Sermon 08-26-12: “All Things New, Part 3: New Heart”

Christians often talk as if “getting saved” were a one-time event that takes place in the past, when we first place our faith in Jesus Christ. If sin is a problem from which we need to be saved, however, then God can’t be finished saving us until we no longer sin. In this sermon, I talk about sanctification—the process by which the Holy Spirit transforms us into the people that God wants us to be. This transformation takes an ongoing miracle from God. It isn’t so much a matter of trying harder; it’s a matter of trusting harder.

Sermon Text: Psalm 51

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I’ve been using this app on my iPhone from Nike to track the success or failure of my running habit. I’m sure my Facebook friends wait with bated breath for those frequent updates it sends to my timeline—because who doesn’t want to know where I ran and how far? Nike pays celebrity athletes give me “attaboys” for my performance. One day last week Tim Tebow told me to keep up the good work.

As recently as last year, Lance Armstrong would frequently tell me how well I was doing. A cynical part of me wanted to say, “Yes, and I did it without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs!”

Last week, Armstrong  made headlines announcing that he’s giving up the fight against charges from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. The agency says that they have evidence that Armstrong used banned blood transfusions, the blood booster EPO, testosterone, and other drugs to win the tour. They have ten eyewitnesses, including some of Armstrong’s teammates, who will testify against him. As a result of refusing to contest the charges any longer, he’s been stripped of all seven of his Tour de France victories.[1]

Refusing to contest the charges, of course, isn’t exactly the same thing as admitting guilt. Armstrong blamed the process. He called the agency’s work an “unconstitutional witch hunt,” “one-sided and unfair.” All that may be true, of course, but his words don’t exactly deny the accusation that he cheated.

Armstrong’s fall from grace seems so familiar, doesn’t it? When we think of celebrity athletes, Hollywood stars, and politicians who are caught up in an embarrassing and costly scandals, how many of them ever come right out and admit that they’ve done wrong. “Yep, I did that.” Instead we get plausible deniability, rationalizations, counter-charges, excuses… I understand. I’ve done the same thing.

But the psalmist’s words in Psalm 51, by contrast, are shockingly direct, transparent, painfully candid about his sin. He offers no excuses. He allows no wiggle room. “I’m guilty,” he says, “and, God, you are completely correct in rendering your verdict and passing judgment.” What is he guilty of? If we look at the note above verse 1, we read: “For the music leader. A psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him just after he had been with Bathsheba.” So this is a psalm that we can attribute directly to David, written after the sad, tragic, sin-filled events described in 2 Samuel 11 and 12.

You may recall that David takes Uriah’s wife and commits adultery with her, while Uriah is off at war. To David’s horror, she turns up pregnant. He calls Uriah back from the frontlines and tries to persuade him a couple of times to sleep with his wife—so that he’ll think the child belongs to him—but Uriah refuses. “It’s not fair for me to sleep at home while my fellow soldiers are off at war.” So now David hatches an even more devilish plan: He writes to his Uriah’s commanding officer: “Place Uriah at the front of the fiercest battle, and then pull back from him so that he will be struck down and die.” In other words, David murders Uriah, and covers it up to make it look like he was a casualty of war.

In one remarkable chapter of the Bible, David, who was anointed king in the first place because God said that he was a “man after my own heart,” broke five of the 10 commandments.

And he almost got away with it, except that God told a prophet named Nathan what David had done. And Nathan confronted the king. When David was confronted with the truth, he finally confessed, “I’ve sinned against the Lord.”  Similarly, as he writes in this psalm, “I’ve sinned against you—you alone.” Isn’t that a strange thing to say? After all, wouldn’t poor Uriah say that David sinned against him, too—by arranging for his death. Yes, but I don’t think David is denying his responsibility toward Uriah. David probably already recognized that he’d sinned against Uriah, but what was Uriah going to do about it? He was dead, and, besides, David was king. He had covered his tracks nicely, and even if someone figured out what he’d done, what were they going to do about it? David was king. He had all the power. He was above the law.

But now, when confronted by Nathan, he remembers again that he’s not above God’s law. He may have been off the hook with Uriah, but he wasn’t off the hook with God. His sin may have escaped the notice of human beings, but it hadn’t escaped the notice of God! He may no longer have had a problem with Uriah, but now he had a problem with God! We’re always in God’s presence. God is always watching us. We can’t hide from God.

This may be a deeply uncomfortable thought.  We would probably prefer to keep certain parts of our lives private from God or anyone else. What deep, dark secrets do you have that you would be deeply embarrassed and ashamed for anyone else in the world to know about? For all I know, you may be able to keep secrets from your spouse, your closest friends, your business associates, the news media, and even us, your pastors. But you can’t keep secrets from God. Is there anything, in the deep, dark recesses of your heart, which God doesn’t already know about? No! God knows you infinitely better than your know yourself. So you may as well tell God about it! No excuses, no rationalizations, no plausible deniability. You’re not going to surprise God with anything you have to confess. If I confess my sins to God, God is not going to say , “Brent, I thought I loved you, but that was before I found out about that terrible thing that you did last Tuesday.” God already knows… Confess. If we confess, we can be confident that God will forgive us.

Even in the midst of David’s anguished confession, David was confident that God would forgive him. That’s why he begins this psalm in verse 1 with an appeal to God’s hesed—that’s the word translated as “lovingkindness” or “unfailing love” or “faithful love.” And just think: unlike us, David believed God would forgive him even without the hindsight of the cross. David hadn’t yet seen God’s love revealed in the fullest way possible, when God chose to become one of us in Jesus, to take upon himself all of our sins, and, out of love, choose to suffer the penalty that our sins deserved. We look at the cross, and we know how much God loves us; how costly God’s love for us is; how much God wants to forgive us.

Before we got married, some marriage expert who told Lisa and me about something called the “two-month rule.” The two-month rule says that when you’re arguing as a couple, you’re not allowed to bring up any bad thing that your spouse did more than two months ago. It sounds good in theory. The problem is it’s hard for us human beings not to dwell on grievances that are months, years, or even decades old. What happens in the past has a way of creeping into the present and affecting the way we behave and feel right now. By contrast, David tells us in verse 9 that when it comes to God’s forgiveness, what happens in the past stays in the past. David prays: “Hide your face from my sins; wipe away all my guilty deeds!” When God forgives us, it’s as if we had never sinned. God isn’t holding a grudge. God isn’t keeping score. God isn’t waiting for us to slip up and say, “There you go again! Just like you did before! What’s wrong with you? Why are so stupid?” Our sins are wiped away. It’s as if God doesn’t see them anymore. God gives us a fresh start. We don’t have to keep beating ourselves up about confessed sin from our past. We can move on.

God’s forgiveness of sin is amazing, but David wants us to know something else that’s very important about sin: God not only wants to forgive us of our sin, God also wants to heal us of our sin. Do you see the difference? David’s problem isn’t simply that he needs forgiveness for breaking these five commandments. His problem is that he “was sinful at birth, sinful from the time [his] mother conceived [him].” David realizes that he was born with a sin problem—a predisposition to sin. God needs to do something about that problem!

So David pleads, “Create in me a pure heart.” Create. Isn’t that an interesting choice of words? Not “purify my existing heart,” but create in me a pure heart. It’s as if David were saying, “My existing heart is defective and unless you perform a miracle inside of me and give me a new one, God, I won’t be able to stop hurting myself and others through sin.” What David asks God to do is what God promises to do for us Christians after we give our lives to Christ and are justified—that is, after our sins are forgiven through faith in Christ and we’re given a new birth. We are sanctified. Sanctification is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to change our hearts, to re-create our hearts, to make us holy, to enable us to love God and neighbor with Christ-like love. A good Wesleyan way of putting it is to say that sanctification is God’s way of perfecting us in love.

Raise your hand if you’re not perfect? My hand is raised, too. Raise your hand if you think God intends to leave you that way until you get to heaven? No, God wants to perfect us in love. Raise your hand if you’ve known Christians who are more perfected in love than you? Although these saints probably wouldn’t see it that way, I’ve certainly known some who are more perfect than me.

Good heavens! Didn’t we just lose someone like that in the life our church last week when Jane Rogers died? If you came to the 8:30 service in Vinebranch last year, you no doubt saw Jane sitting near the back next to Phil Monzo. Jane was so holy she actually attended two different worship services on Sunday morning! I guess she came to Vinebranch at 8:30 for the music and then went to traditional for the preaching! But seriously… I share your broken heart that she’s gone. I hate it, in fact. But I’m also confident that Jane was ready to die—not in the sense that she didn’t have plenty more living to do and she wanted to keep living, but in the sense that it was obvious that the Holy Spirit had been working in her life for years to prepare her to meet the Lord face to fact, to prepare her for this transition from death to life after death—and resurrection.

The kind of person that Jane was didn’t just happen… naturally, but supernaturally. It didn’t happen overnight, but over the course of a lifetime.

You may have heard that this exercise program called P90X is back in the news. It turns out that Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s choice for vice-president, is an avid P90X user. He’s been using it every day for years. And it shows—the guy’s my age, and he’s ripped. He looks great. So I hate him!

Sanctification isn’t like some kind of spiritual P90X. We may not see the results we want in 90 days. And, unlike P90X, it’s not something that we can accomplish on our own through hard work and discipline. Don’t get me wrong: living a Christian life takes work—remember, James says that faith without works is dead. But even this good work that we do as Christians—like worshiping, praying, reading and studying the Bible, serving others, fasting, giving money to church, going on mission trips—is mostly a matter of letting the Holy Spirit do the work within us and through us.

So… Do you want a new heart? Don’t try harder. Trust harder. The change that we seek isn’t a matter of trying; it’s a matter of trusting.

Last week, Carol Burkhart, our preschool director, shared a funny story with me. She was looking to hire a new preschool teacher. An Indian woman applied for the job—which is good, because we have many Indian children in our community and in our preschool. The problem was that, although many Indians are Christians, this particular woman wasn’t. She was Hindu. So Carol told her that since it’s a Christian pre-school, we could only hire Christians. And this woman said something funny: She said, “That’s no problem. I can be a Christian five days a week!”

I can be a Christian five days a week.

I laughed because I thought, “If this woman can be a Christian five days a week, that means that there are some weeks when she’s doing better than me!” If only I could achieve being a Christian five days a week consistently! That’s 70 percent of the time! If I could live my life as a faithful follower of Jesus just 70 percent of the time, that would be an improvement! But slowly, over time, day by day, God will make me into the person he wants me to be.

I’m claiming the Apostle Paul’s words as my own: “It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”[2]

[1] Juliet Macur, “Armstrong Drops Fight Against Doping Charges,” New York Times, Accessed 25 August 2012, <>.

[2] Philippians 3:12-14

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