Who Can Say?

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)

Recently, while studying the Book of Proverbs, I came across this penetrating passage: 

Proverbs 20:9-Who can say, “I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin”?

The writer here talks about the fact that no accountable person is free from the taint of sin. I believe that one of the Books of the Bible which clearly teaches this (and some very important related issues) is the Book of Psalms.

In this study, let’s consider some important lessons from the Psalmist about the topic of sin and God’s people.  


As we turn to the Book of Psalms to study the subject of “sin,” it is important to have a good working definition of what “sin” actually is. The apostle John said that sin is lawlessness, or the breaking of the Law of God (I John 3:4), and that all unrighteousness is sin (I John 5:17). The half-brother of Jesus said that sin occurs when a person knows to do good, and does not do it (James 4:17). The apostle Paul adds that when we violate our conscience we are sinning (Romans 14:23). As such, sin is shown to be a transgressing of the Law of God. When we consider the original words used to describe “sin,” we see this brought out in vivid detail.  

Gareth Reese has pointed out regarding “sin” in the Old Testament: 

“It has been said that there are three classes or kinds of sin in the Hebrew Old Testament. (1) The lightest infractions are those that are called chet, chata, chatta’ah, or chattah, a fault, a shortcoming, a misstep, to sin, err, miss the mark. (2). Of a more serious nature are the sins described by ‘avon, avah, or ‘aven, a breaking of a commandment, iniquity. (3) The most serious sins are those called pesha’ (transgression) and resha’ (wickedness). There is the idea of rebellion involved in pesha’, and of what has become a habit or state in resha’. Psalm 106:6 mentions all three words, “We have sinned (cheta) like our fathers, we have committed iniquity (avah), we have behaved wickedly (resha’).” A similar threefold list is found in Exodus 34:7, “Who forgives iniquity (avon) , transgression (pesha’) and sin (chatta’ah).” (Gareth Reese, Commentary On Romans, 216; Joplin, Missouri; College Press).  

Regarding the New Testament words for “sin,” Kenneth Wuest tells us: 

“To summarize: Sin in the N.T. is regarded as the missing of a mark of aim (hamartia or hamartema); the overpassing or transgressing of a line (parabasis); the inattentiveness or disobedience to a voice (parakoe); the falling alongside where one should have stood upright (paraptoma); the doing through ignorance of something wrong which one should have known about (agnoema); the coming short of one’s duty (hettema); and the non-observance of a law (anomia).” (Kenneth Wuest, Studies In The Vocabulary Of The Greek New Testament, 100; located in Word Studies In The Greek New Testament, Volume III; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)  

While there may have been different types of sins (in sense of motivation and frequency, especially as described by the different definitions as characterized above), the basic concept of “sin” remains the same: the breaking of the Law of God.  

Sin In The People Of God  

Several times in the Psalms, the inspired writers declare the fact of their sins and that they fall short of God’s perfect standard. Notice a sampling of these passages: 

Psalm 38:4-For my iniquities have gone over my head; Like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.

Psalm 39:8-Deliver me from all my transgressions; Do not make me the reproach of the foolish.

Psalm 40:12-12    For innumerable evils have surrounded me; My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; They are more than the hairs of my head; Therefore my heart fails me.

Psalm 130:3-4-3    If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?4    But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.

The Psalmist discusses in vivid and powerful detail how the struggle with sin is a constant battle. There is never a point in this life where we are completely free from the struggle of sin, and from the effects of sin upon our lives and the lives of our peers.

We see all around us the effects of a world corrupted by sin, ruined by the rebellion of man against God. The Bible reminds us that in the beginning, this world was essentially a Paradise, being the best that it could ever have been (Genesis 1:31). The introduction of that little three-letter word, “sin,” changed everything (Genesis 3:17; Romans 8:18-22).  

Why Sin Is So Horrible  

In our fallen state, we often cannot understand why sin is so horrible; yet the Psalmist clearly points it out to us.  

Psalm 5:4-5- 4 For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, Nor shall evil dwell with You. 5 The boastful shall not stand in Your sight; You hate all workers of iniquity.

Psalm 11:4-7-4 The LORD is in His holy temple, The LORD’s throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.

5 The LORD tests the righteous, But the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates.

6 Upon the wicked He will rain coals; Fire and brimstone and a burning wind Shall be the portion of their cup.

7 For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright.

The Psalmist hits upon the fact that God-being perfectly holy-cannot abide evil. By His very Nature, sin must be punished. As John Piper has so eloquently stated: 

“Therefore sin is not small, because it is not against a small Sovereign. The seriousness of an insult rises with the dignity of the one insulted. The Creator of the universe is infinitely worthy of respect and admiration and loyalty. Therefore, failure to love him is not trivial-it is treason. It defames God and destroys human happiness.” (John Piper, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came To Die, 20 (Kindle Edition); Wheaton, Illinois; Crossway Books)  

Sin has ruined everything which God created that was originally and ultimately intrinsically good. It devastates the relationship of God and man, of man and man, and of man to the Earth and universe.
King David, one of the Psalmists, clearly understood the horrible consequences and effects of sin. Having committed adultery with Bathsheba (the wife of one of his closest friends), he ended up arranging the murder of her husband Uriah (II Samuel 11).

Instead of repenting of the sin and confessing it to The Lord, he continued to live in rebellion against the Most High. When a bold prophet of God rebuked him, David repented; but there were heavy consequences for his decisions. David’s son, conceived with Bathsheba, died because the enemies of The Lord continued to blaspheme against Him through his continual sin, and it was prophesied that there would always be trouble in David’s family because of his actions (II Samuel 12:1-15). There were also physical effects of sin upon David because of his unfaithfulness. He wrote: 

Psalm 38:3-10-3    There is no soundness in my flesh Because of Your anger, Nor any health in my bones Because of my sin.4    For my iniquities have gone over my head; Like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.5    My wounds are foul and festering Because of my foolishness.6    I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long.7    For my loins are full of inflammation, And there is no soundness in my flesh.8    I am feeble and severely broken; I groan because of the turmoil of my heart.9    Lord, all my desire is before You; And my sighing is not hidden from You.10    My heart pants, my strength fails me; As for the light of my eyes, it also has gone from me.

Many believe that David is here describing the effects of a sexually transmitted disease. Certainly, that is likely (perhaps even probable considering the prolonged nature of his sinful relations with Bathsheba). Regardless, it reminds us of the physical consequences that sin brings upon the human body.  

Notice also that David mentions the social effects of his sin: 

Psalm 38:11-My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague, And my relatives stand afar off.

It should be the case that our true friends and loved ones will encourage us to turn to The Lord even while we are in our sins.

That is what Job pointed out.  

Job 6:14-To him who is afflicted, kindness should be shown by his friend, Even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Yet perhaps some of the most powerful indicators of the terrible nature of sin are seen in the Psalmist’s prolonged refusal to repent of his wickedness. He wrote: 

Psalm 32:3-4-3    When I kept silent, my bones grew old Through my groaning all the day long.4    For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah

Guilt does horrible things to a person; yet, it can be an incredible motivator for repentance.

Many in our society believe that we should just forget guilt and abandon all personal responsibility and accountability. But beloved, that is one thing we cannot allow! In many ways, guilt is a great blessing from God for it helps to lead a person to repentance.

Ezra freely acknowledges the guilt of the children of Israel (Ezra 9:6-7; 10:10); Ezekiel the prophet called upon the people to recognize their guilt before God and to turn back to Him (Ezekiel 18:19-32); Zechariah the prophet rebuked the people who lived without acknowledging their guilt (Zechariah 11:4-5); Paul says that the Law of God charges the entire accountable world with guilt (Romans 3:19-20); and James says the person who breaks the Law of God in one point is guilty of breaking it all (James 2:10).

God help a people and nation that are not ashamed of sin, and that acknowledge no guilt!

God help people to see the need for repentance when the sin becomes so rampant that there is not even the ability to blush!  

Jeremiah 6:15-Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? No! They were not at all ashamed; Nor did they know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; At the time I punish them, They shall be cast down,” says the LORD.

Godly guilt can lead people to repentance, and that is what our nations needs today.  

“But maybe it’s not so bad to feel guilty if you are guilty. Feeling guilt for wrongdoing is the only way for a criminal to begin to clean up his act. Feeling guilty for sin is the only way for a person to find cleansing for the soul. Just as the law of gravity dictates the skydiver’s destiny, the law of God points out your spiritual destiny. If you ignore the implications of the law of gravity, you are speeding at terminal velocity toward physical death. If you ignore the implications of God’s moral law, you are rushing headlong into spiritual death. Scripture states, ‘The soul that sins, it shall die’ (Ezek. 18:4). We are all lawbreakers. Death and destruction are our destiny.” (S. I. McMillen & David.E. Stern, None Of These Diseases: The Bible’s Health Secrets For The 21st Century, 3490 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Revell)  

While we may not fully understand the temporal consequences for our sins, we know that the eternal consequence of sin is eternal separation from God (i.e., Hell-Matthew 25:46). Whatever that punishment consists of, I know that I don’t want to face it….yet I deserve it!  

God “Hates” Sinners?  

How can God both love (John 3:16; Ezekiel 18:23; Psalm 107) and hate (Proverbs 6:16-19; Hosea 9:15) sinners? The simple answer lies in understanding the word “hate” in Scripture. Norman Geisler has well said: 

“There is no contradiction in these statements. The difficulty arises when we wrongly assume that God hates in the same way men hate. Hatred in human beings is generally thought of in terms of strong emotional distaste or dislike for someone or something. However, in God, hate is a judicial act on the part of the righteous Judge who separates the sinner from Himself.. This is not contradictory to God’s love, for in His love for sinners, God has made it possible for sin to be forgiven so that all can be reconciled to God. Ultimately, the sinner will reap the harvest of God’s hatred in eternal separation from God, or the harvest of God’s love by being with Him for all eternity.” (Norman L. Geisler & Thomas Howe, The Big Book Of Bible Difficulties: Clear And Concise Answers From Genesis To Revelation, 2847-2849 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)  

It is possible to both love and hate something or something, depending on the context and the situation. What needs to be emphasized is that while God “hates” sinners (i.e., hates their decisions and the way which they choose to live in rebellion against Him and causing chaos to their fellow man), He “loves” them all and invites them to Him for salvation. The Psalmist clearly shows this: 

Psalm 107:17-21-17    Fools, because of their transgression, And because of their iniquities, were afflicted.18    Their soul abhorred all manner of food, And they drew near to the gates of death.19    Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, And He saved them out of their distresses.20    He sent His word and healed them, And delivered them from their destructions.21    Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, And for His wonderful works to the children of men!

The Psalms Shows Us What To Do With Sin  
Notice that the Psalms teach us what to do with our sin.  

First, they teach us to remember that God is willing and eager to pardon us for our transgressions.  

Psalm 103:11-14-11    For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;12    As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.13    As a father pities his children, So the LORD pities those who fear Him.14    For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.

Second, the Psalms teach us that man needs to acknowledge their sin and repent of it. This means turning away from the sin and to The Lord, and to leave behind what God has said is sin and to start living for Him (or living for Him again, as the case may be).  

Psalm 32:5-5    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

Psalm 51:1-4-1    To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David When Nathan the Prophet Went to Him, After He Had Gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions.2    Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin.3    For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me.4    Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight— That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.

Third, the Psalms teach us that this repentance must be in accordance with the Law of God.

Under the Old Testament, this involved repentance and certain sacrifices (Psalm 20:3; 50:5; 54:6; 118:27). Those passages which discuss God not being pleased or not desiring sacrifices are shown contextually to be referring to sacrifices made without genuine repentance (Psalm 40:6; 51:16). While the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin (Hebrews 10:3-4), it was a required part of God’s Law, and stood as a foreshadowing of the great Sacrifice for sin, Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:14-17; Hebrews 10:1-4).

Since we live under the New Law, we need to respond to the Gospel through God’s plan of salvation, i.e., believers need to repent of their sins and be baptized into Him for the remission of sins (Acts 2:37-38).

Christians who have fallen away need to repent and pray (Acts 8:22; 19:18).

On both cases, we need to be faithful (Revelation 2:10).

Finally, the Psalms teach us that there needs to be a continual fight against sin and striving after holiness in our lives. We must not give up in fighting against evil, even if we sometimes fall to temptation.

David especially highlights these facts (Psalm 51), and serves as an example for all of us. Our ultimate Hope lies in Jesus Christ, Who-being fully tempted in every capacity as we are, yet without sin-has become the ultimate High Priest and Friend of sinners (Hebrews 4:15-16), and the Savior of all those who come to God through Him (Hebrews 7:25).  

What great lessons the Book of Psalms has for us! Let’s learn from this incredible portion of God’s holy Word.  


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