The Engagement: Confession
‘The garden of spices is sprinkled with red flowers.’-Heinrich Seuse.
‘It is a great and rare thing to have forgiveness in God discovered unto a sinful soul….It is a pure Gospel truth, that hath neither shadow, footstep, nor intimation elsewhere. The whole creation hath not the least obscure impression of it left thereon.’ -John Owen.
‘Before His breath the bands
That held me fall and shrivel up in flame.
He bears my name upon His wounded hands,
Upon His heart my name.
I wait, my soul doth wait
For Him who on His shoulder hears the key;
I sit fast bound, and yet not desolate;
My mighty Lord is free.
Be thou up-lifted, Door
Of everlasting strength ! the Lord on high
Hath gone, and captive led for evermore
My long captivity.’
‘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).
Confession of sin is the first act of an awakened sinner, the first mark of a gracious spirit. When God desires an habitation in which to dwell, He prepares ‘a broken and a contrite heart.’ The altar of reconciliation stands at the entrance of the New Testament temple; from the altar the worshipper passes on, by way of the laver, to the appointed place of meeting the blood-stained mercy-seat.
But we speak now rather of the confession of sin which is due by those who are justified, having found acceptance in Christ Jesus. Though they are children, they are sinners still. And if they walk in the light, they are conscious-as in their unregenerate state they never were-of the baseness of their guilt, the hatefulness of their iniquity. For now they bring their transgressions and apostasies into the light of God’s countenance, and holding them up before Him, cry, ‘Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest’ (Psa. 51:4).
Confession of sin should be explicit. ‘The care of Christianity is for particulars,’ says Bishop Warburton. The ritual law in Israel which provided for the transference of sin on the Day of Atonement pre-supposed definiteness of confession: ‘Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins’ (Lev. 16:21). In private sacrifices, also, while the hands of the offerer (Lev. 1:4) were laid on the victim, the following prayer was recited: ‘I entreat, O Jehovah: I have sinned, I have done perversely, I have rebelled, I have committed _____________;’ then the special sin, or sins, were named, and the worshipper continued, ‘but I return in penitence: let this be for my atonement.’ Standing beside the ruins of Jericho, Joshua said to Achan, ‘My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto Him’ And Achan answered, ‘Indeed, I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel; and thus and thus have I done’ (Josh. 7:19, 20). The great promise of the New Testament is not less definite: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (I John 1:9). A wise old writer says, ‘A child of God will confess sin in particular; an unsound Christian will confess sin by wholesale; he will acknowledge he is a sinner in general; whereas David doth, as it were, point with his finger to the sore: ‘I have done this evil’ (Psa. 51:4); he doth not say, ‘I have done evil,’ but ‘this evil.’ He points to his blood-guiltiness.’
When, in the course of the day’s engagements, our conscience witnesses against us that we have sinned, we should at once confess our guilt, claim by faith the cleansing of the blood of Christ, and so wash our hands in innocence. And afterwards, as soon as we have a convenient opportunity, we ought to review with deliberation the wrong that we have done. As we consider it with God we shall be impressed by its sinfulness, as we were not at the time of its committal. And if the sin is one which we have committed before, one to which perhaps our nature lies open, we must cast ourselves in utter faith upon the strong mercy of God, pleading with Him in the name of Christ that we may never again so grieve Him.31
As our hearts grow more tender in the presence of God, the remembrance of former sins which have already been acknowledged and forgiven will from time to time imprint a fresh stain upon our conscience. In such a case nature itself seems to teach us that we ought anew to implore the pardoning grace of God. For we bend, not before the judgment seat of the Divine Lawgiver, but before our Father, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. A more adequate conception of the offense which we have committed ought surely to be followed by a deeper penitence for the wrong done. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall often be led to pray with the Psalmist, ‘Remember not the sins of my youth’ (Psa. 25:7), even though these have long since been dealt with and done away. Conviction of sin will naturally prompt to confession. When such promptings are disregarded, the Spirit who has wrought in us that conviction is grieved.
‘My sins, my sins, my Saviour,
How sad on Thee they fall;
While through Thy gentle patience
I ten-fold feel them all.
‘I know they are forgiven;
But still their pain to me
Is all the grief and anguish
They laid, my Lord, on Thee.’
It is of the first importance that in all the exercises of the secret chamber we should yield ourselves to the blessed influences of the Comforter, by whom alone we are enabled to pray with acceptance. An important caution in regard to this has been noted by Ralph Erskine. In his diary he writes, under the date January 23, 1733: ‘This morning I was quickened in prayer, and strengthened to hope in the Lord. At the beginning of my prayer I discerned a lively frame in asserting a God in Christ to be the fountain of my life, the strength of my life, the joy of my life; and that I had no life that deserved that name, unless He Himself were my life. But here, checking myself with reflections upon my own sinfulness, vileness, and corruption, I began to acknowledge my wickedness; but for the time the sweetness of frame failed me, and wore off. Whence, I think, I may gather this lesson, that no sweet influence of the Spirit ought to be checked upon pretense of getting a frame better founded upon humiliation; otherwise, the Lord may be provoked to withdraw.’ When Thomas Boston found himself in danger of giving way to vain-glory, he took a look at his black feet.32 We may well do the same, but never so as to lose our assurance of sonship, or our sense of the preciousness of Christ. As Rutherford reminds us, ‘There is no law-music in heaven: there all their song is, ‘Worthy is the Lamb.” And the blood of ransom has atoned for ALL SIN.
Believers of a former age used to observe with thankfulness the occasions on which they were enabled to show ‘a kindly, penitential mourning for sin.’ At other times they would lament their deadness. Yet it never occurred to them that the coldness of their affections should induce them to restrain prayer before God. On the contrary, they were of one mind with ‘a laborious and successful wrestler at the throne of grace,’ who determined that ‘he would never give over enumerating and confessing his sins, till his heart were melted in contrition and penitential sorrow.’
For such deadness of heart there may be many explanations.
He who was once as a flame of fire in his Master’s service may have allowed the fervor of his first love to decline for want of fuel, or want of watchful care, until only a little heap of gray ashes smolders on the altar of his affections. His greatest sorrow is that he has no sorrow for sin, his heaviest burden that he is unburdened. ‘Oh, that I were once again under the terrors of Christ,’ was the cry of one who had hung in agony over the brink of the pit, but who had learned that a cold heart towards Christ is still more insupportable. Those who are in such a case are often nearer the Saviour than they know. Shepard of New England, speaking from a wide experience, says: More are drawn to Christ under the sense of a dead, blind heart, than by all sorrows, humiliations, and terrors.’
That which impresses us as deadness of heart may be the operation of the Holy Spirit, convincing us of sins hitherto unnoticed. As one looks at some star-galaxy, and sees it only as a wreath of dimming mist, so one becomes conscious of innumerable unregarded sins, merely by the shadow which they fling upon the face of the heavens. But when one observes through a telescope the nebulous drift, it resolves itself into a cluster of stars, almost infinite in number. And when one examines in the secret place of communion the cloud which darkens the face of God, it is seen to scatter and break into a multitude of sins. If, then, in the hour of prayer we have no living communion with God, let us plead with the psalmist, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any way of wickedness in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psa. 139:23, 24, R.V.). He who has engaged to ‘search Jerusalem with candles’ (Zeph. 1:12) will examine us through and through, will test us as silver is proved, will sift us as wheat. He will bring up from the unexplored depths of our nature all that is contrary to the mind of Christ, and reduce every thought and imagination to the obedience of His will.
Deadness of heart may arise also from the consciousness of our many sins of omission-duties unattempted, opportunities unimproved, grace disregarded. Often, when we kneel in prayer, ‘the lost years cry out’ behind us. What was related of Archbishop Ussher might be said of very many of the Lord’s servants-‘He prayed often, and with great humility, that God would forgive him his sins of omission, and his failings in his duty.’ Each day is a vessel to be freighted with holy deeds and earnest endeavors before it weighs anchor and sets sail for the eternal shores. How many hours we misspend! How many occasions we lose ! How many precious gifts of God we squander! And the world passes away, and the fashion of it fadeth.
But there is that which lies still deeper in the soul than even secret sin-there is native sinfulness, the body of death. When we acknowledge the depravity of our nature we should endeavor to speak according to the measure of our experience. We can scarcely exaggerate the facts, but we may easily overstate our appreciation of them. As we advance in grace, as we become accustomed to hold our lightest thought or feeling within the piercing illumination of the Divine purity, as we open the most hidden recesses of our being to the gracious influences of the good Spirit of God, we are led into a profounder understanding of the sinfulness of inbred sin, until we lament with Ezra, ‘Oh, my God, I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my face to Thee, my God’ (Ezra 9:6). It is reported of Luther that for one long day his inborn sinfulness revealed itself in dreadful manifestations, so vehement and terrifying that ‘the very venom of them drank up his spirits, and his body seemed dead, that neither speech, sense, blood, or heat appeared in him.’ On a day of special fasting and prayer Thomas Shepard, of Cambridge, Connecticut, wrote as follows: ‘November 3rd. I saw sin as my greatest evil; and that I was vile; but God was good only, whom my sins did cross. And I saw what cause I had to loathe myself….The Lord also gave me some glimpse of myself; a good day and time it was to me….I went to God, and rested on Him….I began to consider whether all the country did not fare the worse for my sins. And I saw it was so. And this was an humbling thought to me.’ President Edwards had at one time an amazing discovery of the beauty and glory of Christ. After recording it in his diary, he continues: ‘My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared to me perfectly ineffable, and swallowing up all thought and imagination, like an infinite deluge, or mountains over my head. I know not how to express better what my sins appear to me to be, than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite. Very often for these many years these expressions are in my mind and in my mouth, ‘Infinite upon infinite! Infinite upon infinite!’ When Dr. John Duncan was drawing near to death he remarked with great earnestness, ‘I am thinking with horror of the carnal mind, enmity against God. I never get a sight of it but it produces horror, even bodily sickness.
These are solemn experiences. Perhaps God leads few of His children through waters so wild and deep. Nor must we try to follow, unless He points the way. Above all, we dare not, in confessions which are addressed to a holy God, simulate an experience which we have never known. But let us, as far as God has revealed it to us, confess the deep sin of our nature. It has been said33 with much truth that the only ‘sign of one’s being in Christ which Satan cannot counterfeit’ is the grief and sorrow which true believers undergo when God discloses to them the sinfulness of inbred sin.
But, on the other hand, the love of Christ at times so fills the heart that, though the remembrance of sin continues, the sense of sin is lost-swallowed up in a measureless ocean of peace and grace. Such high moments of visitation from the living God are surely a prelude to the joy of heaven. For the song of the redeemed in glory is unlike the praises of earth in this, that while it also celebrates the death of the Lamb of God there is in it no mention of sin. All the poisonous fruits of our iniquity have been killed; all the bitter consequences of our evil deeds have been blotted out. And the only relics of sin which are found in heaven are the scarred feet and hands and side of the Redeemer. So, when the saved from earth recall their former transgressions, they look to Christ; and the remembrance of sin dies in the love of Him who wore the thorny-crown, and endured the cross.
‘The fouler was the error,
The sadder was the fall,
The ampler are the praises
Of Him who pardoned all.’