A Stubborn Stain

A Stubborn Stain

Psalm 51:2-3
by Bob Burridge ©2012

When I taught chemistry I made it a habit to wear a lab coat. It was not just to look scientific. It served a very important purpose. Some of the materials we used were highly corrosive, and would hopelessly stain my clothes, even from a very small spilled drop or grain. As careful as I might be, it was not a chance I could afford to take. And with a classroom full of students there were always spills.

After a few years of use my lab coat was spotted and streaked here and there with stains. The stains were not superficial. Even after a good washing they would still be there. They effected the color and integrity of the fabric itself. To remove them would be to destroy the coat. It proved that I really did need the protection so that my nice clothes would survive. The coat took the stains.

The stains of sin on our soul are infinitely more stubborn and corrosive. No human effort can even lessen the stains, they are so much a part of the fabric of what we are. Our efforts to fix the problem in our own way actually make the stain worse.

In Psalm 51 David uses the imagery of
a stained garment to describe his sin.

King David had sinned with Bathsheba, then tried to cover it up by using deceit and violence. He even put Israel’s national security at risk to have her husband killed in battle. At God’s direction, the prophet Nathan confronted the King with his sins. David’s sorrow and repentance produced this Psalm. He began with this plea for mercy:

Psalm 51:1, “Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions.”

David offered no defense, no excuse. He knew the only relief for what he had done, was the grace of God, forgiveness from the very God he had offended.

So he began by pleading for grace, the unmerited mercy of God toward him as an unworthy sinner. Admitting he had no defense against the indictment, he asked that the charge would be blotted out. He begged that the words against him would be dissolved away from the legal parchments. Only the payment of his debt by God, the very one he had offended, could discharge his guilt and offense.

Then David continued his plea that God
would remove his guilt by grace.

Psalm 51:2, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin.”

David had come to understand that the stain of his sin was deep and needed a thorough and intrusive washing. The word for “thoroughly” in our versions translates a form of the Hebrew word rabah (רבה). It means to be or to become great, many, or much. In this form and when used with an active verb it means to do something repeatedly. Calvin explained saying, “he felt the stain of his sin to be deep, and to require multiplied washings.” David was emphasizing how seriously intrusive his sin was.

Unlike the typical response when someone is accused of something, David was not just concerned that his reputation would be protected. He did not try to cast his sin in politically correct terms, or attempt to minimize the guilt sin brings. He admitted the stain on his soul. It was not the fear of punishment that powered his grief. He was horrified by the offense of his sin in the eyes of God. He admitted a side of his character no one likes to see. He knew that from God’s perspective, what he had done was like an ugly and stubborn stain.

I remember a young lady in one of the Jr. High lab classes I taught who accidentally spilled a very diluted beaker of Hydrochloric Acid on her leg. It was not strong enough to hurt her skin, but it started to melt her nylon pantyhose. She looked down at the strings dangling and thought her skin was dissolving off. There was panic and screaming, then a race to the sink to wash off the spill. The terrified girl put her foot up in the lab sink and started calling for help. I ran in as quickly as I could to see what was going on. There she was, frantically splashing water on her leg. She was relieved and a little embarrassed to discover it was just the remains of her nylons.

Contrary to lab rules, this student had set the beaker at the edge of the lab table, then became distracted talking to a friend. She evidently bumped the acid container causing it to spill. Could she have denied that she had been careless? Not much chance of that. The effect of the acid was beyond denial. The evidence was there.

The same is true of the stains on our souls as seen by God. We might lie to others and deny our sins. We may even try to deceive ourselves, but God sees the tell-tale stains.

David knew the stain of his sins was clearly seen by God. Nathan had been sent to confront him with it. The Holy Spirit stirred the King’s soul to respond humbly to the Prophet. He knew he needed to admit his transgressions, and to beg to be washed clean. And he knew that the telling stain was an ugly blemish that deeply offended his Holy Lord.

Calvin said sin is like … “filth or uncleanness as it pollutes us, and makes us loathsome in the sight of God”

The words “wash me” and “cleanse me” follow a typical style of Hebrew poetry. It Repeats something in different words to expand upon it and to emphasize it.

The first term “wash” translates the Hebrew word cavas (כבס). It was a word particularly used for the washing of garments. Several commentators identify this with a process of preparing a fabric for use. The whole process was called fulling. A fuller was a worker who soaked and washed newly made cloth. He would sometimes work at it with brushes or mallets, then dry it out. This was done so that the individual fibers that made up the cloth would expand and fill in the gaps between them. It gave a fullness to the freshly cleaned material.

The second term “cleanse” is the Hebrew word tahaer (טהר). It meant to brighten something, making it white, or clean like new. It was often used for ceremonial purifications. It is the word used in Scripture for the priestly cleansing of a person healed from having leprosy. David wanted his soul to be washed from its stain, to look fresh and new again.

Oh, if we could only turn back the clock to avoid the sins that brought about so much pain and guilt. The hurt often extends to those we love, to others effected by our transgressions. The most horrible part of every sin is the offense it brings against the God who made us.

But it’s a futile wish. There is no “do over” option. No one can turn back clocks. Nothing we do can remove the stain of sin on a soul. Only the hand of the Creator as Redeemer can take away the tell-tale and offensive marks. Only by the washing of the blood of the Savior can our sin blemished souls be made fresh and new again. The stains are not simply covered over or ignored. The debt demanded by our sins must be paid in full to preserve the principle of justice.

David knew he could not remove the consequences of his sin on his own. No human apology or personal sorrow could ever remove guilt. He knew that until God removed it by his work of grace, the stain would remain.

David continued his plea with words of confession.

Psalm 51:3, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me.”

David uses the plural here for his transgressions and sins. He is not just admitting to one particular discovered offense, or to some vague wrong doing. He sees a deeper moral pollution. He could not get this pervasive principle in his life out of his mind. It haunted him when he saw it for what it was. We can have no real inner rest and peace until our sin and guilt is removed. Along the way to this victory, the Holy Spirit first leads us to awareness of our sinfulness and the guilt it leaves behind.

At its root, confession is admitting to something. It literally means “to say along with”, therefore it is “to agree with what someone else is saying.” In the New Testament verses we usually quote when speaking of confession (such as 1 John 1:9 “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins …”) the Greek word homologeo (ὁμολογεω) is used. This compound word literally means “saying the same”. When we confess our sins to God we are agreeing with him, saying the same things he would about our transgressions. There is no denial or deception.

We need to have God examine our hearts. Then we need take an honest look at what he shows us is lingering there. It is easy for us to call our wealth our own, our efforts our own, our skills our own. However, we often speak of sin as if it was something that victimizes us. But David owns his sin. He says I .. my .. my .. me. Here there is personal accountability.

God was maturing David. He had been brought to where he cried out to God in desperation. Before he could become greater in the Heavenly Kingdom, he had to know how little he was in any kingdom. This would be a hard lesson for a mighty earthly king. The weight of the Holy Spirit’s conviction pressed down upon King David’s heart. He could not escape its inward torture.

Who are the ones who are properly reconciled and made right with God? Calvin wisely says, “they are such as have had their consciences wounded with a sense of sin, and who can find no rest until they have obtained assurance of his mercy.” It is the awareness of the depth of our sin that drives us to God all the more passionately.

Knowing the root cause is vital to properly dealing with any problem.

I had repeated ear problems when I was very little. There were many nights when I would lay awake in pain. We made countless trips to ear specialists who were not able to fix the problem. It even ended up rupturing my ear drum. The problem at the root of it all was not my ears. Our doctor finally made the connection with inflamed and enlarged tonsils. They were blocking the Eustachian tube causing pressure to build up in the middle ear. Once the infected tonsils were removed I never had ear problems again. The problem was that we were looking at where the pain was instead of finding what was causing the pain. If we only treat the feelings or symptoms, we will never get rid of the cause.

The same problem can distract us from dealing with our moral and spiritual problems. Why do some struggle inwardly and feel no real satisfaction in their blessings? Perhaps it’s partly because they have not yet seen the depth of their sin and come broken to the Savior. Perhaps they have not yet come to appreciate the wonder and importance of God’s grace.

Conscience is a harsh tormentor, but God put it there to serve a good purpose. Sadly, people under conviction of sin often fail to discover, and deal with the root problem. They try to deaden the conscience by removing the feelings of guilt. The symptoms that bother us are the focus, rather than dealing with the cause of the feelings.

The modern treatment comes in a variety of ways. Doctors prescribe drugs to cover up the feelings, or therapists try to disarm the conscience morally. They tell us our sin is either not so bad, or that it is someone else’s fault. They enable us to blame our parents for not being caring enough, or our church for setting too high a standard, or others for expecting too much of us.

But God tells us that our conscience is a symptom warning us of a serious problem. Sometimes it is because we have neglected our duties. Sometimes we have excused our sins. Some may not yet have learned the relief of true divine forgiveness in Christ. As long as such things are not dealt with in God’s way, the weight of conscience presses down on the soul.

Conviction of sin is there to drive the child of God to his Father’s grace. It fills him with the detesting of sin as preparation for the wonderful healing of the soul.

What detergents do people use to try to remove the stains of sin?

We live in an age of savvy advertising and slickly worded commercials. Competing brands of laundry detergents and stain removers claim superiority over one another. We have learned that not all of them really do the job as well as they claim.

There are so many false claims about how to make our souls right with God too. We get the idea that removing the problem of sin comes in many ways, different brands. There is a whole array of soul cleaning products on the market that appeal to our fallen hearts. But they are the slick lies of Satan. They hide the stain from us, but do not remove its offensiveness from the eyes of our Lord.

One popular suggestion is to just let time go by. Some say we should just put it out of our minds. They say, “Time heals all wounds.” But when we have a bad stain deep in the fabric of our clothes, will it fade away with time? What if you took stained clothes to a laundry or dry cleaner, and the clerk said, “live with it … eventually it will blend in with the rest of the fabric. Just ignore it.” I suspect you would go find another cleaning service.

Joseph’s brothers tried this remedy for the stain of sin. It did not work. They jealously sold Joseph to traders and lied to their father saying that the brother had been killed by an animal. The guilt of their sin and deception continued to eat at them long after the event. Many years later in Genesis 42:21 they confessed, “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.”

Time heals nothing. One of the Watergate conspirators said that “time does not heal all wounds, time wounds all heels”. If sin is left alone, the stain sets deeper and the guilt working in us worsens. If it seems to fade with time it most likely is that it has diminished our sensitivity to moral evil.

Another common belief is that doing good works will remove the stain of sin. Of course its always good to do good. It’s always our duty. But you cannot erase existing guilt by the rest of the time not being guilty. The idea that good deeds balance out evil deeds is Satan’s masterpiece of deception. False religion is based upon that deadly idea.

No criminal is set free and his record expunged just because he did some good deeds to counter the bad ones. A mass murderer may have only spent a few days of his life killing people. But what defense would it be if he simply told the judge that “the rest of the time in his life he never killed anybody”? Or that when he realized what he did, he gave a lot to charity, or started to volunteer his time in a home for the elderly?

How can we imagine that if we have offended God so infinitely, that doing the good we ought to be doing anyway should excuse us from God’s Justice?

Besides, our works in themselves are not good at all when not done for the glory of Christ. Paul said in Romans 14:23, “… whatever is not from faith is sin.”

The Prophet Isaiah said in Isaiah 64:6, “… all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags…” Even our best works are imperfect because of the mixed motives that drive us inwardly. Scripture tells us that if we think we deserve forgiveness or can earn redemption by doing good works, we actually become all the more repulsive to God. If we think that by our own deeds we can earn what only the death of Christ could accomplish, our deeds condemn us for such arrogance.

God’s word describes the relationship between good works and forgiveness differently. Philippians 2:13 says, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

So the good works men falsely depend upon, are not the cause of grace. They are the result of it. Without grace being evidenced by humble confession and trust in Christ, what we claim as good works are an abomination, just as the Prophet Isaiah told us. Trying to keep the moral law is a good occupation, but it cannot cleanse us from past sin.

Some try to hide the stains by dressing them up. Sin is re-defined. What God says is wrong, becomes culturally acceptable and cool. People wear the stains proudly as if the they are evidence that they are not just kids anymore, as if they prove they are keeping up with the times. They turn the moral tables around, and call us bigots if we believe in God’s moral standards.

But Isaiah long ago said in Isaiah 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”

Calling sin something else will not transform it into something good. Dressing up the stains may make our sin seem attractive to others who love their own fallen ways, but they continue to be an offense against God. The stain only deepens.

There is only one way moral stains can be washed away.

The only true agent of moral cleansing is the work of the Savior. Isaiah 53:4-6 predicted his work, “Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells how Jesus Christ fulfilled those words, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

The cleansing work of Christ is applied to the heart by grace. This work is evidenced by true repentance and the confession of faith. 1 John 1:9 tells us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

We need to confess sin for what it is, for the impossibility of removing it by anything we do, and to confess Christ as our only hope of forgiveness.

When there is no interest to stop sinning, and no desire to live humbly before God, then evidence is lacking that grace is at work in the person’s life. However, we are not told to wait around for grace to strike us. You will only know it is there when you are humbly obeying the gospel call. God commands that we get about the work of confession and faith in Christ, that we do it immediately, and continuously.

The cross cleanses because there the Savior took the stains upon himself for his people. True biblical faith is the absolute trust that the Messiah alone removes sin and its ugly blemishes. It continues to bring the believer under conviction when he sins, and drives him to the cross for restoration.

So , how do you deal with the stains that accumulate from your daily sins? Might it be that much depression and despair in life is really the pain of conscience? When you feel that persisting guilt, when the weight of your sin discourages you, do not run to the shelf of human inventions and false remedies. They only appear to remove the stains by dulling your awareness of them. Meanwhile the disease of moral corruption continues on.

Do as David did, as he said in this Psalm. Admit your transgressions and how they haunt your soul. Call out to God to wash you thoroughly from your iniquity, to cleanse you from your sin. Come to the Savior. Though you are but once regenerated and declared holy by the merits of Christ, you will still sin in this earthly part of your life. Our Lord calls you to come again and again, as often as you need, to the assurance of the cleansing secured by our Savior on Calvary. Be washed and made new again. Know you are forgiven and set free!

(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

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