Formations 06.15.2014: Sin and Forgiveness

Psalm 32

John William Waterhouse, The Remorse of Emperor Nero after the Murder of His Mother, 1878

John William Waterhouse, The Remorse of Emperor Nero after the Murder of His Mother, 1878

My Sunday school class was recently discussing sin. (Most of us were against it.) In particular, a comment was made about the fact that we don’t seem to hear as much preaching about sin as was perhaps the norm when most of us were growing up. When we do hear about sin, it is as likely to be in reference to what might be called systemic evil—racism, consumerism, environmental neglect, etc.—as about specific sinful acts that specific people commit.

We have become quite skillful at confessing the sins of the special interest groups we disagree with. But what about our sins? What about my sins?

Psalm 32 brings the issue of human sinfulness out of the realm of abstract posturing and confronts us with the possibility that we ourselves might, in fact, be guilty of wrongdoing. Our actions have harmed others and damaged the intimacy of our relationship with God. They have even inflicted harm on ourselves. The psalmist remembers the toll his sin exacted on him, even to the point of producing physical symptoms (“my body wasted away,” v. 3).

When the psalmist confessed his sin, however, he experienced God’s forgiveness and mercy. Therefore, he calls for the faithful to come to the Lord in times of distress and remembers God’s promise to teach him the way he should go.

Confessions of sins may be a touchy subject. Nobody likes to admit they have done wrong. Most of us aggressively avoid having to own up to our sins publicly. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when such a confession—even if it is to a single trusted friend—is appropriate and even necessary.

Maybe we avoid discussing sin in these terms because we’ve seen the topic handled badly. We understand it is unhealthy to wallow in guilt, failing to avail ourselves of God’s mercy. We sing “Amazing Grace” for a reason, after all. But might it also be that our natural human tendency is to whitewash our wrongdoings or pass them off on “society” so as to distance ourselves from responsibility for our actions?


• Why do believers hesitate to admit our wrongdoings, even to God?
• Do you tend to lean more toward excusing your sins or punishing yourself without mercy? How about the sins of others?
• What would a balanced approach to sin and forgiveness look like in your church?
• When have you experienced the joy that comes with forgiveness?

Reference Shelf


Repentance, involving feeling guilty and remorseful over wrongdoing as well as taking steps to rectify matters, is best exemplified in the OT in texts describing cultic processes. Lev 6:1-7 and Num 5:6-8 outline the actions necessary to restore harmonious relationships disrupted by deliberate sin (also involved in both texts is the sinner’s having sworn falsely in the name of God regarding innocence). The following factors are noted: (1) The wrongdoer has consciously and knowingly committed a wrong but then without having been caught or convicted becomes remorseful or repentant (‘asam). The verb ‘asam in Lev 6:4 and Num 5:5 and elsewhere, when used without an object, should not be translated as “is guilty” or “becomes guilty” but as “feels guilty” or “is remorseful/repentant” (cf. esp. Lev 4:13, 22, 27; 5:5, 17). (2) Internal conviction is then followed by public confession (Num 5:7). Although not mentioned in Lev 6:1-7, confession is presupposed in subsequent actions (see also Lev 16:21). Sins committed “unwittingly” or inadvertently did not require public confession (Lev 4). (3) Restitution to the victim, involving restoration plus twenty percent, is required (Lev 6:4-5; Num 5:7). Finally, (4) if the wrongdoer had sworn innocence in the name of God thus making the deity an accomplice to the wrongdoing, expiation involved a reparation offering (‘asam; “guilt offering” in most translations) to the deity.

John H. Hayes, “Repentance,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 753–54.

The Penitential Psalms

According to a liturgical tradition that reaches back into the Middle Ages, seven psalms are placed under the rubric of penitential psalms [Pss 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143]. This classification, however, is based on content rather than on literary form, for one of them is actually an individual song of thanksgiving (Ps. 32, Augustine’s favorite psalm). In these instances the affliction from which suppliants plead for deliverance is a deep sense of guilt…

Sometimes, as in Psalm 143, these psalms refer to “enemies”—external powers that oppress and crush a person. However, these laments are different from others considered previously in that they internalize the problem of evil. The enemy is not just “out there” in society but is also present “here” in the depths of one’s own being.

In these psalms the presence of the Holy God in the midst of the people is experienced as both inescapable judgment…and gracious acceptance. It might be helpful to approach these psalms by reading the account of the prophet Isaiah’s experience in the Temple (Isa. 6). Isaiah’s vision of Yahweh’s holy, transcendent majesty prompted a cry of distress:

Woe is me! I am shattered!
For a man of unclean lips am I,
and in the midst of a people of unclean lips I am living.
For the King, Yahweh of Hosts, my eyes have seen.
—Isaiah 6:5

According to this account, which is still echoed in the familiar hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” the prophet came to realize that divine holiness is manifest, not just in judgment that exposes human sin but in forgiveness that purifies and empowers for a task (cf. Ps. 130:4).

Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 93–94.

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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