Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).
Christianity-lite knows little of what David asks here. It is content with soothing words and instant reassurance that sin is “covered by the blood of Christ.” Triumphalist failure-ism that admits of brokenness without an equal desire for reformation and holiness can, counterintuitively, fail to appreciate the depth of sin. In its concern to feel forgiven, it fails to pursue after holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
David, in Psalm 51, is aching from a conviction of his sin. What makes his cry more than a mere pang of conscience? First, notice the Godward direction of his cry. However much his sin has hurt others—Bathsheba and (fatally) her husband, Uriah—it is the fact that his selfish behavior has offended God that hurts the most. Conviction of sin can highlight different aspects—guilt, uncleanness, or estrangement in relationship—but in every instance, it is in relationship to God that these manifest themselves. David desperately needs to get right with other people, but especially, he needs to get right with God.
Second, conviction of sin involves an awareness of one’s sinfulness. In addition to “sins” (plural), David is conscious of “sin” in general: “cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:2). Our sins are a product of our sinfulness. We commit particular sins because we are sinners and in need of moral transformation until we finally, on the other side of this life, reflect the perfect image of Jesus Christ.
Third, David’s conviction concerns particular sins rather than sin in general: “I know my transgressions” (v. 3). He is thinking of very particular things he has thought and done. Sins have names. In that sense, they are identifiable and specific, such as “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder . . . idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions” (2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:20). Name your sins.
Few things challenge us more than a slow and deliberate reading of each verse of Psalm 51. Reading it over and over to ourselves, by the help of the Holy Spirit, forces us to inquire as to the genuineness of our claim to be the Lord’s servants. If we sin—in particular and specific ways —and do not feel their sting, how can we profess to be Christians?
This weekend, think through this psalm and ask yourself, “Do I know anything of this kind of conviction?” If we do not, why not? Is it because we are blind to the reality of sin? Have we convinced ourselves that we have truly progressed in holiness to a state of maturity and consecration? Paul found it otherwise, even in his maturity: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Rom. 7:21). Why should it be any different for us?