5 Important Things We Can Learn about Repentance from Psalm 51

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I broke my arm two years ago. It was the first broken bone of my life. I thought it would be fun to expose my kids to the joys of roller skating at the local roller rink. I wanted to share the fun of skating to sounds of the latest pop music, eating roller rink fare, and participating in the Hokey Pokey. After all, that’s what I did most Saturdays growing up. The only problem was that I hadn’t skated since I was a teen, and falling down as an adult brings greater consequences than it did when I was a child.

I knew right away something was wrong. The pain was intense. I clutched my arm close to my abdomen. I had to drive home using one arm. After enduring an emergency doctor’s visit, I learned that I had broken my elbow. Needless to say, I haven’t been skating since.

Our emotions reveal the turbulence broiling in our hearts. 

The excruciating pain in my arm was my body telling me something was wrong. Our emotions function in a similar way for us. They also tell us something is wrong. Whether we are angry at an injustice, fearful of the unknown future, or grieving a loss, our emotions reveal the turbulence broiling in our hearts.

One of the ways our emotions tell us something is wrong is in the case of our sin. When the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, we feel the weight of it. It makes us grieve and feel sorrow. We feel anger toward ourselves for what we’ve done. We feel a nagging disquiet in our souls that won’t let go. We feel broken and realize anew the utter depths of our sinfulness.

David felt the pain of his sins against Uriah and Bathsheba.

That’s how David felt in Psalm 51. He wrote this psalm after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 12). It is a lament, where he poured out his heart to the Lord, asking forgiveness for what he had done. In this psalm, David described the conviction he felt over his sin like that of crushed bones: “Let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (Ps.51:8). His joy was gone—all he felt was pain and sorrow over his sin.

Such conviction led him to repentance. Paul refers to this sorrow as godly sorrow:

For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor. 7:8-10)

Ultimately our sin is against a holy and righteous God.

There is more we can learn from David’s psalm about repentanceThough David’s sin was against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, it was ultimately a sin against a holy and righteous God. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge” (Ps. 51:4). As R.C. Sproul wrote in The Holiness of God,

Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself.

Here are five important things we can learn about repentance from Psalm 51:

1. You need to trust in God’s steadfast love and mercy.

When we sin, we have to turn to God in humble reliance upon his steadfast love and mercy. This is a characteristic of God found throughout the Bible, and one which the Lord announced to Moses:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exod. 34:6-7)

It was this truth that David rested in as he cried out to the Lord for forgiveness:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. (Ps. 51:1)

2. Salvation and forgiveness come from God alone.

We can turn nowhere else but to God for forgiveness; he alone can cleanse us from our sin, and his salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. As David wrote,

Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin… Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow… Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior. (Ps. 51:2, 7, 14)

John assures us that when we turn to God in repentance, he forgives us:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

3. Our sin creates a barrier.

All sin creates a barrier between us and God. Jesus came to tear down that dividing wall through his perfect life, atoning death, and triumphant resurrection. David refers to this barrier in Psalm 51:

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Ps. 51:11-12)

4. We have to be cleansed by God to be restored.

Our sin requires cleansing. We have to be made right before we can come into God’s presence. Christ has accomplished that cleansing for us when he bore the weight of all our sins at the cross. We have been made new:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor. 5:17)

This is what David asked for in his lament:

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10)

5. God accepts our pleas for forgiveness.

Because of Jesus, God accepts our broken and contrite hearts:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Ps. 51:16-17)

Christ now sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for us, pointing to his very own royal robes of righteousness which we now wear.

Psalm 51 is a psalm of repentance and one from which we can learn and even use to model our own confessions. When we feel the pain of conviction—a crushing weight that feels like broken bones—we can run to our Father and cry out to him in repentance. And we can do so in complete confidence, knowing that our loving, merciful God forgives us through the cleansing and atoning blood of our Savior.

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Christina Fox is a speaker, editor, writer, blogger, and author of several books including A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope Through the Psalms of Lament and Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ Helps Friendships to Flourish. You can find her at www.christinafox.com.

This article was originally published at the Christward Collective under the title "Learning Repentance from the Psalmist." Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.