When society is in disarray, and everything has crashed down around us, where do we start to rebuild?  The band Bastille had a popular song about judgment coming down on a community called “Pompeii.”  In first person, they describe the historic city being crushed by an erupting volcano and ask the question, “Where do we begin, the rubble or our sins?”

King David answers that question in Psalm 51: we must start with our own sin. Psalm 51 is an amazingly personal confession of sin that ends with a request to build up the city.  He talks about his own need of heart renewal for 17 verses, and then spends 2 verses at the end talking about cultural renewal.  He shows that cultural renewal is the fruit of heart renewal. Cultural renewal has been increasingly emphasized in evangelical churches. The last two generations in America have increasingly focused on the duty Christians have to renew the brokenness of our cities by caring for the weak and standing for systemic justice. Before this, the trend was for Bible-believing Christians to care only for souls and Bible-doubting Christians to care only for society.  In the process, the phrase  “social justice” has become a debated topic. Psalm 51 offers us a great model of how to achieve widespread justice in a society. If we want to transform our city and culture, we have to start by asking God to cleanse our own hearts!

We need God’s grace to cleanse our hearts, before anything else can change.  Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”.  David was an especially notorious sinner.  He had committed adultery, murder, and lied to cover it all up.  He was confronted by the prophet Nathan and finally repented of his sin.  David prays in Psalm 51:1-2, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your un-breaking love; according to your tender compassion scrub out my rebellion.  Wash me completely from my wrongs, and cleanse me from my sin!”  David recognizes that God is merciful and gracious.  He asks that God cleanse him according to the gracious, un-breaking love that God has for his people.  The Hebrew word is “hesed”.  It is used to express God’s unconditional and gracious love.  We don’t ask God to forgive us because we deserve it, but because he is gracious and it pleases him to show mercy.  Jesus most clearly demonstrates God’s “hesed” by living the ideal human life, and dying as a willing sacrifice for our sins. His resurrection assures us that forgiveness is possible.  The person and work of Jesus assures us that God answers prayers like Psalm 51.

David highlights how terrible his rebellion was by saying, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” in verse 4.  This doesn’t mean that David did not actually sin against the other people involved.  It means that the ultimate sin is cosmic treason against God.  Martin Luther used to say that we never break any commandments without first breaking God’s command to have no other gods before him.  Every time we sin, we love something else more than God himself.  If you sin for pleasure, then pleasure is your god.  If you sin for control, then control is your god.  If you sin for respect, then respect is your god.  David is confessing this kind of cosmic rebellion to God in Psalm 51.

David knows that God wants truth in our inner parts (v.6). He wants to cleanse our hearts so that our lives will be new. He says in verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me!”  We often apply all kinds of external controls to try and change our lives, but we need new hearts.  We need hearts that are radically forgiven, and therefore radically in love with God.   Do you recognize the depth of your sin as cosmic treason?  Has this driven you to rest in God’s forgiveness instead of your own abilities?  This new heart is what changes our external behaviors.  As our personal lives are transformed, we have the heart and vision to be able to change the world. We become outward people who genuinely rejoice in who God is (vs.8, 12-15).  Only when God has dealt with our hearts by grace, can our communities be transformed (vs.18-19).

Author G.K. Chesterton was once asked, “What is wrong with the world today?” He responded, “I am.”  May we be a community of individuals who are infectiously honest in our confession of sin, and confident in God’s un-breaking love for us.

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Dave McMurry

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