Teaching series from Psalms

Cleansing from a Guilty Conscience

Psalms 32, 51

Teaching t07569


One of the greatest things about the Psalms is that they provide both empathy and instruction for many of the problems we struggle with.

For example, depression.  A few weeks ago, we studied Ps. 42, which describes the causes and cures for spiritual depression.  Today we will look at two more psalms which describe the effects of a guilty conscience and how to be cleansed from it.  For me personally, this is one of the most wonderful provisions I have ever received.


Unlike most psalms, we know the specific setting of these two psalms.  It involved a moral breakdown in David's life as tragic and damaging as anything we may see today.  And the Bible tells us about it in living color. You can read it for yourself in 2Sam.11,12.  To save time, I'll tell you the story...

David didn't go out to war when he should have.  Instead, he lusted for Bathsheba while she was bathing in her Jacuzzi.  Then he used his power to have an affair with her, and got her pregnant.  He tried to cover it up by bringing her husband Uriah back from the front hoping he'd have sex with her.  Uriah refused to do go home out of loyalty to David and his fellow soldiers (IRONY)!  So David got him drunk and sent him home again, but Uriah had the same response.  So David conspired to have Uriah become cannon fodder.  In order to do this, Joab had to get many other key men killed.  After perfunctory period of mourning, David married Bathsheba and no one knew--except God.  Nine months later, the prophet Nathan came in to ask David's verdict on the case of the "one ewe lamb."  Nathan turned David's righteous indignation back on him, and David broke down and admitted his guilt.

David, the king of Israel, a prophet of God, and ancestor of the Messiah broke four of the six sociological Commandments in this incident (coveting; adultery; murder; false witness). Unlike other religious books, in the Bible all the dirty laundry is hung out, even on the heroes.  The biblical heroes are heroes not because they are so great and good, but because they learned to rely on God's greatness and goodness.

This is what David did, and he wrote two psalms to commemorate God's deliverance.  Ps.32 is evidently the later of the two--a reflection (maskil) on what he experienced and learned through this.  Let's read a portion of it.


Note especially the contrast in his emotions/experience.

Before, he experienced the physical and emotional effects of depression (32:3,4): bodily pain and weakness, lack of emotional and spiritual vitality.  To this, we might add other symptoms of a guilty conscience: generally sullen, paranoia, projection that others hate you, inability to concentrate or sleep, and (worst of all) alienation, etc.

QUALIFICATION: The Bible is not saying that these symptoms are always caused by a guilty conscience.  Nor does it deny that there is such a thing as false guilt, an overactive ("weak") conscience because of temperament, or an excessively strict upbringing, or defective religious training, or sexual abuse, etc.  For this reason, we must allow scripture to inform and train our consciences.  Having said this, though, most of the time we suffer from a guilty conscience, it is because we have done something wrong.  In fact, a more common problem is a "seared" conscience--callused by chronically ignoring it so it becomes underactive.  But when you come to Christ and begin to walk with him, his Spirit begins to re-sensitize your conscience, so this becomes a more frequent issue.

After, he experiences hope, strength and joy--even in the midst of "a great flood" of negative sociological consequences (32:6,7).

What accounts for this dramatic change? God's forgiveness has cleansed his conscience (32:1,2,5b).  And how did he receive this cleansing?  He only touches briefly on this here, but he elaborates on it in the psalm that wrote at the time--Ps.51.

Psalm 51

Let's look at the key features of his response--not to recite mechanically (in sequence) to God, but to understand how to receive cleansing for a guilty conscience.

Read 51:1,2,7-9.  Note David's request: that God "blot out," "cleanse," "wash," and "hide" his face from David's sins.  Note carefully the basis for his request: "according to your lovingkindness, "according to your compassion."  He asks God to "be gracious" to him--give him undeserved mercy.  In other words, David does not approach God according to his inherent goodness, nor does he appeal in any way to what he has done or will do for God.  So here is the first key: If you want to be cleansed from a guilty conscience, you have to go to the God of the Bible and cast yourself on his grace.

But how can a righteous God accept sinful without compromising his own righteous character which demands death for sin?  This is the great dilemma for all monotheistic faiths.  And this is where biblical Christianity parts ways with those religions, including many churches.  They teach that God's acceptance must be earned by your works (RITUALS; VOWS; etc.), but the Bible teaches it is available only as God's gift to those who know they don't deserve it.

David didn't know how God could do this without compromising his righteous character.  He just knew that God was a gracious God, and he had some pictures of how God might do this (SACRIFICES & 51:9??). 

We do know the answer to this question--because God's Son voluntarily came to live a righteous life and then pay for our sins by dying for them (Col.2:13,14).

The Bible says we need to cast ourselves on God's grace in two ways:

Initially, you receive his forgiveness by asking God to credit Christ's death to your account, and by trusting Christ's finished work for you (not your good works for God) to make you acceptable to God.  When you do this, God forever removes your true moral guilt and accepts you permanently, as Col.2:13,14 says.

Then, whenever you have a guilty conscience because you have strayed from God's path, you need to return to God and appropriate Christ's forgiveness.  It's not that God rejected you because of your sin, so that you must receive Christ all over again.  It's that you have alienated yourself from your Father through rebellion, and you need to return to him and his mercy to be restored in your relationship with him (ADOPTED CHILD ANALOGY).  This is a deliberate, personal choice, just as receiving Christ was (read Heb.10:19-22).

SUMMARY: So the most basic issue in resolving a guilty conscience is to go to God and cast yourself on his mercy.  Do you do this--or do you distance yourself from him until you punish yourself, or clean yourself up?

Heb.10:22 speaks of another condition for having your conscience cleansed--a "sincere heart."  Ps. 51:3-6 explains what this means (read).  It means, as 51:6 says, to be honest with God about your sin.  This is what "confession" means--to "agree with" God about our sin.  Notice what this involves for David.

First, he takes full personal responsibility for what he did ("my transgressions;" "my sin") and acknowledges that he deserves judgment ("you are blameless when you judge").  David could have said, "Adultery is an archaic social construct, anyway."  He could have said, "There were many mitigating factors--my hormones, her indiscretion in bathing on her roof, Uriah's stubbornness, Nathan's harsh tone of voice, etc."

If you're going to experience God's forgiveness cleansing your conscience, you have to eschew rationalization (e.g., "I had to do it because I was so lonely."), minimization (e.g., "Well, I was wrong, but it wasn't nearly as bad as what he did to me."), and blame-shifting (e.g., "God gave me my bad temper.").

Second, he agrees that his sin is ultimately and primarily against God (51:4).  It's not that David didn't sin against Bathsheba or Uriah--but that above all else he "despised the word of the Lord."  Sin is wrong, not primarily because of its harmful effects on myself or other people, or because it violates some impersonal, abstract principle of justice--but because it is a personal  betrayal and revolt against his Person that dishonors his reputation.  You need to agree with God, to God, about this if you want to experience his forgiveness.  This is why a heart-felt "I am sorry" is appropriate.

Third, he agrees that he is not basically a good person who slips every now and then, but rather a deeply depraved person for whom sin is tragically natural (51:5).  He is not saying that his mother conceived him out of wedlock (historically inaccurate), nor that it is his parents' fault that he did this (51:3,4).  He is saying that he did what he did because he is who he is.  He was born with a nature that is inclined to revolt against God, and he is therefore powerless to reform himself.

SUMMARY: This is diametrically opposed to what our culture teaches us.  It tells us that morality is relative, that we are basically good--and that we need to affirm our self-direction and goodness to ourselves to be psychologically healthy.  But God' seeks not to preserve human righteousness, but to break it so that we see our need for his grace.

David demonstrates a "sincere heart" in another way.  In addition to casting himself on God's mercy and being honest with God concerning his sin, he returns to a posture of embracing God's moral leadership of his life.  Read 51:10-12.  Because David is aware of his moral weakness, he doesn't promise he'll never blow it again.  But he does embrace God's moral will for his life, which is why he asks God to empower him to follow his path ("renew a steadfast spirit;" "sustain me with a willing spirit").  He understands the lesson God's taught him in 32:8,9 (read; "Don’t be a moral mule!"), and he is responsive to it.

What does it mean if we come to God to cleanse our consciences with no intention of following him in this area?  How do you respond to your children when they do this?  It is fundamentally insincere--a manipulative attempt to avoid consequences rather than restore the relationship.

Instead, we need to come in a repentant state--admitting that we got off his path and choosing to get back on his path.  For example, if the issue is that you lied, it doesn’t mean that you vow you'll never do this again--but it does mean that you re-embrace honesty as a way of life.

Sometimes, God tests this by giving us something to do in this area.  For example, he may call on you to confess and apologize to the person you lied to.  In other cases, he may call on you to make restitution.  Your willingness to respond is an index of the sincerity of your repentance, and freedom from a guilty conscience may be contingent to it.


Summarize these three keys.  They are a wonderful provision from a loving God who wants to cleanse our guilty consciences so we can be close to him.

I've asked a friend of mine to share his own experience in this area...

Concluding remarks.