God’s Word calls us to repent (e.g., Ps. 7:12; Mark 1:14–15; 1 John 1:8–9), but it does not leave us alone to figure out what true expressions of repentance look like. We find models of true repentance throughout Scripture, perhaps most notably in Psalm 51. This famous prayer of David after he sinned in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah (see 2 Sam. 11:1–12:15a) has guided generations of believers in expressing their contrition over their transgressions. Looking at some key portions of this psalm will help us better understand repentance.
On a human level, it is clear that the wrongs we commit have an effect on other people. Unkind words can scar people emotionally for a lifetime. We can harm others through lying, stealing, and a host of other offenses.
In the case of David and Bathsheba, we see that David sinned against her, against her husband Uriah, and even against his own army by ordering them to put Uriah in jeopardy so that David could escape the consequences of his sin. We do not want to downplay the grievous harm David inflicted on all of these people, yet in Psalm 51, we find that David emphasizes the way in which he sinned against God (v. 4).
Let us not think that David was attempting to lessen the heinousness of his transgressions against other people. Since this psalm is a model of repentance inspired by the Holy Spirit, that cannot be what he is doing. After all, the Spirit also inspired those Scriptures that call us to confess our sins to others and to ask for their forgiveness, and the Spirit cannot contradict Himself (Matt. 18:15; James 5:16).
David is not trying to lessen his sin in Psalm 51; rather, he is recognizing that as bad as it is to hurt other people with our transgressions, above everything else our wicked acts are an affront to our holy Creator. He is the sovereign Lawgiver, the standard of right and wrong, so we are committing cosmic treason whenever we violate His law. When we sin against other people, we are really and truly sinning against them, but we are sinning primarily against God. This is because to sin against His image bearers is to sin against their God-given dignity (Gen. 1:27; James 1:9–10). It is to sin against the Lord, who gives us our worth. True repentance means being sorry for sinning against other people but also being sorry at the same time for sinning against God, our holy Creator and Judge.