Formations 03.17.2024: Wash Me, and I Will Be Clean

Psalm 51:1-13

One of the truly eye-opening experiences of my seminary career was a summer-term course on “The Doctrine of the Atonement” taught by the inestimable Dr. Molly T. Marshall. Over just a few weeks, Dr. Marshall guided us through the early church fathers, the medieval Catholic church, the Protestant Reformers, and modern theologians as we explored what the church has said about Jesus’s saving work. It was never a question of does Jesus save, but of what language best explains how Jesus saves.

I can’t speak for other students in that class, but my takeaway was that (1) the church has never spoken with a unified voice on the question of how Jesus saves and that (2) many of the proposed explanations do, in fact, make biblical and theological sense. Ever after, I’ve tended to explain my understanding of the atonement not in terms of “theories” but in terms of “word pictures.”

Psalm 51, attributed to David, expresses profound sorrow for sin and longing for God’s grace. In other words, the psalmist is seeking atonement. It’s enlightening to reflect on the language he uses to express this longing. There is some language one might associated with a law court—forgiveness, acquittal, etc. The psalmist, however, leans more into the language of cleansing: “wash me” (vv. 2, 6), “cleanse me” (v. 2), “purge me” (v. 6), “create in me a clean heart” (v. 10).

A lot of us grew up with a theology of atonement steeped in law court language. There’s nothing in the world wrong with that; Paul especially likes to describe the work of Christ in those terms. But the law court is not the only option. Sometimes our experience of sin and atonement looks more like feelings of dirtiness that call out for cleansing.

We use this word picture all the time. We talk about “dirty jokes” or “blood on our hands.” We turn up our noses at “filthy money” acquired through unscrupulous means. We joke about feeling the need to shower after being exposed to something that offends our sense of decency. Or maybe we aren’t joking.

There’s a reason we might well identify with Lady Macbeth’s obsessive handwashing.

The psalmist knows that he is defiled. His sin has polluted his relationship with God, and now he stands in need of cleansing. And he expects that, once cleansed, he will be restored and will joyfully testify to others about what God has done.


• Why might “a stain that needs to be cleansed” communicate that “a crime that needs to be absolved” could not?
• What other biblical imagery can you think of to describe how Jesus saves?
• In what sense do our sins render us “unclean”? What details in the psalm point to this experience?
• What does it feel like to be “purged” (v. 7) or “washed” (vv. 2, 7)?
• What is the response of those who have received God’s cleansing?
• How can we express gratitude for God’s restoring and redeeming work?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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