In 2007 a dear friend called me to step into the light.
I’d been struggling on and off with pornography for years, but I’d never been fully honest with anyone. His intervention saved my life, ministry, and the marriage I entered into months later. He challenged me to leave the shadows of self-preservation and live honestly before God—and before others.
Proverbs 28:13 says “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” When we sin, we will be tempted to hide our compromise. The darkness hates the light (John 3:20) because we fear being exposed and condemned. We’ve inherited this cowardliness from our first father, Adam, who hid from God in the Garden after the first sin (Genesis 3:8).
But as with Adam (Genesis 3:15, 21), the Lord promises to cleanse and cover us if we will draw near to Him in honest confession and repentance. 1 John 1:8-9 tells us that “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.” God alone can forgive sins, and He delights in doing so for all who flee to the cross of Christ.
So when we sin, we must confess quickly, deeply, and honestly—and that confession must first be to God. This posture of pleading for grace is the constant cry of a believer’s heart as we journey through this fallen world. We are must not be of the kind who hide among the trees, but rather, we draw near to the throne of grace to obtain mercy in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
We must confess our sins to God, we must not only confess our sins to God. We should also confess our sins to other believers.
Why should I confess my sins to others?
James 5:16 tells us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Confessing our sins to another brother or sister in Christ is one of God’s prescribed means of grace. He uses the act of bearing our soul to complete the good work He has begun in us (Philippians 1:6).
As we journey toward the happy land of heaven, we are faced with many temptations. When we give into them and sin, we become ensnared and hindered from pressing on toward our heavenly goal (Proverbs 29:6; Galatians 6:1-2; Hebrews 12:1-2). Confessing sin to another person is like calling out for help to get untangled and patched up to run again. God used Reid’s challenge for me to be honest with others to save me from wandering into more sin and ultimately death (James 5:19-20).
Here are two distinct ways God uses confession to other people as help for us to reach our heavenly home.
#1. God uses honest confession to cultivate humility in us. Pride is a deadly disease that God opposes (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). Pride seeks to exalt and protect ourselves at the cost of God’s glory and the good of others. This is why confessing our sin is good for us. It assaults our pride at the root by exposing us for who we really are, rather than who we pretend to be.
We, like Adam, want to cover up our nakedness rather than bear ourselves in honesty (Genesis 3:7). This is why we are tempted to paint up our sin or leave out incriminating details. We want to be thought of well by others, so we deceitfully play the hypocrite and hide it. This is all part of sin’s plan, which tempts our pride to flee the light and escape shame—but it is there in the darkness that our soul is in most danger.
Dietrich Bonheoffer insightfully describes this in Life Together, “Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person.”
This pride is only fueled by our fear of man, which the Bible warns us is a deadly snare (Proverbs 29:25). But fewer things put the fear of man to death like sitting down with someone, looking in their eyes and saying here is what I have done, please pray for me and remind me of God’s promises.
Bonheoffer captures this as well, “In the confession of concrete sins the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eyes of a brother…the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother…He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God…now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ.”
The Gospel promises help for those who look to Christ in faith. Humility, produced by faith-driven confession of our sins, clears the eyes of our soul so that we might see God more clearly (Matthew 5:8). Through confession, God applies the Gospel of grace afresh to our hearts and awakens our awareness of our need for Him.
#2 – God uses honest confession to bring healing to us. The context of James 5 seems to say that some people are physically sick because of unconfessed sin (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:30). Now, this doesn’t mean that all sickness stems from specific unconfessed sins, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either. Harboring sins in our heart can lead to physical sickness, and it always leads to spiritual sickness.
In Psalm 32 David said, “when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” When we harbor sin, God graciously puts His hand heavily upon us to push us toward honesty, before Him and others. Unconfessed sin becomes like a splinter in the soul of a believer. Removing it can be painful, but not as painful as allowing it to remain. James 5:16 says that we should confess our sins to one another “and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” If you are harboring unconfessed sin, you need to confess to God and to others.
Do you have someone in your life who knows your most intimate struggles? If not, you are neglecting one of God’s greatest means of grace to produce humility and help you to heaven.
How should I confess my sins to others?
Confessing sin to God and others is an important part of pursuing holiness, but how we do it takes great wisdom. We should ask God for that wisdom (James 1:5) and get counsel from trusted brothers or sisters. Here are three guidelines I give when helping people think about how to cultivate helpful accountability relationships. These are not Biblical commands, but pastoral suggestions to consider.
#1 – Consistently confess your sins to one or two people. By keeping your confessions between you and God, and one or two other people, you guard yourself from being both foolish and deceitful.
You guard yourself from being foolish because not everyone needs to know everything about you. The pendulum has swung in our culture from never talking openly about personal things to an unhealthy indulgence with self-exposure that posts everything for everyone to see. Neither of these extremes are healthy. Limiting your confessions to someone you sin against and one or two accountability partners seems like a good rule.
You guard yourself from being deceitful by limiting your circle of confession. If you have many people you confess your sin to, you could spread your confessions around to alleviate guilt, but never allow anyone to have a real picture of who you are. This is what I did in my years of struggling with pornography. I’d tell one person one time and another person another time. I see now how deceitful I was being by not limiting my circle of confession.
A few other notes:
- The person you confess to should be a person you can sit down with regularly. Confessions don’t always need to be face to face, but having a buddy from college you talk to about your sin isn’t as helpful as having a person you can meet with, look in the eyes, and learn to be honest with.
- You should fear the person you confess to. What I mean is that if you and another friend are sinning in the same way, you can fall into the “oh you did it again, me too” pattern. Galatians 6:1 says that spiritually mature people should be involved in the restoration process. Because of this, I’d encourage finding someone you don’t want to confess to because you don’t want to disappoint them, but who you will confess to because you know they love you and are mature enough in Christ to help you.
- I’m working on a forthcoming article about whether or not your spouse should be an accountability partner. Pray for wisdom.
#2 – Confess your sins within 24 hours. There are two reasons this is one of the most important guides I can suggest when it comes to confession. 1st, it makes me not want to sin. If I know I have to tell the people who keep me accountable that I’ve sinned, it helps me to be sober-minded about giving in.
2nd, confessing within 24 hours guards me from rationalizing why I shouldn’t confess it. The longer I leave sin in the dark, the more likely I am to figure out some way to justify not telling anyone, or maybe just waiting till the next time to confess. Sin is a poison that we must not allow it to stay in us very long. I strongly encourage you to confess your sin to God immediately and to whomever keeps you accountable within 24 hours.
#3 – Confess with honest language. One of the other ways we hide our sin is by not speaking honestly when we confess. I used to say things like “I had a rough night, pray for me” or “I struggled with purity, but it wasn’t as bad a it could have been” or “I was tempted again.” Those aren’t what I would consider honest confessions.
We want to avoid specifics that will potentially cause someone else to stumble, but at the same time, we need to be honest. There is a huge difference in a confession that says “I struggled a little on the internet” and one that says “I intentionally stayed on the internet for three hours looking at explicit pictures. I turned the computer off and then back on and didn’t stop. I gave into self-gratification afterwards.”
No one wants to say those kinds of things, and that’s why its good for us. It is honest and doesn’t give sin a safe haven in which it can hide. This goes back to humbling ourselves and putting fear of man to death. Using honest language, and opening ourselves (without defensiveness) to our friend’s follow-up questions, we take a flamethrower to the deceitfulness of sin.
How Should We Respond to One Another after a Confession?
What happens after we confess sin or someone confesses to us is just as important as the confession itself. Here’s what I’d say to the people who are hearing another person’s confession.
#1 – Protect your heart from becoming judgmental. Galatians 6:1 says “brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” When a fellow sinner comes to you, help restore them to spiritual health through the Gospel. Do this gently, and with a guarded heart, which should be careful of also falling into sin.
What sin should we avoid? Certainly the sin the person is confessing to us, but in the context, the sin is having a judgmental spirit that is conceited and devours each other (Galatians 5:15, 5:25). There is no need for you to judge the person who is confessing to you. Have you not been appalled by your own sin which Jesus nailed to the cross? How has God treated you? With gentleness and mercy.
Of course, if you are the one sinned against, you may rightly feel the pain of being sinned against. This is not sin on your part. Being wounded by sin hurts. But you must remain on guard to not respond sinfully (cf. Ephesians 4:26). You may need time to process or need to bring someone else in to help both of you. These are all God-honoring steps.
#2 – Point the person who confessed to Jesus. When we listen to someone confess sins, we fulfill the call to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Because you are a fellow sinner, you know where this person needs to go—show them the way to Calvary. Remind them of God’s grace in the cross. Be ready with passages of Scripture that you can either give them to read, or read with them (cf. Psalm 32, 38, 51, 103, 130; Isaiah 1:18; Matthew 11:28; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; James 4:6-10; 1 Peter 2:24-25; 1 John 1:9-2:2).
#3 – Pray for the person who confessed. We are told to “pray for one another, that you may be healed.” When someone confesses sin, take them to the throne of grace through prayer. Pray promises of God’s mercy over them and call upon the Lord to keep those promises. Lift those burdens off the weary soul of your friend and cast them upon the Lord knowing that He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).
#4 – Plan with the person who confessed. Finally, help the person make plans to not repeat their sin. Proverbs 28:13 says there is mercy for those who confess and forsake their sin. Confession without repentance is an empty endeavor. Confession should be followed by a change in our actions. We should help those who sin discover why they did and what steps we can take to ensure that it won’t happen again. This takes time, patience, prayer, and wise counsel. The Lord will supply it though, so do this hard work for the glory of God.
Lord, we pray that You would make us a humble and holy people who honor you in all things. Make us quick to confess to You and to those You have brought along side us. Give us help and stir our hearts to long for the day when we will see Your face and never know sin again. Come Lord Jesus.