Confession of sin is a basic activity that all Christians need to understand and practice. It is the most fundamental form of spiritual housekeeping. There is no way for us to maintain covenant life together without this sort of understanding being woven into the fabric of our community.
“If we say that 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 that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10)
Summary of the Text
If we decide to lie to ourselves, then obviously the truth is not in us (v. 8). One of the lies we like to tell ourselves is the lie that our current condition is “normal,” and that we have no sin. Or at least we have no sin to speak of. John tells us that this is self-deception, period. And if we lie in this way, we are making God into a liar (because He says we have sinned), and His word is obviously not in us—a lie is (v. 10). The meat of this sandwich is in verse 9, but these two pieces of bread make it a sandwich. Don’t kid yourself, John is saying—we all need to hear this. In the ninth verse, John gives us a conditional statement. If we confess our sins, God will do something. The word for confess is homologeo, and literally means “to speak the same thing.” If we say the same thing about our sin that God says about it (i.e. that it is sin), then God will do what He promises. What is that? God will be faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and He will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Imagine two mothers with a robust family—six kids each, let’s say. One home is bombed all the time and the other is spotless. The difference between the two homes is not that in the second home nothing is ever spilled, or knocked over, or left on the coffee table. The difference between the home that is trashed and the home that isn’t is the difference between leaving things there “for the present,” and picking them up right away.
Given God’s promise above, we need to recognize what this means. The promise is good on Monday mornings, and Thursday afternoons. The promise is good in May, and good in October. That means there is never a legitimate reason for refusing to deal with it now. The vacuum cleaner is never broken, never at the shop, never too far away, never too hard to operate. The word is near you, in your heart and in your mouth. “God, what I just said . . . that was sin.” That is confession. And God’s promise is fulfilled at that moment.
The writer to the Hebrews describes what sin does when you leave it unattended. It starts to trip you up—it starts to really get in the way. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us . . .” (Heb. 12:1). Sin clutters, sin gets in the way, sin weighs you down, sin gets tangled around your feet. Set it aside we are told, and then run the race. You can’t run the race with a two-hundred-pound backpack on. You cannot run the race with snarls of rope tangled around your feet. Stop trying to be good with unconfessed sin in your life. Talk about fruitless. It just makes you more irritable than you already are. John tells us how to get untangled. Don’t try to do that and run at the same time. Get completely untangled, take off the backpack, and then run.
Clutter and Backlog
Let’s change the image. Suppose you haven’t cleaned the garage for twenty years, and you are overwhelmed at the very thought of trying to straighten it out. Every time you go open the door, you just stare helplessly for about five minutes, and then go back inside. All you can think of to do is pray for a fire. Now suppose that is what your pile of unconfessed sin looks like. You are tempted to think that you have to remember everything that is in there first, and then set about cleaning it up.
But you don’t have to remember the sins you don’t remember—just confess the ones you do remember. The ones you stuffed just inside the garage door just last week. Don’t try to remember what is at the bottom of the pile; just look at what is on the top of the pile. If you deal with the sin you know about honestly, then God will cleanse you from all unrighteousness. The confessing is your job; the cleansing is His.
The central virtue here that of honesty. No blowing smoke at God. No spin control. No attempts to make yourself the flawed hero in this tragic affair. We saw that homologeo means to speak the same. If God calls it adultery, don’t you call it an affair or indiscretion. If God calls it grumbling and complaining, don’t you call it realism. If God calls it theft, don’t you call it shrewd business practice. As the Puritans might have put it, had they only thought of it, bs and honest confession accord not well together.
A Few Practical Considerations
This is not meant to sound flippant. Sin is a ravening wolf, and has destroyed many things. If you have held back from confessing your sins because you know that to do so could threaten your marriage, or cost you your job, or get you expelled from college, you really do have a significant practical problem. I am not saying you should charge off and start confessing your sin like a loose cannon on deck. But you should decide today to deal with it honestly, and depending on how tangled up it is, get counsel and help today in putting things right. Commit yourself now. Busting yourself is the best thing you can do to rebuild trust with those you may have wronged.
And last, allow me to consider your feelings. You may feel like a hesitant cliff-diver, toes curled over the edge, and here I am poking you in the back with a stick. There are any number of things you might want to do—anything but jump. You might rationalize. “What I did wasn’t really wrong.” You might excuse. “What I did was not started by me.” You might postpone. “In my honest opinion, the best day for jumping will be sometime tomorrow afternoon.” You might blame somebody else, anybody else. “I think they should be here jumping, not me.” You might use vague terms to try jumping sideways along the cliff edge. “I think that, generally speaking, I have certainly sinned in some ways.”
It is easy to dismiss this kind of emphasis as morbid introspectionism, but actually it is the opposite. If you confess your sins, and lay aside the weight of that backpack, you never have to think about it again. Now, with it unconfessed, you think about it frequently.