THE NATURE OF TRUE REPENTANCE ( I )
I shall next show what gospel repentance is. Repentance is a grace of God's Spirit
whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed. For a further amplification,
know that repentance is a spiritual medicine made up of six special ingredients:
If any one is left out it loses its virtue.
Ingredient 1: Sight of Sin
The first part of Christ's physic is eyesalve (Acts 26.18). It is the great thing noted in the prodigal's repentance: 'he came to himself' (Luke 15.17). He saw himself a sinner and nothing but a sinner. Before a man can come to Christ he must first come to himself. Solomon, in his description of repentance, considers this as the first ingredient: 'if they shall bethink themselves' (1 Kings 8.47). A man must first recognize and consider what his sin is, and know the plague of his heart before he can be duly humbled for it. The first creature God made was light. So the first thing in a penitent is illumination: 'Now ye are light in the Lord' (Eph. 5.8). The eye is made both for seeing and weeping. Sin must first be seen before t can be wept for.
Hence I infer that where there is no sight of sin, there can be no repentance. Many who
can spy faults in others see none in themselves. They cry that they have good hearts. Is
it not strange that two should live together, and eat and drink together, yet not know
each other? Such is the case of a sinner. His body and soul live together, work together,
yet he is unacquainted with himself. He knows not his own heart, nor what a hell he
carries about him. Under a veil a deformed face is hid. Persons are veiled over with
ignorance and selflove; therefore they see not what deformed souls they have. The devil
does with them as the falconer with the hawk. He blinds them and carries them hooded to
hell: 'the sword shall be upon his right eye' (Zech. 11.17). Men have insight enough into
worldly matters, but the eye of their mind is smitten. They do not see any evil in sin;
the sword is upon their right eye.
Ingredient 2: Sorrow for Sin
I will be sorry for my sin (Psalm 38. 18)
Ambrose calls sorrow the embittering of the soul. The Hebrew word 'to be sorrowful' signifies 'to have the soul, as it were, crucified'. This must be in true repentance: 'They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn' (Zech. 12.10), as if they did feel the nails of the cross sticking in their sides. A woman may as well expect to have a child without pangs as one can have repentance without sorrow. He that can believe without doubting, suspect his faith; and he that can repent without sorrowing, suspect his repentance.
Martyrs shed blood for Christ, and penitents shed tears for sin: 'she stood at Jesus' feet weeping' (Luke 7.38). See how this limbeck dropped. The sorrow of her heart ran out at her eye. The brazen laver for the priests to wash in (Exod. 30. 18) typified a double laver: the laver of Christ's blood we must wash in by faith, and the lover of tears we must wash in by repentance. A true penitent labours to work his heart into a sorrowing frame. He blesses God when he can weep; he is glad of a rainy day, for he knows that it is a repentance he will have no cause to repent of. Though the bread of sorrow be bitter to the taste, yet it strengthens the heart (Ps. 104.15; 2 Cor. 7. 10).
This sorrow for sin is not superficial: it is a holy agony. It is called in scripture a breaking of the heart: 'The sacrifices of God are a broken and a contrite heart' (Ps. 51.17); and a rending of the heart: 'Rend your heart' (Joel 2.13). The expressions of smiting on the thigh (Jer. 31.19), beating on the breast (Luke 18.13 ), putting on of sackcloth (Isa. 22.12), plucking off the heir (Ezra 9.3), all these are but outward signs of inward sorrow. This sorrow is:
(1) To make Christ precious. O how desirable is a Saviour to a troubled soul! Now Christ is Christ indeed, and mercy is mercy indeed. Until the heart is full of compunction it is not fit for Christ. How welcome is a surgeon to a man who is bleeding from his wounds!
(2) To drive out sin. Sin breeds sorrow, and sorrow kills sin. Holy sorrow is the rhubarb to purge out the ill humours of the soul. It is said that the tears of vine branches are good to cure the leprosy. Certainly the tears that drop from the penitent are good to cure the leprosy of sin. The salt water of tears kills the worm of conscience.
(3) To make way for solid comfort: 'They that sow in tears shall reap in joy' (Ps. 126.5). The penitent has a wet seedtime but a delicious harvest. Repentance breaks the abscess of sin, and then the soul is at ease. Hannah, after weeping, went away and was no more sad (I Sam. 1.18). God's troubling of the soul for sin is like the angel's troubling of the pool (John 5.4), which made way for healing.
But not all sorrow evidences true repentance. There is as much difference between true and false sorrow as between water in the spring, which is sweet, and water in the sea, which is briny. The apostle speaks of sorrowing 'after a godly manner' (2 Cor. 7.9). But what is this godly sorrowing? There are six qualifications of it:
It is inward in two ways:
(1) It is a sorrow of the heart. The sorrow of hypocrites lies in their faces: 'they disfigure their faces' (Matt. 6.16). They make a sour face, but their sorrow goes no further, like the dew that wets the leaf but does not soak to the root. Ahab's repentance was in outward show. His garments were rent but not his spirit (1 Kings 21.27). Godly sorrow goes deep, like a vein which bleeds inwardly. The heart bleeds for sin: 'they were pricked in their heart' (Acts 2.37). As the heart bears a chief part in sinning, so it must in sorrowing.
(2) It is a sorrow for heartsins, the first outbreaks and risings of sin. Paul grieved for the law in his members (Rom. 7.23). The true mourner weeps for the stirrings of pride and concupiscence. He grieves for the 'root of bitterness' even though it never blossoms into act. A wicked man may be troubled for scandalous sins; a real convert laments heartsins.
2. Godly sorrow is ingenuous
It is sorrow for the offence rather than for the punishment. God's law has been infringed, his love abused. This melts the soul in tears. A man may be sorry, yet not repent, as a thief is sorry when he is taken, not because he stole, but because he has to pay the penalty. Hypocrites grieve only for the bitter consequence of sin. I have read of a fountain that only sends forth streams on the evening before a famine. Likewise their eyes never pour out tears except when God's judgments are approaching. Pharaoh was more troubled for the frogs and river of blood than for his sin. Godly sorrow, however, is chiefly for the trespass against God, so that even if there were no conscience to smite, no devil to accuse, no hell to punish, yet the soul would still be grieved because of the prejudice done to God. 'My sin is ever before me' (Ps. 51.3); David does not say, The sword threatened is ever before me, but 'my sin'. O that I should offend so good a God, that I should grieve my Comforter! This breaks my heart!
Godly sorrow shows itself to be ingenuous because when a Christian knows that he is out of the gunshot of hell and shall never be damned, yet still he grieves for sinning against that free grace which has pardoned him.
3. Godly sorrow is fiducial
It is intermixed with faith: 'the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe' (Mark 9.24). Here was sorrow for sin chequered with faith, as we have seen a bright rainbow appear in a watery cloud.
Spiritual sorrow will sink the heart if the pulley of faith does not raise it. As our sin is ever before us, so God's promise must be ever before us. As we much feel our sting, so we must look up to Christ our brazen serpent. Some have faces so swollen with worldly grief that they can hardly look out of their eyes. That weeping is not good which blinds the eye of faith. If there are not some downings of faith in the soul, it is not the sorrow of humiliation but of despair.
4. Godly sorrow is a great sorrow
'In that day shall there be a great mourning, as the mourning of Hadadrimmon' (Zech. 12.11). Two suns did set that day when Josiah died, and there was a great funeral mourning. To such a height must sorrow for sin be boiled up. Pectore ab imo suspiria.'
Question 1: Do all have the same degree of sorrow?
Answer: No, sorrow does recipere magis em minus (produce greater or lesser [sorrows]). In the new birth all have pangs, but some have sharper pangs than others.
(1) Some are naturally of a more rugged disposition, of higher spirits, and are not easily brought to stoop. These must have greater humiliation, as a knotty piece of timber must have greater wedges driven into it.
(2) Some have been more heinous offenders, and their sorrow must be suitable to their sin. Some patients have their sores let out with a needle, others with a lance. Flagitious sinners must be more bruised with the hammer of the law.
(3) Some are designed and cut out for higher service, to be eminently instrumental for God, and these must have a mightier work of humiliation pass upon them. Those whom God intends to be pillars in his church must be more hewn. Paul, the prince of the apostles, who was to be God's ensignbearer to carry his name before the Gentiles and kings, was to have his heart more deeply lanced by repentance.
Question 2: But how great must sorrow for sin be in all?
Answer: It must be as great as for any worldly loss. Turgescunt lumina petu., 'They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn as for an only son' (Zech. 12.10). Sorrow for sin must surpass worldly sorrow. We must grieve more for offending God than for the loss of dear relations. 'In that day did the Lord God of hosts call to weeping, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth' (Isa. 22.12): this was for sin. But in the case of the burial of the dead we find God prohibiting tears and baldness (Jer. 22.10; 16.6), to intimate that sorrow for sin must exceed sorrow at the grave; and with good reason, for in the burial of the dead it is only a friend who departs, but in sin God departs.
Sorrow for sin should be so great as to swallow up all other sorrow, as when the pain of the stone and gout meet, the pain of the stone swallows up the pain of the gout.
We are to find as much bitterness in weeping for sin as ever we found sweetness in committing it. Surely David found more bitterness in repentance than ever he found comfort in Bathsheba.
Our sorrow for sin must be such as makes us willing to let go of those sins which
brought in the greatest income of profit or delight. The physic shows itself strong enough
when it has purged out our disease. The Christian has arrived at a sufficient measure of
sorrow when the love of sin is purged out.
Whoever has wronged others in their estate by unjust fraudulent dealing ought in conscience to make them recompense. There is an express law for this: 'he shall recompense his trespass with the principal thereof, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him against whom he hath trespassed' (Num. 5.7). Thus Zaccha~us made restitution: 'if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold' (Luke 19.8). When Selymus the great Turk, lay upon his deathbed, being urged by Pyrrhus to put to charitable use that wealth he had wronged the Persian merchants of
he commanded rather that it should be sent back to the right owners. Shall not a Christian's creed be better than a Turk's Koran? It is a bad sign when a man on his deathbed bequeaths his soul to God and his illgotten goods to his friends. I can hardly think God will receive his soul. Augustine said, 'Without restitution, no remission'. And it was a speech of old Latimer, If ye restore not goods unjustly gotten, ye shall cough in hell.
Question 1: Suppose a person has wronged another in his estate and the wronged man is dead, what should he do?
Answer: Let him restore his illgotten goods to that man's heirs and successors. If none of them be living, let him restore to God, that is, let him put his unjust gain into God's treasury by relieving the poor.
Question 2: What if the party who did the wrong is dead?
Answer: Then they who are his heirs ought to make restitution. Mark what I say: if there be any who have estates left them, and they know that the parties who left their estates had defrauded others and died with that guilt upon them, then the heirs or executors who possess those estates are bound in conscience to make restitution, otherwise they entail the curse of God upon their family.
Question 3: If a man has wronged another and is not able to restore, what should he do?
Answer: Let him deeply humble himself before God, promising to the wronged party full satisfaction if the Lord make him able, and God will accept the will for the deed.
6. Godly sorrow is abiding
It is not a few tears shed in a passion that will serve the turn. Some will fall aweeping at a sermon, but it is like an April shower, soon over, or like a vein opened and presently stopped again. True sorrow must be habitual.O Christian, the disease of your soul is chronic and frequently returns upon you; therefore you must be continually physicking yourself by repentance. This is that sorrow which is 'after a godly manner'.
Use: How far are they from repentance who never had any of this godly sorrow! Such are:
(1) The Papists, who leave out the very soul of repentance, making all penitential work consist in fasting, penance, pilgrimages, in which there is nothing of spiritual sorrow. They torture their bodies, but their hearts are not rent. What is this but the carcase of repentance?
(2) Carnal Protestants, who are strangers to godly sorrow. They cannot endure a serious thought, nor do they love to trouble their heads about sin. Paracelsus spoke of a frenzy some have which will make them die dancing. Likewise sinners spend their days in mirth; they fling away sorrow and go dancing to damnation. Some have lived many years, yet never put a drop in God's bottle, nor do they know what a broken heart means. They weep and wring their hands as if they were undone when their estates are gone, but have no agony of soul for sin.
There is a twofold sorrow: firstly, a rational sorrow, which is an act of the soul whereby it has a displacency against sin and chooses any torture rather than to admit sin; secondly, there is a sensitive sorrow, which is expressed by many tears. The first of these is to be found in every child of God, but the second, which is a sorrow running out at the eye, all have not. Yet it is very commendable to see a weeping penitent. Christ counts as great beauties those who are tendereyed; and well may sin make us weep. We usually weep for the loss of some great good; by sin we have lost the favour of God. If Micah did so weep for the loss of a false god, saying, 'Ye have taken away my gods, and what have I more?' (Judges 18.24) then well may we weep for our sins which have taken away the true God from us.
Some may ask the question, whether our repentance and sorrow must always be alike. Although repentance must be always kept alive in the soul, yet there are two special times when we must renew our repentance in an extraordinary manner:
(1) Before the receiving of the Lord's Supper. This spiritual Passover is to be eaten with bitter herbs. Now our eyes should be fresh broached with tears, and the stream of sorrow overflow. A repenting frame is a sacramental frame. A broken heart and a broken Christ do well agree. The more bitterness we taste in sin, the more sweetness we shall taste in Christ. When Jacob wept he found God: 'And he called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face' (Gen. 32.30). The way to find Christ comfortably in the sacrament is to go weeping thither. Christ will say to a humble penitent, as to Thomas: 'Reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side' (John 20.27), and let those bleeding wounds of mme heal thee.
(2) Another time of extraordinary repentance is at the hour of death. This should be a
weeping season. Now is our last work to be done for heaven, and our best wine of tears
should be kept against such a time. We should repent now, that we have sinned so much and
wept so little, that God's bag has been so full and his bottle so empty (Job 14.17). We
should repent now that we repented no sooner, that the garrisons of our hearts held out so
long against God ere they were levelled by repentance. We should repent now that we have
loved Christ no more, that we have fetched no more virtue from him and brought no more
glory to him. It should be our grief on our deathbed that our lives have had so many
blanks and blots in them, that our duties have been so flyblown with sin, that our
obedience has been so imperfect, and we have gone so lame in the ways of God. When the
soul is going out of the body, it should swim to heaven in a sea of tears.
Ingredient 3: Confession of Sin
Sorrow is such a vehement passion that it will have vent. It vents itself at the eyes by weeping and at the tongue by confession: 'The children of Israel stood and confessed their sins (Neh. 9.2). 'I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence' (Hos. 5.15); it is a metaphor alluding to a mother who, when she is angry, goes away from the child and hides her face till the child acknowledges its fault and begs pardon. Gregory Nazianzen calls confession 'a salve for a wounded soul.'
Confession is selfaccusing: 'Lo, I have sinned' (2 Sam. 24.17). Indeed, among men it is otherwise: no man is bound to accuse himself but desires to see his accuser. When we come before God, however, we must accuse ourselves: me me adsum qui feci in me convertite ferrum. And the truth is that by this selfaccusing we prevent Satan's accusing. In our confessions we tax ourselves with pride, infidelity, passion, so that when Satan, who is called 'the accuser of the brethren', shall lay these things to our charge, God will say, They have accused themselves already; therefore, Satan, thou art nonsuited; thy accusations come too late. The humble sinner does more than accuse himself; he, as it were, sits in judgment and passes sentence upon himself. He confesses that he has deserved to be bound over to the wrath of God. And hear what the apostle Paul says: 'if we would judge ourselves we should not be judged' (1 Cor. 11.31).
But have not wicked men, like Judas and Saul, confessed sin? Yes, but theirs was not a true confession. That confession of sin may be right and genuine, these eight qualifications are requisite:
1. Confession must be voluntary
It must come as water out of a spring, freely. The confession of the wicked is extorted, like the confession of a man upon a rack. When a spark of God's wrath flies into their conscience, or they are in fear of death, then they will fall to their confessions. Balaam, when he saw the angel's naked sword, could say, 'I have sinned' (Num. 22.34). But true confession drops from the lips as myrrh from the tree or honey from the comb, freely. 'I have sinned against heaven, and before thee' (Luke 15.18): the prodigal charged himself with sin before his father charged him with it.
2. Confession must be with compunction
The heart must deeply resent it. A natural man's confessions run through him as water through a pipe. They do not at all affect him. But true confession leaves heartwounding impressions on a man. David's soul was burdened in the confession of his sins: 'as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me' (Ps. 38.4). It is one thing to confess sin and another thing to feel sin.
3. Confession must be sincere
Our hearts must go along with our confessions. The hypocrite confesses sin but loves it, like a thief who confesses to stolen goods, yet loves stealing. How many confess pride and covetousness with their lips but roll them as honey under their tongue. Augustine said that before his conversion he confessed sin and begged power against it, but his heart whispered within him, 'not yet, Lord'. He was afraid to leave his sin too soon. A good Christian is more honest. His heart keeps pace with his tongue. He is convinced of the sins he confesses, and abhors the sins he is convinced of.
4. In true confession a man particularizes sin
A wicked man acknowledges he is a sinner in general. He confesses sin by wholesale. His confession of sin is much like Nebuchadnezzar's dream: 'I have dreamed a dream' (Dan. 2.3 ), but he could not tell what it was: 'The thing is gone from me' (Dan. 2.5). In the same way a wicked man says, 'Lord, I have sinned', but does not know what the sin is; at least he does not remember, whereas a true convert acknowledges his particular sins. As it is with a wounded man, who comes to the surgeon and shows him all his wounds here I was cut in the head, there I was shot in the arm so a mournful sinner confesses the several distempers of his soul. Israel drew up a particular charge against themselves: 'we have served Baalim' (Judg. 10.10). The prophet recites the very sin which brought a curse with it: 'Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name' (Dan. 9.6). By a diligent inspection into our hearts we may find some particular sin indulged; point to that sin with a tear.
5. A true penitent confesses sin in the fountain
He acknowledges the pollution of his nature. The sin of our nature is not only a privation of good but an infusion of evil. It is like canker to iron or stain to scarlet. David acknowledges his birthsin: 'I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me' (Ps. 51.5). We are ready to charge many of our first sins to Satan's temptations, but this sin of our nature is wholly from ourselves; we cannot shift it off to Satan. We have a root within that bears gall and wormwood (Dent. 29.18). Our nature is an abyss and seminary of all evil, from whence come those scandals that infest the world. It is this depravity of nature which poisons our holy things; it is this which brings on God's judgments and makes our mercies stick in the birth. Oh confess sin in the fountain!
6. Sin is to be confessed with all its circumstances and aggravations
Those sins which are committed under the gospel horizon are doubtless dyed in grain. Confess sins against knowledge, against grace, against vows, against experiences, against judgments. 'The wrath of God came upon them and slew the fattest of them. For all this they sinned still' (Ps. 78.3132). These are killing aggravations which do accent and enhance our sins.
7. In confession we must so charge ourselves as to clear God
Should the Lord be severe in his providences and unsheath his bloody sword, yet we must acquit him and acknowledge he has done us no wrong. Nehemiah in his confessing of sin vindicates God's righteousness: 'Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us' (Neh. 9.33). Mauritius' the emperor, when he saw his wife slain before his eyes by Phocas, cried out, 'Righteous art thou, O Lord, in all thy ways'.
8. We must confess our sins with a resolution not to act them over again
Some run from the confessing of sin to the committing of sin, like the Persians who have one day in the year when they kill serpents and after that day suffer them to swarm again. Likewise, many seem to kill their sins in their confessions and afterwards let them grow as fast as ever. 'Cease to do evil' (Isa. 1.16). It is vain to confess, 'We have done those things we ought not to have done', and continue still in doing so. Pharaoh confessed he had sinned (Exod. 9.27), but when the thunder ceased he fell to his sin again: 'he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart' (Exod. 9.34). Origen calls confession the vomit of the soul whereby the conscience is eased of that burden which did lie upon it. Now, when we have vomited up sin by confession we must not return to this vomit. What king will pardon that man who, after he has confessed his treason, practices new treason?
Thus we see how confession must be qualified.
Use 1: Is confession a necessary ingredient in repentance? Here is a bill of indictment against four sorts of persons:
(1) It reproves those that hide their sins, as Rachel hid her father's images under her (Gen. 31.34). Many had rather have their sins covered than cured. They do with their sins as with their pictures: they draw a curtain over them; or as some do with their bastards, smother them. But though men will have no tongue to confess, God has an eye to see; he will unmask their treason: 'I will reprove thee, and set them in order before shine eyes' (Ps. 50.21). Those iniquities which men hide in their hearts shall be written one day on their foreheads as with the point of a diamond. They who will not confess their sin as David did, that they may be pardoned, shall confess their sin as Achan did, that they may be stoned. It is dangerous to keep the devil's counsel: 'He that covereth his sins shall not prosper' (Prov. 2 8.13).
(2) It reproves those who do indeed confess sin but only by halves. They do not confess all; they confess the pence but not the pounds. They confess vain thoughts or badness of memory but not the sins they are most guilty of, such as rash anger, extortion, uncleanness, like he in Plutarch who complained his stomach was not very good when his lungs were bad and his liver rotten. But if we do not confess all, how should we expect that God will pardon all? It is true that we cannot know the exact catalogue of our sins, but the sins which come within our view and cognizance, and which our hearts accuse us of, must be confessed as ever we hope for mercy.
(3) It reproves those who in their confessions mince and extenuate their sins. A gracious soul labours to make the worst of his sins, but hypocrites make the best of them. They do not deny they are sinners, but they do what they can to lessen their sins: they indeed offend sometimes, but it is their nature, and it is long of such occasions. These are excuses rather than confessions. 'I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord: because I feared the people' (1 Sam. 15.24). Saul lays his sin upon the people: they would have him spare the sheep and oxen. It was an apology, not a self indictment. This runs in the blood. Adam acknowledged that he had tasted the forbidden fruit, but instead of aggravating his sin he translated" it from himself to God: 'The woman thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat' (Gen. 3.12), that is, if I had not had this woman to be a tempter, I would not have transgressed. Inscripsere deos sceleri (Ovid). That is a bad sin indeed that has no excuse, as it must be a very coarse wool which will take no dye. How apt we are to pare and curtail sin, and look upon it through the small end of the perspectives that it appears but as 'a little cloud, like a man's hand' (1 Kings 18.44).
(4) It reproves those who are so far from confessing sin that they boldly plead for it. Instead of having tears to lament it, they use arguments to defend it. If their sin be passion they will justify it: 'I do well to be angry' (Jon. 4.9). If it be covetousness they will vindicate it. When men commit sin they are the devil's servants; when they plead for it they are the devil's attorneys, and he will give them a fee.
Use 2: Let us show ourselves penitents by sincere confession of sin. The thief on the cross made a confession of his sin: 'we indeed are condemned justly' (Luke 23.41). And Christ said to him, 'Today shalt thou be with me in paradise' (Luke 23.43), which might have occasioned that speech of Augustine's, that confession of sin shuts the mouth of hell and opens the gate of paradise. That we may make a free and ingenuous confession of sin, let us consider:
(1) Holy confession gives glory to God: 'My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto him' (Josh. 7.19). A humble confession exalts God. What a glory is it to him that out of our own mouths he does not condemn us? While we confess sin, God's patience is magnified in sparing, and his free grace in saving such sinners.
(2) Confession is a means to humble the soul. He who subscribes himself a helldeserving sinner will have little heart to be proud. Like the violet, he will hang down his head in humility. A true penitent confesses that he mingles sin with all he does, and therefore has nothing to boast of. Uzziah, though a king, yet had a leprosy in his forehead; he had enough to abase him (2 Chron. 26.19). So a child of God, even when he does good, yet acknowledges much evil to be in that good. This lays all his feathers of pride in the dust.
(3) Confession gives vent to a troubled heart. When guilt lies boiling in the conscience, confession gives ease. It is like the lancing of an abscess which gives ease to the patient.
(4) Confession purges out sin. Augustine called it 'the expeller of vice'. Sin is a bad blood; confession is like the opening of a vein to let it out. Confession is like the dunggate, through which all the filth of the city was carried forth (Neh. 3.13). Confession is like pumping at the leak; it lets out that sin which would otherwise drown. Confession is the sponge that wipes the spots from off the soul.
(5) Confession of sin endears Christ to the soul. If I say I am a sinner, how precious will Christ's blood be to me! After Paul has confessed a body of sin, he breaks forth into a gratulatory triumph for Christ: 'I thank God through Jesus Christ' (Rom. 7.25). If a debtor confesses a judgment but the creditor will not exact the debt, instead appointing his own son to pay it, will not the debtor be very thankful? So when we confess the debt, and that even though we should for ever lie in hell we cannot pay it, but that God should appoint his own Son to lay down his blood for the payment of our debt, how is free grace magnified and Jesus Christ eternally loved and admired!
(6) Confession of sin makes way for pardon. No sooner did the prodigal come with a confession in his mouth, 'I have sinned against heaven', than his father's heart did melt towards him, and he kissed him (Luke 15.20). When David said, 'I have sinned', the prophet brought him a box with a pardon, 'The Lord hath put away thy sin' (2 Sam. 12.13). He who sincerely confesses sin has God's bond for a pardon: 'If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins' (1 John 1.9). Why does not the apostle say that if we confess he is merciful to forgive our sins? No; he is just, because he has bound himself by promise to forgive such. God's truth and justice are engaged for the pardoning of that man who confesses sin and comes with a penitent heart by faith in Christ.
(7) How reasonable and easy is this command that we should confess sin! (a) It is a reasonable command, for if one has wronged another, what is more rational than to confess he has wronged him? We, having wronged God by sin, how equal and consonant to reason is it that we should confess the offence. (b) It is an easy command. What a vast difference is there between the first covenant and the second! In the first covenant it was, if you commit sin you die; in the second covenant it is, if you confess sin you shall have mercy. In the first covenant no surety was allowed; under the covenant of grace, if we do but confess the debt, Christ will be our surety. What way could be thought of as more ready and facile for the salvation of man than a humble confession? 'Only acknowledge shine iniquity' (Jer. 3.13). God says to us, I do not ask for sacrifices of rams to expiate your guilt; I do not bid you part with the fruit of your body for the sin of your soul, 'only acknowledge shine iniquity'; do but draw up an indictment against yourself and plead guilty, and you shall be sure of mercy.
All this should render this duty amiable. Throw out the poison of sin by confession, and 'this day is salvation come to thy house'.
There remains one case of conscience: are we bound to confess our sins to men? The papists insist much upon auricular confession; one must confess his sins in the ear of the priest or he cannot be absolved. They urge, 'Confess your sins one to another' (James 5.16), but this scripture is little to their purpose. It may as well mean that the priest should confess to the people as well as the people to the priest. Auricular confession is one of the Pope's golden doctrines. Like the fish in the Gospel, it has money in its mouth: 'when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money' (Matt. 17.27). But though I am not for confession to men in a popish sense, yet I think in three cases there ought to be confession to men:
(1) Firstly, where a person has fallen into scandalous sin and by it has been an occasion of offence to some and of falling to others, he ought to make a solemn and open acknowledgement of his sin, that his repentance may be as visible as his scandal (2 Cor. 2.67).
(2) Secondly, where a man has confessed his sin to God, yet still his conscience is burdened, and he can have no ease in his mind, it is very requisite that he should confess his sins to some prudent, pious friend, who may advise him and speak a word in due season (James 5. 16). It is a sinful modesty in Christians that they are not more free with their ministers and other spiritual friends in unburdening themselves and opening the sores and troubles of their souls to them. If there is a thorn sticking in the conscience, it is good to make use of those who may help to pluck it out.
(3) Thirdly, where any man has slandered another and by clipping his good name has made it weigh lighter, he is bound to make confession. The scorpion carries its poison in its tail, the slanderer in his tongue. His words pierce deep like the quills of the porcupine. That person who has murdered another in his good name or, by bearing false witness, has damaged him in his estate, ought to confess his sin and ask forgiveness: 'if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother bath ought against thee; go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift' (Matt. 5.2324). How can this reconciliation be effected but by confessing the injury? Till this is done, God will accept none of your services. Do not think the holiness of the altar will privilege you; your praying and hearing are in vain till you have appeased your brother's anger by confessing your fault to him.