Let's Go Back to the Bible

Pray with Penitence

The psalms teach us a lot about prayer. Many of them are in the form of a prayer to God about themes that weigh on the human soul. There are prayers of protection, “O LORD, how my adversaries have increased!” (Psa. 3:1). Prayers of praise, “I will extol You, my God, O King, And I will bless Your name forever and ever” (Psa. 145:1). The psalm that we will look at is a prayer of penitence. This psalm is said to have been written by David after Nathan the prophet had confronted him about his sin.

It opens with an appeal to God’s grace: “Be gracious to me, according to your loving kindness… wash me” (Psa. 51:1-2). The writer then acknowledges his sin: “For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me” (Psa. 51:3-6). That is followed with a plea for cleansing: “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow… restore to me the joy of Your salvation” (Psa. 51:7-12). The psalmist now returns to God with a renewed sense of service: “Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You…Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then young bulls will be offered on Your altar” (Psa. 51:13-19).

The prayer prayed in confidence needs to begin with penitence. Only the penitent man will pass. Who among us hasn’t sinned? We acknowledge where we stand with God. “All have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves” (1 John 1:8). That is followed by repentance. There is nothing that we can do to cleanse ourselves. It can only be done because of the sacrifice of God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). With confidence in God to cleanse, combined with our actions of obedience to Him, then we return to Him. It is then that we have a renewed sense of service. The weight of sin is gone! We can come to God with humility, and He can make us whole. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psa. 51:17). Much like the short and powerful prayer of the tax collector in the parable of Jesus, “’God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13).

It is only after we have brought ourselves low before God that He will exalt us. It is then that we say, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (Psa. 32:1-2). We can be confident in prayer, but we must always be humble and remember the great cost that was paid to be in this relationship with God, our Creator.