Psalm 51: The Grace of a Clean Heart
"Create in me a clean heart." Could there be a more fundamental prayer request than this? Could there be anything more essential than this? Could there be any hope more beautiful than to believe that someday your heart and mine will be totally free from impurity of any kind? This is the most radical claim of all the claims of the Gospel. This is the epicenter of what the cross of Jesus Christ alone can produce. This is the thing that the keeping of the law could never do. Sin is a tragedy of the heart. Redemption is about the fundamental reorientation and restoration of the heart. That David would pray such a prayer not only tells you much about his own sense of need, but also tells how great his faith is in the transforming power of the grace of God.
Let's think about the theology of the heart that's behind David's request. Human beings have been made by God in two parts, the inner man and the outer man. The outer man is your physical self, your body. The body is the house you've been given for your heart. It is your "earth suit." Someday you and I will get a new suit. (Some of us are particularly relieved that this is true!) The inner man is given many names; mind, emotion, will, soul, spirit, to name a few. All of these terms are collected into one big basket term, heart. The heart is the control center of the human being. It's the center of your emotions, cognition, and desires. The heart is discussed in over 900 passages of Scripture. It's one of the Bible's most well developed themes. Essentially what the Bible says is that the heart is the steering wheel of the human being. The heart controls, shapes, and directs everything you choose, say, and do. What controls the heart will therefore exercise unavoidable control over your behavior.
What does this have to do with David's courageous request? David understands something that's fundamental to repentance. It's that sin isn't first a matter of behavior, it's first a matter of the heart. That's why Jesus said that to look at a woman and lust after her, carries the moral value of the physical act of adultery. You see, since your heart guides your actions and words, if you allow your heart to lust, it won't be long before you commit the physical act.
Or we could look at the other side of the coin. Worship is not first an activity. No, worship is first a position of the heart. It's only when my heart esteems God above everything else, that I'll serve him with my time, energy, money, and strength. Impurity of the heart is not primarily about bad thoughts or bad desires. No, impurity of the heart is really about love for something in the creation replacing love that I was only ever meant to have for the Creator. And when I love something in creation more than I love God I'll think, desire, say, and do bad things.
Now, what all of this means is that our biggest, most abiding, most life-shaping problem exists inside of us and not outside of us. What we actually need to be rescued from is us. What needs to be transformed in our lives is not so much our situation and relationships (although they need transformation as well). What really needs to be transformed are our hearts. What we need are hearts that are clean, that are single-focused in their allegiance to God and His glory. We need grace to transform what we love, what we crave, and what we serve. And what's the bright and golden promise of the cross of Jesus Christ? It's a new heart!
Here's the gorgeous message of the Gospel. Even though I've bowed again and again to an endless catalog of God replacements, even though I've loved myself more than I've loved God, even though I've rebelled against God's kingdom and sought to set up my own kingdom, God comes to me in grace and wraps arms of love around me and begins a process that will result in the total transformation of the core of my personhood, the heart. He won't rest and He won't relent until He's created in you and me a completely pure heart!
So we wake up every morning knowing that by His grace our hearts are purer than they once were, and by His grace they'll be purer than they are today. So with thankfulness for the transformation that's already taken place and with the courage of hope of the transformation that's yet to come, we wake up, look to heaven and say with David, "Create in me a clean heart."