A Biblical Approach to Confessing Sin

Question from a Site Viewer
Scripture says we should confess our sins to one another. Confessing sin seems to be emphasized in the Bible. But what if our sin was terrible . . . a sin that might ruin lives? Should we still confess?

Tim’s Answer
Thank you for your questions concerning confessing sin. You speak of a terrible sin and you believe that confessing it would ruin lives.

Confession of sin is a Biblical mandate. In the law, God promises to respond unfavorably to His people when they walk contrary to Him, but then He states that if His people will confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers and accept their guilt, that God will remember them (Leviticus 26:40-42). Daniel knew of this promise and presents us with a beautiful prayer and model of confession in Daniel 9:3-19. Nehemiah also understood this promise and offers us another beautiful model of a prayer of confession in Nehemiah 1:5-11. A third model is found in Nehemiah 9 where the people confess both the sins of their fathers and their own sins. Each of these confessions was to God.

One of the most powerful Psalms on confession is David’s great Psalm 32. David opens this Psalm with the words:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

He speaks of keeping silent about his sin and then describes the drain on his life. Then, he states, he acknowledged his sin to God and did not hide his iniquity (and I believe again this is in reference to God). He states that he confessed his transgression to the LORD, and the LORD forgave him (verse 5). David never mentions to us what his sin was, nor does he mention any confession to men. But we know from this Psalm that God forgave him.

Again, in Psalm 51, when David confesses his sin concerning Bathsheba and Uriah, he focuses on the acknowledgment of his sin before God (verse 3-4). While certainly David confessed to Nathan, the prophet, that he had sinned (2 Samuel 12:13), it was not the confession to Nathan that brought about forgiveness, but the confession to God (at least that is how it is presented in Psalm 51). In Proverbs 28:13, we are told that the one who covers his sins will not prosper, but the one who confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.

The Apostle John picks this up in 1 John 1:9 where he states that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Confession is simply saying the same thing about sin that God says. We acknowledge our sins as being sins, that we have failed God, and we seek His forgiveness.

Hosea has one of the most striking passages on confession of sin. If you know the story of Hosea, God starts out saying that He is through with His people because they have departed so far from Him. But then God says that even though He wants to be through with them, He cannot give them up (Hosea 11:8), because of His great sympathy for them (Hosea 11:8-9). He closes this great little book with the passage at Hosea 14:1-4 where God calls Israel to return to Him. He states it in these words:

O Israel, return to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity; take words with you, and return to the LORD. Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity; receive us graciously, for we will offer the sacrifices of our lips.”

And if Israel would do only this, then God says that he would heal their backsliding and love them freely (Hosea 14:4). What God wants from sinners is a simple acknowledgment that we have sinned and a request to Him that He take away sins. He even gives us the words in this passage to bring to Him.

Confession, then, is first and primarily to God. All sin, ultimately, is against God and we need to acknowledge to Him that we have sinned, turn away from our sin, and seek His grace. If we do so, He has promised to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). There are no other Biblical conditions to God’s forgiveness.

I note that in none of these confessions is there a description of the details of the sin. The confession is that we have sinned by transgressing God’s commands, by hardening our necks, and not listening to God. The thief on the cross simply acknowledged that he was being justly judged and pleaded with Christ, and He was forgiven (Luke 23:41-43). He said nothing about what his sin was. These are the Biblical sort of confessions.

There is no sense in Scripture that the role of confession is to expose the gory details of sin either to God (who already knows them) or to men. Those who want to hear all of the dirt, or believe it is somehow cathartic for sinners to tell it all, I think miss the message of Christ and Scripture. Love seeks to cover over the sins of others, not to delve into them (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8). Love seeks to lead life towards Christ and not back into the details of failure. I believe before God that it is enough to acknowledge that one has sinned; that this thing we have done is sin; and that we need His mercy. We do not need to relive or retell every stinking moment of it. God has already had to endure it. The confessions of Scripture are not what we often think. They focus on the wrong to God of disobedience, rather than the result and ugly details of our actions. We acknowledge to God that what we have done is sin, and we acknowledge our desperate need for His cleansing and mercy. And then we leave it behind and follow after Christ.

This is important to note in this day when so many believe that confession involves detailing the dirt of sin. Only once in Scripture is there a clear example of such a confession, and that is with Achan (Joshua 7:20-26). Achan’s confession was not for repentance, forgiveness, or restoration of fellowship. It stands in marked contrast to the call of God to Israel, and to people to repent by a simple acknowledgment of sin. To say to God simply “I have sinned” is the Biblical approach to sin. God knows what the sin is and there is no need to utter the stinking details of it again or ever to relive the filth of the sin.

There are two examples in the New Testament where an argument could be made that specific sins were publicly confessed. In Matthew 3:6, multitudes came to John the Baptist to be baptized by him and Scripture tells us that they confessed their sins. Likewise, in Acts 19:18, we are told that many at Ephesus believed and came confessing and telling their deeds. But before we reach the conclusion that this was a disclosure of the details of their sins, we must understand that a very similar statement is made in Nehemiah 9:2 where the Israelites were said to have confessed their sins. But in the passage that follows, where I believe the confession is detailed, the confession was that “we have done wickedly” (Nehemiah 9:33). The confession of their sins was precisely the same type of confession we find elsewhere in Scripture. It was not a sordid detail of wickedness, but rather an acknowledgment that they had acted contrary to God’s design. Likewise, neither the Matthew passage nor the Acts passage otherwise tells us what the confessions entailed, but I suspect that it was much more along the line of other Biblical confessions and not at all like many of the detailed confessions wrung out of abused sinners today.

The forgiveness of sin by God is never hinged in Scripture on confession to one another. The tax collector went away justified simply by asking God to be merciful to him (Luke 18:9-14). The thief on the cross went to heaven though he never confessed to those whom he had wronged. Though the forgiveness of God is sometimes stated to be dependent on whether we are willing to forgive another (see Matthew 6:14-15;18:21-35), it is never stated to be dependent on the confession of our own sins to others. God’s forgiveness is given when we confess to Him.

Nevertheless, I believe there also is a role for confession of sins to one another. In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus tells us that when a brother sins against us, we should rebuke him, and if he repents we are to forgive him. The repentance here at least implies confession. The prodigal son when he returned home said to his father: “I have sinned against heaven and in your sight” (Luke 15:21). (Again, notice, the confession is not that “I have squandered your wealth on prostitutes.” The confession is not in the details, but in the acknowledgment of the sin.) In Numbers 5:6-8, the LORD gave command that those who sin shall confess the sin and make restitution to the one whom he has wronged. While this passage does not explicitly state to whom the confession is to be made, the implication (I believe) is that the confession should be both to God and to the person wronged. In each of these situations, there is a wrong against the person, the person knows that he has been wronged, and the confession serves to seek the restoration of relationship and community.

But what about the situation when a person who was wronged does not know that they were wronged? Should we confess in this situation? Many would say “yes.” However, they have a difficult time supporting that position from Scripture. Surprising to some, there are not many passages dealing with confession to one another. The major ones are Joseph’s brothers offering an indirect confession to Joseph (Genesis 50:17); the offended brother in Numbers 5:6-8; Achan (Joshua 7:20-26); Saul’s model of how not to do confession (1 Samuel 15:24-35); David’s confession (2 Samuel 12:13); the confessions in Matthew 3:6; the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:21); the implied confession in Luke 17:3-4; the confessions at Ephesus (Acts 19:18), and the James passage. None of these deal with confession to one who did not know that they had been wronged. And none is a statement that we need to confess all of our sins to others.

Some examples are quite obvious. In the classic case used in these situations, if I walk down the street and lust after a person I see, I should not therefore use that as a reason to go to that person and confess to them my lust. If I speak ill of my boss to a friend, I do not necessarily need to go to my boss and confess, although I may have a need to go back to my friend and confess. If I secretly took a picture of someone while they were naked, the best thing to do may be to burn the picture. It would not be appropriate in many situations to go confess to that person. There is no sense in 1 Corinthians that the believers there were required to go back through their terrible lives and confess to others all of their sins, and they had many (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). There are a thousand situations where confession of sins known to you against another who is ignorant of the sin is not wise or appropriate. I often wonder where those who believe confession is appropriate in these situations go to find any Biblical support. Not even the Gadarene demoniac was called to go back and confess his sins. Rather, he was simply told to go tell the great things that Christ had done for him (Mark 5:1-19). This is what we should be telling people, that God has forgiven us and given us life.

Always, the great command is love. Jesus told us to love one another (John 13:34-35). John tells us that the one who loves knows God (1 John 4:7). Paul tells us that love fulfills the law (Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:13). Scripture also tells us that love covers a multitude of sins (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8). Those who love will not seek to hear the details of the sins of others, and those who love will not seek to hurt others with the details of their sins. I find it interesting that when Paul dealt with known sin in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 5:1-7), he did not call for confession. In 2 Corinthians 2:3-11, in a passage many scholars believe address the sinful man in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul simply calls for the body to forgive and restore. Apparently, the person was sorrowful, and this was enough. When Peter denied Jesus, Jesus never came and asked for a confession of Peter’s sin. Jesus saw the bigger picture, that Satan wanted to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31-32), but Jesus was in the business of strengthening Peter. Jesus sought out Peter, the Shepherd seeking the sheep, and brought Peter back to the fold. This, I believe, is the appropriate response of godly believers to the sin of fellow believers. We should see the bigger battle, between Satan and godliness, and we should seek to enfold and embrace those who have sinned back into the fold. Because I do not see either the Biblical call for general confession or the benefit thereof, and because I believe that often such confession often violates the law of love and works against a pursuit of purity, I am loath to endorse confession to others as a common practice. But when helpful to restore relationships, I believe that confession to others is both Biblical and appropriate. Again, I would resist getting into evil details.

Besides the restoration of relationships, James, I believe, teaches us yet another value to confessing sins to one another. In James 5:14-16, James tells us that when we are sick, we should call for the elders of the church and anoint the sick one with oil, and the prayer (I believe a reference to the prayer of the elders) of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has sinned God will forgive him (all in response to the prayer of the elders). Then James tells us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed (James 5:16). While some would take verse 16 to be a general verse applicable to all situations, I read it in the passage as dealing with situations in which people are ill. If someone is ill and in sin, they should confess their sins to others who are spiritual and the others should pray for them for their healing. There is power in having others who are godly (see James 5:16) pray for your sins. This, in fact, is the role of the priest; that is, he is to intercede to God on the behalf of the sins of others (Hebrews 5:1-3). Of course, Christ is the great example. But we too are priests (1 Peter 2:9). And we should pray for the sins of one another. And when we do, we can release others from their sin burden and bring about health to them.

I apply this also to situations when people are simply burdened heavily with the guilt of past sins. I think it is appropriate in that situation for them to talk to other godly people, confess their sins, and seek help in overcoming the sin burden.

But, again, there is no sense that confession of sins in such situations is different than the Biblical model already seen. No godly person in his or her proper mind wants to defile their pure hearts with the stain of the ugly details of sin. When people have come to me and wanted to tell me about their sin, I first make it clear to them that I am not interested in knowing about their sin. It is enough for me to know that they have a sin burden that I need to pray about. I encourage them to pray to God and I will pray to God and seek His mercy for them. Neither I nor they need to live any longer in that sin. Both of us need to live with our thoughts focused on the person of Jesus Christ, on His great mercy and love, and on our duty to follow Him. We need to press on, and not look back.

Confession to one another, then, is appropriate when we have wronged another and they know about it. Confession in this situation is healthy for the body life, in restoring fellowship and community. Confession to one another is also appropriate when we have sins that may be pressing on us. In that situation, the prayer of others can be effective to achieve forgiveness and health.

I have no clue and do not want to know what sin you have in mind. However, what seems most terrible to you probably is not much different than my sin, or anyone’s sin. We share a common humanity. We tend to see sin so different than what God sees sin. The worst sin before God, in my view, is pride. I think I can support this from Scripture. So, whatever you have or another has done, it is almost certainly not as bad as the pride I have had. We live in an era where sexual sin often is seen in the church as being the worst thing. Or, perhaps the sin of an abortion, or some other such dreadfully awful thing is listed as one of those “great” sins. I do not in any way condone such sins, nor do I think such sins should be part of a Christian’s life. But I note that Christ said that it would be worse in the day of judgment for Capernaum, a generally moral city, than for Sodom (Matthew 11:23-24). Why? Because in their pride they rejected Jesus.

All sin is a violation of who God made us to be. It is because we all have sinned that we all need a Savior. The Lord has laid on Him (Jesus) the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). The sin you have in your mind when you sent in this question, and the sin in my life are precisely the sins that Jesus bore to the cross. These are the reasons Jesus died. He died to take away our sin debt, to pay for our sins, to forgive us, and offer us a life that looks forward to Him and not back at our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24; Colossians 1:14).

The answer to sin is to turn to God, acknowledge our sin, and seek His mercy. If we do so, He will forgive us (1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13). Then, we need to leave the sin behind and press forward to serve Christ.

I want also to add this note. It is also important not to pretend to be something we are not. If someone should ask, we should not lie to them. John tells us that no lie is of the truth (1 John 2:21). It is important to be honest with people. But this does not mean that we must tell all. Jesus often did not answer questions. To not answer is not a lie. We can politely say that we do not want to talk about the matter. And if someone thinks worse of us for not wanting to talk about the matter, our role is to pray for them. But I have seen enough of people to know that even Christians love good gossip and salacious tidbits. And it is not our role to satisfy them in this desire. Our role is to confess our sin to God, and to others if such is needed to restore fellowship, and then to leave that sin behind and live the rest of our life for Christ. As Paul states, it is time to forget the things that are behind and press forward to the things that are before (Philippians 3:13). It is time for Christians to think, breath, and be consumed by Christ, to follow seriously the command of Philippians 4:6, and to let all things be guided by love. In times past we may have walked in the ways of the world, but now we want to walk with God.

There may be some situations where we may have a duty to disclose. If one is married, and one spouse wants to know about our past, we may have some duty to disclose. I generally think it is most healthy to have an open relationship with one’s spouse. Yet, if pressed, I cannot provide you a solid passage from Scripture that would state that you should confess all your sins to your spouse. Accordingly, as in all areas, I would seek direction from God’s Spirit as to what He wants done in every situation. I believe He has given us His Spirit for this very reason.

I also want to add that we should never live a double life. If we have sinned in some area that disqualifies us from certain offices of the church (see 1 Timothy 3:1-13), we should not allow ourselves to be placed in those offices and if we are in such an office, we should resign. We do not need to say why we decline, but we can politely decline, knowing that God knows the reason. If we have stolen money from our dead aunt and we know that we would be fired from our job because we hold a position of trust, it may be appropriate to resign and seek a job where we could work where if the details were known, it would not matter. We should not be living a double life.

I add this caveat. My views on this subject are not shared in many circles, either within the church or within the world of counseling and psychology. There is a great push to tell it all, to come clean, to admit, to be transparent, to disclose everything. Many will say that real healing will not occur until this is done. My response to such is disbelief. I have seen people taken back into their sin and their lives ruined. I have observed a marked degradation of life in those who have been drug through such processes. But what troubles me even more is that I find no support for the practice in Scripture. We are not worse sinners than those who lived in Biblical times (nor are we better). We share a common humanity. The answer to sin is Christ. He calls us to live for Him, and not look back. I know that sometimes our past comes into the present, and when it does we must deal with it. But the goal is always to live a life well-pleasing to the One who called us out of darkness into His wonderful life. We do not live in the past. We live by reaching forward to live a life fully devoted to Christ.

Somewhere, in my formative years, I learned that we must confess our sins to others. The verse that is always used is James 5:16. One day I bought a can of soda. I did not have the 5 cents for the required deposit, but the proprietor of the store let me buy the soda anyway, with a promise that I would return the empty can. I forgot and never returned the empty can. When I remembered, I was a long way from the city where I bought the soda, and I could not remember the name of the store. For years after that I was frightened that God could never use me because I had not confessed this sin to the person I had wronged and I had no way of resolving this situation. Fortunately, God does not operate that way. God does not hold our sins against us. He died to have a relationship with us. He wants us to experience His forgiveness and His life. And He will welcome and use all who seek to follow Him. When I came to this revelation, it was life-changing. God knows about our past sins. But He does not want to take us into our past. His desire is to create new lives within us, lives of purity and holiness. This is where we need to choose to walk. As Hebrews 12:2 says, we need to focus our eyes on, and only on, Jesus. As Helen Lemmel writes in her poem, when we do so, even the “worst” sins we have done will grow strangely dim.

I encourage you to seek the leading of God in deciding whether confession to others is appropriate in the situation you have in mind. Ultimately, the goal is to leave that sin behind at the cross and live the rest of your life to the will of God (1 Peter 4:2).

May the Lord Jesus and His Spirit guide you in this matter. And may you be able to look back on your life when you get to heaven and see a life well lived for the most beloved and worthy Master anyone could ever desire, even Jesus Christ, who took on Himself our sins and brought to us the blessings and glories of life eternally with Him.

a fellow pilgrim,

tim

4 thoughts on “A Biblical Approach to Confessing Sin

  1. fredena

    Great topic! I appreciate your personal story that led you to the truth in God’s word. It reminds me of a story I read, where a man spent three days on his knees in the cold and snow, confessing, and waiting to be forgiven by the person he had wronged. I always wondered about all of this “being real and authentic”.

    This brings up another topic along those lines: prayerlines where people come for prayer, but tell all their business-and then some. What are the scriptural principles that address this kind of public confession? Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Dee

    WOW, what a great study! This is spot on and you have helped. me.in my decision to just keep it between me and GOD….I. have. already.confessed and repented a few weeks ago. I may tell a trusted brother of mine but that. Is it ! Telling the person I.sinned against will only fuel gossip , condemn me and grieve the offended. Although my sin towards this person would.not bothe.r
    most…. but it came to my remembrance so confessed and repented . I am moving forward! I cursed this person out of anger and ignorance….it will never happen again! We have to be led by the SPIRIT…otherwise we risk causing unnecessary damage…..when sin has been covered!
    Thankyou Thankyou for being informative, using scripture , practical tools. T And THE HOLY SPIRIT!! Amen

    Reply
    1. truthsaves Post author

      You are welcome. Our goal is to let Scripture speak to these life issues so that the heart of Christ may be seen in His church.

      Reply
      1. Celia

        Thanks so much for this article. I cannot tell you how much your scripture-based explanation and opinion has helped me. I found this article several months ago while participating in a study entitled, “Why Godly People Do Ungodly Things”, and I’ve come back to reread it several times since then – like I did this evening. The precepts in your article support exactly what I learned in that particular study — and all of it Biblically based. I realize now that the Holy Spirit has been guiding me all along, and that He would never require me to confess anything that would deliberately embarrass and hurt others – especially others that I love deeply. While the remembrance of a particular sin of my past grieves me, it has been confessed to the only One who can restore me – and He has restored me. He really is the Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9:6).

        Reply

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