Conviction, Contrition, and Community

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on March 5, 2023.

            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.

            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 judgment.

            Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,

                        and in sin did my mother conceive me.

            Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,

                        and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

            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.

            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.

            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.

            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. (Psalm 51)[1].

David’s one-night stand with Bathsheba resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. So, David summoned Bathsheba’s husband home from war, not for confession but enticement, a ploy to pass off the child of a king as the child of a soldier. It didn’t work. And so, David used his regal power to manipulate the course of justice to injustice, resulting in the battlefield death of Uriah the Hittite. The coverup was complete.

That is, until the prophet Nathan showed up with a story to tell. It went like this: “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him” (2 Sam. 12:1-4). The story was effective, enraging the king, who commanded, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Sam. 12:5-6). And then, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Nathan revealed the villain of the story: “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7).

What followed was the revelation that should surprise no one: The supreme Judge of heaven and earth saw everything. David’s guilt was great, deserving of death, but he would not die. He repented, and God forgave, and though the consequences of David’s sin remained, as a forgiven and restored son of God, he could sing this psalm of confession, contrition, and community, leading us to do the same, because we are not merely listeners but sinners. Like David we are prone to deny our sin, hide its evidence, and even hurt others to avoid its consequences. Our sins may not be as brash as David’s, but even the sins we dismiss corrupt our fellowship and contaminate our conscience. Thankfully, God does not leave us to wallow in it, but sends his Holy Spirit to graciously say to you and me, “You are the man!” But “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Sam. 12:13).

Merciful Forgiveness

The fifty-first psalm begins, so to speak, where David’s confession in 2 Samuel concludes. To Nathan, David confesses, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Sam. 12:13), but to the Lord he cries,

            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! (1-2).

With three synonyms (“transgressions,” “iniquity,” and “sin”), David confesses the totality of his sin. He no longer hides what could never be hidden. Great is David’s sin but not greater than the forgiveness of the self-revealed One, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). David does not offer to work for a wage but to be given grace, knowing that his sin is before him (and everyone else who has ever read this psalm). His prayer is not that his sin be blotted out of human history, but that by God’s grace it would be forgiven. And so it was. Such is the merciful forgiveness of God.

But have you ever considered that conviction of sin is a mercy of God too? For the child of God, we are never left alone, never separated from his Spirit. David may have feared losing the Holy Spirit’s anointing of his kingship, but he could never lose his sonship. We cannot lose what can never be lost, and conviction of sin proves it. It may at times feel like God is breaking our bones, but even then, it is a mercy reserved only for the child of God.

It is because of this mercy that David comes clean, confessing,

            For I know my transgressions,          

                        and my sin is ever before me

            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 judgment (3-4).

David’s confession does not negate his sin against Bathsheba or Uriah, or his country and kinsman for that matter, but as sin is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God,”[2] all sin is ultimately against God. Apologizing to your neighbor may be courteous, but it’s not confession. Classifying sin as a hereditary trait, or disorder, or merely a mistake may help you cope with your mounting guilt, but it’s not confession. Confession involves full agreement with God that sin is sin and full acknowledgement you have sinned against him, anything less is to call God a liar (1 John 1:10).

We are born sinners, inheriting the sin nature of our father Adam. No descendant of his escapes it, even the conceived child in the womb; we are all “brought forth in iniquity” (5). For this reason, our only hope is not moral resolve but spiritual rebirth. We must be “born again” (John 3:3); that is, the Holy Spirit must regenerate us, from spiritual death to life by God’s grace. By virtue of this new birth, we are enabled to savingly believe the gospel and empowered to live as children of God. As the Lord delights “in truth in the inward being,” so he helps us, counsels, teaches, cleanses us through his abiding presence. And yet, our sinful flesh remains, an inhibitor to our growth in grace.

Cleansed Contrition

We are, however, not held hostage by our flesh, nor helpless victims of its presence. The Holy Spirit leads and enables us to repent of our sin, no longer continuing in sin but turning from it. It is a fruit of the Spirit’s presence, a response to conviction, without excuse, without justification. When Nathan confronted David, he wasn’t simply sorry that his sin was found out, he was truly convicted and repentant, revealing true contrition. For, God delights in “a broken and contrite heart” (17).  

This doesn’t mean that we wear our sin like a scarlet letter. No, if we sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). But we do confess it, for “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And he who is faithful and just to forgive, also cleanses us by his sanctifying Spirit.

This is an essential part of our sanctification, but so great is the power of unconfessed sin that it can contaminate our conscience, jade our perspective, even lead to greater sin. David went from lust, to adultery, to lying, to murder, and when Nathan showed up and told his story, David’s judgment was so jaded, perversion had so clouded his perception in a fog of harbored sin, that he was oblivious to the point of the story. David was no dummy, but sin had rendered him clueless. It does the same to us. Spiritual cleansing then is a necessity, cleansing from within.

Rightly does David pray,

            Create in me a clean heart, O God,

                        and renew a right spirit within me (10).

He’s not praying to be born again again but to be cleansed as a pure vessel to faithfully serve the Lord. And through the spiritual discipline of confession, forgiveness is granted, fellowship restored; we are spiritually cleansed from sin’s contamination. David describes it using the metaphor of a hyssop branch, which was used in ceremonial sprinkling, signifying spiritual purity. How sweet is the fragrance of forgiveness given by the grace of God.

And with the Spirit’s cleansing comes joy. In fact, David prays for it:

            Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

                        and uphold me with a willing spirit.

While sin does not rob us of salvation, it does rob our joy, but repentance and confession, true contrition, restores it. It’s a godly joy worth fighting for. All too often we listen and believe the world’s lie that sin is enticing, pleasurable, and will give us joy. But for the child of God, in the moment it may seem pleasurable, but we are left miserable. We can even experience spiritual depression, deadening us to the pleasures of God. But if our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, and if joy is a fruit of the Spirit, then every Christian desires the Spirit-filled joy and gladness of godliness. Think about it this way: Your obedience is a fight for joy, the joy of godliness.

Confessing Community

In reading this psalm, there is a temptation to conclude with the twelfth verse. David’s personal cry is concluded, and we have gleaned the pertinent verses for devotional use. But the psalm doesn’t end with verse twelve, and our study shouldn’t either. Because as David shifts from himself to the covenant community, we are taught something often overlooked: The effects of sin are not merely individual but communal, and our forgiveness and restoration are blessings to the church too. For good reason does James teach us to “confess [our] sins to one another” (James 5:16). The Christian life is not a woeful life in isolation but a forgiven one in fellowship.

Therefore, as a man, as the king, as a child of Israel, David does not want his country, kinsman, and religion to suffer for his sin. He prays that God’s favor will continue to rest upon his people. He prays for the protection of his nation, the perpetuity of his throne, and the place of God’s tabernacle. He prays with purpose, that the Lord would delight in the sacrifices of his people.

In his confession and contrition, rightly, does David direct us to the altar. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). But the “right sacrifices” made did not truly atone for sin but served as types of a greater sacrifice to come, for “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Echoing David’s confession, the writer of Hebrews explains that, in Old Covenant worship, “every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb. 10:11). But Christ came, offering up himself as the single sinless sacrifice for sins, through which “he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:11-14). David points to the sacrificial altar because upon it the gospel is portrayed, and so it was, once and for all in Christ. 

And David is not willing to keep this good news to himself, but he is zealous to teach “transgressors” the ways of God that “sinners” will repent. Of course, this is what preachers and teachers in the church do. Instructing transgressors to try harder and sinners to strive better to earn God’s saving favor is no gospel at all. Saved sinners point other sinners to the Savior.

So in teaching, likewise in praise. David is ready to sing aloud of God’s righteousness to open his lips to declare his praise. He who was delivered sings out as one saved from death to life, because that’s what saved people do. The wages of David’s sin, and yours and mine, is death, but “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). This leads us to see corporate worship far differently than the world. When you deserve death but are pardoned and given life for Christ’s sake, you want to get together with all the other pardoned sinners and celebrate.

Dear lost and dying world: Do you know why we Christians gather every, single Sunday to worship a Jewish man who died on a Roman cross? Because he is the Lord and he isn’t dead but is risen and reigning in heaven, and through his righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, we have been forgiven of our sin, adopted into his family, given his Spirit, and promised eternal life. All of us, like David, who have heard, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die,” can’t help but assemble together, joyfully worshiping every Lord’s Day, until the very last Sunday … and then daily.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “The Shorter Catechism” Q. 14, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: PCA Christian Education and Publications, 2007), 363.

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