Last night we continued our study in Practical Spirituality, this time looking at how to repent. Here are the notes:
What is repentance? When we talk about repentance, we’re talking about turning away from sin. We’re talking about a change of heart and mind and a change in lifestyle. When someone repents they change—they stop loving things God calls sin and they stop doing those things too. And then they begin to do other things God approves of.
Repentance is a huge, awesome gift. You actually can change. Your past doesn’t have to define you. You can get free.
How does someone repent? Back in the second study in this series we looked at how someone actually becomes able to live the Christian life. And it’s the same process when it comes to repentance. We hear and learn what God says about life. First we realize that a change needs to be made. Then, while we’re consciously and actively relying on the power of God’s Spirit, we do the practical things we need to do in order to make the change in our lives.
How do you get to the place where you can actually make that change? What kind of heart and mind do you have to have to really see a difference in your life? If you’re not a follower of Jesus yet, this is a totally crucial question for you, whether you know it or not. And even for those of us who are followers of Jesus right now, sometimes even we get into this routine where we do something, feel guilty about it, kind of want to change, but then just get tempted again and do it all over again. The process just keeps repeating. And then what usually happens is that people either get more and more guilty and spiritually powerless, or they get more and more deadened in general to spiritual things. Sometimes at that point it’s kind of hard to tell them apart from a non-believer. So how do we break out of those patterns?
Tonight we’re going to look at that question from this angle—how does a person who experiences repentance think? What kind of thoughts and feelings does God want to lead us to which will help us be able to experience the awesome gift of repentance?
We’re going to get into this by studying Psalm 51, because it gives a pretty detailed answer to our questions.
David, who was king over Israel, wrote this Psalm after a pretty horrible sequence of events in his life, and after his friend, the Prophet Nathan, had confronted him. It’s recorded in 2 Samuel 11-12, but the short version is, he stole someone’s wife (a friend and soldier in his army), got her pregnant, and then arranged the battle so the man would die before he found out. Psalm 51 (along with Psalm 32) is what David wrote when he realized God had pardoned his sin.
Psalm 51 – The Mindset that Enables Repentance
v.1 Admit you don’t deserve anything, but that you want (undeserved) mercy.
Everything really starts here. We see this all through the Bible. It’s sort of like the baseline, starting point for any spiritual growth. Part of our distorted thinking as human beings is this sense of entitlement, that, because I exist, God owes me a certain life, and a certain set of comforts and privileges. But when someone asks for mercy, they’re admitting that they don’t have any claim on the person they’re coming to. The person’s not obligated to help them in any way. In fact, when you ask someone for mercy, you’re admitting that you actually deserve something negative—you deserve not to be helped, and even to be punished or excluded or something. So what do you have left then? Nothing—except an appeal to the person’s big heart or generous nature.
v.1 Depend on God’s good character.
That’s what David does. He knows that God is big hearted, hugely generous, and full of this thing called “hesed”—it’s this faithful, loving commitment that never fails the person God’s committed to. And so he doesn’t plead any goodness of his own, he just says “God I know you’re really merciful. So I’m asking for you to be merciful, in this case, to me.”
v.1-2 Desire to be clean. (“blot”, “wash”, “cleanse”)
David knew that his sin wasn’t just something God randomly got mad at, but that it was really dirty. God hated it because it was evil. And David wanted to be free and clean from that. Before he could repent, he had to not think of his sin like we sometimes think of sin—as something beautiful but forbidden, as something he wants really bad but it just happens to be off limits—he had to admit that it was dirty, beneath someone made in the image of God, and it was shameful. And he had to want to be free from it all so he could be clean.
v.3 Call sin sin …don’t hide it or make excuses for it.
This goes with the last point. For David to experience real change, he needed to just be honest—what he did was just sin. Just to admit, in our hearts and with our mouths, that what we did is sin, and that we’re the ones who did it—it’s our fault—this is huge. And sometimes it’s the thing standing in our way. But David’s honesty here is the pathway to blessing and repentance.
v.4 Know that your sin is really against God.
This is where David really helps us get to the heart of the matter. It’s a pretty shocking verse, since in his case, he had clearly sinned against someone’s wife by committing adultery with her and by her husband by using a battle to get him killed so he couldn’t find out about it. But David presses even deeper than that. Because who gave David life? Who made him king, so he had a palace with a tall roof, and the power to summon whoever he wanted and command their obedience, and command over the army? Who gave him breath in his lungs and strength in his body so he could carry out his plan? And then, who was there, at every step of the way, with David, seeing and hearing everything? One of the most powerful deterrents for sin in a believer’s life is to learn to always remember that when we’re alone, we’re alone with God, and when we’re other people, He’s there too. We always sin right in front of him. And that’s what David’s saying. To sin where someone can’t see you is one thing. But to sin right in front of them while they’re watching is another level of disrespect. And David’s admitting that level of disrespect towards God. To really repent, we’ve got to admit that our sin is a personal affront to God. Really feeling this leads to the kind of realization David expresses in verse 5 and 6.
v.5 Know that your problem is total and incurable.
v.6 Know that the issue is inward, in your heart.
When you really hurt someone you love, and you realize that it wasn’t just an accident, it’s one of those things that can make you almost despair. You can think thoughts like—I’m just messed up. And not in an excuse kind of way, but in that have an honest look in the mirror kind of way. When David says, I was born this way, he doesn’t mean it as an excuse, he means something more like—this wasn’t just an accident, or some random anomaly in an otherwise good life, no…this is who I really am.
This is really big, and I think all I can say here is that I’ve come to suspect that no one can really begin on the path of following Jesus until they’ve had this horrible experience. It’s the experience of really owning your sin, as an identity—I really am that big of a jerk, or I really am that selfish, or that egotistical, or that perverted or that calloused or that sadistic. I did that thing because that’s who I am. To own your sin feels like death, but I think that’s the whole point. I think it’s part of what Jesus meant when he talked about taking up your cross, and what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote about crucifying the flesh and dying with Christ. So in some sense it is a death. It’s the death of my old inflated views of myself, and then, when I repent, it’s the death of my old life and the old me. But the Bible is clear that this is a death that actually only kills all the things that were killing me, and that if I’ll undergo this death, I’ll find the new life that repentance leads to.
v.7-10 Desire the cleansing only God can give…
When we realize that the problem we have with sin is a problem on the level of identity, and that it’s an inward thing, we’ll start asking God to do a work in us that’s that deep. If our problem is that deep, we need him to grant us a cleanness that goes way beneath the surface.
So repentance is deeper than trying to make amends for the past. It’s deeper than just trying to change our behavior, even though it always does result in changed behavior. But like David here, to truly leave our sin behind, we’ve got to ask God for a real cleansing and change in our hearts. Or as he says it here, we’ll realize that we actually just need a new heart.
v.11 Care about your relationship with God more than you want the pleasures of sin.
This verse starts to get us to the heart of why David was asking for cleansing in verse 2 and 7 and 10. Why does David want to be clean? Because he knows, by experience, that the kind of cleanness he’s talking about, which is holiness, is cleanness in terms of being right in our relationship to God. It’s like when you and a friend are cool with each other because nothing’s in between you. David knew how great it was to have friendship with God. And he knew that his sin had messed it up.
But when David stood on the roof and watched Bathsheba bathe, what he wanted, was her. In that moment for him, he decided he wanted to be with her more than he wanted to be with God. And in every moment like that for us, when we sin, we decide we want whatever fulfillment or release or experience temptation offers more than holiness (what David calls cleanness here)—which amounts to wanting sin more than we want friendship with God. If we live our life like that, or engage in patterns of sin over time, then that amounts to a life that wants sin more than God. And to repent out of that situation—to really experience change—we have to get to the point where we want cleanness, and the connection to God it offers, more than we want sin.
v.12 Acknowledge that Joy only comes from friendship with God.
We’re ready to repent when we stop believing the lie of temptation that true fulfillment can come apart from God, and especially, that it comes from dishonoring God through sin. We come to want the joy we get in our connection to Him more than the joy that connection to sin offers.
v.13 Desire to help others know God and follow Him too.
Before we repent, we use other people to feed our sin. To get to the place where we can truly repent, we have to care more about people than that. We have to want them to know the joy of knowing God. In other words, we have to love people more than we love sin.
v.14-15 Desire to praise God.
David knew, by experience, how great it was to be in the presence of God, singing his praises, whether he was alone or with a crowd. He wanted it again. And we have to desire to praise God in order to be delivered from the deceitfulness of temptation.
v.16-17 Allow yourself to be humble.
Pride thinks that it has something to pay God back with. And it’s afraid of humility, because humility feels like death to pride. But if we’re going to repent, we have to be willing to humble ourselves. If I can’t know humility, I won’t escape sin.
v.18-19 Desire God’s will to be done in the world.
When we love sin, and we don’t repent, we can’t really care about what God wants to do in the world. We can’t care about justice and renewal and the right orientation of human beings towards God and each other. Because before we repent, what we really care about is using the world and people to feed our own desires. To repent, we need our desires changed. We need to become people who care more about God’s holy and loving desires than our own selfish destructive desires.
And this last point gets us to something that’s important to say before we end this. If you’re a follower of Christ, then in some sense, this study is already past tense for you. Verses 10 and 11 all refer to something that’s already happened to us. They say, “Create in me a new heart” and “Don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.” And if you’re born again, you’ve received God’s Holy Spirit, and you’ve experienced this inner washing, and God’s given you a new heart, and he’ll never depart from you.
So for all those of us who’ve already experienced this, what we need on a daily basis is to experience the parts of this we can sometimes get lax in. Sometimes we find sin hanging out in our lives. And we need to go through what David writes about here. We need to get honest about sin, and then get ruthless with it. We need to call it what it is and ask God to set our desires straight. And then we need to get up and obey what we know God wants, trusting him to give us the power every step of the way.