Forgive us our sins (Psalm 51)

In this last in the series on the Lord’s Prayer, we look at why we should ask for the forgiveness and sins, how we should do it and how it helps.

Sermon as recorded at St. Luke’s on 26/3/23.

Why pray for the forgiveness of sins?

Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s prayer, to pray, ‘forgive us our sins…,’ but why? We can understand the necessity to pray for our daily bread, we may also understand that if we are Christians we should pray for God’s kingdom to come, but why pray for the forgiveness of our sins?

A Modern Objection:

Perhaps this is an increasingly modern question. We live in a society that does not talk much about God and also does not talk much about sin.

Instead of sin, people talk purely about right and wrong. Doing right is what makes the world a better place for everyone and doing wrong makes things worse for everyone. It is generally agreed that people should be encouraged to do what is right rather than what is wrong, but this is achieved it is thought, by better education and campaigning to make people do what is right.

The need for forgiveness from God or involving God in the process does not seem necessary. In fact many associate it with creating feelings of guilt and so lowering self-esteem. Indeed, people are increasingly offended if you tell them they are doing something wrong, possibly because they see it as undermining their sense of wellbeing by inducing some kind of guilt.

So from the perspective of many in our society praying for forgiveness is quite strange, even unhelpful.

A Theological Objection:

For some Christians there is also a theological objection. Surely, once we become a Christian, we are already forgiven. Jesus’s death on the cross has done everything necessary to secure our salvation and wash away our sins.

If we keep praying for forgiveness, aren’t we denying that we are already forgiven. Aren’t we making praying forgiveness or confessing our sins a work for our salvation, rather than accepting that we are saved by faith.

At first glance, these are powerful points to make. Yet, Jesus teaches us to pray regularly: ‘forgive us our sins.’ So, why do we need to do so, if we are already forgiven?

David’s Prayer (Psalm 51)

To help us think more carefully about both why and how we should pray for forgiveness it is good to turn to the most famous prayer for forgiveness in the Bible: Psalm 51.

David’s Sin:

This prayer comes as a result of a terrible incident in David’s life. David was very much God’s man. He had shown incredible faith from an early age and God had blessed him and raised him to become king of Israel, promising that one of David’s sons would always be on the throne. David was very much God’s man.

But then just as David was looking most secure and comfortable on the throne he did something really bad. Whist the army were off fighting in a war, he seduced the wife of Uriah, one of the soldiers away fighting for him and committed adultery with her. When Bathsheba became pregnant with his child, he tried to cover it up and when that didn’t work he had Uriah sent into the thick of the battle so that he was killed.

In anyone’s terms this was all wrong, adultery, murder and lying to cover up. What was worse, David thought he had got away with it. After all this was probably not abnormal behaviour for kings of his time and who would know?

But God saw it all and God was not happy. So, God sent the prophet Nathan to challenge David about what he had done. Suddenly, David is face with the problem of his sin.

The Problem of Sin:

Guilt – Our Inner Emotional Pain – vs. 3, 8

Firstly, as we read the Psalm we get a sense of the guilt that David was wracked with.

In verse 3, he says:

“For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is always before me.”

Then in verse 8 he talks about his bones being crushed.

The Bible in general and David in particular do not deny the oppressive power of guilt. In a sense this whole Psalm is a cry for the guilt to be removed.

In response to the oppression of guilt our non-Christian culture sees it as something bad for us that needs to be avoided. So people hate it when you challenge them about wrongdoing or they seek to blame their wrongdoing on other pressures in their lives.

Similarly, if we as Christians simply say, we are already forgiven by God and so there is no place for guilt in our lives, then we deny the reality of our ongoing struggle with sin.

Both attitudes seek to avoid the pain of guilt, but in so doing they miss out on what guilt is pushing us to do – to change to be the better people God wants us to be. If David was to do the same with his guilt, there would be every chance that he would just repeat his lies, adultery and murder.

Guilt in the short term may be a painful response to sin and if not dealt with can be very destructive. Yet, when it provokes the right response, it is a painful step in a powerfully transformative process.

God – Our Damaged Relationship – vs. 4, 11

The second problem that David sees with his sin is the damage it has done to his relationship with God. God after all had sent Nathan to challenge David about his behaviour and so David senses that he is under God’s judgement.

In verse 4, he acknowledges that God is right to judge him:

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”

And in verse 11 you sense David’s fear at losing his relationship with God:

“Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

Again our society recoil from this talk of God’s judgement. Many deny God’s existence, so that they don’t have to worry about judgement, others just like to imagine that God is not interested, does not care or will just ignore our wrongdoing.

Again, if as Christians we simply say, we are already forgiven, we can quickly dismiss any idea of God’s displeasure at our wrongdoing.

But, this too fails to deal with our sin and can damage any real relationship with God we might have. After all any good relationship has to acknowledge the hurt and upset that one person may cause to another. That is what makes the relationship real.

Praying for Forgiveness:

Praying for forgiveness, rather than avoidance of guilt and the damaged relationship with God, actually seeks to deal with our sinful behaviour, through a powerful engagement with God and a deeper dependence in faith on him.

And that is what we see David doing in this Psalm. In a sense this is a model for a powerful therapy in our lives, with God as our therapist. The more we learn to engage with this process, the more we will be truly transformed to be the kind of people God wants.

So here are five steps to dealing with the problem of sin:

1. Confident, because of God’s character – vs. 1

Firstly, we need to be confident in approaching God that he will forgive us and help us.

For David this confidence comes in verse 1, with a deep understanding of God’s character, his compassion and unfailing love.

For us as Christians, our confidence is even greater. We know he has already forgiven us. Jesus says he gave his blood on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. His once for all sacrifice is all that is necessary to win us forgiveness, to pay the price for our sins.

No matter what our sin we can approach God with confidence, because our sins have and will be forgiven.

2. Confess the reality of our sin – vs. 3-5

But that does not mean we can ignore our sins. The next step David takes is to acknowledge the reality of his own sin. Indeed, the reality of his specific sins, his adultery, lying and murder have pushed him to acknowledge something deeper. He was like us, sinful from birth.

This is not a step into self-loathing, or depression – it would be without God to help. No it is an acceptance that there is something fundamentally wrong with us and we need God’s help to ever have any hope of change. Not just God’s help to stop being adulterous or murderous, but to accept that we need a deeper transformation.

3. Convert my inner self – vs. 10

This brings us to the next step. If the first two steps are about acknowledging what God is like and what we are like, the next two are about seeking the real change we need.

The first change is to ask for God’s help to convert our inner self. Verse 10 expresses this very powerfully:

“Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

David does not just say, “Sorry!”. He says, “Help me! Change me!” And he is not just asking for help to stop murdering people or to stop lying or to stop committing adultery, he is asking that the whole attitude of his heart is changed, so that such behaviours become completely against the kind of person he has become.

If you weed your garden by cutting off the weeds at the top, the weeds will grow back. If you pull the weeds out, roots and all, you will stop them growing again. It is this kind of rooting out that David is praying for.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us not just to pray for forgiveness, but also to be rescued from all sin:

“Lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.”

We may already be forgiven, but the reason we keep praying for forgiveness is to help us in the process of rooting sin out of our lives.

4. Connect again with God – vs. 11-12

Fourthly, David’s prayer for forgiveness, is also seeking to connect again with God. He expresses a longing for a renewed relationship and a valuing of the joy and support that that relationship brings.

He says in verse 12:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation…”

In experiencing God’s displeasure at his sin, David longs once more for the joy of knowing God and being in a perfect relationship with him. The result of his seeking forgiveness is a deeper reliance on God’s salvation and joy in what God has done for him.

For us as Christians this will also involve a return to understanding what Jesus has done for us on the cross and a deeper gratitude and rejoicing of his saving work there and the price he paid for our sins.

But, also understanding the price he paid for our sins, is important in showing us the need to forgive others as well.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says to pray,

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others.”

Jesus follows that up in Matthew’s gospel with the verses:

“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

It’s only as we remember how much God has done in forgiving us, that we see the utter necessity to forgive others. After all how can we accept God paying such a great price to release us from our debt of sin and guilt to him, if we are not willing to release others from their much smaller debt of sin against us.

When we are serious about connecting again with God and accepting his forgiveness, then we will also forgive others.

5. Contrite before God – vs. 16-17

All of this is to accept that in and of ourselves we cannot become perfect people. We do mess up, we do sin. We need God’s help to forgive us, remove our sin and restore our relationship with him.

In this sense we come to him as contrite, broken in our own pride, but rejoicing in his love and acceptance.

Our world today with its focus on the importance of self-esteem finds this idea difficult to accept. Yet, a self-esteem built on a denial of who we really are will never be stable or sustaining. Perhaps it’s no wonder that mental health is an increasing problem in our society.

True resilience comes from being broken before God and rejoicing in allowing him to renew and restore us to recreate us to be the kind of people he really wants us to be. That is a process, but a process in which regular confession of sin plays an important part.

The Result of Forgiveness:

We saw that the immediate problem for David created by his sin was his guilt and broken relationship with God. Such painful realities pushed him into praying for forgiveness.

And the result of that forgiveness is that the guilt, although painful for a while is soon removed. For example look at verse 7:

“Cleanse me with hyssop and I shall be clean;

wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

More than the inner guilt being removed, there is a joyful restoration in the relationship with God, which overflows from David in praise of God to others:

“Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,

you who are God my Saviour,

and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.”

Acknowledging our sin, may be painful at first, but when we deal with it through prayers of confession – genuinely seeking God’s help, and a transformation or our inner selves and relationship with him, then we discover a life of deeper joy and love and we become the kind of people that truly shine for him.

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