Seventeenth-century pastor John Donne was also a celebrated poet. In one of his Holy Sonnets reflecting on the Second Coming, he wrote, “When we are there; here on this lowly ground / Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good / As if thou hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.” Donne understood the power of repentance.
Psalm 51 is one of the most famous chapters in the Psalter. For thousands of years, it has modeled for believers a prayer of repentance. The title of the psalm informs us that it was written after David had been confronted for committing adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). David’s sin included coveting a neighbor’s wife, adultery, lying, and murder. He begins his prayer by pleading to God for mercy, “Have mercy on me, O God” (Ps. 51:1). He knows that he does not deserve God’s forgiveness. His hope is in the compassion of God (v. 1).
David clearly and honestly acknowledges his sin. He realizes that his sin comes from a deep place within him, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (v. 5). He prays for God not only to forgive him but also to cleanse him and restore him to a state of holiness (v. 7). He prays that God would so work in his heart that it would be transformed (v. 10). He wants to not just be forgiven but also changed. David’s cry is the essence of repentance. Finally, David declares that in his restored state, he will engage in ministry. He will “teach transgressors your ways so that sinners will turn back to you” (v. 13). He desires to use his new life to declare God’s praise (v. 15).
>> Ultimately, God was able to forgive David on the basis of a future “son of David” who would die for his sins (Rom. 3:25–26). Know today that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).