The simple answer is yes.
Scripturally, there is a pattern for dealing with sin, and then there are a lot of details. Most of us are familiar with details like psalm 51 where David says “against you, and you only have I sinned” and 1 John 1:9 which states that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. These two passages seem to indicate that sins are between me and God, and all I need to do about them is to confess them to him and move on. There is, however, a lot more that scripture has to say about dealing with sin.
The Old Covenant
Under the old covenant, any sin had to be dealt with with two people. First, if the sin was against another person, restitution had to be made to that person for the damage done, such as restoring something that was lost under your care or repaying the price of something stolen or damaged by negligence (Exodus 22, and others). Second, a person had to engage a priest to make a sacrifice for their sin (Leviticus 4, and others). This system meant that, even if a person’s sin didn’t directly affect another person, they still had to tell the priest what they had done and make a suitable sacrifice. There was no keeping your sin to yourself.
Fast forward to Jesus, who lived under the old covenant, and you find two commands in particular, one that if you remember that a person has something against you, you should “leave your gift at the altar” and go make things right with him (Matthew 5:24). Practically speaking, Jesus was so serious about his followers dealing with their sin that he commanded them to be willing to stop in the middle of a sacrifice, and go deal with their sin before trying to get right with God. On the other side of the issue, Christ commands his followers to go to other Christians who have sinned against them, and if necessary to bring the whole church into the matter in an attempt to reconcile the situation (Matthew 15:18).
The New Covenant
The new covenant changes a lot. Bacon is in, circumcision is out, and sacrifices for sin have been replaced by the final and ultimate sacrifice. What does this mean about how Christians handle their sin?
We know from Hebrews and other New Testament writers that the system of animal sacrifice was fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Hebrews 10:1-14), so we don’t need to be budgeting for lambs and doves, but what about confession?
If we accept that the words of Jesus are just as true under the New Covenant as the we’re under the old, then we know that we still have a responsibility to reconcile with those we have wronged, and to seek reconciliation with Christians who have wronged us.
What about sins that are internal and personal? Christ tells us that there are sins we can commit without ever saying or doing anything, simply by looking and thinking (Matthew 5:22, 28). How should we handle those? 1 John 1:9 tells us that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. Based on that, every Christian should be engaged in confessing their sin to God. What about confession to other people?
James 5:16 tells us to “confess your sins to one another” and that “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
This tells us two things:
- A Christian should be confessing their sins to someone else in the faith, and
- The prayers of other Christians are one of the tools that we can use to beat our sin.
Based on these passages, yes, you do have to tell someone about your sin. If you have wronged someone, you need to make it right, and if a Christian has wronged you, you need to try to make things right with them. If there is no victim, you still need to confess your sins as part of your Christian walk, and as an aid to overcoming them.
This is what God’s word says. The following are some applications that I think are wise, but which do not have the authority of the scriptures unless otherwise noted.
Who should I confess to?
If you are married, you should at least confess to your spouse. Scripture tells us that a married couple is “one flesh”. I assert that your spouse is to be the first person you confess sin to on the grounds that they are the most likely to be hurt by your sin, and that the “one flesh” relationship requires openness between partners. This openness includes confession of even the messiest or most revolting sin.
You should also confess to someone who has some measure of victory over the sin you have committed, or who does not struggle with it. Such a person will be better equipped to give you godly advice and aid in addressing your sin than someone who is mired in the same sin that you are.
But it’s going to hurt him or her!
Sometimes the confession of a sin can result in pain or awkwardness. It seems to me that, outside of marriage, if a sin did not cause a person harm, then it should still be confessed to someone, but not necessarily to that person. For instance, it would be improper to confess to the bank secretary that you were staring at her low neckline, but confessing that sin to your wife (if married) or an older Christian (if single) would be good. On the other hand, sins against someone that violate a covenant or cause harm must be confessed to that person. An adulterer must repent and tell his wife of the affair seeking her forgiveness; even if she has no idea that the affair has happened. This will no doubt cause extraordinary pain, but it must be addressed because the marriage covenant has been violated and therefore harm has been done, even if the man’s wife was clueless about the affair.
How specific should I be?
Sinful words, thoughts, or actions should be confessed in enough detail to faithfully convey the nature of the sin committed. If you lied, say how you lied. If you looked at porn, don’t just say “I’m struggling with lust this week”. Be specific. In such a case as porn you probably don’t need to tell all the details, but you need to be clear about what you have done.
What about accountability groups?
My experience has left me very skeptical about “accountability groups” for the following reasons:
- Most accountability groups consist of people who struggle with the same sin. To borrow a metaphor from Jesus, such a group is like a bunch of people with logs in their eyes trying to help each other see. I suggest that confession is best done to your spouse and/or a Christian who has had victory over the sin that you struggle with.
- The accountability groups that I have been in do not require confession in precise terms, but allow for general admissions of struggles. In my experience, this is not helpful in beating sin.
- The accountability groups that I have been in have been focused on learning ways to beat sin, mostly by modifying behavior. I assert that the biblical model for attacking sin has more to do with confession and prayer than personal effort and strategies.
Something is bugging me, but it doesn’t fit the criteria above, what should I do?
Confess it quickly and be done. It’s not worth spending days worrying about it.
How do I know I’m forgiven?
This one isn’t my opinion. God’s word tells us that if we confess our sins to him, we are forgiven, and he will cleanse us. Confession to others is not necessary to get us into heaven, but it is necessary for the Christian life because God has commanded it, and because it helps repair broken relationships and overcome sin. If you have confessed your sin, you can stand on the word of God and know that you are forgiven.
What about Matthew 5:14-15?
Matthew 5:14-15 tells us that: “… if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” God’s word tells us that our forgiveness before God can be conditional on our forgiveness of others. I do not think that this means that a Christian will be consigned to hell if they are unforgiving, but I would say that unforgiveness is a good indication that someone does not have saving faith, and is also inviting the judgement of God (saved or lost). As such, I will not confidently assert anything regarding this passage, except that if you want God’s forgiveness, you must be willing to extend that forgiveness to others.