by Joseph Caryl, 1645
"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts." Psalm 51:1-6
The holiest man on earth has cause to confess that he has sinned. Confession is the duty of the best Christians. While the ship leaks—the pump must not stand still. Confession is a soul-humbling duty, and the best have need of that, for they are in most danger of being lifted up in pride. To preserve us from self-exaltations, the Lord sometimes sends the messenger of Satan to buffet us by temptations, and commands us to buffet ourselves by confessions.
Confession affects the heart with sin, and engages the heart against it. Every confession of the evil we do—is a new obligation not to do it any more. Confession of sin shows us more clearly our need of mercy—and endears God's mercy more to us. How good and sweet is mercy—to a soul that has tasted how evil and bitter a thing it is to sin against the Lord.
Confession of sin advances Christ in our hearts. How does it declare the riches of Christ—when we are not afraid to tell Him what infinite sums of debt we are in—which He only, and He easily, can discharge! How it does commend the healing virtue of His blood—when we open to Him such mortal wounds and sicknesses which He only, and He easily, can cure! Woe to be those who commit sin aboundingly, that grace may abound—but it is our duty to confess sin aboundingly, that grace may abound.
Sincere confession of sin makes the soul very active about the remedies of sin. "I have sinned" said Job; his next word is, "What shall I do unto you?" (Job 7:20). Many make confession of sin—who are never troubled about the cure of it; nay, it may be that their next action is to sin over the same sin they have confessed.
When the Jews heard of the foulness of their sin in crucifying Christ and the sadness of their condition, they also asked, "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). A soul truly sensible of sin is ready to submit to any terms which God shall put upon him: "What shall I do?"—I am ready to accept them. That was the sense of the Jews' question in Acts 2:37: Show us the way, let it be what it will; we will not pick and chose.
So too when the Jailor found himself in the bonds of iniquity, he was ready to enter into any bonds of duty.
God is to be consulted and inquired after in all doubtful cases, especially in our sin-cases. "I have sinned; what shall I do unto you, O you Watcher of men?" (Job 7:20). He calls upon God to know what course he should take. Though when we have opportunity to speak unto men, that is good and a duty; yet we must not rest in the counsels of men what to do in sin-cases—God must be consulted.
Though to speak a general confession is an easy matter and every man's duty—yet to make a genuine confession is a hard matter and a work beyond man. As no man can say (in a spiritual sense) Jesus is the Lord, "but by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3), so no man can say (in a holy manner) I have sinned—but by the Holy Spirit. Good and bad, believers and unbelievers, speak often the same words—but they cannot speak the same things, nor from the same principles: nature speaks in the one; in the other, grace. One may say very passionately he has sinned, and sometimes almost drown his words in tears; but the other says repentingly, "I have sinned," and floods his heart with godly sorrows.
The general confessions of the saints have these four things in them:
1. Besides the fact of sin—they acknowledge the blot of sin: that there is much defilement and blackness in every sin; that it is the pollution and abasement of the creature.
2. They confess the fault of sin: that they have done very ill in what they have done, and very foolishly, even like a beast that has no understanding.
3. They confess a guilt contracted by what they have done: that their persons might be laid liable to the sentence of the Law for every such act, if Christ had not taken away the curse and condemning power of it. Confession of sin (in the strict nature of it) puts us into the hand of justice; though through the grace of the new covenant, it puts us into the hand of mercy.
4. Hence the saints confess all the punishments threatened in the Word to be due to sin, and are ready to acquit God whatever He has awarded against sinners—see Daniel 9:7.
The manner in which saints confess sin, widens the distance between theirs and the general confessions of wicked men.
The saints confess freely: Acknowledgments of sin are not extorted by the pain and trouble which seizes on them, as in Pharaoh, Saul, Judas. But when God gives them best days—they are ready to speak worst of themselves; when they receive most mercies from God—then He receives most and deepest acknowledgments of sin from them. They are never so humbled in the sight of sin—as when they are most exalted in seeing the salvations of the Lord. The goodness of God leads them to repentance—they are not driven to it by wrath.
The saints confess feelingly: When they say they have sinned—they know what they say. They taste the bitterness of sin, and groan under the burdensomeness of it, as it passes out in confession. A natural man's confessions run through him as water through a pipe, which leaves no impression or scent there, nor do they any more taste what sin is, than the pipe does of what relish water is.
The saints confess sincerely: They mean what they say—see Psalm 32. The natural man casts out his sin—as seamen cast their goods overboard in a storm, which in the calm, they wish for again.
The saints confess believingly: While they have an eye of sorrow upon sin—they have an eye of faith upon Christ. Judas said he had sinned in betraying innocent blood—but instead of washing in that blood, he defiled himself with his own blood. No wicked man ever mixed faith with his sorrows, or believing with confession.