This is the first in our series of Psalms reflections for Lent.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit”
(Psalm 51: 10-12).
What are the thoughts that run through your head as you read or sing this section of Psalm 51? Do you wonder if you sing or pray them with enough contrition? Do you worry you lack a clean heart, a steadfast spirit, the joy of salvation?
When I used to sing these words, I don’t think I was ever worried about being fully cast from God’s presence, but I certainly worried I wasn’t good enough, whatever “good enough” was supposed to be. Singing this hymn, I would close my eyes tight, praying away bad behaviors and hoping God would finally scrub clean the corners of my heart. I saw my sin as final to-dos on a long list of sanctification. They were annoying roadblocks, getting in my way from becoming better and doing better.
Yet Psalm 51 is much more than this one, beautiful stanza, and tells us much more about ourselves and our sin than we would wish to be true.
At the beginning of this psalm, David laments that it is against God and God alone that He has sinned. This is interesting, especially considering the circumstances. King David has just slept with a woman who is not his wife and had this woman’s husband killed so that he could do so. Surely his sin was against others. Surely, he knows he has desperately failed at his to-do list.
It’s not that David is unrepentant of the harm he has caused Bathsheba, Uriah, and countless others. The point is that David is repenting of the sin that lies beneath these actions, the sin all of us would rather avoid. He names this sin right after in verse 5: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
David confesses he is a sinner through and through. This sin is even deeper than the horror of murder and deeper than the transgression of adultery because from here springs forth all unbelief, selfish behavior and deceit. Each of us shares in this sin; the sin of self-justification and disbelief in God’s promises.
Each of us shares in this sin; the sin of self-justification and disbelief in God’s promises.
Our hearts don’t just need to be cleansed of our bad behaviors; they need to be cleansed from the sin in which, as fallen sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, we were conceived. Luther says it this way in his Lectures on the Psalms, “The ungodly and proud man is, first of all, the excuser and defender, the justifier and savior, of himself. For that very reason he automatically says that he does not need God as his Savior.”
As sinners, we will even use repentance as a means of self-justification. We turn the words of Psalm 51, or the practices during the season of Lent, into an announcement of how far we’ve justified ourselves through our own works and penitence. We cannot be helped from doing so.
Yet there is good news. No matter how imperfectly motivated our confessions may be, we confess with confidence that Christ has covered all our sins, even the ones we cannot see, even the sin we are born into. Forgiveness doesn’t fall out of the sky but is rooted in the death and resurrection of the one who became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). “It is not sufficient to know that sins are forgiven. One must also believe that they are forgiven for the sake of Christ,” says theologian Lowell Green.
Forgiveness doesn’t fall out of the sky but is rooted in the death and resurrection of the one who became sin for us.
How do we know the forgiveness begged for in Psalm 51 is ours on account of Christ?
We know because Christ tells us it is so. It is in and through Him we have forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14), and when we believe this to be true, when we believe the words of Christ, we stop believing ourselves. The Words of Christ justify us – they tell us of the sin we have committed, the salvation we need, and the promises given only on account of the Son of God.
Psalm 51 is not just the prayer of a cheating, murdering king desperate to be justified by the one and only God. It’s not just our prayer for our sins and our hearts of disbelief. Astoundingly, Psalm 51 is the prayer of Christ Himself for us. When we fail at our repentance, when we misunderstand what it means to have a clean heart, Christ intercedes. These words become His words just as our sins became His sin. And in proclaiming these words, He gives us what we ask for.
Go, therefore, singing the words of Psalms 51, with the confidence that your iniquities are blotted out, your heart is made clean, and your lips are opened to declare His praises. Not on account of your tightly shut eyes nor on account of your dedicated fasting, but purely on account of Christ crucified, resurrected, and singing, for you.