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  • Writer's pictureVicar Matt Doebler

Matins Devotion: November 15, 2022

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

These well-known words of David stand at the center of Psalm 51. This psalm is often called a penitential Psalm—meaning that it’s an expression of sorrow over sin and a desire for God’s forgiveness. In all, there are seven such penitential Psalms recorded for us in the scriptures—but Psalm 51 is certainly one of the most well-known and familiar of these texts—not only because of the richness of its theological content, but also because of the circumstances leading to its composition. The story behind the song—so to speak. The story of David’s uncontrolled lust, his act of adultery, and his subsequent murder of Uriah the Hittite.

But as familiar as we already are with these words, I want to give us an opportunity to slow down and meditate on them a bit more intentionally this morning—so that we can better grasp the wonderful meaning that lies at the heart of this psalm. In fact, Luther says that if we can learn to read Psalm 51 rightly then we will have become true theologians. We will have understood the true meaning of the entire Scriptures. And that meaning is this: Man is guilty of sin and stands condemned. But God restores us to righteousness and life through faith in His Son.[1]

Consider David’s plea: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” These words are interesting when we consider them against the backdrop of Genesis 1. Now, the Hebrew language has two verbs that can be used to express the idea of creating or making something: barah and asah. But while asah is used to describe the actions of both God and men—the verb barah is exclusively used to describe the way God creates.

And how does God create? Freely. Out of nothing. All because of his fatherly, divine goodness and mercy—without any merit or worthiness in you or me. That’s why Moses writes that “In the beginning God created”—elohim barah’ed—"the heavens and the earth.” When nothing else existed, God spoke—and through the power of his Word he created everything that was made. And that’s the same language that David uses here in his prayer of repentance: leb tahor barah-li elohim. Create in me a clean heart, O God!

David cries out for God to do what only God can do. He asks God to speak into the black nothingness of his soul and call into existence something new. A clean heart. A pure heart. A perfect heart. A heart that is steadfast and loyal to God because it is created by the power of the very Word of God.

In David's prayer of repentance, we see clearly what our Lutheran confessions mean when they speak of repentance as having two parts: contrition and faith. [2] Contrition is the effect of the law. It is the terror we experience when God’s word reveals that he is angry over our sin and that, because of our sin, we will surely die. But contrition alone doesn’t produce repentance. Fear alone doesn’t cause us to turn to God. That’s why contrition is always accompanied by faith. It’s through faith that we, in our terror, hear and cling to the promises of Christ. By faith, we hear and cling to that Word which is spoken into the dark void of our hearts—that Word which barahs—which creates in us a new heart—which declares us to be new creations. That Word which comforts us in our fear by assuring us that all the old things have passed away—and that, in Christ, all things have been created anew.

This is why Luther calls this Psalm the heart of all the Scriptures. Because it not only shows us who we are as sinners, but, more importantly, it shows us what kind of God we have. We have a God whose love doesn’t find, but creates that which is pleasing to him. [3] We have a God who removes our heart of stone, and speaks into existence a heart of flesh. A heart that is pure. A heart that is faithful. A heart that is clean.

[1] Luther’s Works, 12:311 [2] Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 12

[3] Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 28

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