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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Title:The Anatomy of Repentance
Text:Psalms 51:1-19 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

Psalter 163 - Satisfaction in God

Psalter 141 - Gracious Renewal and

TH 653 - Jesus Is All the World to Me

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

Three blind men were asked to describe an elephant by touch. One was situated at the trunk, another at its body, and the last by its tail. The one at the trunk described an elephant like a leathery boa constrictor - thick with strong and slow movements. The one in the middle described it like a large and firm sofa - with sturdy legs. The third described the elephant like a whip - as he felt the tail smacking him. We who can see know that the elephant is much more than those individual parts. It’s an animal. We know its anatomy - all parts - the head, the body, the limbs.

Unfortunately, many Christians can’t describe repentance. As Christians, we still feel around - describing parts of repentance - but not able always to give a comprehensive description of it. For some, the feeling of guilt is repentance. For others, asking for forgiveness is repentance. Yet for others, as long as I just do what is right now on, they must accept I have repented. But these are all parts of repentance, not the whole thing.  I can’t just say sorry without remorse and call it repentance. I can’t only feel guilt but don’t do right - that’s not repentance. I also can’t just do right without acknowledging wrong. That’s the Asian parent’s problem. I feel bad I was unkind to my child, but I can’t say I’m wrong, so I give him chicken drumstick. Solved! No, that’s not repentance. I recognize that in this short hour, I also can’t explain repentance completely and thoroughly, but I want to give you all these elements to show from Scripture what repentance is.

There are three parts to repentance - you have the head, the heart, and the hands. Firstly, there must be an honest confession. Secondly, there must be a desire for restoration. Thirdly, there must be a vow to worship and obey.

Firstly, an honest confession. According to the title, this Psalm was written by David on the occasion when Nathan the prophet rebuked him for his sin with Bathsheba. In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan charged David with adultery and murder. David confessed his sin - “And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.” Psalm 51 records the full confession. When he was confronted, he never offered any excuses. He pleaded for mercy. Old Testament law required that adulterers be stoned. David knew that. He couldn’t hide. Nathan confronted him. So he pleaded for mercy. Verse 1, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” He asks God to show mercy because of who God is. The word “mercy” conveys the idea of not giving what David deserved, but giving him what he didn’t deserve. He asked God not to punish him, but to forgive him. And he asked on the basis of God’s lovingkindness. Yes, God is a God of judgment. He must punish sin because he is just. But he’s a God of lovingkindness, he can spare. This word “lovingkindness” speaks of God’s covenant love. He loves his covenant people. Yes, God shows patience to the world - even though people are wicked. But he shows an extraordinary patience to his people. Parents may tolerate other people’s children; but they’re extra loving and kind to their own. So David knew how God loved his people, so he pleaded for mercy on that basis.

And because he knew God’s love, he admitted guilt. God’s a loving father - but he’s still holy. He’s not an indulgent grandfather. So when we sin, out reverence, we confess our faults. Verses 1-3 record three kinds of faults – transgression, iniquity, and sin. The Hebrew word for transgression points to our acts of rebellion against God. We reject his rule, live our lives for ourselves, and break his laws. These are rebellious acts like being willful and selfish. We just don’t want to obey. The second fault David repented of was iniquity. The Hebrew word literally means crookedness. It means perverted or ‘bent.’ The fact that David asked for iniquity to be thoroughly washed means he acknowledged its wickedness. This Hebrew word for wash means scrub - as in scrubbing clothes to remove a stain. Therefore, David admitted how stained by sin he was. The third kind of fault was sin. These are the actual offenses of thought, word, and deed - where David missed the mark of God’s standards. Not only did he admit his sins, he admitted in verse 4 they were evil - “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.” Evil here means destructive and damaging. Meaning, sin is damaging - it goes against God’s law, pollutes a person’s life, and breaks relationship with God and man.

And David acknowledged he sinned against God. It was against God and God alone. Now, this doesn’t mean that he didn’t  acknowledge his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah, or against his nation of which he was supposed lead as a righteous king. But ultimately, it was against God. God had every right to judge. But David not only acknowledged God’s justice, but again his mercy. Verse 5 says that he was sinful from the womb. There was never a time that he was without sin. God could judge him. But verse 6 says - “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.” Even though the sin nature was deep in David, God wanted to work in his heart to transform him. As much as he was sinful deep in his mother’s womb, God wanted to work deep in him to change him. Dear saint, repentance involves the mind. You must know your sins to honestly confess them. But you must know what a mighty God he is in justice and love. Those who don’t know their sin, won’t confess. Those who only see God’s justice, confess out of fear. But those who see his love, confess with remorse. 

Secondly, we see David’s desire for restoration. David knew that if he confessed, God would restore. It’s in God’s character. God always restores when there’s confession. But it’s not just the head that’s involved, but the heart. David’s confession was not a cool, detached, general admission of fault. That’s not repentance. He repented specifically. He desired someone else to take his sins. He desired atonement. Verse 7 says, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” David knew he needed an atoning sacrifice. So he asked God to purge him with hyssop. Hyssop was the plant that was used to apply the Passover lamb’s blood on the post and lintel of the doors in Egypt. Hyssop was also used by the priests to sprinkle the water that was mixed with the ashes of a heifer. It was used to purify people. But he wasn’t asking a human priest. He was asking God to be his priest - to purify him with blood. Why? Because no priest could wash him from this sin. Now, this is significant. Verse 6 - “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.” David could not bring a sacrifice. No sacrifice would do. You might ask, what about all the sacrifices of the Old Testament? Couldn’t they cleanse him? No. Remember, the Old Testament sacrifices were only for sins committed out of ignorance. Numbers 15:24-26 says, “Then it shall be, if ought be committed by ignorance without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one young bullock for a burnt offering…25 And the priest shall make an atonement for all the congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them; for it is ignorance…26 And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them; seeing all the people were in ignorance.” Then why sacrifice could be offered for sins committed on purpose? That’s most of our sins Like David’s purposeful sin of adultery with Bathsheba. His deliberate manipulation so Uriah would die. What atonement could be made for this in the Old Testament? Nothing. Numbers 15:30-31 says, “But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of the LORD, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.” David should’ve been stoned to death. That’s why he couldn’t bring a sacrifice - nothing would restore him. That’s why he asked God to offer a sacrifice that could cleanse him. Only this offering from God could wash him and make him whiter than snow, verse 7 - not as white, but whiter. The blood of animals could only ceremonially cleanse the outside. Hebrews 9:13 says, “…the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh.” But what could cleanse the heart? Jesus. God applied Jesus’ future atonement to David. How do we know?

There was an inward spiritual cleansing. Only God can do that. Verse 10 say, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” No animal sacrifice from a human priest that can only cleanse the outside, could ever do that. Only God could offer a sacrifice and cleansing the could create a clean heart and renew a right spirit. David had already acknowledged that was born with an unclean heart. His heart needed to be recreated. His spirit needed to be renewed. Only God could do that. Ezekiel 36:25-26 tells us that this was what Christ would do in the New Covenant - “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.”

What is the result of such an atonement? The result is joy and holiness. There are many Christians today who foolishly celebrate Jewish feasts like Passover and the Day of Atonement. Those are useless. Even the Jews knew they were useless to cleanse the conscience. We have the greater joy because our conscience is cleansed. Because of this atonement, verse 12 says we can have the joy of God’s salvation. David was living miserably for months. Psalm 32 describes his feeling for those months of unconfessed sin - it disturbed him. Psalm 32:3-4 - “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.” With confession came joy and assurance that God would uphold him. But he would also respond with holiness. Verse 13 - he would teach transgressor’s God’s ways. They would be converted from their sin as he was. He would be restored to holiness. This was his desire.

Dearly beloved, when we live in sin, many things are taken away from us - a clear conscience, cleansing, joy and holiness. But these things are restored back to us upon repentance. This is what we must desire. Repentance is not merely about the head, but also the heart. But it is also affects the hand.

Thirdly, the vow to worship. There would be change in David. What he failed to do in the past, he would do. He would act. He would turn a new leaf. The thief who stole, would not only steal no more, but working with his hands, he will earn to give to those who are in need. So what would David do? He would praise. Verses 14-15 - “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness. O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” You see, what was David guilty of? Bloodguiltiness - he was guilty of bloodshed. In 2 Samuel 11, he used him tongue, lip, and mouth to get Uriah killed. If you remember, after his adultery with Bathsheba, she fell pregnant. He manipulated Uriah to come back to report how the war was going and how Joab did. Then he sent a feast to Uriah’s house. “Uriah, go home and eat and drink - spend time with your wife.” “But how can I when there’s a war?” So he slept on the floor of the palace. Next day - “Uriah, stay one more night.” David tried to get him drunk but he wouldn’t sleep with his wife. So David used his mind to devise what his sinful heart wanted, and put thought to pen with his hand, getting news to Joab, to send Uriah to the front lines where he might be killed. Bloodguiltiness using his words to kill by proxy. But now he repented and having been cleansed, he would use his lips to praise God for delivering him. He would speak of God’s righteousness. 

He would also display humility. Verse 17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” He knew he couldn’t bring a burnt offering presumptuously. In the many months before Nathan confronted him, after he took Bathsheba to wife and bore a son - what was he doing as king? Part of his job was to lead the people in religious worship. And presumably after she bore a son, David and Bathsheba would’ve gone to the temple to offer a sacrifice - just as Joseph and Mary did when they went to the temple. The presumption. When Nathan confronted him with the parable of a man who committed the crime of theft, David reacted with such sanctimonious outrage, when he himself stole someone else’s wife and had him killed. 2 Samuel 12:5 how David’s anger was greatly kindled against that man when he heard the account. And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man - but there was no anger at what he did. Now, however, he was humbled. He would bring his own broken and contrite heart. He would not be so quick to condemn or judge. He would see his sins. He yearned to continue to have this attitude. If we cease to be the prodigal son, we will turn into his older brother. It amazes me that so many of God’s people (including myself) can be so judgmental when we are so bankrupt in ourselves. This is why, only the contrite man can praise God. That’s the change that we need. Not just to see our sins, but to be merciful as God is merciful. Forgive as we have been forgiven. This is the attitude God loves. David was vowing not only to praise, but to be humble, and lastly to serve. That’s what worship is - out of a heart of gratitude for what God has done to praise and serve him in humility. To obey. David pleads with God in verse 18 for him to bless Jerusalem and to build her walls. Yes, it was a prayer - but it showed David’s heart for his kingdom. In his sin, he didn’t only fail as a man, husband, and father, he failed as a king. He didn’t go to war. He didn’t protect his kingdom - instead he was up on the roof looking at bathing women. This is why he humbly asked God to restore his favor to the kingdom. And David, once cleansed in heart, could offer burnt offerings. His service to God again would be accepted. We all know the story of Zaccaeus. When he repented, he gave half his goods to the poor, and repaid 4 times what he owed to those he cheated. God would once again accept his worship.

Dearly beloved, there is one application from this Psalm. How repentant are you? We sin - all the time. But do we come humbly before God to confess, to yearn for restoration, and actually do the works of repentance? You know that all may not be right in your lives now. Next week, we will be partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps there’s sin in your life. But you have not confessed it. You’re still coming happily to church without a care. You’re still singing praise to God. You’re still teaching in CI. You’re still going out to evangelize. You’re still doing this and that. Without a broken and contrite heart, how can you serve God effectively? Come, and think afresh on what Christ has done - that he has atoned not just your sins of ignorance, but your high-handed presumptuous sins.

Also, can you be a Nathan to someone? To come lovingly towards him who lives in sin - and to help him to repent? I close with James 5:19-20 - “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.”



Sermon Outline:

1. An Honest Confession (1-6)

   A.  The plea for mercy

   B.  The admission of guilt 

   C.  The acknowledgement of God

2. A Desire for Restoration (7-13)

    A.  Blood atonement

    B.  Inward spiritual cleansing

    C. Joy and Holiness

3. A Vow to Worship (14-19)

    A.  Praise

    B. Humility

    C. Service





* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Rev. Mark Chen

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