Confession of Sin Topical Study

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Confession of sin is an admission of transgressions and shortcomings, first to God and then to any others we have wronged. In healthy confession the admission is searching, grieving, humble, and frank. The confessor neither hides nor withholds anything, including that he or she may be insincere about the confession itself.

In Scripture

"When you realize your guilt . . . you shall confess the sin that you have committed" (Lev. 5:5).

"David said to Nathan, `I have sinned against the Lord.' Nathan said to David, `Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die'" (2 Sam. 12:13).

"Who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults" (Ps. 19:12).

"While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, `I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,' and you forgave the guilt of my sin" (Ps. 32:3 - 5).

"I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin" (Ps. 38:18).

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgement. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me" (Ps. 51:1 - 5).

"O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you" (Ps. 69:5).

"No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy" (Prov. 28:13).

"I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, `Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances'" (Dan. 9:4 - 5).

"[People] were baptized by [John the Baptist] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (Matt. 3:6).

"Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded" (James 4:8).

"Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective" (James 5:16).

"The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9).

"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8 - 9).

Points to Ponder

Many of us shrink from confession of sin. After all, it's mortifying. To say to God "I did it and it was wrong and I shouldn't have done it" or "I didn't do it, and it was wrong, and I should have done it" kills us. But that's its chief benefit. Our old, proud self that can't admit wrongdoing — that's the self that needs to die. It needs to clear the way for the resurrection of our new self — the self that is honest, humble, malleable in God's hands. Dying and rising with Christ is the centerpiece of regeneration, and honest confession of sin is a regular feature of it.

The healthiness of confession: Not incidentally, honest acknowledgment of how we have wronged others is a mainstay of twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. It's simply a way of squaring ourselves up with reality. It's one of the healthiest things we can do.

Painfully specific: Honest confession of sin is painfully specific. Not "O God, I sometimes fudge on stuff and finesse the truth," but "O God, I deliberately broke my promise to Jim and then I lied about the reason." The more specific and painful, the better. We want to stab our old, proud self in the heart.

The wide scope of our sin: Honest confession acknowledges the wide scope of our sin. We have sinned "in our thoughts, and in our words, and in our deeds." We have sinned both "by what we have done and what we have left undone" (General Confession, Anglican Book of Common Prayer). What we have left undone includes duties we never even dreamed of doing.

Hidden sins: As Psalm 19 suggests, honest confession acknowledges "hidden sins." They may be hidden from others, but not from God. They may be hidden even from ourselves, but not from God. The honest confessor owns up to the possibility that, when he confesses, his shifty psyche manages to conceal half of his sins. Our capacity for self-deception on our sin is profound.

Sincerity and self-deception: I may not know even how sincere I am when I confess. I may believe I am contrite. I may believe I am sincerely sorry for harming others and grieving God. But what if I confess my sins just to take out the garbage and feel better afterward? What if I am put off by my sinfulness not because it harms others and grieves God but only because I think it's a lifestyle for scumbags and I'm way above all that? So honest confession of sin needs some semblance of "I think I'm contrite, O Lord, but I may be deceiving myself and so need salvation all the more."

Corporate confession: Thoughtful, confessing Christians may want to think twice about joining churches that never lament the world's evil, and never practice corporate confession of sin. Grace in these contexts is cheap because nobody is acknowledging our need of it. What was all that horrible suffering of Jesus for? When churches become no-fault zones, they empty the gospel of grace of all its force. No owning up to our evil? Now grace becomes unnecessary, even uninteresting. It's no more than a grace note.

Confess all sins to all people? James says we should confess our sins to one another. Under most circumstances we should, and certainly when we have sinned against someone else. "What I did to you was so wrong, and I am so sorry." But confess all sins to all comers? Probably not. I must think about what my confession will do to others. They may not be able to handle it. They may become disillusioned about human nature and the power of the Christian faith to heal it. Of course, I may once again deceive myself about the reason I'm concealing my sin. Still, the thoughtful Christian will consider carefully whom he trusts, or perhaps burdens, with his secrets.

Confessing with hope: Robert C. Roberts has somewhere written that Christians do not grieve over their sins as those who have no hope. Christians confess their sins "inside the cradle of God's grace," trusting that the God to whom they confess is an overflowing fountain of love and forgiveness, who wants more than anything for us to come clean and be restored to peace. That's what all the suffering on Golgotha was about: Jesus Christ making peace through his blood shed on the cross.

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.