How to Pray for Forgiveness

We naturally want the blessing of being forgiven. But we don’t naturally know how to pray for forgiveness. God recorded these examples to help.

Have you ever had to tell someone, “I’m sorry”? Or even more meaningfully, “Please forgive me”?

Asking for forgiveness is hard! Actually, asking for forgiveness means much more than just saying, “I’m sorry!” As a child, you may have had your parents instruct you to tell a sibling “I’m sorry!” You might have said it without really meaning it.

But think about what it is like to also ask for forgiveness—maybe asking your mate to forgive you for doing something that hurt him or her, or asking your child to forgive you for missing an event he or she really wanted you to attend.

Now think of that on a much higher plane. How does one ask God for forgiveness?

Psalm 51, a prayer for forgiveness

One of my favorite passages is Psalm 51 where David came before God after he had been confronted with his sin with Bathsheba. Through this particular psalm, we are given a clear example of how to go to God in a prayer for forgiveness.

Psalm 51 begins: “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” (superscription and verse 1).

Ask for mercy

We see the first thing David did was ask for mercy. Not the mercy of man, but the mercy of God, according to His lovingkindness.

Then David reminded God of His tender mercies and asked that God blot out his transgressions. To “blot out” means to erase, or to wipe away. David did not want a stain on his relationship with God.

Wash and cleanse me!

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (verse 2). Here David continued the thought, and he was clearly meditating on the fact that sin was a stain on his character. He knew that he couldn’t be forgiven through any of his own actions, but he had to depend on God.

“For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (verse 3). Not everyone reaches this next step in asking for forgiveness from God or from others. We must truly acknowledge that we have done something wrong.

As mentioned earlier, when our parents asked us to say “I’m sorry,” it often didn’t require the confession of being wrong.

Yet here, David accepted the fact that he was guilty, and he expressed his remorse to God. He knew God was aware of his sin.

Sin is the transgression of God’s law

“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” (verse 4). Sin is breaking God’s law. If it is not repented of, it will separate us from God (1 John 3:4; Isaiah 59:2).

Humility and, as David said, a broken and contrite spirit are necessary for us to seek God’s forgiveness.“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom” (Psalm 51:5-6).

In making this statement, David was not imputing evil to his mother or his conception. Rather, he was acknowledging that his nature, from his earliest recollection, was beset with a propensity to sin. David’s repentance was one of deep emotion and feeling. He knew that God wanted him to change, and he knew that he had to change from the inside out, not just in appearances.

Purge me and make me clean!

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (verse 7). Hyssop was a plant used in sacred purification ceremonies. David asked to be purged, or cleansed to the fullest extent, to be even whiter than snow.

“Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice” (verse 8).

His sin had become a great burden on his mind, to the point that he compared it to having his bones broken with the weight of carrying it. Sin should have the same weight in our minds as well. As David was asking God for His joy, so we should ask Him to bring us out of our mistakes and our trials and bless us again with a fresh start.

Put my sins away

“Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” (verse 9). David again asked for God to remove his sins from him and to put them away.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (verse 10). We see the idea repeated that David felt covered by sin and wanted to be cleansed. He also knew that the Spirit of God within him had to be restored. He wanted an “established” or “secured” spirit.

“Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (verse 11).

As Isaiah noted, sin actually causes a separation from God until that sin is repented of (Isaiah 59:2; 1 John 1:9). Sin caused the death of Jesus Christ, and it brings a penalty on us that only the Father and Son can remove (Romans 3:23; 6:23).

David’s desire that others also repent

Next, we see David seeking joy and happiness again—this time in order for him to positively affect others.

“Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You” (Psalm 51:12-13). David wanted others to experience what it was like to have their sins forgiven and relationships restored.

Even today we are still learning to repent and ask for forgiveness by studying David’s example.

“Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise” (verses 14-15).

When David prayed for forgiveness, he also asked that God remove his guilt. His sorrow was a godly sorrow, and it produced not only cleansing, but desire and zeal—indignation and vindication (2 Corinthians 7:10-11; see also our article on “Godly Sorrow”).

Notice how David summed up his request to God. He acknowledged that he could do nothing on his own that could remove the penalty of sin, except to humble himself before God—with a meek and broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart (mind)—and simply ask for forgiveness!

“For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17).

Many times, a person may not know how to go before God and ask for forgiveness. David’s example has shown us one very clear way.

Two men went up to the temple to pray

We see another example of coming before God in heartfelt repentance in the book of Luke.

“Also [Jesus] spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:

“‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess”’” (Luke 18:9-12).

This man believed he had done all that he was required to do and more. He didn’t recognize the seriousness of his sins or his need for God’s mercy.

In contrast, notice the attitude of the tax collector in the parable:

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (verses 13-14).

Humility and, as David said, a broken and contrite spirit are necessary for us to seek God’s forgiveness (Psalms 34:18; 51:17). God is willing to wipe the slate clean—to mercifully justify those who approach Him this way. (See “Justification: How Can We Be Justified?”)

What shall we do?

Acts 2:36-41 describes a group of individuals on the Day of Pentecost (one of God’s annual festivals) who were listening to Peter. He explained the role of Jesus Christ in their lives and how they (because of their sins) were responsible for crucifying Him.

When they recognized their sins, they expressed godly sorrow—being cut deeply to their hearts. And so they asked the question, “What shall we do?”

Peter’s answer was clear: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

In the same way, our sins also led to Jesus’ death (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3). Therefore, we, too, must acknowledge our sins and see the need to repent and be baptized.

Study more about this in our articles “Repentance From Dead Works” and “Baptism: Does God Want You to Be Baptized?


Repentance is one of the hardest things for us to do. But, if we are honestly seeking forgiveness, that’s where we have to begin.

The first step in repentance is confessing our sin before God and asking for His forgiveness. It should be heartfelt and genuine.

Study more in our articles “How to Repent,” “What Is Repentance?” and “Forgiveness: How Can We Be Forgiven?

What about you?

We should appreciate God’s mercy and recognize that His goodness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). To receive the unmerited gracious gift of forgiveness, we must humbly confess our sins to Him with a deep desire to repent and change. Repentance is a process that we must go through, and it should be repeated every time we find that we have sinned (1 John 1:8-9).

What about you? Are you ready to go before God in prayer and ask for forgiveness?

About the Author

Paul Carter

Paul Carter is pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. He is a contributing writer for Life, Hope & Truth, as well as the director of two summer camps for teens and preteens in the Southwest. He is married with three wonderful children, and enjoys the outdoors including hunting, fishing, hiking and volleyball.

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