(For a video of this sermon click here.)
My intention when I started writing this sermon was to give some very practical steps on how to do the Four Core Christian Disciplines (Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance & Serving Others — first introduced here) successfully, but then God reminded me that I had missed a step.
I’ve covered the importance of counting the cost of discipleship and preparing ourselves for a long-term commitment. I’ve already said that God looks at our motives before our actions, so I don’t need to go over that again. No, what I missed is how to get our heart right with God before we get into these four disciplines.
It’s kind of like when you watch an F1 or Indy-car race where you see the drivers swerving back and forth keeping their tires hot so they can take the corners properly when the race starts. If the tires get cold, they won’t stick to the road as well. What I want to talk about today is the warm-up before the race, the qualifier, that which needs to be settled before we start practicing the Four Core Christian Disciplines. To make sure that when we come to God in prayer, to the Holy Spirit to learn from the Bible, to the church to fellowship with other believers, and serve others with the gifts God gives us, we have right motives and can get the most benefit from them.
Using Psalm 51 to Prepare Our Hearts
Psalm 51 has always been close to my heart because it reminds me of how much God loves me, and that I can be forgiven. I love the words of this Psalm and repeat them often in prayer. When I sin, no matter how much I sin, and how rebellious my heart is, God is ready to forgive me, restore me, and build me back up. That gives me great hope.
It was written by King David after he had been confronted by the Prophet Nathan about his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah. It is a pouring out of David’s heart about his guilt, shame and repentance – and a list of requests to God. After he accepted the guilt of his sin and confesses it to God, David gives a list of things that he wants from God.
It might seem strange to come to God with a list of requests after confessing such grievous sins, but David knows the heart of God, and the promises found within God’s law. What I want you to see is David’s heart here. He epitomises what I’ve been trying to say over the past while – that how we come to God and why we come to God are critical factors in how we are going to know, love, and understand God.
David pours out his heart, accepts his guilt, and faces God’s righteous judgement. And since his heart is in the right place, his requests are not driven by fear, or anger, or jealousy, or selfishness, or pride, but by the Spirit of God working within him. His desires are healthy, holy and a good model for us to follow.
Let’s go through this psalm together to see how it teaches us how to prepare our hearts for our times of prayer, study, fellowship and service:
Mercy, Love, Compassion
David’s first and most desperate need is a clean heart. This is where we all must begin. Look at the first few verses of the passage and listen for some key words:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion…”
“Mercy” is another word for pity or grace. “Show me pity, give me grace.” How could he ask for this in light of the sin he had commited? Because he trusted in God’s “unfailing love” and his “great compassion” for his people.
David had spent so much time with God that he knew God intimately. He has spent time in His word, pouring over His laws, reading the stories of God’s faithfulness to his people. His early life was spent alone in caves praying, begging God for help as he was under attack, hiding from a king who wanted him dead. After a long time of dependence on God and God’s plan, he became a “Man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22) who had cultivated a very close relationship with His Father God. So even though his sins were terrible – unforgivable by human standards – neglecting military duty, plotting, lying, lusting, adultery, murder – David new that if his repentance was true, and his desire for forgiveness was genuine, that God would forgive and restore their relationship. Yes, there would be consequences to his actions, but no consequence could be worse than losing the closeness he had with God because of unrepentant sin.
Now, how could David know that God would forgive? Because he knew God’s word, and he knew God’s character. God’s love is an “unfailing love”.
Without a doubt David would agree with the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 (vs 31-39):
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
David knew of God’s love and desire to be in a right relationship with mankind. He would have also agreed with the Apostle John who said that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) and with Paul’s definition of Love in 1 Corinthians 13 — which also describes how God relates to believers when they fall into sin. He’s not waiting for you to mess up so He can withdraw His love. When you sin:
“[God] is patient, [God] is kind…. [God] does not dishonour others, [God] is not self-seeking, [God] is not easily angered, [God] keeps no record of wrongs. [God] does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. [God] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Our Most Desperate Need
And so, knowing this, David comes to God with his first request — which is ours too:
“… Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.”
David fesses up, knows his sin, realizes his condition, and doesn’t hide from it or make excuse. He knows He broke God’s law. He admits that he’s been sinful since before he was born, that God is right in judging him, and that even on the insides, his “inward being” – the place where no one gets to see – he’s sinful. He admits it.
That’s where we all need to start! Before we come before Jesus in prayer, study, church or service, we must admit that we are a sinner in need of a Saviour. That is the beginning of our relationship with Jesus. We are in need. We are broken and unfixable without a miracle. God doesn’t need us, but wanted us and made a way for us to be cleansed through the shed blood of Jesus. This is the attitude that we come to prayer with. This is the heart behind our study. This is the reason we are faithful to our church. This is the motivation of our service.
“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…” (Colossians 3:23)
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8)
David’s deepest desire is to be clean in his heart; to be in a right relationship with God. Listen to verses 7-10,
“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
That’s the prayer I pray all the time. The great desires of my heart are found in verse 10: a pure heart and a steadfast spirit.
A Pure Heart and A Steadfast Spirit
Consider the opposite of a pure heart and a steadfast spirit. The condition that most people on earth live with every day is so very depressing. They live with an impure, contaminated, defiled, polluted heart and a wavering, unsteady, shakeable, faltering, bendable, breakable spirit. Too many people live that way. Too many Christians. But they don’t have to!
We want to be able to go to bed at night guilt free. We want to have right relationships with those around us, and with God. We want to know we are forgiven, free, cleansed, and at peace. We want a spirit that can stand up against all the storms that the world throws at us. Unshakable! When sickness, death, fear, worry, and loss come crashing against our lives, we want a spirit that is strong enough to take it. We want to be able to have joy in the midst, not crumble when the earthquakes come. Right?
How can we get that? It’s not something we can create within ourselves. We can’t grant ourselves forgiveness, it must come from God. We can’t shore up our own spirit, it has to be built by God. We can’t calm our own storms, that’s something only God can do.
Look at the first word of verse 10: “Create”. It’s a very important word. The same one used in Genesis 1:1 where it says,
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Genesis 2:1 says,
“Now the earth was formless and void [those are the words for chaos, wasteland, unreality, emptiness], and darkness [a word also used for obscurity, a dark prison, hell-like] was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
That’s the power of God. That’s what He does. He creates something out of nothing. Where we have brokenness, darkness, emptiness, and impurity He creates light!
We think we have to clean ourselves up to be ready for God’s forgiveness – we can’t.
We think we need to start doing better before we are worthy of God’s forgiveness – we will never be.
We think can help God out and try out best to be good, pure, holy and right – we are unable!
We need a miracle of God – a re-creation, rebirth, renewal – to clean our hearts and fix our spirits.
That’s why Jesus says we must be “born again” (John 3:3). That’s why Paul says we are a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). We are not fixed, added to, or readjusted. We are not basically good people who just need a little help. We are dead. We are sinful. Totally depraved to the very core. We don’t need a mechanic, we need a miracle. We go from dead to alive, from enemies to friends (Eph 2:1-10), as God creates a totally new being, a new heart, and a new spirit inside of us.
The promise of Ezekiel 36:25-27 is as much for you and me as it was for the children of Israel:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
Professing But Not Possessing Christ
It is only after we have come to God for cleansing and rebirth that we are able to come to prayer, study, fellowship and service with a right heart. Only then. If we are not coming as people who have been born-again we are like those who Jesus prophesied against in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
There will be many who will profess Christianity, but not possess Christ! For their whole lives they may go to church, say some prayers, read their bible, and serve… and then go to Hell when they die! Why? Because they will have been giving only lip service to the Lord. They have been masquerading as disciples, but have known all along in their hearts that they have no real relationship with Jesus. Some will end up being teachers, and preachers… but many will just come week in and week out, putting in the time, trying to make some person happy – but never really repenting of sin and giving their hearts to God.
“Jesus is not impressed by thoughtless and heartless piety. Superficial religion might satisfy the casual observer, but Jesus demands obedience inside and out…. A shell of spirituality may preserve our reputation with others, but it undermines real growth. We are deluded if we think that God might be fooled by fake holiness. God desires ‘truth in the [inward being]’ (Psalm 51:6).” (Pg 141 – Life Application Bible Commentary – Matthew)
There is absolutely no point in working through the Four Core Christian Disciplines if you have no real relationship with Christ. You will be merely heaping more sin, guilt and hypocrisy upon yourself. Get right with God, follow Psalm 51, come face to face with your sin, repent of your sin, and ask God to forgive you, and create within you a new heart and a steadfast spirit – then start working through the Four Core Christian Disciplines. It is then that they will have meaning!
The Worst Thing Imaginable
Psalm 51:11 can be one of the most terrifying verses in the whole Bible for people who don’t understand it!
“Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”
I’ve already said before that we cannot lose our salvation, so what is David talking about here?
He is sharing his greatest fear with his greatest love. He would rather lose the whole world than his connection to God. Let me quote John Calvin who says it better than me:
“It is natural that the saints, when they have fallen into sin, and have thus done what they could to expel the grace of God, should feel an anxiety upon this point; but it is their duty to hold fast the truth, that grace is the incorruptible seed of God, which can never perish in any heart where it has been deposited.”
This is the mark of a believer: that the whole world might be lost, and it would be bearable to them, but the one thing they cannot bear the loss of their connection to the Lord Jesus.
Asking for the Joy of Salvation
Look at verse 12 as we close:
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
This third request impacts me deeply and I hope it touches you as well. I desire a pure heart. I desire a steadfast spirit. And I desire to have the joy of my salvation — even though I forget sometimes. David isn’t asking God to restore his salvation – he never lost it – he wants the “joy” of his salvation restored.
I’m already in the practice of asking for forgiveness and strength. What I’m not in the practice of asking for is joy. It’s something that I think we all need to do more. Christians tend to have the reputation of being a dour bunch! This request is one I’m working on and I hope you will too.
When I sin, I lose my joy. As long as I am living with sin in my heart, in rebellion from Jesus, and with myself on the throne of my life, I lose my joy. My close fellowship with God is broken, and I feel it. But as soon as we repent from sin, turn our hearts back to Him, ask forgiveness and get it through the shed blood of Jesus, we have joy!
It’s sadly ironic that people spend so much time seeking joy in sinful, worldly things – and for a time, it can provide distraction and entertainment – but it does not provide true joy. Sin brings sorrow.
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17)
It is a pure heart and a steadfast spirit that brings true joy. It’s knowing that we have been declared righteous when we don’t deserve it, that our treasure is in heaven where moth and rust don’t destroy, that our future is secure, our Lord is alive, the Holy Spirit is within us and God is on our side – that’s what brings joy! I read one commentary that said,
“The fact that the psalmist prays for so many things indicates how many things he knew he had lost when he plunged into sin.”
I know that feeling, and I’m sure many here do as well. Thank God for being a forgiving God who has much patience with His people.
There are a bunch more things I want to cover from this psalm next week, but this is a good start. Before we get into the Four Core Christian Disciplines we have to get our heart right and our motives straight which starts with repentance and seeking a pure heart, a steadfast spirit, and the joy of salvation. Then prayer, study, fellowship and service really bless God, impact our heart and bring our relationship with God to a place where He can use us to bring healing to the hearts of others.