Don’t Keep Your Sins a Secret
Seven Lessons for Christian Confession
We may be familiar with the biblical command to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16), but what does it look like to actually confess your sins to another Christian? And how should that other believer respond?
Augustine wrestles with these very questions toward the end of his Confessions. At its most basic level, the Confessions is a 300-page prayer to God that Augustine invites others to overhear: as Augustine describes his goals, he wants to confess authentically “in my heart before [God], in my writing before many witnesses” (Confessions, Book 10.1.1).
But why confess to others? Besides the biblical admonition from James 5:16, Augustine offers two reasons why he confesses his sin with others as witnesses. He confesses, first, so others can “rejoice with me when they hear how close by Your grace I have come to You.” Second, he does so in order that others can “pray for me when they hear how far I am held from You by my own weight” (Book 10.4.5). Confessing our sins together allows us both to testify to and to witness the gospel transforming us day by day (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The Confessions is obviously a more public genre than confessing to a close friend, spouse, or small group, but Augustine’s wisdom about what and how to confess to God before others can guide us in those private spaces too.
Share Your Confession
Evaluate sin in biblical categories. Augustine evaluates “who I am now” according to the categories in 1 John 2:16: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. The Bible creates sin categories for us. Augustine tests his life not against society or the views of others but against Scripture. And not only does he evaluate his life in biblical categories, but he also employs the language of Scripture in his confession. More than any other of the biblical authors, the psalmists give Augustine both categories and language for his confessions.
Share both sin and praise. Augustine does not limit confession to a request for forgiveness. He connects his sin to Christ’s mercy, which always leads him to praise. Christian confession never stops with “I messed up — please forgive me” but always leads to “I’m forgiven — hallelujah!” Augustine constantly turns to praise: “Let my soul praise You so that it may love You, let it confess to You Your mercies so that it may praise You” (5.1.1). Allow others to lead you from the darkness of your sin to the brightness of Christ’s mercy.
Confess to know yourself better. For Augustine, the act of confession reveals us to ourselves. We cannot hide anything from God. He already knows our sinful, restless hearts, and so confession is not designed to inform God; it exists primarily to form us. Augustine describes confession to God in this way: “We lay open our feeling of love by confessing to You our own miseries and Your mercies upon us so that You may deliver us completely, that we may cease to be wretched in ourselves and may become happy in you” (11.1.1). Augustine confesses his restless heart so he can find happy rest in God.
Ultimately, we confess to see more of God. Augustine constantly pleads, “Let me know You even as I am known” (10.1.1). Every look at his sins, every description of his failures and successes, aims at one end: to know Christ more. Augustine wants to see Christ face to face, to know him fully even as he is fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). The habit of confessing to God before others is one way he comes to know God better.
Yet Augustine not only models how to confess one’s sins before others; he also coaches his readers — and us today — on how to hear a fellow believer’s confession.
Hear Another’s Confession
Listen and pray for God’s grace. When others confess, listen for God’s work in their life, and praise God for such graces. Call out God’s kindness in leading them to repentance. Help them rejoice where God has kept them from temptation or from greater sin. Then pray for God’s grace to draw them away from sin and into his embrace.
Love and grieve as God does and for what God does. Augustine prays that God would allow his readers to “love that in me which You teach to be worthy of love, and grieve for that in me which You teach to be worthy of grief” (10.4.5). Augustine invites us to feel appropriately when sin and brokenness confront us. When others bring their sin and brokenness to you, respond as God does: with love mingled with grief.
Allow what others share to drive you to confess. Augustine warns his readers to listen with the right motives: “Men are a race curious to know of other men’s lives, but slothful to correct their own. Why should they wish to hear from me what I am, when they do not wish to hear from You what they are themselves?” (10.3.3). When others confess, check your sinful curiosity and instead listen for the Spirit’s promptings to repent. Hearing another Christian’s godly grief over their sin should cause us to grieve over our own sin.
Hope in the Mediator
For both the believer confessing and the one listening, Augustine reminds us that our hope is in Christ. He closes Book 10 of his Confessions celebrating — in a climactic, creed-like riff on Hebrews — Christ as the true mediator between God and man:
For us He was to You both Victor and Victim, and Victor because Victim (Hebrews 9:28); for us He was to You both Priest and Sacrifice, and Priest because Sacrifice (Hebrews 7:27); turning us from slaves into Your sons, by being Your Son and becoming a slave. Rightly is my hope strong in Him, for You will heal all my infirmities through Him who sits at Your right hand and intercedes for us. (10.49.69)
When we expose our wounds to others in confession, we rest in the wounds Christ bore to heal our own.
Let Augustine remind us that our hope is not in how we confess, or that we confess everything, but in the one to whom we confess — Christ our perfect mediator. And as a fellow Christian alongside the confessor, we should not attempt to mediate but to point to the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). He has paid for our sins, is healing us from them, and one day will restore us to new life so we have no sins left to confess.