The work of the Holy Spirit is a gradual one in the Christian life. He sharpens our conscience, so that sins that we were committing unwittingly before become conscious later on. This process can have the incidental effect of tempting us to think that we are worse sinners later in the Christian life, when what is actually happening is that we are becoming more sensitive to our sin. Confessing our specific sins is integral to this process of discovery.
I have heard many people confess sin in an exclusively generic way: “Lord, forgive me for my sins.” While it is certainly a good thing to acknowledge that there are sins that we have committed that we don’t know about directly, either because of our ignorance, or because of an underdeveloped conscience, or for some other reason; nevertheless, it is not healthy at all to confess this way all the time. Confessing specific sins to God comes with the following benefits (which can also be viewed as reasons to do so):
1. It helps develop our conscience. The work of the Holy Spirit is a gradual one in the Christian life. He sharpens our conscience, so that sins that we were committing unwittingly before become conscious later on. This process can have the incidental effect of tempting us to think that we are worse sinners later in the Christian life, when what is actually happening is that we are becoming more sensitive to our sin. Confessing our specific sins is integral to this process of discovery. We start to see the interconnected nature of our sins, and how one sin leads to another. Confessing only generically will actually deaden our consciences over time.
2. We develop a far more accurate picture of who we are in relationship to God and to other people. Confessing only in a general way tempts us to think that we are far better people than we actually are. There is an epidemic of self-satisfied Christians in the world, who might, on a theoretical level acknowledge that they are sinners, but who become extremely perturbed when told of a supposed actual sin that they might possibly have committed. Whereas, if we are confessing specific sins to God, we will not be so surprised to find out that other people have noticed some of our faults. Confessing only generically will grossly distort our own self-portrait.
3. Confessing specific sins helps us to empathize better with other Christians and with those whose consciences have been awakened to a realization of their sin. All Christians struggle with sin. All Christians fight the good fight. Isn’t that fight hard enough without other people constantly telling us how inadequate we are? Of course we are inadequate! If we were adequate, it would be because we were in heaven. But it seems clear enough that one of the reasons why some Christian lack empathy is because they rarely confess specific sins, and therefore think of themselves as only theoretical sinners, and not actual sinners, and thus better than their struggling church family members. In this way, point 3 connects very closely with point 2. Confessing only generic sin will result in a serious lack of empathy and love for other believers.
4. Confessing specific sins will sharpen our understanding of the law and its requirements, which will in turn hone our understanding of the gospel. The gospel cheapens in our minds when we think we have less need of salvation.
So, with all of this in mind, how do we confess specific sins better? For this, a study of God’s law is indispensable. We must understand the proper rubrics that WLC 99 so eloquently lay out: 1. that the Ten Commandments always lay out the most extreme form of the sin or duty in view. 2. that all sins of the same category are included under the most extreme form (as well as all sins which lead to the most extreme form); 3. that not only outward behavior, but also our inner thoughts are included; and 4. that where the law commands something, the opposite is forbidden, and vice versa; as well as that if something is promised, then the opposite is threatened, and vice versa. It is only as we understand the perfection that the law demands that our consciences will become more adept at self-judgment.
However, a growing understanding of the gospel is also essential, because if we forget the gospel with regard to the confession of sins, then we will simply lose all desire to confess our sins. We will forget the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, and we will therefore think that it is better to live with the burden than to try to rid ourselves of it through Christ. The gospel is the promise of the clean slate, due to Christ’s blood and righteousness, and the promise that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.
Lane Keister is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is Pastor of Momence Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in Momence, IL. This article is used with permission.