A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Psalm 32 on Sunday 31 May 2020
There are many hard things to believe in the Apostles’ Creed. Many people struggle to believe in God or in the resurrection of Jesus or in the church. But in my opinion, one of the hardest things to believe is what the Creed teaches and what the gospel offers in the forgiveness of sins. Firstly, because they find it hard to forgive others. And secondly, because they struggle to forgive themselves. And this unforgiveness builds a prison which keeps them chained to the past.
Now as I shared last Sunday, the gospel may not be about us. God’s good news is about Jesus. Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and ascended, is Lord. But while this good news may not be about us, it is for us. And the great blessing for us at the heart of the gospel is the forgiveness of sins. What we need to receive this blessing is to stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer with our lips without believing it in our hearts. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What we need is to start believing that Jesus came, that Jesus lived and died and rose again to open every prison door in our hearts and minds and to let the prisoners free.
Psalm 32 begins,
Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.
Psalm 32 is a song that promises blessing. Now we need to be careful when we use the language of blessing. Because someone like me could say, “I’ve been blessed with a happy marriage, with three children who love the Lord, and with general good health.” And I would mean well, because I want to say that God is the source of every good in my life. Which is true. But talking like that can make people who don’t have those good things feel like they are excluded from God’s love. Which isn’t true. Because God’s true blessings are available to all. They are centred on the joy of knowing God, of living in harmony with his will and of fulfilling our true purpose in fellowship with him and with others.
For example, Jesus said,
Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.
Wealth is temporary and worthless in the light of eternity. Those who waste their lives in pursuing wealth for its own sake will live to regret it. But the poorest believer may live in the hope that they are heirs of the kingdom of God, and a day is coming when the Lord Jesus will turn their life upside down for the better forever. That is blessing, because it is for everyone, because even a rich person can grab hold of this promise if they change their life. The only people who are excluded from this blessing are those who exclude themselves.
As I was saying, Psalm 32 is a song of blessing, because it announces a hope that you can grab hold of too.
Blessed is he, blessed is she, blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the person whose sin the Lord does not count against them.
We transgress when we break a rule or law, when there is a clear message and we don’t follow it: do this, and we don’t do it; don’t do this, and we do it. That’s a transgression. When there are clear rules and you break them, if you steal something that doesn’t belong to you, if you take a life unlawfully that’s a transgression.
A sin is an error. It’s a fault. It is to make a mistake that not only hurts someone else and your relationship with them, but hurts yourself as you fall short of God’s purpose for you. It is a wrong that treats other people like a thing and not a person, and so robs you of your own humanity too. When you sin you become something less than you were made to be, and so it also creates a rift in your relationship with God.
Our transgressions bring us under the judgment of the lawmaker. And our sins break our fellowship with our creator. And our Lord is both our maker and our lawmaker, our creator and our judge.
Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Our transgressions are forgiven when the lawmaker pardons us. He made a law and he made it clear. We broke the law when we should have known better. We become liable to the consequences, so that the punishment fits the crime. But when we are forgiven, when we are pardoned, we are not made to suffer those consequences. It doesn’t mean we are innocent. It doesn’t mean we didn’t do something wrong. Innocent people are not forgiven, they are declared not guilty. They are released with no conviction recorded against them. But the guilty can be forgiven. They can be pardoned.
Our sins are covered, when the person whom we harmed does not hold them against us, when they are no longer taken into account. We did something wrong and it hurt them, but because the relationship is more important than staying angry against us forever, they don’t let that wrong come between us. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter if it happens again. But it does mean that despite the wrong, the friendship can be restored.
This is the blessing announced in Psalm 32, when God the lawmaker forgives our transgressions and pardons us so that we do not suffer the consequences of his judgment, and when God our creator, whom we have offended by sins, nevertheless covers them, so that he does not let them come between us and him, because our relationship with him is more important than holding on to that hurt. And so our relationship with God, our fellowship with him is restored. As Psalm 103 says,
As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
That’s the blessing. It means that it is possible that your past wrong choices and actions have no present or future consequences in your dealings with God. That you can be restored to fellowship with him and spared his judgment.
Blessed is the man, blessed are they whose sin the Lord does not count against them.
You may not realise it but that’s what it means to be saved. To be saved means to be rescued from danger. For example, lifesavers save you from drowning. And so God has acted in your life so that your past mistakes no longer determine your future. There is no karma. There is no “you’ll get what’s coming to you.” There is no “what goes around comes around”.
It doesn’t mean that we are spared every consequence of our actions. Some people will always remember your mistakes, and some of them will never trust you, and some will hold it against you forever, and you may have to live with that. And you may struggle to forget and live with guilt and maybe never trust yourself in the same situation again. And there may be legal consequences that you have to face. Fines that have to be paid. Time in goal that has to be served. But to experience salvation, to have your transgressions forgiven, to have your sins covered, means that you can have peace with God now and no fear of his judgment to come.
That’s what it means to believe in the forgiveness of sins. That this is the great blessing of the kingdom. That God has acted in history to make salvation available to you and to every person. That he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, who committed no faults, who broke no laws, but was condemned as a sinner and lawbreaker on the cross, taking our place, suffering the consequences of our actions, that they may strike him and not us, so that we may not only be forgiven, but forgiven justly. And he was raised to life and we receive the gift of his Spirit, so that this forgiveness may not be an end in itself. But a new beginning in a new life. Lived not by our own strength, but by God’s own power at work in our life.
It is a wonderful blessing. Salvation. Peace and freedom from fear. Restoring a relationship of love and trust with our creator and with each other. And it is free. You cannot earn it or deserve it, because the whole point is that you don’t. Nobody forgives the innocent. So forgiveness is free. But it is not cheap. If it were cheap, it wouldn’t matter what you did or how you lived. It is instead costly and precious, bought for you with the precious blood of Christ. And so it is reasonable for you to ask, what will forgiveness cost?
It will cost, firstly, your repentance. In Psalm 32, David said,
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
This is what it feels like to turn our back on this blessing, to refuse this salvation, to deny that we have any transgressions to forgive to pretend that we have no sins that need covering. This is what it feels like to keep things going the way they are with our broken relationship with God and with his judgment hanging over us. It’s like a fever that burns our skin and drains our health and strength. It’s the guilt that we feel because we are guilty. The symptom of the disease of sin.
So if sin is a disease, what is its cure? In verse 5 David said,
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
He had to own up to what he’d done. He had to plead guilty in the court of the Lord. When we turn from the Lord and cherish our sin, we make ourselves miserable. But when we turn to him and freely give up our sin, the Lord takes our sin and gives us his blessing instead. This is repentance. It is confessing our sin, and renouncing our sin, turning our life away from it. It is coming clean with God so that he can wash us clean.
And secondly, it will cost you forgiveness. Forgiveness costs forgiveness. To believe in the forgiveness of sins means that it is not just for you, but it is also for everyone else. And not just some abstract, generic other people who live on the other side of the world. People you will never meet. But the people in your life. As the apostle Paul said,
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
God’s free grace for you is not permission for you to do whatever you want. God does not set you free just so you can keep everyone else in the prison of their past. Instead, God’s grace fills you with his grace so that you live by this grace. So that we do not just mouth the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, but that we learn to live by them.
I’m not saying it’s easy. It isn’t. But what it also is is easier than being miserable in our sin, and making everyone else miserable too. Discover instead the true joy of God’s blessing in the forgiveness of sins. After all, who is it that is truly happy? Who is it that really rejoices in the blessing of God? Is it the man who hits the perfect tee shot down the fairway? Is it the woman who not only finds a pair of shoes that look great, but that actually fit? No. All these things are good, but they are not a patch on the joy of sins forgiven. As David said in Psalm 32,
Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.
In conclusion, do you believe that God made everything? Do you believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? Do you believe in the church? Then cast all your other doubts aside. Don’t let your past mistakes keep haunting you. Don’t let them make you miserable. Don’t let them alienate you from the blessing of God. Escape the prison of the past through the door opened by the cross of Christ and believe in the forgiveness of sins.