The Surprising Need For Every Believer To Learn How To Confess Sin With Others

The Surprising Need For Every Believer To Learn How To Confess Sin With Others

Learning how to confess sin to other believers is not a concept we enjoy talking about. Most of us would like to remain silent about our struggles. Sharing our sin, even with our closest family and friends makes us feel more vulnerable than we would like.

Is authenticity overrated?

Authenticity has become all the buzz within the Christian community. It is reflected in our obsession with personality tests and vulnerability. We are deeply interested in knowing and being our true selves. We even see it with those online quizzes that assign an animal or fictional character based upon how you answer a few questions.

I remember being surprised when my professor for practical ministry challenged the notion of vulnerability and authenticity. I thought to myself, “You’re just really bad at it.” But, he mentioned a few good reasons for his assessment, and I was convinced he was at least partially right. Too much vulnerability may reveal how self-absorbed we have become. Christianity serves as the means by which we realize our authentic self.

But there is a balance somewhere in the midst of the extremes. We should not be so closed off that we lose honesty before God and others. Nor should we be so vulnerable that we replace a Christ-centered Gospel with one that is self-centered.

A Busy Month

Let’s quickly review all that has taken place on this seventh month. On the first day Israel celebrated the Feast of Trumpets when they called upon Ezra, the scribe and priest, to read to them from the Book of the Law of Moses. He did so for 5-6 hours while the people stood in rapt attention. The assembly became so burdened by their sin, the spiritual leadership had to exhort them to rejoice.

On the second day, the heads of the fathers’ houses gathered with Ezra, the priests, and the Levites to study the law. During that gathering they realized that they needed to celebrate the Feast of Booths in two weeks. They immediately sent out the proclamation throughout the land calling upon families to come to Jerusalem and to build booths and live in them for a week. 

On the fifteenth day, they celebrated the feast with “very great rejoicing.” They continued to hear from Ezra as he read from the law every day that week. On the 22nd day of the month, they concluded the feast with another “solemn assembly.”

Now on the 24th day of the month, they gather for a day of repentance. It’s important to recognize this did not develop out of thin air. There was a growing sense of conviction throughout the month. The Word of God already bore the fruit of repentance in their lives, but now they sought a formal time of corporate confession.

None of us enjoy exposing our sin to others, but God designed the process of sanctification to involve other believers. Corporate confession of sin should be an element of every worship service and the practice of every believer.

Read Nehemiah 9:1-5.

How to Prepare to Confess Sin with Others (1-2a)

Israel has just finished the second of two celebrations found in Leviticus 23. They sought to return to a more faithful practice of God’s law. You will search in vain throughout the entire Pentateuch for something scheduled on the “twenty-fourth” of the seventh month (or any month for that matter). What took place in this chapter is not found in the Law. The people gathered of their own accord.

They came prepared to confess their sin with a proper humiliation exemplified in three ways:

  1. Fasting (Ps 35:13)—They came on empty stomachs. Every time they felt hunger pangs it would have reminded them that they were there for the confession of their sin. Having been fattened up over eight days of feasting, I’m sure this was not as grueling of a challenge as we might initially think. But, this was typical of Israel. Feasting and fasting oftentimes go together.
  2. Sackcloth (Es 4:1-4Ps 69:11Isa 32:11)—This has to do with discomfort. The fabric of the sackcloth against the bare skin would have been itchy. Every time they felt like changing, it would remind them that they were there to confess their sin.
  3. Earth on their heads—This again would have been quite uncomfortable. Every time they wanted to wash out the dirt from their hair, they would have remembered that they were there to confess their sin.

The last two were also associated with mourning (Ps 30:11Isa 22:12Lam 2:101 Sam 4:12Job 2:12). It emphasizes the sorrowful component of repentance, which can be emotionless without it.

Why did the Israelites separate themselves from foreigners?

God had separated Israel from the nations and called them holy (Lev 20:26). But Israel ignored this separation and partnered with their neighbors in compromising ways. The Israelites received foreigners within the covenant community (i.e., Rahab, Ruth). They were not separating from those who adopted the religion of Israel.

But most foreigners remained in their idolatry. So Israel was partnering with idolators and becoming idolatrous themselves (Ezra 6:21). Separation was necessary in those cases. We see the same principle in the New Testament (2 Cor 6:14-18Jn 17:14-19). This was another way they prepared for corporate confession of sin.

Preparing to Confess Your Sin

Preparing ourselves for conviction is not something we often think about. Rather than enter church sober-minded we want to get excited about worship. So how does this fit?

I mentioned a few weeks ago that we should routinely feel convicted by the preaching of the Word. Conviction is something we should anticipate. That means, part of the preparation we do before attending the worship service, is to think about the conviction we will experience. Reflect upon the obvious and subtle ways we have fallen short of the glory of God. 

We might even consider fasting our breakfast and adopting a solemn posture of mourning over our sin (minus the sackcloth and dirt!). We might signify our separation from the world by listening to music that prepares us rather than distracts us. Replace your 80s playlist staple with a collection of Psalms and hymns. Do something different on Sunday mornings that reminds you that God has set you apart for Him.

We do not prepare for confession in order to get God’s attention, nor to purchase his favor. The process of preparation helps us to engage our wayward hearts and to focus our minds upon meeting with a perfectly holy God. That’s not something we should ever enter with a flippant attitude. We humbly prepare to meet with Him and we eagerly expect to be changed by the experience.

Jesus prayed for his disciples knowing that they would endure the hatred of the world. He asked his Father not to remove them from the world, but to “keep them from the evil one” (John 17:14-19). He asked that they might be sanctified in the truth of God’s Word. Even as we prepare for confession of sin, we know that Jesus Christ has already prayed to preserve us.

› Here we transition from preparing to practicing…

How to Practice Confessing Sin with Others (2b)

Having prepared themselves to repent, the people of Israel “stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” We can all agree that it was appropriate for them to confess their own sin, but what about the sins of their fathers? Why would they need to confess those too? How could they be held responsible for something they did not do? 

What does it mean to confess the sin of your fathers?

Were they agreeing to take the punishment their fathers deserved?

We need to recognize that covenant responsibilities had been neglected by the Israelites for generations (Ezra 9:7). They had returned to the land within the past century. They had endured punishment in exile and this generation wanted to confess their sins, as well as the sins of their fathers, so they might begin to turn away from them. 

The sins of the fathers often pass down to their children (Deut. 5:9-10), but everyone is ultimately punished for their own sin (Deut. 24:16). Those who repent and turn away from their sin are promised life (Ezek 33:14-15).

How does this apply today?

When we have thought about the ways in which we have sinned and experienced conviction, the last thing we want to do is tell someone else about it. But that does not mean we should avoid the practice altogether.

a priest listening to the person confessing sin
Photo by cottonbro on

Maybe you’re thinking: “But we aren’t Roman Catholic!” It wasn’t until the Middle Ages when Pope Innocent III made it a requirement to confess your sins to the priest (1199). This led, centuries later, to the creation of a confessional box that hid the priest behind a grill and curtain. John Cornwell, Historian and Cambridge University fellow, argues that these practices are what led to the church’s sexual abuse scandal.

While we can agree that the practice had become corrupted, that does not eliminate the command to confess our sin with others. James 5:16 “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Do you confess sin with others? Do you have accountability—a close friend who encourages you, but also rebukes you? None of us have arrived at a place in our sanctification where we no longer need accountability.

Confessing the sins of our nation

But, we need to go further than confessing our own sins. What are the sins that run deep in your family? Have you confessed those sins to the Lord? Are you actively seeking to mortify those tendencies you have inherited?

Have you confessed the sins of our nation? We should acknowledge the past and present wickedness of our nation. These crimes against humanity are not unique to America—but they do represent our collective rebellion against the Lord.

  • We should confess the past atrocities of the African Slave trade without ignoring the present murder of unborn babies.
  • Let us acknowledge the pride of our public school system that has raised a generation of political and social activists who have more disdain for this country than gratitude.
  • Confess the perverted views of sexual identity and marriage that have marred the image of God and have mislead millions of children.

We do not confess these sins because we are personally guilty, but because we collectively belong to a nation that celebrates what God calls evil. 

The result of our confession will be an assurance of pardon. That sense of assurance is partially fulfilled in the relief we receive from being honest with God and others (Ps 32:3-5). In other words, God has already provided us with the promise of forgiveness.

In fact, along with the promise of forgiveness, we have the assurance of reconciliation! The Gospel doesn’t call us to perpetual wallowing in the mire of our wickedness. It calls us to walk by faith in light of the fact that He has made us a new creation.

› This last section joins worship and confession together…

How to Praise God and Confess Sin with Others (3-5)

They all stood and read from the Book of the Law for about three hours (3). They have become people of the Word.

  • Day 1: Israel listened to Ezra for 6 hours
  • Day 2: Heads of Fathers’ Houses Studied with Priests and Levites
  • Days 15-22: Ezra read from the Law each day
  • Day 24: All read from the Law for 3 hours

After hearing from the law they spent the next three hours confessing and worshiping God. So this was another six hour worship service! The next time I hear someone say, “You went 15 minutes over Brad!” I’m going to respond, “Is that all?” Apparently, during this time they were sitting or kneeling since they are asked to “Stand up…” in v.5.

The Levites cried out with a loud voice (4). This is not instruction directed toward the people, but praise “to the Lord their God.” By elevating their voices, they were exemplifying proper praise for the people. 

It was possibly similar to the pastoral prayer during our worship service. While the people were listening, they were praying in agreement, and they were learning how they might continue the practice on their own. Which is precisely what happened next. The Levites encouraged the people to join in blessing the Lord (5).

From watching to participating

A shift occurs at this gathering. During the previous festivals, Ezra and the priests ministered to the people. Now, the people ministered to one another. The Levites modeled how the people might participate. The whole community got involved.

I remember talking to friends one night in high school about how we were inclined to commune with God differently. Most of us enjoyed reading the Bible more than praying, but one person said they could pray more easily. None of us really had the balance conveyed by this passage.

Reading fills our minds with knowledge about God, while praise and worship flow from a heart that has been moved. Spending 2 minutes in prayer and 28 minutes reading reveals an appreciation for the mind, but a neglect of the heart. Likewise, the opposite reveals an overemphasis upon emotions without knowledge.

Confession of Sin as an Element of Worship

Confession of sin and worship go together. It is not a response to worship, but an element of it. We neglect it to our own harm.

Devote yourself to reading and sitting under the preaching of the Word. But try to spend an equal amount of time in prayer, confession, and praise. Maintain a proper balance between head knowledge and heart application.

  • Study difficult doctrine, especially if you tend to avoid it. 
  • Engage your emotions and affections, especially if you tend to suppress them. 
  • Learn how to confess sin with others, especially in the context of worship.

Just as sin infects the whole man, so salvation affects the whole man. We don’t want to become imbalanced like the guy at the gym who skips leg day. We can do the same thing spiritually if we avoid the aspects of our faith that challenge us or make us uncomfortable.

Rather than obsessing over our personality profiles, we should seek to form the bonds of Christian unity with one another that we trust will last for eternity.