“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
We’ve all been there. Cringing as we hear someone in church sharing a testimony that just gets way too specific about one’s pre-conversion past, or even one’s so-called “backsliding.” It sounds dangerously close to glorifying the sin. At best we might be thinking TMI (to use textese, a language I do not actually speak). At worst, we are covering our children’s ears and praying our teens do not get any wild ideas about how awesome it would be to have that same testimony.
Trust me young people, one sin is enough to send you to hell apart from the salvation of Christ; you need not heap up God’s wrath against you. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
But I digress.
The point is, how should a Christian confess sin? To whom should I confess? Is there ever a proper time for a public confession and/or testimony? How specific should my confession be?
To be clear, I want to say on the front end that I do not think that all of these questions have explicitly clear answers in the Bible. Some do, but not all. That said, I do think the Bible has enough principles to help us apply God’s wisdom to each of these questions.
To “confess” means literally “to say the same.” It is to admit or to come into agreement. So, when a person initially comes under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit and “confesses,” he or she is agreeing with God that he or she is a sinner justly condemned and that his or her only hope of forgiveness and a right standing with God is the righteous life, the atoning death, and the powerful resurrection of Jesus Christ. Once that sinner by God’s regenerating grace makes that confession unto salvation (Rom 10:9-10), he or she is then transformed into a life-long confessor, repenter and believer. That is to say, the Holy Spirit of God by His indwelling presence continually convicts of sin, exposes the wicked remnants of the old man, grants ongoing repentance and faith in Christ thereby evermore steadily and surely conforming the believer to the image of Christ. This is called the Doctrine of Progressive Sanctification. [See Ch. 13 of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.]
So, with that doctrinal backdrop laid, let’s try to give some answers to the initial questions.
- How should a Christian confess sin? Regularly. Contritely. Prayerfully. Reverently. In the fear of God. In devotion to obeying God’s Word. With love for Christ. Some of the more powerful examples in Scripture are: Job 40:3-5; 42:1-6; Isaiah 6; Daniel 9; Nehemiah 1; 9; Psalms 32; 51; Luke 7:36-50; 15:11-32.
- To whom should I confess? First and foremost, always to God. Sin is ultimately always and, in a strict legal sense, only against God. For He alone is the Lawgiver and Judge. “Against You and You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4). But the New Testament also calls upon us to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16 is the classic text). The commands to forgive one another assume that within a local church, members are confessing sin, seeking and giving forgiveness (Eph 4:32; Col 3:12-14). Jesus also assumed His people will be confessing sins that offended others and will be seeking forgiveness and granting forgiveness (Matt 5:23-24; 18:15-18; Luke 11:4; 17:3-4). So, confess to God. And confess to other believers.
- Is there ever a proper time for a public confession? But these confessions should only be done in close coordination and in submission to your local pastoral leadership (Heb 13:17). The pastors / elders bear responsibility to oversee the flock’s public gatherings. You should discuss with a pastor or church leader, in advance, any notion or promptings you have to confess a sin or share a testimony of God’s faithfulness to rescue and preserve His people by His great grace. Public confessions can be powerful when done well. But they can also be disastrously painful when done poorly. Because of their potential to only compound and/or multiply the hurt, I personally think public confessions should be rare. An explicit exception to this appears to be the case of a pastor / elder who has persisted in sin (see 1 Tim 5:19-21). This makes sense, as the long-term sin of a pastor doubtlessly impacts the entire local church body in some ways, since he stands to preach and teach the Word authoritatively week after week. God takes the shepherding of His redeemed people deadly serious (Ezek 34). There is a reason that the pre-eminent character qualification for an elder is to be “above reproach” (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6-7).
Another instance where a public confession might be wise is in the case of a very public sin. If a church member commits a sin in a flagrant, public way, the Scripture seems to expect very swift and public action to be taken by the church (1 Cor 5). God forbid we allow the Name of Jesus to be diminished or demeaned among us, or that we give God’s enemies occasion to mock (2 Sam 12:14).
- How specific should my confession be? To God, He already knows it all so you might as well come clean (Ps 19:12-14; 139:23-24). It is good for your soul to bring all your cares to God, reminding yourself of how depraved you are, how in need of His grace you are, and how amazing is the love and blood of Jesus which wipes our sin away. But when we are confessing our sins to one another, I think it wise to consider a few principles:
- Has my sin directly impacted a person? Then my confession should be addressed in specific ways to that wound. If I used harsh words with my wife, then I should name those words as sin against God and her, and do so to her in person, and humbly ask her forgiveness.
- Has my sin more indirectly impacted a person or persons? Then I should be more cautious, more general with my confession. Did my child hear my harsh words to my wife (and her mother)? Then I should specifically confess to my child, too. But if my child did not actually hear the words, but has noticed a coldness between her Daddy and Mommy all day, then after I specifically confess to my wife in private, I should also explain generically to my child that I was not kind to Mommy and have asked her forgiveness and am now asking the child to forgive me as well. No need to repeat to the child verbatim what I said to my wife if the child didn’t hear it to begin with. That only causes unnecessary hurt, you see.
- To the extent that my sin has harmed a relationship, to that extent I should consider confessing. Put another way, the closeness and kind of relationship often determines how specifically I confess.
- In public confessions, confession of root sins is best. In other words, sins like pride, selfishness, deceit / lying, greed, are really at the root of all sin. These root sins give rise to all sorts of other sins, which most likely are not known to a broader audience. Thus, confessing with specificity in larger crowds typically only adds unnecessary hurt. But getting to the heart or root of the matter before a larger audience should be enough. Enough to require the humility of the confessor, and enough to garner the forgiveness of the potentially hurt. Those within that crowd that are closer in relationship to us, we should then prayerfully consider making more explicit confessions to privately.
To be sure, the flesh in us always wants the juicy details. But we must ask ourselves, “Why?” If we have not been personally hurt in some obvious relational way, then what would compel us to insist upon more details? We will turn our attention to that matter in a future post.
To wrap up this much-too-long blog entry, however, I challenge you to search the Scriptures for an explicit, or graphically specific public confession of sin. I dare say you will not find anything resembling so much of what too often passes as “a powerful testimony” in churches today. That ought to help shape and fashion our view on the matter of confession. Close relationships in the church inevitably ought to involve us in deeper transparency. But I am afraid we too often try to take that portrait of close biblical friendship and plaster it over the top of our public gatherings.
“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among the saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place” (Eph 5:3-4).