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The Desperate Cry For Forgiveness

Tom Pennington • Psalm 130:1-8

  • 2013-07-21 AM
  • Sermons


Martin Luther, the great reformer, was once seated at dinner with some friends. And the friends asked him, "So what would you say are your favorite psalms, the best psalms from which we find the greatest hope and help?" Luther responded, "The Pauline Psalms." Of course, that sparked the curiosity of those that were gathered around the table. And they pressed him, "So what do you mean? What are the Pauline Psalms?" His answer was, "Psalm 32, Psalm 51, Psalm 130, and Psalm 143." He called them Pauline Psalms because in these psalms we learn the basic theology of the apostle Paul – that the forgiveness of sins is only for those who believe entirely without any personal effort or merit or work. These psalms teach us to renounce all of our self-efforts, all of our self-help, all of our self-merit, and to beg God for His mercy and grace.

This morning I want us to look at one of these psalms that the apostle Paul could have written – Psalm 130. The author and occasion of this psalm are not known to us. It's likely that it was written after the Babylonian captivity because of some of the language that's used. Notice it's called in the title, "A Song of Ascents." This is one of fifteen psalms that have that in their title. These were the songs that the Jewish pilgrims would sing as they made their way to the temple in Jerusalem for one of those annual feasts that they were called to come to the temple for. Although this psalm is clearly sung corporately, it is at the same time an intensely personal prayer. It's a prayer that has to come from the heart of every genuine worshiper. This is the sixth of seven penitential psalms as they're called – prayers of repentance for forgiveness of sin. In fact, the dominating feature of this psalm is a confession of sins and a plea for forgiveness.

Let's read it together. Psalm 130. The psalmist writes,

Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord More than the watchmen for the morning; Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is [steadfast love], And with Him is abundant redemption. And He will redeem Israel From all his iniquities.

Now as I read that psalm, you can immediately see that it falls into two basic parts. Verses 1 through 4 are addressed to God as the psalmist cries out for God's forgiveness. Verses 5 through 8 address the people of God. In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist addresses His own soul, His own heart. And then in verses 7 and 8, he addresses all of the people of God and encourages us to find the forgiveness in God that he himself has found.

Notice how he begins his prayer in verse 1, "Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord." The Hebrew word that's translated 'out of the depths' literally refers to deep waters – waters in which a person could easily drown. Sometimes in the psalms, 'the depths' describe extremely difficult external circumstances - troubles that come upon the life of the psalmist and he cries out from the depths of that trouble. But here the psalmist is drowning not in external circumstances, but rather in an overwhelming sense of his own personal guilt for sin.

Now it's important to note that this psalmist is already a true believer in the true God of Israel. He's already been justified as Abraham was and, as Paul teaches us, as we are in Christ in the New Testament. He's already one of God's people when he experiences this weight of personal guilt. Now if you're a Christian, you understand this. You have experienced this. Maybe even this last week, you had every intention of doing what pleases the Lord, of doing what you know is right. You had a desire, an inclination to do that. And then you were unprepared, and circumstances came up, and in that moment of crisis, you chose to sin. And as soon as you had sinned, as soon as you expressed your anger, as soon as you indulged your lust, as soon as you deceived or lied or whatever the sin was, you were immediately overcome with shame and guilt. "How could I have done that? How could I have sinned against the goodness and the grace that God has shown me again?" We've all experienced that. And then out of the depths, you cried to God. Look at verse 2. "Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications." The psalmist here knows he has no right to be heard before God, and so he asks God simply to listen to his pleas for mercy – that's "the voice of my supplications." "Just hear the voice of my pleas for mercy. That's all I ask, God. I don't deserve to be heard, but please listen as I plead for Your mercy."

Now in the time we have this morning as we prepare our hearts for the Lord's Table, I want us just to focus on verses 3 and 4 because these two verses are the heart of the psalmist's prayer. Here is the acknowledgment of his own guilt, the expression of his repentance, and his request for God to forgive him. Look again at verses 3 and 4.

If You, Lord, should mark iniquities (if You, Yahweh, should mark iniquities), O [Adonai] (O sovereign One), who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.

As the psalmist confesses his sin and seeks God's forgiveness, he is laying down a pattern for us, how we should seek God's forgiveness. And in fact, in verses 7 and 8, he encourages us that we should, as the people of God, follow his example. Now if we're going to follow his example, we have to believe what he believed about God and about God's forgiveness. What exactly did he believe? Well, in this simple confession in these two verses, he opens up his heart, and he allows us to see that there are three great truths about God's forgiveness of sin that he embraced that you and I must embrace as well – three great truths about God's forgiveness. Let's look at those truths together.

The first truth that He embraced and that we must embrace as well is found in verse 3. Everyone needs forgiveness. "If You, 'Ya' (literally)…." It's the shortened name for God's personal name, Yahweh. When He says it, it's 'I am'; when we say it, Yahweh, it's 'He is.' He is simply the One who is – eternally existent, self-existent, independent, the only One who is. "If You, Yahweh, should mark iniquities, O [Adonai] (O sovereign One, O Master), who could stand?"

Now the word translated 'iniquities' here is one of the primary Old Testament words for sin. Its basic meaning is 'to twist or distort or pervert what is right.' That's what we do when we sin. We take God's purpose for us, His straight path that He has laid out for us in the Scripture and in His way, and we twist it; we pervert it. In the words of Isaiah the prophet, "[we] each … turned to [our] own way." That's the idea behind this word. But in this context, the focus isn't even so much on the sin itself as on the liability or the guilt that we incur when we committed it. It's the judicial state of being liable for a crime against God our Creator. It's being legally guilty before the law.

Now notice the Hebrew word for 'mark' means to keep. "If You should [keep] iniquities…." Now in this verse, unlike verse 1, the psalmist is not talking about a subjective feeling of guilt. When you and I sin as believers, we feel guilty, but that's not what he's talking about here in verse 4. He's talking about an objective state of guilt before God's law. "If You should mark iniquities…." Now there are two ideas inherent in that expression. The first idea is that God normally, as a reflection of His character, keeps track of every sin. God keeps track of every sin. Scripture teaches that God sees every sin, right? That's very clear. Proverbs 5: 21. "For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the Lord, and He watches (He scrutinizes) all his paths." All of your predictable patterns of behavior God watches, He scrutinizes, He sees. In fact, He even sees those acts that we intend to keep secret and private. Psalm 90: 8. "You have placed our iniquities before You (God), Our secret sins in the light of Your presence." In the blazing light of God's omniscience, those things that we tried to hide are plainly and evidently obvious. Hebrews 4:13. "And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do."

Think about this for a moment. From the moment you were born, God has seen every sinful act you have ever committed. He has personally heard every sinful word that has left our mouths. Every sinful thought that has ever flitted across for a moment our minds, God has fully known. Whether it was a thought of anger or lust or bitterness or jealousy, He knows fully and completely. He even knows what we don't know. He knows the motives and the affections that drive our wills to make those decisions.

But that's not what really is frightening. What really should frighten us is, not only does God see every sin of motive and thought and attitude and word and act, but He actually keeps a record of them. In Revelation chapter 20, the apostle John is taken to the Great White Throne of Judgment - the final judgment of all unredeemed people. And he describes that scene, and he makes an interesting observation. He says that "the books were opened." In verse 12 of Revelation 20, John describes what those books were. He says, "…the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds." Those books represent the divine omniscience of God that, like a written record, carefully captures every single sin of thought and attitude and word and act. There is a written record. There is a record of every single sin every sinner has ever committed, and that record will be used to judge him when he stands before God. When the psalmist speaks of God's marking iniquities, keeping iniquities, he means that God as a normal course keeps track of every sin.

There's a second idea behind this expression, and that is that God normally responds to our sins with perfect justice. Not only does He keep track of them, but He always responds in justice because He is a God of justice. The Scripture says, "Justice [is] the foundation of His throne." His rule is based on justice. He will punish every single violation of His righteous law. This is what God says about Himself. Listen to Exodus 23:7. "…I will not acquit the guilty." Exodus 34:7. "…[I] will by no means leave the guilty unpunished…." God says there's no way somebody who's guilty is going to be unpunished. Ecclesiastes 12:14. "For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden…." You see, the justice of God, His very nature, demands that without exception every sin will be punished. We understand this. I mean, after all, think for a moment about how you would think of a human judge who allowed defendants to come into his courtroom every day who were actually guilty of crimes, and day after day he refused to convict that criminal and he refused to punish him. You would say, "That's not a just judge. He's perverting justice." How much more true would it be of God, the perfect Judge?

"Justice [is] the foundation of [God's] throne." Listen carefully. Because God is just, someone will pay for every single sin you have ever committed. Not one sin will go unpunished. The psalmist says that if God were to keep a careful record of every sin – and He does – and if He were to treat those sins with the justice they deserve from Him, notice verse 3, "…who could stand?" That is, who could stand before Him when He judges and evaluates without being swept away in judgment? Albert Barnes, the great commentator, writes, "If God should deal with us exactly as we are, if He should overlook nothing, forgive nothing, we could have no hope." Verse 3 is a rhetorical question. "Who could stand?" What's the obvious answer? No one. Think about that for a moment. You know, sometimes I think we read Scripture and it becomes familiar to us and it sort of becomes singsong in our minds and we don't stop to think about what it really means. Think about what the psalmist has just said. No one could stand before God in judgment if God marked iniquities. That means not even the most righteous person who's ever lived (apart from our Lord, of course, who was perfect) – that means not Noah, not Abraham, not Moses, not David, not Peter, not Paul. No one would be able to stand before God. Now if because of their sins, they would be swept away at the judgment, what chance do you and I have? Ezra 9:15 says, "O Lord God of Israel, You are righteous…behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this." Psalm 1:5. "Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous." Psalm 76:7. "You, even You, are to be feared; And who may stand in Your presence when once You are angry?" Nahum 1:6. "Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger?"

You see, it's not enough to simply say, "Yeah, I have sinned. I've committed sins." Instead, you and I must come to the full realization that our sins are so frequent and so evil that if God kept careful track of them (and He does) and then if He treated us with exacting justice, we would all be swept away at the judgment in the full fury of His justice. Now that is the very thing that most people refuse to admit. If you were to ask most people, "Have you sinned?" 95 percent or more would say, "Yes, I have sinned." But then those same people would turn right around and say, "But my good is going to outweigh my bad at the judgment." The psalmist says, "God, it's not like that all. If You were to mark iniquities, no one would stand." Every one of us needs forgiveness – not for a few bad things that have somehow tainted an otherwise good life, but for countless sins that will destroy us at the judgment. That's repentance. The psalmist came to see the real condition before God. If you and I are going to imitate his confession, we must come to believe the same thing that everybody including us needs forgiveness.

But there's a second great truth about forgiveness found in the psalmist's confession. It's that God provides forgiveness. You see, verse 4 presupposes that although Yahweh is a God of perfect justice, toward some people He does not mark iniquities and therefore they will stand before Him. How can that be? Well, there's only one way. Look at verse 4. "But there is forgiveness with You…." The Hebrew word for 'forgiveness' is never used in the Old Testament of one human being forgiving another human being. This particular word is only used of God's forgiveness of us. But what exactly is forgiveness? You know, it's one of those words we throw around a lot, but what does it mean? When we say God forgives, what are we talking about? Well, one lexicon defines it like this, "It is extremely important to note that the focus in the Biblical words for forgiveness is upon the guilt of the wrongdoer and not upon the wrongdoing itself. The event of wrongdoing is not undone, but the guilt resulting from such an event is pardoned. To forgive, therefore, means essentially to remove the guilt resulting from sin." You see, God's forgiveness of sin doesn't erase the event. The event still stands. Nor does it erase God's knowledge of the event. God is omniscient, perfectly knowledgeable of all things immediately. That means without mediation. He knows it right away without having to think about it. Rather, when God forgives our sins, He cancels out the objective guilt or liability before the law, before His law. And He treats us as if we had not broken the law, but as if we had kept it. And then He chooses not to remember our sins. That means He chooses not to bring it up in His mind and treat us as having committed it. That's forgiveness.

I love some of the word pictures that Scripture uses to try to drive this amazing reality of forgiveness home to us. One of the word pictures is the forgiving of a debt. Scripture describes our sin as this massive, unpayable debt that we have accumulated that we could never repay to God in a million lifetimes. And God cancels the debt; He marks it paid in full. That's forgiveness. Another picture that the Scripture uses of forgiveness is the erasing of the record. We've talked about God having a record of sin in His own divine omniscience. He describes forgiveness as if there were this written record of our sins in heaven. And He takes the great divine eraser and He blots out the record so that there's not one sin left on the page. Another picture that He uses of forgiveness is the cleansing from a stain. The Bible pictures our sin staining our souls. Every time you and I sin, it's as if we add a fresh layer of stain darkening the stain that was already there. And forgiveness is when God comes and He cleans the stain. That's the picture Isaiah describes when he says: "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be (What?) as white as snow…." He cleans the stain of sin from our souls. That's forgiveness.

Now notice in Psalm 130:4, we're told that forgiveness is with God. "There is forgiveness with You…." This not only means that forgiveness is found in God alone (and that's true – only God can forgive your sins; no man can do that), but also he's saying that forgiveness is characteristic of God. God defines Himself as someone who forgives. This amazes me. I'm going to give you a string of references. I wish I had time to take you to each one; we don't. Jot them down. Go back and think about them; meditate on them, because in these verses God says, "This is not only what I do, this is who I am." In Exodus 34:6-7, God declares His name to Moses. You remember that great self-revelation that's repeated a number of times throughout the Old Testament?

Then the Lord…proclaimed, "[I] am compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in [steadfast love]…; (And then He adds this, 'This is how you can think of Me, Moses.') …forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…."

"That's who I am. I'm a forgiver by nature."

In Nehemiah 9:17, Nehemiah is praying and confessing the sins of the people of Israel through their history. And he says in verse 17 of Nehemiah 9, "They refused to listen, And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt (Unthinkable!). But You are a God of forgiveness, Gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger and abounding in [steadfast love]; And You did not forsake them."

I love Psalm 86:5. "For You, O Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in [steadfast love] to all who call upon You." God is eager to forgive. This is who He is. This is our God. Psalm 103:3. "[He] pardons all your iniquities…."

I love the invitation that Isaiah presents in Isaiah 55:7. "Let the wicked forsake his way And the unrighteous man his thoughts (That's a call to repentance.); And let him return to the Lord, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon."

Daniel 9:9. Daniel says, "To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness…." Forgiveness belongs to God. It's His special characteristic and quality. In the great new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:34, God says, "…I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." That is, "I won't call it to My mind in order to treat them as it deserves." Micah 7:18. "Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity And passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? (There were no pagan gods like that and still aren't. Only the true God is like this.) He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in unchanging love." This is our God – to You belongs forgiveness.

But have you ever asked yourself "How can God forgive sin?" You see, it's not as simple as God simply saying to you, "I forgive you." God can't do that. He's told us He can't do that. According to the Scripture, God can only forgive sins when a ransom has been paid to redeem that life from God's own justice. Hebrews 9:22. Listen to this. "…without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. God cannot simply sort of move His divine arm and say "You're forgiven" because His justice would be compromised. His holiness would be put into the background. That can't happen. The Old Testament worshiper hoped in the forgiveness that God promised in His Word that was pictured in the death of that innocent animal: a ransom for forgiveness in the death of an innocent animal. But an animal could never pay the ransom for a human soul. Hebrews 10:4 says, "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." Those animal sacrifices didn't make forgiveness possible. The only ransom that God will ever accept for the sinner is when One who is perfectly righteous is punished in the place of the guilty. That's it.

This was clear even in the Old Testament. Turn over to that wonderful chapter in Isaiah – Isaiah 53. Couldn't be any clearer that the only way sinners can go free and be forgiven is by someone else being punished for their sins. Verse 5. The suffering servant, the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ,

…was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being (or our peace, our 'shalom') fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to [strike] Him.

Look at the end of verse 8. "…He was cut off out of the land of the living For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due." Verse 10. "But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; [so that] He [could] render Himself as a guilt offering (for our sins)." He was the sacrifice to make forgiveness for us possible. Verse 11, middle of the verse. "…By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities." The end of verse 12. "…He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors." The only acceptable ransom that allows a just and holy God to forgive your sins and mine is the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant – a perfect Person. "There was no deceit in His mouth." He was not a sinner, but He was made sin for us. God credited our guilt to Him and God vindicated His justice by punishing Jesus instead of punishing us.

The New Testament makes this same point. In fact, when our Lord initiated the Lord's Table in Matthew 26:28, He said, "for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins." Jesus said, "Listen. My death is going to make forgiveness for you possible." In Ephesians 1:7, "In [Christ] we have redemption through His blood (that is, through His death), the forgiveness of our trespasses…." Colossians 1:14. "in [Christ] we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." Do you understand that the only reason God can forgive you is because He provided a ransom that would purchase you from His own justice against your sins? And that ransom was Jesus Christ. He died to purchase your forgiveness.

By the way, there's a condition to God's forgiveness. The condition is repentance. It's the kind of repentance that is illustrated here in Psalm 130 and in Psalm 32 and in Psalm 51. You see, when we come to God, the ground of our hope cannot be that we can somehow justify ourselves. Our hope isn't that we can somehow prove to God that we haven't sinned; we all have. Our hope isn't that we can excuse our sin. "Well God, I did that but…." Our only hope is a frank and full confession in hope that God will forgive our sins. Listen. If you don't come to God in that way, you will never be acceptable to Him.

Everyone needs forgiveness. God provides forgiveness. But there's a third great truth about forgiveness in these two rich verses, and it's that God uses forgiveness. God uses forgiveness for His own ends, for His own purposes. Look at verse 4 again. "But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared (literally, in order that You may be feared)." Fearing God is not merely a consequence of forgiveness; it's the purpose behind God's forgiveness. God forgives our sins so that we will fear Him. You see, God forgives us so that in response to that we will fear Him not in the sense of terror that drives us away, but in the sense of awe that draws us toward Him. His forgiveness of us makes us true worshipers. It reconciles us to Him. It causes us to want to serve Him and love Him and follow Him and obey Him.

The great English Puritan, John Owen, who wrote the classic exposition of Psalm 130 which I highly recommend to you, describes the kind of forgiveness most people want, and it's not real forgiveness. Listen to what he writes. "The kind of forgiveness which we reject works no love to God, no delight in Him, no reverence of Him, but rather a contempt and commonness of spirit in dealing with Him. (Listen to this. This is really insightful.) There are none in the world that deal worse with God than those who have an ungrounded persuasion of their own forgiveness." You see, God forgives sins in order that we would fear Him and love Him and worship Him and obey Him. He does it for His own namesake. Psalm 25:11. "For Your name's sake, O Lord, Pardon my iniquity…." God says it's about Himself in Isaiah 43:25. "I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake." God forgives us so that He exalts His own glory. And He exalts His own glory by our being turned into true worshipers who are in awe of Him and who want to worship Him and serve Him and love Him and live our lives to honor Him.

The world and, unfortunately, churches are filled with people who willfully sin and then sort of carelessly, blithely ask God for forgiveness. Sometimes they even decide to sin, thinking, "Oh well, I'll do it and ask God to forgive me after it's done." Listen. Psalm 130 provides us with a test of whether we have truly experienced God's forgiveness. Let me ask you a question. Do you fear God more, do you worship God more, do you serve God more than before He supposedly forgave your sin? If not, then it is unlikely that you have truly experienced forgiveness because, in New Testament terms, true believers don't sin in order "that grace may abound." Instead, true believers hate their sin, are drawn to God to worship Him and love Him and serve Him and obey Him.

So in verses 3 and 4, there are three great truths about forgiveness. Everyone needs forgiveness. God provides forgiveness. And God uses forgiveness to make us true worshipers who long to love Him more, fear Him more, serve Him more. The point of this psalm, folks, is that God forgives our sins against Him - countless sins that would condemn us at the judgment and sweep us away from His presence. And the only right that we have to enter His holy presence is that He is a God of forgiveness. And forgiveness is only possible because of the shedding of blood, because God gave His Son as a ransom to release you from His justice because it was met in Christ so that He could forgive you. That's what we celebrate in the Lord's Table.

Our Father, we thank You for the cup. We thank You for the powerful, powerful reminder that an innocent life – not merely innocent, but a perfect life – had to be given in exchange for ours. We thank You, O God, that You came up with such a plan, that You were so filled with amazing love and grace that You would have extended grace to us by offering Your one and only, Your one of a kind, unique Son, the Son that You loved, in order to redeem rebels. Father, we are truly amazed and we praise You and thank You. Help us to live in light of the forgiveness You've given to us. Lord, may we fear You more. May we fear You in that sense of the fear of attraction that draws us to You as we are awed by Your greatness and Your grace.

And Father, I pray for those here who don't know that forgiveness, who, if they stand before You in the judgment, will be swept away in the fury of Your just anger. Lord, may this be the day when they find forgiveness in Jesus Christ. For it's in His name we pray. Amen.