This sermon is all about repentance: what it is; why we need it; how we distinguish it from remorse; and the role in plays in our lives once we’ve become God’s children through faith in Christ.
Sermon Text: Psalm 51:1-19
Audio only this week. Click the playhead below or right-click here to download an MP3.
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Many of you no doubt heard the news last week about Volkswagen, the world’s largest car-maker. It turns out, the company rigged all of its diesel-engine cars with software designed to deceive both consumers and regulators into believing that their cars were “greener,” more fuel-efficient, and better performing than they really were. Basically, there’s a piece of equipment inside the car’s exhaust system that filters out nitrogen oxides, which are bad for the environment. The car’s computer would only turn that system on when the car was being tested for emissions, thereby enabling it to pass inspection. And then the computer would turn the system off again when it wasn’t being tested.
Why not run the filtering system all the time, you may ask? Because it takes energy to operate the system, which means your car burns more gas, which means it’s less fuel efficient than it would be if the system weren’t running. “So what’s the harm,” the engineers and executives must have thought, “if we just turn the system off when no one’s looking. No one will find out.”
But U.S. regulators did find out. And as a result, eleven million cars around the world are being recalled… Untold billions of dollars to fix the problem… Plus the inevitable lawsuits, the squandering of public trust in the company, the loss of market share, the loss of jobs, the anger of the company’s customer base, the tarnishing of the reputation of a once proud car maker. The magnitude of this scandal has never been seen in the auto industry. The CEO, Martin Winterkorn resigned, reluctantly, saying that as the CEO he takes responsibility, because he’s supposed to, but he didn’t know anything about the deception, and he did nothing wrong. Many auto industry observers say that given the top-down management culture at VW, it’s hard to believe he didn’t know—that he would have had to go out of his way not to know… to turn a blind eye.
Regardless… think about this former CEO for a minute: He is now one of the most despised, hated men in the world. No matter what he does for the rest of his life, he’ll never live this scandal down: It will cost him his reputation, his career, many of his friends, I’m sure… it may even cost him his freedom if there are criminal charges. It will be a permanent black mark on his name. Rightly or wrongly, when he dies, his obituary won’t mention his earlier business successes—like turning Volkswagen into the world’s largest carmaker, surpassing Toyota. It will instead describe the role he played in the downfall of one of the world’s largest, most successful companies.
But I want us to consider this: however costly his wrongdoing proves to be—and it’s already very costly—it’s not nearly as costly as the wrongdoing for which we are all responsible—the kind of wrongdoing we call sin. See, like Martin Winterkorn, we also have a black mark on our name—no one notices it, no one talks about it directly; it’s not going to show up in the news headlines or in our own obituaries. But it’s just as real, and there’s nothing we can do on our own to get rid of it.
But even worse… However much someone like Martin Winterkorn gets punished in this life for his misdeeds, or his errors in judgment, or his foolishness, or his pride—and I’m sure the punishment will be great—it’s a fleabite—a fleabite—compared to the punishment that we all deserve to face, that we all would face, that some of you, even within the sound of my voice, potentially will face—for eternity—unless or until you repent of your sins and approach God your creator the way King David does in today’s scripture!
What was the sermon that John the Baptist preached as he prepared the world for the coming of the Messiah: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And when Jesus came, what sermon did he preach? “Repent and believe in the gospel.” And in his public ministry, Jesus never forgave someone their sins without also calling them to repentance. There was no saying, “Your sins are forgiven” without also saying, “Go and sin no more!”
If we want to be saved, we must repent!
And repentance begins with the same attitude, the same disposition of heart, that David has when he says, in verse 4, that God is “justified in his words and blameless in his judgment.” David knows, in other words, that he deserves hell—he knows that God would be perfectly justified to destroy him and send him to hell because of the sins that he’s committed.
This is not a popular message. There are far too many churches in America, too many preachers in America, who say, in so many words, that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to tell us how great we are, just the way we are, and please don’t change a thing!
But let’s get real! Whether we’re Christians or not, whether we’re religious or not, we know we’re not great. We know we’ve missed the mark; we know we’ve failed to measure up; we know we haven’t lived up to our standards or values. Everyone knows this. In fact, there’s an evangelism professor at Asbury Theological Seminary named Robert Tuttle who studied different non-Christian cultures all around the world, and he said that people in every culture carried around with them a sense of guilt about failing to measure up to the standards of their family, their tribe, or their society. This guilt is universal. In other words, whether they call it this or not, nearly everyone has a sense of their own sinfulness. They know they’re sinners.
David certainly knew he was a sinner! The superscription above the psalm reads: “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” Many of you know the story. It’s told in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. While King David’s soldiers were off fighting a war, David sleeps with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his faithful, loyal soldiers, Uriah the Hittite. Bathsheba gets pregnant. David knows this means trouble, since Uriah has been away the whole time. So he first arranges to have Uriah come home and sleep with his wife, because then Uriah will think that the baby is his. When that fails, he does something even more sinister: he arranges to have Uriah killed in the line of duty. He quickly marries Bathsheba, so the world won’t suspect anything out of the ordinary.
But David had forgotten about God. And God sends Nathan, the prophet, to confront the king with his sin. And when he does, David repents, saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
What a curious thing to say! “I have sinned against the Lord.” But he says the same thing in the psalm: “Against you, you only, have I sinned.” What does that mean? I mean, good heavens, David has sinned against many people—not least of which poor Uriah, whom he murdered!
So what on earth can David mean when he says, “Against God only have I sinned”? It’s not that he doesn’t recognize the great evil that he’s done to other people; it’s that he recognizes something even worse: that the evil he’s done against others, he’s also done against God.
All sin is ultimately sin against God. And at its root, it’s really the same sin—it’s the sin underneath all other sins, the sin compared to which all other sins are merely a symptom. Adultery is a symptom of this sin; murder is a symptom of this sin; lying is a symptom of this sin. It’s the sin that precedes all other sins. And it’s the sin, for example, that Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden. Remember, Satan, in the guise of the serpent, says, in so many words, “God is wrong. God can’t really be trusted. He’s told you he doesn’t want you to eat this fruit, but he doesn’t have your best interests at heart.” And the first couple believed Satan and disobeyed God. But their lack of trust in God’s goodness was the sin that preceded the eating of the fruit.
And isn’t this also what Satan tempted Jesus with in the wilderness: “Aren’t you God’s Son? If so, why does your heavenly Father have you out here starving yourself? That’s crazy! Don’t listen to him; don’t wait for him fix this problem. Turn this stone into bread.” Again, along with the other two temptations, the devil is tempting Jesus to doubt his Father’s goodness. “Listen to me,” the devil says, “Your Father doesn’t know what’s best for you; he’s not acting in your best interests; he wants you to do things his way, but his way isn’t really best; choose your own path; go your own way.”
See, we might be tempted to compare our sins to David’s sins, and say, “Well, at least I haven’t murdered anyone, so I’m O.K.” No! Because our ultimate sin is exactly the same as his! We’re the ones who’ve failed to trust God! We’re the ones who’ve doubted that he knows what’s best for us! We’re the ones who’ve doubted God’s goodness! We’re the ones who’ve placed ourselves above God and said, in so many words, “I know better than you, God, what I need to be happy and fulfilled! I don’t have to listen to you!”
I’m not wrong about that, am I? Isn’t that the root of our sin?
So even if our sins aren’t as conspicuous or as obviously destructive as David’s sins, we’re just as guilty as David when it comes to failing to trust God, and just as in need mercy, forgiveness, and grace.
But there’s good news here, too. Because if we’re as bad as David when it comes to sin, then that also means, like David, we can repent and be saved from our sins! After David repents, Nathan, the prophet tells him, in 2 Samuel 12, “The Lord has put away your sin!” Similarly, in the psalm, David says that his sins are “blotted out.” That means there’s no more record of his sins. Isaiah tells us in a few places that when God blots out our sins, he remembers them no more!
Now, there’s an important difference between repentance and remorse, which I need to highlight. Remorse is feeling sorry for your sin, and nothing more—remorse leads to feeling sorry for yourself, and hating yourself, and beating yourself up. I’m great at remorse! Truth be told, I’m better at remorse than repentance. I said a moment ago that the ultimate sin, the sin underneath all other sins, is refusing to trust in God’s goodness. Well, remorse is kind of like that: It’s failing to trust in God’s mercy. This psalm teaches us, after all, the truth of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But remorse says, “I know that’s not really true! I know God won’t really forgive me the way he says. I know forgiveness isn’t really free. I know that forgiveness depends on my future good behavior! I know I have to earn it!”
Earlier this year, I preached a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. And I don’t know what it did for you, but for me, it changed my life! I’m not kidding! See, I was reminded that Jesus gave us this prayer as a model to follow—to guide our own prayers. And I felt convicted that I hadn’t been doing that. At all. See, I realized that I was walking around with a lot of guilt for my sins—not the sins of my distant past, when I first gave my life to Jesus Christ at age 14; I knew those sins were forgiven. But my more recent sins—the ones I’d committed long after I was born again—those were the ones I felt guilty about. Because this inner voice would tell me, “Brent, you’re a Christian. You’re born again. You shouldn’t be struggling with sin anymore. Why can’t you pull yourself together? You’re a pastor, for heaven’s sake, and here you are still dealing with these things! Why? No one else is! Look at Rev. So-and-so; look at his Facebook posts. You can see that he’s got it all together; you can see that he’s not struggling. You’re obviously doing something wrong. I bet God must be losing patience with you. I mean, how many times do you think he’s going to forgive you? Don’t you think God has gotten tired of you by now. He can’t really love you anymore. I mean, sure, back when you were 14, before you committed all these sins, you were easy to love, but there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then!”
You know, Satan’s name literally means “the accuser,” and you can see how he performs this role in my life—and maybe in yours, too.
So I would spend most of my prayer time asking, begging God to forgive me. This time—this time!—I’m not going to sin again. This time I’ll prove myself worthy. This time I’ll earn God’s love. This time I’ll show God that he didn’t make a mistake when he made me his child. So after I cleared up all the guilt of my sin, then and only then would I get down to the rest of my praying. After all, I figured, God’s not going to give me anything I ask for with all this sin hanging over my head!
But when I reflected on the Lord’s Prayer earlier this year, I noticed that the prayer begins with us calling God “our Father.” And praising him and adoring him and asking him to do things for us. And it’s not until you get near the end of the prayer that you get to the part where you ask God to forgive your sins. Notice: we have unconfessed sin, yet we’re still able to call God “our Father” and love him and be loved by him.
And this reminded me in a powerful way of the following truth: the fact that we do sin as Christians, the fact that we will sin as Christians doesn’t change, can’t change, won’t change the fact that we are God’s beloved son or daughter. Did you hear that? The fact that we will sin as Christians doesn’t change, can’t change, and won’t change the fact that we are God’s beloved son or daughter. We’re already accepted by God! Thanks to what Jesus did on the cross—paying the penalty for all our sins, suffering in our place, dying in our place—we’re already part of God’s family! There’s no sin that you’ve sinned that wasn’t accounted for on the cross; there’s no sin that you’ve sinned that wasn’t nailed to the cross. So of course we’re forgiven!
And how can we doubt for a moment that God loves us now that we’re his children, when God loved us enough to die on a cross for us when we were still his enemies!
True repentance means, first, acknowledging that because of our sins, we deserve death and hell. Repentance means acknowledging that all our sins are sins against God—when we fail to trust in his goodness—and when we fail to trust that he knows what’s best. Repentance means not only feeling sorry for our sins but believing God when he tells us that they are forgiven. Finally, repentance means being confident that, in spite of our sins, we are God’s beloved children.
If we have confessed with our mouth…