Receiving the gift of salvation is not the end of struggle for a Christian but the beginning. Our sins are cleansed by the blood of Christ, but while we remain on this fallen earth, we are plagued by our sinful nature still. Thus, our pursuit of a righteous life is constantly marred by sin caused by the desires of our flesh. God has graciously gifted us with His Holy Spirit, who convicts our hearts to bring us to repentance, realigning ourselves with the example of holiness Jesus exemplified.
This can become a pitfall for us though, either sinning freely with the mistaken belief that we now possess an unlimited and free supply of God’s forgiveness or slowly becoming habitual and repetitive with the same prayers for the same sins, our hearts growing harder and harder to our sin and our fire for serving God slowly guttering out. We need to know how Christians properly repent if we desire to maintain our relationship with God.
Psalm 51 was written by David in response to his sins involving Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11). Filled with remorse and penance, it is also a well-constructed path for proper repentance.
First, when David is confronted with his sins by the prophet Nathan, he does not hide from the reality of his actions or make excuses. He simply says, “…I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). Likewise, in his psalm of repentance, David bluntly admits his transgression. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” (Psalm 51:3-4). It is vital that we make note of how David phrases his confession, for though the sins he committed hurt and even killed his fellow man, they were ultimately against the Law of God—the only true measure of good and evil.
Though it is important to seek forgiveness from fellow humans we have wronged, most critically, we have transgressed against the guide and plan God sets out for us in Christ. David also expresses his constant guilt and shame for failing his God. This is important because it demonstrates that his heart is not calloused toward sin, but soft clay, easier to mould into a good and righteous form. We Christians commonly need to repent again and again in our daily lives, but if we are repenting always for the same sins, we need to look at the state of our hearts. It is an indicator that we are holding some of our sin back, not giving our sinful hearts over to God’s transforming power.
When we realize our transgressions against God, we need to immediately do as David and appeal to Him for mercy. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1). David pleads for forgiveness based on what he knows about God’s character: that God is merciful. We also know that God is committed to us in a relationship of “steadfast love” and when we come before God in repentance, we do so based on his covenant with us through Christ.
When David mentions, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7), he is speaking spiritually of the Jewish practice of purifying ceremonially by sprinkling the herb hyssop dipped in the water of purification. Still, we know that the blood Jesus spilt when He died is the only true purifier for a sinful heart. “…the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). Only after having our hearts spiritually cleansed by Christ’s blood may we approach the Holy God, as we are now considered adopted with Christ, and entreat our Heavenly Father.
Unfortunately, receiving God’s mercy through Christ is often where Christians finish their repentance. This is incorrect, for the second part of true repentance is actively turning away from our sinful living and following God’s will for our lives above all else. David knew that he could not create his own righteous heart: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). Only with the Lord’s power to change hearts can our sinful desires be untwisted and reset upon what is good and holy. This is another pitfall for believers though because we often wish to hold onto a tiny bit of our sin and the temporary pleasure it brings.
Therefore, our hearts need to be truly broken by remorse and contrition for our sin to truly repent. “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it: you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17). To present such a pleasing, pliable heart before God requires faith in Jesus Christ and belief in what the Bible teaches us about the consequences of sinful living. This makes the study of God’s Word very important for a follower of Christ. God will only remake and heal our hearts when we give them to Him broken.
We still battle our sinful nature and are prone to repeatedly fall short and return to our sinful ways. We become discouraged, wondering how God could still love us after failing Him so often, fearing as David did that our salvation is in doubt. “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalms 51:11). Thankfully, the very fact that David is grieved over his sin is a sign that God’s Spirit is at work in him still. Take comfort in knowing that the very grief you’re experiencing is a sign that you have the Holy Spirit of God working in you, causing you to hate what God hates.
David’s example of proper repentance is difficult to follow, requiring honest self-reflection, humility, self-sacrifice and faith in Jesus. Yet, this is necessary if we desire a true personal relationship with God, unburdened by doubt and free of guilt. If we accomplish this goal by the power and grace of God, there remains one final, lifelong duty to help lead others to true repentance as well. “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you… O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:13, 15). This will not be an arduous task, however, for as David says, the joy of forgiveness for sin will compel any true Christian to speak of that good news with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbours. Instead of our sins affecting others badly, our repentance and faithfulness to God allow us to be a blessing to everyone around us.