Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
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
This morning we will consider a few plain Scriptural principles about “Confession of sin.” The subject is a very important one. We ought to beware that among so much controversy and error, we do not lose sight of the mind of Holy Scripture, and injure our own souls.—There is a confession which is needful to salvation, and there is a confession which is not needful at all.—There is a confessional to which all men and women ought to go, and there is a confessional which ought to be denounced, avoided, and abhorred. Let us endeavour to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the precious from the vile.
I. In the first place,—Who are they who ought to confess sin?
II. In the second place,—To whom ought confession of sin to be made?
Once let a person have clear views on these two points, and he will never go far wrong on the subject of confession.
I. In the first place,—Who are they that ought to confess sins?
The question can be answered in one plain sentence. All men and women and children in the world! All are born in sin and children of wrath. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Before God all are guilty. There is not a just man on earth that does good and never sins. There is not a child of Adam that ought not to confess sin. (Eph. 2:3; Rom. 3:23, 19; Eccles. 7:20.)
There is no exception to this rule. It does not apply only to murderers, and outlaws, and the inmates of prisons: it applies to all ranks, and classes, and orders of mankind. The highest are not too high to need confession; the lowest are not too low to be reached by God’s requirement in this matter. Kings in their palaces and poor homeless men,—preachers and hearers,—teachers and scholars,—all, all are alike summoned in the Bible to confession. None are so moral and respectable that they do not need to confess that they have sinned. All are sinners in thought, word, and deed, and all are commanded to acknowledge their transgressions. Every knee ought to bow, and every tongue ought to confess to God. “Behold,” says the Lord, “I will bring you to judgment for saying, ‘I have not sinned.’” (Jer. 2:35.) “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8.)
Without confession there is no salvation. The love of God towards sinners is infinite. The readiness of Christ to receive sinners is unbounded. The blood of Christ can cleanse away all sin. But we must “plead guilty,” before God can declare us innocent. We must acknowledge that we completely surrender, before we can be pardoned and let go free. Sins that are known and not confessed, are sins that are not forgiven: they are yet upon us, and daily sinking us nearer to hell. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,” says the wise man in Proverbs, “but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” (Prov. 28:13.)
Without confession there is no inward peace. Conscience will never be at rest, so long as it feels the burden of unacknowledged transgression. It is a load of which man must get rid if he means to be really happy. It is a worm at the root of all comfort. It is a stain on joy and happiness. The heart of the little child is not easy, when he stands in his parents’ presence and knows that he has been doing something wrong. He is never easy until he has confessed.—The heart of the grown-up man is never really easy, until he has unburdened himself before God and obtained pardon. “When I kept silent,” says David, “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.)
There is no denying these things. They stand out plainly on the face of Scripture, as if they were written with a sunbeam: they are clear and unmistakable. Confession of sin is absolutely necessary to salvation: it is a habit which is an essential part of repentance to life. Without it there is no entrance into heaven. Without it we have no part or lot in Christ. Without it we will certainly go to hell. All this is undoubtedly true. And yet in the face of all this, it is a sad and appalling fact that few people confess their sins!
Some people have no thought or feeling about their sins: the subject is one which hardly crosses their minds. They rise in the morning and go to bed at night; they eat, and drink, and sleep, and work, and get money, and spend money, as if they had no souls at all. They live on as if this world was the only thing worth thinking of. They leave religion to pastors, and old men and women. Their consciences seem asleep, if not dead. Of course they never confess!
Some people are too proud to acknowledge themselves sinners. Like the Pharisee of old, they flatter themselves they are “not like other people.” They do not get drunk like some, or swear like others, or live abandoned lives like others. They are moral and respectable! They perform all their respective duties! They attend church regularly! They are kind to the poor! What more could you ask? If they are not good people and going to heaven, who can be saved?—But as to habitual confession of sin, they do not see that they need it. It is all very well for wicked people, but not for them. Of course, when sin is not really felt, sin will never be confessed!
Some people are too lazy and sluggish to take any step in religion so decided as confession. Their Christianity consists in meaning, and hoping, and intending, and resolving. They do not positively object to anything that they hear concerning spiritual subjects. They can even approve of the Gospel. They hope one day to repent, and believe, and be converted, and become thorough Christians, and go to heaven after death. But they never get beyond “hoping.” They never come to the point of making a business of religion. Of course they never confess sin.
In one or other of these ways thousands of people on every side are ruining their souls. In one point they are all agreed. They may sometimes call themselves “sinners,” in a vague, general way, and cry out, “I have sinned,” like Pharaoh, and Balaam, and Achan, and Saul, and Judas Iscariot (Exod. 9:27; Num. 22:34; Josh. 7:20; Matt. 27:4); but they have no real sense, or sight, or understanding of sin. Its guilt, and vileness, and wickedness, and consequences, are utterly hidden from their eyes. And the result, in each case, is one and the same. They know nothing practically of confession of sins.
What is the clearest proof that man is a fallen and corrupt creature? It is not open vice or unblushing immorality. It is not the crowded pub, or the murderer’s cell in a jail. It is not avowed infidelity, or gross and foul idolatry. All these are proofs, and convincing proofs indeed, that man is fallen;—but there is a stronger proof still. That proof is the wide-spread “spirit of slumber” in which most men lie chained and bound about their souls. When you see that multitudes of sensible men, and intelligent men, and decent-living men, can travel quietly towards the grave, and feel no concern about their sins, you see no more convincing evidence that man is “born in sin,” and that his heart is alienated from God.
There is no avoiding the conclusion. Man is naturally asleep, and must be awakened. He is blind, and must be made to see. He is dead, and must be made alive. If this was not the case there would be no need for this insistence on the duty of confession. Scripture commands it. Reason assents to it. Conscience, in its best moments, approves of it. And yet, notwithstanding this, the vast majority of men have no practical acquaintance with confession of sin! No heart is in so bad a state as the heart that does not feel sin.
What ought every believer wish first and foremost for men’s souls, if they are yet unconverted? To wish them nothing better than thorough self-knowledge. Ignorance of self and sin is the root of all mischief to the soul. There is hardly a religious error or a false doctrine that may not be traced back to it. Light was the first thing called into being. When God created the world, He said, “Let there be light.” (Gen. 1:3.) Light is the first thing that the Holy Spirit creates in a man’s heart, when He awakens, converts, and makes him a true Christian. (2 Cor. 4:6.) For lack of seeing sin men do not value salvation. Once let a man get a sight of his own heart, and he will begin to cry, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
If a man has learned to feel and acknowledge his sinfulness, he has great reason to thank God. It is a real symptom of health in the inward man. It is a mighty token for good. To know our spiritual disease is one step towards a cure. To feel bad and wicked and hell-deserving, is the first beginning of being really good.
What if we feel ashamed and confounded at the sight of our own transgressions! What if we are humbled to the dust, and cry, “Lord, I am vile. Lord, I am the very chief of sinners!” It is better a thousand times to have these feelings and be miserable under them, than to have no feelings at all. Anything is better than a dead conscience, and a cold heart, and a prayerless tongue!
If we have learned to feel and confess sin, we may well thank God and take courage. From where did these feelings come from? Who told you that you were a guilty sinner? What moved you to begin acknowledging your transgressions? How was it that you first found sin a burden, and longed to be set free from it?—These feelings do not come from man’s natural heart. The devil does not teach such lessons. The schools of this world have no power to impart them. These feelings came down from above. They are the precious gifts of God the Holy Spirit. It is His special office to convince of sin. The man who has really learned to feel and confess his sins, has learned that which millions never learn, and for lack of which millions die in their sins, and are lost to all eternity.
II. And now we turn to the second branch of our subject: To whom ought confession of sin to be made?
Sin, to speak generally, ought to be confessed to God. He it is whom we have chiefly offended: His are the laws which we have broken. To Him it is that all men and women will one day give account: His displeasure is that which sinners have principally to fear. This is what David felt: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” (Psalm 51:4.) This is what David practised: “I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” (Psalm 32:5.) The Jews were right when they said, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7.)
But can we leave the matter here? Can vile sinners like us ever dare to confess our sins to a holy God? Will the thought of His infinite purity not shut our mouths and make us afraid? Must the remembrance of His holiness not make us afraid? Is it not written of God, that He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong”? (Hab.1:13.) Is it not said, that He “hate(s) all evildoers”? (Psalm 5:5.) Did He not say to Moses, “Man shall not see me and live”? (Exod. 33:20.) Did not Israel once cry out, “do not let God speak to us, lest we die”? (Exod. 20:19.)
These are serious questions. They are questions which must and will occur to thoughtful minds. But thankfully they are questions to which the Gospel supplies a full and sufficient answer. The Gospel reveals One who is exactly suited to the needs of souls which desire to confess sin.
And so sin ought to be confessed to God in Christ.—sin ought specially to be confessed to God manifest in the flesh,—to Christ Jesus the Lord,—to that Jesus who came into the world to save sinners,—to that Jesus who died for our sins, and rose again for our justification, and now lives at the right hand of God to intercede for all who come to God by Him. He that desires to confess sin should apply directly to Christ.
Christ is a great High Priest. Let that truth sink down into our hearts and never be forgotten. He is sealed and appointed by God the Father for that very purpose, to be the Priest of Christians. It is His peculiar office to receive, and hear, and pardon, and absolve sinners. It is His place to receive confessions, and to grant complete pardon. It is written in Scripture, “You are a priest forever.”—“We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens”—“Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Heb. 5:6; 4:14; 6:20;10: 21, 22.)
(i) Consider first, that Christ is a High Priest of Almighty power.
There is no sin that He cannot pardon, and no sinner that He cannot absolve. He is very God of very God. He is “God over all, blessed forever.” He says Himself, “I and the Father are one.” He has “all authority in heaven and on earth.” He has “authority on earth to forgive sins.” He has complete authority to say to the chief of sinners, “Your sins are forgiven…. Go in peace.” He has “the keys of Death and Hades.” When He opens no one can shut. (Rom.9:5; John 10:30; Matt, 28:18; 9:6; Luke 7: 48-50; Rev. 1:18; 3:7.)
(ii) Christ is a High Priest of infinite willingness to receive confession of sin.
He invites all who feel their guilt to come to Him for relief. “Come to Me,” He says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”—“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”—When the penitent thief cried to Him on the cross, He at once absolved him fully, and gave him an answer of peace. (Matt. 11:28; John 7:37.)
(iii) Christ is a High Priest of perfect knowledge.
He knows exactly the whole history of all who confess to Him: from Him no secrets are hid. He never errs in judgment: He makes no mistakes. It is written that “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor.” (Isa.11:3.) He can discern the difference between the hypocritical professor who is full of words, and the broken-hearted sinner who can scarce stammer out his confession. People may deceive ministers by “good words and fair speeches,” but they will never deceive Christ.
(iv) Christ is a High Priest of matchless tenderness.
He will not afflict willingly, or grieve any soul that comes to Him. He will handle delicately every wound that is exposed to Him. He will deal tenderly even with the vilest sinners, as He did with the Samaritan woman. Confidence placed in Him is never abused: secrets confided to Him are completely safe. Of Him it is written, that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” He is one that “does not despise any.” (Isaiah 42:3; Job 36:5.)
(v) Christ is a High Priest who can sympathize with all that confess to Him.
He knows the heart of a man by experience, for He had a body like our own, and was made in the likeness of man. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15.) To Him the words can most truly be applied, which Elihu applied to himself, “Behold, I am toward God as you are; I too was pinched off from a piece of clay. Behold, no fear of me need terrify you; my pressure will not be heavy upon you.” (Job 33:6, 7.)
This great High Priest of the Gospel is the person whom we ought specially to address in our confession of sin. It is only through Him and by Him that we should make all our approaches to God. In Him we may draw near to God with boldness, and have access with confidence. (Eph. 3:12.) Laying our hand on Him and His atonement, we may “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16.) We need no other Mediator or Priest. We can find no better High Priest. To whom should the sick man disclose his ailment, but the physician? To whom should the prisoner tell his story, but to his legal counsel? To whom should the sinner open his heart and confess his sins, but to Him who is the “advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”? (1 John 2:1.)
Why should we confess our sins, as some do, to angels and dead saints, while we have Christ for a High Priest?
There is no need for such a confession. Christ has not given up His office, and ceased to be a Priest. The saints and angels cannot possibly do more for us than Christ can. They certainly have not more pity or compassion, or more good-will towards our souls.
There is no warrant of Scripture for such a confession. There is not a text in the Bible that commands us to confess to dead saints and angels. There is not an instance in Scripture of any living believer taking his sins to them.
There is not the slightest proof that there is any use in such a confession. We do not even know that the saints in glory can hear what we say; much less do we know that they could help us if they heard. They were all sinners saved by grace themselves:—where is the likelihood that they could do anything to help our souls?
The man who turns away from Christ to confess to saints and angels is a deluded robber of his own soul. He is following a shadow, and forsaking the substance. He is rejecting the bread of life, and trying to satisfy his spiritual hunger with sand.
But why, again, should we confess our sins to living priests or ministers, while we have Christ for a High Priest? The Church of Rome commands her members to do so. But, again, when we ask for Scripture and reason in support of the practice, we receive no adequate answer.
Is there any need for confessing to priests or ministers? There is none. There is nothing they can do for a sinner that Christ cannot do a thousand times better. When Christ has failed the soul that cried to Him, it may be time to turn to ministers. But that time will never come.
Is there any Scriptural warrant for confessing to priests or ministers? There is none. There is not a passage in the New Testament which commands it. The apostle Paul writes three Epistles to Timothy and Titus about ministerial duty. But he says nothing about receiving confessions.—The Apostle James tells us to “ confess our sins to one another,” (James 5:16) but he says nothing about confessing to ministers.—Above all, there is not a single example in Scripture of anyone confessing to a minister and receiving pardon. We see the Apostles often declaring plainly the way of forgiveness, and pointing men to Christ. But we nowhere find them telling men to confess to them, and offering to pardon them after confession.
Finally, is any good likely to result from confessing to priests or ministers? There is none. Ministers can never know that those who confess to them are telling the truth. Those who confess to them will never feel their consciences really satisfied, and will never feel certain that what they confess will not be improperly used. Above all, the experience of former times is enough to condemn this form of confession forever, as a practice which leads to all sorts of evil.
The man who turns away from Christ to confess his sins to ministers, is like a man who chooses to live in prison when he may walk at liberty, or to starve and go in rags in the midst of riches and plenty, or to cringe for favours at the feet of a servant, when he may go boldly to the Master and ask what he will. A mighty and sinless High Priest is provided for him, and yet he prefers to use the help of mere fellow-sinners like himself! He is trying to fill his purse with rubbish, when he may have fine gold for the asking. He is insisting on lighting a match, when he may enjoy the noon-day light of God’s sun!
Let us beware of ever losing sight of Christ’s priestly office. Let us glory in His atoning death, honour Him as our Substitute and Surety on the cross, follow Him as our Shepherd, hear His voice as our Prophet, obey Him as our King. But in all our thoughts about Christ, let it be often before our minds that He alone is our High Priest, and that He has delegated His priestly office to no order of men in the world. This is the office of Christ, which Satan works hard to obscure. It is the neglect of this office which leads all kinds of error. Once right about this office we will never greatly err in the matter of the confession of sin. We will know to whom confession ought to be made; and to know that rightly, is no small thing.
We come to a close with two words of practical application.
We have seen who ought to confess sin. We have seen to whom confession ought to be made. Let us try to bring the subject nearer to our own hearts and consciences. Time flies very fast. Writing and preaching,—reading and working,—doubting and speculating,—discussion and controversy,—all, all will soon be past and gone forever. Yet a little while and there will remain nothing but certainties, realities, and eternity.
Let us then ask ourselves honestly and conscientiously, Do we confess?
(1) If we never confessed sin before, let us go this very day to the throne of grace, and speak to the great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, about our souls. Let us pour out our hearts before Him, and keep nothing back from Him. Let us acknowledge our iniquities to Him, and entreat Him to cleanse them away. Let us say to Him, in David’s words, “For your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.” Let us cry to Him as the tax collector did in the gospel of Luke, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Psalm 25:11; 51:9; Luke 18:13.)
Are we afraid to do this? Do we feel unworthy and unfit to begin? Let us resist such feelings, and begin at once. There are glorious Bible examples to encourage us: there are rich Bible promises to lure us on. In all the volume of Scripture there are no passages so encouraging as those which are about confession of sin. “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.) “Father,” said the prodigal son, “’I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.’” (Luke 15:21-23.) If Christ had never died for sinners, there might be some excuse for doubting. But Christ having suffered for sin, there is nothing that need keep us back.
(2) And if we have been taught by the Holy Spirit to confess our sins, and know the subject of this sermon by inward experience, let us keep up the habit of confession to the last day of our lives.
We will never cease to be sinners as long as we are in the body. Every day we will find something to deplore in our thoughts, or motives, or words, or deeds. Every day we will find that we need the blood of sprinkling, and the intercession of Christ. Then let us keep up daily transactions with the throne of grace. Let us daily confess our infirmities at the feet of our merciful and faithful High Priest, and seek fresh pardon.
May every day find us more humble and yet more hopeful,—more aware of our own unworthiness, and yet more ready to rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh!—May our prayers become every day more fervent, and our confessions of sin more real;—our eye more single, and our walk with God more close;—our knowledge of Jesus more clear, and our love to Jesus more deep;—our citizenship in heaven more manifest, and our separation from the world more distinct!
So living, we will cross the waves of this troublesome world with comfort, and have an abundant entrance into God’s kingdom. So living, we will find that our “light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Cor 4:17) Yet a few more years, and our prayers and confessions will cease forever. We will begin an endless life of praise.
And we will exchange our daily confessions for eternal thanksgivings.