Getting to the root of the problem of sin requires more than just dealing with our individual sinful acts. To be sure, we need forgiveness for particular sins, but all of our particular sins are the fruit of the corruption that we inherit in Adam. David alludes to this inward bent toward wickedness in Psalm 51:5, declaring that he was conceived in sin. His point is that from the very beginning of his existence, even when he was in his mother’s womb, sin corrupted his very nature.
Continuing our study of Psalm 51 today, we see a more direct reference to the problem of the fallen human heart that must be solved if we are truly to deal with sin. David’s contrition over his sin with Bathsheba has caused him to take stock of his inward dispositions and affections, leading him to confess his need for the Lord to create in him a clean heart (v. 10). In so doing, he displays his awareness of his need for divine grace. John Calvin comments, “By the term create … [David] acknowledges that we are indebted entirely to the grace of God, both for our first regeneration, and, in the event of our falling, for subsequent restoration.” From first to last, the Christian life is a matter of grace. Grace initiates our salvation, it sustains our salvation, and it will complete our salvation.
Given the gravity of his adultery and murder (see 2 Sam. 11), David fears the loss of the Holy Spirit and being banished from God’s presence (Ps. 51:11). In light of the full witness of Scripture, we know that those who are truly regenerate can by no means lose their salvation (Rom. 8:29–30). Thus, it seems best to view Psalm 51:11 as a poetic expression of David’s realization that the Lord does not owe him forgiveness. God would be well within His rights to take His Spirit from any of us after we sin, for divine pardon is a matter of grace, and grace by definition is never owed. The confidence we have that the Lord will not allow His people to fall from His hand is His sure, unbreakable promise (John 10:27–30), not some notion that God must forgive us. Every act of divine forgiveness is a matter of mercy and grace, and while we can be confident that in Christ He forgives the penitent sinner, we never deserve the Lord’s pardon.
Elsewhere, we have noted that service to the Lord and growth in holiness is born from our gratitude for His gracious salvation. Psalm 51:13–19 confirms this, as David vows to serve the Lord and teach others about Him after he is forgiven by God.