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The Joy of Being Forgiven

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Psalm 51:1-12


The last few messages have dealt with sin. On July 31 I preached on the Ten Commandments. Two weeks ago, we looked at the two paths from Romans 6:19-23 in which we talked about avoiding the path of impurity and wickedness. Last week, Nick invited us to be careful that we are not deceived by those who may lead us astray, speaking from Matthew 7:15-23. Each of these passages speaks about sin and the need to avoid sin. Even though we know this and agree with everything these passages say, we all still sin. I John 1:8 says, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us."

What does it feel like when we know we are guilty of sin? There was an article in the CTV news last week. The title of the article was, “Honesty may cost boy $50K prize for hockey shot.” Eleven year old Nate Smith won a raffle which allowed him to take the chance to shoot a puck across the ice into a 3.5-inch hole. He made the shot and the prize was $50,000. The only problem was that his name was not on the raffle ticket. Rather, his identical twin brother’s name was on all three tickets. The father and the two boys had agreed that he had the best chance of making the shot. When the crowd exploded with excitement over the win, the father said he went along with it. But later guilt started to get to him and he decided to own up to what had happened.” The pain of the guilt was enough to make him confess the truth.

Guilt is a powerful emotion. When it begins to work on us, we feel bad and we want to get rid of the feeling. How do you remove guilt? How do you feel joy again after you have sinned?

In Psalm 51 David helps us understand these things. According to the superscription, the Psalm was written “When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” The story is recorded in II Samuel 11, 12 and tells us about the terrible sins which David had committed. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba and he had engineered the death of her husband to cover up the fact that Bathsheba was pregnant by David. For almost a year David had lived with the guilt of this sin and thought everything was covered up, until Nathan came to him and gave God’s word to him that he was the guilty one. At that point a flood of guilt overwhelmed David and he dealt with his sin. Psalm 51 was written as a reflection of that experience. It has a lot to say about the desire for cleansing when we are guilty and the way in which to find joy again.

Let us read Psalm 51 and think about what it has to teach us.

I.                   The Request for Forgiveness Is Based On Mercy

A.                 Three Words for Sin

The problem at the root of guilt is sin. In the opening two verses David used three words for sin. Although David uses these three words for poetic reasons, they each give a slightly different nuance to what sin is. The word “transgressions” implies that we have strayed off the path. It helps us realize that sin is a deviation from the right way. The word iniquity has the implication of something that is bent or twisted. If you were building a house, you would be very careful to make sure that every 2x4 was straight because warped or crooked boards create all kinds of problems. That is what sin is, something that is warped or crooked. The third word, sin, implies the idea of missing the mark. It makes us think about shooting at a target and missing it. So sin is all of these things it is being off the path, being warped, missing the target of obedience to God.

B.                 Three Words for Cleansing

David had sinned and was feeling guilt. It was so serious that he wanted it removed. He wanted the sin, the memory of the sin and the burden of guilt out of his life. What most of you don’t know is that I spilled a significant quantity of white paint right beside the elevator recently. The reason you don’t know it is because Scott, Val and I immediately got busy trying to clean it up. We used rags and paper towels to pick it up and when most of it was gone, Val brought out her secret weapon and we sprayed it with this chemical and blotted out the stain so that it is almost completely gone. That is what David wants done to his sin. He wants it blotted out.

            The word for “wash” refers to the action used to clean clothes. In the day before washing machines, they used to beat clothes to get rid of the stains and dirt. That is what David is asking for. He wants the sin beat out of him so that he is clean.

            The word for cleanse is a word which could be used to speak of draining the puss out of a wound or removing the dross from metal. The unwanted thing is removed and the result is something that is clean.

            David really wants his sin and guilt cleansed and removed.

C.                 Three Words for Grace

The three words for sin and the three words for cleansing show us just how badly David wants to be clean, but what hope does he have? When I spilled the paint I had a terrible feeling that I had made a mess that would not be able to be cleaned up. When we sin, we also feel as if we have done something that cannot be dealt with. We feel permanently dirty and we don’t have much hope. What hope is there?

Wonderfully in the first verse there are three words which give a powerful assurance that no matter how dirty we are, there is hope. The hope of David is in the character of God and particularly one aspect of his character. David’s hope is in the mercy, the unfailing love and the great compassion of God. These are three wonderful words describing just how much God wants to cleanse those who are dirty. They describe the deep desire of God to restore those who are filthy with sin.

When we are filled with guilt because of our sin, it is the love and compassion of God which assures us that there is hope and that we won’t have to die forever because of the stain of sin. VanGemeren writes, “When sin disrupts the fellowship with the covenant-Lord, the sinner has no right to divine blessings. However, the Lord has promised to forgive, and his forgiveness is based solely on his love and compassion.

II.               True Repentance

So resting on God’s mercy, David desires that the awful sin be removed, but how do you do that? Years ago the Bob Newhart show was about a couple who ran a bed and breakfast. They had a maid working for them who was a spoiled, rich brat. She had very little conscience and whenever she did wrong she would say, “sorry, sorry, sorry” and the tone of voice and body language let you know that she was not at all sincere. That will not do if we are to experience true cleansing from our sin. What is needed is genuine repentance and that is what is described in excellent detail in Psalm 51:3-6.

A.                 Acknowledgment of Sin

The first thing David says is “I know my transgressions.” The first step of repentance is the knowledge of our sin. When David says, “I know” he is doing more than acknowledging the presence of sin. He is recognizing fully and deeply that he has sinned. This is reinforced in the second phrase when he says, “my sin is always before me.” Keil and Delitsch remind us that “True penitence is not a dead knowledge of sin committed, but a living sensitive consciousness of it…” David has knowledge of his sin and he owns up to it.

When he says, “my sin is always before me” he recognizes the brokenness that has resulted from his sinful actions. Walter Wright says, “The achievement of penitence is to take sides with God against ourselves.”

The phrase also implies that it is not only an exercise of the mind but that it causes him emotional distress. He is broken up because of the terrible sin. Spurgeon helpfully adds, “The thief loves the plunder, though he fears the prison. Not so David: he is sick of sin as sin.”

This is the first step of repentance. We need to know that we have sinned and that the sin is serious.

B.                 Sin Is Against God

A second acknowledgement that is necessary is that which is found in verse 4 where David declares that his sin is against God and is evil.

We may wonder about this statement because the sin of David was against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, but David is aware that every sin is a violation of a divine law. He had broken at least two of the Ten Commandments and so we know that he had disobeyed God. Every sin we commit is a violation of God’s commands and although it will usually have a direct impact on some human being, it is ultimately sin against God.

David not only acknowledges his violation of God’s law, he also recognizes that every violation of God’s law is evil in the sight of God. The reason God has revealed his will to us is to lead us to life and whenever we do those things which violate his law, we do things which destroy, rather than lead to life. David agrees that he has done the thing which God hates.

We also need to learn from this verse that David declares God’s judgment just. Some people seem to be offended when they are caught doing wrong and do everything they can to avoid punishment. David does not do that. He is fully aware of his sin, understanding the complete evil of it and accepting the judgment which God brings on him because of it. Without that kind of an attitude forgiveness will not be found.

C.                 The Depth of Sin

As we read on we see that David also understood that this one sin was not just a onetime thing. His sin came out of a deep flaw in his basic personality. In verse 5 David points to sin as a basic flaw in him since the beginning of his existence. This verse has nothing to do with any possible sin of his mother preceding his birth. It does not speak to the guilt or innocence of children. It only speaks to the reality that we are all sinners and that it is something within us. Wright says, “Somehow the springs of human life are polluted at their source.”

            This acknowledgment deepens the pain of the guilt and the sin and heightens the need for intervention from God for there to be any hope of freedom from the guilt and pain of sin.

D.                No Self Deception

This deeply involved confession which is completely honest and fully disclosing is necessary if there is to be any cleansing from sin.

In verse 6 David recognizes the requirement of God that we not be self deceived, but that we speak “truth in the inner parts.” How easily we can deceive ourselves that we are not that bad. We look at the sins of others and think that we haven’t done anything very wrong. We cover one eye and fail to see the consequences of our sins. We deflect blame onto others and diminish our own sense of guilt. But complete cleansing will not come unless our repentance is complete. Such repentance requires deep inner honesty with ourselves. It requires that we open our soul to God and allow Him to reveal what is there. The last part of this verse indicates that God is willing and able to make such a revelation within us. He says, “…you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.”

That is why David says all these things. In verses 3-5 he has spoken truth from within, revealed to him by God when Nathan came to him. He has said, “I know I have sinned.” He has said, “I know that my sin is against God and is evil in his eyes.” He agrees with the judgment God has against him and he recognizes that this one act of sin arises from a fatal flaw in his personality which has been with him from birth.

By such honesty, David has positioned himself well to receive the forgiveness of God. Unless we have such honesty about the sins we have committed we are not well positioned to receive God’s forgiveness.

III.            What the Request for Forgiveness Brings

Upon the acknowledgment of guilt, the Psalmist shows that he is sick of the evil within. He lays it all out there and doesn’t want to see it any more. As we read on, we see his request for cleansing, but we also see an expression of hope that he will be cleansed.

A.                 Request for Cleansing

Hyssop was a plant which was used in worship, kind of like a brush. Exodus 12:22 describes what happened when God passed over the houses of the Israelites when all the firstborn of the Egyptians were killed. The Israelites were to “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe.” Hyssop was also used as part of the cleansing ritual for a person who had leprosy. They symbolized cleansing by dipping it into water and sprinkling it on the person. Therefore, it had a ready identification for the people of that day with cleansing rituals.

David expresses a desire for such a cleansing and also to be made “whiter than snow.” Because snow seldom falls in Israel, the snow they would mostly see would be white fresh snow or the white snow on the mountains. When snow is fresh, it certainly looks like one of the cleanest, whitest things around. David expresses a desire for cleansing that will make him absolutely and completely clean.

Verse 7 expresses this wish, but also expresses the confidence that it will happen. Upon proper repentance and upon the foundation of God’s mercy and compassion, David is certain, “I will be clean;” “I will be whiter than snow.”

B.                 Request for Joy

Another way he expresses his wishes is to have joy restored. The phrases in verse 8 speak to the deeply painful emotions which are associated with guilt. When we are guilty, we are not happy. When we are guilty, it feels as if our body is being physically oppressed. At least that is how David has experienced the guilt of his sin and whenever I have felt guilt, I have felt the same way.

It is interesting to note, however, that David doesn’t request joy first. He requests cleansing first and joy second. He knows that he is guilty and he doesn’t just want to feel better. He wants to feel better because things have been dealt with.

I know it is cliché, but the story is told of the man who felt guilty because he had cheated on his taxes. He wrote a letter to the tax office and sent a cheque and said to them. “I cheated on my taxes and felt guilty, so here is a cheque to cover what I owe. If I still feel guilty after this, I will send the rest.” This man only wanted to feel joy, not to be cleansed and to have his sin dealt with. David wanted to be clean and then on the basis of being cleansed, he requested that he would also experience the joy that would come with that.

C.                 Request for Removal

We see more of the heart of David when he asked God to “hide your face from my sins.” It is the request which matches the acknowledgment that he has sinned against God in verse 4. He does not want God to see his sin, but to see him clean.

The shame we feel because of our sin is a shame in the presence of God. Just like Adam and Eve, who felt naked only after they sinned, we also feel a certain sense of vulnerability. It is as if God sees right through us and sees all the horror in our lives. David doesn’t want God looking at him like that anymore. He wants God not to see the sin. He wants God to see him clean.

            These three verses are David’s request for forgiveness, beautifully expressed with great meaning and eloquence. When we repent, this request is also a part of it. In order to secure forgiveness, we need to repent, as David did. We also need to ask God for forgiveness, as David has done in these three verses.

            When we repent and ask for forgiveness, we have hope that God forgives. Based on the character of God, who is compassionate and based on the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross, we have assurance that God will forgive us. 1 John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."

IV.             Living in Forgiveness

Last week we drove to Winnipeg. I had just washed the car and so I did not want to go on the gravel road because I didn’t want it to get dirty again. How like us in regards to forgiveness. We confess our sins, we ask for forgiveness and God grants it to us. But we hate that we will probably sin again.

I believe that this is the awareness which David has in the words he speaks in verses 10-12. He is aware that he will likely sin again. The honesty of his confession is seen in that he does not want this to be the reality in his life. He is not repenting just to get feeling better, with the intention of going out and doing it again. The genuineness of his repentance is seen in the desire for a heart and a soul which will remain clean. He is so sick of it that he doesn’t only want it removed. He doesn’t ever want to do it again so that he doesn’t have to go through this again.

He expresses this by asking God to create a pure heart within him. It is interesting that he uses the same word which is used in Genesis 1:1. From nothing, God created the earth. From a sinful broken heart, David desires that God will create a pure heart. Tate says, “None but God can create either a new heart or a new earth.”

His request for a steadfast spirit within him is an expression of His desire to do what is right, what is God’s will. His request that God will not remove his Holy Spirit, is, I believe, simply a desire that the presence of God will go continually with him so that he will have the strength to continue in obedience. The final verse has a similar direction. The joy of salvation, is the joy of living with the constant recognition that it is only by God’s saving, redeeming work that we have any hope at all. A willing spirit is the prayer for a heart and mind that always want to do God’s will. David desires that God will give him the gift of such a heart.

What a wonderful prayer this is and one that is very appropriate as we move forward from forgiveness.


One year many years ago when we were on vacation, one of our children got a sliver in their foot. It was a great pain to them and they walked funny and were limited in their movements because of it. I suggested that it would be easy for me to remove the sliver and then they wouldn’t have to deal with the pain anymore. They were so scared of the pain of having the sliver removed that they refused. Being the compassionate father that I am, I finally sat on them, grabbed their foot, held them down and removed the sliver. It didn’t take very long after that that they were free and happy to have the sliver gone.

God doesn’t do that. He allows us to live with the pain of guilt if we want to, but it is His desire and His delight to offer us forgiveness, freedom, peace and joy if we will only repent. Yes there is pain in repentance – the pain of wounded pride, of admitting that we are not perfect, of being shamed before ourselves, God and others. But repentance is the only path to true and lasting peace and joy.

Whenever we are too proud to repent sin in our lives is a like a festering sore. If we repent and ask God for forgiveness, He promises that He will forgive. My invitation this morning is, don’t wait any longer. Repent because God will clean it up, remove the guilt, remove the shame, and replace it with joy, peace, cleansing and His presence.

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