“The gospel doesn’t just get us out of hell; it also makes us new. Grace doesn’t just help us shed the weight of past sins; it empowers us to feel and live differently.” Marshall Segal writes that Christians often act as though Christ died so that all who believe in him for salvation will be forgiven of their sins.
This is only part of a larger truth. Believers are saved from God’s wrath and led into a life of transformation — new mercies every day. But as sinners, we cannot totally overcome sin or approach God completely pure of heart. If David knew this, why did he ask God to “create in me a clean heart?”
In Psalm 51, David asks for God’s forgiveness following a series of infamously sinful choices.
2 Samuel 11 recounts the domino effect of sin: David took Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) to his bed, got her pregnant, then tried to cover up the mess by recalling Uriah from the front lines of battle against Israel’s enemies to sleep with his wife so that he would believe the baby was his.
In the long run, unable to manipulate the situation to this end and cover up his trespass, David orchestrated matters on the battlefield so that Uriah would be killed.
David did not acknowledge or repent of the first sin (lust), and so his sin was magnified. He continued in a pattern of trespass without repentance, until he was forced to deal with a monument of debt before the Lord.
Psalm 51:3 says, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Finally, David’s heart was moved to acknowledge what he had done and what it had cost both of them: The son Bathsheba bore him died.
What Does God Ask of Us?
David was without excuse; the Ten Commandments had told him what the Lord expected. But 2 Samuel 11 reads like an example of how to break most of those commandments. David was already married, but he lusted after and took another man’s wife (covetousness, adultery).
He arranged for the death of Uriah after trying to deceive the man and his troops (bearing false witness, murder.) All of these actions were made possible because David failed to worship his God above all else.
He worshipped the idol of his own power. Bob Deffinbaugh wrote that “what David wanted, he could get, and without as much as a word of protest.” In this state, David could not approach God; he had to make the first step towards cleansing.
A Turning Heart
This first step was repentance, a change of heart. When we repent, we turn from our sin. David declared to God “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4).
The king had wronged several people, but he recognized that sin is first and foremost an act of rebellion against the Lord, and the Lord could not abide sin. “His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5).
David had a duty to lead his people by setting an example; following God’s commands with an authentic desire to love and obey the Lord as his ultimate King.
But David made many mistakes and had to repent many times because a human king is imperfect. Even the best leader will fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
If David were a power player in the modern world, few would believe his heart had actually turned away from sin. But the relationship that mattered most to Israel’s king was his relationship with the Father.
Begging God for a “clean heart” and “a right spirit” demonstrates to the reader that the perks of power were less important to David than obedience to the Lord. David truly wanted to turn away from his sin, he simply did not know how.
Creating a Clean Heart and a Right Spirit
Psalm 51 tells us:
1. God hates our sin. This is apparent in David’s desperate cry “cast me not away from your presence.” (v.11)
2. We must confess our sin to God. The very existence of this Psalm tells us that, although God could see what David had done, he had to tell the Lord himself.
3. When we confess, we must also repent. Knowing we sinned is not good enough. David takes his confession to the next step: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (v.17). He wants to be able to turn from sin.
4. The change we desire is accomplished by God at our invitation. “Create in me a clean heart.” David is saying “I cannot cleanse my own heart.” He asks God because only God is capable.
5. By this work, which God completes, we are invited to have a relationship with him. If by his sin, David could be cast from God’s presence, then we can infer the opposite is true.
If God accepted David’s confession, his repentance, and his earnest desire to change, David’s relationship with the Father would be restored.
Can We Obtain a Pure Heart?
Why did David ask for a pure heart? Psalm 24:3-4 asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.”
He knew that only the pure could approach God. “The heart is utterly crucial to Jesus. What we are in the deep, private recesses of our lives is what he cares about most,” wrote John Piper.
Leviticus 16 describes the ritual of cleansing and sacrifice the high priest was required to complete before approaching the Mercy Seat in the temple. The high priest did his best, but even this rigorous process was not enough to make even the best of men 100% clean.
John Piper explains, “We know that what keeps us away from God is not dirty hands or soiled clothes or distance from an altar or a priest. What keeps us from God is real sin echoing in a condemning conscience.”
We cannot obtain a totally pure heart. On the other hand, by the grace of God we can desire it; can come to God seeking his new mercies every day (Lamentations 3:22-23). “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Not perfection — repentance. The Lord can change anyone, but Christians must turn to God and ask for a change to take place. “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
We can approach him without pure hearts desirous of purity because the Lord views believers through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ; his pure sacrifice. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
Blessings for a Pure Heart
Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). This heart is not totally free of sin but longs to see God; to love and to obey him.
And this is the purity of heart, which David longs for. He wants to put God first. He desires to have his heart’s compass recalibrated so that North points to whatever delights the Almighty.
What he, and all of us, actually need is a transplant. “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.