Let me invite you now if you would please to take a copy of God’s Word and turn with me to the book of Psalms to Psalm 130. You can find that on page 518 if you’re using one of our church Bibles; Psalm 130. The church I pastored in London met in the Church of England building of the Church of St. Botolph without Aldersgate which was situated just a few minutes walk from St. Paul's Cathedral in central London and was immediately adjacent to the Moravian meeting house where, on May 24, 1738, Charles Wesley heard the preface to Luther's commentary on the book of Romans being read aloud and grasping at last, and for the first time, the fullness of the Christian Gospel that had his heart strangely warmed.
What may not be quite so well known is that Wesley had just attended Vespers, evening worship, at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and there he had heard sung “De Profundis," the name of Psalm 130 from the first words of the Psalm in Latin, "De Profundis – from the depths,” and the message of the psalm had a dramatic effect upon him. And this, together with Luther’s preface to Romans just a few moments later, became under God the means of his conversion to Jesus Christ. It is a psalm full of Gospel. In fact, Luther said of Psalm 130 that “It is one of the Pauline psalms.” It sounds almost as though Paul had written it – so full and clear is it of Gospel hope and good news. Hope amidst the darkness, comfort for guilty consciences, and relief for burdened souls. It teaches us, it actually teaches us four things, that a guilty conscience can do – four disciplines to cultivate in the Christian life that will help us take hold of the hope that the psalmist himself had found.
Would you look at it with me just for a moment before we read it together and let me give you these four headings? First of all, in verses 1 and 2, there is prayer. The psalmist is praying. Then in verses 3 and 4, there is preaching – although he's still in this mode of prayer, he's really speaking to his own heart as much as he is speaking to the Lord, reminding himself of important and foundational Gospel truths. Prayer and preaching. Then in verses 5 and 6, thirdly, there is patience. He waits for the Lord. Then in verses 7 and 8, there is proclamation. Having spoken to God and spoken to himself and taken hold of the good news, he now turns to speak to others and preaches that good news to them. Prayer, preaching, patience, and proclamation.
Okay, that’s where we’re going. Let’s bow our heads first of all before we read God’s Word together as we pray. Let’s pray together.
Father, we thank You for Your Word and we pray knowing that there may be some of us here even tonight who are, as it were, in the depths and who need You to speak to us. We all need You to speak to us. So come please now, tonight, and take up Your Word and match it to the needs of our hearts and do a work in our midst for Your great glory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Psalm 130. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“A Song of Ascents.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord, there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.
Strategies to Deal with Guilt
Well, there are various strategies we often use to deal with our guilt, aren't there? Four, in particular, come to mind. First of all, there's the strategy of denial. It's that moment when you ask your four-year-old if he ate all those chocolate chip cookies. "No!" he says innocently, you know covered in chocolate! It's Adam in the garden when after eating the forbidden fruit he is caught red-handed by God and he responds by saying, "It's all the woman's fault! This woman whom You gave me, she gave me to eat and I ate! It's her fault; it's Your fault for giving her to me. It's not my fault. I'm the victim here!" That's one strategy for dealing with our guilt. Maybe you're familiar with it. There's denial.
Then usually coming right along with that as we’ve just seen, there’s redirection. That’s what Adam was up to in the garden, wasn’t it? We avoid taking the blame by proposing a plausible alternative candidate. “This woman, whom You gave me! It wasn’t me. She did it!” Avoidance, redirection, or how about redefinition? We just change the rules. We are enslaved, do you see, to outmoded ideas of morality, aren’t we? We are bound by needlessly rigid expectations, imposed upon us by others. “Just being silly, after all. No need to feel the sting of guilt; there’s redefinition. We’ll just change the rules and now we get off scot-free.”
And then finally, even after all of those strategies have been deployed and our guilt still manages to seep through, you can always try one last strategy. This is also a pretty familiar one I'm sure. It's the age-old method of penance. And you know how that goes. "Okay, so maybe I'm not perfect! But look at all the good I've done! I go to church. I pray. I help out. I'm a nice guy! On average, overall you know, graded on a curve, I shouldn't feel too bad!" But guilt is like a greasy spot on your wall. No matter how many times you paint over it, it just keeps seeping through. Haven't you found that to be true? Well, what do you do with guilt? Psalm 130 helps with some answers.
Look at it with me please. Notice where the psalmist starts, first of all, in verses 1 and 2. He starts with prayer. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” He is in the depths. “De Profundis.” “Out of the depths I cry to you.” The imagery is of someone sinking down into the ocean’s watery abyss. The Hebrews, you may know, the Hebrews often saw the sea as a symbol of chaos and menace and evil. “The depths are engulfing me! I’m in over my head! I’m sinking fast! The darkness swallows me up! I am out of my depth!” That’s where he finds himself. His condition is beyond his own power to remedy. We know from verses 3 and 4 that the particular depths that overwhelm him are the depths of guilt and sin. He has sunk so low because he has strayed so far from the paths of obedience to the law of God to which the Lord calls us all. And so it is to God that he turns in this extremity of need. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy.” That’s why, you know, denial and redirection and redefinition and penance just don’t work as strategies for dealing with our guilt. That’s why, no matter how often we paint over it, the stain of sin keeps on seeping through. Because our problems isn’t ultimately a social faux pas. We’re not guilty simply because we fail to live up to the expectations of our peer group. Neither can our guilt be absolved by embracing a sliding scale of moral relativism. Our guilt is objective and Godward in its character.
Sinfulness of Sin
The psalmist finds himself in the depths because he has fallen short of the glory of God. And so as David puts it in Psalm 51, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” The sinfulness of sin is the function of the Godwardness of human life. And so if there is to be any remedy at all, it has to come from Him, do you see? He must rescue us. He must have mercy on us. "Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy," the psalmist prays. You will never deal with your guilt until you see, with Psalm 130, the depths into which it plunges you in the sight of God and you begin to confess it before Him in your helplessness and your need. It's the only strategy that ever works.
Walter Brueggemann, who's not someone I would particularly commend to you but has some insightful things to say on the Psalms in particular, in his little book asks this, "From where should the ruler of reality be addressed? One might think it should be from a posture of obedience or at least from a situation of prosperity and success, indicating conformity to the blessed order of creation. One ought to address the king suitably dressed, properly positioned, with a disciplined, well-modulated voice. This psalm is the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere; the cry penetrates the veil of heaven." Jesus said, you remember, "Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." What is the cry that penetrates the veil of heaven? What is the condition which when we confess it attracts the mercy of Christ? It is not the boasts of the one who identifies himself as righteous in his own estimation. It is the cry for mercy from a guilty sinner who is and knows themselves to be in the depths. The miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere penetrates the veil of heaven.
God Must Deal With Our Guilt
“Come ye weary, heavy-laden, bruised and broken by the fall. If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all. Not the righteous, not the righteous, sinners Jesus came to call. Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream. All the fitness He requires is to feel your need of Him.” You don’t need to climb out of the depths before you’re entitled to approach God for mercy. You don’t need to clean up your act before you can be confident. He will listen when you call to Him for grace. No, the truth is, “if you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.” It’s the cry from the depths that He hears. It’s the prayer of the guilty sinner who knows that she needs pardon that He listens to. How do you deal with your guilt? You don’t. You don’t! God must deal with your guilt; there’s no other way. So don’t deny it, don’t excuse it, don’t ignore it, don’t hide it. Confess it and turn to Him. As you feel your need of Him, will you run to Him and call out to Him? “If anyone confesses his sin,” John says, you remember? “If anyone confesses his sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What are you waiting for? What are you waiting for? It’s the miserable cry of nobody from nowhere that penetrates the veil of heaven. So first of all, there’s prayer.
Then secondly, notice there's preaching. Specifically, the psalmist is preaching to himself. Now in one sense, as we said earlier, he's still in the posture of prayer in verses 3 and 4. He is still speaking to God. But in that frame of mind, he rehearses truths about God for the comfort and encouragement of his faith. He's preaching truth to his own heart. Look at verses 3 and 4 with me. "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness that you may be feared." Now just notice the balance of those two verses. On the one hand, the psalmist faces the reality of divine holiness, doesn't he? If all God did was build a case against us, then every day we would supply Him with irrefutable evidence so that when the final tribunal came we would be unable to mount any defense at all. We can't stand in His courtroom and enter any other plea than, "Guilty as charged." "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquity, if you would keep a record of wrongs, then there's no hope for us." It would be a water-tight, an open and shut case with respect to each one of us.
Forgiveness is With God
But the God of holiness and righteousness, the psalmist knows, is also the God of mercy and grace. And so he says, "With you there is forgiveness that you may be feared." Now hear that carefully, will you? "With you there is forgiveness." That's where forgiveness lives, we might say – with God. That's where you need to go if you're looking for forgiveness. Forgiveness is with God. It is His to deploy. It is the gift of His hand. And so when we're summoned into the dock and the case is made out against us, it is irrefutable. We are guilty and damnable and we can enter no other plea than, "Guilty. Guilty as charged." And a hush settles over the courtroom as the verdict, at last, is handed down. And here it is – "Forgiven. Forgiven. Not guilty." Pardon is what you receive.
Now that ought to immediately raise a question. How do these two verses really fit together? The infinite holiness of God and His readiness to forgive. How can God be, as Paul puts it, “both just and the justifier of sinners”? There are actually only hints of the answer in the psalm itself. The psalm is called, notice, “A psalm of ascents.” That means it was used, it was sung on the way up to Jerusalem for one of the great pilgrim feasts which were all focused on blood atonement at the temple where the forgiveness of sin was secured. And the language in verses 7 and 8 of redemption, hence in the same direction, God must redeem sinners by making atonement for them. There are hints here in the psalm, but they are really only brief and inferential by character. The full answer needs to wait for the coming of Jesus Christ, doesn’t it? So in Romans 3:23-26, actually echoing some of the language and the themes of Psalm 130, Paul reminds us that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forth as a propitiation by His blood.” That is to say, Jesus is the sacrifice that atones for our sin, that satisfies the demands of justice in our case. And we receive it, Paul says, “by faith.” This is to show God’s righteousness “so that He might be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Sin Has Been Paid For
There is forgiveness with God for us when we cry to Him from the depths and we can know it because atonement has been made. Sin has been paid for. Your debts, believer in Jesus, your debts have all been settled, justice satisfied. You are pardoned because Jesus was condemned. You receive pardon because someone else took the blame for you. You are Barabbas. You remember the Gospel story? If you're a Christian today, that's who you really are. You're Barabbas. Guilty. Deserving of condemnation. And like Barabbas, you go free and Jesus dies in your place. It is a settled fact, I think, that we struggle sometimes, at least I do, we struggle sometimes really to believe sin has been atoned for and our guilt taken away. "It is finished." With God for you, believing sinner, there is always forgiveness; always, always. No penance required. No need to cover up anymore. No need to make excuses. You can come to God confessing, confident that with Him for you, there is forgiveness always because of the cross of Jesus Christ. I need to preach that message to my own heart. Don't you?
Link Between Forgiveness and Fear
And just before we move on, did you spot the surprising ending of verse 4? Look at it again. "But with you there is forgiveness" – that's marvelous. Look at the consequences though of the divine forgiveness. "With you there is forgiveness that you may be feared." Isn't that surprising? Some years ago, a very dear friend of mine was removed from the ministry because of a serious moral failure. And when I called him up to ask him, "How in the world did this happen?" I will never forget his answer. He said, "David, the truth is, I just stopped fearing God. I just stopped fearing God." He indulged his sin; he began living a double life. He preached the Gospel to others while committing adultery himself. And you see how he got there. He stopped turning to God for forgiveness with little everyday sins, and soon enough he was presuming upon God's forgiveness in serious, aggravated sins. He didn't keep short accounts with God until his conscience was numb and all sense of the fear of the Lord had disappeared, making, in the end, a terrible shipwreck of his life.
There is a link between seeking and finding forgiveness with God and the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom that trains us to walk in growing obedience before Him. If you don’t think God holy enough to ask His forgiveness, no wonder you do not think Him worth trembling before. Those who know that “if God should mark iniquity, no one could stand,” and who nevertheless find to the wonderment and joy of their heart that “with this God there is always forgiveness” for them because of the cross of Jesus Christ, they are the ones who reverence Him, who stand in awe of Him, who fear the Lord. They know the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom. “With you there is forgiveness that you may be feared.” No one who refuses to seek forgiveness from God ever trembles before God. Only the forgiven fear the Lord. Do you fear God? Do you fear the Lord as you cling to Christ? The psalmist prays; he preaches to himself.
Then thirdly, in verses 5 and 6, notice that he practices patience. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” It may actually be at this point that his outward circumstances haven’t changed at all. It may be that the earthly consequences of his sin still continue. It may be that things are still hard and sore but having gone to God and reminded himself that “with God there is forgiveness,” having fortified his faith by preaching the good news to his own heart, now he is able to wait on the Lord. There’s a new peace, a new contentment now. “I wait for God,” he says.
Hope Anchored on God’s Word
And his hope is anchored, notice, to the Word of God. "In his word I hope." As we said this morning, God says it, that settles it, and so he waits. And the picture, understand, the picture isn't like someone in the doctor's office waiting anxiously for the biopsy results. Or like an accused man waiting for the jury to return their verdict. He's not waiting filled with anxiety wondering whether his best hopes will all be shattered. No, the picture, rather, is of watchmen on the city walls standing guard, albeit through the long dark night, but utterly confident their watch one day soon will be over. Any time now the sun will soon rise, a new day is coming. His hope is founded on the Word of God and so he is confident that a bright, clear new dawn is on its way. Here's the secret of Christian patience – anchor your hopes to the solid rock of the Word and promise of God and your hope will never be moved, no matter the storms that rage around you. You can wait for the promise of God with the confident patience of a watchman who knows for sure dawn is coming soon. The promise of God, the psalmist is saying, is more certain than sunrise tomorrow morning. God will keep His Word more certainly than there will be a dawn tomorrow morning. So the psalmist has trusted God to forgive his sin; now he trusts God to finish His work, to complete His purposes in His time and in His way. Hope in God's Word and wait for the Lord with confidence. Prayer and preaching and patience.
And then finally, there’s proclamation here, isn’t there? You see that in verses 7 and 8. “O Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is steadfast love and with him is plentiful redemption. He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” Having spoken to God and having spoken to himself he now speaks to Israel. Having prayed and preached to his own heart, he preaches to others. Which, by the way, should always be our pattern. We ought never to preach and teach and proclaim and share with others what we have not appropriated for ourselves. What I find so remarkable about these verses is that we have no indication, as I said a moment ago, there's no indication that the psalmist's situation has particularly changed. He is, in all likelihood, still in the same depths of circumstantial difficulty with which the psalm began. His circumstances haven't changed, but he has. His circumstances perhaps have not changed, but he has. And so now, having found hope in the midst of them, having been forgiven, he invites God's people to come and find the same hope and the same forgiveness along with him.
You might know the story of the man who falls into a hole and can’t get out. Along comes the local priest. And so he cries out, “Father, father! It’s me! I’m stuck down here and I can’t find the way out. Can you help me?” “Of course, my son,” says the priest. And he writes him a prayer for deliverance and throws it into the hole and goes on his way. Then the family doctor happens by. “Hey doc! Doc, it’s me! I fell in this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?” “Of course I can help you.” And he writes him a prescription, throws it in the hole, and walks away. Then finally the man’s best friend walks by. “Hey Joe! Joe, it’s me! I’m stuck down in this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?” “Sure, I can help you,” Joe replies, and he jumps into the hole. “Are you crazy?” says the man. “What did you do that for? Now we’re both stuck down here.” “Yeah,” says Joe, “but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out. I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”
To borrow Paul’s language from 2 Corinthians 1:4, “The comfort with which he has been comforted, he now uses to comfort others also.” He’s been in the depths, you see, and he knows what to do when you’re down there. And so he has a message. “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love and He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities. The Savior who washed me and cleansed me and forgave me, He will wash and cleanse and forgive you too. I have good news for you, you who are in the depths, hope in God, turn to Him, for with Him there is forgiveness.” Have you been forgiven? Well go tell the guilty where they can find forgiveness too.
Own Your Guilt
What do you do with your guilt? The psalm teaches us, doesn’t it, first you need to pray; own it. Own it! Go to God with it. Confess it. Get real. Perhaps for the first time, get real. And preach the Gospel to yourself. Understand that the God to whom you turn is not waiting with spite and vindictiveness to dismiss you, “but with him there is forgiveness” for believing sinners who turn to Him because He has poured His judgment and condemnation upon His Son that you might be pardoned. With God there is forgiveness. Then practice patience. You can wait on the Lord and in His timing you can hope in His Word. Now where once you were in turmoil in the depths, now there’s peace and contentment because you know that the Lord to whom you have turned works all things together for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose. His timing is perfect and upon His promises you can rest all your hope. And then having found mercy and grace in the depths, you turn to others with good news to show them where they can find it too. You’ve been down here before and you know where to go and what to do when you’re in the depths at last. And perhaps one of the reasons the Lord brought you into such circumstances, allowed you to fall into such depths and then over time by His Word and Spirit drew you back to repentance and to trust in Jesus, is so that “the comfort with which you have been comforted you may use to comfort others also.” You can say to the man down the hole, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.” “O Israel, hope in God, for with him there is redemption, and he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”
Let’s pray together.
God our Father, we do confess our sin to You. We are sinners and we aggravate our sin by trying to clean it up ourselves, by trying to run from it, deny it, hide it. We sometimes redirect or think to redirect the blame to others to excuse ourselves. We sometimes pretend that sin isn’t so much sin at all and sometimes we try to make it better and do penance and offset our misdeeds with a bit of religion. But the truth is, like a greasy stain on our wall, no matter how often we try to paint over it, it just keeps seeping through. And so here together tonight we want to stop all our foolish attempts to fix this on our own. The truth is, we can’t do it, and so we turn to You. We turn to You tonight. Please, will You forgive us and have mercy on us? Let Your ears be attentive to our pleas for mercy. We know that if You were to mark iniquity, if You were to count up our sin and bring a case against us, there would be no hope for us. Who could stand? But with You – how we bless You that this is true – with You there is forgiveness that You may be feared. Would You teach us anew the wonder of that truth as we receive it by faith, trusting in Jesus, who has made atonement for us? And as we do, would You move our hearts in the joy of it and the gladness of it to want to share it with others? For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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