sermon delivered on July 22, 2007
by Pastor Mark Alderton
Sovereign Grace Fellowship
[Along with Rick Gamache, Mark Alderton pastors a church in Bloomington, MN (suburb of Minneapolis). Mark is a very wise brother in Christ and gifted as an excellent expositor of God’s Word. This sermon on confessing sin is ‘lights out.’ Literally! About 20 minutes before the sermon began the electricity went out. Mark continued with the sermon in a dark and hot elementary school gymnasium without any amplification. The manuscript is too good not to post here on TSS. Mark graciously offered this sermon on confessing sin and another for tomorrow on his follow-up sermon on giving and receiving correction. These sermons are a tremendous blessing. Thank you Mark! – Tony]
The topic of this text and this message is confessing sin. Or in other words, it’s about agreeing with God that we have done something wrong; that we’ve either done something he says we shouldn’t do, or failed to do something he says we should do.
We are addressing this topic because we’re in a series dealing with those things that affect our fellowship, our life together as a church. And sin affects our fellowship, especially unconfessed sin, so this is a matter of importance to us.
I don’t know what you think of the idea of confessing your sins to someone or why you would want to do that. I can tell you what I thought of it growing up.
I was raised with the understanding that to be right with God you needed to go every once in a while to a priest and confess your sins to him in a confessional booth. I’m not sure how these appointments were set up – I know I never asked for them. But they were pretty intimidating to me and I thought that I’d better have some pretty bold sins to confess or the priest would think I was hiding something, and I wanted to get through this as quickly as possible.
So I got a list in my mind, and at the confession I’d say sheepishly, “Well, father (that’s what we called the priest) …”
… I got angry with my sister and I hit her
… I hit a golf ball through the house window and lied to my dad that someone threw a rock at it, and…
… I stole firecrackers out of my dad’s dresser drawer and blew up an anthill
Then, if all was right in the world, he wouldn’t ask for too much else, and let me go fairly quickly with an assignment to do some penance to show that my sorrow for my sin was real.
That was my idea of confessing sin. I didn’t like it and I had no idea why I needed to do it other than that it was expected of me.
Now that may not be your exact experience (and I would be glad if it wasn’t because that’s not a biblical model), but you may have some of the same misunderstandings and temptations related to confessing your sins to others.
Perhaps you don’t think you have much sin in your life to confess. Or perhaps you think that your sin is just between you and God and there is no need for others to know. Or perhaps you don’t know about the blessings God promises to those who live a life of ongoing confession of sin.
I trust this morning’s text (and others we will refer to) will give sufficient motivation for admitting our sinful actions and attitudes to both God and others. I believe God’s intention this morning is to encourage us to walk in the light as he is in the light, and not to hide in the darkness with our sin.
1 JOHN 1:8-9
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.
According to 1 John 5:13, he wrote this letter to help genuine believers know they are in the faith and have eternal life. The primary goal is to encourage believers, and the message of these verses is encouraging. It is simply this: Genuine believers confess their sin and in so doing experience forgiveness and the removal of sin from their lives.
We’re going to see this by looking first at the need for confession, then at the hope of confession, and then walk through the practice of confession.
THE NEED FOR CONFESSION
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
The obvious implication of that sentence is that we have sin to confess – every one of us. Even the apostle John includes himself in the “we.” And certainly if the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who wrote Scripture, and who defended the gospel into his 90’s, certainly if he won’t say that he has no sin, then we can’t say that either. To deny this is to deceive ourselves. We have sin to confess. Each of us has failed to obey God in some way.
And John is not just talking about past sins, but about present and ongoing sins. The alternative to saying we have no sin in verse 8 is the beginning of verse 9, “if we confess our sins.” The Greek can more accurately be translated “If we continue to confess our sins or “if we are confessing our sins as an ongoing practice.” It means that we have not only sinned in the past, we sin throughout our lives.
Genuine believers have sin to confess, and they confess it on an ongoing basis. They admit to their own wrongdoing.
Now, what are the implications of that truth for us?
It means you have something to share in your small group if the leader asks, “What sin are you dealing with currently in your life?” There is only one sinless man, and that is Jesus, so if you aren’t him, you have something to confess. Everyone can come to small group and participate in the accountability that is provided there. We all qualify for that setting, and as we’ll see later, a setting like that is essential to our growth in godliness.
The fact that we have sin to confess also means that if you are regularly attending small group, and you consistently don’t have any sin to talk about when it is time to share it, that’s not a sign of godliness, but a sign of self-deceit. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. Certainly some weeks are better than others, but if we consistently cannot think of any way that we are falling short of God’s commands, then we don’t see things as they truly are. Would that describe your ongoing small group experience? When was the last time you had a sin to talk about in your small group? If it’s been a while, there is probably some self-deception going on.
Now understand we are not talking about a “woe is me” attitude here. God isn’t calling us to a perpetual state of self-condemnation where we moan that “I can never do anything right, miserable worm that I am.”
Ongoing confession of sin doesn’t mean we deny the activity and gifts of God in our lives. We will continue to celebrate those things and be encouraged where we see the grace of God at work, and if you are a believer then he is most certainly at work.
Ongoing confession of sin is simply about walking in the light, about admitting where we have gone astray from God’s revealed will, and desiring to be open about that for the purpose of forsaking our sin and growing in godliness.
Confessing sin need not be (and in fact should not be) a discouraging or threatening activity. In fact, God motivates us to this very thing by providing powerful and hopeful incentives in this text, and that’s where we’ll turn to next.
THE HOPE OF CONFESSION
Verse 9 says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
This statement contains three hopeful realities to encourage our ongoing practice of confessing sins with the desire to turn from those sins. The first one is about God’s disposition toward the believer who is in sin. We can say it this way:
1. God has bound himself to forgive believers and cleanse us from all sin.
The text says that God is faithful and just to forgive us [the “us” being all believers] our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In other words he won’t count our sins against us (which is what forgiven means) and he will remove our sins from us (which is what cleanse from unrighteousness means). And when he does this it shows that he is faithful and just.
Now let’s take those two words one at a time. Why would God be considered faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from sin?
Well, it’s because he made promises to do that for his people.
He said in Jeremiah 31:34 that he was going to make a new covenant with his people, and part of that covenant was this statement, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” That covenant is the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, which all who believe in Jesus share in.
So when believers come to God confessing their sins, he is faithful to his promise to forgive us and remember our sins no more, which is to remove our sins from his sight.
Now why would God be considered just to forgive us and cleanse us from sin?
Well, it’s because it would be unjust for him not to grant us the forgiveness and cleansing from sin that Jesus purchased for us on the cross.
Colossians 2:13-14 says that “… God made [us] alive together with him [that is, with Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
In other words, as sinners we were obligated by God’s legal demands to be punished for our sins. There was a record of debt to be paid. But Jesus satisfied God’s legal demands when he took the punishment on the cross for our sins. And when that was finished, God took that record of our debt and nailed it to the cross – so to speak – in order to say, “I declare that Jesus has paid your debt. I will not count your sins against you ever again. You are forgiven. And I will make you alive with Jesus so you can share in his sinless righteousness forever.”
So, for God not to forgive and cleanse those who put their faith in Jesus would be for him to say that Jesus really didn’t satisfy the legal demands. And that would dishonor and devalue the Savior’s work. It would be unjust for God to do that.
But when God forgives us and cleanses us from sin, he shows that Jesus did pay our debt, he shows that he honors and values his Son’s saving work on our behalf. He shows that he is just.
The good news is that God has bound himself to forgive believers and cleanse us from all sin. When you come to him confessing your sins, you come to a God who forgives and cleanses you because of his promise to do it and because it is right for him to do it since Jesus paid our debt. You can bank on his acceptance always.
That is the first hopeful reality to encourage our confession. The two remaining realities have to do with what we will experience as we confess our ongoing sin. The first of the two is this:
2. Through confessing our sins we experience the forgiveness that Jesus purchased on the cross.
Notice that verse 9 is a conditional statement. “If we confess our sins … he [will] forgive us our sins.”
On the surface, that doesn’t sound hopeful at all. Does it mean that if we don’t confess every sin at all times that those unconfessed sins will not be forgiven, that God will count them against us, that we will in fact be punished for those sins?
If it meant that then we’re in big trouble because we aren’t even aware of most of our sin, much less confessing all of it. Do you know how many times you spoke a word that wasn’t edifying in the last month? Or how many selfish thoughts you had during that time? Or how many times you didn’t love others as yourself or love God with all your heart?
If this verse means we are still legally obligated to pay for each sin until we confess it, then we have no hope because we will never confess everything.
But clearly it can’t mean that because we have already established that our sins are forgiven by the cross of Christ, not by our ongoing confession of sin. God canceled the record of debt and nailed it to the cross. Forgiveness for all our sin is ours already.
It has to mean something else.
It means this: When we confess our sins, we will experience the forgiveness of God which became ours the moment of our salvation.
It is in the confession of sin with repentance and a desire to change that God meets us with the assurance of his forgiveness. That’s where the forgiveness of the cross becomes real to us. It is when we experience guilt for sin, and have that guilt removed by God’s continual assurance that his Son’s sacrifice paid for our guilt.
It’s like knowing you have a million dollars in the bank, but it’s just knowledge until you actually go to the bank and withdraw 10 $100 bills. Then you experience the reality of your wealth.
And God has said that he has limitless “wealth” for you. Jesus purchased limitless forgiveness for you. It’s in the bank. And every time you confess your sin and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and he says to your soul, “Yes, I am merciful to sinners, and I forgive you because Jesus paid that debt for you,” you draw on that storehouse of forgiveness.
Confession of sin is how we experience the reality the forgiveness that is ours by God’s promise. And when we experience that reality, we gain deeper affection for God, and greater amazement at the grace of God.
That is a hopeful reality to encourage our confession of sin. And there is one more like it.
3. Through confessing our sins we experience the removal of sin from our lives that Jesus also purchased the cross.
“If we confess our sins … he [will] cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Again, does this mean that we can’t be considered righteous or free from sin in God’s sight unless we confess each and every sin? Does God still consider us stained with unrighteousness if we don’t confess every unrighteous act or thought?
No, it can’t mean that because we know from Romans that we are justified or declared righteous by faith alone and not by our works including our ongoing confession. Through faith we have been credited with Christ’s perfect righteousness. So what does it mean?
It means that as we confess our sins God will work to remove the presence of sin from our lives. He will remove the unrighteousness little by little. He has declared us righteous by faith, but he is going to make us more and more righteous as we confess our sins.
This is hopeful because it means that God is committed to our sanctification. He is going to be personally involved in conforming us to the likeness of Christ. The sin that we wish wasn’t there is going to decrease as we confess it in repentance and with a desire for change. God will change us.
God has bound himself to forgive us and cleanse us from sin because of his promises and because of Jesus’ death on the cross. We will experience the reality of that as we confess our sins.
So we have every reason to confess our sins. It is full of hope. It is a pathway to freedom from sin.
But what does confession of sin look like? How do we actually do it? Let’s finish by looking at the practice of confession.
THE PRACTICE OF CONFESSION
“If we confess our sins…”
The first question is, to whom do we confess, or admit, our sins? Is my sin something just between me and God, and no one else need know about it?
Well, sin is between you and God because all sin is disobedience to God so he is the one we need to seek for forgiveness. David, after committing adultery and murder said to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:5). All sin, even adultery and murder is against God more than it is against others. And David confessed it to God.
But he didn’t confess it only to God. He also said to Nathan the prophet, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). He confessed it to someone else, not just to God.
James 5:16 says, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. We are to confess our sins to one another. Certainly we need to do that when we have sinned against each other to seek forgiveness, but it isn’t limited to that. Confessing our sins to others in our fellowship is a way of walking in the light, a way of bringing others into our lives so they can help us to say no to sin and yes to righteousness.
We need others to be aware of what is going on in our hearts and lives because of the warning of Hebrews 3:12-13, which says…
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
In other words, it takes careful attention by us and by others to keep each one of us from having an unbelieving heart and falling away from God. We are often blinded to our own sin and become hardened against leaving it. We will not always recognize our own sin and we may not have the will to do anything about it if we do recognize it. But by confessing our sins to others, we are no longer alone in it. We have other eyes to help us discern not only the sin but the heart issues that bring about the sin. Other believers will help us to change.
This truth was brought home to us again just this week when a certain pastor was found to be in adultery and so was removed from his office. Often when we hear about cases like this, it becomes clear that the pastor wasn’t in any kind of accountability with other believers. But this man was. This is a man who was in an environment where the doctrine of sin is taken seriously. There were structures in place for him to confess sin to others who could help him grow and put to death sin in his life, and yet he was able to live a secret life of sin.
How was this possible? It was possible because he did not heed the warning of Hebrews 3. He did not “take care” and suspect his own heart, and open his life to the examination of others. He did not confess his sin to others when it was in its early stages. He kept it between him and God. He was hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Friends, we are vulnerable to the deceitfulness of sin. We need others in our lives who know our temptations and who ask about them. We need a healthy self-suspicion of our own motives and actions that leads us to open our lives to others. We need to confess our sins to one another.
That’s why we have small groups in this church. It’s because we don’t want to be hardened in our sin. We want to be cleansed from all unrighteousness in our lives. We need each other’s help to do it.
Now, one last question. How do we confess our sin? Are there any guidelines to follow that would make it more fruitful in my life? Let me offer just three.
1. Confess sin without qualification.
In other words, don’t use words that excuse your conduct, shift blame to others or water down your confession.
The Prodigal Son rehearsed what he was going to say to his father when he returned home. He said, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants (see Luke 15:18-19).
There is no blame-shifting there, no attempt to minimize what he had done. He owns up to his sin. He speaks in the first person, “I did this.”
Compare that with this confession, which I have heard and probably at one time said myself. “I’m sorry if I did anything to offend you.”
Now think about what that is saying. It means, “I’m not sure if I did anything to offend you. You might just be over-reacting. But just to make you feel better I’m going to say I’m sorry. And I’m only going to apologize because you seem upset, not because I think I’ve done anything wrong. And since I don’t see what I’ve done wrong, don’t expect me to change anything in the future.”
That’s a non-confession that appears like a confession. Or how about this example: “I shouldn’t have gotten angry, but I was tired.” That’s an example of excusing our conduct. It’s saying, “I did something I shouldn’t have done but it’s not really sin because the circumstances justify it.”
It’s a way of trying to escape responsibility. The heart attitude is that, “I’m not really wrong in this and I shouldn’t be expected to act any differently.” And with that approach there will be no lasting change in that area of sin because we really don’t think we need to change. There’s no true repentance there.
The biblical approach would be to simply say, “I was sinfully angry.” It is simply agreeing with God’s perspective on what you did.
2. Confess sin specifically.
1 John 1:9 says we “confess our sins” not just “confess sin” generally. We can think that just because we’re confessing a category of sin that we’ve made a helpful confession. But until we’ve confessed a real event of sin we haven’t really admitted to our wrongdoing.
For example, a person might say, “I really saw pride in my life this week.” Now that’s a good starting place. That’s more specific than saying “I was a sinner this week.” But describe an event where you acted in pride. What did you say or do that was proud?
If we can’t think of the specifics then all we’re doing is admitting that we are sinners, without admitting to any real and personal sin. And if we don’t admit to real sin, then we will not make progress in putting it to death because we never identified it clearly.
A biblical and fruitful approach is to say something like, “When I came home, I ignored everyone around me for 30 minutes because I felt like I deserved to do what I want to do and not serve others. It was prideful.”
Confess sin specifically and we can begin to see specific change.
3. Be open to other people’s assessment of your sin.
My temptation when confessing sin is to come to a small group time or to my wife with everything already figured out. My thinking goes something like this: “Here’s what the sin is, I don’t need any input on this, I just want you to be aware of what I have discovered and am working on, and for you to acknowledge my humility in bringing this to your attention.”
Well, that kind of approach to our sin doesn’t recognize the truth that our hearts are deceitful and that we need others to help us identify the root of our sin. Many times I’ve thought I had it figured out but by listening to other people’s observations and questions the real sin has been revealed.
And when the real sin has been revealed, then I can confess what is really going on and begin to take steps to change what really needs to be changed, rather than what I imagine needs to be changed.
Much more could be said, but we’ll have to stop there.
Friends, let us press on in confessing sin as a normal part of our life. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose except our pride.
If you are a believer, God has committed himself to your forgiveness and to your change by his promise and because of the cross of Christ. And as you confess your sins to God and to one another, you will experience his forgiveness and grow in amazement at grace. And God will work to remove sin from your life.
Transformation is possible through this means of grace. In fact it is promised to us.