How Much Sin Will God Forgive?

Psalm 51

January 30, 2011 | Ray Pritchard

It had been a messy affair, literally.

But now at last things seemed to be going well. After all, who could fault a king for indulging his fantasies? That’s what kings do. One night you go out for a stroll, you see a beautiful woman, you want her, you send for her, she comes to you. It’s as simple as that. Kings have been doing that sort of thing since the beginning of time.

Whatever the king wants, the king gets.

Whatever the king wants, the king gets.
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That’s why they call him the king. And in that day, in that time, it shouldn’t have seemed like a big deal. It still happens today. Who among us is ever really surprised to find out that a president or a prime minister has a girlfriend on the side? It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen, and people hear about it and shrug their shoulders or they snicker a bit and make jokes or they don’t like it but they keep it to themselves. Not to justify things, you see, just to observe that this is the way things are.

The king felt like things had finally settled down. There was that problem with the woman’s husband. Not an easy thing to get rid of him. He was the loyal soldier type that wouldn’t easily be tricked. So the king had him killed in battle. Complicated in a way, but the man ended up looking like a hero in his death. Then the king felt free to take the woman as his wife. So he did.

Then came the happy news that the woman was pregnant. All was right with the world.

But there were other precincts to be heard from. “The thing David had done displeased the LORD” (2 Samuel 11:29). The king was about to learn the hard way that God is not mocked and “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).

Enter Nathan, the man of God.

“You are the man!”
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He told the king a little story about a rich man with many sheep who stole from a poor man the one ewe sheep his family owned. What shall be done to the rich man who acted so ruthlessly? “He should be put to death,” the king exclaimed in his anger. Then the man of God delivered his message.

“You are the man!”

In a moment, in one heart-stopping instant, the king knew the truth, knew what Nathan was saying, knew that he was the rich man who had cheated the poor man. The king knew! Very quickly comes the Word of the Lord:

“I gave you everything you had.”
“I made you king.”
“If this was not enough, I would have given you more.”
“Why did you despise my word?”
“You took this man’s wife.”
“You had him murdered.”
“There will be nothing but trouble for you from this day forward.”
“Your family will suffer because of your sin.”

Then came the worst news.
“Your son will die.”
The king wept and prayed and fasted, but the child died.

Then came the time for the king to do the hardest thing anyone can ever do, to look in the mirror and say, “I have sinned.” Those may be the three hardest words in the English language. No one wants to say, “I have sinned.” We would rather do anything than say that. But there is no getting right until we admit how badly we have done wrong.

The words are so universal that they belong to anyone whose heart is broken because of sin.
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Through his tears and in deep guilt, reproaching himself for his sinful folly, realizing at last how wrong he had been, King David sat down and wrote the poem we call Psalm 51. Three thousand years later we come back to it again and again because it tells us what it means to come back to God when we have sinned.

It has been the lifeline back to God for generations of believers, first among the Jews who learned it and recited it and sang it, then among Christians who adopted it as their own. The words are so universal that they belong to anyone whose heart is broken because of sin. If you have blown it, here is a word from God for you. If you look at the wreckage of your own life, knowing full well that you are guilty of many foolish choices, if you despair of ever finding forgiveness, let us journey together through Psalm 51 and see what it says to us today.

There are three parts to this great prayer. First, David confesses his sin (vv 1-6). Then he prays for cleansing (vv. 7-12). Then he offers a prayer of consecration (vv. 13-19).


God doesn’t forgive weakness; he only forgives sin.
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Warren Wiersbe says David prays three things in Psalm 51:

“Forgive me.”
“Cleanse me.”
“Use me.”

If your sin feels like a weight upon your shoulders, this psalm is for you.


David begins with God (vv. 1-2). He cries out for God’s mercy, love, and compassion to blot out his transgressions and wash away his iniquity. The time for excuses is over. There can be no rationalization for adultery and murder, no more of saying, “Kings do it all the time” or “I fell in a moment of weakness.” As long as a man makes excuses, he cannot be forgiven because he will not come clean about his sin. If you feel like you need to justify your sin, you are not ready to be forgiven.

God doesn’t make deals.

If sin is to be forgiven, it must be confessed for what it is.
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He doesn’t say, “Boys will be boys” or “I understand how weak you are so I’ll let it go this time.” If sin is to be forgiven, it must be confessed for what it is. You can’t call sin “weakness” and expect to be forgiven by God. God doesn’t forgive weakness; he only forgives sin. That’s why the king piles up different words to express the depth of his sin: transgression, iniquity, sin, and finally, “evil” (v. 4). Looking into the cesspool of his own heart, he sees nothing good, nothing to mitigate his enormous crimes.

In verse 4 David says an extraordinary thing:

Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight.

Had he not sinned against Uriah, not once but twice? Yes.
Had he not sinned against Bathsheba by stealing her from her husband? Yes.
Had he not sinned against the people of Israel? Yes.

But finally he had to deal with God! All sin is treason against the Almighty. Until we grasp that, until we see it and feel it, until we confess it, we cannot be forgiven.

So David says, “You were right to judge me. I do not question your ways” (v. 4b). Then he says, “I’ve been a sinner all my life” (v. 6) and “I know you desire truth from the inside out.” It reminds me of the famous Jack Nicholson scene in the movie A Few Good Men where he says to Tom Cruise, “You want the truth?” When Cruise says, “Yes, I do,” Nicholson shouts in a rage, “You can’t handle the truth.”

The truth can be hard to handle, especially the truth about ourselves.

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Some years ago I visited a gifted counselor who gave me a personality inventory and later mailed me the results. Enclosed with the test results were some sheets of paper the counselor had written. On one page the counselor had done a takeoff on the famous words of Jesus, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). He had taken the last phrase and printed it like this:  THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE . . . BUT IT WILL HURT YOU FIRST.

It startled me, and then it was as if someone had turned on a light above my head. Yes, of course, it makes perfect sense. In a flash I realized why most people have trouble growing spiritually. It’s not because we don’t know the truth. We’ve got so much truth it’s running out our eyeballs. We hear the truth at church, on the radio, from our friends, from books and CDs and seminars and concerts. And we get it straight from the Bible. That’s not our problem. If just knowing the truth were all we needed, we’d all be candidates for permanent sainthood.

We put up a shield so we can deflect the incoming bullets of truth.
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No, the problem runs deeper than that. We know the truth but we don’t want to let it hurt us so we deflect it, ignore it, deny it, attack it, argue with it and in general avoid it in any way we can.  We put up a shield so we can deflect the incoming bullets of truth. After a while we get so good at deflection that the truth never gets through to us at all.

We hear the truth . . . we know the truth . . . but we deflect the truth so it never gets close enough to hurt us. Therefore, we are not set free. We’re still angry . . . stubborn . . . bitter . . . greedy . . .  arrogant . . . filled with lust . . . self-willed . . . critical . . . and unkind.

The truth never really changes us because we won’t let it get close enough to hurt us. Honesty is the first step to admitting your true condition.

When David cried out for God’s mercy, he acknowledged the true source of the problem and where the healing must begin. Until there is “truth” (the word means something like “reality” as opposed to making excuses, covering up, and pretending everything is okay) in the inner recesses of the soul, as long as we lie to ourselves, we can never get better, and God cannot teach us wisdom. Would you like to be set free? It can happen but you’ll have to let the truth hurt you first.

How we respond when we have sinned reveals a great deal about the reality or unreality of our profession of faith.
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David is saying, “I know what you want, Lord. You want me to stop paying games and stop making excuses. I’m ready to do that. No more excuses, no more games. I’m guilty in your eyes and I admit it.”


Not long ago a friend asked how we could know if someone is a true Christian. That’s always a difficult question because people and circumstances differ so greatly, and sometimes people look different from a distance than they do up close. Psalm 51 suggests a principle that seems universally true, even if it is not always easily seen by others. How we respond when we have sinned reveals a great deal about the reality or unreality of our profession of faith. When a great and grievous sin has been committed, the question always arises, How do we know if the repentance is genuine? I believe it was Spurgeon who remarked that we may have confidence in this matter when the repentance is as notorious as the sin itself.

Not only does David not hide his sin, and not only does he not minimize his sin, he begs God for a deep work of grace to cleanse him from the stain of sin. He wants God to wash him from the inside out. Because he wrote this psalm himself, he clearly does not care who knows what he has done and how desperately he seeks the grace of God.

True confession is a humbling experience.
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True confession is a humbling experience. I recall a moment when a sinning saint made a confession to a group of very close friends. I was there to watch the event unfold. The person stood before the assembly and laid it all out, with many tears and with enough specific detail to bring the matter to light and yet leaving out anything that would unduly harm others. How sad, how solemn, and yet how freeing it was. When the confession was done, someone began spontaneously to sing “The Lord’s Prayer,” joined immediately by the voices of all present. Surging around the penitent saint, they welcomed that person back to the fold.

When the thing that matters is getting free from the burden of sin,
When we no longer sugarcoat our sin,
When we desperately seek restored fellowship with God and with his people,
When we no longer worry about our reputation,
When what God thinks matters more than what others think,

Then we will find the forgiveness we seek because our repentance has led us back to the Lord.

If you look at the requests David makes in verses 7-12, you can see clearly a seven-fold path of restoration.

It’s not enough to be forgiven. We need to know that God has put our sins far away from us.
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1. We need to be cleansed by the blood. “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (v. 7). Hyssop was a plant used in the first Passover in Egypt (Exodus 12:22). The Jews dipped the hyssop in the blood of the lamb and then smeared the blood on the doorpost. When the angel of death saw the blood, he “passed over” that house and no one died that night. Jesus Christ is our Passover lamb whose blood now washes away our sin (1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 John 1:7). Writing about this, Ray Stedman notes that many people wonder why Jesus had to die for us. The cross of Jesus offends the sensibilities of many people who prefer a “bloodless” religion. Here is Stedman’s answer:

Why did (Jesus) have to die to forgive our sins? The only answer is: Sin is so deeply imbedded in us that it cannot be cured by anything but death. The old life has to die. God cannot improve it. Even God cannot make it better, he cannot cleanse it or wash it; he can only put it to death. David understands that now. He says to God, “If you are going to deal with this terrible fountain of evil in me, I can see that it must be put to death. It must be purged with hyssop, then I will be clean.”

2. We need new hope. “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8). “Lord, I’ve been down so long, I see nothing but darkness. Shine your light in my heart so that I can sing with joy once more.”

3. We need to know our sins are forgiven. “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity” (v. 9).  It’s not enough to be forgiven. We need to know that God has put our sins far away from us. Otherwise our sins will rise to accuse us and a guilty conscience will keep us awake at night.

4. We need a clean heart. “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (v. 10). The word “create” means that David knows he can’t change himself. Here is the end of all self-reformation. The king knows that unless God makes him pure, he will never get there on his own. Not only that but he prays for a “steadfast” spirit that will enable him to stand strong against temptation in the future.

It is perfectly possible to be saved and miserable because we do not deal rightly with our sin.
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5. We need the restoration of the Holy Spirit’s power. “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (v. 11). Spurgeon says only a true Christian could pray like this. An unbeliever won’t care about being cast away from God’s presence because he was never close to God in the first place. An unsaved person won’t care about losing the Holy Spirit that he never had anyway. The ungodly flee from God’s presence and hide from the Holy Spirit. Only the child of God feels the pain of the Lord’s discipline. Those who have dwelt in the sunlight of his love shiver in the cold darkness of his displeasure.

6. We need to regain the joy of God’s salvation. “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (v. 12a). Every sin, whether big or small, separates us from happy fellowship with God. It is perfectly possible to be saved and miserable because we do not deal rightly with our sin. David says, “Lord, I’m tired of being miserable about my miserable life. Open the fountain of joy in my heart once again.”

7. We need a new desire within. “And grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me” (v. 12b). David means, “Make me glad to obey you in the future.” He begs God to do some “divine heart surgery” so he will never stray from the right path again.

Until we have personally experienced God’s pardoning grace, the gospel is to us only a theoretical message. 
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This seven-fold path is the right road for every sinner who wants to find peace with God. Start with the blood of Jesus and you will end with new hope, new joy, and a new desire to serve the Lord.


A New Service

“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you” (v. 13).

Converted sinners make the best preachers because they know the truth of what they are saying.
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As David considered the lessons he had learned following his tragic affair with Bathsheba, he vowed to God that he would use his experience to cause sinners to return to the Lord. Until we have personally experienced God’s pardoning grace, the gospel is to us only a theoretical message. But let a person declare how God rescued him in his moment of helpless desperation, let him speak openly of how he despaired of ever finding peace with God, let him tell how Jesus found him, lifted him up, forgave his sins, gave him a new life, and set his feet in a new direction. Let him share that from his heart and people will listen because there is no testimony like the simple truth of a changed life. Converted sinners make the best preachers because they know the truth of what they are saying.

A New Worship

“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (v. 15).

David never forgot his sin or the grace that found him in the midst of his despair. His lips were shut until grace like a river came pouring down from heaven. Then he would not be silent. Truly forgiven people love to tell others what God has done for them.

A New Understanding

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (vv. 16-17).

You could go to church for a thousand Sundays in a row and it would not remove the stain of even one sin.
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These verses banish forever the false notion that God wants more religion. In the old days it was the blood of bulls and goats. In modern times it is church attendance and money in the offering plate. You could go to church for a thousand Sundays in a row and it would not remove the stain of even one sin. David knew that no bull offered on the altar could ever atone for the sins of murder and adultery. What God wants is a broken and contrite heart. That he will not turn away.

The title of my sermon asks a question that I now am prepared to answer. How much sin will God forgive? Or to say it another way, How far can we go in sin before God will not forgive us? The answer is, no one knows because no one has ever gone that far. No one who reads these words need ever despair. No matter how wicked you have been in the past, if you turn to the Lord, he will abundantly pardon you.

If God forgave David, he will certainly forgive you.
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If God forgave David, he will certainly forgive you.
If a murdering adulterer could find grace, there is hope for you and me.

How much sin will God forgive? All of it! No sin is beyond God’s grace if we turn to him with a broken and contrite heart. Forgiveness is always possible but only for those who deal deeply and honestly with their own sin.

I suppose the question comes down to this. Do you even want to be forgiven? I say “even” because you can harden your heart to the point that you no longer care if you are forgiven. For such people, there is nothing left but the fearful judgment of God. But if you have the slightest desire to be forgiven, if in your heart you want a new beginning, your sins can be forgiven.

It’s not about you. It’s not about your sins.
It’s all about God. It’s all about grace.

In verse 7 David prayed, “Wash me and I will be whiter than snow.” Would you like that? Would you like the stain of repeated sin to be removed from your life? Would you like to be washed “whiter than snow”? It can happen if you come to the Lord with the same attitude David had in Psalm 51. In the early 1870s a man named James Nicholson worked as a clerk in the Philadelphia post office. He was also active in the Wharton Street Methodist Episcopal Church. He wrote a gospel song based on Psalm 51:7 called Whiter Than Snow that became very popular during the campaigns of D. L. Moody. Here are the first, third, and last verses of Mr. Nicholson’s song:

Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole;
I want Thee forever to live in my soul.
Break down every idol, cast out every foe
Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

Lord Jesus, for this I most humbly entreat;
I wait, blessed Lord, at Thy crucified feet.
By faith, for my cleansing I see Your blood flow
Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

Lord Jesus, before You I patiently wait;
Come now and within me a new heart create.
To those who have sought You, You never said “No”
Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow
Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

One particular line strikes me with great power: “To those who have sought You, You never said, ‘No.’” I am sure King David would say a hearty Amen. God never turns an honest seeker away. No matter what you’ve done, or where you’ve been, or how ugly your sin may be, if you will come to Jesus, he will never say No.

Perhaps the application is as simple as this. Take the words of this gospel song, based as they are on this ancient psalm, and make them your own. Say them, sing them, pray them to the Lord. Those who come to him with a broken heart will be washed whiter than snow. May that be your experience today.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?