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I’m Sorry.

January 15, 2012

The Text

17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17 ESV)

A Closer Look at the Text

We are all sinners. God’s Word tells us that if we claim to be without sin we are deceiving and deluding ourselves about ourselves (1 John 1:8). We all sin, and we do so consistently and religiously. That’s what the Bible tells us. The Bible also tells us that if we deny this, we are calling God a liar (1 John 1:10).

So the question is not whether we sin, and not even how much or how greatly we sent, but what do we do about it.

King David sinned when he allowed his eyes to rest upon Bathsheba while she was bathing, and he sinned in multiple ways after he allowed his lust to override his love for God and God’s law. Psalm 51 is his prayer of confession and repentance.

David does not pray, “Have mercy on me because you’re a good God and I’m a pretty good guy.” He knows better. God not just “good.” God is perfect and holy and just, and so God can only provide forgiveness according to His steadfast love and according to His abundant mercy (Psalm 51:1). And David is not “pretty good.” He cannot escape his sin. He is constantly aware of it (Psalm 51:3), and he can do nothing to fix his sin problem. Only God can blot out his transgressions (Psalm 51:1). Only God can wash them thoroughly from his iniquity and cleanse him from his sin (Psalm 51:2).

When David considers his recent sins involving Bathsheba (including, as narrated at 2 Samuel 11, his adultery with her and his murder of her husband), he realizes that those sins are only the most recent evidences of his depravity. His entire life is characterized by and tainted with his ongoing rebellion in his heart against the same God whom he loves. This is not just a sporadic pattern of behavior; it is who David is and who he has been from the moment of his birth. It is part of his identity. It is his identity. His sinfulness is so chronic and so thorough that it must have been genetic (Psalm 51:5).

Only God can forgive our sins. David’s plight is not hopeless though. He knows that God is fully capable of purging him from his sin, cleansing him, and washing him so that his heart is as pure as a fresh snowfall (Psalm 51:7). In fact God can create in him a clean heart and can renew his spiritual condition (Psalm 51:10). A fresh start, with a clean heart, would make it possible for David to be restored to the joy of his salvation (Psalm 51:12). It would make it possible for David to once again sing about, and even joyfully teach about, God’s ways and God’s law (Psalm 51:13-15).

Some Observations about the Text

I’m sorry. What does it mean to be sorry for our sins? Must we be sorry in order to have our sins forgiven? What if we don’t “feel” sorry at a given time about a particular sin?

A beautiful prayer within the Catholic tradition, known as the Act of Contrition, reads in part as follows: “Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all of my sins because of thy just punishment but most of all because they offend thee my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.” This prayer picks up much of the content and many of the sentiments of Psalm 51, and includes the notion of being “heartily” sorry. That is, there is an element of an honest emotion of contrition that is included as part of the penitent’s acknowledgment of his or her sinfulness in the presence of a holy and perfect God.

Is contrition a requirement, though, for forgiveness, or is contrition a blessing that accompanies forgiveness? Must I be “heartily sorry” in order to be forgiven? There are two biblical reasons why I believe that contrition is more of a gift than a requirement:

First, the prerequisites to forgiveness of sin never include an emotional outpouring of sorrow. One of the most succinct passages about forgiveness is sandwiched between the two verses from 1 John 1 referred to above: 1 John 1:9 tells us that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The “He” referred to is Jesus Christ. The essential prerequisites of forgiveness of sin, then, is faith in Christ plus confession.

Second, the pattern and flow of Psalm 51 shows contrition as more of a consequence of forgiveness than a requirement. David clearly acknowledges that forgiveness of sin cannot be earned or secured by anything David can do, say or feel. Only at the end of the Psalm, when David considers the joy of redemption and forgiveness, does he mention contrition. In fact, he mentions contrition along with teaching, singing, and declaring God’s praise. A forgiven heart and a renewed spirit expresses itself in song and praise and the joyful declaration of God’s love and mercy … along with humility and contrition. If anything, humility and contrition are gifts from God that help David to stay “on program” with God and, in the closing words of the Act of Contrition, “avoid the near occasion of sin.”

Gospel Apologetics

Forgiveness. Jesus the Messiah (Jesus the Christ, or Jesus Christ, or, in the Hebrew transliteration, Yeshua Ha-Mashiach), declared that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The good news (Gospel) assures us that salvation is possible through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:9) and only through Jesus Christ (John 14:6). This is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Unfortunately, when you consider folks who claim to be Christians, you can’t always tell whether they are true followers of Christ. We do have some helpful signals. We do know that the fruit of the Spirit is love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). A sense of gratitude is also a helpful signal (Colossians 3:12-17). As is a deep and evident sorrow for sin (Psalm 51:17).


So for the follower of Christ, contrition, like humility and the gifts of the Spirit, reflects a change of heart granted by God.

What about the person who is not a follower of Christ? Many nonbelievers do have remorse about wrongdoing, but most nonbelievers whom I have met seem more inclined to deny that sin exists than to acknowledge sin or have remorse. In fact, many nonbelievers would bristle at the notion that specific behaviors identified in the Bible as sin (such as the list at Revelation 21:8 and the list at Galatians 5:19-21) are actually morally wrong. They often prefer to pick and choose which behaviors they would consider wrong (such as, perhaps, murder) and which behaviors they would consider morally neutral if not laudable (such as, as is often the case, homosexuality or sexual intimacy outside of marriage).

It takes, well, God’s intervention to change the heart of a non-believer so completely that Psalm 51 actually makes perfect sense. This is called repentance. And for the non-believer, contrition is actually an element of repentance. In order to change from a life of unforgiven sin, to a life of following Christ (the only pathway to forgiveness), there must be contrition-that-leads-to-salvation. As explained at 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, there is a godly grief, a grief-unto-repentance, that is spiritually efficacious and that accompanies the turning of the heart toward God and away from self.

Not quite sorry enough. By contrast, there is contrition-that-leads-to-human-resolve. This is sorrow for sin that involves our stolid determination to do a better job of avoiding sin, on our own and through our own self-discipline. No matter how emotional or heartfelt this contrition might be, it doesn’t impress God. God knows, and the Bible lets us know, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22-24). Contrition that leads to human resolve is worthless contrition. It is worldly grief that actually produces death (2 Corinthians 7:10) even if it is really, really, really heartfelt.

It is only by way of the forgiveness that comes through trust in Jesus Christ that we can have a broken and contrite heart that is not despised by God.

Good thing, or I might be really, really sorry for my sins … but not be quite sorry enough.

Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.

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