This year marks the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, which commenced with Martin Luther’s thunderous hammer on the doors of the Wittenberg church. Luther was simply calling for a civil debate with Catholic Church leaders concerning some doctrines that he believed they had gotten wrong. He aimed to help correct the errors and assumed that they would appreciate his concern. Obviously, they did not. But God did. And those who love the truth did—and still do.
Luther was concerned about many errors that he perceived in the monolithic Roman Catholic Church. But his fundamental concern was with the distortion of the gospel—with particular reference to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Luther was famously of the conviction that this is the doctrine by which the church stands of falls. And he was concerned that the Catholic Church was leaning and about to fall because it had added human merit to the merit of Jesus Christ.
His biblically-informed boldness for this doctrine resulted in a glorious recovering of the gospel. And this also resulted in a new stimulus towards the writing and singing of joyful and confident hymns in the church—some by Luther himself.
You see, the recovery of the gospel resulted in heartfelt joy. Luther, and those associated with him, revelled in the joy that the experience of being justified by faith alone brings. If Luther had lived in 1000 BC, perhaps the Lord would have used him to write Psalm 32!
This psalm celebrates the forgiveness that God grants to repentant, believing sinners. It is a celebration of being justified by faith alone. And since such justification is grounded in Christ alone, it points us to the celebration of our Lord Jesus Christ. In short, it is a celebration of the gospel.
As we briefly study these eleven verses, I pray that the Lord will open our eyes so that we too will celebrate God’s gospel—that is, the justification of we who believe.
There are various ways that we could approach this psalm. A very simple outline might: (1) The Gospel to Be Celebrated (vv. 1–5); and (2) The Gospel to Be Applied (vv. 6–11). For our purposes, however, I want to take a slightly different approach, and divide the psalm into five sections.
How Joyful We Should Be
In vv. 1–2, David writes of how joyful we should be: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
The Celebration of Forgiveness
David begins by celebrating the forgiveness he had experienced: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven” (v. 1a). Many suggest that this psalm was written after David’s confession of his sin with Bathsheba. We do not know that for sure, though it would fit the psalm well. Regardless, David clearly knew of the grace of forgiveness as he wrote this psalm, and he celebrated it.
The word translated “blessed” speaks of a deep, satisfying happiness. It is the kind of happiness that is experienced by those who are committed to God’s truth (cf. Psalm 1:1–3). David lost this blessedness when he defected, but when he returned to the Lord the joy of his salvation was restored to him.
David experienced forgiveness for his “transgression.” The word speaks of defiance of a boundary—literally, or a revolt. It describes defiant rebellion against a sovereign. Maclaren says it well: “You have not got to the bottom of the blackness until you see that [your sin] is a flat rebellion against God Himself.”
We need to appreciate our condition if we will appreciate the celebration. I recently had opportunity to be in the United States to celebrate my in-laws’ sixtieth wedding anniversary. It is always a tremendous blessing to spend time with my in-laws. My father-in-law was converted shortly before his wedding, and he is a man who, sixty years later, has never gotten over his conversion. He knows what it is to rejoice in God’s forgiveness, even decades after initially experiencing it.
David speaks of having been “forgiven.” The word means to carry or lift away. The Old Testament speaks of believers bearing guilt—feeling its weight (Leviticus 5:1, 17). Forgiveness lifts that weight. Through Christ, God carries away from me what I otherwise would carry for eternity.
The Celebration of Fellowship
But it is not only forgiveness that we celebrate; it is also restored fellowship. David speaks of the blessedness of the one “whose sin is covered” (v. 1b). This verse highlights two sides of the same gospel coin: redemption and reconciliation; removal and relationship.
“Sin” speaks of an offence—of that which breaks relationship. Rebellion breaks friendship or relationship. It is serious. But our “sin” can be “covered” or concealed—the result of forgiveness. Solomon wrote, “He who covers a transgression seeks love” (Proverbs 17:9). Forgiveness is the ultimate expression of this truth.
Far too often, we try to cover our own sin. We feel the weight of guilt and shame and try to hide if from others and (foolishly) from God. David tells us that there is no need to cover our sin—for God promises to cover the sins of those whom He forgives. And because He covers our sin, we can enjoy fellowship.
We can only celebrate the gospel to the degree that we appreciate the heinousness of our sin. One of the seniors in our church recently told me of his renewed realisation that the Christian life is all about the cross of Christ. In the cross, we find forgiveness and reconciliation. We are able to celebrate a relationship with the living God if we have been forgiven through the sacrifice of His Son. If we have been forgiven, we can sing with the hymnist, “Nothing between my soul and the Saviour.”
The Celebration of Justification
But David does not leave us guessing as to the basis of this forgiveness and reconciliation. He points us to the tangible, solid basis of our forgiveness: “Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (v. 2).
David knew of the happiness of “the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity.” “Iniquity” speaks of a distortion or twisting, of a perversion of the original. “Impute” is an accounting term, which means to regard, record, hold or account. The meaning, then, is that God, happily, does not hold the forgiven to account for their own iniquity. The New Testament offers some helpful commentary on this truth:
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.”
Instead of counting their sins against them, God credits His own righteousness in Christ to the account of those whom He forgives. This is vital, for without this divine accounting there could be no joyful reconciliation. Without v. 2, there could be no v. 2. Without this happy truth, there can be no happy sinners.
Doctrine matters. As already noted, Luther considered justification by faith alone to be the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. Without this doctrine, we are without hope. As those who profess Christ, we must constantly hold before us the truth of our union with Christ. We must ever rejoice that God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
David speaks further of the joy of the one “in whose spirit there is no deceit”—that is, of the one whose faith is real. The implication is that the reality of their profession is proven in a lifestyle that matches that profession. Gospel happiness produces gospel holiness. Again, Paul offers commentary on this:
Therefore, as through one man’s offence judgement came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Moreover the law entered that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid!
We are saved by grace alone through faith alone, but that does not give us the liberty to live as we please—or, at least, not as our sinful flesh pleases. We have been set at liberty to live lives that honour Christ. Where grace is present, holiness will follow. Justification and sanctification are inseparable. “Genuine faith, after it has justified, will not go to sleep but is active through love,” said Luther. Or as his fellow Reformer, John Calvin, put it, “It is faith alone that justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone. Therefore Christ justifies no on whom he does not at the same time sanctify.”
The gospel is not legal fiction. It is an objective reality, secured through the death of Jesus Christ in the behalf of those whom He came to save. But, is your profession fiction? Do you have a new heart—a new heart for God? Does your life support your profession of faith?
How Miserable We Were
In the second major section, David recalls how miserable he was in his sin, and shows us how miserable we are in our sin: “When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer” (vv. 3–4).
These verses provide the experience that preceded the celebration. What he has explained (vv. 1–2) was experienced (vv. 3–5). There was a time he was not happy, but that changed when he was forgiven and the burden of his sin was lifted.
Guilt has a way of making us miserable. When I was a boy in cub scouts, I saw all my friends achieving merit badges, while my own sash remained somewhat bare. To earn badges, you had to complete certain tasks and then have your parents sign as affirmation of completed tasks. Rather than do it the proper way, I decided to forge my dad’s signature. My sash began filling. At one point, the troop leader asked if it was really my dad’s signature. I lied. She never asked again.
One night, I was lying awake at night, weighed down with a sense of guilt. I climbed out of bed, took my merit book and threw it in the trash. The next morning, the rubbish removers collected our trash and took it away. The book—the evidence of my guilt—was gone, but what the trucks could not remove was my guilty conscience.
Unconfessed sin has a consuming nature. David speaks about the fact that his guilt literally aged him. You may have seen this for yourself. I remember meeting a man who was living in deep sin. When he told me that he was in his mid-forties, I could hardly believe it. He looked closer to seventy. It was unconfessed sin that aged him.
Holiness is the best anti-aging medicine. Holiness is good for you. Sin, on the other hand, saps us of our vitality. And, ultimately, it saps the whole body.
Part of our medical insurance is a rewards program called Vitality. A large part of the Vitality program is being rewarded for attaining fitness goals. A certain amount of weekly fitness points is assigned to each Vitality member, and if the member achieves those points, he or she is entitled to a free smoothie. But you can also team up with other Vitality members, and if you team achieves its corporate goal, the entire team earns a second smoothie.
I recently spent three weeks in the United States. Because Vitality is a South African rewards program, I could not receive my free smoothie those weeks. But I kept up with my fitness goal, in part because I knew that it would benefit my team.
Local church body life is much the same. The entire body benefits from holiness. On the other hand, the entire body suffers due to one member’s sin. We need to be humble enough to do what is best, not only for us, but for the whole body. This will enable us to be happy, and then we must commit to continuing in holiness so we can stay happy.
How Faithful God Is
Next, David writes of how faithful God is:
I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah. For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely in a flood of great waters they shall not come near him. You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.
God is faithful to fulfil His covenant of grace. But there are conditions to be met, which He empowers us to fulfil!
How to Get Happy
David offers, in v. 5, a strategy to getting happy.
First, he says, we must come clean: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden.” He comprehended and admitted his sin to the Lord. He did not fob off his guilt. He embraced it. He did not resort to blameshifting or excuse-making. When confronted, he plainly admitted, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:13).
Do you come clean with your sin? Know this: Your sin will find you out. So, beat it to the punch. When I was in the United States recently, my brother was telling me about one of his sons, who is a state trooper. Over the years of his service, he has apprehended a number of high profile criminals. For the most part, they have been caught almost accidentally. As a general rule, a motorist will be pulled over by a state trooper for failing to stop at an intersection, or for a non-working taillight. The trooper will ask for license and registration, and then discover who the person is before making the arrest.
We can wait for our sin to find us out, but we and the church will suffer in the meantime. Far better to simply come clean.
Second, David urges us to confess what we know: “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” To “confess” your sin means to agree with God that it is sin and to therefore ask forgiveness. David surrendered to the Lord and experienced His cleansing. We can do the same, for “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Third, having come clean and confessed to the Lord, we can embrace the freedom that follows: “You forgave the iniquity of my sin.” The guilt was lifted away. David, weary and heavy-laden, came to Christ and found freedom and forgiveness (cf. Matthew 11:28–30).
David then urges: “Selah”—a word that means to pause and (by implication) be happy. There is an old country song whose lyrics say, in part, “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.” At the risk of sounding trivial, we might say that Sonshine on our shoulders makes us happy! When the Son of God shines His favour on us, we can live a life of blessedness.
As you confess your sin, reflect again on redemption, reconciliation and imputation. Let these words drive you to worship. And as you do so, you will love to tell the gospel story to others. I was recently sharing the gospel with my barber, not only because she needs it, but because I needed in that moment to rehearse it to myself. How often we need to tell the story to ourselves as well as those who will hear us!
How to Stay Happy
Next, in vv. 6–7, David shows us how to stay happy. In essence, he offers a threefold strategy. This strategy is a gospel application: Forgiveness produces an aversion to rebellion, so that we will strive to stay happy. And this strategy is a good way to help us to do so.
First, David urges us to flee to Christ when tempted: “For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely in a great flood of waters they shall not come near him” (v. 6).
David’s confident prayer here is almost startling. Having just confessed his sin, and how he had, at least for some time, hidden that sin, it seems strange that he might speak of himself as “godly.” But he recognises an objective reality here. God had imputed righteousness to him (see v. 2), and imputed righteousness is always accompanied by imparted righteousness. David was, in essence, seeing himself as God saw him: as one who is righteous.
If we will be happy, we must keep coming back to Him. And we must encourage one another to come back to Him if we will be corporately happy. Martin Luther’s last written words were simply, “We are beggars.” David realised that he was a beggar, and that drove him to pray as he did. The gospel was the cause behind his prayer.
Second, David urges us to stay with Christ: “You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance” (v. 7). These words drip with confidence and therefore determination. Christ is our place of hiding from the storms of shame; our place of safety from the flood of wrath; our place of safety from the claims of the law; our place of safety from the accuser of the brethren. As the songwriter so wonderfully put it,
When Satan tempts me to despair,
and tells me of the guilt within,
upward I look and see Him there,
who made an end to all my sin.
One with Himself I cannot die,
my soul is purchased with His blood,
my life is hid with Christ on high,
with Christ, my Saviour and my God,
with Christ, my Saviour and my God.
Third, David exhorts us to sing of Him: “You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.” Pondering the gospel loosens our tongues. As we reflect on the reality of the gospel, songs of deliverance should be continually on our lips. One of the first evidences of being filled with the Spirit is gospel-centred singing (Ephesians 5:18–19). Maclaren is right: “How full his heart is of praise, that he cannot but go back again to his own story, and rejoice in God his hiding place.”
How Hopeful We Are
In the fourth major section of the psalm, David speaks of how hopeful the forgiven are: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you” (vv. 8–9).
If this psalm was written at the time when David confessed his sin with Bathsheba, there may be a parallel in Psalm 51:12–13: “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.”
Interpreters are divided as to who is speaking in this section of Psalm 32. Some argue that it is David, restored and instructing his people (per 51:12–13). Others suggest that it is God speaking to David. I lean toward the interpretation that it is God speaking to David, offering “gentle teaching to the pardoned man,” as Maclaren puts it. This is a reference, most likely, to God’s helpful, because watchful, guidance.
First, God offers David a kind, loving and helpful eye: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye” (v. 8). Having repented and embraced forgiveness, there was hope that David would be helpful toward others. God was committed to making David helpful.
Those humbled are humbly helpful. Peter sinned gravely when he denied knowing Jesus, but Jesus restored him to usefulness (see John 21). The record of Acts, and Peter’s own writings, are evidence of the fact that he became humbly helpful.
If you’re happy and you know it, help others to be happy. Paul wrote to Timothy, “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24–26). Those who humbly serve the Lord are in a position to help others to embrace forgiveness and a life of humble service (see also Galatians 6:1).
We should strive for a teachable spirit that invites such an approach. Look to Him by looking into His Word. Then be God’s eyes to others. Give help and help.
Second, God gave David a necessary exhortation: “Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you” (v. 9). The exhortation here is that we must not be stubborn. We must listen to the counsel of those who are happy if we ourselves will be happy.
Young people, listen to those who are older and wiser and happier in the Lord. Married people, listen to those with godly marriages whom you respect. Church member, heed your elders. Christian, read the psalms! You need not learn the hard way; you can learn from those who are happy.
How Wonderful the Gospel Is
Finally, in vv. 10–11, David closes with a reminder of just how wonderful the gospel is: “Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he who trusts in the LORD, mercy shall surround him. Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”
Be glad in the Lord because the Lord has made you, a sinner, righteous and upright. That’s something to be happy about! There are three glorious truths in these closing verses about the gospel.
First, the we are reminded that the gospel surrounds us with mercy: “Many sorrows shall be to the wicked, but he who trusts in the LORD, mercy shall surround him” (v. 10). Mercy is our greatest need. We need God’s steadfast love at all times. Our acceptance is rooted in Christ, and Christ alone. Preach this gospel to yourself repeatedly—as Paul did!
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Second, the gospel sanctifies us miraculously. The gospel makes sinners “righteous” and “upright in heart” (v. 11). This is a miracle, which can only be produced by the life-transforming power of the gospel.
Third, and finally, the gospel stirs us movingly. It enables us to “be glad” and to “rejoice” and to “shout for joy” (v. 11). The miracle of the gospel moves us. It moves us to joy, to praise, and to gospel-driven speech. But for this, we need the filling of the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 5:19–21).
Be indoctrinated with the gospel. Meditate on the gospel. Appreciate the gospel. Celebrate the gospel. And then, having become happy, help others to be happy as you communicate the gospel.