“If We Confess Our Sins”


In viewing this Psalm, one should see it first as a testimony of David concerning his cleansing as described in Psalm 51. Second, commentators suggest that this Psalm was sung on the day of atonement. Third, its doctrinal foundation is found in Leviticus 16, God’s instructions for the sacrifices, cleansings, imputations, and confessions of the day of atonement.  We look forward also, and see that Paul used this Psalm in his discussion of justification in Romans 4. As we move from God’s covering of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21), Abraham’s justification by faith in Genesis 15:6, the transfer of guilt for forgiveness in Leviticus 16, this statement concerning David’s confidence in God’s plan for effecting forgiveness, and Paul’s extended discussions of justification, we see how the details involved in biblical doctrine develop through epochs of revelation. It is the first of the Psalms called a Maschil. Among the many meanings proposed for this word, interpreters gravitate most convincingly to the concept of “instruction” for its meaning. That is abundantly appropriate for this Psalm because it tells how God, through the experience of sin and confession, instructed him; then, in turn, the Psalmist enters a period of instructing those who read and sing it. The content of the instruction bears heavily on the entire message of the Bible, for this Psalm is a treasure of truths surrounding the doctrine of justification by faith, more fully expanded in other places throughout Scripture.


I. The Doctrine Stated – verse 1, 2.

A. The word “Blessed” is used twice to indicate that true joy internally and true harmony of environment externally arise from the fact and the assurance that one’s sin no longer weighs against him. Jesus spoke to various aspects that constitute this blessedness in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-11. Fundamental to the restoration of all relationships in the concept of true reconciliation, both horizontally and vertically, is the sending away of the culpability and the just vengeance enwrapped in sin. Peace of conscience, peace with men, and peace with God are all impossible unless true forgiveness from sin is attained.

B. The Psalmist looks at forgiveness from two different positions.

  1. Forgiveness means “borne up and carried away.” Sin is transgression of the Law. The verdict of death lies justly upon all sinners, transgressors of the Law. Forgiveness means that the consequences of sin as we stand before the righteous judge are removed. David saw the substance embedded within the symbol of the priest’s laying his hands on the head of the live goat in direct relation to the slaying of another goat and confessing “over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat.” That goat then is sent away into the wilderness. In so doing “the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land.” (Leviticus 16:21, 22)
  2. Iniquity is not imputed to the truly blessed one.
  • Imputation means the reckoning, or the declaration, that a particular position or set of circumstances is the case of a particular person. This may be indeed a truthful consideration. We impute integrity to an individual who consistently exercises equity in all his dealings. We impute a character to him that asserts what he actually is.
  • Imputation of integrity in some case may not actually be the case, but the person, nevertheless, is treated as such for he has been accounted, or reckoned, as a person of integrity.
  • In the case of the blessed, but iniquitous, person, for reasons unrelated to his actual character, God does not reckon him to be guilty of his transgression. He is a lawbreaker, but the Lord does not reckon him so; he is acquitted, therefore, of the punishment due to his transgressions, for they have not been imputed to him.
  • In addition, however, to dealing with the actual guilt and the punishment due to transgressors for their sin, the blessed man has been brought to a personal recognition of the grandeur of such a grace. He sees the great obligation for transparent honesty about himself and about the ugliness of sin and the desirability of righteousness. Though not imputed to him, he knows that the guilt and susceptibility to just punishment was all his. In his “spirit there is no deceit,” no guile. Though David’s sin was great, his repentance was thorough and without any tendency to extenuate the circumstances or the blame for his actions. He saw sin as resident in his heart, the very fabric of his fallen nature, and aggravated by his willful consent to its rottenness (Psalm 51:2-6).

C. The richness involved in the idea of imputation allows one to be considered, not only what he is according to fact, but what he is not according to a larger purpose. Imputation may permit the transfer of guilt and punishment, in the one case, or the transfer, or reckoning, of innocence and righteousness in another. For this reason Paul employed these verses in his extended discussion of imputation in Romans 4 and 5. As born in Adam, our death, in its initial consideration, is an imputation from the sin of Adam (Romans 5:12, 16a, 17a). We also have sinned and made ourselves both in Adam and for our personal transgressions liable to eternal punishment (Romans 5: 16b). Christ, however, has had our sins and punishment placed on him by imputation and he bore the full justice for such sin; according to the same act of grace, his righteousness and merit for eternal life is transferred, imputed, to us (Romans 4:23-25; 5:18, 19; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13, 14; 4:4).


II. The Doctrine explained through the experience of David – (verses 3-5)

A. His condition while festering in unconfessed sin.

  1. He described the results of unconfessed sin in terms of its impact on the body. In his silence his “body wasted away.” While silent about his sin, he was not silent about his pain; he groaned, even roared, “all day long.” In Psalm 51: 8 he viewed God’s displeasure in “the bones that you have broken.” The work of Christ in gaining forgiveness for us involved deep exquisite bodily suffering. While we never minimize the mental and spiritual manifestations of divine wrath, we must not capitulate to a pure Gnosticism or intellectualism in our understanding of punishment for sin. David experienced real suffering in his body on account of unconfessed sin; Jesus endured torments of body as well as of soul and spirit in his payment for our sin debt.
  2. This verse is spoken to the Lord—“Your hand was heavy upon me.” He knows, in retrospect, that God himself was the inflicter of pain and disease. He sapped his physical strength and his spiritual vitality. The analogy of summer heat and its drain on physical vitality and its production of lethargy set the analogy for the experience of divine conviction on one’s spiritual vigor and energy. One can find no joy in reflection on divine love and grace when he fondles and hides what God hates.
  3. This dynamic is described with such vivid images and is given such strong notice because the Psalmist wants the reader to know that God inflicts this conviction and suffering that he might heal us. He must be brought to “grief and hatred of his sin” so that he will “turn from it unto God.” [Baptist Catechism, Q. 92]. He is under a state of misery now that he might know that a greater misery awaits him. “All mankind, by their fall, lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever.” [Baptist Catechism, Q. 22].

B. The release of the soul in the confession of sin. No longer did he hide his sin; it is a vain exercise, for nothing can be hidden from the all searching, all-knowing eyes of God. To hide is not to deceive God but to deceive ourselves. We find the use of multiple words to describe how David burst forth in confession: sin, iniquity, and transgression, all are lined up as if a parade of guiltiness has assaulted David. Now he presses all of them to appear before the Lord, each nuance of disobedience in its order comes before the Lord, to appear there for its dismissal. “Sin come forth; iniquity, to the light; transgressions, out you go.” The Lord responded, “Accumulated guilt of it all, be loosed to another place and cling no longer to this penitent child.” “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

C. “Selah” – David puts a “Selah” at the end of verse 4 and verse 5. He wants each part of this interaction emphasized. Give a pause and think about sin and its degrading and destructive effect. Even put a musical emphasis on it—a low, crushing, melting sound of sad harps. But then, forgiveness; again, pause and look again; put music to it so it will be remembered: “My sin- O the bliss of this glorious thought-my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul.” He puts another at the end of verse 7 to remind us to sing songs of deliverance. Let the cymbals ring and the horns accent this,

“Come behold the wondrous mystery;
Christ the Lord upon the Tree,
in the stead of ruined sinners
hangs the lamb in victory.

See the price of our redemption
See the Father’s plan unfold
Bringing many sons to glory
Grace unmeasured, love untold”


III.  The Safety of those who trust in God’s deliverance (verse 6, 7)

A. All sinners, under the deep awareness of their sins, may find the same grace found by David.

  1. We find these two spheres of reality in the goodness of God, that he is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering,” and at the same time “abounding in goodness and truth.” These attributes find expression when he is “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” for thousands, as well as when he is “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:5-7).
  2. Knowing therefore, that God’s goodness may be expressed equally truly and impressively both in forgiveness and in wrathful visitation, it is urgent that each person engage earnestly in prayer to seek God. Those who are godly, that is, in this particular context, those who have a heightened sense of the glory, holiness, and justice of God, who know that he forgives upon guileless and heartfelt confession, should seek immediately to find in him a refuge from the “great waters” of divine destruction in the judgment of sin. If he delivers, if he does not impute iniquity, if he covers sin, if he forgives transgression he must be sought earnestly and with no hesitation.

B. A new sense of the impregnable, immutable safety found in the delivering grace of God. “You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance.”

  1. Moses was hid by God from God’s glory. When God showed Moses his glory, he issued the caveat, “You cannot see my face; for no man shall see me and live.” From this killing manifestation of the glory of absolute holiness, God graciously shielded Moses even as he allowed him to experience an extraordinary vision of his moral beauty, “Here is a place by Me,” God told him, “and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while my glory passes by, that I will cover you with my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:20-23).
  2. Jesus Himself delivers us from the wrath to come. Among the songs of deliverance are those of the voices of the ransomed people of God from every tongue, tribe, and nation. From what have they been ransomed: they have been ransomed by the blood of the slain Lamb (Revelation 5:9, 10) from the wrath of the reigning Lamb. Conversely, the unsaved cry to the mountains and rocks to deliver them from this delivering Lamb, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:14).


IV. “I will instruct you” (verse 8)– verses 8-11. Some commentators see verses 8 and 9 as words spoken directly from God. Certainly it is inspired of God and, thus, as wise instruction from a penman of Holy Scripture, it comes from God. In the context, however, I think it is best to see this as part of David’s instruction based on his own experience of both the severity and kindness of God. He is fulfilling his pledge from Psalm 51:13, “Then will I teach transgressors thy ways.”

A. David announced his intention to make practical application of what he had learned from his own experience of confession. John Gill commented, “These words may very well be considered as the words of David, in which he determines to act a part, agreeable to the title of the Psalm, Maschil; which signifies instruction, or causing to understand; and as he thought himself bound in duty to do, under the influence of the grace and mercy he has received from the Lord, in the forgiveness of his sins.” The counsel of the eye refers to the empirical experience which he will relate. In Scripture, the eye’s witness to truth always is informed by revelation: “That which we have seen and heard we declare unto you” (1 John 1:3); “But we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). But also, in demonstrating the necessity of revelation for true understanding, “What eye has not seen nor ear heard, … God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10).

B. Do not be irrational, and resist this, like a brute, untrained, resists the reins and bit placed in his mouth. How sin has corrupted rationality may be discerned clearly in the hesitance—well, outright refusal—of the world to take personal responsibility for personal sin. Here in this Psalm is a king prostrating himself before God in humility, taking moral responsibility for his sin. Nothing is more irrational, as well as morally corrupt, than the refusal to be right with God.

C. Finally, David sets the striking contrast between remaining in a state of guilt, bearing the load of one’s own trespasses through moral stubbornness, and being forgiven by a trust in all the promises and provisions of God for penitent sinners. The former has many sorrows, temporal and eternal. The latter is surrounded with the covenantal love and faithfulness of God.

D. Through nothing that we have done, through no merit of our own, through no goodness that deserves reward, but only through the gracious favor of the infinitely glorious triune God have we been forgiven. That is cause for gladness and rejoicing. If the joy is perceived in all its wonder, mystery, depth, and thoroughness, surely it will bring a shout. Uprightness in heart begins with seeing and grasping the truth about sin and forgiveness. Samuel Eyles Pierce wrote, “All who depend on Christ’s sacrifice and righteousness, may well be noted upright in heart; they hereby bring glory to God, as they acknowledge him to be worthy of their trust and confidence. May the Lord enable all his believing ones to be glad and rejoice in him. May they all shout for joy, in the full belief that the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, cleanseth from all sin.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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