Text: 1Jn.1:9 "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
You have probably heard the expression before. It’s not found in the Bible though I imagine many folk if asked would say that it is. Most sources suggest that it first appeared in Scotland in the mid 1800s. To what am I referring? I’m referring to the phrase "confession is good for the soul".
The idea behind the saying is that if you hide your sins, you will feel more and more guilty but if, on the other hand, you confess your sins, you will find peace. The saying is fine as far as it goes but in today’s world it hardly goes far enough. It is the type of proverb you might find in a self-
The Bible has a lot to say about confession. It tells us amongst other things that confession involves more than just words and secures more than just making us feel better about ourselves.
Prov.28:13 "Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy."
Yes, the Bible has much to teach us about confession. Not only does it speak about the confession of sin but it also speaks about the open confession of faith which amounts to a public declaring of the truth. To openly make the confession that we believe the truth as it is in Jesus is vitally important, as Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome:
Rom.10:9 "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
But this evening we will limit ourselves to what the Bible has to say about the confession of sins. We will look at a number of biblical examples and we will distinguish those examples that can be safely followed from those which cannot. We will discover that not all confession is good for the soul.
Finally we will spend a few moments considering to whom we should make our confession of sins.
Why is Confession Important?
This is the first question that needs to be asked and the simple answer is, of course, because God requires it. When men and women sin and come to see what they’ve done God expects them to front up and confess it:
Num.5 : 5-
Sin always relates to God because "sin is disobeying or not conforming to God's law in any way." And this lack of conformity is an affront to the honour and glory of God. Hence he requires sinners to make confession of their sins – the coming of Christ did not change this. Describing what God did for us in Christ, Martin Luther wrote: "The Christian way essentially consists in acknowledging ourselves to be sinners and in praying for grace".
Confession is the way whereby we do in fact acknowledge that we are sinners who stand in need of God’s forgiveness. We will never become a true Christian until we make such a confession so our initial confession of sin is vital. But vital as it is we must realise that it is just the initial confession; it is to be the first of many. The Christian is a forgiven sinner and, yes, that makes him a saint now but he is a saint who still sins and who regularly will need cleansing and forgiveness and fresh outpourings of ongoing sanctifying grace.
Let me pause to ask you two questions:
Have you made that vitally important initial confession your sins yet?
Are you still confessing your sins as you live your Christian life?
I don’t mean by that are you still confessing sins which you have already confessed and for which you have already received pardon and forgiveness, they’re dealt with already. But are you confessing new sins when you become aware of them in your life? Confession of sin does not come to an end with conversion and it won’t come to an end until our sanctification is complete.
Jesus himself taught us this when his followers asked him for help in praying. He responded by giving a model prayer for his disciples to use on a regular ongoing basis. That model prayer contained a clear reference to the presence of sin in the life of a believer:
Mt.6:12 "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."
Or, as most of us learnt, it:
"forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
And of course Jesus followed this up with some further words of explanation:
Mt.6:14 "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you."
Later the apostle John developed this idea of confession and forgiveness a little more when he wrote:
1Jn.1:9 "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
From all of this it ought to be obvious to us that the confession of sins is important but what does it really mean? What must be involved if such confession is to be good and acceptable to God? In order to answer that question we’re going to look at some examples we find in Scripture.
Some Examples of Deficient Confession
Adam and Eve
Not long after being placed in the Garden in such favourable circumstances Adam and Eve determined to go their own way and to turn their back upon God. Listening to the serpent’s lie they rejected God’s plan for their lives and disobeyed his clear and straightforward command not to eat of the fruit of one particular tree.
Adam and Eve knew what they were doing and when God confronted them they did not attempt to deny what they had done – in fact they both openly declared that, yes, they had eaten the forbidden fruit. That was their confession. But it wasn’t a good confession because of what it was accompanied by:
Gen.3:12, 13 The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate." Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."
Yes, I did it said Adam but he then immediately he went on with his excuses as he tried to pass the buck. It was the woman’s fault...it was your fault, God, for you gave her to me.
Eve was no better. It was the serpent’s fault. He deceived me.
Confession like this is poor confession. It was confession that refused to accept responsibility; it was confession that tried to shift the blame. It was more of a simple recognition of facts that couldn’t be denied than it was a true confession.
Our next example is found in the life of Pharaoh at the time of the 10 Plagues of Egypt. You’ll remember that the plagues were sent because Pharaoh had been mistreating God’s people and to make matters worse he was refusing to set them free when the LORD commanded him to do so. As the plagues unfolded Pharaoh’s resistance seems to wane. On the surface of things it looked like Pharaoh was finally beginning to pay attention to what the Lord was requiring of him. His words sound so promising – but in reality they were just words. For all his fine words Pharaoh was not really bothered by his sins at all. He just didn’t like their consequences:
This attitude didn’t last long and for a time he continued to resist even when his own advisors counselled otherwise:
Ex.10:7 Then Pharaoh’s servants said to him... "Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?"
Again Pharaoh demonstrated he could put together some fine sounding phrases:
But once more it is the consequences he doesn’t like and as soon as they’re changed so is his resolve.
Don’t be deceived and don’t try to fool yourself: it is quite possible to confess a sin because you don’t like the consequences it brings while at the same time remaining wedded to that sin in the depth of your being.
Speed forward to the time when Israel went in to take possession of the Promised Land. After a first victory things turned sour for sin was in the camp. Joshua, under divine guidance, took steps to identify who it was who was responsible. Achan was identified.
Jos.7:20 And Achan answered Joshua, "Truly I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I did:
Achan’s confession was no true confession either. He made it having been backed-
King Saul knew how to talk the talk without really recognising what it was that he had done. Yes, he too would make his confession because he too disliked the consequences that had come his way. On the one hand he tried to minimise the importance of what he had done – there were mitigating circumstances he pleaded, you don’t know what pressure the people were putting me under. And on the other he hoped his confession might somehow keep him from losing face before the people:
1Sam.15:24, 30 "Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice... Then he said, "I have sinned; yet honour me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the LORD your God."
After betraying the Lord Jesus Judas realised that what he done was wrong but there was no repentance just remorse, he didn’t like the emotional consequences his act of betrayal had caused him:
You see, it is quite possible to say the right thing yet in the wrong way. It is possible to make a confession for the wrong reasons. It is possible to confess to sin without feeling its wrongdoing keenly at all. There are many ways of making a poor or a bad confession even if the words sound orthodox and true. Let us make sure our confession is not like these bad examples.
Some Better Examples
We repeatedly come across examples of David going to God with his confessions. He was not content to express his feelings or his words to others, he went to God with them.
Ps.32:5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
After being confronted by the prophet Nathan concerning his sinful behaviour towards Bathsheba and Uriah her husband David was deeply moved and penned the famous psalm for repentance Psalm 51. The opening words express his understanding of how his sin has offended God. He makes no attempt to excuse himself with a set of supposedly mitigating circumstances. He has sinned because by nature he was a sinner as simple as that.
David did recognise that his sin from time to time could produce unwanted and unwelcome consequences but how different David’s attitude was! His actions caused hurt for others and he suggested he was the one who should suffer those consequences not unfortunate others!
Ps.32:18 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.
2Sam.24:10, 17 (repeated in 1Chron.21) But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly."... Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, "Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father’s house."
When Ezra prayed and confessed the sins of the people to which he belonged he was deeply and emotionally involved with his confession – his prayer was anything but skin deep.
Ez.10:1 Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God.
The experience of Nehemiah was similar – no excuses are made, the buck stops here. And here confession was mixed with worship:
How careful Daniel is too to ascribe glory and honour to God as he identifies himself with his people and confesses their sin as if it were his own. Fault is not to be found in God and no attempts will be made to dilute his own responsibility along with the rest of the Israelites for sin:
These are good examples of how to confess sin. These are the examples to imitate: confession involves far more than a mere recognition of the fact that one has sinned. Denials and excuses are laid aside so that honesty might prevail. God is worshipped and glorified – he is in the right. The inner man is deeply affected – true confession does not leave us indifferent or personally unaffected as though we were simply playing a part or performing some impersonal ritual. Sin is hated for what it is – an affront to God and not just because of the mess it brings into our human lives.
To whom should confession be made?
If sin is primarily an affront to the glory and honour of Almighty it follows that confession of sin should be made to him and this is exactly what we find over and over again in the good examples laid out for us in the Scriptures.
It is surely worth noting that Pharaoh, Achan, Saul and Judas when they acknowledged their sin did not do to God but to men.
James does add something in addition here:
Jas.5:16 "confess your sins to one another"
He was writing in the context of prayer for the sick whose sickness was in some manner linked to sin. In other words what he has to say does not trump everything else that we have considered about confessing our sins to God. He is most certainly not telling us to confess our sins to one another instead of to God!
It may at times be helpful to confess our sins to others but there are times and situations where it might be anything but helpful to do so.
To Confess Sin or Sins
Finally, let me say that in confessing our wrongdoing to God we would do well to be specific rather than merely general.
What do I mean by that?
Well, while there may be a few people who find it difficult to conceive of themselves as sinners for most of us I imagine it is not difficult. We know we fall short of God’s standards in many ways and we know that that falling short is due to sin. To confess that we are sinners, that we have sin, is not therefore that difficult – but it is very general. If I confess to God I am a sinner in general terms I leave his presence with little clear idea of what changes in my behaviour and attitude are needed. If on the other hand I confess a specific sin of which I have been made aware I will have a clearer idea of what needs changing and where. If for example I confess to having spoken harshly to someone then I will have to think about how to employ my tongue better in the future.
Let us learn to confess our sins well.
Let us realise that this is what God requires of us and it is part of his plan for bringing good into our lives as we walk in fellowship with him.
Let us learn to keep short accounts too – let us learn confess our sins to Him as soon as we are made aware of them.
And may God be glorified that there is forgiveness and pardon with him through Jesus Christ our Lord.