If you were looking for an uplifting, empowering book to read, the topic of repentance probably wouldn’t be at the top of the list. Most likely, it wouldn’t even be on the list. Repentance seems like a depressing thing, characterized more by sorrow and sadness than by rejoicing.
We all have certain responses to the idea of confessing and repenting of sin. Maybe you occasionally go through the motions, trying to drum up a sense of sorrow over sin. You know Christians are meant to feel sorry, but if you’re honest you don’t, really—at least not very often. How are you meant to repent when you don’t feel repentant?
Or maybe you do feel sorrow and guilt over your sin. So you confess it to God, and then confess it again, and again—but you’re not sure you’re saying or doing the right things because the guilt never seems to go away. Or you keep sinning in the same way, and you wonder whether God is losing patience with you.
Although we associate repentance with these things, when we see repentance for what it truly is, we discover it’s about joy.
Repentance from the Heart
Often we look at repentance as a statement—an “I’m sorry, please forgive me” that checks a box and (hopefully) alleviates our guilt. But when we look at David’s prayer in Psalm 51, we see that repentance is a turning away from sin and a turning toward God—a process that doesn’t merely alleviate guilt but cultivates deep joy.
You might remember that David sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah in 2 Samuel 11. Not only this, but he thought he got away with it. He covered his tracks, hid the evidence, and moved on with his life. But the last verse of that chapter says, “But the thing David had done displeased the LORD” (2 Samuel 11:27).
Then, God sent Nathan, a prophet, to call David to repentance for his sin. Psalm 51 shows us his repentant heart:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
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. (Psalm 51:1-4)
In Psalm 51, David clearly defines his sin and appeals to God’s mercy and forgiveness. He isn’t defensive, and he is serious about the depth of the problem—it’s not just actions, but it’s inside of him. But then he boldly asks God to cleanse him and give him a new heart. He’s asking for radical change—change only God can provide.
Repentance Leads to Praise
Look at how David connects his repentance to praise in following verses:
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:12-15)
David is like a bottle of soda that has been shaken—he needs only to be opened to burst forth and overflow with praise. He is asking God to make him so joyful about his salvation that he can’t help but teach other sinners the forgiving ways of God.
This is important, because so often we do the opposite—we’re inclined to wallow in our sin and draw back from serving others, whether in church or in our communities, because we think we’re unworthy. But here David says the joy of forgiveness for sin should compel us to speak of that good news with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors. Having experienced God’s grace, we will want others to experience it and rejoice in it too!
Repentance Leads to Freedom
True repentance is not a joyless, wallowing-in-sorrow repentance. It’s a process that starts with grief and guilt, and ends with forgiveness and deep joy. And that’s not the only pay-off: Repenting and receiving forgiveness from God leads to real relationships with others, because it reminds us that we’ve got nothing left to hide.
I learned that for myself one Wednesday morning in the auditorium of my small Christian college. I was standing in the back row during our mandatory chapel service. On the days when I managed to wake up and make it to our ten o’clock service, I generally enjoyed participating in the song worship. But on this day, I struggled even to stand with my friends and wait for the music to end.
My sin was before me, and I knew I could not stand in worship of a holy, gracious, loving God with unconfessed sin in my heart. I had been dishonest with someone, months prior to this particular Wednesday, and for some reason the Holy Spirit’s conviction was heavy to the point that I knew I had no other choice than to repent before the Lord and then go to confess immediately to the person to whom I had lied. I still remember the freedom of walking away from that meeting with my burden lifted, able once again to worship.
For months, I had made excuses about this situation, but on this day the Lord’s hand graciously pressed me to the point of calling my sin what it was and taking it to the cross, where it rolled off my back and onto Christ. My repentance before God led to a repaired relationship with another. And the sweetest worship came as a result.
Repentance Leads to Joy
In his book The Doctrine of Repentance, Puritan pastor and writer Thomas Watson wrote, “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”
If we come to God with a heart broken by our sin, he “will not despise it” (Psalm 51:17); he will accept it, and accept us, because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. In Christ, we’re assured of forgiveness. So we don’t need to deny, cover, or make excuses for our sin––we need to take it to the cross and experience the joy of repentance.