A Pattern for Confession

Psalm 51

Tom Pennington  •  June 21, 2015
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As Christians we rightly find great joy in the reality of our justification. If you are in Christ you understand that you have been declared forever righteous in the courtroom of God's justice. The guilt for every single sin you have ever committed or every sin you ever will commit is completely erased. It is gone. And that verdict is final and eternal. It can never be overturned on appeal because there is no one beyond God to whom it can be appealed. And, yet, as Christians every one of us without exception still sins and we sin daily. No longer do we sin against God as our judge. That aspect of our relationship with God has been forever dealt with at the cross. That's why Paul can say in Romans 8:1 "Therefore there is now no condemnation…", no guilty verdict, "…for those who are in Christ Jesus." And yet we sin. Now when we sin it's not against God as our judge; it's against God as our Father. It's against the One who loved us, who gave His Son for us, who rescued us from His own wrath against our sin through His great gift of Christ, the One who has adopted us as His children. We sin against our Father.

What are we supposed to do when we sin as Christians? Well there has been a very small number of people throughout church history, who have taught that we should do nothing, that we should never confess our sins because we've been justified. It has been a very small number because it runs completely contrary to the teaching of Scripture. How do we respond when we sin? Well, there are two very familiar passages that lay it out. The first of those is in Matthew 6:12 in the middle of the Lord's Prayer or the Disciple's Prayer. Our Lord says, 'Here's how I want you to pray. Here's the pattern for your prayer. And I want a regular part of your praying to be seeking My forgiveness, to be confessing your sin and seeking my forgiveness.'

The other familiar passage is 1 John 1:9. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Now that is a wonderful passage and one we cite often, a great encouragement to us. We are to respond to our sins with confession. But what does that mean? How are we as Christians to confess our sins to God? Well the answer to that question is found in one of the most familiar passages in all of Scripture, the one we just read together: Psalm 51. I want to look at it this morning. Really all I'm going to do is give you a sort of outline of it and prompt your study and your meditation in the future.

Notice first of all that when we come to Psalm 51 it's one of the Psalms that has titles. The titles to the psalms are ancient. They may even have been original. We know that 200 years before Christ when the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew text into Greek—even then, 200 years before Christ—some of the terms that are used in the titles were already lost; the words were already so old they were unknown. We also know that our Lord Himself quotes one of the titles to the Psalms and says that it's true and accurate and authoritative and that's in Matthew 12:35 and following. Notice the title to this psalm. It tells us first of all the use of this psalm. It's for the choir director. One of 55 Psalms that is so marked. These psalms were to be sung by the choir of Israel leading the people of God in corporate worship. We also learned the author; we're told it's a psalm of David. And we're even told the occasion on which it was written: when Nathan the prophet came to him after he'd gone into Bathsheba. Of course, those historical events recorded in 2 Samuel 11-12. Now those are important details for us because they help us together understand the purpose for which this psalm was written. It is the record of David's confession of his sin after Nathan confronted him with his adultery with Bathsheba and his arranging the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba's husband. But it's not just a confession. It is a carefully prepared confession because in Hebrew this is a poem. Having written some hymn lyrics recently I've been reminded of the work that's involved in writing these great psalms. This didn't happen accidentally. This didn't happen overnight. He didn't pen this on the back of an envelope. This took great thought and effort, creativity. And it's not just David's private confession—he intended for this confession to be used publicly by the people of God because he says it's for the choir director. You understand what this means? This means that this psalm is a divinely intended pattern inspired by the Holy Spirit through David and his circumstances to give us a pattern for confession and we desperately need it. Because you know our confession tends to be so trite, so shallow. We come to God with sort of a one line 'oh, yeah, and by the way, forgive my sin.' We desperately need to learn from David, a man after God's own heart, a man who sinned, yes, sinned horribly, yes, but who knew how to confess his sin and gain forgiveness from God.

Now David's confession here in Psalm 51 is notoriously difficult to outline, but it seems to me there are five movements in this great psalm and each movement teaches us a key principle of confession. So, there are then five great principles of confession in this magnificent poem or prayer of David's. Before we're done this morning I'll give you all five of those principles but I'm just going to briefly summarize the last three at the end of the message. I really want to concentrate our time this morning on the first two principles of confession because they are really at the heart of confession. Let's look at them together as we prepare our hearts for the Lord's table.

The first great principle in the pattern of confession that David followed, and that we must follow as well, is appeal to God's character. We see this in verses 1-2. Notice how he begins:

    Be gracious to me, O God, according to your lovingkindness; 

    According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my 

    transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and 

    cleanse me from my sin.

You see true confession of sin begins with this basic understanding. When we sin and when we come to God, we come as beggars. We deserve nothing from a holy God except His justice and His anger. We deserve nothing but for Him to strike us down and end our rebellion. So we come to Him after having sinned as beggars. We have no spiritual resources, only needs. We have no spiritual merits only demerits. We have no rights, only crimes that we've committed against Him. So we have to begin where David begins—pleading with God to give us what we don't deserve. Notice how he opens this psalm, "Be gracious to me, O God." Grace. Grace is defined as that quality in God that delights in doing good to those who deserve exactly the opposite. And this is where David begins: 'God you have declared Yourself, in Exodus 34 to Moses, as being One who is by nature marked by grace. You delight in doing good to those who deserve exactly the opposite. Oh, God be gracious to me. Show me that quality. Be consistent with Yourself and show me grace.' On what basis can we appeal for God's grace? Again, it's God's character. Verse 1 goes on to say "Be gracious to me…according to Your lovingkindness." Now, the New American Standard translation that we use here is the most literal translation of the original languages that exist in English and that's why we use it. However, I think the word 'loving-kindness' is the most unfortunate translation in the entire New American Standard. If you've been here any time at all you know the Hebrew word that stands behind this word. If you don't you need to know. Whenever you see the word 'loving-kindness' in the Old Testament understand that that is the Hebrew word "hesed" h-e-s-e-d, hesed. That word consists of two equal parts and you need to know both of them. One part describes the profound love that is found in the deepest relationships, relationships based on a covenant commitment like marriage. The other part of this word speaks of loyalty to that covenant, to that relationship, a tenacious stubborn commitment to that relationship. So, it is love and loyalty. That's why some translations translate it "steadfast love". Other translations translate it "unfailing love". That's the idea. Whenever you see the word 'loving-kindness' just set that word aside and remind yourself it is steadfast love. It is the committed love based on a covenant relationship. Someone has obligated themself, God, to us.

So David is saying God, be gracious to me in keeping with the fact that You have obligated Yourself to me by covenant. With us it's the new covenant. God, You have a deep tenacious love for me. Not because of me but because of who You are. Be consistent with that love. Be gracious to me on the basis of that love. Treat me because of Your steadfast love. Your character is marked by steadfast love, by a love for Your children that never fails. God, it's not like You to give up on a relationship. He appeals to God's character. To His grace, His unmerited favor, to the greatness of His compassion you see there, and to His hesed. David is appealing for what he doesn't deserve—forgiveness—on on the basis of the covenant relationship he enjoys with God, the covenant that God initiated. That's how we must begin as well. You see even in this beginning how serious sin is? Here's David, a man after God's own heart, and this is how he comes to God because of his sin. He comes as a beggar. 'God, I have nothing to offer You. I come as a beggar pleading Your character.'

Now as David begins his confession he shows a profound understanding of the nature of sin and of forgiveness and to show us this he uses three powerful word pictures that illustrate both sin and forgiveness. The first word picture comes in verse 1. Notice, "Blot out my transgressions." The Hebrew word for "blot out" means to erase, to wipe away writing from a book. In fact, Moses uses it this way when he says, 'God if You won't forgive Your people then blot my name out of Your book.' It's this word—to erase or to wipe away writing—and transgressions are acts of rebellion or criminal acts. You know what David is saying? He's saying our sin is like a criminal act against God. It is a transgression of His rightful authority. It's like when we sin we get a criminal record before God and David is saying, 'God I want You to erase the record. I want You to blot out the record.' That's what we ask in confession. 'God, erase the record of my sin.'

There's a second word picture in verse 2, "Wash me thoroughly". The Hebrew here is very interesting. Literally, it says 'multiply to wash'. Don't just wash me once but God keep on washing me from my iniquity. The word iniquity is a word that can speak of sin in the sense that it is morally twisted, but it's also a word that speaks of the guilt that we get because of sin. I think that's the idea here. The verb 'to wash' has to do specifically with laundering clothes. It literally means to beat or tread clothes, which of course is how they used to do it in the ancient world. Ladies, you can be grateful for your modern conveniences. But this word picture pictures sin and its guilt as a stain, not on our clothes but on our souls. And David is saying 'God, I have stained my soul with the guilt that is mine. Keep on washing until the stain is removed.' This is confession. This is seeking forgiveness.

There's a third word picture in verse 2. "Cleanse me from my sin." This is the word of ceremonial cleansing. You remember to worship in the temple you had to be ceremonially clean. You had to be ceremonially clean to enter God's presence to serve Him, to fellowship with Him and there were rules about who could and couldn't. You remember in Leviticus 13 the law of leprosy is laid down. This is where most people stop their new year's resolution to read through the Bible. You come to that chapter about all the regulations regarding leprosy and all of its forms and how it's to be evaluated and how it's to be dealt with. What's the point? The point is if you had a shadow of a doubt that you had leprosy you couldn't go into the temple. You couldn't go into God's presence. Why? Because of the disease itself? Well, partly. Certainly so you wouldn't infect others, but there was a larger spiritual significance and that was, it pictured sin. You couldn't enter God's presence with any sin. It contaminated you. David is saying that his sin, and our sin, makes us unclean before God. It renders it impossible for us to fellowship with God, to enter His presence, to serve Him. It's like we have a terrible disease that keeps us from entering His presence and so we have to ask God to cleanse us so that we can come before Him. And notice that our appeal for grace and for God to erase the record to wash out the stain, to ceremonially cleanse us is not found in on our own personal merit or anything in us, but in the character of God. 'Be gracious according to Your steadfast love; according to Your compassion.' Listen, if you're going to come before God in true biblical confession and repentance, you're going to come like a beggar acknowledging that your only hope is the character of God. You're going to come appealing to God's character.

There's a second principle in this divine pattern of confession. It is 'accept full responsibility'. Notice verses 3-5.

    For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 

    Against You, You only, I have sinned and have done what 

    is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak 

    and blameless when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth 

    in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.

Now in verse 3 the "I" there is emphatic. David says 'I myself know the acts of my rebellion.' You see God had always known the disgusting character of David's sin, but remember, nine months passed between David's sin with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah and the confrontation of Nathan. For those nine months David had labored under the guilt of his sin. In fact, he describes it later in Psalm 32 where he talks about remaining silent. He just kept his distance from God, refuses to confess his sin. It was only after Nathan confronted him that David had come clean with God. And now as he contemplates the enormity of what he has done, notice he says, "my sin is ever before me". He says, God I live with the stain and the awareness of my guilt every day. Now, what David says in the next two verses is absolutely foundational. It distinguishes between genuine biblical confession and repentance, and worldly sorrow and selfish regret. Here is the heart of confession because in verses 4 and 5 David takes full responsibility for his sin in three ways. And it's the same three ways that we must take responsibility for our sin as well.

First of all, if we're going to take responsibility we must come to the bedrock conviction that every sin is in reality a personal affront to God. Every sin is in reality a personal affront to God. Look at verse 4, "Against You, You only I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight." Now, at the basic historic level that doesn't appear to be true. I mean clearly David had sinned against people. He had sinned against Bathsheba. He had sinned against her husband Uriah. He had sinned against his general, Joab, by ordering him to be a part of the plot in the death of Uriah. He had sinned against his family and the years ahead would reveal just how horribly he had sinned against them. David had even sinned against the nation. By his sin he had done as Achan had, exposed the nation to risk. But when David comes to confess his sins notice he says he has sinned against only God. By the way, this is true in the historical record as well and in 2 Samuel 12:13 David said to Nathan, "'I have sinned against the LORD.'"

Now, why would he say that when clearly he had sinned against people as well? I think one of the great commentators on the book of Psalms, Stewart Perowne, is right when he writes this: "The words are to be explained by David's deep conviction of sin as sin. Face to face with God he sees nothing else, can think of nothing else, but God's presence forgotten, God's holiness outraged, God's love scorned. All sin as sin is and must be against God. All wrong done to our neighbor is wrong done to one created in the image of God. And so ultimately it comes back to God." And, by the way, this is true in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is dealing with the issue of Christian liberty and he's addressing those who take their liberty too far and sin against other Christians and he says 'when you do that you sin against your brother.' We get that. But then he adds, "and you sin against Christ". This is how sin works. You and I have to come to understand that when we sin it's not harmless. You know we convince ourselves at times, 'Well, it's really not hurting anyone.' Listen, every sin…my sin, your sin….is a personal affront to your Creator. There's a second way we must accept full responsibility for our sin. Not only seeing every sin against as being against God, but also, secondly, we must acknowledge that God bears no responsibility for our sin and that His verdict against our sin is just. Verse 4 goes on to say, "So that You are justified when You speak. And blameless when You judge." You know what David's saying? He's saying, 'God, You were right in calling it sin. You were right in saying what it deserved. I whole-heartedly agree with you.' That's what he's saying. Albert Barnes writes, "God was right. David was wrong. The sin deserved all that God had declared it to deserve. Any sentence which God might pronounce would not be beyond the measure of what it deserved." This is confession. 'God, You were right when You said this was sin. You were right when You said what it deserved and I acknowledge that.' Did you know in the New Testament that the word "confess" that's used in 1 John 1:9, "homologeto" is the Greek word, it's a word that literally means to save the same. In other words, confession is saying the same thing about your sin that God says about it, to agree with His verdict. If we're going to take full responsibility we must say, 'God, You were right in what You said, this is absolutely wrong, it's a sin against You, it's a sin against others and You're right in saying it deserves Your justice, it deserves punishment. Whatever You chose to do it would be right.'

Thirdly, we must recognize that our sin is not an accident but is an expression of who we are by nature. Verse 5, "Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." Now, this is not a comment on David's mother or her decisions. Notice he starts by saying that at the moment of his birth he was morally twisted. And then he thinks about it a moment and he backs up nine months further and he says that sin was even a part of his being at the moment that he was conceived. Now, there is a great temptation to misunderstand what David is saying here. David is not using his mother or his family as an excuse for his behavior and choices the way so many people do today. In fact, he's doing the exactly the opposite. He's owning up to it personally. You know what he's saying here? He's saying, 'God, nothing outside of me caused me to commit these sins. It wasn't my father. It wasn't my mother. It wasn't that I grew up in a dysfunctional family. It wasn't that I was stuck out in the fields all day by myself keeping those sheep. It wasn't that I rose too quickly to fame and fortune and prominence when I killed Goliath. It wasn't Bathsheba fault. If only she had been more careful, if only she had been more modestly dressed, if only she had taken more precautions.' Listen, if David were living today he wouldn't blame his family, he wouldn't blame his friends, he wouldn't blame his wife or husband, he wouldn't blame his computer, he wouldn't blame his job, he wouldn't blame the internet. He would say, 'God, the problem is me. It's me.' David is saying that his sins were not an aberration. They weren't a completely inaccurate picture of who he really was. It's not that David is basically a good guy who just happened to make some bad decisions. That's how most people address their sin today. That isn't really who I am. You know, I just made some bad decisions. No, in verse 5, David is owning up to his sin. He's saying his sins are completely his own. 'The reason I sin is because of who I am. I didn't commit adultery; I am by nature an adulterer. I didn't murder; I am by nature a murderer.' You see, your confession of sin and mine will never be what God wants it to be until we begin to understand this principle: I sin because I am a sinner. In other words, we have to give up on all the excuses. Derek Kidner writes, "This crime David now sees was no freak event. It was in character. An extreme expression of the warped creature he had always been." Now, I want you to personalize this for a moment. I want you to think about the sins that you struggle with on a consistent basis, the sins that you often find yourself coming back to God and confessing. If you're going to truly confess your sin to God, you have got to come to the bedrock conviction that the reason you commit those sins is nothing but yourself. There is no one else. There is nothing else responsible for the sin in your life. Nor is there for the sin in my life. We make the choices we make because of who we are. Now, when I say that, I don't mean your new nature. If you're in Christ, you have been made new in Christ. I'm not talking about that new person that you are. I'm talking about that part of you that by nature remains unredeemed. Your flesh, as the Bible calls it, that's still you. That's who you were. That's who you made yourself and that's still with you. And when you choose to sin it's because of you. If we're going to deal with our sin, we must take full responsibility.

Now, let me briefly summarize that other three principles of confession. The third great principle of confession is found in verses 6-9. 'Hope in God's mercy.' You see, godly sorrow—true, godly sorrow—is is always accompanied by a genuine hope in the mercy of God. And you see this in David's words here. I mean look at what he says in verses 6-9. He says, 'God, You can make me to know true wisdom that will keep me from making the same choices again. God, You can make me clean. God, You can wash me so that my soul is white as snow. God, You can restore joy and gladness so that I can again be in the corporate worship with Your people.' And notice, David hopes in God's mercy to do just that. Verse 6, "…You will make me know wisdom…" Verse 7, "…I shall be clean…I shall be whiter than snow." Listen when you come to God in confession don't come just bemoaning who you are. Come hoping in who God is. That He will hear you, that He will extend forgiveness. It honors God to do that. I love Psalm 86:5 and remind myself of it often when the psalmist says, "For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon You (ESV)." When you go to God, go as a beggar, but go in hope because you go to someone who is by nature generous and kind and gracious and forgiving.

Number four, the fourth principle, is 'seek spiritual renewal.' We see this in verses 10-12. You see, David is not content with just forgiveness. That's not all he asks from God. He realizes instead that his sin has already had awful spiritual consequences in his life and may still have more spiritual consequences. And he comes praying that those spiritual consequences will be undone. He prays for a miracle of spiritual renewal. In fact, I love the way he puts it in verse 10: "Create in my a clean heart O God." He says 'God, you know my sin has wrecked my soul. I have ruined what You gave me. What I need is to be recreated.' It's really a prayer for spiritual renewal. 'God, don't just forgive me. Give me an increasing desire for holiness. Put me back on the path of righteousness. Let me obey You again and love You again and serve You again.'

The final principle of confession is found in verses 13-19, the rest of this psalm. In these verses, David essentially makes a number of spiritual resolutions or vows. This principle is 'commit to worship.' David promises God some things. The key to this section is noting what David says he will do or what he will offer to God if God forgives him. And if you work your way carefully through these verses, and I hope you will in your own time this week, you'll notice that it's all about worship—either his worshipping God or his bringing others to worship God. Here's the final principle of confession: True confession of sin eventually turns to praise and worship. You know if your confession is sort of the 'you throw out a sentence, you know, God forgive me my sin' and it doesn't turn your heart to desiring to praise God and to worship God and to serve God and to love God then it's not true confession. True confession will always turn to praise and to worship.

This morning we celebrate communion or as the Scripture calls it "the Lord's Table". How do we prepare? Well, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul says we have to prepare our hearts and the right way to prepare our hearts is to judge ourselves. That is, we are to sit in judgment on our sin before God or, to say it differently, we are to confess our sin and to seek God's forgiveness. And in Psalm 51 David has taught us how to do that. We are to appeal to God's character. We're to accept full responsibility, to hope in God's mercy, to seek spiritual renewal along with forgiveness, and to commit to worship and to bring others to worship. You know there's great hope in this psalm. As one writer put it, "history scarcely records a grander instance of the change of blood red sin into dazzling whiteness than this." I mean, think about it. Out of David's sin, out of the forgiveness God extended to David in response to this confession, out of his marriage to Bathsheba, ultimately came the Messiah. Think about it. God answered this prayer by not only extending forgiveness to David, but from this confession we ultimately get the One who would deal with sin. Out of the marriage of David and Bathsheba came the One who would purchase the forgiveness of sin, which David was seeking in this psalm. In the Lord's Table we celebrate the Person who purchased our forgiveness, our Lord Jesus Christ. And we celebrate the event in which He purchased it—His death on the cross. Take a moment now and prepare your heart as the men come. Use what we've just learned together to confess your sin.

As I lead us in prayer, I want you to think specifically about your own sin and you pray along with me in your heart as I lead us through this magnificent psalm. Our Father, we do come to You this morning as we prepare for the Lord's Table seeking Your forgiveness, confessing our sin to You. And Lord we come as beggars appealing to Your character. Lord, won't You be gracious to us? Won't You do good to us who deserve exactly the opposite? Father, we pray that You would do so based on Your steadfast love. It's like You to be faithful to the relationship with us that You initiated. Lord, You set Your love upon us in eternity past. Don't leave us. Father, instead continue Your work in us. Forgive us our sins. Father, we pray that You would erase the divine record against us, our crimes that we've committed. Father, that You would wash thoroughly the stain from our soul, that You would cleanse us so that who are able to enter Your presence. Father, we accept full responsibility for what we've done. It's who we are apart from Your grace. Lord, it's not our circumstances, it's not someone in our lives, it's not our dysfunctional family, Lord, it's nothing but us. And we take complete responsibility. Father, even as we come seeking Your forgiveness we hope in Your mercy. Lord, You can make us clean. You can wash us and make us whiter than snow. You can give us wisdom to avoid the sin in the future. And Father, we come expectantly, in hope, because of who You are. You extended mercy to David. Extend it to us. And Father we come not only asking for forgiveness but for spiritual renewal. Lord, create in us a clean heart. Recreate us. And Father, if You'll do these things we will worship You and love You and praise You and serve You and we will bring all those under our influence to do the same. Forgive us, oh God, and prepare us to take of this reminder of our Lord's death for us. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.