Psalm 51 – The Badness of David versus the Goodness of God

Christians sometimes battle with guilt and condemnation even though God declares them “not guilty” and Christ has given us the gift of “no condemnation” (Rms 8:1). Some think that the way to shake off these bad feelings is to confess their sins. This is a little bit like saying “I feel condemnation because of what I have done, but if I now do something else I will come back under no condemnation.”

Implicit in this logic are two ideas which are opposed to Christ and the finished work of cross. The first idea says, “I can atone for my sin ” and the second says “my secure position in Christ is dependent on what I do rather than what He has done.”

While it is important to clean up our messes and take responsibility for our actions, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness. There is a time and place for the confession, but the Christian never has to confess their sins to stay forgiven. Jesus forgave all our sins at the cross (Col 2:13). Contrary to what many believe, the Holy Spirit never convicts the Christian of their sin. He convicts sinners of their unbelief and He convicts the righteous of their righteousness (John 16:9-10).

So what are we supposed to do when we sin?

Repent! To repent means to change your mind, to agree with God, and to see things from His point of view. Repentance is not feeling sorry for yourself. Judas was so sorry for his sin he killed himself, but he never repented. Repentance is not a feeling of remorse; it’s a change of mind. The fruit of repentance will be seen in what you do after you change your mind.

But isn’t confession a part of repentance?

Sure, as long as it’s focused on the Lord and what He’s done. The problem with confession is that it can be introspective and sin-oriented. But we are called to be Christ-conscious, not sin-conscious. Confession of sin makes us aware of our badness but true repentance comes from a revelation of God’s goodness (Rms 2:4, KJV).

Those who insist we need to confess our sins sometimes point to Psalm 51 as a model prayer. This psalm was written after David committed adultery and killed a guy. You could say it’s a psalm of repentance but it bears little resemblance to what some people call repentance. For instance, in this psalm David makes 24 statements either appealing to, or describing, the goodness of God. Here they are:

  1. Have mercy on me, O God,
  2. according to your unfailing love,
  3. according to your great compassion,
  4. blot out my transgressions.
  5. Wash away all my iniquity,
  6. cleanse me from my sin.
  7. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts,
  8. you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
  9. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean,
  10. wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
  11. Hide your face from my sins,
  12. blot out all my iniquity.
  13. Create in me a pure heart, O God
  14. renew a steadfast spirit within me.
  15. Do not cast me from your presence,
  16. or take your Holy Spirit from me
  17. Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
  18. and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
  19. Save me from bloodguilt, O God,
  20. the God who saves me…
  21. O Lord, open my lips…
  22. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
  23. In your good pleasure make Zion prosper;
  24. build up the walls of Jerusalem.

David also makes 4 statements that refer to his sin:

  1. For I know my transgressions,
  2. and my sin is always before me.
  3. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
  4. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

What do we learn about the character of God from this psalm?

We learn that He is merciful, His love never fails, and He has great compassion; He washes away and blots out our sin; He cleanses us and makes us whiter than snow; He hides His face from our sins; He desires truth and teaches us wisdom; He creates a pure heart within us and He renews our spirits; He doesn’t cast us from His presence but He restores, sustains and saves us; He desires to show us His good pleasure and favor.

And what do we learn about David’s sin?

Very little. David doesn’t even identify it (although it comes up in the title). David refers to his sin generally, but more than four-fifths of the character statements in the psalm pertain to the goodness of God. This is not introspection; this is active, living faith in a good God who forgives and makes things new.

And the amazing thing is that David lived under the condemning covenant of the law. Jesus had not died for his sins, yet David still had confidence that God’s loving-kindness is greater than his sin. This is an amazing revelation! In spite of the law which prescribed death as a just punishment for sin, somehow David was aware of God’s grace that was given “in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Tim 1:9).

David should have died for his sin. Instead, God forgave him (2 Sam 12:13). Even before the cross, God’s heart was inclined towards those who trusted in His goodness and mercy and who repented.

How much more then, should we, who live under a better covenant of no condemnation, trust in God’s grace when we sin? David lived under a covenant of death (2 Cor 3:7), but we relate to God through an everlasting covenant of peace (Is 54:10). Not only has God forgiven all our sins but He chooses to remember them no more (Heb 8:12). Why would we want to remind Him of our sins by confessing them?

To confess sins in the hope of getting forgiveness or getting free from condemnation is to act like a sinner. But God says we’re not sinners. He says we’re righteous. Once we were darkness but now we are light in the Lord (Eph 5:8). Once we were not a people but now we are the people of God (1 Pet 2:9).

God has justified us. God is for us. Nothing – not even our mistakes – can separate us from His love. So stop condemning yourself and start thanking Him. Stop dwelling on your badness and start trusting in His goodness.

14 Comments on Psalm 51 – The Badness of David versus the Goodness of God

  1. Great article. Just to clarify – we don’t repent exactly like David do we?
    I’m noting the:
    – blot out my transgressions.
    – Wash away all my iniquity,
    – cleanse me from my sin.
    As you say, forgiveness comes through Christ’s blood alone, therefore the above things were all achieved at the cross and we don’t request them as David did, but rather thank God retrospectively for them, right?

  2. Hi Tom, thanks for your comment. What I take away from David’s prayer was that he was both honest about his “natural” state apart from God and yet most of his prayer was focused on the goodness of God. David was more God-conscious than sin-conscious. There is faith in here! I have written elsewhere that we don’t confess our sins to be forgiven. God forgave us at the cross. That does not mean there is no value in being open and honest about our shortcomings. We all make mistakes. And some find confession helpful. My point is that if you do feel the need to confess to God, do so from a secure place of His forgiveness.

    In this Psalm David asks God to cleanse him. As you say, it’s different for us because of the cross. 1 John 1:7 tells us that the blood of Jesus cleanses us and goes on cleansing us. We don’t need to ask God to give us something he’s already given us. But we sure can thank him for it!

  3. Hello good day I’m interesting to your teaching, i,m a pastor of a small church from Philippines thanks your teachings gave to me a fresh revelation about how you emphasize the new covenant of God. God bless!

  4. Pastor Ibrahim Mansaray // June 3, 2014 at 12:28 am // Reply

    David received God’s favor even before he became king , the reason was because he humble himself always before God.

  5. Paul, many people use psalm 51:5 to back up the doctrine of original sin. Do you think we are born sinners? Or is this something we are inclined towards as we come to an age of accountability. I tend to lean towards the former, but would love your two cents. If you have already written on this maybe you could point me in the right direction. Thank you for all you do!

    • Some read David’s words in Ps 51:5 – “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” – and conclude that we were born with a sin gene. They say we are born hardwired to sin, as though there was some inbuilt genetic fault inherited from Adam. They forget David’s words in Ps 139: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” So which is it? Fearfully and wonderfully made or bad to the bone?

      I do not believe in the sin gene. It’s a theological myth. For every scripture that suggests we are born astray, there are a dozen that say we go astray. Big difference. Contrary to what you may have heard, and what Augustine and Calvin preached, babies are not hell-born brats. They are gifts from God.

      In Ps 51 David is saying that when he entered the world his status was sinner, not on account of some genetic fault, but on account of being born inside Adam’s prison of sin. Psalm 51:5 is the Old Testament equivalent of Romans 5:19. David is referring to the prison from which Christ has set us free.

      • Thanks so much for your thoughts and post reference. Maybe this is getting too analytical, but do we develop a sin nature then? Was Jesus born with a righteous nature just like the one we receive when we are born again? Or was he born the same way we are (Ps 139) but not in the “prison of sin”. I always thought that Jesus had the seed of righteousness which allowed him to live free from sin similar to the way Christians can live free from sin when they come into new life.

      • As I read through the comments on the other post I think I see where you stand. We were born the same way Jesus was (Ps 139) however we born in Adam’s family in a prison cell while Christ was born not into Adam but by God’s divine seed making him free (or not in a prison). Thus he had the ability to walk free from sin…now we are in Christ and we have that same ability. Am I on the right track there?

      • I know many people won’t agree with me, but I believe the sinful nature is learned, rather than inherited, and it is learned easily! We give far too much credit to the devil when we say children are somehow made in his image. Fearfully and wonderfully made, and all that.

        Jesus made a point of telling people, “I am not from here.” He was telling us that he was from outside the prison. He was the world’s first free man and he had to be because only a free man can ransom a slave. I talk more about this in ch.2 of the Gospel in Twenty Questions.

    • Children when they are born, have no concept of death, to put it another way they do not believe in death.We teach them and show them death, the world does.Death breeds sin.

  6. Thank you Paul this was helpful. I’ll go look at all those scriptures. I really like where you are coming from. I’ll go take a peak at ch. 2. Blessings.

  7. Pi Paul, this is Nike from Nigeria.
    I thank you for your post on confessing of sins as it has helped me understand better what I didn’t.
    However, as I read through the comments I couldn’t help but be confused about a thing or two.
    If we were not born with the sin nature, why then do we need to get born again to get the righteous nature of God which man lost at the garden of Eden?
    The bible says “For ALL have SINNED and fallen short of the glory of God”.
    Have you ever wondered why an 18month old baby would tell a lie when he does something he thinks you would disapprove of?
    If we were not born with a sin-nature, it would mean someone who has lived an entirely morally upright life need not be bornagain. But I guess we were sinners not because we sinned but because we were born with a sinful nature.

  8. Romans 5:19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

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