Only the Penitent Shall Pass

            Many of you are familiar with the Indiana Jones movies.  Those films are not very accurate from a theological perspective, but there’s one scene that I think makes a good biblical point.  In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones must pass three tests in order to reach the Holy Graill.

            The first test is called “the Breath of God”.  As he approaches, Indiana hasn’t yet figured out the puzzle.  As he takes what could be his last steps, he whispers over and over the one clue he has: “Only the Penitent Man Shall Pass.”  The word penitent means someone who is sorry for the mistakes they’ve made and the things they’ve done.

            As Indiana moves slowly forward, he keeps repeating, “The penitent man will pass.  The penitent man is humble before God.  The penitent man is humble.  The penitent man kneels before God.  Kneel!”  And just as Indiana Jones kneels on the ground, two massive circular saws emerge from the wall, barely missing his head and his famous fedora.

            As I said earlier, the theology of the movie isn’t very accurate, but it does get one thing right: a journey of faith, even for the hero, must begin with repentance. 

            King David was a man who genuinely loved God.  But there was a part of his life that he never fully submitted to the authority of the Lord.  He allowed sin to get a foothold in his life, and that led him to a place where he did some things that, in the earlier years of his life, David never would have imagined himself doing.

We saw last week that David began with a lust which led to adultery, which led to a frantic attempt to cover up his sin, eventually resulting in the murder of several innocent men. 

            One commentator has pointed out that David broke at least six of the Ten Commandments.

            He put his own desires before God (the 1st commandment)

            He committed murder (the 6th commandment)

            He committed adultery (the 7th commandment)

            He stole something that wasn’t his (the 8th commandment)

            He lied and deceived (the 9th commandment), and

            He coveted (the 10th commandment)

And you would think that after David had committed such terrible sins — especially adultery and murder — that, afterward, he must have been extremely sorry for what he did and repented for his sins, but that’s not what happened.

By the time we get to 2 Samuel chapter 12, David’s pregnant wife Bathsheba has given birth to a baby boy.  That means more than nine months have passed by since David committed those sins, and there has been no repentance whatsoever.  David simply covered up what he did and moved on.

So, here’s the first thing we learn from this story: The natural response to sin is not repentance.  There’s a pattern in the Bible that we see from the very beginning in Genesis.  God places Adam and Eve in a beautiful garden.  Everything is provided for them.  They have loving companionship, meaningful work, and they are given every kind of tree imaginable to provide them with food. 

But God said there’s one tree from which they are not allowed to eat the fruit — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  But, of course, we know that Eve eventually ate that fruit.  And then she gave some to Adam, and he also ate.  Notice what happened after that.

Up to this point, Adam and Eve had walked in fellowship with God and you would think that Adam’s immediate response to what he had done would be to go to God and say, “Lord, I have something to confess. I’ve sinned against you.  I ate from the tree that you told me not to eat from.  I feel terrible about what I’ve done, and I want to ask for your forgiveness.”

But, that’s not what happened.  Instead, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8).  And if God hadn’t gone looking for them and called them out for what they did, that’s where they would have remained.

            The natural response to sin is not repentance, but hiding.  It’s to cover up and try to move on.  Adam knew he was a sinner, so he tried to stay as far away from God as he could.  It’s the most natural reaction in the world.  So, we’re not surprised to find out that that was David’s response to his sin.

            But I’d like for you to think for just a few moments about what it must have been like for David during those months when he was covering up his sin and tring to move on with his life.  We actually know what it was like for David because later he wrote Psalm 32, and he reflected back on those months when he was covering up his sin.

            Listen to what he wrote: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” (Psalm 32:3-4).

            Don’t think for a moment that when David covered up his sin and tried to move on, everything was wonderful in his life.  It wasn’t.  In fact, this was without a doubt the most miserable year of David’s life.  Because he had a guilty conscience, and guilt is one of the heaviest burdens we can bear. 

            Here was a man in a palace. He had money, he had privilege, and he had the wife that he wanted.  But David lived every day with the guilt of what he had done.  Even when he was enjoying all the things that kings enjoy, the guilt was still there.  He went to bed at night with a guilty conscience, and when he woke up in the morning, the guilt was still there.  David couldn’t get what he had done out of his mind.

            David said his “strength was dried up” (Psalm 32:4).  He had no energy.  He lost his zest for life.  His enthusiasm for what he was doing was gone.  God’s blessing on his life had departed and David was miserable.  The natural response to sin is not repentance, but hiding from God, and that experience for a believer is always miserable.

            But here’s the good thing about it — David’s misery was a sign that he truly loved God. Someone who doesn’t know God or love God isn’t going to miss God when he’s gone.  But if you’re one of God’s children, you can never really be happy when you’re hiding from God.  That was David’s experience and, if you love the Lord, it will be your experience as well whenever you try to cover up your sin and move on.  The guilt is unbearable.

            So, where do we go from here?  At this point in time, David is miserable, but he’s not repentant.  Up to this point, there’s been no confession of sin, no trying to make things right with God.  Months have passed, and in all that time, there hasn’t been any repentance.  As David himself said, “I kept silent” (Psalm 32:3).

            And the flagrant sins of this man that God had blessed so much was an absolute insult to God.  God is going to say to David later in this chapter, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord to do what is evil in his sight?…you have despised me…you have utterly scorned the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:9, 10, 14).  What is God going to do with a man who, despite his many privileges, has scorned him, despised him, and broken one commandment after another?

            God could have said to David, “This is the end for you.  Your reign is over.  That’s how it was for King Saul, and that’s how it’s going to be for you.”

            And we wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we found out that God raised up the Ammonites (or some other enemy), and their armies wiped out the armies of Israel, and David and all his sons were killed in battle.  That’s what happened to Saul, so why shouldn’t it happen to David?

            Maybe you think that’s what God should have done to David.  How can God allow David to remain as king over his people after acting like that?  But that’s not what God did.

            Or God could have said, “David has despised me and scorned me. Therefore, I’m done with him.  He can carry on as king if he wants to, but he’s going to have to do it on his own.  I’m withdrawing my presence from his life.  I’m withdrawing my Spirit.  David is on his own.  I’m not going to have anything more to do with him.”

            And again, we wouldn’t be surprised to read that.  That’s basically what we find in Romans chapter 1.  When wicked men set their hearts on evil, God gives them up (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). “You’re on your own.  I’m going to leave you to let you do whatever you want to do.”  But that’s not how God dealt with David. 

            Or God could have said, “If David wants to come back to me, I will forgive him.  I’m always open to reconciliation, but the ball is in David’s court.  He’s got to make the first move and if he doesn’t, then I’m done with him.”

            Again, we wouldn’t blame God if that’s what he did.  But if that was God’s response to our sin, we would all be lost forever.  None of us would ever come back to God because the natural response to sin is not repentance, but to cover it up, to hide and run from God!

            What God does instead with David is a beautiful example of the way that God lovingly deals with all his children — he comes to us as a father, wanting to restore the relationship.  As David wrote in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd… He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:1, 3).  And we’re going to see this morning how God restores his children..

1.         The Power of God’s Word

            Notice in verse 1, “The Lord sent Nathan to David…” (2 Samuel 12:1).  God took the initiative.  He didn’t wait for David to make the first move.  He sent a prophet to David, who would speak to him the words of God.

            Nathan’s approach is to tell a story, a parable if you will.  In those days, the king was the Supreme Court justice in the land, so it was David’s job to pass judgment on various crimes.  Nathan presents his story as if it were a case that needed the king to give a verdict.

            Nathan said to David, “There were two men in a certain town.  One was rich, and one was poor.  The rich man owned a great many sheep and cattle.  The poor man owned nothing but one little lamb he had bought.  He raised that little lamb, and it grew up with his children.  It ate from the man’s own plate and drank from his cup.  He cuddled it in his arms like a baby daughter. 

            “One day a guest arrived at the home of the rich man. But instead of killing an animal from his own flock or herd, he took the poor man’s lamb and killed it and prepared it for his guest.” (2 Samuel 12:2-4)

            David’s reaction to this situation is to get absolutely furious.

            In verse 5, he said, “Any man who would do such a thing deserves to die!  He must repay four lambs to the poor man for the one he stole and for having no pity.” (2 Samuel 12:5-6)

            The Law of Moses said that if you stole an animal from your neighbor, you have to pay him back four times what you took.  That was the correct verdict.  But, David took it a step further.  He said, “This man deserves to die!  How dare he steal something precious that belonged to his neighbor when he already had so much himself.”

            At which point, Nathan turned to David and said, “You are that man!” David, I’m talking about you.  You had plenty of wives, but you stole your neighbor’s wife, his one wife that he loved dearly.”

            In verse 7, God said to David, “I anointed you king of Israel and saved you from the power of Saul.  I gave you your master’s house and his wives and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And if that had not been enough, I would have given you much, much more.  Why, then, have you despised the word of the Lord and done this horrible deed?  For you have murdered Uriah the Hittite with the sword of the Ammonites and stolen his wife.” (2 Samuel 12:7-9)

            To which, David immediately says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:14).   There’s no more hiding.  No more trying to cover things up.  No placing of blame.  Just a simple acknowledgment of guilt.  After more than nine months of silence, David confesses his sin to the Lord.  And this confession was the beginning of repentance in David’s life,

            But here’s what I want you to notice – it was the Word of God that broke through to David when nothing else could.  The passing of time didn’t bring him to repentance.  His conscience didn’t get him there.  The misery he was going through didn’t bring about repentance either.  But the Word of God broke through when nothing else could.

            Never underestimate the power of God’s Word to change a person’s life, to change your life.  It is “the power of God to salvation.” (Romans 1:16).   Jesus said of the Holy Spirit in John 16:8, “And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” There’s power in God’s Word.

2.         God’s Word Should Lead Us to Conviction

            Have you ever had the kind of crushing experience that David was going through?  You’ve sinned, you’ve broken God’s commandments, you thought you got away with it and then… you find out you didn’t.  Somebody knows.  Maybe it’s not the voice of a prophet but it’s the voice of the Holy Spirit working on us.

            The primary work of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of people who do not yet believe is to convict them of sin and bring them to true repentance.  And God’s Spirit continues that work in the lives of those of us who are Christians, bringing us to repentance as part of his work of making us more like Jesus.

            The first step in true repentance comes when we acknowledge from the depths of our hearts, “I have sinned against the Lord.  I’m responsible.  I’ve messed up.  I’m guilty.”

            As long as we’re not very specific, I think it’s easy for people to acknowledge that they are sinners.  “God, please forgive me of all the sins that I’ve committed.  We’ve sinned against you, and we’ve sinned against other people.  We’ve sinned in our thoughts and our words and deeds.  We’ve sinned through ignorance and weakness and our own deliberate intention.”  Those words are easy to say because they’re nice and general, and theologically correct without being very personal.

            But if someone comes up to us and calls us a “sinner” to our face, we would be offended.  And if they were to say, “You are a terrible sinner because you did this, this and this,” we would be very, very uncomfortable.

            But true repentance begins with, “You are that man.  You are that woman.  You’re the one who is responsible.  You’re guilty.”  And whether that challenge comes to me from another person or from the voice of the Holy Spirit deep within me, I need to realize that I am guilty of specific sins.  That’s conviction of sin.  It’s what’s meant in Acts 2, when Peter preached about how the Jews crucified Jesus and we’re told that the people were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37).  They were convicted.

            God’s Word should lead us to conviction.

3.         Our Conviction Should Lead Us to Confession

            Notice how David responded when Nathan said to him, “You are the man!”  You’ve got to understand that Nathan showed tremendous courage in saying something like that to the king.  But David didn’t lock Nathan up in prison or have him executed, as most other kings might have done.  David didn’t try to justify his sins.  He didn’t excuse his actions by saying they were within his rights as a king.   He didn’t protest his innocence.

            David realized the sinfulness of his actions.  Far worse than stealing a pet lamb, he had stolen another man’s wife.  In his reaction to Nathan’s parable, David had already said that he deserved to die.  David knows he can’t escape God’s wrath.  He does the only thing he can do.  He judges himself guilty and he repents.  He takes responsibility for his actions. 

            David doesn’t presume on God’s grace.  He doesn’t say, “God is such a good and loving God, surely he will forgive me because of all my good deeds.” No!  David simply says, “I have sinned against the Lord!”

            David’s full confession is recorded in Psalm 51.

“Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight.”
(Psalm 51:1-4)

            David mourned greatly because of his sin.  He had a broken and contrite heart before God. David had sunk into the depths of sin – but he didn’t want to stay there.  He begged God to get him out!  This was a true confession.

            Our conviction should lead us to confession.  And then…

4.         Conviction and Confession Leads to Forgiveness

            After David repented, what happened?   Verse 13, “Then David confessed to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  Nathan replied, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin.”  (2 Samuel 12:13)

            In I John 1, John tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)

            Our God is a God is grace.  And I’m so thankful that we serve and worship a God who is not only a holy God, a God of justice, but also a God of mercy and loving kindness, a God willing to forgive.

            Looking back on the whole experience, David wrote in Psalm 32: 

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered. 

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
(Psalm 32:1-2)

            If we’re willing to confess our sin, we can find forgiveness.  But we should never forget that…

5.         Sin Always Has Consequences

            As someone has put it, in real life, we can be forgiven for breaking the window, but we still have to sweep up the broken glass and repair the window.  There are always consequences to our actions, and like it or not, we have to live with those consequences, just like David did.

            Back in verse 10, God said, “From this time on, your family will live by the sword because you have despised me by taking Uriah’s wife to be your own.” (2 Samuel 12:10)

            And then, after his confession, Nathan tells David,  “The Lord has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin.  Nevertheless, because you have shown utter contempt for the word of the Lord by doing this, your child will die.”(2 Samuel 12:13-14)

            The tragic death of this innocent child points us to an important truth — our sin doesn’t just affect us, it also affects the people around us.  The long-term effects of one moment of sinful self-indulgence can be disastrous.  In the moment of temptation, we seldom pause to take that fact into account.  If we could only see the results of our actions in advance, most of us would say “no” to sin much more often than we do.

            You may feel that it’s unfair that David got away with his sin but that this child died.  And if you feel that way, you’re right.  It is unfair.  But unfortunately, that’s often how sin works.  When people lie or steal, or do much worse, it is often the people around them who end up being hurt the most.  Even when there is conviction and confession and forgiveness, sin still has consequences.

            But, at the same time….

6.         God’s grace is still at work. 

            No one could have blamed God if he had to David, “I’ll forgive you for the mistakes you made, but I need to find someone else who is more reliable and holy to work with.”  But again, that’s not what God did.  He still had plans for both David and Bathsheba.  

            In verse 24, we read, “Then David comforted Bathsheba, his wife, and slept with her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and David named him Solomon. The Lord loved the child and sent word through Nathan the prophet that they should name him Jedidiah (which means “beloved of the Lord”), as the Lord had commanded.” (2 Samuel 12:24-25)

            It’s hard to imagine that a relationship built on such a sinful foundation could survive, much less prosper.  But through God’s grace, this would be a household that would bless the world.  The marriage of David and Bathsheba produced Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.  He became the next king.  And Solomon, David and Bathsheba are all named as ancestors of Jesus Christ.

            We need to remember that God never brings condemnation without offering grace and healing.  Time and again, the Bible tells us that God wants to have an intimate relationship with each of us, and he goes to great lengths to invite us into that relationship.  The whole point of Nathan’s parable was not to punish David, but to restore him, to bring him to repentance.

            You see, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been — God’s healing, restoring grace is available for you, just like it was for David.  All we have to do is be willing to face God with the same painful honesty that was David’s first step toward rebuilding his life.  Our lives can be healed, restored, and rebuilt, just like David’s was.  The guilt that we’re carrying around that is such a heavy load can be removed, just like David’s was. 

            It all began with Nathan’s words, “You are that man!”  When we’re willing to admit before God, “I am that man. I am that woman.  I’m guilty of sinning against you”, then God’s forgiveness and cleansing and restoration can be ours.

            Conviction of sin – confession of sin – forgiveness of sin.  This is the grace of God.  If God can forgive David, he can forgive you and me.  Of deception.  Of adultery.  Of murder.  However great your sin is, God’s mercy is greater!  IF we truly repent.  And if we’re willing to take the steps necessary to have those sins washed away.

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered. 

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
(Psalm 32:1-2)

            Turns out Indiana Jones was right – only the penitent shall pass.


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