Public Confession of Public Sin

By Don Martin

When most gospel preachers extend the invitation at the end of a sermon, they tell the alien sinner to believe, repent, confess Christ’s deity, and be baptized for the remission of sin (Acts 16:31; 17:30; Rom. 10:10; Acts 2:38). They also extend the invitation to erring Christians who have publicly sinned to come forward and publicly acknowledge their sin. It is the invitation to the Christian who is guilty of public sin which shall occupy our brief attention in this article.

The usual Scriptures customarily used to establish a public confession of public sin by the Christian are: Matthew 3:5,6, James 5:14-16; Acts 8:22-24; and 1 John 1:9. While I believe these verses contain areas of supportive teaching to the act of the Christian publicly acknowledging public sin, I do not believe they completely and totally lend themselves to the act of publicly confessing sin. For example, the verb (homologomen) rendered “confess” in 1 John 1:9 is first person, plural, present tense, subjunctive mood, and active voice (The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 289). In other words, the action contemplated in “confess” is continuous action. Are we going to affirm that all Christians (those who commit private sins) are required to keep on publicly confessing sin? Hence, I do not believe 1 John 1:9 it totally supportive of what we are calling public confession of public sin.

Another Approach

Brethren, I believe public confession of public gin can be soundly established by necessary inference. For example, the Scriptures irrefutably teach fellowship is to be limited and controlled (1 Jn. 1:7,3; Eph. 5:11; Tit. 3:10, 11; 1 Cor. 15:2, 7, 9, 13). If the incestuous man of I Corinthians 5 repented and only privately prayed to God, how would the church know he had repented? You say his ceasing to fornicate would be evidence. However, his cessation of that particular sin would not necessarily be evidence of repentance – perhaps he simply tired of the sinful ttlationship. I knew of a member who stole some money and was apprehended by the authorities. The crime was publicized in all the local papers. The member privately prayed to God for forgiveness. However, they needed to let the local church know they had repented – so the local church would fellowship them and also to correct the wrong against the local church (2 Cor. 2:7). Hence, the case in 1 Corinthians is the scriptural establishment of public confession of public sin.

Abuses Of Public Confession

Beloved, to every biblical subject and teaching there are numerous abuses. The denominational “altar call” is an obvious abuse. The preacher persuades aliens to come and publicly confess their sins and pray through. Then there is the practice in the church of preachers exciting members to come forward and publicly announce their private sins. Indeed, there are many abuses.

Things Which Hinder And Prevent Requisite Confession

Lack of desire to correct a public sin or a sin which has become public keeps many from making themselves right with God (John 7:17). Resentfulness of others and just plain rebellion to God’s law of restoration certainly are hindrances. Then there is pride! I have known of two cases in my preaching experiences involving extreme pride. In both cases the brethren had the choice of publicly acknowledging sin or being withdrawn from. Both responded (separate cases) by acknowledging, “If I have sinned, I am sorry.” When they were told they would have to be more decided, they then said: “Please forgive me of my sins.” Under usual circumstances I personally would think this would suffice, however, before they left the building they both said, “I did not include the ‘sin’ charged against me but simply meant sin in general of which we are all guilty (Rom. 3:23). ” One of these brethren (the third time the church reprehended him) then said (with the help of some “elders” from another local church): “Please forgive me of all sins I have knowingly and unknowingly committed.” Now, this might appear to be accepted except it was maintained that the sin charged against him was not a sin, but that the church had to forgive him anyway – because if it constituted a sin, then he still had repented of it under “sins of ignorance.” Can you imagine such? As a result of this proud, stubborn man (and a defending “eldership”), two churches were severely spiritually crippled!

Those Who Should Make A Public Confession

Brethren, any and all sins which are public should be publicly corrected. Those who lay out of services; the immoral; the factious individual; the gossipper, etc., need to publicly acknowledge their sins to be right in the brethren’s sight and in God’s sight (Heb. 10:25,26; 1 Cor. 5; Tit. 3:10,11; 1 Tim. 5:13).

In closing, public confession of public sin is unquestionably taught in and required by the New Testament (I have not sought to go into some areas of public confession because of the space limitation). Let us ever be willing to publicly confess our public sins so we can enjoy fellowship with God and with our brethren (fellowship with God and with the brethren, in this case, is inseparable).

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 1, p. 20
January 3, 1985