The Stains of Guilt: A Guide for Confession in Psalm 51 (Part 1)

When it comes to laundry, some of you have probably become master stain removers. Clothes are not cheap, and stains are inevitable. If you have kids or a dropsy husband, you fight grassy knees, drips of coffee, blots of ink, and those unidentified gross spots. So, you pre-soak, spot spray, bleach, and scrub. And with some elbow grease and a bit of magic, you keep those clothes shining like new.

But there are other stains besides the ones on our clothes. These blotches we cannot see but they are no less real. They are the smudges of guilt and sin upon our hearts and conscience. The youthful shame we cannot forget; the regret you cannot shake. It is like in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, when after committing murder, Lady MacBeth keeps scrubbing her hands to wash off those invisible blood spots. There are some sins that cling to us like indelible stains. No matter what we do we cannot wash them away. And as David makes his confession to the Lord in Psalm 51, he is tormented by the pollution of his crimes that he cannot remove. There is no detergent, no bleach he can find to make him clean again. Yet, thankfully, what is impossible for David is possible for our God in Jesus Christ.

When Nathan came to David and rebuked him for his crimes of murder and wife-stealing, we could not help being curious about David’s response. After hearing the Lord’s judgment, David did confess. This is good, especially for a king who had the power to keep hidden his felonies. Though, David’s confession was so brief, so terse, we were left unsatisfied. In the face of a mountain of sin, all we got was a few words, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13). Such a confession rings a bit hollow to our ears. We wonder if David got off easy.

Well, God seems to have anticipated our curiosity, for he inspired within the psalter David’s full confession. The Spirit gave us this psalm so that we might hear how the man after God’s heart confessed his grave sin. But Psalm 51 does not merely fill in the historical record. It is also for our instruction. As David himself prays in verse 13, “Let me teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will return to you.” David hoped that his experience of confession and forgiveness would help others. That other sinners would notice David and be encouraged to turn to God in repentance.

This psalm helps us in our own confessing. For one, it teaches us how to pray. We do not instinctually know how to pray; we need to learn. We have the Lord’s Prayer as our model, and this psalm instructs particularly on the confession of our sins. Additionally, this psalm imparts to us the courage to confess. Admitting our sins is kind of scary, even in a private prayer to our Father. Our first instinct is to hide, to keep quiet about our sins. For numerous reasons, we are too embarrassed to give voice to our sins. So, as we see David’s open honesty, the Father’s love and willingness to forgive become impressed more deeply upon us. In David, we see with greater clarity the human condition and how God’s grace is truly amazing.

David’s confession proper begins in verse 3, and he starts by acknowledging his sin: “I know my rebellions; my sin is before me continually.” When it comes to sin, our first inclination is to deny it, to suppress it. We try to put it out of mind. “Sin, what sin?” But David acknowledges his guilt to himself and to the Lord. In fact, his guilt seems to plague him. Like a crushing weight upon his conscience, he cannot shake it. It hounds him like a bad cough. The sorrow of guilt has David behind bars. He needs relief, deliverance.

Next, David admits that his sin is ultimately against God in verse 4: “Against you alone, O Lord, have I done this evil.” By this line, David is not denying that his sin was also against Uriah and his wife; instead, he is stressing the ultimate offended party, God. When we sin against one another, it can be easy to forget that is also against God. It was just an injury to a neighbor; it was not idolatry, so it is not that serious. We water down our sin to ease our guilt. Yet, all sin is a violation of God’s law, so ultimately it is an offense against the Lord, an insult to his holiness. Our sins are a slap in the face to our heavenly Father who saved us.

Hence, David agrees with the Lord’s judgment; he acknowledges that the Father was just in his judgment. Through Nathan, the Lord told David, “You despised me” (2 Sam 12:10). It would have been easy for David to protest, “Lord, I was not despising you. I just got caught up in lust.” Yet, as we are told in 1 John 1, if we say we are without sin, we make God out to be a liar. David cannot impute falsehood to the Lord and his judgment. When the Lord condemns us through his law, we must agree with His verdict. For the Lord is always just and right in his judgments.

Yet, as David approaches our Lord in confession in Psalm 51, it is not merely a few wretched crimes that weigh him down. Rather, he feels a sinfulness deep within his bones, in his very DNA: “I was born in iniquity; I was conceived in sin” (v. 5). There was never a time when David knew innocence, but sin was part of him even in conception. David’s problem is not that he got mixed up with the wrong people, or that he had a bad childhood, or that he made an uncharacteristically bad mistake. No, his problem is that he is a sinner; by nature, he is depraved in sin. He inherited Adam’s fallen nature. David’s sin is not an anomaly, but the norm. The dire issue before David is not merely how to pay for a few crimes, but it is his sinful self. He sins because he is a sinner. If his sin is going to be fixed, then his very nature requires healing. The sins are just the symptoms; he needs the cancer within to be removed.

Moreover, David does not use his sinful nature as an excuse: “You desire truth in the inward being” (v. 6). God demands truth and uprightness in our deepest being, in every nook and cranny of our heart. Yet, David falls short because he was born a sinner. God demands a truthful heart, but all David has is a lying heart. In our day, people like to make excuses for the way they were born: “I was born this way; it is okay.” But David knows that this road leads nowhere. Yes, we were born sinners, and in our sin, we fall short of God’s standard. In our iniquity, we stand condemned. We need to be saved.

Finally, then, David acknowledges what his sin deserves in verse 14: “Save me from bloodguilt.” Narrowly this bloodguilt refers to David’s murder of Uriah. He is guilty of bloodshed, and so he deserves to have his own blood shed. Broadly, with this confession David acknowledges that the wages of sin is death, even the forsakenness of being cast from God’s presence. Our sin merits death. Like David, we should die for our iniquities and rebellions. Our sins are not misdemeanors that can be paid with a few fines and community service. They are capital crimes against God himself. Yes, this is part of how we confess. We affirm that we are sinners and that in our sin, we deserve God’s just sentence of death, everlasting exile from the light of God’s face.

So, this is David’s confession of his sin, but any penitent prayer naturally includes petitions. We confess our sin and ask for forgiveness. We acknowledge our evil, so that we might find healing. David, then, surrounds his confession with pleas for pardon and purification. And in his petitions, we see a key reality about how Scripture presents our sin and its atonement. That is, when we sin what happens? In the OT, sin immediately made two marks. Every sin left behind two stains.

The first stain was in heaven or in God’s earthly house—the tabernacle/temple. This mark was essentially a record in God’s book of justice. God has a book, and in that book, he keeps a record of every single sin you commit. The Lord keeps a meticulous accounting of each one of your sins. They are all written in his book. And the Lord keeps a record in order to judge. Everything written in God’s book he will bring to judgment. God may not call for an accounting today or tomorrow, but eventually, he will execute justice for every last sin. This is the first stain of sin—the blotch in God’s book of justice.

There is, however, a second stain and this is on the sinner. Sin pollutes our own person; it defiles our own hearts and souls. The blemish of sin imprisons us in shame and sorrow; the stains are like heavy weights that slowly crush us. We can suppress the smudges; we can act like they do not exist, but as long as those spots mar our souls, there is no peace, no true joy.

These are the two marks of sin. And if sin is going to be remedied, both marks must be dealt with. The blotch in God’s book must be erased and the spot on our soul needs to be washed off. But how can such indelible splatters be purged away? What detergent can both reach into heaven and dive into our vile hearts? Well, as we will see in part two, this miraculous stain remover comes only from astounding grace for an eternal comfort.

©Zach Keele. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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