Recently I pointed out a number of places in Psalm 26 where the psalmist refers to his own integrity. Once you start looking for it, it’s surprising how often statements like that come up in the psalms. They’re jarring because we so seldom speak this way. We’re trained, at least in the circles I run in, to think of ourselves as sinners before God (which we most certainly are). So referring to our own righteousness, and especially making an argument in prayer from our own righteousness, seems absurd.
One problem with this is that we’re mistaking the claim of righteousness for a claim of sinlessness. That’s never what the psalmist means, and often there’s proof of that in the very same psalm. For example, in Psalm 41:12 David says to God, “You have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.” But in verse 4, he’s repenting: “As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal be, for I have sinned against you!”
When the psalmist refers to his integrity or righteousness, he’s not claiming absolute freedom from sin. He’s often saying that with regard to the present situation, he is the innocent party. Sometimes he’s referring to the general course of his life; that he walks according to God’s commandments—commandments that include provision for repentance and forgiveness.
This is a reminder that we need to apply to ourselves. We should confess that we’re sinners. We should confess it in general and admit it with regard to specific sins. Our whole life should be one of repentance. At the same time, what God wants from us in this life is not sinlessness—too late!—but what Scripture calls “blamelessness.” He wants us to be above the board, not open to serious accusation of deliberate, unrepentant sin. He wants us to be able to say, despite our present and lifelong struggle with sin, “This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts” (Psalm 119:56).
This is true especially for pastors, who are to be not only blameless but exemplary—again, not perfect, but able to serve as an example to others of a godly life. For more surprising statements we’d never make today, we can look to Paul, who says things like “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 4:16, 11:1), and “What you have seen in me, put into practice” (Phil 4:9). A pastor should have the credibility (and boldness) to say this to his people—and be so obviously humble and repentant that it doesn’t make him sound like a jerk.
We need to take our own sin seriously. But the fact that we’re sinners, and will remain so until heaven, does not excuse us from God’s requirement that we walk blamelessly. By his grace, we really can become more and more holy, our lives more and more pleasing to him. The fact that he gives us his Spirit, that our holiness is ultimately his doing, should make us eager to pursue righteousness, and bold to encourage others to follow us.