How To Confess Sin To A Faithful God (Nehemiah 9:16-21)

How To Confess Sin To A Faithful God (Nehemiah 9:16-21)

Learning how to confess sin to a faithful God is as easy as following the example we have in Scripture.

The human heart is made to reach out beyond itself and so, as G. K. Chesterton is alleged to have said, when people reject God they do not worship nothing, they worship anything.

Murray Capill, The Heart Is the Target

That is the history of humanity in a nutshell. God made us for worship, and if He is not the object of our worship, we will ceaselessly replace him with anything else.

Idolatry is at the root of all sin. The first commandment says “You shall have no other gods before me.” You don’t break any of the other nine commandments until you have broken the first one. So, whenever we confess sin, we seek to root out the idol in our heart that has distracted us from worshiping the one true God.

Praise and Confession

This is the primary reason the Israelites have gathered together. The Levites led the assembly in praising God for his attributes as well as his actions—especially his covenant faithfulness. They gathered to confess their sin, but one-third of the way through, and all they have done is praise God. It reveals an important principle: true repentance is not separate from praise.

That might sound obvious, but it is actually quite profound. Imagine how much more sincere your apologies would be if you began by first acknowledging your love and appreciation for the one you offended. Learning this principle would revolutionize conflict resolution in your marriage.

But, we aren’t talking about our relationship with our spouse. Far more important is the way we communicate with God. To that end, passages like this are helpful. They show us the language of prayer. 

The Levites began by highlighting God’s name, and his authority over all things as our Creator. Then they recalled how God established the covenant with Abraham and faithfully kept his promises.

Pray and read Nehemiah 9:16-21.

Let’s begin with a bit of recap…

I. Confess Our Faith

Our confession of sin is not divorced from our profession of faith. We confess sin in light of what we know to be true about God. Unfortunately, so often we rush past or completely ignore adoration in our prayers. It is easy for us to focus on the need or request we have without hallowing the name of the One to whom we pray.

God preserved his people by rescuing them out of their bondage in Egypt and performing many miracles “against Pharaoh”. During their wilderness wandering, God provided his law, bread from heaven, and water from a rock. This generation had received an abundance of privileges and advantages compared to most people before and since.

Yet, the author of Hebrews tells us that they were rebellious. Their disobedience prevented them from entering into the rest of the Promised Land (Heb. 3:16-19). Their tragic story is found in Exodus and Numbers, but it is recalled throughout Scripture.

Fallen Condition Focus

Every time I preach on a passage, one of my first goals is to understand what aspect of our fallen condition the text addresses. Bryan Chapell calls this the Fallen Condition Focus (FCF). In order to get to the gospel, we need to understand the problem that the gospel solves in the context of this passage.

This morning, the fallen condition focus is easy to discern. The Levites lead Israel in the confession of the iniquities of their fathers. Those sins were passed on to their children and eventually became their own sinful tendencies. While it is easy to recognize the consequences of original sin in ourselves and others, the hereditary component of sin is one of the greatest mysteries of Christianity.

As we consider this doctrine, I hope you will see that…When we are ready to admit our flaws we are more apt to submit to our Father.

This brings us to the first point in your outline…

II. Confess Our Sinfulness (16-18)

The faith they confessed brought them to a reverent frame of mind before God. We are on the verge of losing the concept of “reverence” today. The sincere expression of their faith makes the confession of their sin all the more convicting. They confess four distinct sins:

  1. The Israelites were Presumptuous (16a) They presumed God would be faithful. Instead of following God, they obstinately did whatever they wanted to do.
  2. The Israelites were Contumacious (16b) They were stiff-necked and refused to obey his will. “Contumacious” is an old-fashioned word for “stubborn”. You have to learn this word when you become an elder in the PCA because it occurs often in the section of the BCO on discipline. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness were like mules unwilling to receive the yoke of their master. Instead of following God, they did whatever they wanted to do. The silly thing is, they knew they were not in a position to call the shots. Unfortunately, disobedient members in the modern church act the same way. Instead of complaining against God, they simply find a church that doesn’t practice discipline. In other words, they leave a true church for a false one.
  3. The Israelites were Oblivious (17a): They rejected God’s will, so they were oblivious to his wonders. They quickly forgot the predicament they were in and prepared to appoint another leader who would march them right back to Egyptian slavery (Num. 14:1-4). There was something comfortable about slavery. It would not be pleasant, but at least it was predictable.
  4. The Israelites were Idolatrous (18): They made the golden calf when they grew tired of waiting for Moses who was up on Mt. Sinai receiving the law. So they asked Aaron to make a representation of the God who brought them out of Egypt. While Moses received the written revelation of the moral law, this rebellious generation broke the law written on their hearts. “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.” (G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry)Why would they create an image of the invisible God? It wasn’t because they were honoring him. This wasn’t the feeble attempt of naive people. They suppressed the truth about God in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). They “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of creation (Rom. 1:23). They “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). And slowly, but surely, they became more and more like the deaf, blind, and mute idols that they worshiped.

The Judgment of Achan

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites miraculously crossed the Jordan. The event confirmed that the Lord was with Joshua as he was with Moses. The Lord gave precise instruction for the Israelites to defeat Jericho. They are told to devote everything to destruction. Whatever plunder is found is to be given to the temple treasury.

But Achan rebels against God and takes multiple items from the plunder, including an idol, and hides them in his tent. When the Israelites lose a battle against the small town of Ai, Joshua is confused. He and the elders mourn before the ark of the Lord seeking guidance. The Lord tells them that Israel sinned by keeping something that was devoted to destruction.

This is an illustration of the consequences of idolatry. We question the fairness of this account for several reasons:

  1. Israel lost a battle with Ai because God was angry with Israel. God was angry with Israel because of Achan’s sin.
  2. Achan’s iniquity was visited upon his whole family. They were all executed.

Dale Ralph Davis: Naturally, we can complain. But we do better to fear. Fear because one man’s sin turned away God’s presence from a whole people. Fear because a man’s whole household was drawn into his punishment.

The Beginning of Repentance

While these Israelites were not in Egypt under Moses or Joshua, they understood that the sin of previous generations were representative of their own idolatry. We would be foolish to assume that we have advanced beyond the sins of previous generations. We continue to suffer from presumptuous, contumacious, oblivious, and idolatrous tendencies.

“Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God; trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.” 

Martin Luther’s catechism answer regarding the first commandment helps us detect our idols.

One of the greatest problems in the evangelical church is that it has lost the practice of church discipline. God seems to have departed from several churches in the midst of significant cultural warfare. Why? Just as he departed from Israel during their battle with Ai, he has departed where sin has been ignored rather than destroyed. The church is oftentimes unwilling to condemn sin in any serious way.

Our problem is that we prefer the tolerance of men to the praise of God.

Dale Ralph Davis

Confess Sin Seriously

We will never understand the wrath of God until sin begins to bother us much more than it currently does! 

The point of this prayer is to take sin seriously. Allow yourself to feel conviction for your rebellion. Don’t flippantly dismiss the discomfort. As the hymn says, “Let sorrow do it’s work.” Allow the Word of God to pierce between soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12). This is God’s loving means of bringing you to repentance (Rom. 2:4). The beginning of repentance is a broken heart.

We also tend to transition from confession to supplication all too quickly. In one sense this is a good thing. One aspect of repentance is endeavoring after new obedience. Seeking the grace of God to respond in a way that honors God in the future. The truth is, we will see this later on in the Nehemiah. The people do experience significant moral reform.

But, the Levites immediately follow their confession of sin with an acknowledgement of God’s mercy.

III. Confess God’s Faithfulness (17b, 19-21) 

The prayer does not jump to a change of conduct until they have rightly recognized the God who empowers such radical transformation. The theme of admitting our frequent rebellion is coupled with recalling God’s frequent forgiveness. God’s grace is greater than all our sin!

Bavinck There is indeed a solidarity in sin and suffering, but God permits it and frequently gives people the power to break with that moral community and themselves to become the forerunners of a generation that walks in the fear of the Lord and enjoys his favor.

The Levites are not simply following a mechanical formula for corporate confession. They are crying out in heartfelt confession to a God they trust is listening and responding. Acknowledging the misery of their sin has led them to the fountain of grace. As they grew in their understanding of sin, they gained a greater appreciation for grace. 

Four Attributes of God’s Faithfulness

The result of their tribulation was a deeper knowledge of God. They point to four attributes of God’s faithfulness:

  1. God Forgives (17b): “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.” God remained gracious and merciful to his covenant people. God is ready to forgive any and all who repent and place their trust in him. The gospel is a simple message of hope, but it is only sweet to hearts singed by conviction. If your burden and shame are great, lay them down at the foot of the cross. Cast your burdens upon Christ!
  2. God Guides (19): God continued to guide them. He continued to show them mercy. They deserved to be rejected and left on their own or wiped out right then and there. But God remained faithful.
  3. God Provides (20): God gave them his Spirit to instruct them, manna to feed them, and water from a rock to quench their thirst.
  4. God Sustains (21): God preserved them all forty years in the wilderness. None of them died from starvation. They had clothing that didn’t wear out and shoes that never made their feet swell. God took care of every need.

Let us take our conviction to God with apprehension of his unrelenting mercy and grace, purchased on our behalf by our Savior, Jesus Christ!