J.C. Ryle, 1896
"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
There are occasions when circumstances give a peculiar importance to particular doctrines in religion. The assaults of enemies sometimes make it needful to exhibit some special truth with special distinctness. The plausible assertion of some error sometimes requires to be met by more than ordinary carefulness in showing "the thing as it is" in the Word. A doctrine may perhaps be in the rear-rank today, and tomorrow may be thrust forward by the force of events into the very front of the battle. This is the case at the present time with the subject of "Confession." Many years have passed away since men thought and talked so much as they do now about "the confession of sins".
I desire in this paper to lay down a few plain scriptural principles about "Confession of sin." The subject is one of primary importance. Let us beware, in the din of controversy and discussion, that 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 endeavor to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the precious from the vile.
I. In the first place — Who are those who ought to confess sin?
II. In the second place — To whom ought confession of sin to be made?
Once let a man 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 those who ought to confess sins?
I answer this question in one plain sentence. All men and women in the world! All are born in sin and are 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 upon earth who does good and sins not. There is not a child of Adam that ought not to confess sin. (Ephesians 2:3; Romans 3: 23, 19; Ecclesiastes 8:20)
There is no exception to this rule. It does not apply only to murderers, and felons, and the inhabitants 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 men in their cottages — preachers and hearers — teachers and scholars — landlords and tenants — masters and servants — all, all are alike summoned in the Bible to confession. None are so moral and respectable, that they need not 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, "You say, 'I am innocent — He is not angry with me.' But I will pass judgment on you because you say, 'I have not sinned." (Jeremiah 2:35) "If we say that we have no sin — then 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 willingly 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. "He who covers his sins shall not prosper — but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall find mercy." (Proverbs 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 blight on joy and mirth.
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. Just so, the heart of the grown-up man is never really easy, until he has unburdened himself before God and obtained pardon and absolution.
"When I kept silence," 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 sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD" — and you forgave the guilt of my sin." (Psalm 32:3-5)
There is no gainsaying these things. They stand out plainly on the face of Scripture, as if they were written with a sunbeam! They are so clear that he who runs may read. Confession of sin is absolutely necessary to salvation — it is a habit which is an essential part of repentance unto life.
Without it, there is no entrance into Heaven.
Without it, we have no part or lot in Christ.
Without it, we shall certainly go to Hell.
All this is undoubtedly true. And yet in the face of all this, it is a melancholy 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 ministers, 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 as other men."
They do not get drunk like some, or swear like others, or live profligate, lives like others.
They are moral and respectable!
They perform the duties of their station!
They attend church regularly!
They are kind to the poor!
What more would you have? If they are not good people and going to Heaven — then 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 — then sin will never be confessed!
Some people are too indolent and slothful 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 upon 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 true 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 (Exodus 9:27; Numbers 22:34; Joshua 7:20; Matthew 27:4) — but they have no real sense, or sight, or understanding of sin. Its guilt, and vileness, and wickedness, and consequences — are utterly hid from their eyes. And the result, in each case, is one and the same. They know nothing practically of confession of sins.
Shall I say what seems to me the clearest proof that man is a fallen and corrupt creature? It is not open vice or unblushing profligacy. It is not the crowded ale-house, or the murderer's cell in a jail. It is not avowed infidelity, or gross and despicable idolatry. All these are proofs, and convincing proofs indeed, that man is fallen. But there is to my mind a stronger proof still — that proof is the wide-spread "spirit of slumber" about their souls, in which most men lie chained and bound. When I 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, I need 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, then there would be no need for our pressing 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 disease of body is so desperate as mortification. No heart is in so bad a state as the heart that does not feel sin.
Shall I say what is my first and foremost wish for wise souls, if they are yet unconverted? I can wish them nothing better than thorough self-knowledge. Ignorance of self and sin are the root of all mischief to the soul. There is hardly a religious error or a false doctrine that may not be traced up to it. Light was the first thing called into being. When God created the world, He said, "Let there be light." (Genesis 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 Corinthians 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!"
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 holy.
What though we feel ashamed and confounded at the sight of our own transgressions! What though 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 prayer-less tongue!
If we have learned to feel and confess sin, we may well thank God and take courage. Whence came those feelings? 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 to be 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 come down from above. They are the precious gift 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. I now turn to the second branch of my subject. To whom ought confession of sin to be made?
I enter on this branch of the subject with sorrowful feelings. I approach it as a sailor would approach some rock on which many gallant ships have made shipwreck. I cannot forget that I have arrived at a point on which millions of so-called Christians have erred greatly — and millions are erring at the present day. But I dare not keep back anything that is Scriptural, for fear of giving offence. The errors of millions must not prevent a minister of the Gospel speaking the truth. If multitudes are hewing out broken cisterns that can hold no water — then it becomes the more needful to point out the true fountain. If countless souls are turning aside from the right way — then it becomes the more important to show clearly to whom confession ought 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 this evil in Your sight." (Psalm 51:4) This is what David practiced: "I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord." (Psalm 32:5) This is what Joshua advised Achan to do: "My son, give glory to God, and make confession to Him." (Joshua 7:19) The Jews were right when they said, "Who can forgive sins, but God alone?" (Mark 2:7)
But must we leave the matter here? Can vile sinners like us ever dare to confess our sins to a holy God? Will not the thought of His infinite purity shut our mouths and make us afraid? Must not the remembrance of His holiness make us afraid? Is it not written of God, that He is "of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on iniquity!" (Habakkuk 1:13) Is it not said, that He "hates all workers of iniquity!" (Psalm 5:5) Did He not say to Moses, "No man shall see my face and live"? (Exodus 33:20) Did not Israel say of old, "Let not God speak with us, lest we die!" (Exodus 20:19) Did not Daniel say, "How can the servant of my Lord talk with my Lord?" (Daniel 10:17) Did not Job say, "When I consider, I am afraid of Him!" (Job 23:15) Did not Isaiah say, "Woe is me, for I am undone — for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!" (Is. 6:5) Does not Elihu say, "Shall it be told Him that I speak? If a man speaks — then surely he shall be swallowed up"? (Job 37:20)
These are serious questions. They are questions which must and will occur to thoughtful minds. There are many who know what Luther meant when he said, "I dare not have anything to do with an absolutely holy God!" But I thank God they are questions to which the gospel supplies a full and satisfactory answer. The gospel reveals One who is exactly suited to the needs of souls which desire to confess sin.
I say then, that sin ought to be confessed to God in Christ. I say that sin ought specially to be confessed to God manifest in the flesh — to Jesus Christ the Lord — to that Jesus who came into the world to save sinners — to that Jesus who died for sinners, 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 who desires to confess sin, should apply directly to Christ.
Christ is our 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 full absolutions. It is written in Scripture, "You are a Priest forever!" "We have a great High Priest who has passed into the heavens." "Having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith." (Hebrews 4:14, 5:6, 6:20, 10:21-22)
(a) 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 "over all, God blessed forever." He says Himself, "I and my Father are one." He has "all power in Heaven and earth." He has "power 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 Hell." When He opens, no one can shut. (Romans 9:5. John 10:30. Mat. 28:18, 9:6; Luke 7:48-50; Rev. 1:18, 3:7)
(b) 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 unto Me," He says, "all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." "If any man thirsts — let Him come unto 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. (Mat. 11:28; John 7:37)
(c) Christ is a High Priest of perfect knowledge.He knows exactly the whole history of all who confess to Him — no secrets are hidden from Him. He never errs in judgment — He makes no mistakes. It is written that "With righteousness He will judge." (Isaiah 11:4) 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!
(d) 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 reposed in Him is never abused — secrets confided to Him are completely safe. Of Him it is written, that "He will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax." He is one who "despises none." (Isaiah 42:3; Job 36:5)
(e) Christ is a High Priest who can sympathize with all who 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. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin." (Hebrews 4:15) To Him the words can most truly be applied, which Elihu applied to himself, "I am just like you before God; I too have been taken from clay. No fear of me should alarm you." (Job 33:6-7)
This great High Priest of the gospel is the person whom we ought specially to employ 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. (Ephesians 3:12) Laying our hand on Him and His atonement, we may "come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 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 advocate? 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 to angels and dead saints — while we have Christ for a High Priest? Why should we confess to the Virgin Mary, Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, Paul, or any other creature in the unseen world? The Church of Rome enjoins such confession as this on her millions of members, and many members of the Church of England seem half-disposed to think the Church of Rome is right! But when we ask a Scriptural reason for the practice, we may ask long without getting an answer.
There is no need for such a confession. Christ has not given up His office, and ceased to be our great High 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 bids us 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 aid 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. A party within the Church of England approves the practice as useful, helpful, and almost needful to the soul. But, again, when we ask for Scripture and reason in support of the practice, we receive no satisfactory answer.
There is not 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 — then it may he 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. Paul writes three Epistles to Timothy and Titus about ministerial duty. But he says nothing about receiving confessions. James bids us "confess our faults to one another," but he says nothing about confessing to ministers. Above all, there is not a single example in Scripture of any one confessing to a minister and receiving absolution. 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 absolve them after confession.
Finally, is any good likely to result from confessing to priests or ministers? I answer boldly, 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 "auricular confession" forever, as a practice of most vile and evil tendency!
Facts, stubborn facts, abound to show that the practice of confessing to ministers has often led to the grossest and most disgusting immorality. A living writer has truly said, "There is no worse school of wickedness on earth, than the confessional. History testifies that for every offender whom the confessional has reclaimed — it has hardened thousands; for one it may have saved — it has destroyed millions." (Wylie on Popery, page 329)
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 favors 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 employ the aid 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 candle — when he may enjoy the noon-day light of God's sun!
If we love our souls, let us beware of giving to ministers the honor that belongs to Christ alone — He is the true High Priest of the Christian's profession. He ever lives to receive confessions, and to absolve sinners. Why should we turn away from Him to man? Above all, let us beware of the whole system of the Romish confessional.
Of all practices that were ever devised by man in the name of religion, I firmly believe that none was ever devised so mischievous and objectionable as the confessional. It overthrows Christ's office, and places man in the seat which should only be occupied by the Son of God. It puts two sinners in a thoroughly wrong position: it exalts the confessor far too high; and it places those who confess far too low. It gives the confessor a place which it is not safe for any child of Adam to occupy. It imposes on those who confess, a bondage to which it is not safe for any child of Adam to submit. It sinks one poor sinner into the degrading attitude of a serf — it raises another poor sinner into a dangerous mastery over his brother's soul. It makes the confessor little less than a God. It makes those who confess little better than slaves.
If we love Christian liberty, and value inward peace, let us beware of the slightest approach to the Romish confessional. Those who tell us that Christian ministers were intended to receive confessions, and that Evangelical teaching makes light of the ministerial office, and strips it of all authority and power — are making assertions which they cannot prove. We honor the minister's office highly, but we refuse to give it a hair's breadth more dignity than we find given in the Word of God. We honor ministers as Christ's ambassadors, Christ's messengers, Christ's watchmen, helpers of believers' joy, preachers of the Word, and stewards of the mysteries of God. But we decline to regard them as priests, mediators, confessors, and rulers over men's faith — both for the sake of their souls and of our own.
The vulgar notion that Evangelical teaching is opposed to the exercise of soul-discipline, or heart-examination, or self-humiliation, or mortification of the flesh, or true contrition — is a mere invention of man's. Opposed to it! There never was a more baseless assertion. We are entirely favorable to it. This only we require — but that it shall be carried on in the right way. We approve of a confessional — but it must be the only true one — but the throne of grace. We approve of going to a confessor — but it must be the true One — Christ the Lord. We approve of submitting consciences to a priest — but it must be to the great High Priest — Jesus the Son of God. We approve of unbosoming our secret sins, and seeking absolution — but it must be at the feet of the great Head of the Church, and not at the feet of one of His weak members. We approve of kneeling to receive godly counsel — but it must be at the feet of Christ, and not at the feet of man.
Let us beware of ever losing sight of Christ's priestly office. Let us . . .
glory in His atoning death,
honor Him as our Substitute and Surety on the cross,
follow Him as our Shepherd,
hear His voice as our Prophet,
and 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 deputed His priestly office to no order of men in the world. This is the office of Christ. It is the neglect of this office which leads to every kind of error. It is the remembrance of this office which is the best safe-guard against the plausible teaching of the Church of Rome. Once right about this office, we shall never greatly err in the matter of the confession of sin. We shall know to whom confession ought to be made; and to know that rightly is no slight thing.
I shall conclude this paper with two words of PRACTICAL APPLICATION,
(a) We have seen who ought to confess sin.
(b) We have seen to whom confession ought to be made.
Let us try to bring the subject nearer to our 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 heart 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 — pardon my iniquity, for it is great." "Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities." Let us cry to Him as the publican did in the parable, "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 without delay. 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 1:8) "If any say: I have sinned, and perverted that which is right, and it profited me not; He will deliver his soul from going into the pit, and his life shall see the light." (Job 33:27) "Father," said the prodigal son, "I have sinned against Heaven and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his servant: Bring forth 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 be merry." (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)If we have been taught by the Holy Spirit to confess our sins, and know the subject of this paper by inward experience — then let us keep up the habit of confession to the last day of our lives.
We shall never cease to be sinners as long as we are in the body. Every day we shall find something to deplore in our thoughts, or motives, or words, or deeds. Every day we shall 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 absolution. Let us daily cast ourselves under the shadow of His wings, and cry, "Surely in me dwells no good thing! You are my hiding-place, O Lamb of God!"
May every day find us more humble — and yet more hopeful; more sensible 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;
our confessions of sin more real;
our eye more single;
our walk with God more close;
our knowledge of Jesus more clear;
our love to Jesus more deep;
our citizenship in Heaven more manifest; and
our separation from the world more distinct!
So living — we shall cross the waves of this troublesome world with comfort, and have an abundant entrance into God's kingdom. So living — we shall find that our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. Yet a few more years, and our prayers and confessions shall cease forever. We shall begin an endless life of praise. We shall exchange our daily confessions for eternal thanksgivings!