As I write this, the U.S. is coming out of an especially cold winter. Areas that don’t usually have snow saw snow. Ice storms struck unusual places. One simple thing that brings our family comfort in the cold of winter is a hot bowl of chili. There’s something about a steaming bowl of chili on a cold day.
I would guess most of us have had chili. Yet, when I say “chili”, we could be thinking of very different things, even though chili is a relatively common food. I grew up in Cincinnati, which is famous for two chili restaurants: Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili, home of what has come to be known as “Cincinnati Style Chili”. Cincinnati style chili has noodles (GASP!). Likely, half of you just cheered and the other half stopped reading. What constitutes a good chili? Noodles or no noodles? Beans or no beans? Spices for taste or spices for heat? Most of us have had chili of one sort or another, yet the question of what ingredients constitute a good chili is up for grabs.
As we come to our text for this week, we come to the familiar theme of repentance. Repentance is in some ways a basic element of Christianity and a common theme during Lent. Yet I wonder sometimes if we are all thinking of the same thing when we hear the word “repentance”. What is repentance? What are the necessary ingredients?
Psalm 51 is traditionally understood as having been written by David after he was confronted with his sins of raping Bathsheba and killing her husband Uriah. The words of the Psalmist reflect the cries of a genuinely repentant heart.
The first ingredient in repentance that we see in Psalm 51 is a genuine acknowledgment of sin. The Psalmist doesn’t hesitate to admit his sin. It’s there in vs. 1-3, 5, 9, etc. “For I know my transgressions, and my sins are ever before me.” There is no mistaking that the Psalmist has come to terms with the fact that he is a sinner.
Now, it may seem obvious that acknowledgment of sin is a requirement of repentance. That might seem like a no-brainer. In spite of that, how many times have we heard apologies that begin with “I’m sorry you…”? “I’m sorry you took it that way”. “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt”. The examples could go on and on. A real apology, true repentance doesn’t being with “I’m sorry you…”; it begins with “I’m sorry I…”. Repentance necessitates the acknowledgment of sin.
Another ingredient in repentance is the understanding that the possibility of forgiveness rests on the character of God. From the outset in verse 1, the Psalmist asks grounds the possibility of mercy and forgiveness in the steadfast love and abundant mercy of God. If there is any hope for repentance, it is to be found in who God is. We see this throughout the Story of Scripture. Over and over again God redeems his people and works to restore relationship according to God’s nature of love.
Grounding repentance in God’s nature is important for a couple of reasons. First, when we genuinely acknowledge our sin, it may be easy to fall into despair. Coming face to face with our sin and its consequences can threaten to break us. We see the damage we have done to our relationship with God, to others and to ourselves, and it can be easy to despair.
Repentance acknowledges the reality of sin and its consequences, but it also acknowledges that God’s grace and mercy are even bigger than that. Because of who God is, we have cause for hope rather than despair. Yes, sin is evil. Yes, we have to come face to face with it. Yes, our sin has serious circumstances. Nonetheless, the love, compassion and mercy of God is able to make all things new. Because repentance is grounded in the character of God, we have reason for hope rather than despair.
A second reason it is important to ground repentance in God’s character is because we can’t earn repentance. We can’t work hard enough to be made clean. We need God’s love and mercy to enter the picture and make us whole when we find ourselves broken by sin and can’t make ourselves whole. When we find God has moved in our lives to overcome sin, we have nothing to boast of in ourselves. Rather, we boast in all that God has done in and through us.
The last ingredient in repentance is the desire for transformation. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me”, the Psalmist says in verse 10. A simple “status” change of “unforgiven” to “forgiven” isn’t enough for the Psalmist. He wants more. He wants real transformation. One is reminded of the prayer Augustine prayed as a young man: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!” It is tempting to want a change in status without a change in being. It is easy to seek forgiveness without seeking transformation. Real repentance seeks transformation: a clean heart, a new spirit, that we might live into the love God has for us.