Confession is often a big part of accountability time within small groups, but what should we confess and to whom? Should we air every sin, major and minor, long past and recent present, that we’ve stumbled over? The primary New Testament verses related to confession of sins are as follows:
- Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him (John) in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:5-6
- And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him (John) in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Mark 1:5
- 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 1:8-10
- Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. – James 5:16
There are generally three views that are taken to apply these verses:
- Confess sin in a general sense corporately
- Confess sins to God
- Confess specific sins publicly to one degree or another (e.g., in small groups)
As background, corporate confession occurs when a congregation repeats a prepared paragraph together. This is most common in liturgical churches. An example of corporate confession is: “Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed—by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.”
The Gospel in Matthew and Mark passages wouldn’t apply to the questions at hand because they record the repentance that John the Baptist taught in preparation for Jesus’ message. John’s teaching is not prescriptive to us, but just recognize as part of his teaching disciples were to state how they broke the law. The passage in 1 John tells us to confess sins (plural), which would imply that we should be specific rather than generic about where we fall short. The audience is God because He is the one doing the forgiving. We do not receive any direction here to confess to others. In James, we’re told to confess sins, so we’re not to be generic about our overall sinfulness, but admit specific sins. It also teaches to confess to others. It should be noted that this passage is within the broader context of dealing with sickness and a need for prayer for healing.
With this background about the NT passages, here is the guidance of others:
- Tullian Tchividjian has a good post and follow-up discussing accountability groups where the confession of sin is the focus rather than completed work of Christ on our behalf.
- In it he references Michael Horton’s article on justification, which is much more dense and traces the history of Evangelicism’s slide from the historic doctrine of justification into moralism.
- Justin Taylor posted Ken Stewart’s thoughts on public confession grounding them in the principle of public sins confessed publicly and private sins confessed privately
- John Piper’s view can be summed up as the proportion of public repentance should be in proportion to the publicity of a sin or a sin’s effect
- Tim Challies’ article outlines the need for public confession in some situations left to the Christian’s discernment. He gives some helpful guidelines about how to confess to God. He also writes about fearing confession to others more than fearing God
- Douglas Moo says states: In public confessions, of course, it is the Lord who is the primary “audience, ” for all sin is ultimately sin against him, and all confession must be directed ultimately to him. Moreover, public confession of sin does not seem to be a standard feature of New Testament church life. While its biblical basis is not completely clear, therefore, there is wisdom in the principle that sin should be confessed to those whom it has directly harmed. When the whole church has been affected, the whole church should hear the confession. When one other person has been harmed, we should confess to that person. But when the sin is a “private” one, we may well keep the confession between ourselves and God.
- We believe that this sincere confession, which is made to God alone, either privately between God and the sinner, or openly in the church, where the general confession of sins in rehearsed, is sufficient;…It is requisite, therefore, that we should confess our sins unto God, and be reconciled with our neighbor, if we have offended him. And the apostle James, speaking generally of confession, says, “Confess your faults one to another.” (James 5:16). If so be that any man, being overwhelmed with the burden of sins, and troublesome temptations, will privately ask counsel, instruction, or comfort, either of a minister of the Church, or of any other brother that is learned in the law of God, we do not dislike it. Like as also we do fully allow that general and public confession which wont be rehearsed in the church, and in holy meetings, being, as it is, agreeable with Scripture. – Second Helvetic Confession (XIV.4)
- Examples of corporate confession of sin