Editor's Note: The following includes some edited content from 8 Steps in Psalm 51 for Real Repentance by Catherine Parks and Confession Isn't Enough, You Need To Repent Too.
Confession Isn’t Sufficient
Ezekiel 18:21 (NLT2)21 But if wicked people turn away from all their sins and begin to obey my decrees and do what is just and right, they will surely live and not die.
Confession is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Sufficiency is achieved only when confession is connected with repentance. You see, confession is making our sins known—to God, friends, to trusted Christian brothers and sisters.
James 5:16 (NLT2)16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.
Repentance, though . . . repentance involves a turning: turning away from those sins; turning our backs on our old selves. Repentance is saying, we don’t want to be those people anymore. Repentance is turning toward God. It’s a willingness to become new people, loyal followers.
2 Corinthians 5:16-17 (NLT2)16 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now!17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
Confession is critical, but it’s only the first step. Repentance is the ultimate step.
Ironically, confession requires great courage, but repentance just requires a soft, willing heart. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus taught that it’s not sin itself that imperils us, but rather a hard, stubborn heart, an unwillingness to turn, an unwillingness to repent. The younger son lived a life with ostensibly more sin. The older brother simply harbored resentment and jealousy. The younger repented of his sins, though; the older did not. The father welcomed the younger and celebrated his return:
Luke 15:32 (NLT2)32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”
The father pleaded with the older to also join in celebration, to soften his heart. He would not.
Luke 15:28-31 (NLT2)28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him,29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends.30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours.
Without repentance, we continue in our sin. Without repentance, we continue on our own path . . . toward death.
Luke 13:1-5 (NLT2)1 About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple.2 “Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?” Jesus asked. “Is that why they suffered?3 Not at all! And you will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God.4 And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem?5 No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.”
8 Steps For Real Repentance Found In Psalm 51
Step 1. Define the sin.
The first step to meaningful confession is understanding what sin is. David uses three different words for it in Psalm 51: “Iniquity,” “sin,” and “transgressions”
Psalms 51:1-3 NKJV Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. (emphasis mine).
Each term has been deliberately chosen for its unique meaning in Hebrew. “Transgressions” implies a rebellion against God’s authority and law, “Iniquity” means a distortion of what should be and “Sin” is a missing of the mark. David is making it clear that his sin is deep—there is no minimizing or excusing it.
Step 2. Appeal to God’s mercy
David appeals for forgiveness based on what he knows about God’s character: that God is merciful. David knows that God is committed to him in a relationship (or covenant) of “unfailing love”—and when we come before God in repentance, we do so on the basis of his covenant with us through Christ.
Psalms 51:1 NKJV Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. (emphasis mine).
Step 3. Avoid defensiveness and see God rightly
David’s sin hurt multiple people. He committed adultery, orchestrated a murder, and tried to cover it all up. And yet he says to God;
Psalms 51:4 NKJV Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight— That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge. (emphasis mine).
He says that he has sinned against God only. How can that be?
Well, if we think of sin as failing to hit the mark, then we have to ask, “Whose mark are we missing?” The answer, of course, is that it’s God’s mark. So although our sin does hurt others, and repenting to those people is important, sin is ultimately against God, since it’s his ways that we have failed to live up to, and his image-bearers whom we hurt.
Step 4. Look to Jesus
David knows that hyssop signifies purification with blood, and he knows that blood alone can make him whiter than snow.
Psalms 51:7 NKJV Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
What he doesn’t know is how this will be done fully. But we do. Instead of relying on an animal sacrifice, we look to Jesus, who “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself”
Hebrews 9:23-28 NKJV Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another— He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. (emphasis mine)
His blood is enough to make us “whiter than snow”
Psalms 51:7 NKJV Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (emphasis mine)
Step 5. Ask God to break you and heal you
Psalms 51:8 NKJV Make me hear joy and gladness, That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
When God reveals our sin to us, it’s painful. David was already a sin-broken man; he just didn’t fully realize it until God sent the prophet Nathan to show him his sin and break him all the way. Like a doctor resetting a fractured bone, it is God who breaks, God who sets, and God who heals.
And this is all mercy: 19th-century British pastor Charles Spurgeon wrote that seeing our weakness, and experiencing God’s power to save, teaches us “a heart-music which only broken bones [can] learn …”
Step 6. Be comforted by the Spirit
The very fact that David is grieved over his sin is a sign that God’s Spirit is at work in him.
Psalms 51:11 NKJV Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
This is true for you as well. Have you ever been so discouraged by your sin that you’ve wondered, “How can God love me? Surely I’m not really a Christian.” Take comfort in knowing that the very grief you’re experiencing is a sign that you have the Spirit of God working in you, causing you to hate what God hates.
Step 7. Rejoice and proclaim truth
David is asking God to make him so joyful about his salvation that he can’t help but teach other sinners the forgiving ways of God.
Psalms 51:12-15 NKJV Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, The God of my salvation, And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, And my mouth shall show forth Your praise. (emphasis mine)
This is important, because so often we do the opposite—we’re inclined to wallow in our sin and draw back from serving others, whether in church or in our communities, because we think we’re unworthy. But here David says the joy of forgiveness for sin should compel us to speak of that good news with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.
Step 8. Resolve to obey
We can check all the boxes, do all the steps above, and say all the right words, but if in the back of our minds we’re planning to sin in the same way again, then grace isn’t truly taking root. What God desires is the mark of true repentance—a heart that is “broken” by sin and truly “contrite”.
As Puritan pastor and writer Thomas Watson wrote, “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet” (The Doctrine of Repentance, p 63). If we come to God with a heart like that, he “will not despise” it; he will accept it, and accept us, because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.
Psalms 51:17 NKJV The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.
Work through the steps above, and rejoice in the incomparable grace offered to you in Christ!