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.

I am what’s wrong with our city (Psalm 51)

What started as an art project turned into so much more.

In 2005 Frank Warren got the idea to invite anonymous strangers to write their secrets down on postcards, and send them to his address here in Maryland.

Warren never anticipated the tidal wave of responses he’d receive.

In the decade or so since Warren began PostSecret, he has been inundated with untold numbers of postcards.  They are collected and curated in books, on websites, and even in museum displays.

Confession, as they say, is good for the soul.

For many, the word “sin” must seem an archaic throwback to a religious era fraught with sexual repression and cultural regression. But if this is true, why does shame still linger?


Moral psychologists such as Paul Rozin have noted that feelings of shame are largely associated with disgust.  When we do something wrong, we often feel the same way as when we touch an insect, or smell something unpleasant.

The classic example of this is the “Hitler sweater” experiment.  The experimenters asked people if they’d be willing to wear a sweater if they knew it had been previously worn by Adolf Hitler.  Naturally, they declined.  But what if the sweater were thoroughly washed?  Still no.  What if the sweater were completely unraveled, re-dyed, then re-knitted into a brand new, completely unique sweater?  The answer, repeatedly and emphatically, was no.  It was if the respondents saw the garment as possessing some sort of moral contamination.  Touch it, and you’ll dirty your hands.

The writers of the Bible understood this implicitly.  Sin was associated with being “unclean.”  If you have a background in Church, you know that King David is remembered for not only slaying Goliath, but also for his affair with his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheeba.

After being confronted with his sin, David repents, and ends up penning one of the Bible’s most famous worship songs:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 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.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

(Psalm 51:1-9)

There’s a lot of rich theology here, to be sure, but what I’d like us to notice something quite particular.  Do you notice the repeated contrast between clean and unclean? His prayer is that God would “blot out…wash…and cleanse” his sin.  His desire is to become “clean…whiter than snow.”


What do David’s words have to do with loving our city?


See, it’s tempting to look at the problems of our city and either dismiss them or find someone to blame.  We point fingers more than we extend our hands.  And why not?  Surely I’m not the one ruining our city, no sir.

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times pointed out the way our moral outrage emerges in response to scandal.  He writes:

“We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it…

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: ‘How could they have let this happen?’

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive?  But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”[1]

Christ’s followers can hardly point toward their “inner wonderfulness,” as Brooks puts it.  We recognize that we, like David, come into the world horrifically broken, and this brokenness does profound damage to our homes, to our relationships, and yes, to our cities.

Some years ago the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton made headlines with his response to a magazine inquiry which asked: “What’s wrong with the world?”  Chesterton responded with only two words: “I am.”

I am what’s wrong with the world.

I am what’s wrong with our city.

As Christians, our prayers for the city can’t start and stop for praying for problems out there.  We must instead see our problems as flowing from within.  “Out of the abundance of the heart,” Jesus warns, “the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

God help us all.


The radical good news of the gospel is that God offers his help.  More specifically, he offers himself.

On the cross, Jesus took our uncleanness upon himself.  At the empty tomb, he pronounced God’s victory over death itself.



The things that God offers us personally he offers our city corporately.  But it starts by each one of us dropping to our knees in humble recognition of our fallen state, then lifting our eyes to the cross for personal forgiveness and transformation.

He blots our sins; he cleanses our sins.

And only he has the power to make our city new again.


[1] David Brooks, “Let’s All Feel Superior,” The New York Times, November 14, 2011.

The Stain of Sin

In the late 1990’s, a physician by the name of Karl Menninger wrote a book called Whatever Became of Sin? His book focused on the way the modern world took the concept of evil and human wickedness and packed it away in the attic along with all the other religious notions we’d grown out of. What we once explained in spiritual terms, we now could understand through psychology or sociology. This is why when you turn on the evening news, the talking heads on the screen strain to find some explanation behind some recent act of violence—usually attributed to the perpetrator’s childhood trauma or the collective weight of social forces. Even recent terrorist activity in the Middle East has been blamed on poor economic and social conditions. Perhaps all of this is an attempt to deny the radical wickedness that rots and stinks at the core of each of us. “There’s no evil inside of me, no sir.”

But even human psychology reveals that “sin” hasn’t been packed away as tightly as we might have assumed. The field of “moral psychology” deals with what are often called “moral emotions.” While some of these emotions can be quite positive (gratitude, for example, would be called a moral emotion), others are much more negative: guilt, shame, anger, disgust. While Sigmund Freud had identified “moral anxiety” in the late nineteenth century, it really wasn’t until the 1980’s and 90’s that psychologists really started examining these emotions with greater interest.

If you follow Jesus, their findings shouldn’t really shock you. Because while yes, cultures and people vary widely when it comes to ethics and moral questions, there are some things about us that are the same. No culture is neutral on issues such as the perseveration of life, sexual ethics, and respect for the dead. Could this be that yes, we do have some remnant of God’s image still alive within us?

But one of the most fascinating “moral emotions” is disgust. Essentially all cultures have some clear boundary line between what is “clean” and “unclean.” Cross that line and it grosses us out. Psychologist Paul Rozin calls this “core disgust.” It’s what we feel when we imagine ourselves handling a live cockroach, or eating something off the floor of the men’s room.

Now, we might attribute some of our disgust to biological preservation against germs. But we also seem to have a strong reaction of disgust when we think about moral contamination. Rozin’s most famous experiment illustrates this well. He asked a group of participants about their willingness to wear a sweater once owned and worn by Adolf Hitler. And of course the participants said “no.” Even if no one would ever know who it belonged to. Rozin kept changing the parameters: what if the sweater was thoroughly laundered? What if it were sent to Mother Theresa to be worn and sent back? What if the sweater were completely unraveled, re-dyed, and re-knit? The answer was still “no.”

Disgust and morality are closely linked. Hitler’s sweater is only the tip of the iceburg. Paul Bloom summarizes:

“Experimental research shows that feelings of disgust make us judge others more harshly. In the first experiment along these lines, the psychologists Thalia Wheatley and Jonathan Haidt hypnotized participants to feel a flash of disgust whenever they saw an arbitrary word. When the participants later read stories of a mild moral transgression, those who saw the word rated the behavior as more immoral than those who didn’t. In other experiments, participants were asked to make judgments at a messy, disgusting desk, or in a room that had been blasted with [an offensive odor]; or after being shown a [disgusting scene from a movie]. All of these situations made the participants more morally disapproving about the acts of other people. Even eating a bitter food, which evokes a sensation akin to physical disgust, makes people harsher toward moral transgressions…The consensus from the world and from the lab is clear: disgust makes us meaner.” (Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, p. 140-41)

All this to say that when the writers of the Bible used the language of “clean” and “unclean,” they weren’t merely appealing to cultural standards; they were identifying that “core disgust” within each one of us.

In the book of Proverbs, for example, we read:

There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, Yet is not washed from his filthiness. (Proverbs 30:12)

King David, after his affair with Bathsheeba, cried out to God:

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. ( Psalm 51:1-3)

None of us are clean.

There are two great temptations to avoid here. The first is the temptation to become defensive—“I’m not really as bad as all that.” The second is to take too lightly the promise of God’s grace—“God will forgive me anyway.” By that I don’t mean that God’s grace can ever be insufficient, only that sometimes we skip over the sheer awful gravity of our sin to “get to the good stuff.” In either case, there’s a sickness in each of us, a filthiness, a stain. Even in a culture of social media and digital transparency, there are things you and I would never say to family or share with our friends. We are ashamed.

So there is value, I think, in not moving on just yet to the “good news” of the gospel, but taking time to really reflect on—nay, mourn—the appalling truth about who we really are. It’s not for nothing that the Biblical writers spoke of tearing their garments or sitting in sackcloth—or the way Job encounters God and can only “repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Learn from this. Take some time, this day, to truly sit and consider the dreadful sickness that runs rampant through our hearts and through our towns and, yes, through our sanctuaries. For only in our glorious cringe can we truly find renewed appreciation for the wonderful cure.


A New Heart (Psalm 51 & 32)

We live in a “dirty” world.  God created sex for the biological purpose of reproduction, and for the spiritual/social purpose of strengthening marital bonds.  Such intimacy even reflects the goodness found in God.  Yet when we strip sexuality of its beauty and purpose, we only exchange joy for guilt.  And shame.

Pamela Paul—a journalist for the L.A. Times—recently sought to trace the various ways that pornography has impacted our society.  She assembled this data into a book called Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families.  In it she interviews a woman named Vanessa, who felt a wave of guilt sweep over her after she and her boyfriend introduced pornography into their relationship:

“My [sexuality] has definitely been influenced by similar pornographic forces that men experience…At the same time, it’s icky…I don’t just want to become [another body]….I felt cheapened…I felt so empty after the experience.”

God’s design for sexuality is for couples to become “one flesh”—that is, to experience radical unity of body and soul.  Sex outside of marriage is wrong.  Why?  Because you can never say with your body what you do not say with your soul.

So what do we do with this guilt?  This has been the subject of psychology for more than a century—and the speculation of writers long before that.  Yet these can only offer—at best—a means of masking our guilt.  Only the gospel provides a means for it to be washed away.

At some point in David’s moral failure with Bathsheba, he composed a song of repentance, which we now know as Psalm 51:

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.  Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 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.  5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

You hear David’s plea?  He wants to be made clean.  At first blush, we might cringe a bit at verse 4—surely it wasn’t just “against God” that David sinned.  What about Bathsheba?  What about Uriah?  What about the servants involved in the scandal?  But David is saying that guilt doesn’t merely spring from a violation in the social order.  No, it goes deeper—it is a violation of the very character of God.  And what’s more, he says, is that we’ve all been born into a natural state of sin.  The ancient writer Origen once said that “everyone who is born into this world is born into a natural state of contamination…[we are] polluted in father and mother.”  The Christian idea of “original sin” doesn’t just say I do bad things.  It says I am a bad thing.  If that’s true, than there is nothing in the world that I can do to absolve my guilt.  I need radical forgiveness and transformation.

6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

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. 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. 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. 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.

Does it strike you as odd that God simply forgave David?  Yes; David would experience the tragic consequences of his moral failings.  But David would be cleansed and renewed.  That’s what grace fundamentally means.  You see, when Christ died on the cross, His blood didn’t just cover the sins of the people from then onward.  No, his blood would retroactively cover the sins of all the saints that lived before.

It’s doubtful that David understood this—at least not to the fullness that you and I do.  But David counted on a God whose greater desire was to extend mercy.  Later, the apostle Paul would write that God “saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.  He saved us through the washing of rebirth and the renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).  In a “dirty” world, the gospel promises expiation and regeneration—that is, Christ’s blood cleans our guilt, and God’s Spirit transforms us from inside out.

It’s this righteous character of God that prompted David to write elsewhere:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah

6 Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.  7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah

8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.

10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord. 11 Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! (Psalm 32:1-11)

You are not “damaged goods.”  Your sins don’t have to define you.  Christ’s blood covers you.  This new relationship changes your identity.

I rarely like to embed videos in these posts—some of you at work might have to wait until later to watch this—but few sermon excerpts speak as powerfully as this one.  This is an excerpt from a conference message from Matt Chandler of the Village Church in Dallas:

Luther once wrote that Christians are “simultaneously justified and yet sinners.”   Paul understood this from his own experience.  In Romans 7 he writes: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19) But in his same letter he writes: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)  Following Jesus will cleanse your past.  And His Spirit shapes you into something new.