Songs of Penitence, a True Treasure
1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
This week presented me with an unexpected chance to sing some great music. A friend asked me to sing the “Lord’s Prayer” at his aunt’s funeral. Additionally I was invited to sing with the men’s vocal group that would be there. After a morning of rehearsal I sat with the men of the group ready and waiting for the family to arrive and the funeral to begin. As we sat waiting, one of the men leaned over to another and said something I didn’t understand. It was their code phrase for saying, “Time to check your zipper.” Explaining it to me, I learned that the man had once been up in front of a congregation singing and noticed a woman laughing quietly in the front row. Wondering about it, as he sat down he discovered, to his horror, that his pant zipper had been down the entire time. Definitely a singer’s nightmare. Maybe not the worst nightmare, but it’s up there. It turned out that it hadn’t been the reason for the woman’s laughter, but it certainly inspired the creation of their code phrase and pre-performance check.
Has this ever happened to you? After several hours of walking around interacting with others you find yourself in front of a mirror and you become horrified at what nobody told you about. Your fly was down. Your skirt was tucked in. Your lunch was still very present on your face or stuck to your smile. I wouldn’t be surprised if these are some memories you are trying to suppress. (Unless the evidence is all over the internet and you have to just embrace it as the little foible it is and blush your way through it.) I for one have found that, like the man in the singing group who shared his zipper story, it is better to embrace the truth, to allow the chink in whatever imagined illusion of perfection to be known, and embrace the mistake. If I own it, then it doesn’t own me.
Zippers and food stains are one thing. Sin though, like the sin that King David is reflecting on in Psalm 32, is another. Either the sin is so shameful that we do everything possible to keep it secret or the sin is so normal, so woven into the fabric of our fallen lives that we have trouble even identifying it as a problem in our own mind. Isaiah 64:6 reminds us that under God’s holy standard, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (ESV).” Every person is a bigger sinner than we think we are. God sees our sins hanging on us even while we are wandering around oblivious to them.
Jesus on many occasions confronted peoples’ self righteousness, and in one memorable lesson explained,
“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (ESV)'”
We can imagine that God hasn’t noticed our sin and attempt to live life as normal, saying “I’m a good person; God is love; I’ll go to heaven,” but unconfessed sin will always work to own us and to destroy us.
God’s People are a Penitent People
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
Fortunately God doesn’t leave us wandering through life unaware of our shameful living. He gives His word of truth. I for one appreciate it when somebody lets me know that a certain zipper isn’t zipped or if there is cheese hanging from my chin. God sent His prophet Nathan to confront King David when David tried to keep silent and hide in his sin. God has given us the Bible and friends of faith to share its truth so that we also can see the sin in our life and turn back to God.
Penitence is turning away from error and turning toward God. From beginning to end, the Bible chronicles the love of God for a people who keep heading down paths that lead away from Him and toward destruction. “Repent!” is the call of scripture. Pray it, sing it, and live it, because if you don’t turn away from sin and death, it will always own you. God wants you, and deep down, what you really want is only obtained through faith, by God’s gift of forgiveness and favor. It is so profound a gift that God is offering, Ephesians chapter 2 calls it, “Salvation!” Turning away from sin’s path and ownership and receiving God’s new life is what we deeply want, what we deeply need.
Repentance is God’s Gift
God’s love is such that he doesn’t merely stand far off and leave us to our paths of shame and destruction. He enlightens our walk with His truth and He sends Jesus into our lives to be our savior.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— (ESV, Eph 2:4–5).
Xiao Chen was swimming alone when he became stuck in the mud. The rescuers who found Chen, still stuck after four hours were shocked to find he had a cell phone with him, wrapped in a waterproof bag. He had not used it for fear of losing face. Chen then refused to allow the rescuers to remove his pants, which meant his legs remained trapped in the mud for another seven hours.
There are worse things for the proud than spending 11 hours stuck in the mud.(1)
Don’t be like Chen. Proverb 29:23 tells us, “One’s pride will bring [a person] low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.” Jesus was born for our salvation. God entered into our human problem to save us body and soul from lives and deaths spent far from Him. He spent His days as a child, youth, and adult living a shameless life, a sinless life that fulfilled the good of God’s design for humanity. He turned away from the sin, even in the face of fierce temptation, that normally drags us further and further into paths of destruction. He lived the perfect human life, and when he allowed himself to be crucified on the cross, he not only brought into the equation of justice his own perfect human life, because He is God almighty, He brought eternal perfection into the equation. His death was punishment for sin, but not His own. It was for you and for me, for all those who are turned toward God with faith in Christ, seeking the mercy and love only He can give. The wrath of God that would otherwise be fairly administered upon our guilty lives was poured out on Jesus, leaving eternal award as His offer to all who would turn from sin and death and walk in His love.
Penitent Lives Trust in God’s Power
So are we to continue sinning because God’s mercy in Jesus is enough to cover any past, present, and future sin? Of course not. Romans 6 asks and answers this question thoroughly.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
(ESV, Ro 6:1–4)
He goes on to declare, “You are no longer slaves to sin.” Sin does not define you. Sin does not own you. Don’t live as if God isn’t Lord and Savior of your life.
Continually repentant, confident of God’s forgiveness, and trusting in the Holy Spirit’s power to produce the impossible good that would bring us joy and bring God glory, we walk with the Lord each day. The Christian life is humble concerning our efforts and victories and boastful of God’s salvation, His Christ-given victory over sin and death. The Christian life is expectant that God works change as we hear His Word of truth, as we receive His baptism, as we gather at His table and celebrate the Lord’s Supper and as His Spirit empowers good in our lives each day.
Rejoice in the gifts of God for salvation and faithful living!
ESV = The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001)
(1) Jim L. Wilson and Rodger Russell, “Too Embarrassed to Call for Help,” in 300 Illustrations for Preachers, ed. Elliot Ritzema (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015).