The Gospel Defies Everything We Assume About "Religion"
And is the only way to "walk in the ways of the Lord" with a motive not driven by guilt, fear, or self-righteous pride.
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Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
— Psalm 51:10
In his Psalm of repentance, David teaches us a lesson about humanity that defies everything man-made religion assumes. Man-made religion is inherently moralistic. Meaning that rightness, reconciliation, and peace with God is determined by the degree to which I purify myself from human corruption.
The ancient Egyptians believed that when a person died, his heart was weighed on a scale by the god of the underworld, Osiris. On one side of the scale was a feather. If the individual’s heart was pure, it would be lighter than the feather, allowing the soul to pass on to eternal blessing in the next life. But if the heart were heavier than the feather, it was considered full of cancerous impurity. At that moment, a ravenous beast called the Devourer, part lion, part crocodile, and part hippopotamus would emerge to consume the heart.
AVOIDING THE DEVOURER
For millennia, the human race has been seeking a way to avoid the Devourer.
Some have taken the route of denying their impurity, adjusting the scale by creating moral standards by which they are able to judge themselves righteous. This was a favorite pastime of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. If they could clean up the outside of their lives, it would hide their evil motives and wicked desires of self-righteousness. Others have sought to avoid the Devourer by meeting the purity standards with rigorous attempts to cleanse themselves by doing penance and making promises.
But David knew only the Designer of the physical and moral universe had the authority to determine purity, whether the object under consideration is gold, air quality, or the condition of the heart. As a bad sinner but good theologian, he teaches us the only way to find rightness, reconciliation, and peace with God is the degree to which God can purify me from my human corruption. This turns the tables over on what we typically assume about “religion.” And understanding the centrality of grace in being right with God is what not only transforms our status before the Lord but is what rewires our motives for walking in his ways as a forgiven son or daughter.
FROM JUSTIFYING GRACE TO SANCTIFYING GRACE
It is not hard to feel the grief in David’s heart. He wasn’t just sorry for getting caught but lamented how his actions had denied his love for God. It is the grief over his sin that confirms his true love for the Lord.
This is why he cries out with a renewed desire, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” He has pled the mercies of God and, with gospel confidence, believed not that he might be forgiven but that he will be forgiven. He will be whiter than snow. It is not maybe but a certainty.
Do you see what the grace of God does? It forgives. But it also empowers and motivates the heart to new obedience. For true believers, justifying grace eventually blooms into sanctifying grace. In view of his redemption by blood (the hyssop), David’s resting in the grace of the Lord stirred in him a deep desire to walk in the ways of the Lord.
The Hebrew word in verse 10 translated “renew a steadfast spirit” means to restore something that has been ruined. Using the same word in Isaiah 61:4, the prophet delivers a message of hope for Israel with a promise that would come true after their exile.
They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
The word “repair the ruined cities” is the same as “renew a steadfast spirit.” He felt the rubble of his soul and longed for the Lord to rebuild what had fallen into such devastating disrepair.
CHANGE IS POSSIBLE
Here is the hope for David and for each of us who feel shacked by sin. Change is possible. We don’t have to continue the cycle of damage that has taken place in our families and marriages. Our children can be given a new legacy.
But how? David shows us.
First, he expresses a longing for renewal.
It is as if he is saying, “Restore my desire to have the Spirit shape my life according to the blueprint of blessing that is the law of love. Empower me to love the Lord and to love others with the kind of self-giving, sacrificial, costly love I have received.” He wants to be steadfast, able, equipped, ready to face the battles as they come—not against a warning nation but against the insurgent corruption he feels so powerfully within himself.
Second, he knows the restoration of the heart must be the work of the Lord.
Every Hebrew man, woman, and child knew Genesis 1:1 by heart, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The word translated create is bara, which is the same word David uses to begin verse 10, “Create within me a pure heart.” Just like no human being can duplicate the creative power of the Lord in forming land, sea, sky, animals, and billions of galaxies out of nothing, we cannot create a clean, pure, new heart.
If his heart were to be weighed on the scale, David knows it would be devoured. The same is true for me and for you.
Where is the hope? Not in “religion.” After all, no Egyptian God would dare be consumed for the sins of a common mortal. Religion doesn’t work that way.
But the gospel does.
In his incarnation, Jesus was sent on a mission to rescue sinners from the Devourer. The way he did it defies everything we assume about how religion works.
Instead of having the guilty consumed because of their impurity, Christ submitted himself to be consumed instead when he offered his pure heart for our depraved heart. Taking my impurity upon himself, Jesus allowed all that was corrupt in my heart to be devoured by holy wrath.
What I receive as a believer in that epic event is the promise of Ezekiel 36:25-27, where the Lord says,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezek. 36:25–27).
The new heart is a gift to those who come to the end of themselves. We don’t earn it or deserve it. That is how gifts work. We can only receive them.
The same is true when I am broken enough to cry out for a new heart and a new spirit. If you are in that place, please know that grace flows downhill. Grace is not for the strong and able but for the weak and in need. Those are not just empty, religious words. They are the gospel.
ALL THIS IS FROM GOD
If you long for renewal and restoration of heart, I am so glad. I do, too! All that is left is to cry out, believing that the promise is yours, because everything necessary for the re-creation of your life was accomplished and completed by Jesus on the cross. There is nothing for you to add. As he said, “It is finished!”
Paul chimes in as well in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, saying, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God.”
All this is from God. The God who created the world is able to re-create your heart. Taking what was impure and making it pure. Renewing the sinner into a son or daughter. Filling you with his Spirit, empowering you to live a new life of grace in full view of the cross.