Psalm 51 has repeatedly drawn me back to read and meditate on it over the years. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” has been and will continue to be a foundational part of my prayer life. “For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” David would surely agree with Thomas Watson that the recipe for true repentance must include the ingredient of confession.
This is the third of a series of reflections on The Doctrine of Repentance, by Watson. We’ve looked at “Counterfeit Repentance” and the first two of six essential ingredients for true repentance in “On the Road to True Repentance.” Here we will see what he has to say about the importance of confession for true repentance.
Thomas Watson David, Job (42:1-6), Isaiah (6:5) knew that when we come before God in true repentance, we must acknowledge our sins. Our confession of sin must be “self-accusing”—“Against you, you only have I sinned”; “I repent in dust and ashes”; “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Watson thought that because of this self-accusation, Satan could not indict us before God, as he did with Job—because we have acknowledged that we have sinned and done what is evil in His sight. He gave four reasons to confess sin.
Confession is necessary in repentance because it reproves those who would rather hide their sins. “Many would rather have their sin covered than cured.” However the person who confesses and forsakes sin will obtain mercy (Proverbs 28:13). Confession corrects those who would “confess the pennies but not the dollars.” When our heart accuses us of sin, it must be confessed. Confession also reproves those who would use arguments to defend or justify 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 for it.” Confession also reproves those who would try and point to extenuating circumstances for their sin, as Adam did (Genesis 3:12).
They do not deny they are sinners, but they do what they can to lessen their sins: they indeed offend sometimes, but it is just their nature, and it has been such a long time. These are excuses rather than confessions.
If we judge ourselves, truly, we won’t be judged (1Cor. 11:31). Some individuals like Judas and King Saul confess their sin, they judge themselves—but not truly. “Theirs was not a true confession,” according to Watson. He said that for our confession to be “right and genuine,” it must have the following eight qualities.
First, it must be voluntary. It should flow as freely from us as water from a spring. In contrast, the confession of the wicked is extorted, “like the confession of a man upon a rack.”
Second, true confession leaves heart-wounding impressions. Our hearts must deeply resent it. “It is one thing to confess sin and another to feel sin.”
Third, our hearts must go along with our confession—it must be sincere. A hypocrite confesses sin, but still loves it. The truly penitent person is convinced of the sins they confess, and abhors the sins that they are convinced of.
Fourth, true confession will particularize sin. After a diligent inspection of our hearts, if we see that a particular sin has been committed, “point to that sin with a tear.”
Fifth, a true penitent acknowledges the pollution of his nature. “Our nature is an abyss and a seminary of all evil, from which those scandals that infest the world come.”
Sixth, sin is to be confessed with all its aspects and dimensions. Sin soaks down into the marrow of our bones and cannot be confessed generally or superficially.
Seventh, confession of sin does not blame God. “We must acquit him and acknowledge that he has done us no wrong.”
Eighth, in confessing sin, we must resolve not to repeat them. It is vain to confess something sinful and still continue to do it. “Some run from the confession of sin to the committing of sin.”
David knew that God did not delight in the mere outward, tearful show of sacrifice and confession. True repentance requires a sense of brokenness in confession. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament said that the Hebrew word for contrite here is consistently used to refer to someone who is “physically and emotionally crushed because of sin.”
There is no room in true repentance for a showy, tearful eloquent confession of sin if it is not an outward expression of a broken and contrite heart. The legitimacy of a “right and genuine” confession will also take time to confirm. It should be demonstrated within a pattern of progressive steps away from the sin. Too often flashy demonstrations of regret are accepted as true confession. It takes a creative act of God to make a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us. And like David, that process begins with our confession of sin before a holy God.