Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
–Psalm 51:1 ESV
David wrote about his experience with sin and his discovery of important moral truths nearly three thousand years ago. What does his writing have to do with twenty-first century human beings?
The first time I wrote a blog post questioning the use of the word “marriage” for same-sex unions, I received quite a few comments. Among them were several writers who objected strenuously to my position on that moral question. One person, unlike the other objectors, did not try to persuade me that I had misinterpreted the Bible. Instead, he protested the whole idea of using the Bible to learn the right thing to do. He said that he was smart enough to decide for himself what was right and wrong, and he did not need a Bible to tell him. I had never before encountered someone who thought he needed no external standard to guide his moral choices, and I asked him how he knew that he was doing it right. He replied, “When it makes me feel good, then I know it is right.”
If David had subscribed to that moral standard, he never would have written Psalm 51.
I have been blogging for about 10 years, and I have often blogged about the effect of sin in our lives. David wrote about that problem, too, and in Psalm 51 uses the word “sin” more than once:
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
The word “sin” is not a popular word among secular thinkers, and among those who call themselves “progressives,” there are many who believe that it is immoral to call anyone a sinner. They feel so strongly about it that they even accuse parents of child abuse if the parents tell their children that they are born sinners.
If David’s worldview included rejection of the whole concept of sin, he would never have written Psalm 51.
David makes other comments that arouse scorn and pejorative labels in contemporary culture. David speaks to God and says,
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Contemporary culture expresses scornful dismissals and abusive language for God that is unthinkable in polite conversation, let alone public discourse. The intellectual elite think they are being polite when they accuse Christians of serving an “imaginary friend,” and those who believe that nothing in all the universe is more intelligent or powerful than themselves utterly reject the notion of letting God push them around with a bunch rules. They believe that they are quite well able to know what is good for them, and they don’t need an imaginary friend to tell them anything.
If David had agreed with contemporary culture that no power in the universe had any right to tell him what to do, he would never have written Psalm 51.
If you closely examine contemporary cultural mantras, you know that the culture would never send you to a higher power in order to fix what is broken in your life. The culture believes that you must merely “dig deep” within yourself to find the power to do the things that make you feel good. When you do what makes you feel good, the culture says that you won’t be wallowing in self-degradation and begging to be cleansed, because, according to secular thinkers, when you feel good about what you are doing, you won’t feel bad about yourself.
Furthermore, if you do doubt yourself, you can simply take a poll and find out what everyone else thinks, and that should clear up your moral choices. According to the culture, when you are part of a consensus that something is right, whether it is abortion, homosexual behavior, or full frontal nudity, the fact that there is consensus means you are not alone. If you act consistent with the consensus, you do not need to do any research at all to know what is right. If everybody else feels good about doing it, you can do it, too, and feel good about it.
If David had believed that knowing the consensus was the same thing as knowing what was right, he would never have written Psalm 51.
David would not have fitted in with contemporary culture at all, just as confessing Christians do not fit in. Studies of the culture, conducted by Barna and Pew, reveal that the culture regards many central Christian teachings as either irrelevant, detrimental to the culture, or dangerous. The idea of sin is anathema to secular thinkers. The idea of God is anathema to all who consider evolution to be the guiding power in the universe. A man who calls himself a sinner for doing something that made him feel good looks ridiculous to secular thinkers. A man who believes he has broken his relationship with the Creator of the universe by doing something that displease the Creator is to be pitied for his lack of self-esteem. A man who believes he needs to be cleansed because he is a filthy sinner, a man who believes he needs to be born all over again with a new heart because he is out of sync with the will of God will be laughed to scorn by those who say they can plainly see that there is no God.
We can all be grateful that David was not a contemporary secular thinker, because instead of leaving us to contemplate our own sinful human nature and our multiple specific sins against God, David confessed his own experience with sin, and then he showed us how to be healed when we sin:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. –Psalm 51:10
If you have ever been suddenly brought to attention by the recognition that you committed sin against God, sin you hid from even yourself as you did it, then you know that you cannot heal what is sick, or fix what is broken, by claiming that it made you feel good at the time. You know what David knew—you are a sinner. You have built a wall between yourself and God, a wall made up of your own will and wishes. Furthermore, the “good” feelings that accompanied your behavior are dissolving in your shame when you realize that your barrier is full of holes, and God can see exactly who you are. Then is a good time to borrow David’s words and pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
The Bible is full of Jesus, from the first page to the last. The day that Jesus rose from the dead, he joined a couple of men walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. As they walked together, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Christ] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). David’s Psalm 51 surely came up that day. When you read David’s words, baptism is vividly referenced in David’s statements, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Psalm 51:2 ESV) David further wrote, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV), obviously pointing forward to the work of Christ on the cross, which Paul would describe by saying, “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV).
The moral values of contemporary culture are not very different from the values in the cultures contemporary with David’s lifetime. In fact, contemporary values are well described as far back as Genesis, where God observed that “every imagination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5 ESV). That is why the work of Jesus on the cross is relevant to every era. In every age it is always necessary to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV).