How to Keep “Short Accounts” When Confessing Sin
We must continually go to God and men in confession and contrition. We must resist the temptation to give into sin and stop confessing it. Confessing and seeking to forsake sin is one of the means of Christian growth in grace. When we stop doing so, we have begun the first step toward backsliding or apostasy. It doesn’t matter how many times we may fall into the same sin, we must go back to the Lord and back to those against whom we have sinned in order to seek our forgiveness.
My family moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1989 when I was twelve years old. One of the first things that I distinctly remember about that beautiful, little, secluded island was the fact that we could walk into a store, write our name on a ledger, and walk out with just about whatever we wanted in the store. I remember my dad and mom talking about needing to pay off their account at the hardware store every month. The owners and my parents both wanted to keep “short accounts.”
It was a peculiar and fascinating experience for a boy who moved there from a major city in which that would have never happened. The population of the island was small enough at that time for store owners to feel as if they could offer that service. Needless to say, it didn’t last long.
Within a year or two, you could no longer do so. It is somewhat tragic that this practice isn’t part of our culture anymore, because it serves as an illustration of an important aspect of our spiritual life. In the Christian life, we are—as the Puritans used to say—to “keep short accounts with God and men.” So, what do short accounts look like in the Christian life? Here are a few thoughts:
1. Confess your sins.
Believers are people who confess their sin. That is part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian. If a man or woman, boy or girl, never confesses their sin, they reveal that they do not believe that they are sinners in need of a Savior. A true believer is one who has learned, by the work of the Holy Spirit to say, “Will you please forgive me?” This is true in the vertical dimension of our relationship with God, first and foremost, and it is true in the horizontal relationships we have with others.
If we don’t confess our sin, we evidence that we are not sincere in our profession of faith in Christ. We must first confess our sins to the Lord. We learn this from Psalm 51 where David prays, “‘Against You and You only have I sinned’” (Ps. 51:4). Even though David had sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba, both of their families, his family and all of Israel, he viewed his sin, first and foremost, as that which he committed against the Lord. It was sin because he broke God’s law.
We too must first go to the Lord and then to others. When we go to others, but not to the Lord, we functionally act like the man or woman who goes to the priest in the confessional but not to God in heaven.
2. Confess your sins particularly.
The Westminster Confession of Faith has an intriguing statement about this in its chapter on repentance where we read,
Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly. (WCF 15.5)
In short, we must never conclude that it is sufficient to confess that we are generally sinners or that we have generally sinned. When we confess our sin to God and men, we are to confess our sins specifically. We are to own the guilt of the particular sins that we have done. We are to examine our actions against the Law of God (i.e. the Ten Commandments) and confess the particular ways in which we have broken his law.
My wife and I try to teach our boys to do this when they have sinned against one another. We teach them not to say, “I’m sorry.” Instead, we seek to teach them to say, “Will you please forgive me for doing x, y or z?” We also try to do so in our marriage.