“This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to
you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say
we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie
and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is
in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” 1 John 1:5-10
Is confessing our sins an unhealthy preoccupation with them or is it a means of grace and a route to joy? Some find it quite disconcerting to be reminded of their sins in a worship service or anywhere else for that matter. To be told that we are miserable offenders, conceived and born in sin and that there is no health in us is offensive and insulting. Some may respond, “Well, aren’t we forgiven, loved, accepted, justified, adopted—why all this focus upon our continued sinfulness?”
There is no need to be offended by this criticism. We are not the least bit ashamed of the fact that we think and talk a lot about sin. We are realists and sin is an ugly fact that is neither to be ignored nor ridiculed. Christianity is the only religion in the world which takes sin seriously and offers an effective remedy for it. If sin is not taken seriously, I would wonder whether we are even talking about real Christianity. The only way to enjoy and apply the remedy is not to deny the disease but to confess it.
It might be helpful at this point to approach the questions above by establishing some common ground that is shared (or should be) by all Christians alike whatever our particular persuasion. The foundational truths on which agreement should be a given are the fact and guilt of sin, the possibility of forgiveness and the need for confession. Sin—confession—forgiveness are, in fact, an inseparable trio. Maybe some elaboration will be helpful.
Our sins involve us in guilt, so that we need to be forgiven. To say that we are sinners is an indisputable fact. But we are not merely sinners, we are guilty sinners. Our sins as Christians are an offense to our triune God. They offend the holiness of our Father, the wounds of our Savior and grieve the Holy Spirit who comforts and sanctifies us. God is personal. He is not a force or power. And as a Person who loves us He can be insulted and offended. To say otherwise is just plain bad theology. Our sins may bring us shame and disgrace, abuse and sorrow to others but their greatest evil is that they offend our thrice holy God. Sin is rebellion against God, lawlessness and a revolt against His authority. It therefore makes us guilty before God and brings us under His fatherly displeasure and chastisement. Only divine forgiveness can remove our guilt
and restore us to fellowship with God. The relationship is indissoluble but the enjoyment of fellowship is contingent upon confessing our sins.
Forgiveness is offered to us by God upon the basis and sole ground of the death of His Son. “It is finished” is what Christ declared upon the cross. Our sins are paid for past, present, and future. The promise of the new covenant is “I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34; Matthew 26:28). Forgiveness of sins was the proclamation of the Apostles in the book of Acts. The Bible proclaims that we receive remission of our sins by His meritorious cross and passion alone. In confessing our sins we therefore pray that God will have mercy upon us for His Son our Lord Jesus Christ sake and forgive us our sins.
Confession of sin is a necessary (non-meritorious) condition of receiving the forgiveness of God. The clearest statement of this third principle is, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). Here are two ‘if’ sentences placed in contrast to one another, stating the result on the one hand of denying that we are sinners and on the other of confessing our sins. If we deny our sins we deceive ourselves; if we confess our sins we are forgiven. You don’t get grace because you confess, we confess because we have grace. The forgiveness of sin by God is made conditional upon the confession of sin by man. Forgiveness depends on confession.
This much should be agreed upon among us. We are guilty sinners. Our merciful God offers us forgiveness through Jesus Christ. We must confess our sins. But how and to whom should our confession be made? Confession must be made to the person against whom we have sinned and from whom we need and desire to receive forgiveness.
Now let us turn to secret confession, i.e. confessing our secret sins committed against God. We know that the knee-jerk reaction to awareness of sin is fear, hiding, blaming and covering. Our father Adam taught us that. Our aprons of fig leaves are pathetic attempts to cover up and conceal from God what we know ourselves to be.
The difference between covering our sins and confessing them is set before us very clearly in Proverbs 28:13. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper but whoever confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” As usual in Proverbs we have two contrasting courses of action and the consequences of each. No one who covers or conceals his sin will prosper; it is he who confesses them who will find mercy. Many of us are not prospering in the Christian life and are making little or no progress. We are not enjoying the mercy of God or being swept off our feet by His grace, or electrified by the Gospel because we have neglected the plain teaching of Scripture regarding the secret confession of our sins to God. This verse (Proverbs 28:13) applies both to unbelievers and believers. We believers can be quite lax about this because it is an uncomfortable discipline dealing with unpleasant matters. The truth is we do more covering up than uncovering which is the essence of hypocrisy. We don’t want to live in absolute dependence upon the constant mercy of God.
The Bible gives us a graphic account of the inner turmoil of a man who tried to cover his sins: “For when I kept silent, my bones 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. 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.” (Psalm 32:3-5). I could echo these words from my own experience. There is no misery of mind or spirit to compare with estrangement from God through sin and the refusal to confess it in brokenness. There is also no joy like the fellowship with God through repentance, confession and forgiveness. Some are of the opinion that since Christ died for our sins and paid for them, we are forgiven and that is that. My reply is then why did Jesus in the Lord’s prayer teach us to pray forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors? (Matthew 6). He evidently did not anticipate a time when His disciples could dispense with this petition. All excuses for covering our sins are superficial. They disguise the real reason we tend to cover our sins before God, which is that we want to conceal them even from ourselves. We cannot bear the humiliation of seeing and facing ourselves as we really are. Such is our pride that we prefer fiction to fact. This is toxic and spiritually unhealthy. It ruins spiritual growth and progress.
If the way to forfeit prosperity is to cover our sins, the way to find mercy is to uncover them, to bring them out of the darkness of secrecy and deception into the burning light of God’s presence. The double purpose of uncovering our sins is to confess and forsake them.
First we need to uncover our sins, in order that God may forgive them. Psalm 32 makes this point very clearly. As we confess them God mercifully covers them with His gracious forgiveness. It is God’s loving desire to cover our sins, to blot them out, to put them away as far as the east is from the west, to cast them behind His back, to bury them in the depths of the sea, and to remember them no more. These are vivid expressions found in the Bible helping us to celebrate His forgiveness.
But we not only uncover our sins to be forgiven but also that we may forsake them. One of the greatest snares to which a Christian can be exposed is to grow accustomed to our sins. One of the surest antidotes to this process of moral hardening is the disciplined practice of uncovering our sins of thought and heart as well as word and deed, and the repentant forsaking of them. It is not enough to confess them, asking for forgiveness and cleansing; we need to deliberately, definitely, specifically to forsake them.
In the final analysis it is a question of honesty vs. hypocrisy. The uncovering of sins is painful and humiliating. It brings us to our knees in lowliness before God. But if we want to receive mercy, both forgiveness for the past and power for the future there is no other way.