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A Repentant Soul is aware of his utter Helplessness


All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Out of the Depths---Restoring Fellowship with God.” The sermon was preached at Westminister Chapel, London, in October 1949 and subsequently published in 1950 and re-published in 1995.


`Have mercy upon me,
O God, according to thy lovingkindness:
according unto the multitude of thy
tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me throughly from mine iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin'. (Psalms 51:1-2 KJV)


We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to these two verses because, as you will observe, the sentiments are repeated again: `Purge me with hys­sop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow ... Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities' (verses 7 and 9).

As we continue with our study of this psalm, let me remind you that my main reason for doing so is that it contains within itself the main steps and stages in connection with the whole question of salvation and our relationship to God. That is the most important and vital question in this world­---our relationship to God. It is the most important question because obviously it is a question that is inevitable. There are many things in this life which are uncertain; but one thing is absolutely certain, and that is that we have to go out of it. And then what happens? `Well, I do not believe there is any­thing beyond death,' says someone. But can you prove it, are you prepared to risk it? Can you not see that you hold your belief without any proof or evidence? The certain fact is that we are going out of this world. We all of us must needs die, and then---'ay, there's the rub', as Shakespeare put it:


... the dread of something after death,­---

The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns­---


that is the thing that makes `cowards of us all'. And that is why the most important thing in life is for us to know how to meet God. Fortunately this psalm deals with that in a perfect manner. It tells us that there are very definite steps and stages, there are certain things which are always present in this matter of salvation and coming to God.

Let me remind you once more that this fifty-­first psalm, written by David, king of Israel, is really the psalm of a backslider, the psalm of a man who knew he had committed a terrible crime. He was guilty of adultery and murder and deceit and many other things, and though he had done these things he was perfectly happy for a while, and seemed to be enjoying the fruit of all his evil, vicious, vile deeds. But God sent Nathan the prophet to him, and Nathan propounded a parable in which he was really telling David what he had done. And David suddenly saw the truth and saw the sin of which he was guilty. The result was that he wrote this fifty-first psalm. I say it is essentially the psalm of a backslider; but what David has to show us here about sin is always true, whether it is in a sinner or a backslider, whether it is in a man who has believed in Christ or not. Sin has always the same terrible characteristics. So that in this psalm we really get one of the most perfect and classic accounts of sin and how a man can get rid of his sin. It is generally called the great psalm of repentance. So it is; it tells us everything that is essential concerning repentance.

Now I remind you of all that because I am anx­ious to impress the point that there is most defi­nitely a common pattern in this experience of salvation. I put it in that form in order to help cer­tain people who may be unhappy about this whole question of salvation. There are such people; they are fully aware that there is something wrong in their lives, they meet other people who were once as they are, but who seem to have found wonderful joy and release, and who talk about salvation. These troubled people say, `I want to know some­thing about that. I wish I had it, I wish I had the experience of these other people. How is one to obtain it?' Now my reply is that there are certain things that are always present in the typical, char­acteristic, Christian experience, and you will find them described everywhere. Take, for instance, the Bible itself: there is a common pattern to all the cases that are described in the Bible, there are cer­tain things that are present in all, and those are the things in which we are interested. Or if you take up the biographies of Christian people or read the lives of saints, you cannot do so without discover­ing this common pattern. Certain things are always present, and that is why, if we are not aware of these things in ourselves, we are just not Christian. Or take your hymn-book: different men wrote the hymns, but they all say the same thing. There is this common element, this common pat­tern. The Christian experience is something quite definite, it is quite concrete; that is why a man can really test himself and discover whether he is Christian or not. The New Testament exhorts him to do so, and it is asking of him something that can be done. There is no need for uncertainty in your mind; it can be discovered quite easily. Let us never think of the Christian position as some vague, indefinite, nebulous thing somewhere up in the air. No, the Christian position is a very definite one; it is one of the most concrete things in life. Therefore we can apply tests.

Very well, there is a common pattern; and of course that is not surprising, for this work is the work of the Holy Spirit. No man can become a Christian without the work of the Holy Spirit in his soul, and it is not surprising that He tends to do the same things in all cases. He leaves certain marks, and they are very definite. Yet, having said that, at the same time we must be careful lest we stan­dardize the Christian experience in a wrong way and insist upon certain particular details in every case. I say this by way of warning, because I have found people in trouble about this whole matter because somebody has attempted to standardize the Christian experience in detail, as well as in big principles.

Let me give you one illustration of what I mean. Anybody who has ever read John Bunyan's Grace Abounding will know that in that book John Bunyan tells us that he passed through an agony of repentance that lasted for eighteen long months, and during those eighteen months he lived a life which was nothing but sheer agony. There were times when he felt so miserable and so unhappy that, on one occasion, seeing some geese in a field, he wished he were something like those geese so that he need not experience this agony of repen­tance. Another day he tells us that he saw himself, as it were, swayed over the open jaws of hell and he could smell brimstone in the air. Now I have met people who have said something like this to me: `You know, my greatest desire in life is to be a Christian; I have been trying for years.' When I ask, `What is the hindrance?', they say, `I have never repented. "On what grounds do you tell me that?' I ask. They say, `I have never felt like John Bunyan and wished I had been a beast that lacked the quality of human nature; I have never felt or seen myself suspended over the open jaws of hell; I have never smelt the brimstone in the air.' And because they have not had these particular experiences that John Bunyan had, they feel they have not repented. I once knew a man who was a Christian himself and who expressed great concern about the state of his son. He was quite satisfied in his own mind that his son was not a Christian, and when I asked him why, he said that his son had never had `the Damascus road experience'. He had had something like that himself, his conversion had come rather suddenly; and because his son had not had some sudden experience, he said his son was not converted. That is what I mean when I say that we must be careful not to standardize this common experience in the matter of particular details. There are many saints in heaven today who have never had the particular feelings that John Bunyan had, but they repented as certainly as John Bunyan repented.

Well, let us be very careful about that. Or let me put it like this: we must be very careful that we do not insist upon the various steps and stages described in this psalm happening in a particular chronological order. There are some people who are always anxious to standardize everything and I am not here to contend for that. What I am saying is that in every case of conversion, in every case of repentance, there are certain common elements. There is a common pattern, but in some cases one thing comes first and the other follows, in other cases the second thing comes first and the first follows. I do not say it must happen in a standard manner, but I do say that in the absence of certain things we have never repented, and without repentance we are not Christian.

Another way in which we can look at it is this. There are certain people who seem to avoid this whole question for this reason. They say, `You know, that fifty-first psalm is, as you say very rightly, a great psalm on the question of repentance. It is not surprising that David felt as he did in view of the things he had been doing. But, you know, I really do not feel very interested in your fifty-first psalm because, thank God, I have never committed adultery, I have never committed murder. It is all right for a man who has done that kind of thing, but do you expect me to experience the same things that David experienced? If I had been guilty of great sin I should feel like that. But do you expect me to feel as David felt?' There are many in such a position, and the simple answer to such people is that repentance is in no sense dependent upon the type or the kind of sin which you have committed.

This is what David says about himself as a sinner, but let me remind you of another type of man. Take a man whose hymns we delight to sing, Charles Wesley. Now Charles Wesley never committed adultery or murder, he was never guilty of the things of which David was guilty at this point in his life. Charles Wesley was a very good man; he was the son of a clergyman, and a particularly devout clergyman, and he had an exceptional mother, a particularly holy woman. Here he is, brought up in a rectory, and when he goes to Oxford with his brother John they form the Holy Club that they might live good lives. Even as undergraduates in Oxford they went to preach in prisons, they gave their money to help poor people. He always lived a good life and did everything to be godly and devout and to please God. Yet you remember what he says of himself---things which are quite as drastic as what David tells us:


Just and holy is Thy Name,

I am all unrighteousness;

Vile and full of sin I am,


says this excellent young man, though he is not guilty of David's sins. And I could multiply examples. Take, for instance, that great hymn of Augustus Toplady. Here is another man who had never been guilty of the things of which David was guilty; he was always a good man. But you remember what he says about himself:


Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Saviour, or I die.


0 my dear friend, you cannot avoid the issue like that. The facts are against you. The feeling of repentance is not dependent upon the particular nature of the sin committed. The Bible proves that, the hymns prove that, the Christian biographies prove the same thing.

Then there are others who seem to be in difficulty on this point. They say that surely this is all a question of personality, a man's particular type or kind of personality. They say that they have been reading a bit of psychology, and have discovered that psychologists say there is a sort of 'twice-born' type of individual. This twice-born type of individual, according to the psychologist, is the man who spends a good deal of his time examining himself. Then there is another type of man who is called the `once-born' type of man. He does not spend his time examining his own soul. This man is a cultured, more balanced type, not introspective and given to morbidity like the twice-born type. Now they say that they are prepared to grant us that certain people of the twice-born type, such as David, Saul of

Tarsus, John and Charles Wesley, Augustus Toplady, are likely to have and seem to need a great experience of repentance; but in the case of the once-born type there is no need to feel such an agony of repentance, as they are all right as they are. As all people are different, why should we all have to experience the same thing? On the surface that is a very plausible statement and argument. But again we have nothing to do but to bring this argument to the light of facts. What are the facts? The facts are these. You go through your Bible and look at these heroes of the faith in the Old and the New Testament, and nothing will strike you more than this, the amazing and obvious natural differences between the different people mentioned. I do not hesitate to assert that in the Bible you have all the psychological combinations of temperament and character and make-up and anything else you may like to add. Look at the twelve disciples. John and Peter were quite different men. Paul is different again. These are sheer facts. The Bible itself answers this theory, and as you read the history of the church through the ages you will find exactly the same thing. You will find within the Christian church the mercurial and excitable type and the phlegmatic type, the sensitive and the almost callous type; and yet they will all say the same things about this matter. I assert that every conceivable type is represented in the Christian church today; and yet, if we could pick them out and get their testimony, they would all make this statement about seeing themselves as sinners and flying to the fountain for cleansing. No, it has nothing to do with temperament, nothing whatsoever. The facts again are sufficient to disprove the contention. I trust, therefore, that there is no one in confusion any longer on that particular score.

My contention is that there are certain things that are always present in every case of conversion and of salvation, and I suggest that if you do not find these things somewhere in your life or experience, you are not entitled to use the name Christian with regard to yourself. We have already looked at certain things. These are the first things, that the man who repents is a man who faces himself and looks at himself. No man has ever become a Christian without stopping to look at himself. The world does its best to prevent a man looking at himself; it keeps him rushing here and there---anything to stop his looking at himself. But a Christian is a man who has seen himself and seen what he has done. He has seen his transgressions, his iniquity, his sin. He realizes the meaning of his actions. He realizes he has sinned against God; and he has seen that his actual nature is itself sinful. I would call that `the sinner awakening', facing himself and realizing the initial truths about himself. But we do not stop at that; we must go on.

The next point is this. No man has ever repented and become a Christian without an element of concern and feeling entering into his consciousness with regard to his state and condition. That is obvious in this psalm: `Have mercy upon me, 0 God.' The man who wrote this psalm was feeling desperate. He felt a great concern about his state and condition. He cannot get away from it, it is the most important problem in his life and existence. David was a king, and a very wealthy king, and he had a very wealthy kingdom; but when he realized this truth about himself, all his wealth and power and position could not satisfy him. This was the thing that mattered, and he said, `I must find peace about this; I must get right with God.' It had become the biggest thing in his life. I need not stay with this; surely it is more or less obvious. I ask you again to read your Bible, to read the biographies of the saints, to read your hymn-book, and you will find that every man who has ever repented has passed through that particular phase and experience. He has felt a concern about his soul and about his relationship to God. I have nothing to add at this point, but just to ask a simple question. Have you ever been concerned about yourself and the state of your soul? Have you any anxiety about it, have you ever known restlessness about it, has the question of your soul worried or troubled you? I say again that if it has not, church membership is of no use to you, and your use of the Christian designation is utterly misleading. This is something inevitable and unavoidable in the case of all who repent and become Christian.

Let me go further and put it in this form. I imagine someone saying to me, `I have never felt that great concern. I do not see that I need to feel that concern. I have been brought up in a religious manner, I have gone to places of worship, I have tried to do good, I have tried to give the helping hand. Surely I am not expected to know this great concern of which you are speaking.' Well, my reply is that I am not at all sure but that to feel like that is just the greatest sin of all. Let me put it in this way. I ask you again to look at the saints. If these godly people, these saintly men and women to whom I have referred, have seen themselves as sinners in the sight of God, why are you different? I just challenge you on this point. I say there has never been a saint on the face of this earth who has not seen himself as a vile sinner; so that if you do not feel that you are a vile sinner you are unlike the saints. But wait a minute, let me come a little bit nearer. I would invite you to try to consider for a moment who God is and what God is. I remember reading an article by a man who criticized that hymn of Charles Wesley's, where Charles Wesley said, `I am all unrighteousness' and `Vile and full of sin I am'. The man criticized it in this way: he said, `Fancy a man seeking employment approaching the man who is going to employ him and in the interview saying to him, "Vile and full of sin I am." He would not get the job. 'And he thought that that disposed of the whole matter. But you see what he had forgotten. I do not myself see any reason why a man should speak like that to a fellow human being who he knows is the same as himself, but Charles Wesley was not speaking of himself in the presence of man, he was addressing God. And `God is light, and in him is no darkness at all' (1 John 1:5). Can you conceive of that? God is utter, absolute holiness; there is no spot, there is no blemish. Try to conceive of that. He is the one we are concerned about---God. And what does God demand of us? Well, I will tell you: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself’ (Luke 10:27). My friend, the question is not whether you have committed adultery or murder. It is this: have you loved and are you loving God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength? If you are not, you are a sinner. God demands that of you, and He has a right to demand it of us, for He is God, and He has made us, and He has made us for Himself. `The chief end of man is to glorify God', and not to glorify God is the greatest sin of all. Do we glorify God? Do we thank Him day by day for His goodness, mercy and graciousness to us? Do we ascribe praise and honour and glory to Him? Is it our chief concern that He may be glorified more and more? Jesus Christ said that His greatest object in life was that the Father might be glorified. Every man is called upon to do the same thing, and not to do that is to be sinful. You remember how Daniel put all this to another king---Belshazzar. He says, `The God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified' (Daniel 5:23). The essence of sin is not so much to be guilty of particular actions; it is not to be glorifying God, it is not to be living our life for God. God put man on the earth that he might do that, and a refusal or failure to do that is the very essence of sin. That is why every man who repents always feels this concern about his soul and has a feeling of desperation about himself. Do you serve God, do you love God, do you seek God, do you try to glorify God? That is the first thing.

The second thing I want to mention is the desire for pardon. `Have mercy upon me, 0 God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.' In other words, a man who repents is always a man who is aware of his guilt. He says, `When I face and think of God, and when I face God's law and God's standard, I am aware of the fact that I am guilty. I have not lived that sort of life; there have been days when I have not prayed to God, I have not thanked Him, and I have forgotten Him altogether. Immediately I begin to examine myself I find I have done things which I knew were wrong; I have been guilty of sin in the mind and thought and imagination. I know it.' He is aware of his guilt, and being aware of this he has a desire to be pardoned. He knows what David meant when he said, `Blot out my transgressions.' He desires to be cleansed, he has a feeling that he is unclean. He knows that he has become bespattered and besmirched by evil and sin and that which is wrong. He knows that he is not clean within as well as without; he has become stained. Therefore he knows this desire to be washed, to be cleansed, yes, to be purged from his iniquity.

The next thing that is characteristic of every truly repentant soul, and in every person who is truly Christian, is an awareness, a consciousness of utter helplessness. You see it coming out in David's psalm. He does not know what to do with himself. What is the matter with him? He cannot quieten his own conscience. His conscience was accusing him, and whatever he did he could not silence it; it was always holding his sin before him. Conscience when it awakes is a terrible thing, and sooner or later every man's conscience must awaken. Some men go through a long life and it does not seem to awaken; but they have not finished. They have to come to a death-bed, and sometimes it only awakens there, and sometimes beyond even that. Do you remember when the rich man who died saw the beggar in Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:19-31), his conscience awoke there in hell? Conscience is a terrible thing. David is here trying to quieten his conscience, but he cannot do it. He would give everything to quieten his conscience---he is a wealthy man, he has flocks and herds---but he cannot do it. When you look back across your life and see certain things, would you not like to get rid of them, to erase and blot them out, to remove the stain? But it cannot be done. David realized that, and every man who has become a Christian realizes it. He likewise cannot find peace; he is doing everything he can, but he cannot find peace. He cannot sleep; this thing is there, it is always before him, he cannot get away from it. I do not say that of necessity you need have a particular feeling, but I do say that no man is a Christian unless at some time he has known that terrible searching for peace, for rest and for quiet. The great St Augustine knew it; for quite a period he had this restlessness of soul and at last he cried out, 'Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee.' Have you known this restlessness, have you known this search for peace and quiet of conscience and of mind and of heart in an attempt to get rid of the sense of guilt?

David was aware of his utter helplessness. Indeed he goes further, he knows he cannot do anything about it. Listen to him: `For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.' Poor David, how well I understand him! As I have reminded you, he was a wealthy man, and he says that if it were a question of offering sacrifices he would do it. `I have flocks and herds; I could make a great offering. But "the cattle on a thousand hills" are Thine, the whole created universe is Thine; I can give Thee nothing. If it were sufficient I would do it, but Thou desirest not sacrifice.' Every man who truly repents knows exactly what that means. You see, you start thinking when the conscience awakes, and you say, `I am going to live a better life, I am going to give up certain things and do other things.' And on and on you go, but still you cannot find peace and rest and quiet; and on you go again until at last you see it will never be enough, and you realize your complete, entire, absolute helplessness. 0 my friend, have you still any vestige of self-confidence left? Do you still feel you can make yourself a Christian? Do you feel the life you are living is going to satisfy God? I ask again, do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neigh­bour as yourself? That is God's law, those are the first and the second great commandments. You will be judged by that. Cease to trust to your own self-­righteousness, and to this `twenty shillings in the pound' morality and doing good. Face God and real­ize you can do nothing. You are utterly helpless. 'Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it.'

But, lastly, the most amazing thing of all to the man who repents and becomes a Christian is his new attitude towards God. It is so obvious here in the case of David. What a remarkable thing it is! I do not hesitate to assert that this is perhaps the most subtle and delicate test of all as to whether we have repented, or where we are: our attitude towards God. Have you noticed it in the psalm? The one against whom David has sinned is God, and yet the one he desires above all is God. That is the dif­ference between remorse and repentance. The man who has not repented, but who is only experiencing remorse, when he realizes he has done something against God, avoids God. You remember Adam and Eve at the beginning; they committed sin and they tried to hide themselves from God. They were not repentant at that point. The man who has not been dealt with by the Spirit of God and has not been convinced and convicted, tries to get away from God, to avoid Him at all costs. He does not think, he does not read the Bible, he does not pray; he does everything he can not to think about these things. But the extraordinary thing about the man who is convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit is that though he knows he has sinned against God, it is God he wants---'Be merciful to me, 0 God.' He wants to be with God---that is the peculiar paradox of repentance, wanting the one I have offended! I put it therefore in this form. The impenitent avoids God: the penitent knows that no one but God can really satisfy. And following that, I say this about him, that though he knows that he has no claim upon God, he nevertheless turns to God and begins to speak to Him. He believes that God can help him, and he knows that no one else can---burnt offering, sacrifices, all are insufficient. All the cleansing of the world is not enough. 'What can I do?' he says; `How can I get rid of the stain?' There is only one who can do it and that is God Himself.

But the most wonderful thing of all---and I leave it to the end---is this: the repentant sinner not only knows that God has the power to remove the stain and the guilt of his sin; he knows, wonder of wonders, that God is ready to do it and willing to do it. Listen to David---'Be merciful to me, 0 God.' He knows God is merciful. What else? `Have mercy upon me, according to thy lovingkindness'---what glorious words! But he does not stop even at that; he adds this---`according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions'. That is the explanation of the paradox of the penitent: he knows he has sinned against this holy God, and yet he knows that with God there is loving-kindness, with God there is a multitude of tender mercies, and he casts himself upon this mercy---'Have mercy upon me, 0 God.' You remember how Christ put it in His parable of that poor publican who went up to the temple to pray; he was so conscious of his sin he could not lift up his eyes to heaven, but cried out, saying, `God be merciful to me a sinner' (Luke 18:13).

How did David know all this about God? The answer is, of course, that he had experienced it. God had blessed him; God had been good to him; God had been kind to him; and here he is in his terrible sin against God. David says, `I can venture to go to Him. I have been a liar, I have been a murderer, I have been the cause of the death of innocent people. No man will forgive me, but though God is absolutely holy I know that He has mercy. He has loving-kindness, He has a multitude of tender mercies. I can venture to go to Him, and He will not reject me.'

David knew that, but, my friend, you and I know something infinitely more. Is there anyone who is conscious of sin and guilt, but who has not found peace? Are you searching for it? I ask you, have you turned to God? `But if only you knew what I had done, you would not tell me to turn to God,' says someone; `I am afraid of God.' My friend, let me beseech you to turn to God just as you are. David knew He was merciful; he knew He had loving-kindness and a multitude of tender mercies; but you and I are privileged to know that in an infinitely greater and bigger way. What do the bread and wine on the communion table mean? They are a reminder, a memorial of the fact that once upon a time, nearly two thousand years ago, this God of mercy, this God of loving-kindness, this God of the multitude of tender mercies, sent His only begotten Son into this world. And He sent Him with one object, and that was that He might bear the guilt of your sin and mine. He laid our sins upon Him and He punished them there. God has punished your sins in Christ, and there offers His free pardon and forgiveness.


Venture on Him, venture wholly,

Let no other trust intrude.


This, I say, is the most amazing thing in the world, that the God we have offended is the God who has provided the way of salvation. It is this amazing love of God, again, that baffles one because of its immensity. `God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life' (John 3:16). That is the answer. It is also the measure of sin. You see, God had to do that, God had to deal with sin. Sin is as terrible as that. Your good works are not enough to atone for it, otherwise Christ would never have died. Why did Christ go to the cross, why did Christ die?


There is only one answer:

There was no other good enough

To pay the price of sin;

He only could unlock the gate

Of heaven and let us in.


But, thank God, He has done it, and therefore:


Just as I am, without one plea,

But that Thy blood was shed for me,

And that Thou biddst me come to Thee,

O Lamb of God, I come.


Are you concerned about your soul? Do you realize the position you are in? Is this troubling you, are you facing it? I ask, is it not time you did? There is God---unavoidable. You have to face Him, and the only way to do so is in Jesus Christ. Believe on Him, give yourself to Him, and be eternally saved. (39-61)


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