Chapter 15.5, 6, part one

v. Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins particularly.

vi. As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so he that scandalizeth his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended; who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.

General and particular repentance

So far we have reflected on what repentance is and why it is important. These final paragraphs discuss the details of how repentance ought to look. Indeed, the need for details is the first thing mentioned in section five: we ought not to be content with a general confession of sin. 

Almost everyone will acknowledge that they are not perfect, and all Christians will confess that they are sinners. But sweeping admissions of sin should never content us. Many readers will have met people who have made general confessions of sin a science, or one of the fine arts. Listen to them pray and they can confess sin in general eloquently, seemingly without end.

The problem is not with their general repentance. The problem is that their repentance is always general. They will never be heard confessing a particular sin. They will not admit that they are wrong, either to their family, their friends, their co-workers, or their elders; nor are they much more particular on their knees. That is why the Confession goes on to remind us that 'it is every man's duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins particularly'. We should consider this instruction in our own prayers, in the prayers of our children, and in the prayers of our leaders, such as parents and elders and deacons. Those who piously content themselves with general confessions of their sinfulness often prove to be the most stubborn sinners. 

The first step to repenting of particular sins is to realize that we commit individual sins. David prayed that the Lord would keep him from 'willful sins'; assumed in this prayer request is a confession that as a sinner, David could consciously commit acts of sin (Ps 19:13). 

The second aspect of particular repentance is actually naming sin. Even while stating that ignorance and unbelief contributed to his sin, the Apostle Paul was willing to confess that he had been a blasphemer, a persecutor, a violent man. A particular confession did not require him to repeat his blasphemies, to recall the details of his persecutions or to retell violent stories. No one needed to hear all of that. But it would not have been enough if Paul had piously asserted that he was the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:13, 15). 

Finally, particular repentance is evidenced in turning away from particular sin. That is one of the evils of contenting oneself with a general repentance - no particular sin is ever identified, so no particular sin is left behind, and no Christian grace is embraced. How different this is from the case of Zacchaeus the tax collector. He did not simply announce that he was a sinner. He said, 'I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount' (Lk. 19:8). There was nothing vague about that!

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.