Let’s begin with the big question: How are a person’s sins forgiven?
The basic principle regarding the forgiveness of sins is that to be forgiven, we must be willing to forgive (Matthew 6:14, 15).
Say someone has done a terrible thing against me, and I decide that it is just so awful that there is no way I can forgive them. I might say, “You don’t understand how bad this was. I just can’t forgive them.”
Jesus left us an example so that we would know what to do under such a circumstance. After the soldiers had driven the nails through His hands and feet, after they had raised the cross to savagely drop into the hole prepared for it, did Jesus say, “This is just too much. I cannot possibly forgive them for this, the crown of thorns, the torture and humiliation. I just can’t.”?
No. With tears streaming down His bloodied face, His body consumed with pain, His heart crying out for each and every person who stood beneath the cross as well as those throughout all time, He pleaded, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Regardless of how bad the hurts, the wrongs, and the harm that our fellow humans may do to us or we may do to them, I am confident that we will experience nothing in this world that is worse than what Jesus experienced in His life—in the judgment hall, as He watched Peter’s betrayal, and as He hung on Calvary’s cross—suspended between heaven and earth to pay a price we could not pay. And yet, He pled for the souls of the very ones who rejected Him and caused Him so much pain.
So, to be forgiven, we must be willing to forgive those who have wronged us no matter how serious the wrong may be. But we also must repent from our own sins if we want to be forgiven.
The Jews believed that if something disastrous happened to a person, it meant that he was a terrible sinner and God had sent this disastrous thing as punishment for his sins. Even today, a person might be sick with cancer and someone will say, “I wonder what they did wrong?” This belief is recorded in John 9. We find the story of a man blind from birth, and when the disciples saw the man, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Verse 2. But Jesus’ response, found in verse 3, was clear: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.” Consider what Jesus’ words imply. The man was blind his entire life until the day came when Jesus gave him sight, and in doing so, the glory of God was revealed to, in, and through him—a wonderful thought to consider.
We see this same principle in the book of Job. The Lord tried to teach the human race through the story of Job not to assume someone is a terrible sinner just because some disaster happened to them. We read in Job that the Lord called him, “blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil.” Job 1:1
The Lord gave Satan the opportunity to bring all kinds of hardships, disasters, and sorrow to Job, and when Job’s friends came to “comfort” him, the theme of their conversation was, “Job, you must have been or done something very bad, otherwise these terrible tragedies would not have befallen you.” But the Lord said that Job was a righteous man and none of these troubles came because he was a great sinner.
We find a similar circumstance in Luke 13. The Jews were wondering about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus’ response was, “ ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you, no, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.’ ” Verses 2, 3
Or what of the 18 who died when the tower in Siloam fell and killed them. “ ‘Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ ” Verses 4, 5
Jesus is saying, “If you want to be saved, you must repent.”
“Repent therefore and be converted that your sins may be blotted out so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Acts 3:19
In Acts 26, we find Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. In his speech to King Agrippa, he said, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God and do works befitting repentance.” Verses 19, 20. Everywhere Paul went, he preached the need for repentance.
Speaking to the people in Athens, Paul says, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.” Acts 17:30
Repentance is to be sorry for sin, so sorry that we will quit sinning. Repentance requires sorrow for sin, but it also requires a turning away from it. If I lie, then I must be sorry for the lie, I must go to those I lied to and tell the truth and make amends, I must confess to God and ask for forgiveness for the lie, and then I must not lie again.
The English word repentance is derived from the Greek word metanoia (verb=metanoew). The word is formed from two words meta which means “after” or “change” and noew which means “to think” suggesting the meaning “afterthought” or “a change of mind.” Before repentance we think that sin is wonderful, but after repentance the mind is changed so that we can see just how terrible sin is.
Repentance is the first step in having our sins forgiven, but what leads us to repent? “Or do you despise the riches or the goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” Romans 2:4. How does the goodness of God lead us to repentance? “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” 1 Corinthians 15:3. When a person goes to the cross, he or she is able to see what sin is really like, to see what it really does. It took the death of Jesus to save us from sin, our sin.
Have you spent any time thinking about Jesus on the cross, thinking about what it meant that He was willing to and why He did go? As you ponder it, see it in your mind’s eye—the beating, the crown of thorns, the nails piercing His feet and hands, the blood flowing down His body—your mind begins to change; sin doesn’t seem so wonderful when you stand at the foot of the cross, when you gaze up at your crucified Lord, when you hear Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is where the conversion of men’s hearts and minds takes place. Here is where we see the true heinousness of sin.
How can man’s natural love for sin be taken out of his heart and replaced with a sanctified hatred for it? “The preaching of the cross is to us that are saved the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18. To those who are lost, the cross is foolishness. But to the saved, it is the power of God to change lives so that repentance can take place.
“No repentance is genuine that does not work reformation.” The Desire of Ages, 555. Genuine repentance means living a life of righteousness rather than one of sinfulness, and results in a reformation in the life. Sorrow for sin cannot be forced, but if you will spend time in your devotions at the cross, your mind and life, your opinions and feelings about sin, and all sinful behavior will be changed. “The cross speaks life, and not death, to the soul that believes in Jesus. Welcome the precious life-giving rays that shine from the cross of Calvary.” In Heavenly Places, 52
The next step in genuine repentance is confession. “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.” Proverbs 28:13. We all need mercy, but we will not be given mercy until we first confess and forsake our sins.
“Confess your trespasses to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” James 5:16
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9
What a wonderful promise! God stands behind every promise that He has made. Our problem is not that God does not forgive. The problem is that we do not confess. Without confession, there is no forgiveness.
When I became a minister, I preached for many years, but did not preach on confession. I thought that it was so simple, everybody knew it. I had learned 1 John 1:9 when I was a child and have known it for as long as I can remember. And I thought that other Christians knew it, too, so I never preached about it.
But after a number of years, I began to realize that there were people who had been Christians, Seventh-day Adventists, for many years, who had never confessed their sins. They felt that because they had been Christians for so long, they just didn’t need to do it anymore.
I knew a man, not that long ago, who had been a Christian for over 50 years. He and a relative had a very sharp difference of opinion on something and it resulted in some not-so-kind words between them. The man thought that maybe he ought to confess it, but instead he said, “Well, I guess I just won’t be able to go to heaven, because I can’t confess it.” This man would rather risk eternal life than to confess a sin. How many Christians are there in the world today who are willing to leave their sins unconfessed and lose eternal life?
The Bible and Inspiration explain in great detail how important it is to confess our sins if we want to be forgiven. Remember, without forgiveness we will not reach heaven, and we cannot be forgiven if we do not confess our sins.
Let me start with a quotation from an article on child training. I have often wondered if one of the reasons adult Christians find it so difficult to confess their sins is because they were not taught as children to do it.
“Children are to be taught to be respectful to their parents and to one another. Thus they learn to be respectful to God. They are to be taught to appreciate the abilities God has given them, and to remember that Christ’s love for them calls for the surrender of all to Him. They are to be taught to do right because it is right; to control self, to be kind, loving, and gentle; to forget self in the effort to help others.
“Parents, do all in your power to keep disagreements out of the home circle. If the children quarrel remind them that God has said, ‘Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.’ Teach them never to let the sun go down on angry feelings or sin unconfessed.” The Signs of the Times, April 23, 1902
What wonderful counsel! Never to let the sun go down on our anger without confession. Every day, as the sun begins its descent below the skyline, we should all ask ourselves the question, “Have I sinned against anyone today that I need to confess?” This is a principle that we should early teach our children.
“At eventide when the children would gather together before going to bed, we would talk over the happenings of the day. Possibly during the day one of the children had said, ‘Mother, someone has done thus and so to me.’ I had replied that when we all come together in the evening, we could talk it over. When evening came, they had all had time for reflection, and they did not feel inclined to bring charges against one another. They would say, ‘Mother, I have done thus and so,’ and the tears would start from their eyes, as they would add, ‘I feel as though I would like to have you ask the Lord to forgive me. I believe He will.’ And then we would bow in prayer, and confess the sins of the day, and pray for forgiveness.” Manuscript Releases, Vol. 7, 270. This was Mrs. White’s practice with her children. This is how to raise a child to be a Christian.
We should never go to bed and go to sleep with an unconfessed sin. What if I have a sin that I have left unconfessed for months, maybe even years? What if it is a very serious sin? The good news of the gospel is that big and little sins alike can be forgiven. Whatever sin is in your life, Jesus wants to forgive it and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.
The following is an excerpt from a letter Mrs. White wrote to a woman who had been living as a mistress, living in the sin of adultery, for a long time.
“I again address you not to fail in this time which is the crisis of your life, to take the only right course left for you to take. The stronghold of sin is in the will. Put your will on God’s side of the question; place yourself no longer in the position of a sinner, a harlot. You may not see clearly how you will obtain deliverance from the sins which have been cherished and strengthened with repetition. The only way is to confess your sins, forsake them, and believe that Jesus will pardon you.
“Your deliverance is to be found in Christ, and in Him alone. Your temper and your pride must die, and Christ live in you, else you are still in the bondage of sin and iniquity. You must humble your heart before God, and Jesus will pity and save you. …
“You have been living in adultery so long that sin does not appear heinous to you. You love sin. If now you want to leave sin, you must forever renounce it. … You must not hide or excuse your sins, but you must arise and make haste to confess your sins, and save your soul by seeking the forgiveness of your sins.” Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce, 140, 141
This is a letter written to an old man in a similar circumstance. “The sands of your life are nearly run out, and now if you will come to God just as you are, without one plea but that He has died to save the chiefest of sinners, you will find pardon, even in this the eleventh hour. Man must cooperate with God. Christ did not die to have the power to cover transgression unrepented of and unconfessed. Not all sins are to be confessed publicly, but some are to be confessed alone to God and the parties that have been injured.” Ibid., 133
Ministers find it difficult to confess their sins because they are supposed to be “men of the cloth.” People don’t think of them as sinners. Therefore, they don’t think of themselves as sinners either.
This statement is from a letter written to the General Conference Committee and the Medical Missionary Board on August 11, 1902. “Dear Brethren: A wonderful work could have been done for the vast company gathered in Battle Creek at the General Conference of 1901, if the leaders of our work had taken themselves in hand. Had thorough work been done at this conference; had there been, as God designed there should be, a breaking up of the fallow ground of the heart by the men who had been bearing responsibilities; had they, in humility of soul, led out in the work of confession and consecration, giving evidence that they received the counsels and warnings sent by the Lord to correct their mistakes, there would have been [one] of the greatest revivals that there has been since the day of Pentecost.
“But the work that all heaven was waiting to do as soon as men prepared the way was not done. For the leaders in the work closed and bolted the door against the Spirit’s entrance. There was a stopping short of entire surrender to God. Hearts that might have been purified from error were strengthened in wrongdoing. The doors were barred against the heavenly current that would have swept away all evil. Men left their sins unconfessed. They built themselves up in their wrongdoing and said to the Spirit of God, ‘Go thy way for this time; when I have a more convenient season, I will call for thee.’
“The Lord calls for the close self-examination to be made now that was not made at the last General Conference when He was waiting to be gracious. The present is our sowing time for eternity. We must reap the fruit of the evil seed we sow, unless we repent the sowing, and ask for forgiveness for the mistakes we have made.” The Kress Collection, 95
“Those who, given opportunity to repent and reform, pass over the ground without humbling the hearts before God, without doing faithful work in putting away that which He reproves, will become hardened against the council of the Lord Jesus.” Battle Creek Letters (1928), 56
“If a brother does you a wrong, you are not to retaliate by doing him a wrong. If you have done him a wrong, you must go to him, and ask him to forgive you. You must not let an injury to your brother remain unrepented of, and unforgiven, for even one night.” The Review and Herald, August 14, 1888
It doesn’t matter who you are or what your position is, if you have made mistakes, if you have sinned, those sins must be confessed. As soon as it is brought to your knowledge that you have done something wrong, the heart must be humbled, and you must confess it, or you will be lost. Unconfessed sin is unforgiven sin.
When the devil sinned, he tried to justify himself. When Adam and Eve sinned, they tried to justify themselves. This is common among the unrepentant. Mistakes are made and rather than repent, the natural human tendency is to justify, with a prideful heart seeking to prove itself right. But genuine repentance does not seek to justify sin; instead, with a humbled heart, it confesses its mistakes. This is one of the primary ways you can know if you have truly repented or not.
“There are those who are supposed to be excellent men, but they have some flaw in their character which, under special temptation becomes as a dead fly in the ointment. The whole character will be perverted by one unconfessed sin.” Manuscript Releases, Vol. 13, 190
All excuses for sin are in vain and they will be in vain in the Day of Judgment. To be saved, we must have a Christlike character, but if we have one unconfessed sin, our whole character will be perverted, unfit for heaven.
“What souls are there here who will have their sins unforgiven and their names blotted out of the book of life? We do not know what we are doing. If we have unclean hands we cannot enter heaven.” The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, 158. There is only one way that we are able to enter heaven—if we make a full and complete confession of all our sins.
“All sin unrepented of and unconfessed, will remain upon the books of record. It will not be blotted out. It will not go beforehand to Judgment, to be canceled by the atoning blood of Jesus. The accumulated sins of every individual will be written with absolute accuracy and the penetrating light of God’s law will try every secret of darkness. …
“The day of final settlements is just before us.” The Review and Herald, March 27, 1888
Some might say that we should love people, have compassion for people, that we shouldn’t be too hard on people. If they confess, it could cause a lot of trouble in their home or work or school, so we shouldn’t push them to do something that would cause trouble and unhappiness in their lives.
We all will have to face the Day of Judgment. The truth is, unconfessed, unforsaken sins will not be forgiven, they will not be blotted out of heaven’s books of record, so we must confess our wrongdoings now, or we, along with all the wicked of the world, will confess them before the universe at the end of the millennium.
“… Errors and unconfessed sins stand registered in heaven and will not be blotted out until [we comply] with the instructions, the directions in the word of God: ‘Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.’ ” Testimonies, Vol. 4, 241
When I was 19 years old, I heard an elderly minister preach about when he became a Christian. Before he became a Christian, he had been a traveling salesman. He worked a specific region of the United States. On many occasions, he had lied in order to help sell his product.
He went through his records and began writing letters of confession to his customers. When he was finished, he had written 726 letters, but his conscience was clear.
Can you imagine it, going to bed tonight, closing your eyes, and falling asleep with a clear conscience? You cannot comprehend how hard it is to confess until you decide to do it. It takes backbone, but it is wonderful when it is done and you know that your conscience is clear.
“Whatever the character of your sin, confess it. If it is against God only, confess only to Him. If you have wronged or offended others, confess also to them, and the blessing of the Lord will rest upon you. In this way you die to self, and Christ is formed within. Thus you may establish yourself in the confidence of your brethren, and may be a help and blessing to them.” The Review and Herald, December 16, 1890
We have two choices: confession or cover up. For those who find it difficult to confess, the Holy Spirit will bring back to us, again and again, our sins and errors until we confess.
“If when the Lord reveals your errors you do not repent or make confession, His providence will bring you over the ground again and again. You will be left to make mistakes of a similar character, you will continue to lack wisdom, and will call sin righteousness, and righteousness sin. The multitude of deceptions that will prevail in these last days will encircle you, and you will change leaders, and not know that you have done so. …
“The Lord reads every secret of the heart. He knows all things. You may now close the book of your remembrance, in order to escape confessing your sins: but when the judgment shall sit, and the books shall be opened, you cannot close them. The recording angel has testified that which is true. All that you have tried to conceal and forget is registered, and will be read to you when it is too late for wrongs to be righted. Then you will be overwhelmed with despair. O, it is a terrible thing that so many are trifling with eternal interests, closing the heart against any course of action which shall involve confession!” Ibid.
The question must now be asked, “Are there any sins you still must confess?” If the answer is yes, then begin now, for your soul is in peril. Whatever the Lord brings to your remembrance, confess it and your record will be clean, and when Jesus comes, your garment of character will be spotless and you will be able to go home with Him.
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: email@example.com, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.