Without Repentance there is No Salvation by Martyn Lloyd Jones
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, 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.
For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin
is ever before me. Against thee, thee only,
have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight:
that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest,
and be clear when thou judgest. Behold,
I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my
mother conceive me’. Psalm 51:1-5
It is generally agreed that this fifty-first psalm is perhaps the classic statement in the Old Testament on the question of repentance. Indeed, there is a sense in which it can be said that it is perhaps the classic statement on this whole matter of repentance in the entire Bible. It is the record of the agony of soul of David the king of Israel after he had been guilty of a particularly dastardly crime. A little caption in the Authorized Version says, `To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.’ In other words, there is a sense in which we cannot truly understand this psalm and its teaching unless we bear in mind the background which led to it.
It is a very unpleasant story. Yet I must remind you of it because life can be unpleasant. We are all, alas, capable of doing unpleasant things. The story in its essence is this. David was the king of Israel, and at this particular point in his reign his armies were engaged in warfare. David himself was not with the army; he had remained behind in Jerusalem. We are told that one day he happened to be seated on the roof of his house looking, apparently accidentally, in the distance, when he saw a very beautiful woman. This woman was the wife of a man who was fighting with David’s armies against the foe. David, having looked, and having liked this woman, coveted her and commanded her to be brought to him. She was brought to him and he committed adultery with her. He defiled her. Then, to cover up his sin, he sent to his commander-in-chief, Joab, and told him to send home Uriah the Hittite, the husband of this woman. He came and had an interview with the king. The king then dismissed him and told him to go home.
But this man was a man of honour and he did not go home to his wife. He felt he should not do that when the king’s armies were on the field of battle and when perhaps the fate of Israel was in jeopardy. He said, `No, no!. .. I cannot do that,’ and he slept on the doorstep. The king heard of this and he made the poor man drunk in an attempt to send him home. But again Uriah refused. So David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah. He said, in effect, `I want to get rid of this man; you must somehow or other put him in the forefront of the battle.’ Joab carried out the command. He arranged that Uriah the Hittite, and certain others, should be put in the forefront of the battle where the most valiant men of the opposing army were to be found. Poor Uriah was killed. Thus David obtained what he wanted and had his satisfaction and took this woman, Bathsheba the wife of Uriah, to be one of his wives. All seemed perfectly well. `But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord’ (2 Samuel 11:27).
David, however, went on quite happily until God sent Nathan the prophet to him. Nathan said to the king: `I have rather a sad thing to report to you. There were two men in your kingdom; one was a wealthy man and he had great flocks and an abundance of sheep and oxen, and there was another man, a very poor man who had just one ewe lamb. It was a kind of pet with him. But it happened that when somebody paid a visit to the great rich man, instead of killing one of his own sheep he took the one ewe lamb of the poor man and killed and dressed it for his guest. The poor owner was broken-hearted.’ David arose in wrath and declared: `The man who has done such a dastardly thing must be punished immediately!’ Nathan then stopped him and said, ‘Thou art the man!’, indicating that he had been speaking a parable to him to remind and to point out to him the very thing he himself had done in the case of Uriah the Hittite. That is the background.
David suddenly sees it and is filled with a sense of shame and horror, and it was in that condition that he wrote this fifty-first psalm. There is the story, there is the background. Now I hope to study this psalm with you because it directs our attention in a very graphic and forcible manner to some of the basic truths and facts concerning our life in this world. It especially bears on the great matter of our salvation.
According to the Bible there are certain steps through which we must of necessity pass before we can know the salvation of God in Jesus Christ. We go to church Sunday by Sunday because we are concerned about the propagation of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. My only reason for standing in the pulpit is that I believe that here in this Book is contained God’s way of salvation for mankind. It is the one thing that the world needs today. It is the answer to man’s need, and yet men and women ignore and deride it. There are many who are interested in it, and yet they have not experienced its power and saving grace. Why? Well, I say simply, it is because they have not realized that there are certain things which must happen before a man can experience the great salvation which is to be found in this gospel. There are certain things that we must realize, we must grasp, we must believe, and the first of these is repentance. That is why we are starting with this psalm; we must be clear about the whole question of repentance.
Read the case of any convert you can find in the Bible and you will always find that this element of repentance comes in. Read the lives of the saints, read the history of men who figure in the church of God in past ages, and you will find that every man who has really known the experience and the power of the grace of God in his life is always a man who gives evidence of repentance. I do not hesitate, therefore, to make this assertion, that without repentance there is no salvation. The need for repentance is one of those absolutes about which the Bible does not argue. It just says it. It just postulates it. It is impossible, I say, for a man to be a Christian without repentance; no man can experience the Christian salvation unless he knows what it is to repent. Therefore I am emphasizing that this is a very vital matter. John the Baptist when he began his ministry went out and preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. It was the first message of the first preacher. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we are told by Mark, went about and preached that men must repent. Repentance is absolutely vital. Paul went about and preached repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Peter preached on the day of Pentecost the first sermon under the auspices of the Christian church, and when he had finished certain people cried out, saying, `What shall we do?’’Repent!’ said Peter. Without repentance there is no knowledge of salvation, there is no experience of salvation. It is an essential step. It is the first step.
`Very well,’ says someone, `what do you mean when you say we must repent?’ Now this psalm is a classic statement on the whole matter and doctrine of repentance. In this first study I only want to deal with one aspect and one step, with what I regard as the first step in repentance. It is conviction of sin, or, if you like, it is our confession of our sinfulness. If you care to give a title to this sermon, you could say that we are going to deal with the sinner’s confession, our conviction of sin and the confession of our sinfulness.
Here, again, is something that I do not hesitate to describe as an absolute essential. It is because they do not realize the biblical teaching concerning sin that men fail to realize so many other things that are contained in the Christian gospel. There are so many people today who say that they do not see the need of the incarnation; that they do not understand all this talk about the Son of God having come down to earth; that they do not understand this talk about the miracles and the supernatural; that they cannot follow this idea of the atonement and terms such as justification and sanctification and the rebirth. They say that they do not understand why all this seems to be necessary. They would argue like this: `Isn’t it the church that has evolved all these theoretical, purely abstract ideas? Aren’t they things which have been conjured up in the minds of theologians? What have they to do with us, and where is their practical relevance?’ I would like to point out that people who talk like this do so because they have not realized the truth about sin. They have not realized the full meaning of the biblical teaching about sin. They have not realized that they themselves are sinful. But the Bible, in sharp contrast, constantly insists upon this from the beginning to the end. Indeed, I would put the Bible’s challenge to the modern world in this form. It tells us that the life of man, whether individually or collectively, simply cannot be understood apart from the doctrine of sin. Here we are in this modern and perplexing world; we are conscious that something is wrong, and the question is: `What is wrong?’ Politicians do not seem to be able to solve our problems. Philosophers are asking questions but they do not seem to be able to answer them. All our efforts do not seem to put the world right. The Bible says, `You are ignoring the one thing which is the key to the situation! It is sin. Here is the cause of the trouble in individuals, in intimate human relationships, in international relationships everywhere. This is the difficulty.’
Now the Bible emphasizes this everywhere and in an amazingly honest manner. That is to me always one of the most extraordinary, fascinating things about this Book. It conceals nothing. I cannot understand the man who does not believe in this Book as the Book of God. It is so very honest. It does not attempt to whitewash its greatest heroes. It does not attempt to build up a great picture of a collection of heroes without blemish. Mythology does that and mankind generally does it. But the Bible never does so. It shows men in their weakness as well as in their strength. It does so for one reason only—its ultimate interest is not in these men at all, but in the truth of God. I want you to see that the common idea that Christians claim that they are better than other people is an utter travesty of the Christian position. The Christian position is rather that I believe that I am utterly and absolutely hopeless apart from the grace of God. I am what I am by the grace of God—that is the biblical statement. The case of the Bible is that the only hope for man is in the gospel and in the grace of God.This is a gospel for sinners. There is a sense in which it has nothing to say to a man until he sees himself a sinner. In other words, the object of its statements to him is to make him see himself a sinner. The Bible has nothing to say to a man who has not repented. Its first call is a call to repentance. In this way does it deal with this terrible doctrine of sin.
And its case about sin can be put in this form, that sin is a terrible malign power, that sin is such a terrible, such a powerful thing that it gets us all down, that every man who has ever lived in this world has become the victim of it. It tells us that the power of sin is as great and terrible as this—that even a marvellous and wonderful man like David the king of Israel could fall in the way I have already described. `Now,’ says the Bible, `until you realize that you are up against a power like that, you have not started to think clearly. If you do not realize that, all the while you are in this life and in this world, there will be this terrible infernal power within you and around and about you, then you are a mere novice in these matters! The fact is that here in this world there are principalities and powers, rulers of the darkness of this world, spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places, begging, beseeching you, getting you down.’ That is the biblical doctrine of sin. That is the terrible thing which is revealed to us in this psalm. The first step is that man must realize and confess his sinfulness.
Actually this fifty-first psalm is what you might call, if you like, `A prayer of a backslider’. It was the prayer of a man who had believed God and had experienced the gracious dealings of God. It is about a man who falls though he knows the truth. But that does not make any difference. What David tells us here about sin is always true of sin, whether it is the sin of a believer or an unbeliever. Sin never changes its character, and therefore what David has to say about sin is something that is always a universal truth about sin. Here, then, we are shown the steps and the stages through which a man inevitably passes when he becomes convinced and convicted of his sin. I merely want to pick them out and underline them.
The first is this. He comes to a knowledge of and an acknowledgment of the fact that he has sinned. Listen to David in verse 3: `For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.’ The first thing, therefore, that happens to a man when he becomes convinced and convicted of sin is that he faces his sin and really looks at what he has done in an honest manner. This whole story tells us that that was exactly what David had not done. Now is there not something almost incredible about this, that a man could do the things which David did and yet really not face them? Surely David must have felt he was doing wrong; yet he did it! He never really faced the fact of wrongdoing, and he went on refusing to face it. And, having done these terrible things, David would still not have faced them, were it not that God sent the prophet Nathan to him and made him face them by giving him details of the same thing as it happened in a different form. Thus David saw, and he was humbled to the dust. That is how he came to write this fifty-first psalm. This is always the first step. We must stop and think, we must pause for a moment and face ourselves, and face the life we have lived and what we have done and what we are doing.
Now I know that this is very unpleasant, and people dislike a gospel that says a thing like that. But if you want to know God’s salvation you have to repent, and the first step is conviction of sin, and the first way to become convicted of sin is to stop and look at yourself. Is it not amazing, I ask again, that David could do the things he did and not face them? There are all the things he has done, but he carries on. How can he do so? There is only one way of carrying on in such a position and that is to refuse to face what you are doing and to stop to think. That is why I do not denounce the so-called pleasure mania, which is just an attempt on the part of people to run away from this. It is unpleasant to have to spend a night with yourself and ask, `What kind of life am I living? What are the things I fondle in my imagination and in my mind?’ Yet this is absolutely essential; we have to stop and face ourselves and the life we are living. We are all remarkably like David. How easy it is to excuse things in ourselves, to pass them by and to dismiss them! Yet we are so ready to denounce with fury the same things when we see them in another, or when a like case is put before us. This is part of human nature. This is true of all of us as the result of the Fall and of sin. We devise all these methods of running away from ourselves. Let me ask a simple question at this point: `Have you faced yourself?’ Forget everybody else. Hold up a mirror before yourself, look back across your life, look at the things you have thought and done and said, look at the kind of life you are living. Are you satisfied with it? Do you pass in other people’s lives some of the things which you yourself do? Would you pass them as having a clean sheet? The first call to man by God is to be honest, to stop arguing and to face himself. Let him examine himself. And, yes, let me go still further, let us stop arguing about religion and theology and let us for once just look at ourselves honestly and squarely. That is the first step. `I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.’ Have you faced it, have you really examined yourself and really looked into your own heart? There is no hope for a man who does not do that, and the truth about the modern world is that people are running away from just this. They are crowding into cinemas, reading novels—anything to fill up their lives and keep them from thinking. I say that you have to fight for your life and you have to fight for your soul. The world will do everything to prevent you facing yourself. My dear friend, let me appeal to you. Look at yourself. Forget everybody and everything else. It is the first step in the knowledge of God and in the experience of His glorious salvation.
But let me hurry on to the second step. The second step is a recognition of the exact character or nature of what we have done. That is put here very perfectly in three words. The first is the word `transgressions’, the second is `iniquity’, and `sin’ is the third. Now let me say a little about these three words.
What does `transgression’ mean? It means rebellion, it means the uprising of the will against authority, and especially against a person of authority. That is the meaning of transgression. `Blot out my transgressions.’ In other words, David admits he has transgressed, he admits he has rebelled. He has rebelled against an authority, against someone. His own will has risen up within him and he has asserted himself. He has been governed by desire and has allowed himself to be swayed by lust. Transgression means a desire to have our own way, a desire to do what we want to do, what we like doing. It involves a deliberate choice, it involves an act of active defiance. It always means that we do something that our own conscience tells us to be wrong. It is a wilful, deliberate act of disobedience, a violation of authority—that is the meaning of transgression. Every man who repents realizes that he is guilty of that. He is prepared to admit, `Yes, I did it, though I knew it was wrong! I knew the voice within me, my conscience, said no, but I did it. I was a rebel, I did it deliberately!’
`Iniquity‘, what does that mean? Well, iniquity means that an act is twisted or that it is bent. It means perversion, and this is obvious in the case of David. `Wash me throughly from mine iniquity!—the foul thing, that dastardly thing. What was it in me that made me do it? That twist, the perversion! How perverted I must have been to do that!’ You remember what David had done. I need not stay to emphasize the twist, and his bent condition, and the perversion of it all. And, in this respect, how true this is of every act of which we are all guilty. You and I may not be guilty of murder, thank God! We are not guilty of some of the other things of which David was guilty. But I ask you as you examine yourself, do you not see that so many things you do are twisted and perverted? Do you not see that so many of your actions in life are bent? Jealousy and envy and malice—how horrible the twist! The desire that evil may come to someone, the dislike of praise of another—evil thoughts, bent, twisted, ugly, foul—‘iniquity’! And we are all guilty of iniquity. Is there anyone who would like to deny that there is such a twist in him, and that so many of his actions have had this horrible twist and perversion in them?
And, then, concerning the last word, `sin‘. What does sin mean? Sin means missing the mark, and that is a very good way of putting it. The thought it conveys is this—that we are not living as we ought to be living. There is a man aiming at a mark; there is his target. He shoots, but he misses it. He has missed the mark. It means that we are not what we should be, that we are ‘off the straight’. That is what sin always means. It indicates that a man is living a life which he was not meant to live. It shows that he is not treading the path God has marked out for him. He does not go straight ahead. He does not keep an even keel. There is a backward and a forward movement, there is a lack of straightness in it.
I need not press these points. I know that every person in this congregation must recognize that he or she is guilty of these three things—transgression (or rebellion), iniquity (or perversion, twist, bent actions) and sin (i.e., missing the mark, not getting there, not being what we ought to be, what we are meant to be, going here, there and everywhere instead of where we ought to be going—straight forward). The second step in the conviction of sin and the confession of sin is that man recognizes that that is the character of his life and actions.
Then step number three is that man realizes and confesses that all this is done against God and before God. `Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.’ ‘Surely’, says someone, `that must be wrong? David ought to have said, “Against Bathsheba, against Uriah, against the men who were killed in that battle, against Israel and my people have I sinned.” But he says, “Against thee, thee only.. .”‘ Ah, he is quite right! He does not deny that he has sinned against the others, but here he is going a step further forward. He realizes that his actions are not simply actions in and of themselves. He sees that they not only affect and involve other people, but the real essence is that he has sinned against God. Now that is the essential difference between remorse and repentance. A man who suffers remorse is one who realizes he has done wrong, but he has not repented until he realizes that he has sinned against God.
Why should he feel that? Let me try to answer the question in the following manner. Sin, you see, means a violation of what God has made, and of what God intended man to be. Let me put it, in a preliminary fashion, in this form. When a man sins, he is not only doing certain things himself which he should not do; he is sinning against human nature, he is letting it down. He is sinning, therefore, against humanity, and because of that he is sinning against God who made man. God made man perfect, and God intended man to live that perfect life. He gave him the possibility of doing so, and when a man sins he lets God down. `Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.’ I have violated what God intended man to be. I am twisting and perverting God’s creation. Every time I sin I am violating God’s holy law. The Ten Commandments, the moral law, the common idea of decency in human nature—all this is derived from God. It is there, we are all aware of it, and every time I am guilty of transgression or iniquity or sin, I am violating the holy law of God, and the plan laid down for man’s life. Indeed, I am also violating, as I have reminded you, my conscience within me. Conscience has been placed in me by God. I am not responsible for it. How often have we wished that we did not have a conscience! But it is there. You know that inward voice that speaks and tells you not to do a thing. If you do it you are violating the rule of God. It is also sin against God because it means that we do all these things in spite of His goodness to us. I think that was the thing that broke the heart of David more than anything else. God had been so good to him. He was only a shepherd boy and God had made him king of this great kingdom and granted him such abundant blessings. Yet David confesses, `I have done this dastardly thing.’ He says, `Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.’
God gave you the gift of life. You did not bring yourself into this world, and you are a unique personality. He has showered His blessings upon you. He has put you in a family, surrounded you by love. He has sent you food and shelter. He could have withheld all that. Think of the goodness God has bestowed upon you in different ways! Yet we defy Him! We sin against Him and against His amazing goodness and kindness and love with respect to us!
What is the next step? The next step is that man finds that he has absolutely no excuse or plea. `Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.’ In other words, David is telling God: `I haven’t a single excuse. I have no plea. There is nothing to be said for me. There is no reason for what I have done. The whole thing was the result of utter wilfulness. I am altogether wrong. I have nothing to plead in mitigation.’ I want to emphasize this. I say that this is an absolutely essential part of repentance and of conviction of sin. I therefore plead with you to examine yourselves and examine your actions. Can you justify all you have done? Can you really put up a plea of mitigation? Let me take up the position of Nathan the prophet. What if I stood in this pulpit and described your life to you in a parable about somebody else? Would you see this? We must examine ourselves in this respect. Let me put it bluntly, by putting it to you like this. As long as you are in the position of trying to justify yourself you have not repented. As long as you are clinging on to any attempt at self-justification and self-righteousness, I say you have not repented. Surely the man who is repentant is the man who, like David, says: `There is not a single excuse. I see it clearly. I have no justification. The things which I see in my life—I hate them, I had no business to do them, I did them wilfully, I knew it was wrong. I admit it! I frankly confess it—“that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest”.’ Do you feel that God is rather hard on you when He condemns you? Do you feel that God would be dealing unfairly with you if you ever found yourself in hell? If you do, you have not repented. I would emphasize that the test of repentance is this, that a man having looked at himself, and at his own heart and life, says to himself: `I deserve nothing but hell, and if God sends me there, I haven’t a single complaint to make. I deserve nothing better!’ That is an essential part of repentance, and without repentance there is no salvation. The man, I say, who has a conviction of sin is the man who comes to these steps. And that brings me to the last.
The last step is that he realizes and recognizes that his very nature is essentially evil. `Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ You see the steps? The first thing is that he stops and faces the facts, he looks at himself. Then, in the second step, he recognizes the actions of which he has been guilty and admits they are wrong in three respects. And then he says, `Yes, but this involves God, and I have sinned against God.’ The next step comes when he acknowledges, `I am without a single plea and excuse.’ But then he asks himself: `What made me do it? Whatever brought me to that? What is it about me that makes me capable of all these things—jealousy, envy, hatred, malice, avarice, desire, lust, passion?’ Then at last he comes to see it, and declares: `My very nature must be corrupt, my very heart must be evil! It is not the world outside me, it is something in me that is rotten!’ In other words, the ultimate step in this conviction of sin is that man rises from a realization of his sins to a realization of sin and of his utter worthlessness.
This last step is the one which Paul describes in the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans: `I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing … 0 wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ (verses 18,24). That is, he declares: `Within me I am rotten, I am foul, my heart is black. It is not merely that I do the things which I should not do, it is I myself. It is that I have a desire to do these things, I want to do them. Why? Because there is that in me which responds to the attraction of evil. It is that which bothers me. It is that I am capable of it and that I enjoy it. It is my heart, it is not the world.’ As Shakespeare put it,
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
`Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ From the moment of my birth into this world there is a tendency in me towards evil; there is something twisted and perverted. It is in me; it is part of my being and nature.
Those, then, are the steps in conviction of sin and in confession of sin.
If you see the truth of what I have been trying to say, do you not feel like crying out with David, `Have mercy upon me, 0 God’? That is the right thing, the only thing to do, my friend. If you see yourself as one who has sinned, then, I beseech you, fly to God, cast yourself upon His mercy. You will not do it in vain. You will find He has made full provision for you. He sent the Son of His love into this world just for you, to die for your sin on Calvary’s hill. Your sin has been punished, He has blotted it out there, He will wash you and make you whiter than snow, He will give you everything you need. Hasten to Him. If you have seen the need, you will do so. The man who sees it, as David saw it, immediately cries out, `Have mercy upon me, 0 God … wash me’. Do the same and your prayer will be gloriously answered, and you will know the joy of God’s great salvation. (11-34)