At the close of a sermon, a Gospel preacher will typically offer the invitation, following the pattern of first-century evangelists (Acts 2:38-40; 3:17-26; 10:47-48). And along with offering alien sinners the opportunity to be baptized for the remission of their sins, the preacher will typically offer the opportunity for erring brothers and sisters to confess sins before the church. Some ponder, “Which sins do I need to confess publicly?” Others may ask, “What do I need to say when I confess publicly? How specific do I need to be?” Still others wonder, “Is public confession necessary at all? Can I not just confess my sins privately to God?” To answer these questions, consider a few Biblical principles.
A child of God is responsible to confess every known sin to God. God stands ready to extend mercy and forgive His children, but forgiveness is conditional: “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, emphasis LM). To fail to meet the condition is to fail to receive the desired result. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). Thus to prosper and receive mercy, one must confess his sins; or the opposite—ruin and condemnation—will be his lot. As the late brother Guy N. Woods observed, “The scriptures clearly teach that every known sin, of what ever nature, must be confessed to God. Any sin, every sin, unrepented of [or unconfessed, LM], establishes a barrier between God and the individual rendering fellowship impossible.”i
Children of God are commanded to confess sins to other Christians.“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). According to this verse, there are occasions when brethren are to confess their sins before other brethren, and one’s being healed (forgiven) depends upon it. When in Ephesus the apostle Paul clearly demonstrated the folly of magical arts, “[M]any that believed [Christians, LM] came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds.Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver” (Acts 19:18-19, emph. LM). These repentant souls made known to others what they had been practicing, and that they would be practicing such things no longer.
Not every sin must be publicly confessed. Christ commanded a specific course of action when one brother or sister has committed a personal offense against another (Matthew 18:15-17). As the first step of this course, He commanded, “[G]o and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother” (Matthew 18:15). Why does Christ instruct this conversion to take place privately, between “thee and him alone”? It is partially because a one-on-one conversation tends to conduce to more openness, kindness, and receptivity in the conversation. But Christ’s instruction also implies that it is unnecessary for anyone outside of the two involved to know that sin has taken place. The offending brother’s willingness to “hear” the one offended means his “gain”—his full restoration, without confession being made before the entire congregation.
Thus we find the principle, “A sin should be confessed as widely as it is known.” If a sin that is only known by two brethren can be kept between two brethren and forgiven, does it not follow that a sin that is only known by one child of God and God Himself can be kept between the two and forgiven? Would it be necessary—or appropriate or helpful—for a brother to confess, “I’ve been struggling with feelings of lust toward sister so-and-so”? Such a confession would bring shame to the sister and could cause strife in her marriage, although she may never have done anything to incite the confessor’s amorous impulses.
Elders and other Christians need to know the spiritual state of their brethren. Christians are to pray for their erring brethren, that they may be healed. But how are they to pray when they have no knowledge of a brother’s need to be healed? “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death” (1 John 5:16-17). Whether a sin is “unto death” or not depends on whether or not it been confessed and repented of. And, once again, how one prays for his brother depends on his understanding of his brother’s spiritual situation.
Christians are commanded to “mark” and “avoid” those who bring false doctrines (Romans 16:17). Christians are commanded, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). But if an erring brother or sister has repented, faithful Christians are no longer to avoid or remain withdrawn from that person. And the only way Christians can know that a brother or sister has repented is if he or she confesses it publicly.
Confession requires a certain amount of specificity. Sometimes an erring child of God will come forward to make confession, and say something to the effect of, “If I have sinned, I would like forgiveness.” There may well be times when we need to ask ourselves or others if we have sinned. But to ask such as a question, or to express one’s sin as a mere possibility, does not constitute confession. Even to say, “I have sinned” does not really constitute confession if people have no idea what that person did. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, emph. LM). When James instructed, “Confess your faults [‘your sins,’ American Standard Version] one to another,” he did not say, “Confess that you have sinned one to another.” He said to confess the sins themselves. When the repentant Ephesians came forward to confess, they “shewed their deeds”; that is, they fully disclosed what they had been practicing. Should we do differently? “Of course, ‘gutter-language,’ sensitive details, should (and can) be avoided in announcing such confessions.”ii Yet proper confession does require a certain amount of specificity.
iQuestions and Answers, Vol. 1 (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman, 1976), p. 211. As one would expect, brother Woods does an outstanding job answering this question on pp. 211-213 of this volume.
ii Dub McClish, “When a Christian Sins.”
- The Bible (37)
- The Church (33)
- Holy Spirit (2)
- Bible Authority (11)
- Calvinism (7)
- Nature of God (9)
- Faith (19)
- Family Matters (7)
- Denominationalism (10)
- Attitudes (46)
- Christian Living (57)
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