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Based on the Sermon Series:
Psalms of the Penitent by Rev. John C. Wohlrabe Jr.
Concordia Pulpit Resources: Volume 25, Part 2, Series B, February 22–May 24, 2015
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Lent is a time of penitence … a time of reflection and sorrow over our sin and its consequences. During this time, we also meditate on what Jesus Christ suffered for us because of our sins and what His perfect obedience to the Father, even unto death on the cross, brings for us. Sadly, there is confusion concerning penitence.
When Martin Luther was growing up, the church taught that Jesus only died for original sin. Penitence was something the sinner did to pay for actual sin. A true penitent performed outward demonstrations of great remorse over sin. Penitence included such things as crawling on one’s knees, self-denial, whipping or beating oneself, fasting, and so forth. You may recall that before Martin Luther understood the true Gospel, He nearly killed himself with penitence.
Today, the pendulum of history has swung to the opposite extreme. Many people have little or no knowledge of sin, not to mention feeling any genuine remorse over it. Many dismiss the concept of sin as archaic. Many have deadened their consciences through repeated sinning, and feel little or no sorrow over their transgressions of God’s Law.
God’s Word is the only source of truth concerning penitence. This Lent, during our midweek meditations, we will begin studying penitence by meditating on a few of the penitential psalms. This evening we will use Psalm 6 to answer the question: “What is it to be penitent?”
Psalm 6 is a psalm of David. We know David as the one who killed Goliath and later became king over Israel. David is also one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ.
David’s early life showed great promise. David’s victory over Goliath was only one of the great victories that God gave to David. As king, David expanded the borders of Israel and met with great success.
Then David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband in order to cover it up. From that point on, David went downhill. His son, Absalom, started a revolt and drove David out of his own house and threatened to kill him. Later, when David was old and feeble, another son, Adonijah, rebelled against David. David had one trouble after another.
David believed that his troubles were consequences of his own sins. He knew that he deserved God’s eternal punishment for his sins and he saw the strife within his own family as part of that punishment. Although he deserved judgment, David asked God to soften his discipline according to his mercy. David’s most urgent need is to be at peace with God. David is therefore “a penitent,” … one who prays that the punitive wrath of the just and righteous God may be changed into the loving chastisement of the God who is, above all, merciful.
All trials and afflictions are consequences of sin that disrupts our lives, and brings us great torment. We join David as we languish and our bones are troubled (v 2), as our soul is greatly sorrowful (v 3), as we’re weary with moaning, as tears and weeping pour forth (v 6), as our eyes waste away and we grow weak (v 7), as this anguish ends in death, the ultimate consequence of sin: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Like David, we can’t help but wonder where God is and what His intentions are throughout all the troubles we face: “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath” (v 1). We wonder “how long” God will allow us to suffer (v 3).
Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence of the daily headlines and our own experience, we live in a society that denies the consequences of sin. Our society uses entertainment to disguise things that should be disgusting. We use romantic notions to justify obscenities that should shame us to death. When our conscience rises up to accuse us, we numb it with alcohol and other dangerous chemicals. We rebel against every gift that God has given to us to warn us of the danger of sin as Martin Luther wrote: “In order, therefore, that God might dispense His strength and consolation and communicate it to us, He withdraws all other consolation and makes the soul deeply sorrowful, crying and longing for His comfort. Thus, all God’s chastisements are graciously designed to be a blessed comfort, although through weak and despairing hearts the foolish hinder and distort the design aimed at them, because they do not know that God hides and imparts His goodness and mercy under wrath and chastisement” (AE 14:142).
You see, God intends the trials and afflictions of this life to turn us toward Him. When God told Adam and Eve about the painful results of their rebellion, it was not done out of spite or revenge, but rather out of love. Martin Luther wrote: “In all trials and afflictions man should first of all run to God; he should realize and accept the fact that everything is sent by God, whether it comes from the devil or from man. This is what the prophet [David] does here. In this psalm he mentions his trials, but first he hurries to God and accepts these trials from Him; for this is the way to learn patience and the fear of God. But he who looks to man and does not accept these things from God becomes impatient and a despiser of God” (AE 14:140).
Trials and afflictions come from God as a kind Father. He uses them to turn us toward him. We may fear that such afflictions come from God as if from a stern Judge, an eternal punishment meant to drive us away. That is what Adam and Eve thought after they had first sinned. Feeling shame, they hid themselves. Yet God, in love, came searching for them. God’s eternal judgment comes only if we reject His grace. As true penitents we pray that God’s afflictions and discipline are not done in anger, but in love and mercy.
Martin Luther explains it like this: “God chastens in two ways. At times He does so in grace as a kind Father, temporally; at times He does so in wrath as a stern Judge, eternally. . . . In fear of His anger [David] begins to cry out: ‘O Lord, rebuke me not in Thy anger; let it be in grace and temporally; be a Father, not a Judge.’ . . . Therefore all saints and Christians must recognize themselves as sinners and fear God’s wrath, for this psalm is general and excludes no one. Therefore woe to all those who do not fear, do not feel their own sins, and walk about smugly in the face of the awful judgment of God, before whom no good work can avail!” (AE 14:140–41).
There is no boasting before God. For the penitent, recognizing sin means recognizing our unworthiness. Luther writes: “This psalm and others like it will never be thoroughly understood or prayed unless disaster stares man in the face as it does in death. . . . When man thus declines and becomes as nothing in all his power, works, and being, until there is nothing but a lost, condemned and forsaken sinner, then divine help and strength appear” (AE 14:141).
So to be penitent is, first, to despair over sin.
It is then that God’s grace and mercy alone come to deliver the penitent. His grace and mercy promised that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. His grace and mercy promised that all the nations of the world would be blessed through the offspring of Abraham. His grace and mercy promised David that one of His offspring would sit on an eternal throne. His grace and mercy promised Isaiah that the Lord’s Suffering Servant would be despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.He would even bear our grief and carry our sorrows. God’s grace and mercy were fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who underwent all afflictions and trials for us.
Consider the sorrow Jesus faced in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He felt the full weight of the sins of the world, where Jesus sweated great drops of blood, where Jesus was abandoned by even His closest friends. Consider the suffering Jesus faced before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate, where He was mocked, spit upon, beaten, and scourged mercilessly. Consider the anguish and death that Jesus faced on the cross of Calvary, where He was not only slowly tortured until He breathed His last breath, but He was also forsaken by God the Father as He carried our sins and bore the judgment that we deserved. And He did that for you! He did that for me! He did that for all people!
Because of Jesus, the Lord hears the sound of our penitent weeping. Because of Jesus, the Lord hears our plea and accepts our prayer. In Jesus’ perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection, God shows His steadfast love for us. We have a gracious God who is not unacquainted with our suffering. He has suffered all that and so much more for us. He did it to deliver us from sin, death, and the power of the devil.
The penitent is one who trusts in God’s grace through Christ Jesus—and in God’s grace alone. We can do nothing before God but acknowledge our wretched sinfulness. And by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit works penitent faith in us. The Spirit works through Baptism, through the Gospel message of Christ, including the word of Absolution, and through our Lord’s Supper. He works to bring us to faith in Christ, trusting in God’s grace and mercy, convincing us that through Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are indeed at peace with God.
And so, Psalm 6 shows us not only, first, that the penitent despairs over sin, but also, second, that the penitent trusts in God’s gracious deliverance through faith in Jesus Christ: “The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer” (v 9). Luther writes: “These words refer to a soul that is poor in spirit and has nothing left but crying, imploring, and praying in firm faith, strong hope, and steadfast love. The life and behavior of every Christian should be so constituted that he does not know or have anything but God, and in no other way than in faith” (AE 14:145–46).
David concludes this penitential psalm by showing that in confident faith, the penitent expresses concern beyond self: “All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment” (v 10). This is not a statement of revenge, not about getting even with those who caused him grief and sorrow. David is praying that his enemies face shame and sorrow, even as he has faced shame and sorrow. Hopefully, this will result in their repentance and faith, even as it has for the penitent David. Otherwise, it will result in their judgment in eternity. All of this is to the glory of God, who is merciful to all penitents … to David … to you … and to me. Hopefully, it will lead to penitent faith for others as well.
We come before God as penitents. As we have seen in Psalm 6, a true penitent is one who has sorrow and despair over sin. At the same time, the true penitent has confidence and trust in God’s mercy and deliverance through the cross of Christ. May the Holy Spirit increase our understanding of penitence as we consider these penitential psalms and so increase our confidence in Jesus Christ our merciful savior who loves us and gave Himself up on the cross for us. Amen
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