Chapter 15.5,6, part two

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.

Public and private repentance

Having explained the difference between general and particular repentance, the Confession goes on to remind us of the Bible's teaching about private and public repentance. We must always confess our sin to God, privately (at least) and perhaps sometimes publicly. We see confession of sin again and again in Psalm 51. David cannot help but to cry out to God, for it is against God first that he has sinned. It is his cry to his Lord that he would be cleansed and that the sins that haunted him would be hidden away (Ps. 51:4-5, 7, 9, 14). We see the same in Psalm 32, where the king acknowledges his sin to God, covering nothing. He confesses his 'transgressions to the LORD' and urges 'everyone who is godly' to pray to God while he may be found (Ps. 32:5-6).

The good news is that when we forsake our sin, we will find mercy. It is a sound proverb that 'he who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy' (Prov. 28:13). As the Apostle John once wrote, and as Christians have often recalled, '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).

A private confession to God is a necessity. In his presence believers will always find mercy. But there are some cases, particularly when we have scandalized or hurt a brother or sister, when we ought to be willing to confess the sin to other people. A truly repentant person will not shrink from a true repentance before the one that has been wounded. A husband must be ready to confess his sin to his wife, a mother to her daughter. There is no need to publish our sins, especially some sins, for all to hear. But there is good reason to repent of our particular sins before those whom we have personally wounded. It is James who writes, 'confess your sins to each other and pray for each other' (James 5:16). The principle of meeting with people to discuss our sin is raised in the gospel of Luke as well (Lk. 17:3-4). So this is instruction we cannot afford to ignore. 

Nonetheless, what if we have sinned publicly? During dinner with friends witnessing our rude comments? In front of the family when we lose self control? What if our behaviour has led the name of Christ to be tarnished in the whole community, or in his church. In such a case we are in Achan's situation. Everyone already knows what we've done, so we had better confess the act ourselves, as sin - no matter what the consequences. In Achan's case, the confession did not help him to escape his penalty. But he was assured that in his public death-row confession, he was giving glory to God (Josh. 17:9). Maybe it is that sort of public confession we see in one of David's Psalms, where the very title of his Psalm publicly announces that he had committed adultery with his neighbour's wife (Ps. 51:1).

However, we cannot end here. Just as we were reminded that God will forgive those who repent of their sins to him, we are told that we need to forgive those who repent of their sins to us - whether privately or publicly. When a brother or sister or neighbour repents of their sin, we must be reconciled. More than that, we must receive them in love. We need to be ready to forgive and comfort, as Paul urged the Corinthians to do, lest anyone be 'overwhelmed by excessive sorrow'. We need to reaffirm our love to those who repent (2 Cor. 2:7-8). And in doing so, we will be showing the same mercy to others that our Father in heaven has shown to us in Christ.

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.