Public Confession of Sin

Two Men Praying

Often when a sermon is being concluded, the preacher will make an invitation that includes a call for Christians to make a public confession of sin. This is typically done for sins that are public in nature. Sometimes this is simply mentioned in passing. Other times a Bible passage will be cited, but often is not read or explained.

Because we hear this so often, this sort of public confession of sin is often assumed by brethren to be necessary without giving it much thought. But is it necessary? Is it authorized? Is it expedient? In this article, I would like for us to consider the practice of Christians publicly confessing sins.

Related Passages

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.’ But Simon answered and said, ‘Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me’” (Acts 8:18-24).

This is perhaps the most common passage cited as the “prooftext” for the public confession of sins. However, this passage says nothing about an assembly of the church. In this example, Simon acknowledged his sin after it was pointed out to him by Peter. He then requested prayers on his behalf.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

This passage is about confession to God. The context is about forgiveness – particularly about God forgiving us of sin. In order to be forgiven, we confess our sin to the one who can forgive – God. The psalmist wrote, “I acknowledge my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).

James was certainly talking about confessing sins to one another. However, like the example of Simon (Acts 8:18-24), nothing is said about an assembly of the church. It could be done there, but is not limited to that place.

Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12).

The confession that Paul mentioned here was certainly public as it was done “in the presence of many witnesses.” However, this was not a confession of sin. Instead, Paul was talking about a confession of faith (cf. Romans 10:9-10).

As we look at these examples, we simply do not find specific instances in the New Testament in which Christians confessed their sins publicly before an assembly of the church. Were there times when they confessed sins to others? Absolutely. Will there be times in which we will do the same? Of course. However, a public confession before the congregation is just one possible way in which this can be done.

Ways in Which Sin Can Be Confessed

Before we continue, we ought to recognize that there are certain ways in which sin can be confessed.

To God through prayer – As we already noted, John indicated that we are to “confess our sins” to God (1 John 1:9). The way we communicate to Him is through prayer. In giving the model prayer, Jesus said that part of what we are to pray is this: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). This is the primary way in which we are to confess sins. Confessing sins to God through prayer is always necessary.

To the one sinned against – Jesus talked about this in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23-24). If we have sinned against someone, we have the responsibility to go to that person and make things right. This will necessarily include an acknowledgement of wrongdoing (confession). When we do this, the one against whom we have sinned should then be willing to forgive (Luke 17:3).

To a trusted individual – As we saw from the example of Simon (Acts 8:18-24), one can confess his fault to a fellow Christian. Of course, that example was one in which the one to whom he confessed was also the one who pointed out his sin. Regardless, this was an example of one confessing or acknowledging his sin to another. In the case of a sin that is handled between two brethren and the one in sin repents, no one else necessarily needs to know about it (Matthew 18:15).

To a small group – The account of Simon making confession to Peter does not indicate that this necessarily has to be done to just one person. In fact, it is possible that his confession was not just to Peter, but to the apostles who were there – Peter and John (Acts 8:14). Simon “offered them money” (Acts 8:18) and requested, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves” (Acts 8:24). This certainly suggests at least the possibility that this confession was to the two apostles. If we can confess to one person, we can confess to two, three, etc.

To the assembly of the church – By the same principle that confessing to one means we can confess to a small group, we can also confess sins to a larger group (the church). Though there is no specific example of this happening in the New Testament, the Scriptures do indicate that this is at least authorized.

Be Careful of Elevating the Commandments of Men

Jesus warned about “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:9; cf. Isaiah 29:13). Public confession of sin is an authorized expedient, but it is never bound by God.

Besides this, there are a couple of reasons why we should not make this into some sort of rigid requirement:

  1. We simply could not publicly confess every sin. This would be impractical. Imagine an assembly when every member had to get up and publicly confess every sin they committed since the last assembly. Even in a smaller church, it would be difficult to find time to actually worship God because all of the time would be spent confessing sins.
  2. Of course, no one attempts to publicly confess every sin and those who believe that public confession of sin is required do not believe it is required for every sin. So what sins should we publicly confess? Brethren sometimes talk about this being done when someone has brought reproach against the church* or they say that the confession must be as public as the sin. While these clichés might sound good, they are not found in the Bible. The New Testament simply does not give us a list of specifications showing which sins qualify as ones requiring a public confession.

We cannot bind what God has not bound (Matthew 15:9). Though there may be certain “commandments and teachings of men” that have “the appearance of wisdom,” they are ultimately “of no value” (Colossians 2:22-23).

Why This Might Be Done

If this is not required, but is authorized, why might someone make a public confession of sins?

To request prayers – This is what Simon did (Acts 8:24). There is value in a church praying for someone. When Peter was in prison, many brethren had “gathered together” at Mary’s house “and were praying” (Acts 12:12). When Paul wrote to the brethren in Ephesus, he asked them to “pray on [his] behalf, that utterance may be given to [him] in the opening of [his] mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19). However, if we want brethren to pray for us, we need to ask them to do so. James said that those who wanted the elders to “pray over [them]” needed to “call for [them]” (James 5:14), not just sit at home and hope the elders knew of their need and were praying for them.

To ask for help – Paul said we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). However, we can only do this if we know of the burdens that others have. Of course, these burdens could include many things that are not related to sin or temptation; but these would be included. If we are struggling with a particular sin or temptation, we can make this known through a public confession and ask our brethren for help. This could be for a public sin, but it will often be private. Unlike Simon who was confronted by Peter, we would make this known so others know of our struggles and can help.

To acknowledge sin and affirm repentance – If we sin publicly, it is often helpful – or necessary if it involved church discipline – to acknowledge our sin and affirm our repentance so that brethren know that what is past is in the past. Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, “For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). He told Timothy that he “was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” (1 Timothy 1:13). These were things that Paul had done in the past and others – even non-Christians – would know about them, but he was sure to let these brethren that he was no longer engaged in these sins.** Many people in the world like to charge Christians (or the church as a whole) with hypocrisy. Of course, this is not the same thing as imperfection. All Christians have committed sins in the past (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8). Hypocrisy is about ignoring sin rather than acknowledging it and correcting it. We may sin in some way that is known to others. Therefore, our repentance should be known to our brethren. The church is not to condone sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-2), but must welcome the penitent (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). Therefore, if others charge one who sinned or the church who accepts him with hypocrisy, brethren can correct this misunderstanding by explaining that the particular sin in question is in the past, has been repented of, and the congregation has accepted the brother on this basis.

How to Make This Effective

If one is going to make a public confession of sins, there are several ways to make this effective.

Confess a specific sin/struggle – If we want brethren to help, they need to know how to provide it. We all have to battle against sin generically; but if brethren know that we struggle in a specific area (alcohol, pornography, losing our temper, etc.), they will have a better idea of how to provide the help that we need.

Indicate when repentance happened – This is related to the point above about confessing publicly in order to acknowledge sin and affirm repentance. By indicating when we repented of the sin we are confessing, our brethren are then able to vouch for our change when we are charged by others. Also, if someone fell away and was unfaithful for years (or in some cases even decades), confessing every specific sin is impossible. However, this penitent brother can indicate when he repented of his sinful lifestyle so that while his reputation in the community may be in shambles, his brethren can defend him as having repented.

Accompany confession with sorrow – Many in the world may acknowledge their sin because they are proud of what they have done. Rather than confessing wrongdoing, they are bragging about their actions. Obviously, this is not the attitude that Christians should have. Paul told the brethren in Corinth, “I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). We are to mourn over sin, not boast about it.

Have brethren who are willing to forgive and help – As we have already noticed, we have a responsibility to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). However, in that context, Paul indicated that it would be those “who are spiritual” who would be able to provide the help necessary to “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). Brethren who are unforgiving and unwilling to help someone who is striving to make corrections in his life can drive that penitent brother back into sin. This was Paul’s concern which he stated in his second letter to Corinth. Evidently, the brother who was in sin (1 Corinthians 5:1) had repented. Because of this, Paul wrote, “Sufficient for such a one is the punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). In other words, if they did not accept him back and provide him with the spiritual encouragement that he needed, there was a danger that he could be “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” and go back to his sinful lifestyle. Of course, each one of us still has a responsibility to do what is right no matter what others do. Paul stood for the truth, even though no one stood with him (2 Timothy 4:16-17). One who sins and repents must make that right with the Lord (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9), then remain faithful no matter how his brethren treat him. However, unforgiving and unhelpful brethren will make the public confession of sins ineffective. The brother who repents of sin and later goes back to it will answer to God for that (2 Peter 2:20-21). However, his unforgiving and unhelpful brethren will answer to God for that as well (Matthew 6:15; 18:6).

Conclusion

As a Christian, if you have sin in your life, then you need to repent of that sin and ask God to forgive you. You do not need to wait until the church assembles and the preacher offers an invitation at the conclusion of his sermon. You can do what Peter told Simon to do – repent and pray (Acts 8:22) – at any time, even at this moment.


* As we will notice, repentance should be known when sin is public. However, the public confession of sin before the assembly as is often advocated by brethren is just one possible way in which this can be done.

** Incidentally, neither of these public acknowledgements of sin by Paul were done in an assembly of a local church. Again, this shows that while one may make a public confession in the assembly, it is not the only way to publicly acknowledge one’s sin and affirm repentance.


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Comments

  1. John Henson says

    Well done. This is a topic which is often misunderstood by many.

  2. You covered this subject quite well, Andy. Thanks for this article on how repentance is accomplished.