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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Preached At:Pilgrim Canadian Reformed Church
 London, Ontario
Title:The Gift that Keeps Giving
Text:LD 51 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 130:3,4                                                                                    

Reading – Psalm 32

Psalm 32:1,2,3

Sermon – Lord’s Day 51

Psalm 32:4,5

Hymn 1

Hy 26:1

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, there are many things you could say about the Psalms, but perhaps the most important is this: they are real. They’re such true-to-life, personal expressions of what moves in the hearts of God’s children. As we read the Psalms, we can relate well to their moods and convictions. We find ourselves echoing those words of thanksgiving in Psalm 100, echoing those words of joy in Psalm 150, echoing those words of quiet trust in Psalm 46. Taking them onto our lips, these are the prayers that we ourselves can offer.

But we find ourselves echoing other words from other Psalms as well. For the Psalms aren’t always marked by the happy spirit of one who’s walking close to God. In this same book of prayers, there’s also the anguish of sin, and the burden of guilt. There’s the pain of transgression, even the fear that fellowship with God has been broken beyond repair. For example, we hear those anguished words in Psalm 51, “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight” (vv 3-4). Sad to say, but these words too, are very real. This is prayer that we too, have had to offer up, time and again: “O LORD, forgive. O LORD, cast me not away.”

But while we find ourselves echoing that guilt and misery, we also need to keep reading. Because there’s always hope. There’s a lot of sin, but there’s even more grace. The same David who poured out his heart in Psalm 51, is speaking with a note of good courage, a few verses later: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me by your generous Spirit” (v 12).

Yes, it’s amazing how little this kind of prayer has changed. We pray to God, “Forgive us our debts,” just as the saints have always prayed. Only now our prayers are richer, our comfort is deeper, and our joy is increased. Because now we know Jesus Christ, and what He did. We ask for forgiveness with this unshakable confidence: Our Saviour has paid the price! And so give our firm “Amen,” also to David’s words in Psalm 32. We identify with this Psalm too, so realistic in its hurt and in its hope. And then we give thanks for a mercy made even more sure in the blood of Jesus Christ. We look at Lord’s Day 51 with this theme,

“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven.”

1)     we feel the pain of guilt

2)     we know the joy of release

3)     we gain the resolve to change

1)     we feel the pain of guilt: For some of the Psalms, we know the precise situation behind them, the circumstances that gave rise to this or that prayer. And we know, because we’re told about it in the Psalm heading. Take Psalm 51, for example. There the heading spells it out: “A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This is something that we can picture quite easily. We see David, beside himself with sorrow and guilt—perhaps collapsed on the floor of his palace—still in those dark days after committing adultery and then ordering Uriah’s murder. We hear his terrible cries resounding throughout the palace halls, “Have mercy upon me, O God” (v 1).

            But when it comes to Psalm 32, we’re given no such insight into the reason. The heading simply says that this is a Psalm of David, “A Contemplation.” Instead of being wracked with guilt over one particular offense, it seems that David’s reflecting broadly on his sins. There’s not one transgression on his mind (that we know of), but many sins.

And perhaps it’s better that we don’t know the situation behind this Psalm. For maybe we’ve read Psalm 51 before with an air of pride. We think about adultery, we think about murder, we think of how brazen King David was, in just doing whatever he wanted—and perhaps we think to ourselves proudly, “I’m a sinner and all, but I wouldn’t do that! That’s going too far.” And so we try to put some distance between Psalm 51 and ourselves.

But there’s no running from Psalm 32. This Psalm levels all distinctions among us. It doesn’t afford us the opportunity to talk about greater sins and lesser sins. There’s no one who can say proudly, “I wouldn’t do that.” Because we’re all sinners, and in so many different ways. To get his point across, David, in the first two verses alone, uses three different words for sin: “transgression, sin, deceit.” He’s taking a full inventory of the sinful heart.

As the Catechism puts it, “Do not impute to us, wretched sinners, any of our transgressions” (Q&A 126). Implied in that word “any” is that our sins are many—so many! If we’re honest with ourselves and honest with God, Psalm 32 is “our” Psalm—yes, just as Psalm 51 ought to be. These ancient words are the headline for our lives today: We are guilty.

            And we know it’s real, because the pain is real. That’s how David describes it, that he was becoming physically sick because of guilt. “When I kept silent, my bones grew old, through my groaning all the day long” (v 3). His bones felt like they were rotting, like his body was coming apart at the seams—and why? Not because of cancer or outward injury or old age, but because of sin! Sin was literally eating him up.

            To some, that might sound hard to believe. What does an intangible, “spiritual” thing like sin have to do with our physical bodies? “Sin is just an idea inherited from our gloomy ancestors,” some argue, “so how could it ever affect our real-life bodies of flesh and bone?” Surely David was imagining things about the extent and power of his guilt. He was a holy hypochondriac!

Yet think for a moment of how God created us, beloved: as a unity, body and soul. Not two separate parts, but one complete person in God’s image. That means there’s always a close connection between our inward and outward, between our spirit and our flesh. That means if you’re afflicted on the inside, even just thinking about something deeply negative, your whole life can feel rotten—your very body can be weakened and worn down.

            Perhaps we can relate to this, how sin can fester within us and actually beat us into the ground. And not just any sin, but particularly unconfessed sin. This is what David’s talking about, “When I kept silent, my bones grew old.” When there’s a sin we haven’t acknowledged—when we’re dragging it around because we haven’t brought it to the Lord—then we’re going to feel it. It might take a while for us to notice, but that burden will only get heavier. That lingering pain will only get intensify.

Sounds disturbing, but we have to see this not as a punishment, but as God’s mercy in action! David talks about this in the next verse. He knows who’s afflicting him, because he prays, “Day and night your hand was heavy upon me” (v 4). Feeling the pain of guilt, feeling a hot iron on your conscience is, in a certain sense, a very good thing. It is God’s gracious hand, pulling us back to Himself. It is his hand, disciplining us, urging us to return.

It’s when we can’t feel that hand anymore, that we should worry. It’s when we’ve become numb to sin after so many years and so many failures, when we’re not shocked by our sin’s ugliness or bothered by its stench—it’s then that we should worry. But until then, we know that our God is pulling us back.

            What again, does that gracious activity of God feel like? David continues, “My vitality was turned into the drought of summer” (v 4). Guilt for sin made him lifeless, rendered him without energy for what needed to be done. Paralyzed, with no desire to keep going. It’s miserable, but this is God, patiently teaching. He wants us to understand the fundamentals. He wants us to see that if we’re not right with Him, there’s nothing left. What’s the point, if we have no God to worship, no Lord to serve, no Saviour to trust? Apart from fellowship with God, there’s no point.

            Well chosen then, are the Catechism’s words, “Do not impute to us wretched sinners.” We are wretched without God, because without God, we’re enslaved to a cruel master, and bound only for destruction. Without his grace, the guilt that has started to eat away at us today, will eat away at us forever.

            Sure, we might try to hide our sins. We might try to cover up our transgressions, even under a fine layer of outward piety. But just like wall-papering over your mouldy basement walls, this is no solution. The mould is still there, and it’s still going to grow and bring ruin! So instead of deceiving ourselves, we must look straight into the mirror of God’s Word in Psalm 32, and there we must see ourselves.

Even as church-going, Bible-reading, well-mannered Christians, this is who are. With the Catechism we must pray that God would remove “the evil which still clings to us.” It clings, like the most stubborn stain, like the most painful leech, like the most invasive mould. After all these years, it’s still there; we can’t get rid of it by ourselves.

            Not by ourselves. But only with God. For there is a way to deal with our sin! Like David does, crying out in the midst of his pain, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden” (v 5). And praying this petition, echoing this Psalm, calls us to be specific. It calls us to contemplate our sin, to reflect on what we have done. And not just to think about the “big ones,” the major blunders we’ve made, the terrible sins we’ve committed over the years. But we are called to think broadly, about our life and everything that fills it. Where is the sin in our everyday activity? Where is the transgression in how we treat others? Where is the pride and rebellion in how we think of God?

            We do this not to take perverse pleasure in feeling the pain of guilt. But we do this to take those first, beginning, baby steps toward joy. Because when we truly confess our sins—when we bring them out into the open—the Father promises that we’ll also know the joy of release.

2)     we know the joy of release: In the season of spring, everyone’s thinking about transformation, how the lifeless branches suddenly transform with buds and blossoms and leaves, how the soggy brown grass quickly becomes lush and green. Springtime has long been called a metaphor for the Christian life, because of the similar change that marks us. From the dark winter of sin, we go on to the glorious spring of God’s grace!

            We see this same transformation modeled in Psalm 32. There’s no question that these are anguished words and a distressed prayer; the pain is very raw. In spite of all that, notice how it starts: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (v 1). Before he says anything else, David begins with blessedness. He can’t keep it down for long, because he’s already tasted the power of God’s grace. Like those barren winter lands, he’s been renewed by the Spirit of the Lord. And now that new life comes bursting out!

            If you want to change the image, think of a prisoner, locked up in jail: a serial killer, a dangerous offender, the worst of the worst. He’s been tried, condemned, and sentenced to life in prison, no chance of parole. Society has given up on rehabilitating him into someone safe and productive. But where we give up, God goes not. For God takes that criminal, and He transforms him. He changes his very status from “guilty” into “righteous.” He even sets him free from his prison, and He tells him, “Go and sin no more.”

            That’s the blessed reality reflected in those four words in the Catechism: “Do not impute to us.” That’s legal language: “to impute” is to lay guilt upon someone else; it is to charge and convict and put it on their record. In God’s courtroom, that convicted criminal is us. We’re that dangerous offender, the worst of sinners—and God has every reason to lock us up forever. But He “[does] not impute to us... any of our transgressions, nor the evil which still clings to us.” This, dearly beloved, is the miracle of God’s grace. Sin doesn’t go on our record. Sin isn’t held against us. By faith in Jesus Christ, we’ve been transformed from the guilty to the righteous, and we’ve been set free for all time.

            Read again David’s words in verse 5, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD…’” and—wait for it—“you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” Whatever wrongs David had done, God had cleared them away. Even those countless things he wasn’t aware of, the many sins that escaped his recognition from day to day, even these, God had graciously pardoned. “You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”

And what does that forgiveness really mean? It means that God won’t let our sins from yesterday, affect the way He treats us today. It means He won’t keep reminding us about how we failed—because it’s done with! On the contrary, He will treat us with a new love, a transforming love, a love unstained by any evil we have done.     This is the joy of release that David experienced. He knew how God’s forgiveness can mean the lifting away of an unbearable weight. He knew how wonderful it can be to talk to God, and walk with God without any fear of his condemnation, but only the expectation of his continued blessing.

            Now, we don’t want to say that we’re superior to David. We don’t want to say that we have it better than the saints of old. But we do. For how much greater is our joy! How much stronger is our confidence! It’s like we read Psalm 32 while wearing a set of precision-crafted glasses. They are the glasses focused by the New Testament, the glasses that put constantly before us the figure of Jesus Christ.

We see what He did to accomplish our salvation. We see how He became the guilty one, that we might be declared innocent. Far better than David ever understood, we understand how God arranged to pay the penalty for our sin. With good reason, the Catechism puts that right in the first line of its lesson, “For the sake of Christ’s blood, do not impute to us…” Without his blood, we don’t have a hope. Without his blood, we don’t have a prayer. But for the sake of Christ’s blood, we have peace with God.

            There’s a nice book available called “Praying Backwards.” The author’s idea is that instead of ending our prayers by saying, “for Jesus’ sake”—like we’re all in the habit of doing—we should put that very first. Pray backwards! Put Christ right at the beginning of our prayer, as a reminder of the one basis for our prayer: “For Jesus’ sake, hear this prayer, O God. Father,” we pray, “don’t answer me because of me. Answer me, and forgive me, for the sake of Christ’s blood. Father, He’s the only reason I can call you Father, and I can come into your presence.”

            And when we pray like that, we can be sure that God will give us joy. That’s how the prayer in Psalm 32 ends—on the high note of one “rejoicing in the Lord.” After the distress of guilt, and the pain of being far from the gracious presence of God, David calls on all of God’s children: “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (v 11). Rejoice, because there is healing for all those rotten bones. Rejoice, because there is relief for all those burdened hearts. Spring is in the air! Our marvelous transformation is underway.

3)     we gain the resolve to change: Recently I heard a good comparison for how Christians will treat God’s gift of forgiveness. The person telling the story said that he once had a dog. At the time, he lived out in the country, so there were typically lots of mud puddles and ditches nearby. And like any good owner would, he’d give his dog a monthly bath. But no sooner was the dog all clean and fuzzy, than it would go right back outside and frolic in some dirty water or some muck. So much for being clean! Well, after a while, the owner just gave up on his dog’s monthly bath.

Like that dog, unfortunately, is how we often live. We “get” our grace from God, we receive our cleansing from sin, and then we think we can return to our former way of life. Sinning whenever we want, disregarding the Lord, ignoring his Word—frolicking in the filth that surrounds us. So much for being forgiven!

But that’s not how it should be. For having been cleansed, there must also be a change. This is what David teaches us in his Psalm, “Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you” (v 9). He’s saying that we’ll often be stubborn, and keep going along the same wrong path we were before. Like animals, it’s as if we need to be compelled to do the will of our Master.

            But grace ought to change us. After our washing with Christ’s blood and Spirit, we ought to move forward in a different direction, at better direction. For this reason David does two central things in this Psalm. First, he will ask for forgiveness; and second, he will ask for instruction—lessons in how to live as one who is holy and forgiven.

And God answers him, for the LORD says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye” (v 8). The only way we’ll learn the ways of righteousness, is if God will teach us. So we need to ask him! This must always be a part of our prayer: “Father, forgive my sins. And Father, teach me how NOT to sin. Teach me how to stay away from this or that temptation. Teach me how to do what is right and good, instead of what is evil and base.” Like David prays in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (v 10).

            This renewal of life—this change of lifestyle—must always go together with God’s mercy toward us. It’s even built right into the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The Catechism explains such an activity as the living evidence of God’s grace. How do we know that we’ve truly been forgiven? How do we know that we’ve received his mercy? Well, there’s a change in us, however slight. There’s a new longing in us, however weak. There’s a new attitude toward God, and also a new attitude toward all the people around us: “We find this evidence of your grace in us that we are fully determined wholeheartedly to forgive our neighbour.”

            Beloved, can others tell that you’ve been forgiven? Can the people you live with, or work with, or worship with, see that you walk closely with the Lord, and depend daily on his grace? The Catechism says that there will be evidence. God’s mercy has a “footprint.” His compassion leaves a mark. So what’s going to be different? What will we do after being forgiven? As we said, we pray that we’ll stop acting like animals. No more are we like the dog who runs back into the mud puddle. No more are we the horse or mule, which have no understanding but depend on bit and bridle. No, instead of persisting in our sin, or continuing in ignorance, we resolve to do differently. Let us learn to do good. Let us learn to obey.

            As we said, the one change that’s built right into the Lord’s Prayer is the desire to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven. Because our relationship with God has been made better, we’ll also try to have good relations with everyone else. That means if someone has offended us, or hurt us, we’ll try to treat them like God has treated us.

So we forgive, freely and fully—that is to say, we don’t allow someone’s past offenses to keep affecting our relationship in the present. We don’t keep bringing up what they did wrong. Instead, truly forgiving means we affirm our love for others, just as God affirms his love for us. To them we show a God-like patience, a God-like compassion, a God-like kindness, a God-like generosity. That’s living evidence of God’s grace in us!

            And the greatest change will be in our relationship with God Himself. David exhorts us, “Be glad in the LORD” (v 11). That says it all, that having been lifted from our misery, having received the Lord’s grace, we rejoice in God—now and always. We are glad to know him. We are glad to be known by him. We thank God, every day, for what He’s given us in Jesus Christ. And as we pray, this is our conviction: “Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him” (v 10). Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2011, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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