good news of grace and pursuing true worship. This is true repentance. How will God have you respond tonight? Let's ask him for help with that now.

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