King David’s pride and presumption in ordering a census of Israel caused 70,000 mighty warriors to lose their lives (1 Chr. 21). Paul’s violent persecution of the infant church played a part in Stephen’s death and countless others’ beatings and incarcerations (Acts 9).
I read both stories recently and wept as I imagined how these men must have felt. I imagined David’s overwhelming feelings of sorrow and guilt. SEVENTY THOUSAND innocent people’s blood on his hands. By today’s standards, a tragedy of this magnitude would wipe out every person in a city the size of Richmond, Virginia.
Listen to David’s gut wrenching lament:
"Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? O LORD my God, let your hand fall upon me and my family, but do not let this plague remain on your people."
And Saul. He wasn't jailing murderers or incarcerating thieves or political prisoners, he was persecuting God’s people. People whose only crime was loving Jesus. People who were praying for those who persecuted them.
Picture him, consenting to brave Stephen’s death and holding the clothing of the murderers and watching as the stones struck his body until he cried out, “Father, do not lay this sin to their account.” Watching Stephen take his last struggling breath.
Then, while the blood was still wet on his hands, he “was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1).
Throughout Paul’s writings we see evidence that he never forgot his sinful past:
“I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 22:4).
“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9).
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13).
Yet David, a believer who sinned horribly, and Paul, an unbeliever with a heinous past, didn’t allowed their sins to define, defeat, or render them useless for the kingdom of God.
They understood the truth of 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sin, (God) is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
They confessed, repented, and accepted God’s cleansing grace.
Listen to David’s prayer in Psalm 51:1-2:
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin."
And Paul’s humble gratitude in 1 Corinthians 15:10:
“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle . . . But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.”
If you’re struggling with guilt over something you did as an unbeliever, or a sin you’ve committed as a Christian, don’t allow Satan to imprison you in guilt and shame. Do what David and Paul did—confess your sin, forsake it, and accept the forgiveness Christ extends to you from the cross.
Then walk in the confidence that God has separated your sins as far as the east is from the west, to remember them no more.
Mercy there was great and grace was free.
Pardon there was multiplied to me.
There my burdened soul found liberty
*William Newell’s hymn, “At Calvary.”
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