Opening Scripture

Sin and Mercy

Psalm 41:4 I said, LORD, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee.

This is an illuminating prayer. It contains within it a great deal of theological information. It is illuminating,

First, in the matter of sin. What is sin? This verse gives us an answer.
A. Sin is an offense against God. When David confesses his sin he admits that it is against God (cp. Psalm 51:4). Sin is contrary to God: it is opposition to Him, rebellion against Him. Sin is transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4): it is an insult to His majesty; it is a denial of His glory.
B. Sin is self-destruction. Notice the petition, heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee. Sin has injured David’s soul. It is like a wound, or a debilitating disease (compare Isaiah 1:2-6). But it is like a disease we have brought on ourselves, as when undisciplined eating produces high cholesterol, or when drunkenness results in cirrhosis of the liver. Sin is destructive: but sin is self-destruction. There are certain very obvious forms of this: we can think of people who cut themselves, or in some other way inflict pain on themselves; or you can think of someone so enslaved to alcohol that they’ll squirt hairspray into their mouths for the sake of the alcohol within it. But it is not just when people do things that are that obvious that sin is self-destructive: all sin is always self-destructive, even when it seems like what the sinner is doing is taking care of himself. Remember the words of Christ in Mark 8:36. A man can be a sinner who takes care of himself, who makes sure he has the best of everything, and yet his life is self-destructive: what does it profit to gain the whole world and lose your own soul? (Compare Luke 12:15-21). Or as Jonah puts it (2:8), they that observe lying vanities (that is, pursue after false gods or even the true God in the wrong way) forsake their own mercy.

Second, in the matter of mercy.
A. Mercy is the answer to sin. God’s mercy can heal the wounds in our soul. In saying that I’m talking about more than the pain and bitterness that people feel, though that’s part of it: but there’s a lot more: there’s also the longing to sin, the hatred of God, the inability to even see what a slavery sin is. In other words, mercy is not just the answer to the consequences of sin: it is not just a way of reversing the self-destruction that our sin has caused. It is that: praise God that He restores the years that the locusts have eaten, He recovers the bitter waste of mind and heart and body on idols and vanity. But there is more: God deals not just with symptoms and results, He deals with the disease. Say that you have bronchitis, and because you cough so hard you break a rib, and they take you to the hospital. Well, they need to do something about that rib; and they need to do something about the cough; but that by itself doesn’t take care of the bronchitis. What’s needed is to get rid of the infection and build up your immune system so it doesn’t keep on or happen again. Well, that is somewhat like what mercy does. It does strap up our chests to protect the broken rib; it does suppress the coughing; but more fundamentally it gets down to the infection and takes it out. Mercy not only helps with the damage we’ve already caused: it gets right to the root of the problem, the stony and vicious heart of man that is not subject to the law of God and changes it for a heart of flesh. It takes a decaying corpse, and raises it to life, rather than just embalming it.

But God is the only one who can show this mercy. As sin is against Him, He is the only one who can forgive it. And He is the only one with the power to deal with it. And so we must go to the very one we have offended, we must go straight to the angry judge and plead for mercy from Him alone. It seems unlikely, doesn’t it, that He would have mercy. But remember that this same judge has sent forth His perfect and spotless Son, and that this Son died on the cross, bearing the punishment that really belonged to His sinful people. It is only by looking to Christ that we can understand that God will be merciful to all who call upon Him through Christ. Lord, be merciful to me; heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee. The only claim we have on God’s mercy is precisely the fact that we are sinners; but when we remember what Christ has done we know that it is enough of a claim. There is no reason in us why God should be merciful; but Christ shows us that there is a reason in God, that it is His good pleasure to hear and to save all that call on His name.

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