Scripture tells us to confess our sins to one another. We may ask, what sins? All of them? That would be a huge task. Martin Luther tried that, and found it an impossible burden. (Of course, he was trying to comply with the medieval church’s sacrament of penance, in which every “mortal” sin, or serious sin, was to be confessed to a priest each year, in order to receive acceptance from God. What Luther found was not that he need not confess his sins, but that God grants righteousness freely to the one who believes the gospel. Believers are not dependent on human mediators to receive full and final forgiveness. Justification is by grace alone, through faith alone. “Blessed is the man whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Psalm 32:1)
To give a simple answer to our question: we should confess our private sins privately, and our public sins publicly.
If you lied to someone, confess your lie and ask forgiveness. Some years back (I remember, it was deeply humbling, because I was afraid to lose his respect, but) I had to confess a lie to a friend. He immediately responded this way, “Now I trust you more than I did before.” It may not always turn out this way, but he extended forgiving grace to me. I thank God
Should we confess the sins of our hearts to one another? Maybe. First, ask this question: what is the good that could come of that? If I need accountability from a brother, or a wise, older believer, that could be a good thing, if he is strong enough to call me out. Being known by a trustworthy friend is a great treasure. (I am referring to men with men, and women with women.)
On the other hand, I remember this question we asked: “If I have sinned by resenting someone in my thoughts, should I confess that to them?” Absolutely not. That can do no good at all; it brings no healing. Confession is for reconciliation. But if the person did not know about your resentment, you’d have to break the relationship down first, then build it back up. That makes no sense at all.
What about the question we would ask in college: should I confess impure thoughts to the person I was thinking about? Absolutely not. What good could come of it? None. Only embarrassment and possibly temptation. That would be disaster.
What about public sins? Again, the question is, what good can be achieved? What harm has our public sin caused? If I lose my temper and speak a harsh word in front of others, they may need me to express my repentance. I can’t “take it back,” but I can confess and tell them I am sorry. Much good can come of that. I can restore the dignity of the person whom I disrespected. I have had to do that in my family lots of times. I am responsible for those people, and my bad example had done them harm. Again, thank God, their love was quite willing to cover my sins.
What must I do to build others up? As a pastor, occasionally I realized that I had taught something that was not correct and biblical. So, I would try to explain that and correct my mistake. (I am just giving a few examples here. It would be a huge problem if a pastor did that often. That would raise questions about his competence, or possibly his putting himself in the center of attention, rather than preaching Jesus Christ.)
This is a sound rule of wisdom: confess private sins privately, and public sins publicly. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Proverbs 28:13.
Howard Griffith, Ph.D.
Associate Pastor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.