The Essential Planks of Christianity, Part One: The Confession of Sin.

Written by J. C. Ryle
Edited for thought, sense and space

“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.


The question is at all times deeply important. Among the foundation-stones of saving religion few deserve more serious attention than confession of sins. But there are occasions when circumstances give a particular importance to particular doctrines in religion. The assaults of enemies sometimes make it needful to exhibit some special truth with special distinctness. The plausible assertion of some error sometimes requires to be met by more than ordinary carefulness in showing the thing as it is,’ in the Word. A doctrine may perhaps be in the rear-rank to-day, and to-morrow may be thrust forward by the force of events into the very front of the battle. This is the case at the present time with the subject of confession. Many years have passed away since men thought and talked so much as they do now about the confession of sins.

The highest saints are not too high to need confession. The lowest sinners are not too low to be reached by God’s requirement.

From Kings in their palaces, to poor men in their cottages,—preachers and hearers,—teachers and scholars—landlords and tenants,—masters and servants,—all, all are alike summoned in the Bible to confession. None are so moral and respectable that they need not confess that they have sinned. All are sinners in thought, word, and deed, and all are commanded to acknowledge their transgressions. Every knee ought to bow, and every tongue ought to confess to God. Behold, saith the Lord, I will plead with thee, because thou sayest, I have not sinned (Jer. 2:35). If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (l John 1:8).

Without confession of sin and our sinfulness there is no salvation.

The love of God towards sinners is infinite. The readiness of Christ to receive sinners is unbounded. The blood of Christ can cleanse away all sin. But we must plead guilty before God can declare us innocent. We must acknowledge that we surrender at discretion before we can be pardoned and let go free. Sins that are known and not confessed, are sins that are not forgiven. They are yet upon us, and daily sinking us nearer to hell. He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy (Prov. 28:13).

Without confession there is no inward peace.

Our conscience will never be at rest so long as it feels the burden of unacknowledged transgression. It is a load of which man must get rid if he means to be really happy. Unacknowledged transgression is a worm eating at the root of all comfort. It is a blight on joy and mirth.

Therefore, there are two points to which I purpose to direct your attention:

First, Who are they that ought to confess sins?

All men and women in the world are all born in sin and children of wrath. All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. Before God all are guilty. There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good, and sinneth not. There is not a child of Adam that ought not to confess sin. (Eph. 2:3; Rom. 3:23; Eccles. 7:20).

There is no exception to this rule. It does not apply only to murderers, and felons, and the inmates of prisons. It applies to all ranks, and classes, and orders of mankind.

Some people are too proud to acknowledge themselves sinners. Like the Pharisee of old, they flatter themselves they are not as other men. They do not get drunk, like some; or swear, like others; or live profligate lives like others. They are moral and respectable! They perform the duties of their station! They attend church regularly! They are kind to the poor! What more would you have? If they are not good people and going to heaven, who can be saved? But as to habitual confession of sin, they do not see that they need it. It is all very well for wicked people, but not for them. Of course when sin is not really felt, sin will never be confessed.

Some people are too indolent and slothful to take any step in religion so decided as confession. Their Christianity consists in meaning, and hoping, and intending, and resolving. They do not positively object to anything that they hear upon spiritual subjects. They can even approve of the Gospel. They hope one day to repent, and believe, and be converted, and become thorough Christians, and go to heaven after death. But they never get beyond hoping. They never come to the point of making a business of religion. Of course they never confess sin.

In one or other of these ways thousands of persons on every side are ruining their souls. In one point they are all agreed. They may sometimes call themselves sinners in a vague, general way, but they have no real sense, or sight, or understanding of sin. Its guilt, and vileness, and wickedness, and consequences, are utterly hid from their eyes. And the result, in each case, it is one and the same. They know nothing practically of confession of sins. The heart of man is never really easy until he has unburdened himself before God, and obtained pardon and absolution. When I kept silence, says David, my bones waxed old, through my roaring all the day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. I acknowledged my sin unto Thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin (Psalm 32: 3-5). Confession of sin is absolutely necessary to salvation. It is also a habit which is an essential part of the Christian life.

Some people have no thought or feeling about their sins.

The subject is one which hardly crosses their minds. They rise in the morning and go to bed at night. They eat, and drink, and sleep, and work, and get money, and spend money, as if they had no souls at all. They live on as if this world was the only thing worth thinking of. They leave religion to parsons and old men and women. Their consciences seem asleep, if not dead. Of course they never confess.

What is my first and foremost wish for your soul, if you are yet unconverted? I can wish you nothing better than thorough self-knowledge. I should like the veil to be taken from your heart. I should like you to see yourself as you really are in the sight of God. Ignorance of self and sin is the root of all mischief to the soul. There is hardly a religious error or a false doctrine that may not be traced up to it. For want of seeing sin, men do not value salvation. Once let a man get a sight of his own heart, and be will begin to cry, God be merciful to me a sinner!

Friend, if you have learned to feel and acknowledge your sinfulness, you have great reason to thank God. It is a real symptom of health in the inward man. It is a mighty token for good. To know your spiritual disease is one step towards a cure. To feel bad and wicked and hell-deserving, is the first beginning of being really good. Once more I say, you have great reason to thank God.

If you have also learned to feel and confess sin, you may well thank God and take courage. Where did those feelings you find come from? Who told you that you were a guilty sinner? What moved you to begin acknowledging your transgressions? How was it that you first found that your sin is a burden, and made you longed to be set free from it? These feelings do not come from man’s natural heart. The devil does not teach such lessons. The schools of this world have no power to impart them. Reader, these feelings come down from above. They are the precious gift of God the Holy Ghost. It is His special office to convince of sin. Rejoice, I say again, and be exceeding glad. The man who has really learned to feel and confess his sins, has learned that which millions never learn, and for want of which millions die in their sins, and are lost to all eternity.

Second. To whom ought confession of sin to be made?

I enter on this branch of the subject with sorrowful feelings. I approach it as a sailor would approach some rock on which many gallant ships have made shipwreck. I cannot forget that I have arrived at a point on which millions of so-called Christians have erred greatly, and millions are erring at the present day. But I dare not keep back anything that is Scriptural, for fear of giving offence. The errors of millions must not prevent a minister of the Gospel speaking the truth. If multitudes are hewing out broken cisterns that can hold no water, it becomes the more needful to point out the true fountain. If countless souls are turning aside from the right way, it becomes the more important to show clearly to whom confession ought to be made.

Sin, to speak generally, ought to be confessed to God. He it is whom we have chiefly offended. His are the laws which we have broken. To him all men and women will one day give account. His displeasure is that which sinners have principally to fear. This is what David felt: Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight (Psalm 51: 4). This is what David practised: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord (Psalm 32: 5). This is what Joshua advised Achan to do: My son, give glory to God, and make confession to Him (Joshua 7:19). The Jews were right when they said, Who can forgive sins but God only? (Mark 2: 7).

But must we leave the matter here? Can vile sinners like us ever dare to confess our sins to a holy God? Will not the thought of his infinite purity shut our mouths and make us afraid? Must not the remembrance of His holiness make us afraid? Is it not written of God, that He is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on iniquity? (Hab. 1:13). Is it not said, that He hates all workers of iniquity? (Psalm 5:5). Did He not say to Moses, There shalt no man see My face and live? (Exodus 33: 20). Did not Israel say of old, Let not God speak with us, lest we die? (Exodus 20:19). Did not Daniel say, How can the servant of this my Lord talk with this my Lord? (Dan. 10: 17). Did not Job say, When I consider, I am afraid of Him? (Job 23: 15). Did not Isaiah say, Woe is me, for I am undone; . . . for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts? (Isaiah 6: 5). Does not Elihu say, Shall it be told Him that I speak? If a man speak, surely he shall be swallowed up (Job 37: 20).

These are serious questions. They are questions which must and will occur to thoughtful minds. There are many who know what Luther meant when he said. I dare not have anything to do with an absolute God. But I thank God, they are questions to which the Gospel supplies a full and satisfactory answer. The Gospel reveals One who is exactly suited to the wants of souls which desire to confess sin.

What I am saying is that sin ought to be confessed to God in Christ. I say that sin ought specially to be confessed to God manifest in the flesh,—to Christ Jesus the Lord,—to that Jesus who came into the world to save sinners,—to that Jesus who died for our sins, and rose again for our justification, and now lives at the right hand of God to intercede for all who come to God by Him. He that desires to confess sin, should apply direct to Christ.

Christ is a great High Priest. Let that truth sink down into our hearts, and never be forgotten. He is sealed and appointed by God the Father for that very purpose. It is His peculiar office to receive and hear, and pardon and absolve sinners. It is His place to receive confessions and to grant plenary absolutions. It is written in Scripture, Thou art a priest for ever. We have a great High Priest, that is passed into the heavens. Having an High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith (Heb. 4:14; 6:20; 10:21-22).

Christ is a High Priest of Almighty power.

There is no sin that He cannot pardon, and no sinner that he cannot absolve. He is very God of very God. He is over all, God blessed for ever. He says Himself, I and My Father are one. He has all power in heaven and in earth. He has power on earth to forgive sins. He has complete authority to say to the chief of sinners, Thy sins are forgiven. Go in peace. He has the keys of death and hell. When He opens, no man can shut. (Rom. 9:5; John 10:30; Matt. 28:18; Matt, 9:6; Luke 7:48 50; Rev.1:18; 3:7).

Christ is a High Priest of infinite willingness to receive confession of sin.

He invites all who feel their guilt to come to Him for relief. Come unto Me, He says, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink. When the penitent thief cried to Him on the cross, He at once absolved him fully, and gave him an answer of peace (Matt. 11:28; John 7:37).

Christ is a High Priest of perfect knowledge.

He knows exactly the whole history of all who confess to Him. From Him no secrets are hid. He never errs in judgment. He makes no mistakes. It is written that He is of quick understanding. He shall not judge after the sight of His eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of His ears (Isaiah 11:3). He can discern the difference between the hypocritical professor who is full of words, and the broken-hearted sinner who can scarce stammer out his confession. People may deceive ministers by good words and fair speeches, but they will never deceive Christ.

Christ is a High Priest of matchless tenderness.

He will not afflict willingly, or grieve any soul that comes to Him. He will handle delicately every wound that is exposed to Him. He will deal tenderly even with the vilest sinners, as He did with the Samaritan woman. Confidence reposed in Him is never abused. Secrets confided to Him are completely safe. Of Him it is right.

The man who turns away from Christ to confess to saints and angels is a deluded robber of his own soul. He is following a shadow, and forsaking the substance. He is rejecting the bread of life, and trying to satisfy his spiritual hunger with sand.

Christ is a High Priest who can sympathise with all that confess to Him.

He knows the heart of a man by experience, for He had a body like our own, and was made in the likeness of man. We have not a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). To Him the words can most truly be applied, which Elihu applied to himself, Behold, I am according to thy wish in God’s stead; I also am formed out of the clay. Behold, my terror shall not make thee afraid, neither shall my hand be heavy upon thee (Job 33:6, 7).

Beware of ever losing sight of Christ’s priestly office.

Glory in His atoning death. Honour Him as your substitute and surety on the cross. Follow Him as your Shepherd. Hear His voice as your Prophet. Obey Him as your King. But in all your thoughts about Christ, let it be often before your mind that He alone is your High Priest, and that He has deputed His priestly office to no order of men in the world.3 This is the office of Christ, which Satan labours above all to obscure. It is the neglect of this office which leads to every kind of error. It is the remembrance of this office which is the best safeguard against the plausible teaching of the Church of Rome. Once right about this office you will never greatly err in the matter of the confession of sin. You will know to whom confession ought to be made; and to know that rightly is no slight thing.

And now, reader, I shall give you one simple warning. You will have to confess your sins one day, whether you will want to or not.

When the great white throne is set, and the books are opened, your sins will at last be exposed before the whole world. The secrets of all hearts will be revealed. You will have to acknowledge your transgressions before the eyes of an assembled world, and an innumerable company of angels. Your confession at last will be most public; and, worst of all, your confession will be too late.

If you have neglected confession of sin in times past, and are ashamed of your neglect. I invite you in my Master’s name to begin the habit of confession without delay.

Go this very day to the throne of grace, and speak to the great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, about your soul. Pour out your heart before Him. Keep nothing back from Him. Acknowledge your iniquities to Him, and entreat Him to cleanse them away. Say to Him, in David’s words, For Thy name’s sake pardon mine iniquity; for it is great. Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Cry to Him as the publican did in the parable, God be merciful to me a sinner (Psalm 25:11; 41:9 Luke 18:13).

Let me ask you something personal…

Are you afraid to do this? Do you feel unworthy and unfit to begin? I do entreat you to resist such feelings, and to begin without delay. There are glorious Bible examples to encourage you. There are rich Bible promises to lure you on. In all the volume of Scripture there are no passages so encouraging as those which are about confession of sin. 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). If any say, I have sinned, and perverted that which was right, and it profited me not; He will deliver his soul from going into the pit, and his life shall see the light (Job 33:27). Father, said the prodigal son, I have sinned against Heaven and in Thy sight, and am no mote worthy to be called Thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry (Luke 15:21-23). Arise, dear reader, and call upon God.

If Christ had never died for sinners, there might be some excuse for doubting.

But Christ having suffered for sin, there is nothing that need keep you back. Only acknowledge your iniquity, and cast yourself wholly at God’s mercy in Christ, and life, eternal life, shall be your own. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow: thought they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool (Isaiah i. 18). But O reader, begin, begin to confess without delay. This very day BEGIN TO CONFESS YOUR SIN.