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Is Forgiveness Conditioned Upon Confessing Each Individual Sin?

Along the way, growing up, I encountered various people who believed or taught that in order to have your sins forgiven you had to confess each sin specifically. I saw this cause trouble in a number of lives. Even though, at the time, I was not prepared to argue against the idea, I did not “buy” it because it just seemed impossible. Of course nothing is new, and I recently came across a section in Calvin’s Institutes where he dealt with this very issue. His pastoral answer is quite helpful.

“But it is utterly unbearable that they lay down a law on the recounting of all sins, that they deny that sin is forgiven except upon the condition that an intent to confess has been firmly conceived, and that they prate that no entrance to paradise would remain if the office of confession were neglected.

Are all sins to be recounted? Now David, who in himself had, I believe, rightly pondered confession of sins, exclaimed: ‘Who will understand errors?  Cleanse thou me from my secret errors, O Lord’ [Ps. 19:12 p.].  And in another place: ‘My iniquities have gone over my head, and like a heavy burden they burden me beyond my strength’ [Ps. 38:4; cf. Ps. 37:5, Vg.].  He understood only too well how deep is the pit of our sins, how many are the faces of crime, how many heads this hydra bore, and what a long tail it dragged along.  Therefore, he did not catalogue them.  But from the depths of his evil deeds he cried out to the Lord: I am overwhelmed, I am buried, I am choked, ‘the gates of hell have encompassed me’ [Ps. 18:6; cf. Ps. 17:6, Vg.], I am sunk down into the deep pit [Ps. 69:2-3, 15-16], may thy hand draw me out, weak and dying.  Who would now think of reckoning up his sins when he sees that David cannot begin to number his? . . . . For experience convinces each one that, when we have at evening to examine the transgressions of only a single day, the memory is confused; so great is the multitude and variety of them that press upon us!” 641-642

“Over against such lies I put freely given remission of sins; nothing is more clearly set forth in Scripture” (651).

One Comment

  1. Patrick says:

    Thanks for this!

    Sadly I remember as a child the emphasis before communion being on my confession of each and every sin that I could call to mind. I believed that if I forgot to confess a sin I would burn in Hell for “taking communion in an unworthy manner.” No wonder I hated communion so much! The only unpardonable sin was not confession sin before taking communion.

    Later I realized that it was not my accurate confession of sin that mattered, it was my confession of being in Christ and not living in love with my brothers that would make me unworthy. Unbelief exercised in unforgiveness, and failing to discern Christ’s Body gathered would be damning because my actions of proclamation are contrary to my true lack of faith. Actions outside of faith are damnable.

    Communion became a joy once I realized it was about Christ, and a physical confession of being in Him, forgiven by Him and being His Bride!

    Not long after college we attended several “crusade” meetings where the emphasis was on conjuring past sins and making reparations. While I agreed that reparation is often a necessary aspect of penance it seemed silly to rack my brain trying to recall the theft of a candy bar 40 years ago. Then what bothered me most was the thought that at some point we were supposed to be completely sin free after having confessed each sin and paying for it. While it made some folks feel better for a little while it became a confusing mess that was void of the Gospel.

    All that to say, “thanks brother Calvin!”

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