By Mike Willis
Psalm 51 is generally admitted to have been written by David as an appeal to God for forgiveness of his sins associated with his immorality with Bathsheba. In a recent defense of the “continuous cleansing” position, Psalm 51 was used to defend the position that a Christian can sin, repent of his sins, and never be alienated from God. A careful study of this text demonstrates that sin brings one into a state of guilt and condemnation which is not removed until the sinner repents and confesses his sin to God.
Through the years, Baptist debaters who have defended the doctrine of “once in grace, always in grace” have appealed to Psalm 51 to justify their position. John R. Rice, former editor of Sword of the Lord (an independent Baptist publication), wrote,
David committed sins of murder and adultery. We must condemn his sins. They were bad. But David’s sins were under the blood of Christ, and in the fifty-first Psalm, the prayer of David shows that he had not lost his salvation, but the joy of salvation. Psalm 51:11,12 says:
“Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. “
David does not ask for the restoration of salvation, but he does ask that God will restore the joy of salvation. He prays that God will not break the fellowship, will not cast him away from God’s presence, will not take away the communion of the Holy Spirit. A backslider like David ought to pray for the joy of salvation to be restored, but he should not believe that God has cast away His child. David sinned, but he did not become a lost sinner again. So David praised God, under divine inspiration: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity” (Psa. 32:1,2). The Scripture shows why David did not lose his salvation and why a saved man cannot be lost (Can A Saved Person Ever Be Lost?, p. 16).
Commenting on Psalm 51:11, John Calvin wrote,
“Take not thy Holy Spirit from me. ” The words of this verse imply that the Spirit had not altogether been taken away from him, however much his gifts had been temporarily obscured . . . . Upon one point he had fallen into a deadly lethargy, but he was not “given over to a reprobate mind”; and it is scarcely conceivable that the rebuke of Nathan the prophet should have operated so easily and suddenly in arousing him had there been no latent spark of godliness remaining. . . . The truth on which we are now insisting is an important one, as many learned men have been inconsiderately drawn into the opinion that the elect, by falling into mortal sin, may lose the Spirit altogether, and be alienated from God. The contrary is clearly declared by Peter, who tells us that the word by which we are born again is an incorruptible seed (1 Pet. 1:23) (John Calvin as quoted in Treasury of David, Vol. II, p. 470).
In the Camp-Hafley Debate on “once saved, always saved,” the Baptist Wayne Camp argued as follows:
I’ll tell you David was one who had some experience with this matter we’re dealing with. You know he sinned, he committed adultery; he committed murder. Had it committed, ordered it committed. I think that my honorable opponent would agree that that was just as bad. One day he got under conviction about it. Old Nathan came to him and said, preached to him and said, “You are the man.” Without going into all the details, you know the situation. David prayed and David said, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” Oh, my friend, listen. He had committed murder. He had committed adultery, But he prayed, “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” Why? It must have still been there. It must have still been there (pp. 147-148).
The well known Baptist debater, Ben M. Bogard argued 44once in grace, always in grace” in the same manner.
He asks, “Is it possible for a child of God to get drunk and commit murder?” Yes sir, David committed murder and he was a child of God, but he did not lose the Holy Spirit, either, for he said in his penitent prayer, “Take not Thy Spirit from me” (Porter-Bogard Debate, pp. 78-79).
W.E. Sherrill used Psalm 51:11-12 to defend “once in grace, always in grace” in his debate with brother A.C. Grider. He said,
In Psa. 51:12, David did some pretty bad things. What did David do? He lost the joy of his salvation. I will read it to you over here in Psa. 51:12, “Restore unto me the joy of my salvation.” He never asked God for salvation at all after he got it. He lost the joys of it and ask(ed) God to restore the joys of salvation, that he might teach the transgressor God’s ways and they would be converted. David did pretty bad. He had a man killed and took his wife. That’s what David did . . . (Grider-Sherrill Debate, p. 149).
In recent months, similar arguments have been made by those defending continous cleansing. Consequently, let us carefully examine Psalm 51.
The Historical Situation
Perhaps it will help us to be reminded of what the historical situation of Psalm 51 was. David coveted his neighbor’s wife and committed adultery with her. After some time passed, Bathsheba realized that she was with child. Instead of repenting of his sin and facing its consequences as a penitent sinner when Bathsheba announced that she was with child, with premeditation David sought to cover his sin by bringing Uriah home from the battle front, expecting that he would enjoy the pleasures of his wife and think the child was his own. When Uriah refused to go to his wife, David arranged a situation in which he became drunk, hoping that in his drunken state he would do what he refused to do when sober. When this failed, David committed premeditated murder, arranging to have Uriah killed in battle. Some months passed and the illegitimate child was born before Nathan rebuked David and he repented.
If one is disposed to argue that Psalm 51:11 indicates that David was yet in the presence of God and not separated from him by his sin, let him remember these facts are known about David:
(1) David violated three of the Ten Commandments: coveting his neighbor’s wife, adultery, and murder. Nathan said that David “despised the commandment of the Lord” in doing this evil (2 Sam. 12:9).
(2) He committed his murder premeditately. This was a high-handed act of rebellion, not of ignorance or weakness.
(3) He stayed in his impenitent state for a minimum period of nine months (the child was born).
Consequently, should one use this passage to prove that a child of God can sin and displease God, then repent of and forsake that sin without being cast from God’s presence, then the following conclusions are true:
(1) One is not separated from God by an act of willful sin. All of the comments about “kinds” of sin, to distinguish sins of weakness and ignorance from high-handed rebellion are worthless. David’s sin was premeditated and willful. Yet, we are assured, based on Psalm 51:11, that David was not separated from God thereby.
(2) One is still not separated from God months after his sin. David was in his sin and impenitent at least for nine months.
(3) The sins for which one has “continual cleansing” are moral as well as doctrinal and include everything from lust to fornication to murder.
(4) 1 John 3:15 is not true. John said, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” But Psalm 51:11 has been explained to mean that David still had the presence of the Holy Spirit and was not lost but only in the process of being lost. If so, 1 John 3:15 is not true!
An Examination of the Text
Any view that is taken of Psalm 5 1:11 must take into consideration the entire Psalm. Notice these observations from the text:
v. 1 – David’s transgressions needed to be blotted out
v. 2 – He needed to be washed from his iniquities and cleansed from his sin
v. 3 – His sins were ever before him
v. 4 – He had sinned against God
v. 7 – He needed to be purged and washed
v. 9 – He begged God not to hide His face and to blot out his sins
v. 11 – He asked God not to cast him away and not to take his Holy Spirit from him
v. 12 – He asked God to restore the joy of his salvation
v. 14 – He needed to be delivered from blood guiltiness
No one could read Psalm 51 without concluding that its author stands as a condemned sinner petitioning God for salvation through the forgiveness of sins. The author did not consider himself in a state of acceptance before God; he recognized that he was lost and sought God’s salvation through grace. This conclusion seems indisputable.
What did David mean when he wrote these lines?
Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit (vv. 11-12).
The petition “cast me not away from thy presence” could be an allusion to Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden and the presence of God (also cf. Gen. 4:14 where Cain was driven out). Others have suggested that this refers to an exclusion from Temple worship as was the fate of the leper (cf. Lev. 13:46). The phrase is used in 2 Kings 13:23; 17:20; 24:20; Jeremiah 7:15 to refer to God’s rejection of Israel as a nation when He sent them into captivity. David is petitioning the Lord not to treat him as one who had totally rejected the appeals of God’s grace. In Romans 1, “God gave up” on men who refused to have God in their knowledge (1:24,26,28). The phrase does not indicate that David was saved at the moment but fearful that God would reject him at any moment of time. Instead, it is the recognition by a sinner that he has committed sin and been so wicked that God may quit working to bring him to repentance, and is an appeal for God not to quit.
The prayer “take not thy Holy Spirit from me” was interpreted in the quotations mentioned above to mean that David was yet in possession of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, not in a state of damnation. Granting for the sake of argument that David still had the Holy Spirit, his possession of the Holy Spirit is no more proof of his salvation in his impenitent condition than Cornelius’ having the Spirit in Acts 10 is proof of his salvation before and without water baptism.
The withdrawal of the Spirit of God is placed in synonymous parallelism with being cast away from God’s presence. The two phrases are expressing the same thought – that of being totally separated from the influence of God’s grace to bring one to repentance. David was vividly aware of what became of Saul when “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him” (I Sam. 16:14). He did not want that to befall him.
“Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation” has sometimes been given the meaning that “David had his salvation but did not have the joy of his salvation.” One cannot have his salvation without its attendant joy. David is not affirming that he maintained his salvation in spite of his sin; instead, he recognizes that he lost it as asks that it be restored to him (v. 12).
The “continuous cleansing” position cannot be defended on the basis of Psalm 5 1:11. Indeed, the very arguments used on this verse to defend the “continuous cleansing” position are used by Calvinists to defend “once in grace, always in grace.”
Any position which states that a man can lust after his neighbor’s wife, commit adultery, induce another to drunkenness, and commit premeditated murder without “being cast from God’s presence” contradicts the plain and simple teaching of God’s word. So does the claim that a man can commit these sins and linger in them a minimum of nine months and still be only “in the process of falling from God’s presence.” If one can maintain the fellowship of God for nearly a year, while committing these outrageous sins, surely we must concede that “once a man is in grace, he is always in grace.” For, if these sins do not separate a man from God, none will.
The truth is that some of our brethren are drifting into the denominational concept that it is not sin itself which separates man from God but some nebulous attitude factor which accompanies the sin. In other words, murder, homosexuality, or digression in worship can separate a man from God only if he has a bad attitude (insincerity, highhanded rebellion, etc.) but not if he has a good one (sincere, pious, etc.). Actually, all sin reveals some weakness or flaw in the attitude of our heart (Matt. 15:18-10). All sin is an affront to God and a blot upon man, separating him from God, and requires pardon upon the terms and conditions of the gospel. The Bible does not teach that one single sin puts a person into a state of hardened apostasy from which there is no hope of repentance or pardon. But the blot is removed only when we turn from sin, not while we continue in it.
To those who might have some sympathies toward the continuous cleansing position, I would like to make this appeal. Consider carefully where these arguments are headed. Who would have thought that a gospel preacher would have made the arguments on Psalm 51 which we have reviewed? Yet, they were and are being made by those who teach continuous cleansing.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 2, pp. 42, 47-48
January 15, 1987