The lost art of repentance (Psalm 51)

Repentance is a heavy word, stretched at the seams with years of assumptions about its meaning.

I must admit, hearing the word “repent” I can’t help but think of those old-timey “fire and brimstone” style preachers, bellowing with holy menace from behind a massive oaken podium, faces slick with sweat.

Maybe for you the word “repent” makes you think of one of those bad TV preachers—the kind with slicked-back hair and a near-predatory grin, speaking winsomely about God so as to distract you from their hands reaching for your wallet.

Or maybe you picture the word “repent” scrawled in sloppy letters on a piece of cardboard, held aloft by a wild-eyed vagrant on a street-corner soapbox.  The end is near, he declares.  Better repent.

Maybe that’s because as Christians we’ve lost the art of repentance—mainly because we’ve lost the true understanding of our own sin.  Today’s world contains no shortage of self-help seminars and gurus and books that are poised to tell you that you are a beautiful snowflake, spectacularly unique in every way.  To say anything negative—such as you’re a sinner—is to “shame” them.  And so we’ve come to a world that finds no use for mercy and no place for repentance.  In their place we’ve enshrined the psychological idols of affirmation and self-acceptance.

So why does shame persist?  Why have we not stamped out all traces of moral condemnation?  Why does a culture of “selfies” only magnify our fragile souls rather than reinforce them?  Perhaps we’re not so self-reliant after all.

Perhaps repentance still has its place.


Part of the challenge is that to “repent” doesn’t mean to change one’s behavior.  Ideally, that comes later, as a result of repentance, and woe to us if we confuse the results of the gospel with the gospel itself.

To “repent” means to change one’s mind.  Sin, in one sense, is a mis-directed love.  Rather than loving God, we’ve chosen to love sex (lust), or wealth (greed), or our own leisure (sloth).  To “repent” means to re-order our loves—to make God once more the supreme source of goodness.

Psalm 51—the worship song we began yesterday—tells David’s story of repentance after his affair with Bathsheeba.  Here we’ll see four key aspects of repentance as contained in David’s life with God:

  • A new identity

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:10-12)

Pay close attention to David’s prayer.  Repentance isn’t something we do on our own.  David asks God to “create…a clean heart.”  God is the active agent here.  Granted, the process of repentance might include a change in behavior or personal habits (after all, we can hardly separate habits from hearts), but God is the agent of inward change.  As Christ’s followers we have the inward working of the Spirit to help us make progress in conforming to Christ’s good character.

  • A new purpose

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. (Psalm 51:13-14)

In his classic commentary, Matthew Henry said that “penitents should be preachers.”[1]  In other words, repentance should prompt us to go to others and share with them what Jesus has done for us, and what the Spirit is continuing to do in us.

  • A new religion

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:15-17)

In a world full of self-interest and empty gestures, David’s words are nearly soothing.  Our sin is so massive that it can never be covered by religious performance.  Such duties do nothing to satisfy God—if anything they are to his eyes “as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).  Only the death of Jesus can pay for the debt of our sins, and only my grateful obedience can serve as response.

  • A new hope

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar. (Psalm 51:18-19)

Finally, David speaks of God’s grace extended not just to himself, but to the city over which he presides. As always, we cannot expect God to interact with our city the same as he did with Jerusalem.  The promises God gave Israel were for her ears alone.  What we can expect from God is his future plans to “do good” to all the world, restoring it through the second arrival of Jesus.  Until then we look forward to that day with hopeful expectation, and serve our own city as new members of God’s family.


I know many people who, having been in Church for years, still struggle with this.  Perhaps you’re one of them.  The words are familiar, but they’ve yet to consistently travel the 12 inches from your brain to your heart.  You might find yourself feeling a persistent feeling of guilt, haunting you like a low-grade fever.

“I know God forgives me,” you might say, “but I can’t forgive myself.”

If this is you, then I have both a challenge and an affirmation.  First, I challenge you that in the moment that you say that, what you’re really saying is that you don’t trust Jesus for your salvation, but your own moral record.  If the God of the universe loves and accepts you in Christ, why do you insist on leaning on your own reputation?

Secondly, I want to affirm that this is not an immediately easy truth to understand.  In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther—the father of what became known as the Protestant Reformation—struggled with his own identity before God.  His advice to the readers of his own day was to learn to “preach the gospel to yourself.”  In his Preface to the Galatians, he wrote that when Christ’s followers feel themselves guilty or inadequate before the demands of the law, we should say something like this:

“O law! You would climb up into the kingdom of my conscience, and there reign and condemn me for sin, and would take from me the joy of my heart which I have by faith in Christ, and drive me to desperation, that I might be without hope. You have overstepped your bounds. Know your place! You are a guide for my behavior, but you are not Savior and Lord of my heart. For I am baptized, and through the gospel am called to receive righteousness and eternal life… So trouble me not! For I will not allow you, so intolerable a tyrant and tormentor, to reign in my heart and conscience—for they are the seat and temple of Christ the Son of God, who is the king of righteousness and peace, and my most sweet savior and mediator. He shall keep my conscience joyful and quiet in the sound and pure doctrine of the gospel, through the knowledge of this passive and heavenly righteousness.”

Repentance should stir within us a radical assurance of our righteousness—or, more specifically, of Christ’s righteousness that we are graciously permitted to call our own.

So repent, dear Christian—not because the end is near, but because God’s mercies are new with every morning.

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible. One volume ed. Edited by Leslie F. Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1961), 631.


2 thoughts on “The lost art of repentance (Psalm 51)

  1. This will probably sound like a lot of jumbled words but there are just so many profound lessons here.

    In tears again…

    First I think trust…
    Do we trust God to actually forgive us when we repent? And more importantly, can GOD trust us to stand for HIM, in and out of season?
    Through speaking to someone I got to thinking about respect and trust. Neither can be given. They lose both worth and value. But both are earned! It’s a painful but beautiful lesson really. Then I started thinking about other things that are earned and not given. Forgiveness? Repentance? We expect a lot of things that should be earned to be given by God.

    So I kinda held my breath the entire time I read this because I wanted to jump up and say, that’s me! That’s me! Sometimes I think God let’s certain preachers hear what you are praying about so that they can speak directly to it.
    All of the preachers where I come from are sweaty, slick (in more ways than one) and soapbox, in that they have coined themselves modern day John the Baptists, screaming ‘repent’.

    Point being, I think youre right. We don’t trust GOD in every facet of our lives to truly see Christ when HE looks at us. So those preachers preach, hard… and we each actually take ‘a Gospel’, not ‘the Gospel’ a heresy I think, we preach to ourselves and a checklist to beat our friends with when we feel like they’ve missed the mark too.
    For example, I changed my facebook pic just because it’s cold. And I felt so guilty because somehow I figured that would ruin my character. All about the checklist..

    Again, wrapping up, lol, since character was preached i have been praying about mine. Seems, God’s not doing it as quick as Id actually like because God forbid I step out and knowingly or unknowingly hurt someone else. So I am determined that my character WILL change! DETERMINED! And I think we always get frustrated trying to do it myself.

    “I know God forgives me,” I ALWAYS say, “but I can’t forgive myself.”
    Because repentance can’t be enough, can it?


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s