The Stains of Guilt: A Guide for Confession in Psalm 51 (Part 2)

In the first section of this survey of Psalm 51, we were rocked by the foul stains of our sin. As sinners, conceived and born in iniquity, sin corrodes and tarnishes every last fiber of the inner person. Our hearts are rotten with the decay of sin. But sin also defiles the holy records of God. Each transgression is carved in stone before the Lord demanding punishment and payment. A double cleaning is required, which is exactly where David’s prayer is aimed.

In verse 1, David begs that God would blot out his sin from his book. This word for blot out means to erase, to delete. David pleads that the Lord would erase all his iniquities from the record of justice. If you have any debt, there was probably a time or two when you wished you could get on the bank’s computer and just erase your account. One press of the delete button and your mortgage is no more. This is what David asks of God. “Please just delete all my sins.” Of course, the key effect of erasing sin is being freed from punishment. A recorded sin will be punished, but an erased sin is not judged. This is why David pairs blot out with hide your face in verse 9. God hiding his face from sin is for him not to judge it. This is David’s petition that God would not judge him as his sins deserve but would show the mercy of erasing his sins.

David also pleads for personal purification, that God would wash away the stains upon David’s own person. And David uses very intense terms. In verses 2 and 7, the word for wash is term for laundering clothes. He asks to be put in God’s washing machine with hot water and bleach. Likewise, the terms cleanse/purify in verse 2 and purge me with hyssop in verse 7 normally refer to washing away the severe ritual impurities of death and scale disease. David, though, is not talking about ritual impurity here, but moral impurity. With blood and water, he needs to be thoroughly scrubbed from his death-deserving sins. Indeed, he needs to be made white. The stains of his sin are black, the deep scarlet of blood. Such blotches will strangle him; such pollutions will crush him. He must be made white, even whiter than snow.

In fact, David needs such a deep cleaning he requires a new creation. His problem is not just the stains of the sins he committed, but it is also his heart itself. David’s sins are not crimson stains on a white heart, but they are scarlet spots on a black heart. He needs saving from his sin nature. David then prays that the Lord would recreate his heart. What a bold prayer! God’s work of creation ended on day six. The Lord has been resting from creation since day seven. Yet, David calls God to break his rest; he asks God to come back to work. Create again, O Lord! Recreate my sinful heart into a pure heart. Turn the black into white. And renew my spirit. Our spirits are bent on evil and sin. It is all they know to do. Every inclination of our heart is only evil all the time. So, David asks for a new spirit, a steadfast one—one that constantly seeks the good. He pleads for a willing spirit—one that freely wants to obey. He petitions for a spirit that is holy. That God’s own Holy Spirit would remain in David to make his spirit likewise holy. David senses the magnitude of his sin nature so much that he asks for nothing less than a new creation. It is his only hope to be holy. David cannot make himself holy; he cannot do it by the law. His only chance at holiness is a miraculous work of God in him, one of new creation.

However, as David pleads intensely for purification, there is a problem—a very big problem, verse 16. There is no sacrifice that God desires or would accept. Now by this David is not saying that God does not care about sacrifices. Rather what he means is there is no sacrifice given in the law for murder. David’s sins are high-handed ones, for which there was no sacrificial atonement only punishment. This is why David says, he would bring such a sacrifice if there was one. But there is no sacrifice for the heinous sins of which he is guilty.

And this is a problem because sacrifice was how the two marks of sin were removed. The animal was a payment for the sin. As the animal blood was daubed upon the horns of the altar, your sin was erased from the judicial record. Then as your sin was deleted, God forgave you—he purified the sinner’s conscience from guilt and shame. Yet, for David, this method of sacrificial atonement does not exist under the law. As a murderer, the law extends David no mercy. It offers him no way of escape, no means of purification, but only death. David must die. What can David do? Well, he goes outside the law. He prays for new creation, and he casts himself on the mercy of God.

A broken spirit, a crushed and contrite heart, these the Lord will not despise. These are sacrifices that God will accept. What does David mean by this? Well, essentially, he means all that he can do is cast himself on God’s mercy as a bankrupt sinner. He is not saying that his humiliation in some way earns God’s purification. No, a broken heart is the very opposite of earning anything. What is broken cannot fix itself; what is shattered has no worth. Indeed, what a powerful image this is of what we confess in our membership vow that we humble and abhor our sinful selves. The crushed spirit knows it can do nothing to save itself. A broken heart mourns its spiritual poverty and defilement. Thus, a crushed heart falls upon the mercy of God alone. There is nothing else David can do but look to the mercy of God. And so, this is what we do as well. In our sin, all we can do is fall upon the compassion and mercy of our Heavenly Father.

There is, though, one more petition that figures big into David’s prayer here and that is for joy. Let me hear joy; may my broken bones rejoice. He promises that his tongue will sing, his lips will open, and his mouth will declare the Lord’s praise. David aches to bring a sacrifice of praise. And David covets his joy because he is presently in the sorrow of sin, the melancholy of guilt. Such misery means God is angry with David; there is no peace with God, but the threat of judgment. Yet, joy signals salvation, reconciliation, and the peaceful light of God’s face. David is presently oppressed by the dark night of sin, so he is dying for the morning light of joy.

And such is David’s intense confession of sin after his sin with Bathsheba. And without a doubt, this is good and necessary for our faith. We need to repent of our sin daily; we do confess our sin every Lord’s Day during worship. But such frequency can become meaningless to us. We go through the motions and forget the enormity of our sin. David’s confession reminds us of the gravity of sin; it calls us to humility, to cast our broken spirit upon God’s mercy alone.

Nevertheless, if all David’s confession did was remind us of our depravity, it would leave us in despair. Note that within this Psalm there is no answer to any of David’s petition. There is no erasing sin, no purifying guilt, no recreation, and no joy. The morning of forgiveness is never quite reached in this psalm. And yet, God did answer David’s prayer; he heard everyone one of his petitions and he did so in Christ. Yes, the good news of this Psalm is how it shows us so much about the atonement of Christ. As David laments the nasty stains of sin, he calls for the beautiful purification of guilt. Thus, even though there was no sacrifice under Moses for our sins, one was provided in Jesus. Christ did what the law could not do; he made you holy. In Hebrews, it says that Christ’s blood was sprinkled on the heavenly altar. This is the very blood rite of purging with hyssop.

What did this sprinkling do? What is written upon the horns of that heavenly altar? Your sin! So, the sprinkling of Christ’s blood erased your sin. His blood deleted your sin from the record of justice; it canceled the record of debt that stood against you. Christ’s purifying the heavenly altar blots out your sins and with your sins goes judgment. There is no condemnation for you in Christ because Jesus erased your sin. With the one sprinkling of Christ, your debt went from a trillion to zero! This is good news!

Yet, Hebrews says something else about the sprinkling of Christ’s blood. It says that as the blood was sprinkled in heaven, it purified your conscience from dead works. Hebrews assumes the OT analogy between the heavenly record and your heart. By Christ’s sacrifice, you are purified. The stains of your sin are washed away. The blotches of guilt are removed. By the crimson blood of Christ, you are made as white as snow. Of course, washing our hearts will not do much good if our hearts remain black. Thus, Christ also answered David’s prayer for new creation. The Holy Spirit gives you rebirth; in baptism, you die with Christ and are raised to new life. In Christ, you are new creations. You are remade after the image of Christ, the man of heaven, the righteous one.

This is what Christ has done for you. The petitions of David are Yes and Amen in Christ for you. What could be better news? What else could be a sweeter joy? Indeed, because of Christ’s finished work, you can truly enjoy the joy of forgiveness and peace with God. In Christ, your sins are forgotten; your guilt and shame are no more. In Him, you can enjoy the freedom of God’s perfect love, in which there is no fear of punishment, but only the security of an everlasting redemption. Every Lord’s Day, when you hear the declaration of pardon, this joy is yours in Christ.

Of course, as you know, this joy is not perfect in this life. There are still plenty of past sins that shame us, that we cannot forget. Our consciences are scared with guilt. We do not experience the pure joy of Christ’s forgiveness in this life. And this is because the old man still lives within us. We still sin and we still enjoy sin. Even though our redemption is perfect in heaven, even though Christ’s blood perfectly dealt with all our sins, we do not fully enjoy this presently. This is why Psalm 51 is part of our regular piety. And this is why we long for glory. We long for the resurrection when the old man will finally be no more and then we will taste the true joy of holiness. So then, let us praise Christ for his sprinkled blood; let us rejoice in the sweet joy of his salvation. But let us also press on with minds set upon heaven.

©Zach Keele. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. By “in baptism, you die with Christ and are raised to new life” does the author mean baptism into Christ Jesus, or in water?

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