A True Sinner’s Prayer


© November 23, 2008; September 20, 2015 • Download PDF sermon
Readings: 2 Samuel 12:1-15; Psalm 51:1-19 (text); Luke 18:9-14

Congregation of Christ: I’m sure you’ve heard this very common prayer many times:

Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.

"The Prophet Nathan Admonishes King David" by Jacopo Palma il Giovane, 17th century (click image to enlarge)
“The Prophet Nathan Admonishes King David” by Jacopo Palma il Giovane, 17th century (click image to enlarge)

This prayer is not a prayer of a sinner asking God for mercy, as the contrite tax collector pleaded, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). It’s actually a prayer of thanks for the benefits he is receiving from God, almost sounding like the opening words of the Pharisee’s prayer, “God, I thank you…” (Luke 18:11) It’s a man-centered prayer, telling God how he’s in control of his own salvation, “I open…” and what he commands God to do for him, “Take control… Make me…” Worse than these, Christ is not a helpless God pleading to the sinner to open the door of his heart, a gross misinterpretation of Revelation 3:20.

Compare this contemporary prayer to this 17th century Puritan prayer:

Thou blessed Spirit, Author of all grace and comfort, Come, work repentance in my soul; Melt my heart by the majesty and mercy of God; Show me my ruined self and the help there is in him; Teach me to behold my Creator, his ability to save, his arms outstretched, his heart big for me. Give me that faith which is the means of salvation, and the principle and medium of all godliness; May I be saved by grace through faith, live by faith, feel the joy of faith, do the work of faith.

Notice that this prayer gives all the credit to God, not to man, in faith and repentance. It’s the exact opposite of the “sinner’s prayer” we often hear today.

David’s penitential prayer in Psalm 51 is a model for us if we are truly repentant of our sin. It is a prayer of a child of God pleading for forgiveness after his sin of adultery and murder. How then did David come to God in repentance? What did he plead God to do for him? What are the benefits and evidences of forgiveness? Psalm 51 teaches us how we are to pray A True Sinner’s Prayer: (1) Of True Confession; (2) For Complete Cleansing; (3) For Pleasing Communion.

Of True Confession (Verses 1-6)

A sinner’s prayer starts with a true confession – an acknowledgment of God’s character, of his sin, and of his helplessness in dealing with sin alone.

In his prayer for God’s forgiveness, David acknowledges his sin and does not make excuses. Knowing his sin and misery and God’s grace, steadfast love and mercy, he pleads in verse 1, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.” But David also knows that because God is just, righteous and truthful, his judgment on David – the death of his child with Bathsheba – is justified and blameless (verse 4).

After Israel incurred God’s righteous wrath when they worshipped the golden calf at Mount Sinai, Moses pleaded with God not to destroy the people by appealing to God’s revealed mercy and justice, “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness … forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exo 34:6, 7). Moses confessed on behalf of the people, so the Lord granted Moses’ appeal by sparing the Israelites from sure destruction.

David is well aware of this revelation to Moses of God’s character, and so appealed as well to this same revelation. Paul also acknowledges this revelation in the opening words in his epistles, “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” Notice that God is gracious and merciful towards his sinful people only because of his inexpressible gift of surpassing grace in Christ’s work on the cross.

Like David, do you readily confess your own sin and acknowledge your dependence on God’s grace, love and mercy in seeking forgiveness? Or are you hesitant to accept God’s discipline as his righteous and blameless judgment against you when you stray from his commandments? And as people who are in Christ, we have assurance that God is faithful to his promise of forgiveness. As well, he is not only just in his righteous judgment, but also in cleansing us from all our unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Man’s Sin

Most Christians are more familiar with psalms of praise and thanksgiving because through them, we can express our joy. We focus on God and his wondrous and mighty works in creation and redemption. In contrast, because Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm, it focuses on man and his sinfulness and helplessness. David expresses his sorrow as he acknowledges his sin, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (verse 3).

When God revealed himself to Moses as a God of mercy, grace and love, he also proclaimed that he forgives “iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:7). David uses the word “iniquity” in verses 2 and 5, which refers to the “perversion,” “corruption” or “total depravity” of human nature even from his mother’s womb. “Transgression” means crossing a forbidden boundary, which best describes his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. “Sin” means “missing the mark,” that is, we all “fall short of the glory of God” as his perfect standard (Rom 3:23). This means that even our best efforts to obey God are marred by our selfish motivation, always falling short of God’s standard of perfect holiness.

We continually sin against other people, in word, deed and thought. When we do bad things, we usually do them in secret. We say bad things behind their backs. We cheat them in our business. We lie to protect our reputation. Many married people are secretly unfaithful, because they think no one can see. But ultimately, all sin is a sin against God and his holy nature, and nothing is hidden from his eyes and ears even when we think no one can see.

This is why David acknowledged that his great sin against Bathsheba and her husband is a sin against God. The prophet Nathan made it clear to the king that when he sinned against his neighbors, he had sinned against God: “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites” (2 Sam 12:9).

The Ten Commandments instruct us to love God and our neighbor. A violation of one commandment is a violation of the whole Decalogue. Loving God bears the fruits of true worship and thankful obedience to his commandments, which also means loving our brethren (1 John 4:21). As David failed in loving Bathsheba and her husband, so we too fail miserably in loving our neighbor when we suppress the rule of God’s law written in our hearts.

Man’s Helplessness

The reason why David recognizes that he had sinned against God is his knowledge of his iniquity, his depraved nature, from birth, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (verse 5). Our sinful nature at birth makes us slaves of sin, so that Paul concludes, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). An unbelieving sinner is unwilling (“does not accept”) and powerless (“not able”) to understand the things of God con­cerning his salvation. Furthermore, he is stillborn, dead and helpless in sin at birth! (Eph 2:1).

So David also prays for complete cleansing from sin.

For Complete Cleansing (Verses 7-12)

Our sins make us unclean before God. Before we can stand before God, we need to be cleansed, or God will also be defiled. David uses four verbs in his prayer for complete cleansing: blot out, which will completely wipe away transgressions; wash, by trampling underfoot, kneading or beating, so he will be freed from his sinful nature and be purer than snow; cleanse and purge, so he will be declared clean as in the Old Testament purification rite. Both water and blood are used in ceremonial washing from sin. Washing is by water; cleansing and purging are by sprinkling blood through the use of hyssop leaves and branches (Lev 14:1-9).

But Old Testament purification rites did not in themselves cleanse sin, in the same way that our sacraments of water baptism and Holy Communion do not in themselves grant us forgiveness of our sin. But they are outward signs and seals of the inward reality of God’s work in cleansing our hearts. This is why David follows his appeal for outward purification with appeals to renew and restore his sinful, downtrodden spirit by God’s Holy Spirit (vv 10-12). God cleanses his heart, renews a right spirit within him, remains in him, restores the joy of his salvation, and gives him a willing and steadfast spirit. In the new covenant, God promises to “sprinkle clean water” and “cleanse [his people] from all uncleannesses” (Ezk 36:25).

David knows that God’s grace, mercy and love in cleansing him will result in the blessings for which he is pleading:

First, all his sins and uncleannesses are forgiven and blotted out (vv 1, 9). God’s forgiveness is not like our “forgive, but not forget” spirit. When God forgives, he assures us, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psa 103:12). The Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 60 makes this clear: We are righteous before God because he sees us perfectly righteous in Christ, “as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me.”

Second, God restores David’s joy in God’s salvation. David prays that God will let him “hear joy and gladness” and “let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” He prays as well, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (v. 12). David fasted and wept and mourned after God pronounced death on his son. But after the child died, his joy was restored. He ended his fast, washed himself, put on new clothes, went to the house of the Lord, and worshiped God.

Third, not only is David’s joy in God’s salvation restored, but his communion and fellowship with God is restored as well. When we sin and do not repent, we lose the joy of our salvation and our fellowship with God is broken. We know we are guilty, but after we repent, we know we are forgiven of our sins, and the Spirit assures our spirit of that promise.

In our rebellion, God’s Spirit and our spirit are at war, so that we suppress the work of the Spirit in our lives. This is what David means when he prays, “Take not your Holy Spirit from me.” Not that we lose our salvation, but when God gives us repentance, he humbles our spirit, so that we acknowledge our total dependence on God’s Spirit to cleanse us. Then we repent with humble, broken and contrite hearts, are forgiven of our sin, and are renewed with a right, steadfast spirit within us, a spirit willing to obey his commands.

For Pleasing Communion (Verses 13-19)

Finally, David’s prayer shows that true repentance and forgiveness are manifested in the believer’s life of thankful worship of God. David now delights in proclaiming God’s grace, mercy and righteousness in the assembly of God’s people. He vows to God, “My tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness” (v. 13), and “my mouth will declare your praise” (v. 15). David also says that he now delights to “teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (v. 13). We too are to delight in proclaiming the gospel to unrepentant sinners in the congregation so they may also be renewed in their hearts, repent and be forgiven of their sins, and worship God truly. This is the reason why we gather every Lord’s Day: to sing aloud praises and thanksgiving to God, and to hear his Word proclaimed and explained to us, so we may also declare God’s righteousness and praise to others.

As well, David’s repentance and forgiveness produced right sacrifices. The visible, outward animal sacrifices in the Old Testament point to the worshipers’ invisible, inward heart. David knew that the sacrifices of a rebellious worshiper mean nothing to God, and therefore, his sacrifices were not acceptable to God as long as he was committing adultery and plotting murder.As long as he does not have a broken and contrite heart, his worship was not pleasing in God’s sight. In the same way, if you come to the Lord’s Day worship without a repentant heart, your songs and prayers will not be pleasing to God. And this is the reason why we start our worship service with the reading of God’s Law so we may acknowledge our trespasses, and then pray for forgiveness. Only then will God “delight in right sacrifices,” and our worship be acceptable and pleasing in his sight.

Dear friends, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) is a contrast between a self-righteous, unrepentant Pharisee and a humble, broken sinner, a tax collector. The Pharisee, proud of his own good works and righteousness, does not see his need for repentance and forgiveness, and only sees the sin of others. The tax collector, in contrast, sees his own sinfulness, humbles himself and acknowledges his helplessness in cleansing himself of his sin and of his need for God’s grace and mercy. Like David, he exclaims in repentance, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Which of these two men went home justified in the sight of God? Not the Pharisee, full of pride and self-righteousness, but the tax collector, helpless, humble, and contrite before God.

As sinners, you have no righteousness before God. Your own good works cannot save you. How can you be justified and forgiven by God? Only when you humble yourself and plead for God’s grace and mercy. Only when you put your faith in Christ and his completed work on the cross will your iniquity be blotted out. Only when you repent of your sins with a broken and contrite heart will you be washed clean. Only when you acknowledge your helplessness will you be restored to fellowship with God. Then, and only then, will your worship and sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving be acceptable to God.

To those of you humble yourselves in repentance, you have assurance of complete forgiveness in Christ and restoration to God’s fellowship. And in this, God is pleased and promises earthly and eternal blessings to you. As God’s people in the heavenly Mount Zion, you can look forward to spiritual blessings in the heavenly places, not only in this age, but in the age to come.